Sat in the library, trying to write. I looked up from the blank page to see a man walking past my desk, and I smiled at him vaguely. I try to make a habit of smiling at strangers. It’s a friendly gesture. The problem is that strangers often take it as an invitation to engage me in conversation.
The man veered towards me and smiled back. Bright white teeth and milky eyes jumped out from his dark skin. He bustled up to my desk, waving a bundle of papers and pointing at them earnestly, and plonked himself on the chair next to me before I could protest. He dropped his bag to the floor as he sat down, and I noticed that the brown leather satchel matched his brown leather shoes, but that his clothes were scruffy and didn’t fit properly. He wore them awkwardly, as if he wasn’t used to dressing smartly.
He smoothed his papers out on the desk and pointed at them, still smiling.
“Please, you can help?” he asked.
I was still in a daze from this sudden intrusion, taken aback by the flapping papers and wide eyes. I readjusted my chair, restoring some of the personal space he’d waded in to, and frowned down at the documents.
On the first page was a series of maths questions, covering topics like fractions, ratios, rounding, and mental arithmetic.
I looked back at him, confused. The questions were simple, the sort of thing one learns in primary school, and the man looked to be at least thirty. I was unsure what he wanted from me. But he kept pointing at the first question and looking at me expectantly.
“You can help?” he asked again.
“You want me to help you do…” I scanned through the questions again as my own question trailed off.
He nodded vigorously and started to read out the first question: “What is 3.49 to one decimal place?”
He read with great concentration, running his cracked finger across the page to keep his place, and he stumbled over unfamiliar words like decimal. I had no idea why he needed to complete this test. Or why he’d never been taught basic maths. But since I wasn’t busy, I decided to help with the first question.
I explained that the nine rounds the four up to five. “So it’s three point five,” I said.
He stared at me blankly and then looked back at the question, eyes narrowed, trying to decipher my dismissive explanation. Clearly he had no idea what I was going on about. I fetched some scrap paper and wrote out the decimal numbers between three and four and started to explain how rounding works.
Ten minutes later he understood, and he wrote in the answer himself. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, grinning.
A warm satisfaction bubbled up inside me. I felt useful, for once. When the man began reading out the next question, I didn’t stop him. We worked our way through all twenty questions, and after each one he looked at me hopefully, as if to check we could continue, and each time I nodded my encouragement.
Once done, we recapped the main concepts. He kept saying, “Thank you, thank you!” and I said it was no problem. I’d probably gained more from the exchange than him.
I asked what the test was for and his face lit up.
“I want to do nussing!” he said, brandishing the papers.
“You want…” I was confused again. “You want to do nothing?”
“Yes!” he beamed back. “I do nussing.”
Was he really saying that he wanted to do nothing? My satisfaction was replaced by indignation. I’d just spent an hour teaching him about decimals and ratios and percentages, and what for? So he could do nothing?
But I persisted, shaking my head and repeating the question: “You want to do nothing?”
It’s funny that I felt so deceived. I, after all, was doing next to nothing at the time. I was riding a bicycle for Deliveroo a few days a week, which doesn’t contribute much to society, and I would’ve been happy to ditch that job too and simply wallow in my guilt for being a lazy-bones. But the thought of someone else being so unambitious was baffling.
Again the man nodded vigorously. “Yes yes. I do nussing.”
Thankfully, on the third try, I understood what he meant.
“Ahhh, you’re going to do nursing,” I said.
He could sense I was impressed. His smile widened, his chest puffed ever so slightly, pride spread across his whole body. I felt proud of him too, but also ashamed of my own apathy. Next to this man, it was obvious I had failed to capitalise on the many privileges I’ve been afforded in life. I wasn’t a nurse or a teacher or a lawyer. Suddenly, I felt intimidated by his enthusiasm.
We shook hands and I wished him luck, although I felt sure he’d make an excellent nurse. As he strode away, brown leather satchel bouncing against his waist, I realised he hadn’t told me his name.