I was leaving my local library the other day when someone came up behind me and took my hand. I didn’t think anything of it, so it took me a minute, because I’m unsteady and/or unwell most of the time just now (new meds), and hanging onto Max has become a way of life, but it felt ‘wrong’ somewhere in the back of my mind. The hand was too hot and dry, but more importantly it seemed somehow different. I looked down and there was a small boy, maybe five years old, of Middle Eastern descent.
I was so surprised at first I just kept walking. Then I laughed and said, “Hello. But I’m not your mum.”
He looked up at me and his face was a picture. It was shock, horror and then what can only be described as abject terror. There was no embarrassment there, as far as I could tell, but he let go and bolted back into the library to where his actual mother was coming through the foyer. The bona fide mother was a fairly short, round, Turkish-looking woman in a beige coat, with jet black hair and black glasses. She was also about twenty years my junior. She was not wearing leggings, a Mickey Mouse T shirt and sandals, nor did she have a shaved grey head with a punk mop of curls on top, big-ass earrings and an armful of bangles. In other words, she looked nothing like me.
She didn’t seem to have the first idea what her son had done, although the way he grabbed her hand and stuck to her side like a limpet probably made her think I had attempted to abduct him.
I was inexplicably tickled pink by this encounter. Partly because it was so novel. It’s not every day someone comes up to you in the street and simply takes your hand. Partly it was because we were both walking along the road, both oblivious to the fact that we were holding drastically wrong versions of our partner. And partly it was because no-one has ever taken my hand like that. I didn’t know it quite yet, but they hadn’t.
I don’t know if it’s tragic or wonderful that it’s taken me to the age of fifty-seven to feel this magical sensation, but hey! I might have died and never felt it, so let’s look on the bright side.
I was perplexed at first as to how I hadn’t noticed it was a tiny child and not a six foot male. He’d come up behind me and slid his hand into mine, so not seeing the physical difference is explicable, although how he could have mistaken me, God alone knows, since I bore zero resemblance to his mother. But maybe he was looking at his feet, or out at the road or something – who knows?
But the almost euphoric gratification I felt – I couldn’t put a name to it. When we were laughing about it afterwards I heard myself say, “It took me a minute to realise it wasn’t you,” but what struck me was that the first thing I registered as wrong was not the huge difference in size (and hairiness) but the heat and dryness of his hand. The sheer experience of his hand – it was just wrong. Max doesn’t suffer from sweaty palms, in case that’s what you’re all thinking – these hands just felt different, like snakes are supposed to feel. And I say that with love.
But it was then I realised that wasn’t the strangest thing to have first struck me, although it should have been, it was because what really told me I had the wrong person in tow was the way he took my hand. He wasn’t leading me or taking possession of me. It wasn’t habit or distracted reassurance, it was surrender. He didn’t take my hand, he gave me his. It was a handing over, a coming into port. He was offering himself to be led. He, in effect, just handed his care over to me.
It was such a phenomenally different feeling I just kept turning it over in my mind. And yes, I get ‘overemotional’ these days (a term designed by men to describe their lack of human emotions), but I swear this wasn’t that. This was a real, genuine discovery. I couldn’t fathom it.
I used to have a little brother. I still do, obviously, but he’s no longer little and I no longer take his hand, but I must have held a child’s hand before. I’m pretty sure I’ve even done it as an adult, on those rare occasions I’ve been somewhere and had to take on that task.
No, maybe not, on consideration. But I did definitely have that responsibility as a child. Why then don’t I remember ever experiencing this before? Is it possible that my own brother never had this security with me? That he never did hand his trust over to me like that? Am I, or was I, missing that gene even as a child? Does a child have to be brought up a certain way to hand over his trust like that, or does it take a certain type of child, and neither me nor my brother were those people? Did neither of us ever feel secure enough to hand over anything to another person, even as children?
Who knows? But I can tell you this, it’s a great feeling. I’ve never understood why people have children, other than force of habit. I’ve always considered them chiefly an ego-trip for men, and everyday sexism for women. I think most people have them simply because it’s a cultural norm we all buy into. It’s tradition, innit? And I don’t mean that as cynically as it sounds. There are many people who enjoy children and who actively want them; it’s just not most of the people who actually have them.
I wouldn’t have believed that feeling existed before that day. I wouldn’t have believed that there was any particular way to take someone’s hand, other than obvious things like people grabbing you out of cars and throwing you on the driveway before a beating. To have experienced that subtlety of feeling is by no means an odd thing for me; subtlety of feeling is my stock in trade, but for it to exist at all, and to have never encountered it before, that’s an oddity.
But I’m glad I did feel it. I admit it sent me into a flurry of wondering if I should have had children: ‘Should I foster?’ ‘I should have adopted’. But I realised that one tiny feeling does not a lifestyle make, and there would be plenty of times when the kid would be screaming or yelling or being such a pain that it would more than negate a tiny moment of hand holding.
But boy it was good. Really, really satisfying. To have someone just put their hand into yours, with all that confidence, that surety that you would protect them, see them safely home. Truly, a gift rarer than pearls.
Thanks, weird little kid – whoever you are. You made my day.
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