Because of the significance of every moment leading up to what happened to me this afternoon, it’s important that I include everything…
Yesterday I arrived in Edinburgh, 6 days after entering Scotland via the Berwickshire/John Muir coast path. It’s the best and furthest I’ve walked on consecutive days since my challenge started up again, and I put the mileage achieved down to me properly finding my stride; not wanting to break it in case it takes me a while to find it again (something that’s happened to me before, on more than one occasion). Another reason I decided to completely beast myself up the east coast is that few days ago I reestablished contact with someone I’d met, through complete chance, while walking through the Peak District. They said they’d be in Edinburgh on this date and I felt deeply that I had to see them again, so I properly went for it!
Inevitably, fatigue set in in a big way yesterday, and for the final miles before I eventually entered Scotlands capital I was running on empty. Fortunately, one of my followers on Instagram, Kate (who lives in Edinburgh), had messaged me a few days earlier, offering me a place to stay. I gratefully accepted and at about 6 o clock last night I arrived, exhausted, at her home. Kate, her husband Fraser and their two lads Callum and Ruairidh are one of those wonderfully harmonious families that just make sense, I enjoyed my stay with them enormously. This morning Kate dropped me off in the centre of Edinburgh, where the plan was to grab coffee, smash a bit of social media and meet Jen (the person I became friends with in the Lakes), who’s train was due to arrive at midday today. I said goodbye to Kate, slipped into a very handsome looking cafe on the corner and ordered a latte. Once I found a seat, de-packed and got myself comfy, a song came on that I hadn’t heard in ages. It was a Paramore song that instantly reminded me of my old housemate Jess, one of my favourite people who I began to miss hugely once the chorus kicked in! I decided to message her, and in doing so began thinking about the people i was beginning to miss in Brighton. It wasn’t long before I started to think about my friend Harry.
A couple of weeks ago I received the news that Harry had tragically passed away. He was 33. Until now, the thought of him not being around anymore had outright refused to sink in. He was too young and there was no warning. It’s impossible to prepare yourself for news like that. I feel compelled to say now, despite few of you knowing who Harry was, that he was one of the most unique, most loveable people I knew. I’m going to miss him terribly, and the reality of his death hit me like a sledgehammer as I sat in this cafe, exchanging emotional messages with Jess. I had to get out of there before the inevitable happened. I didn’t get 5 feet away from the front door before my eyes welled up to capacity and the lump in my throat rose steadily until it knocked at the back of my teeth. I ducked down the nearest side road I could see and began to sob; it was unstoppable. It was the thought of never hearing Harry’s laugh again that did me, I cannot begin to imagine what that feeling’s like for those closest to him. If any of Harry’s family, or Nick, find themselves reading this, my heart bleeds for you. He’s an irreplaceable soul and I just hope that, in time, the pain eases enough for you to look back on that distinctive laugh, and smile.
I’m not sure how long I’d been in that alley but it was a good while, definitely over 2 minutes. All of a sudden I heard footsteps approaching, so I did my best to calm myself down and wipe the tears from my cheeks. “Mate, what’s wrong?” the stranger asked, the empathy in his tone was palpable. I couldn’t muster a coherent response, so the stranger just grabbed me, pulled me towards him and forced a hug on me. I embraced this true act of compassion in the most intense way and began to sob, uncontrollably, into his chest.
After a good twenty seconds I was able to gather myself enough to tell him why I was crying. He looked at me with a haunting familiarity (it gives me chills when i recall it now), hugged me once more and insisted he buy me a coffee. I apologised profusely for the entire situation before accepting his invitation, and off we sloped; across the road to a cafe where he sat me down at a table on the patio and went in to order for us. I used the time alone to do a bit more crying. When he came back he sat down and told me a story I’ll remember forever.
This person, this total stranger who’d taken it upon himself to comfort a person crying in the street, had fled Syria several years ago; that flash of recognition he’d shot me (when I told him that my friend had died) was far more real than I took it for at the time. Almost ALL of this man’s friends back home (roughly 35, he recalled) were dead. His name is Wissam, and over a horrific two month period, with nothing about his person but the clothes on his back, Wissam had made his way from Syria to Turkey, then Turkey to Greece, where he walked, alone, all the way to Calais where he, in his words, became one of the ‘lucky’ ones who made it across the channel into Great Britain. This man, who’s idea of ‘home’ has now become too dangerous for him to go back to, who’s childhood friends are dead, and who’s family may as well live on a different planet they’re so far away, felt ‘lucky’ to have the life he now has, to the point he felt obliged to stop whatever he was doing with his day today, and help a white English man crying in the street. And as we sat opposite each other he told me why he did it. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I remember the conversation crystal clear enough to recount that this is more or less exactly what he said:
“Sometimes I feel like I believe in god. I believe that, sometimes, god throws you in a direction to meet people, and if you recognise that it will lead to a great relationship. When I came here from Syria, I knew nobody and I found myself alone, crying in the street, just like you, and a stranger came up to me and hugged me. She’s now like my sister, and we will walk together forever”
We sat there for a while, deeply connected in a conversation about fate, I suppose. The fact that I had stepped up my pace to get to Edinburgh today; the song that made me reach back home; the fact that he’d never been down that street before; the fact that we had both walked thousands of miles to get to this city, the fact that we were both the type of people that trust the kindness of strangers and acted on pure instinct in that exact moment. It was surreal.
Before you jump to any conclusions, I did not have a religious epiphany. I’m far too skeptical to ever believe in divine intervention. I do, however, agree with Wissam to a point; that sometimes, when worlds collide so perfectly and profoundly as they did this afternoon, it’s impossible not to feel the touch of god, whatever ‘god’ is. I think ‘god’ today was the warmth and love I felt, deep, deep down, in a situation that was just too incredible to be pawned off as something as trivial as coincidence. Call it god, call it karma, call it whatever feels most comfortable to you, just know that moments like this do happen, and it feels more sensible, for me, to describe it as sacred, than anything else. It’s these moments that are what make life not just worth living, but worth fighting for too. And if someone looks lost, alone and in need of help, and you decide to be the one to help them, it might just turn into one of the most profound encounters of your life.