I watch an old man sweep the shopping mall as though he is praying. He lifts his eyes to mine. Soft, brown and accepting. What history lies buried in that gaze. You can’t begin to understand it but there is no challenge there: only acceptance. I smile at him trying to show, in that brief moment that I pay a tribute to him. Another life in another place with which I have only the briefest contact. Amidst the bustling shoppers he moves slowly with his broom. Each push seems like a sigh. What unsung gifts lie dormant in his heart, Does he inhabit a palace of love or some unlit squalor far from home and family: I have no way of knowing. Around him the shoppers move as he progresses slowly over the marble floor. His work is diligent and thorough.
He has no impact that I can see. To my male gaze the floor is already clean but he moves over with it with slow deliberate strokes. His green cleaners jacket, with the emblem of the mall stitched to the pocket seems too big for his shoulders and his shoes are worn from journeys I can only guess at. He stays within himself. Anything you can say to him has already been said. His journey seems to have reached a sort of resting place free of plans . He bends to lift the dust onto his scooper and place it in the trolley beside him. He has done that a thousand times before; he will do it a thousand times again. Later, long after I am gone he too will leave to where ever his bed is set.
There is such a beauty in his acceptance that somehow I want to thank him for it. I look round absently for inspiration and see a cake stall set off to the left of where we stand. Purchasing a cake I go up to him and offer it to him. “It was a pleasure to see you” I say and offer him my cake.”Something for your tea break” . I try to explain my action. He looks at me but my gaze is also free of challenge “Thankyou sir” he says , “that is very kind”.” No”, I say. “There are no sirs here. I’m just a man like you and you made a difference to my day. I just wanted to thank you for it.” Up close his face is lined with tiredness and he is of an age when most men have stopped work. Slowly a light dawns in his eyes and a smile opens his lips in a brief hello. I pat his arm and move off to go about my business. Troubled as I am, his dignity and acceptance in the face of life’s burden measure him well against many of his fellows. In these brief connections you can have more contact than is often experienced in a thousand conversations. I will remember him
Something set him apart from me and others who moved by him. He knew where he was.