Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Kindness of Strangers by Nikki Andrews

Despite their masses of people, cities can be the loneliest places on Earth. Especially when you’re far from home. When your plans to meet with friends fall through. When it’s cold, damp, and gray. And when it’s Christmas Eve.

“The next person who looks at me,” I decided, hunching my shoulders up around my ears, “I will speak to.” Foot traffic on the Tower Bridge was even sparser than the auto traffic, and everyone kept their eyes on the ground as they hurried home to their families and fruitcakes and whatever else warms the cockles of Londoners’ hearts. Meanwhile, my friends’ plane had been delayed and the coin-operated heater in my room at the hostel couldn’t compete with the drafty window. So I walked to keep myself warm and the homesickness at bay.

Someone else seemed to be in the same boat. A thin, red-faced young man strode briskly toward me, head up and hands stuffed in the pockets of his inadequate jacket. He slowed as our eyes met.

“Excuse me. Do you know if there is anything open in this city today?” I pretended the quaver in my voice was just shivers.

He blinked, then offered me his arm. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

Mark was a Kiwi, I learned, newly arrived to visit cousins up north, where he hoped to find work. His single bag had been misrouted, and he was killing time until he could return to the airline to get it. I was a student on break from my classes in southern France, and my closest family was in Pennsylvania. Both of us feigned enthusiastic curiosity about the city around us, but melancholy lurked behind our eyes.

We walked through thinning crowds, slipping into shops now and then to warm our toes and noses. I bought a small gift for my fiancé back in the US, and the shopkeeper pressed cups of hot tea into our hands. We dined on burgers at a Blimpie’s, where the server “forgot” to charge us for chips. In the evening, seeking only heat and a place to sit down, we entered a church and joined in singing the sweet familiar carols. An old couple, no doubt amused by our mismatched accents, passed us a note: “If you have no plans tomorrow, come for dinner.” And in the exit shuffle after the service, someone draped a warm scarf over Mark’s shoulders.

He returned with me to the hostel, where we used the phone to confirm that his bag and my friends had been located. “Well,” he began, and together we said, “Happy Christmas.” We embraced and kissed goodbye, and I have never seen him again.

But I think of him every year, and I hope he thinks of me. I can no longer recall his face. It was many years ago, and this is not a romance. We were just two lonely people, met by chance and touched by the kindness of strangers. Sometimes, that’s exactly enough.

Nikki Andrews has earned a living as a picture framer, stable hand and crafter, but in her real life she is an author, songwriter, and editor. She has been writing since junior high school, has recorded an album of original songs with a church choir, and has completed the National Novel Writing Month Challenge ten consecutive years.

She is the author of several published and award-winning short stories, as well as three novels. Framed, her most recent novel, is a mystery set in an art gallery--a long-lost painting turns up and holds clues to a murder/suicide. Her two science fiction novels, Chicken Bones and A Windswept Star, have been called "a wild mix of genres that works." She is a member of Talespinners, a women's writing group, and the New Hampshire Writers' Project.

Check out her website here.

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