A Christmas Story

How a pre Christmas stroll took a sudden turn for the worse and how Sheffield people reacted

This isn’t a feelgood Christmas story. It’s a sad story. But like a lot of sad stories, it still involves a lot of human kindness. So maybe it’s not so sad after all…

At the beginning of December, with the words of family members still reverberating that almost ‘anywhere is better than Sheffield city centre’ these days, my wife and I went in town to decide for ourselves and take a pre-Christmas stroll. Maybe even a drink and a German sausage from the Christmas Market - a tradition of sorts and one in imminent danger of interruption by conflicting work patterns, advancing years and just plain tiredness. The wind and rain had paused too. It was still cold but there seemed no reason not to do it. So, we did.

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Many older Sheffielders, my family for example, hark back to the days when things in the town centre were ‘better’. Personally, having seen the city evolve over half a century, catching buses into town to go to school from the age of eleven to eighteen, I’d say that mostly things are better now. Department stores have come and gone and unfortunately, many of the small independents too. But there are so many ways to get stuff these days it’s a bit like an economic meteor landed when we all went online and adaptation or extinction became the order of the day. Although there’s been some fairly brutal extinction there’s also been a lot of adapting. British cities are evolving demographically and economically. Sheffield is no exception. For someone born and bred here, it still feels exceptional. It might take a little longer for it to look that way.

There we were then, an ageing but defiant happy couple, taking it all in. The changes. The good and the not so good. But it felt dynamic at least, if not yet joined up. We walked past the German sausage stall. ‘We’ll get one on the way back, eh?’ we agreed. We didn’t really have a ‘way’ forward. We were strolling, despite the cold, taking time, taking it all in. I almost walked past my old music teacher and his wife doing something similar only from the opposite direction. It reminded me of when I bumped into one of my brothers somewhere around the Peace Gardens in the early 80s, on Christmas Eve, both desperately trying to find last minute presents for the family. Tackling town from opposite ends. He looked as drained and forlorn as I felt. ‘There’s nothing that way!’ was all he said nodding over his shoulder.

My music teacher and his wife were altogether more cheerful. They were also taking their time and looked happy too. Enjoying each other’s company. Hell, they’d even had a sausage butty. We chatted before wandering on, taking random left and right turns to see places we’d not seen in years. New places and old places. Sheffield places.A final whim took us up West Street. One last detour before some hot food. But before West Street unfolded its mix of the familiar and the new, the day changed in a second. As we passed a bus stop a man walking the other way was suddenly not walking any more. He fell towards us and as he lay on the ground, face down, his head covered by a grey hood, there was a moment when he looked to the passing crowd like another homeless man or maybe someone who’d had one too many to drink. You hope in moments like these that you’ll do the right thing rather than walk by and leave it to someone else. My wife would never leave it to someone else and was down by his side in an instant while I was still processing what had just happened.

Another young woman did the same. She was conflicted. A carer with an older woman to look after. She had to get her on a bus but she stopped and was dialling 999 while I knelt by the man, now motionless on the cold pavement. I can’t say much about what happened next. My wife was heroic. The young woman was heroic and then distraught – overwhelmed by what was happening in this moment, in her life. Paramedics came pretty quickly while we were doing our best taking turns with CPR as the call handler kept count. Two police officers arrived, more paramedics. Some people stopped to ask if we knew the man. We didn’t. He was on his own.

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I suspect he had died instantly. The ambulance crew were great, the police were sympathetic and the people of Sheffield fought for this man they didn’t know and stayed with him for over an hour at the bottom of West Street in the cold while the paramedics did all they could and more. Then people drifted away, the police drifted away too. My wife and I stayed till the ambulance left. It seemed the right thing to do. We weren’t sure.

I don’t know who he was. The police said he was sixty-five. A couple of years older than me. I don’t know what family he had or how and what they were told. I feel like they should know that although he died surrounded by strangers, he wasn't alone. And for that hour on West Street when our paths crossed, we cared. Sheffield cared. We weren’t heroes. We tried to help. We fought for him.