In an era full of anxiety, when mercy in this world is less and less available, perhaps it’s time to recall the words of that 18th century sage, Dr. Johnson (Samuel that is to say). No, I don’t mean “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” though that is certainly apt these days. More to my point is Johnson’s reminder to us that “Kindness is always in our power even when fondness is not.” I offer this, not as a plea to suffer fools gladly, but to tell a story about an act of kindness of which I was the recipient on my Cambridge excursion with Dennis Ryan.
The story relates to the featured image above. You, Gentle Reader, probably think you are seeing a picture of Michael Caine. You would be right, and you would be wrong. It is a picture of Michael Caine, but I offer it as the spitting image of an attendant at a National Express Coaches Booth in Heathrow airport. If you have been a constant reader of Cromwell’s Head, you’ve already read that all British, white males over the age of, say 60, sound and look to me like Michael Caine. I know I am overstating it, but, in this instance, the attendant in question did sound and look like Michael Caine and he was kind to me when I needed kindness. More than that, he was our Joshua leading Dennis and me, as lost as the Israelites after the Exodus, out of our wanderings in the desert of Heathrow.
Here’s our story. Dennis and I arrived at Heathrow at approximately 6:45am, on Monday, July 17. We were tired, we spent endless time getting through customs and retrieving our luggage, we were confused as to how we were to get to King’s Cross Station where we would connect with our train to Cambridge. While we had train tickets (well, we didn’t have the tickets in hand; we’d have to obtain those from a pre-paid ticket kiosk the location of which we had no clue), we did not have pre-arranged transportation plans to King’s Cross Station.
There are three basic ways to get to King’s Cross Station: take a bus, take a cab, take the “tube.” A cab would have been expensive, in excess of £60 (close to $100 American for an hour ride and the traffic into King’s Cross on a Monday morning is horrendous we were told). We didn’t know where the “tube” was, but, after schlepping our luggage through the vast desert expanse that is Heathrow, I spotted a National Express Coaches booth. Dennis set off to find the tube and I set off to see about a bus to King’s Cross.
It was a warm and humid day. I was wearing a black blazer that was far too heavy for the weather and I was sweating profusely when I arrived at the ticket counter. There sat Michael Caine, or perhaps his twin brother. Same smile, same lilting south London cockney accent. Mr. Caine took a look at me and said, “You just slow down a bit. Everything’s going to be fine.” And then he reached under the counter and pulled up a box of Kleenex-type tissues and offered it to me. I hadn’t said a word at this point. I took a few tissues and wiped the sweat out of my eyes and thanked him.
“Now,” he said, “just how can I help you?” I said I was wondering about the possibility of taking a bus to King’s Cross Station to connect with our train to Cambridge. “No,” he said, “you don’t want to take the bus; you want to take the tube which is much easier.” Easier! Hah! I didn’t say that out loud by the way.
I said that my traveling partner and I were a bit confused about things and didn’t know where the tube was, or where we’d get our pre-paid train tickets to Cambridge. Mr. Caine, in that no-nonsense cockney, said that the tube was just down the corridor in which I was standing and that I could get tube tickets from the folks handling the tube ticketing. “Just go until you see a lot of people sitting around not doing anything.” Then he pulled out a tube map and showed me where we were and where we were going. The tube is on the Piccadilly line and it goes all the way to King’s Cross. The bus, said, Mr. Caine, goes to Paddington Station and then we’d have to take a shorter cab ride to King’s Cross. He also said that the pre-paid ticket kiosk was at King’s Cross Station. He never lost his smile. He seemed genuinely concerned that I was working myself into a state of something. He offered me more tissues. This took about 10 minutes and I was feeling much relieved, and a good deal drier as well. So I took the map and a few more of the offered tissues, expressed my eternal thanks and was about to take my leave when Mr. Caine stood up (yes, he was about as tall as the real Michael Caine) patted me on the shoulder, offered his hand to shake, and reiterated that all would be well, and that he hoped I would enjoy my stay in Cambridge.
That’s it, that’s the story. Such fuss, you’re saying, about so little? Well, I don’t believe that you, Gentle Reader, would ever say such a thing. You understand that this reluctant traveler was pressed to near the limits of his endurance and that a harsh word would have pushed me over the brink of despair. But I walked away from the National Express Coaches booth nearly a new man, prepared for almost any obstacle that Heathrow could throw in my path.
I met up with Dennis who had found the tube. We got our tickets and a seat on the tube (they would be at a premium as we moved on down the line) and arrived at King’s Cross Station about an hour later. We found the pre-paid ticket kiosk and retrieved our pre-paid tickets. We arrived in Cambridge, about 64 miles north of London, at high noon, a mere five hours after landing at Heathrow. All was well. All as my Michael Caine had predicted.
How easy it would have been for Mr. Caine to have dismissed me outright. Was I so different from other harassed travelers who clamor at his booth? In truth, no one else was clamoring at his booth. Prior to my arrival he had sold a bus ticket to a little old lady who seemed even more confused, if less sweaty, than I and he treated her with the same Michael Caine smile and good will.
Clearly, that was my Mr. Caine’s/Joshua’s style. I am willing to bet that fondness for others was as much in his power as was kindness. And the walls came a-tumblin’ down.