We were making our way back to the car having spent the last few hours in the hospital when we were approached by a young man. He was slightly unkempt and had passed by us a couple of times in an obvious hurry as if he was looking for something. By his appearance, if asked, I would have described him as a traveller, a Romani or a Gypsy if these are not too pejorative, but this was only an assumption.
He stopped and held out a piece of paper in his hand. At first we were suspicious, filled with preconceived prejudices about what would happen next and even felt slightly threatened. But he wasn’t asking for money or trying to sell us something, instead he asked if we could tell him what the words on the piece of paper said. He was not able to read.
The paper was a note from the Council to tell him that they had tied up his horse on a piece of land they owned down by the bridleway as it had got caught up in the undergrowth. It gave instructions on what the owner needed to do and suggested that greater care was needed.
I read this out to him and, to his obvious relief, explained where he should be able to find the animal. This had clearly been the cause of his distress and he thanked us and went on his way with a much greater purpose.
This happened a few days ago and I have been thinking about it ever since from two aspects. The first is that my initial reaction on contact with him was suspicion when what he wanted was some help. I need to work on this. The second is that of all of the gifts and privileges that I have had in my life, being taught to read must be up there amongst the most important. I cannot imagine not being able to make head nor tail of the words on the page, not being able to learn from books, not being able to enjoy a good book and not being able to write.
In this day and age and in one of the richest countries in the world it is a great shame that there are still people who have not been able to learn such a vital life skill. I just thank the stars that I am not one of them.
I hope he found his horse.