by Jenny Palmer
There was nothing unusual about the day. I’d gone into town to do some shopping, parked my car in the supermarket car park and, after I’d got all the items I needed, went for a saunter around the town. This inevitably led me to the Oxfam shop. I prefer it to other charity shops because they put their books in alphabetical order and it’s easier to find something you want. And, anyway they usually stock a better class of books. I found a couple of books I liked the look of. One of them I hadn’t read and another one I wasn’t so sure about. This has been happening more and more recently. I’ll find something that looks enticing, buy it and take it home, only to find that I’ve already read it.
After Oxfam I went to have a browse around M&Co’s. It was full of summer clothes. I didn’t buy anything as it looked as if we weren’t going to have a summer this year. I still had an hour to kill before my parking ran out and I didn’t want to go home straight away. So, I headed off to Café Nero for a decaf cappuccino, my favourite drink when I’m out. I like the anonymity of the place. Nobody bats an eyelid when you go in there on your own, unlike some places I could mention. And you can stay as long as you like. I’ve never got out of the habit of hanging around in cafes, which I put it down to the fact that I lived in London for such a long time.
In summer they usually have the door open but being so cold this year it was closed. I tried to pull the door open, but there was someone pushing from the inside. There was some confusion while we worked out who was going to give way. In the end the man held the door open for me and let me in. He had a smile on his face, which struck me as slightly strange at the time. What was so funny? But I smiled back and went to the counter to order my coffee. I was the only one in the queue. It was teatime. The place was virtually empty, apart from a few stragglers.
‘That man has just paid for your drink,’ the girl behind the counter announced. ‘He wanted to do someone a good turn, to put a smile on their face. Do you want regular or large?’
‘Well, in that case, I’ll have a large one,’ I said.
The girl handed me a card with the word ‘Smile’ written on it in bold letters. I went over to sit at a table to read my newspaper and drink my coffee. It was the usual depressing news. There was a Tory leadership contest going on. Candidates were vying with each other to get the most votes from their party. A tiny minority of voters were effectively choosing our next prime minister. That was how democracy worked these days!
I skimmed through the pages to see if I could find anything else of interest. There was loads about climate change. Indigenous people were putting up a fight to save the Amazon Rainforest. It was a losing battle. The Brazilian government were encouraging loggers to cut down trees so that farmers could use the land to plant sugarcane and ethanol, a biofuel used in transportation along with petrol. There’s a limit as to how much bad news I can take in one go. So, I turned to the back pages and got stuck into codeword. It was an easy one this time. I found the ‘e’s and the ‘ing’s quickly enough and had soon finished it. I picked up the card with ‘Smile’ written on it and turned it over. On the back it said ‘You’ve been tagged. Now you are on.’
It took me back to playing tag in the school playground. Apparently, the idea was that you had to put a smile on a stranger’s face by performing an anonymous act of kindness. It was like one of those chain letters we used to get at school, when I invariably broke the chain. I entertained the notion of giving some money to a beggar. But we rarely saw beggars in our town, unlike in cities, where they were two a penny. Here the local council saw fit to move them on. There was the Big Issue lady, but I hadn’t seen her in a while and, anyway, I knew her so she wouldn’t count. This was a conundrum. I went back to my newspaper and started on the crossword.
Periodically thoughts flashed through my mind about how to carry out a kindly act. I could rush out and tip the postman in the morning, but then again, I knew most of the ones who came now, so that wouldn’t work. I could send a donation to Oxfam, but their name was mud after the Haitian earthquake scandal. I certainly didn’t want to be supporting child abusers. Anyway, charity for me was more of a duty than an act of kindness. Alternatively, I could stop someone in the street, someone who looked down on their luck and offer to take them for a coffee and listen to their troubles. I quickly dismissed that thought. What was the point of dragging myself down as well?
Surely there must be a way of being kind anonymously. What if I visited a stranger in hospital? I’d run the risk of being carted off to the nearest police station or worse. Other weirder thoughts came to mind, such as going and sitting on a high bridge and saving someone from suicide. I dismissed it as desperate and way beyond the call of duty. This ‘kindness to strangers’ thing was proving to be harder than it seemed.
As I was finishing my coffee, I remembered the face of the man as he’d opened the door for me, how he had smiled and how I had smiled back. That was it. Smiling was infectious. All I had to do was smile at people and they would smile back. Never mind if it looked inane.
There was one clue left in the crossword. The word started with and ‘o’ and ended with an ‘e’ and it had seven letters. It took a few minutes before the penny dropped.
‘Damn,’ I shouted as I rushed out of the café. ‘I’ve gone over the parking limit.’
About the authos
Jenny Palmer has self-published two memoirs Nowhere Better than Home, 2012 and Pastures New, 2016 and a family history Whipps, Watsons and Bulcocks, 2014. Keepsake and Other Stories was published by Bridge House in 2018 and is available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle. Other stories are on the Cafelit website and in Best of Cafelit 3,5 and 6 and Citizens of Nowhere.
Pendle Poems, her first collection of poetry, will be published in June 2019 and will be available from the Pendle Heritage Centre.