I didn’t set out to create a viral sensation. If I had, my tweetstorm wouldn’t have been about a stranger on a train platform. I might have tweeted about transport (my chosen profession) or football (my first love). Like people who share pictures of artisanal cuisine or cat memes on social media, I share what I care about. But occasionally, life throws a curveball. My relating a tale of a chance encounter — of destitution in modern Britain — touched a nerve. Within hours, 20,000 people had shared the original tweet, which was linked to a couple dozen more.
Monday started like any other day. Work, a conference and a lot of small talk with friends over WhatsApp about England’s forthcoming World Cup semifinal before taking the train home for the evening. On my way, while changing trains, I noticed an elderly woman sitting on the platform, shaking like a leaf. Bags were strewn around her with what seemed like her worldly possessions. She had a nervous and broken look about her.
Like many commuters traveling home on the rails, I would normally ignore a scene like this, justifying to myself that she has family or friends who have just popped into the station cafe, or that, like me, she would simply want to be left alone. Instead, I asked a simple question: “Are you all right?”
What a difference these small words can make.
We spoke for 45 minutes. Or more accurately, she did, with an emotion that was raw and uncompromising. Having immigrated to Britain from her home in Bangladesh 20 years ago, she had for many years suffered at the hands of her abusive spouse. Her family and community had supported him over her, she said. Two weeks ago, she ran out with a few possessions in some bags and whatever money she could find.
Being a Muslim, she told me, she found some solace and comfort in her faith. Something that was unwavering despite all she had been through. But faith alone does not provide food or health care. The latter was particularly a problem, she told me. With no fixed address, it was hard to get a prescription for the pain from her arthritis. Doctors she tried had no openings for appointments for several days. What pennies she had she spent on discount food, and medication from pharmacies.
Wherever she went, the local councils — government service organizations — were not much help either. Resources are stretched, they said, and even emergency accommodation is difficult to come by. She could not count on her family, who had supported her husband. She was afraid to contact members of her own community. In her eyes, every traditional support system had let her down. She had slipped through the cracks.
As I listened to this tale, a strange mix of emotions came over me — anger, sadness, determination, to name but a few. Such emotions could not change her situation, but my mobile phone could. Ensuring that she was well catered to by the supportive staff at the railway station, I turned to my phone for something other than tweets and messaging. I set about calling local councils and volunteer groups in the area.
After over half an hour, we were drawing blanks. Council — nothing. Citizen’s Advice — not open. Local voluntary groups — nothing. Hotels — not even if I paid. I remembered the conversations of churchgoing neighbors; the last roll of the dice was the local religious community. It came up a seven. A kindly local vicar at a small church offered a room with his family for the evening and said he would take her to the local council in the morning to find her something more permanent. Truly, it would seem that in times of need, humanity matters more than religion. That was confirmed by her reaction to the news. Tears of joy, with a mix of relief, replaced tears of sadness. For the first time since we had met nearly two hours earlier, she smiled.
Taking her to her room for the evening was a similarly emotional experience. The look of thankfulness on her face as she turned to me on the vicar’s porch will remain with me. I hope my impulsive response to her desperation has helped her. I have had no word on her progress.
But sharing her story — my story — was important, and not because it was an instant Internet sensation. It’s important because it challenges assumptions about support systems. Contemporary political discussion in Britain — when it’s not about Brexit, the National Health Service or President Trump’s visit — has focused on the role the state must play in providing a network, and to whom. It has been dominated by a narrative that those who claim benefits are work-shy scroungers and cheats who must prove they deserve the miserly amount they get each week to pay for food and housing — and should be grateful for it. But the state is the third support system in line for most people. Whenever each of us falls on hard times, we go to our families and communities first: the room for a few weeks, the 50 pounds to pay the electricity bill that is overdue, a few tins of food to last until payday. In times of turbulent change such as these in Britain today, however, people like this little old lady on the platform at the railway station struggle. All conventional support had failed her. I discovered, to my wonder, that it wasn’t that hard to be the stranger who didn’t.