Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The uniqueness of Jane

Jane was unique! Nobody knew her age or where she lived. Everybody said the same thing: “She has a sister somewhere”, but push for more information and there was none. Yet Jane was everywhere, her small, lean frame, huge grin and battered saucepan in every place where she should not have been. She was ageless. Jane could have been 60 or 160 years old. There was no way of telling.

There were two responses to Jane: most people tried to be invisible. Others attempted to become larger than life in the hopes of driving her away. It didn’t work. Hide in the house, and her big grin and friendly wave appeared at the window. Shut the door? She refused to go away, trapping the householders until they gave in and dealt with her needs.

Did Jane’s psychiatric condition have a name? Probably, but in the remote Zambian village of Lubwe, a diagnosis made little difference. There were no medicines for her unless she was sick. Wherever Jane should not have been, she was, and where she should have been, she wasn’t.

Jane’s ‘normal’ behaviour did not fit into most people’s scheme of things. She was a crafty old so-and-so. Many housewives complained of their unexpected visitor. “I put the food on the table, went into the next room for a few seconds and when I came out, she was in the house, beside the table and had eaten the whole lot!”

Leave a door or a gate only slightly ajar. Somehow, Jane would squeeze through the gap, into the house and into the kitchen, only agreeing to leave when her ancient, blackened saucepan could hold no more food… and then she would select a banana (always the best!) on her way out.

Nothing was safe when Jane was around. Sister Jean had long given up looking for her missing dress when, one morning, Jane arrived wearing it. By that stage the dress, stolen from the washing-line, was filthy and barely recognisable. Sister Jean did not ask for its return!

Jane’s nuisance-value was enormous. Yet there was something endearing about her grin and peculiar run as she escaped from her latest venture. Illness never troubled her. She had no worries, was never hungry and never put on weight. It was useless to scold her because Jane merely grinned and laughed aloud as she walked away, leaving the frustrated individual even more frustrated… and minus whatever it was that Jane had stolen in the first place.

Jane’s good health ensured she would probably outlive most people and she was probably one of the happiest women that most of us had ever seen. Someone wryly remarked that she would probably succeed in driving everybody else to an early grave!

Every so often, Jane vanished for a few days. People breathed a sigh of relief and then, just as they were enjoying their peace and quiet, she would reappear and the whole sequence would start all over again. Yet however much she exasperated people, nobody lifted a finger to hurt her. She was a fact of life.

One of Jane’s outstanding characteristics was that she refused to be ignored and, even if her behaviour was always directed by self-interest, nobody escaped her attention. In her own peculiar way, she was a community builder, partly because she demanded help from others and partly because, when she had temporarily disappeared from sight, people came together to talk about her latest escapades.

Jane was totally free. She belonged to everyone and to no-one. She received care from everybody, asked or unasked, but at the same time, nobody cared. They responded to her immediate request and then happily escorted her from their premises. She was unrestrained, walking and doing wherever she wanted. There was no local police station at that time, so her thefts were unchallenged, and, in any case, what court could have produced a lasting effect for her betterment?

Contrast Jane with some of those whom our ‘enlightened society’ allows to have ‘care in the community’. What would happen if they were to wander in and out of people’s houses, helping themselves to food or to the occasional item of clothing as it hung on the washing line? What would happen if someone like Jane were to stand outside a house, banging on the door or the window until the householder supplied food?

My memory of Jane is of an elderly woman who laughed and never seemed to mind that she had no home. How many of the homeless men and women in our streets are smiling and enjoying life?

Jane’s conversation was not very sensible. A sentence always ended with a toothy grin and a burst of laughter. There was not an atom of malice in her, a small child within the body of an adult. So it was that even her greatest misdemeanours were never evil. Mischief-maker that she was, being caught out and yet still escaping with her ill-gotten goods was all part of the game.

…but doesn’t it also say something about the innate goodness of the village that, with kindness and a great deal of patient forgiveness, accepted Jane as part of its daily life? Her counterpart in Britain would probably receive some form of medical diagnosis, treatment and perhaps at least an ASBO or two. Social Services might grudgingly accept her onto their books but would find great difficulty in placing someone who belonged everywhere and nowhere. Restrain her and Jane’s laughter would turn to tears. She was the child of whom Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me for of such is the kingdom of Heaven”.

Not long ago, four celebrities chose to become homeless for several days, their paths carefully monitored by television cameras and members of an organisation which cares for the destitute around London. None found it a pleasant experience. One man described his unhappiness as he found himself lonely and ‘invisible’, with everybody passing him by, looking past him lest he ask for money. They were wrong on a few counts: he is a Sikh and Sikhs don’t beg, but also they were, unconsciously, part of a real life re-enactment of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

I once found myself in conversation with an elderly man. “I’ve actually got a home”, he said, “but my wife died and I’m so lonely that I come down to the shelter every day, to talk to the tramps and then, at the end of the day, I go home again.”

Then there was a tramp, in hospital with severe cellulitis on both legs. “When my wife died, I sold the house and took to the road”, he declared. “I have two sisters, one in Kent and the other in the West Country. I spend my days walking between their houses. When I reach the home of one sister, I stay for a few days and then start walking again until I reach the other.”

Jane was unique: she was homeless, happy and constantly receiving the care of the community, even if reluctantly and almost blackmailed into responding to her needs.

Some people don’t even receive a greeting.

Jesus said, “As long as you did it to the least of my little ones, you did it to me”.

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