Every morning I walk my little dog Elfie along the seafront at Newlyn Green. I used to do it at the same time every day when I was working, now I’m a student my times are more sporadic but it is always the same walk. Drive down the hill, (yes I know you think I’m lazy but if you saw the hill I lived on you’d empathise), park by The Tolcarne pub, walk up to the bowling green, then round the bowling green and back down the seafront path.
When you have a dog you tend to talk to other people who have dogs. There is a kind of unwritten code that doggy people talk to other doggy people. I usually say a cheery ‘good morning’ to most people, with or without dog and whether they like it or not. I have got to know a few regulars but most conversations are limited to two subjects, the weather and the dogs.
Some people I see often, joggers, a lady who must be about 80 and does Nordic walking with two poles and a man with a spaniel who goes to fetch his newspaper. There seems to be a little doggy club which I can’t break into, that meets near the bowling green wall at about 10 am. They congregate and chat while all the dogs run around, I pass and say hello but never get invited to stop. I have thought about gate crashing it one morning but can’t pluck up the courage.
Quite often I see an old lady who must be in her later 70s or maybe older. She is always on her own, dressed in a woollen dress or skirt and cardigan, often with a string of pearls, and walks without purpose. She has short cropped grey hair and a slight smile permanently fixed on her face. She looks lonely. I always smile and say hello and she smiles back but does not speak. Last time I said hello to her, she came towards me and warmly took my hand in a handshake. I responded and probably made a remark about the weather, she never speaks so this seems an appropriate subject. In the UK you can always talk about the weather if you can’t think of anything else.
This morning I saw her walking towards me and was prepared for the handshake. Maybe because I have shown friendship and warmth towards her she trusts me. Sure enough she took my hand but then she put her arms around me and gave me a big hug. I wasn’t prepared for that but I hugged her back. As she hugged tighter I started to recoil slightly, my mind was assessing whether this felt uncomfortable. Luckily Elfie barked at another dog at that point, so I gently pulled away and made another remark about how calm the sea was. She didn’t say a word but just smiled and walked on.
As I continued on my walk I suddenly started crying, I was so touched by this woman simply reaching out for some warmth and affection. I suspect she has mild dementia, which makes her childlike. When we are children we don’t have the barriers that we learn as adults, and we all need some love and affection in our lives. New-born babies will literally die if they do not receive human contact along with nourishment, it is known as ‘failure to thrive’.
I was moved to think how many of us there are that live alone without any human contact. Our culture makes it unacceptable to reach out and hug a stranger, but this woman just reached out her arms to me without hesitation or self-consciousness. I know we are more ‘touchy feely’ now with lots of air kissing from people we hardly know but I was brought up in a family where we didn’t hug. I can’t remember ever hugging my Mum or Dad when I was an adult, and that makes me sad.
When Toby was growing up I always hugged him, whether he wanted it or not. I used to tell him that I grew up without hugs so I was going to make sure he got lots, even if he was embarrassed and rolled his eyes. I’m not suggesting we all go out and hug a stranger today, but maybe if we were all a little less inhibited like the old lady I met, the world would be a more huggable place.