In the depths of tragedy, a positive encounter gives James Brown a much-needed boost

A coincidence, no matter how small, can give an unexpected lift to the spirits...

I’ve started most of these columns from a level emotional playing field. But sometimes life’s not like that, and you’re dealt one of those blows that knocks you right down—and then a minor irritation makes it even worse. After that, a small but positive link can be strangely uplifting.

A Sad event

Last week, my much-loved father-in-law Alan died, less than 12 weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was everything to his wife and two daughters, hugely popular with his lifelong friends, and remains a very good role model. He never had a bad word to say about anyone, but had an endless fund of interesting stories. And he was delighted to have spent his last nine months with his new grandson. Married for over 40 years, his daughters spoke to him every day of their lives.

His illness and death has obviously proved devastating, and the intensity isn’t lessened by knowing that similar things happen to so many tight-knit families. I know there are people who will identify with our situation, and they’ll be feeling sad while reading this. 

During this terrible time, however, we had to deal with a minor but particularly irritating situation.

INSENSiTIVE house guests 

My girlfriend helped nurse her dad through his illness, and as a result some curtains for a bedroom in a holiday cottage she rents out didn’t get made. When it became apparent that her dad’s condition was terminal, she wanted to cancel the summer bookings at the house, but instead I encouraged her to carry on as normal and let people have their holidays there. We would try to do our best in the circumstances.

After the first guests of the summer mentioned the excessive light in the bedroom, we immediately set about trying to find a local lady we’d been told about who makes curtains. Then Alan passed away and the week just exploded emotionally. Curtains simply didn’t matter to us any more—but they mattered to the second guests.

When I managed–a day into their stay–to make it out of London, get to the coast, visit a knitting shop, get the seamstress’s phone number and arrange to meet her at the property, giving the guests a day’s notice, they didn’t want to let us in because they were annoyed they’d had one night of light. “We’ll be slopping round in our pyjamas at 9.30 on a Saturday morning, and anyway we’ve got our things here,” they complained.

When I tried to explain the terrible circumstances, and that our five-minute visit would make it better for them, the woman interrupted and told me it didn’t matter that someone had died because, “You shouldn’t rent out a house where the room has no curtains.” She didn’t realise that the sooner we measured up, the sooner we could make the curtains—and we could also help immediately by putting some black-out material in the window frame. 

As I drove away dumbstruck, my 13-year-old son said, “When you told her Alan had just died of cancer, she said, ‘I don’t care.’ ” We were shocked. 

A Lift in spirits

After I sent them an email reiterating the circumstances and apologising for the light, I took the guests up on a compromise—Mel the seamstress agreed to come out on a Saturday lunchtime and measure up then.

When I met mel, I was exceptionally thankful that she’d given up her day off to help. Little acts of kindness can be magnified under such stressful circumstances—just as petty ones can. She told me she’d spent most of the last 20 years working in London until landlords turfed her out of her workspace and turned it into luxury flats. I smiled in disbelief. 

It turned out she’d been based in the same building to which I’d taken my eldest son to nursery for five years. She knew the friendly photographer with the big black dog we chatted to each morning, and the French lady that ran the nursery. In a weird way, the connection was really uplifting. Her general outlook to life—despite not having a car, she’d worked at the three local village fêtes in one day—and the shared minor history managed to erase the frustration I’d felt about the guests.

Knowing we must have passed in the street many times wasn’t that big a deal, but it was a positive where previously there had been a surface-level negative. After the five minutes it took her to measure up, I drove her through the local nature reserve to her first tombola and cake stall of the day, while her friend Richard made us all laugh talking about a gig he’d been to during which a fire-eater in the audience had singed the guitarist’s hair.

When I said I might write about this in Reader’s Digest, she said, “Oh good, my mum’s just passed away this year and we’ve kept her subscription.”

James Brown, founder of Loaded magazine now edits Sabotage Times—an online magazine with the motto: "We can't concentrate, why should you?" Since November 2010 James has written over 50 of his popular monthly Reasons To Be Cheerful column in Reader’s Digest, you can read more by clicking here.

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