Phil Ryan – The Wall
A real life short story
by Phil Ryan
It started in March. It was the day to put the rubbish bags out for the refuse collectors. I’d been about to throw out some old boots and I suddenly thought they seemed too good to just throw away. I’m very particular about the way I look and to me they just didn’t look as good as they once had. But they were fine in every other way. Good soles. No holes or cracks. Although to me they’d lost their looks. So for no particular reason I didn’t just shove them in the bin bags. Instead when I took everything downstairs I left them on top of the low wall that’s a few feet from my front door. I thought maybe someone might go past and see them. They might need some boots. And as I said they were perfectly useable. So I dropped the bin bags out in front of the wall ready for collection and headed into town for a meeting.
When I came back later in the afternoon, I noticed that the bin bags remained but the boots had gone. The realisation suddenly dawned that I’d got the day wrong. The dustcart was actually due the next day, which explained the bags still being there. But for a passing moment I briefly wondered who had taken the boots. It couldn’t have been the refuse collectors. I was glad though they hadn’t gone to waste. Before that thought continued I heard the start of the house phone ringing and in a mad dash I leapt up the stairs and into my normal working day. The boots, and their new owner quickly slipping from my mind.
The next week passed slowly without much happening of real interest. And then one evening a friend who worked for a large department store arrived and unexpectedly presented me with a brand new kettle. She’d often commented about my kettle being a bit old-fashioned looking. Which strictly speaking was exactly why I’d bought it in the first place. It had a sort of fifties retro look that reminded me of my Mothers kettle at home. In an odd way gave the kitchen a comforting feel to it. However, never one to look a gift horse in the mouth I made the appropriate thank you noises and theatrically tugged the chrome and glass creation from its box. To celebrate my new hi-tech acquisition I insisted I christen it immediately. So oozing almost pantomime satisfaction with her gift I made a pot of tea.
As I stirred the tea bags round I briefly wondered what was I was going to do with my old kettle. Sadly my kitchen isn’t that big and I studied it for a place to store it. After a brief look I immediately discounted the cupboards, which already groaned with accumulated hidden clutter. Sheila called to me complaining that she was dying of thirst and gathering up the cups and milk I headed back into the lounge.
That next morning I yawned as I went down to collect my mail, and remembered the disappearing boots. I made a sudden decision not to store my old kettle but take it down with me and put it out on the wall. As I set it gently down I attached a post it note to it explaining that I had received the gift of my new kettle and the fact that this one worked perfectly well. Carefully I coiled the plug lead round the handle and checking the sky to make sure it didn’t look like rain, I picked up my letters and went back upstairs.
It took around an hour. Pausing from my work in the studio, I opened the blinds and peered down from the front window in the lounge. The kettle was gone. I felt a small glow of satisfaction. Perhaps the person who had taken the boots had seen it and seeing the note had taken it away happy at their good fortune to now have replacement footwear and now a kettle. The thought grew and I smiled as I ate my lunch. Here I was directly helping people. My own little charitable foundation in fact. I began to reason it out. The things I’d left out would probably only appeal to people who really needed them and in my own small way I could make a tiny difference in someone’s life. I’ve always been of the opinion and my friends will confirm this that a lot of the so-called mainstream charities seem to really be in the business of giving themselves cushy high paid jobs.
I remember once reading that the R.S.P.C.A only actually use ten pence in every pound they collect to actually help animals. The rest being spent on administration and directors large salaries. The article went on to point out the fact that the chairman of a well-known housing charity had been given free permanent use of a ten bedroomed Hampstead mansion as a perk of his job. As a result of this I became particularly discerning about the charities I chose to donate to. I am always extra careful to establish that my donation will go as directly as possible to the intended recipient of the aid. Add to this the fact that my local high street had become an almost never ending row of very plush looking charity shops with countless paid staff and my worst suspicions were regularly being confirmed. But let’s be clear. It isn’t that I resent charities. In this day and age of austerity and the growing gap between rich and poor widening they seem more needed than ever. It was just the glaring fact that any money they received seemed to be stretched a long way before it actually reached the people who really needed it. It made it difficult to know who to give money to. But now I had my wall. I should explain. Many years ago I was told something that had a profound effect on me. I had been sitting at a bus stop to avoid a sudden downpour when I saw an old man begin moving a bicycle under the far end of the bus shelter. It was a large bike and for a moment he struggled with it. So I jumped up and helped him manhandle it into the shelter it had been leaning against the outside of. He thanked me for my help. Before I could wave his thanks away he pointed out to me that it wasn’t actually his bike. He just thought whosoever it was wouldn’t have to get onto a soaking wet saddle when they returned from wherever they had been.
He told me that if more people carried out simple acts of random kindness the world would be a much better place. Acts of random kindness it seemed such a simple concept. Now I had the very vehicle to carry them out. The wall.
If people saw something there that they needed they could simply take it. It would be my act of random kindness. Now I’d found a simple and effective way to do them, they quickly took a hold on me.
Over the next month, I distributed four jumpers (unwanted Christmas gifts) one slightly torn denim jacket, a twin tape deck with one side that didn’t work, a toasted sandwich maker hardly used (I’d bought a better one) various miscellaneous tee shirts and a slightly burnt wok. I particularly enjoyed putting out the sandwich maker. This particular day I’d nipped up the shops for a paper and as I turned back into my street I saw an old man pausing by my wall. He picked up the sandwich maker and I clearly saw him reading my post it note explaining the fact I’d bought a new one. I always added post it notes giving a small history of the item and why I was getting rid of it. The post it notes were important I felt. They told whoever viewed the item a little about each thing and clearly showed that it was clean or hardly used and in good working order depending on the item. I wouldn’t want anyone to think they were being given some broken or tattered old piece of rubbish.
A long buried memory of being a small boy surfaced. My junior schools Harvest Festival. A very British affair. Always held in the Church next door. We sang hymns praising God for the harvest and the food we were lucky enough to have. Every year all the children were asked to bring some food for the poor. Really. It was a throwback to the Victorian charitable ideal. That year the food was going to be donated to the local old people’s home. This particular day I recalled being sent to the school Harvest festival service with two tins of some obscure vegetable concoction my Mother had picked up at the local supermarket. I’m sure it must have been on sale. The label had funny foreign writing on.
Evidently everyone else’s Mother had been to the same supermarket. So in a very surreal scene the display in front of the church altar looked as if it had simply been plucked from the supermarket and placed next to the harvest based art display from 3C. Mr Hodges the Headmaster bravely tried to ignore the small pyramid of tins with their identical labels and make light of the coincidence. But we all saw the sour look on the face of the man representing the local old people’s home. Never before had the addition to the Amen of ‘pity the poor’ ever been so accurate.
However enough of that. I stood at the top of the road. The old man read the sandwich maker’s history. He learnt of its replacement with a newer model that did waffles as well. He carefully examined it. He opened and closed it several times and he flicked through the little cooking booklet that had come with it (which I’d sello-taped to the side) I saw him nod appreciatively at some of the serving suggestions listed and gently re-stick it down. He looked thoughtful and I got the impression he was weighing up the use he could make of such an item.
I stood almost holding my breath now. After a minute or two and another brief look round the old man smiled and tucked the machine under his arm, He then slowly walked off down the street. It may just have been me but I thought I detected a hint of a more confident air as he shuffled away. And it seemed as if the acquisition of a free sandwich maker was an unexpected but very welcome addition to his day. As I watched him, a stray thought crossed my mind that he probably wouldn’t have been interested in the tee shirts or the wok. But that wasn’t important for now he had a sandwich maker and the wall had done its job.
That night as I ate, I thought of him using it and then I thought of all the homes and people my old things were bringing their benefits to. I marvelled at such a practical solution to helping others. I’d seen it work. That afternoon a man without a sandwich maker had acquired one, possibly enriching his life just a little bit. Who knows, maybe he’d been fed up with his ordinary sandwiches. He looked pretty old, possibly a pensioner but now at least he could have some hot food at the flick of a switch. One thing was evident. This new addition to his possessions had been achieved simply and without embarrassment and cost. At last I had found a real practical way to help those less fortunate than myself.
My unwanted clothes and all manner of useful things could all be re-distributed. More importantly without that terrible humbling moment where those in society with, can officially patronise and make feel small those unfortunate enough to be without. It always seems an accidental condition that unintentionally, those kind enough to try and help the less well-off almost certainly take a little dignity in return for whatever is on offer. But the wall offered no stigma. It didn’t judge. It stood, a silent witness, a gift bearing pile of bricks with one single agenda. The constant act of random kindness. Nothing would ever be on offer that was not of use and in good condition. And importantly everything was free.
Another vision of various people all pulling on jumpers, jackets and shirts and viewing themselves with delight in mirrors across the local area filled my mind. Small once sparse kitchens filled with appliances all because of a wall. Cold days being kept at bay by one of my woollen jumpers. The next afternoon as I wandered down the local high street I counted three people rattling boxes and I thought of the torturous journey that each penny had to make before it reached the figures pictured on the collector’s badge. Ducking behind a slow moving old lady I successfully blocked the view of a happy looking young girl who was chanting ‘Sick children, sick children’ like some bizarre mantra.
That night it suddenly struck me that once people got used to seeing things on the wall they might even make regular trips to see what was available. I have no idea why but it bothered me. This would remove the chance that the items would reach a wide range of recipients. It wouldn’t be so random. So I began to let days, even week’s pass between putting things out on the wall. It made sense to me. To be honest I had lost count of the things I’d given away. But that night I made a mental note about a small side lamp in the dining room that had seen better days. And the next morning with its attendant post it note I put it out for distribution. I had a busy schedule and the wall didn’t enter my head until I returned home much later that evening. And as I turned the corner I looked to see if the lamp had gone.
And so had the wall.
Someone had taken it.