It’s amazing how a Positive Random Encounter can turn your day around. I’d had a grim day. I was ill, I hadn’t slept, and I’d received one of those phone calls at work that starts disastrously and goes rapidly downhill from there.
The phone call was a full-blown Negative Memorable Exchange (NME). The sort that stays with you for hours or even days afterwards, as you try to work out the basic questions: Where on earth did THAT come from? What’s their problem? What parenting techniques were used at the age of two?
So it was, still bruised and battered from the NME encounter, that I pedalled wearily off to the station on my trusty folding bike to catch the train home. It’s a two-hour journey, so in my sleep-deprived, virused-up, NME-bashed state, survival was my only thought.
On autopilot, I selected a carriage, folded the bike, fixed it in position and slumped into the only obvious seat. I was ready to close my eyes, to doze, to continue mulling the NME attack, to focus on the glass of wine that would be my reward at the other end of the journey.
“Oh wonderful! It’s always great to see a fellow-cyclist on the train!” My bleary eyes focused on the hailer. Diagonally opposite me sat a vicar. He was smiling, no, beaming at me, with warmth and interest.
Now I don’t know about you, but I make no assumptions about vicars. I don’t assume they’re good people, or bad people, or even people who believe in God. I’ve known some great ones and one or two who’ve been the source themselves of NME encounters. I know one who deliberately started an argument using the unpromising opening line “How much do you know about Harriet Harman?”
Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, so a vicar on a train hails an exhausted, sick, wound-up cyclist. This could have gone one of two ways. It could have ended very badly.
“Ah yes,” I venture. “So you’re a cyclist too?”
From that equally unpromising start flowed a conversation so utterly delightful and absorbing that by the time I got off the train my day had been transformed. We’d talked about our shared love of gardening and allotmenteering and their transformative properties. We’d discussed our different experiences working with damaged young people, and our shared belief that making them partners not victims is, in itself, a healing act. We debated whether one should ever wear shorts to meet royalty or wear choir robes to sing in church. We talked about theology and genuflection. And of course we talked about cycling, its perils and joys, and its challenges when travelling by train or plane.
It was the perfect antidote to the NME encounter. The journey flew past. We parted with a handshake and a first-name introduction and a promise to keep each other in our prayers.
NME attacks can turn a day into a nightmare. Positive Random Encounters can turn them back. I cycled the last five miles a different person from the battered, shattered individual who’d got on the train. I opened the front door to find a blazing log fire, a ready-poured glass of red wine sitting beside it, and tea being put on the plate. There are some good people out there, as well as the NMEs. I hope you meet some this week. And to the Rev Richard: thank you.