The Kindness of Strangers by Wyn Evans


It was earlier this year and the Met. Office was debating what season it was. We’d had torrential rain more or less solidly from November through February. The leaves had fallen from their branches later than usual so there was a case for this being an extended Autumn. Or was it an early Spring? In his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote(1). That may have been the case back in the late 1300s but in 2016 March was drought-free and April’s sweet showers were instead a torrential downpour. So, a late autumn perhaps, an early spring maybe? But whither winter weather?

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No, we may not have had a really cold, snow-bound winter this year but there were a few days where Jack Frost’s icy touch reached out and teased us with the promise of worse to come. On one of those days The Boss was nagged by our daughter, The Girl (who happens to have Down Syndrome and is ten years old), to wrap up and walk the dogs together. The Girl and her mother like warmth; so when they venture out into arctic conditions – or even just the conditions at Roath Park Rec on a cold and frosty autumn/winter/spring day – they climb into layers of North Ridge fleeces, coats, socks, boots, hats, gloves, and scarves and look like Paddington Bear on steroids.

If that isn’t picture enough, next add two hairy and voluble bitches, Meggie, 13 years old and Wookie, 3. The ‘girls’ are Wire-Haired Hungarian Viszlas(2) and are bred to be gundogs with very soft mouths. They point and retrieve and just adore working (and playing) in water. It was early afternoon and the mist that had been covering the Rec all morning had recently lifted. An anaemic sun was doing little to warm up the frosty day. Imagine then, The Boss and The Girl making their way across the Rec, following the path by the river, around them dancing, yapping and playing two excited dogs.

The Boss plans all her walks with military precision. She has multiple sclerosis and in her case this affects her ability to walk distances. The Girl, on the other hand, can go as far and as fast as she likes as long as she has a snack for the journey. Add her desire to eat, to her mum’s need to pace herself, and the benches that are spaced along the footpath become an ideal place to stop, take a breather, and have that snack. It turned out to be a great place for the dogs too. They went down the bank and into the river. It’s usually a little brook but the months of rain had turned it into a fast-moving little river. this didn’t trouble Meg and Wook as both are strong swimmers.

Eventually it was time to move on. Boss and Girl called the dogs and Wookie bounded back up the riverbank. Plaintive barking from down below make it clear that Meg will not be rejoining the gang any time soon. At 13 she’s not the spring-chicken she once was; swimming was not a problem but using her ageing legs to clamber up a seven foot bank covered in brambles was too much for her. The seven foot bank gave The Boss no chance of getting down to the river to pull Meggie out. And, as she ruefully said later on, “even if I’d managed to get down the bank there’s no way I could have got back up”.

So she and The Girl searched back and forth along the path trying to find a spot that the dog would be able to clamber out. No luck – and the dog was starting to get a bit spooked by now. Added to which, The Girl started assuring her mum that she (Girl!) was quite capable of rescuing the dog because she was both a good climber (true) and a good swimmer (also true). But the thought of grabbing a wet and panicking dog from the river whilst not getting sucked under herself, held no fears for our daughter because she has no sense of danger. So her mother held firm to The Girl to prevent her trying to rescue the animal. All things considered, Boss was starting to feel a tad stressed.

At which point a kind stranger intervened. A young man, in his early twenties or so, rushed over and asked could they use some help. The Boss said she couldn’t ask him to get wet, whereupon he said “you don’t have to ask”. He scrambled down the bank and stood up in the river to get a better grip on the dog and haul her out. His trousers, coat, and boots were soaked yet he would accept no offer of remuneration (not even dry-cleaning). As it was, The Girl was left with the memory of “a nice young man” who did something really kind. Move forward a couple of months to 16th April. No doubt about the seasons this time, definitely Spring. Boss and Girl were once again walking the dogs on the Rec when Girl stopped still, entranced. In front of her was a member of No Fit State community circus who was practising twirling six-feet-long ribbons rhythmically, creating patterns in the air. Overarm, underarm, and roundhouse; arms separately and together; standing still and whilst moving. After about five minutes of this the performer noticed her lone spectator and asked her if she’d like a go. Then she took The Girl in hand and taught her some moves and how to twirl to best effect.. It got to the stage where our daughter made up some moves of her own. The Boss then asked The Girl to say thank you and to return the ribbons to the performer “because we have to go and make sure that Meggie doesn’t get stuck in the river again”. To which The Girl replied, “that’s OK mam. A nice young man will come and get her out again!”

I don’t know if these acts of kindness and community spirit only occur when (or because) my beautiful wife and daughter were involved but I rather think that it is a  reflection of the spirit that underpins every successful community. The stranger who leaped into a small river to rescue someone’s dog. The performer who gave up her own valuable practice time to teach a new skill to a young girl. The householders who opened their door late at night to give succour to a foreign-born woman who had been mugged on Waterloo Road. The policemen and women who walk the beat and always have a kind word for a little girl with Down Syndrome and who share their hats with her! The councillors who do far more than their jobs require of them out of a genuine sense of service .

All these things have happened in Cardiff, to be precise, in Penylan: this wonderful city and this fantastic neighbourhood. My family feel lucky to live here. I hope you all have cause to feel that way too.