Chitra Ramaswamy: An invisible man, soldiering on
‘WE are all going to get old at some point. And we’re all going to want to keep walking down cobbled hills for as long as we possibly can’
A t first I walked past him. There he was, an elderly man in a flat cap and a pair of split, ox-blood brogues, doing, well, not much. He was propped up against a concrete bollard, his cane slack in his hand. For a moment I thought he was resting, enjoying a rare moment in the sun. It was a beautiful day, the first suggestion of spring for months. The kind of day that does make you pause, at the top of a cobbled wynd in Edinburgh, to let a slender ray warm your tired face. I thought he was OK.
Or did I? At the bottom of the lane I turned back. Just to be sure. He had moved forward a couple of steps. I could tell only because the safety of the bollard was now behind him. His cane was gingerly tapping on the cobbles just ahead. I watched as three other people strode past, just as I had done. They looked busy, purposeful and entirely, perhaps even wilfully, oblivious. What of the old man? I pondered the hill from his perspective. It seemed insurmountable. I went back and asked if I could help.
“No,” he said, looking embarrassed. “I can manage. I just have to go slow.”
“Why not take my arm?” I persisted. “We can go slow. Gives me a chance to enjoy this gorgeous day.”
He took my arm chivalrously, as though he were asking me up to dance. We set off at a crawling pace, overtaken time and again by people on their way somewhere or other. He was on his way too, to the bank at the bottom of the hill. “They look after me there,” he said, which, probably unfairly, made me sad. He told me he had come from a nearby home for veterans, but he called it “the funny farm”.
“So you’re a veteran?” I asked.
“A soldier. Not that you’d know it.” He laughed but it came out more like a sigh.
We didn’t talk after that because it was serious business getting down the hill. He needed to concentrate and I was distracting him. Instead we both looked down and I watched his cracked shoes negotiate the cobbles, one by one, shuffle by shuffle. I was already worrying about how he was going to get back up the wynd. Would someone from the bank take him? Did their ability to look after him extend this far?
It doesn’t take much to help someone walk down a street, cross a road or get on a bus. Do it for whatever reason you want. Because that old man could be your father. Or you a few decades down the line. Or perhaps just because he is a person.
It’s barely worth repeating how abysmally we treat elderly people in this country. We neglect them, ignore them, deprive them of their basic needs and rights, hide them away, see them as a problem to be solved. We walk on by. And in doing so we disrespect ourselves. Old people, after all, are just people. People who have done more time on this planet than the rest of us. We are all going to get old at some point. And we’re all going to want to keep walking down cobbled hills for as long as we possibly can.
Halfway down, the elderly man insisted he would be fine “from here”. I didn’t want to fuss so I left him to it. This made me feel guilty, but that’s my problem. By the time I had crossed the road and entered the building of this newspaper, he still hadn’t appeared. I hope he got there and back OK. And I hope I get to offer him my arm again soon.