At some point life will bring us into contact with a person whose soul exudes startling purity. We may react towards the idea with scepticism- it is hard to believe that, amongst us, there are those who have not been lured into all the pits of darkness that beset the face of this earth. Such people do exist and, it is accurate to say, they come from no particular faith group, ethnic background, or nationality. Something in their spirit vanquishes these boundaries. Your tribe, your clan, your nation, your religion; your conceits fade away in the light of a resplendent spirit. I do not know many of these people (undoubtedly, because few exist), but there is one whose name I do know, and whose story I have to tell.
His name is George. George is an elderly man, approaching his 90’s. As a family, we have known him since the day my father bought a shop, and a new life. That was 15 years ago, and George is still with us. But George is being faded away by vengeful time, and his life, we feel, will soon be nearing its conclusion. This realisation gives me great sadness, because George is a human being of rare quality, and most of the world will not know of its loss once he is gone.
Why then, do I so admire this man? To begin with, I believe he has spurred my father’s superhuman efforts these past fifteen years. Almost every day, of every week, of every month, of those long years, my father has opened the shop at 5.30am. Ever present has been George, there to collect his newspaper. There, to rattle the shutters when my father failed to wake on time. A somnolent world has missed the melody of steel sheets vibrating in the void of morning’s air. After waking him up, George has always to help move things to their appropriate positions, and help take the newspaper bundles out of the cabinet outside, and into the shop. In the beginning, my mum would sometimes open the shop, and she told me that George would carry the bundles of newspapers inside the shop himself, rather than allow my mum to do it. When a single bundle contains approximately 80 newspapers, that is indeed a very heavy bundle.
But more than anything, his greatest act of goodness is that he has always been there. He has been there on lonely, cold, bleak English mornings, when most sane people are tucked away in the warmth of their beds. He has always been there, when the world is soulless and there is work to be done. He has been there, one kind soul, easing the burden of another.
Two further things strike me about George: a) his simplicity and b) his manners. His simplicity is expressed most strikingly by his dress: he has worn the same jacket and hat and trousers, for as long as I can remember. But, somehow, they remain in such pristine condition that you would think he had only just unpacked them. Who owns the same clothes for anywhere near that length of time anymore? We are capricious hoarders and discarders. But George hails from an era when a pair of boots for one’s feet were a blessing, not a fashion item with a wear-by date.
George is a man of incredible kindness and grace. To listen to him, it is impossible to ever detect a hint of scorn, or malice towards others or towards the world. It is a voice that is immersed in tranquillity, and a level of contentment that is absent from most of the world. Even in times of great distress, he has behaved commendably. For example, when his wife of many decades passed away a few years ago, we saw him only a couple of days afterwards and he behaved with extraordinary dignity. There was deep sadness in his eyes, but he was not hysterical or bitter. That is the thing about George: he is not a man of extremes. He does not let his emotions take possession of him. He acknowledges the emotions of human experience- sadness, happiness, melancholy, amusement, anger- but does not become absorbed by them. That, to my mind, is an indication of elevated character.
When you talk to him, you come away realising that he does not wear masks- there are no surprises. His ever-present smile, his generosity, and his simplicity may capture some small aspect of his wonderful character, but mostly his character is beyond description- it is ineffable. To be understood, it cannot be described, only experienced.
No doubt, there have always been people like George, and there are many like him still in our midst. There is probably a Hindu George, A Jewish George, a Sikh George, and a Muslim George in this kaldeiscopic world of ours. And most of the adherents of a faith will give George an ultimatum. They will say ‘listen George- Krishna, Yahweh, Allah, demands your devotion. Renounce others, and you will find salvation’. It is a tawdry squabble for the allegiance of a man, whose deeds are deemed to come to nothing if it is not obtained. This is surely a profoundly immoral position to take, and I have seen it taken before: in YouTube clips, where an elderly person lies on his deathbed, hardly capable of comprehension or utterance, swarmed by men who want to coax the right words from him before his life expires. And what happens if those words are not forthcoming? We dispose of him, and of his humanity. We disown him.
If George’s time comes before mine, I hope this fate does not befall him. He has lived a more worthy life than most. My hope is that, in his last moments, he lives it in the tranquillity that has been a hallmark of his life on this earth.