Photo: Eat Hackney website
It was a sunny Saturday morning. I was taking a shortcut across the St John-at-Hackney churchyard. Young women were collecting money for some charity. Stalls selling cheese, pies, fragrant soaps, second-hand clothes and handicrafts lined the path. People sat sunning themselves on the benches. Two squirrels were having a ferocious battle at the foot of a tree.
Stopping to watch them made me notice that beyond them, behind a gravestone, lay a young man. He was lying on his side with his arms stretched downwards towards his knees. His head flopped on the grass at an angle that didn’t imply sleep. Probably drunk, I thought. Another man stopped and looked to see what I was staring at. Perhaps he would deal with it. I was late for my appointment. I went on my way.
On my way back and hour or so later, I noticed the young man was still lying there in exactly the same position. Now there was a man in a blue uniform, jacket unbuttoned, relaxing on one of the benches.
“Do you think that man’s ok?” I asked him.
He turned round to look, shrugged and said,
“It’s not my job. I am not a policeman or an ambulance man.”
“I’m just asking you as a human being.”
“Same as you. You could call the police or ambulance!” he snapped back.
I went and had a closer look at the prone young man. He was dirty and had a few small cuts on him. He was breathing. Should I try to wake him? Would he attack me if I did? Would he need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? The thought repelled me. Should I just buy him a cup of coffee or some water and just leave them beside him to find when he wakes up?
In the end I did nothing. I decided that he probably was just sleeping off a hangover and it would have seemed ridiculous for me to leave treats for him. If he was ill, I’m sure one of the charity collectors would notice and help him. Or the priest responsible for the churchyard. I’m from out of town. It’s not really my responsibility.
I’ve felt terrible about this decision ever since. My inaction was, if anything, worse than the man in uniform because he had made a conscious, unashamed decision not to get involved. Perhaps his contract forbade him from doing so. I had no real excuse. Even if the man was simply sleeping off a hangover, it would have been nice for him to wake up to a bottle of water or a coffee – a random act of kindness. And just because he was breathing, that didn’t mean he was not unconscious or in a coma.
My inaction was worse because I make a point of being socially aware and getting involved in community projects, buying fair trade and supporting good works in far flung countries. And writing these blogs.
For whom are we responsible? To whom are we accountable?
Somewhere I read that our duty in life is simply to do what is necessary; if you are in a room that needs sweeping and there is a broom, your duty is to sweep the room. It didn’t add – “…but only if it’s your job” or “…but only if it doesn’t make you look ridiculous or repel you.” It didn’t add ” …as long as there’s non-one else around who looks like they might do it instead.”