You weave your way through the crush of over-excited morning tourists thronging Leicester Square. You know it’s too early for the manic shouts of street performers or the amplified music of buskers, but when you notice the grinding gears of delivery vans leaving the square you deduce it must be approaching ten, the hour of their banishment.
Stepping over the threshold of a simple doorway, almost hidden between a soon-to-be-grand hotel and a coffee outlet, you pass through a portal. A startling transition from day-lit cacophony into a static scene of waiting figures — sitting, slumped, sprawled — on folding chairs lining a corridor, starkly lit by flickering strip lights. Someone slumbers, a hoodie obscures their face. Others gaze resignedly at faded walls. But some break into shy smiles as you approach. One, who you once helped to complete an interminable government form, thrusts out a hand to be shaken. Grins. Calls you by your name. That’s when you first feel it — the gentle flush of gratification.
Another glow, dissimilar but connected, makes itself felt when you meet and greet fellow volunteers. French words seem to describe it best: bonhomie, esprit de corps. There are some — different types — you’d never normally meet in your so-called ‘everyday’ life, but you’re more than glad to rub shoulders with them now. To be on a team with such people. To share a common goal, if only for that day. Duties assigned, you go about your business. Clients stream upstairs, into the ‘café,’ the nerve centre of activity, which you found alarmingly chaotic when you first arrived, but which you now realize has an organic organization, honed over months and years, to attend to the various and often complicated needs of a hundred or so people a day.
You carry out the chores allocated to you, often different depending on the week and the need. You glean a glimmer of self-satisfaction when, from past experience, you know what to do: not fill cups too full in the café in case they slop on the floor; ask questions clearly, kindly, when you register new people; judge who needs help with form-filling and who might be better encouraged to try it themselves; how to arrange donated clothes for a client’s best access. And more. Sometimes, regularly, you learn something new, and you experience a small revelation — ‘ah, that’s the way it’s done.’
What gives these ordinary activities a deeper meaning is the more-often-than-not change of expression on the face of a client with whom you’re interacting. Trepidation, suspicion, skepticism, occasionally aggression, can sometimes be found in a client’s eyes, even as an appeal is made. You’ve learnt to weigh the desire to help with a dose of pragmatism. Can you — any of you — help? You’re relieved when you usually realize that if not you, so-and-so can do something. Whether you help or are able to reassure that help can be given, the eyes soon change. They relax. Become softer. And then, when an advisor appointment is made, or an English lesson arranged, or a plate of food served, or the right shirt is found, or a form filled in, relief is evident — for both of you. If not voiced, gratitude is invariably obvious. You feel the flush of gratification more strongly than earlier.
When you emerge at the end of the day into Leicester Square, discordant street performers are in full swing amidst torrents of bawling tourists. The reverse transition is as jarring as it was earlier. But as you push your way towards home, you feel lighter than when you arrived. You know — consciously or not — that someone breathes a little easier because of your effort. Also, selfishly, you feel somewhat less oppressed by the daily onslaught of contemptible politics and bigoted media. Your day may have represented an infinitesimal act of compassion in the scheme of things, but put tens, hundreds, thousands of such acts together, and you’re secure in the knowledge that they make a truly discernible difference.