A Good Samaritan, but not a great one

An Irishman’s Diary about the pitfalls of casual philanthropy

Wed, Jan 15, 2014, 01:15

On one of those wild nights over New Year, I went for a walk down by the Liffey, where I spotted a man, clearly not well, slouched precariously on the river wall. Naturally, I decided to be a Good Samaritan and help him, although – to be honest – that wasn’t my first thought.

It wasn’t my second or third thought, either. Before resorting to Samaritanism, I hoped he was he was somebody else’s problem. Failing that, I thought if I approached slowly enough, an ambulance might reach him first. And finally, there was the prospect that he would revive, miraculously, and walk off before I had to get involved.

But none of these things happened. It was late, there was a gale blowing and, at least down this end – at Guinness’s – the quays were deserted. Meanwhile, there he was, draped on the low wall: his toes on the footpath, but his hooded head hanging over the other side, inches from the river, which was as high as I’ve seen it.

So with a sinking heart, I asked: “Are you okay?” No answer. “Do you want me to call an ambulance?” Still nothing – and besides, as I now remembered, I didn’t have my phone. Damn, I thought: the prospects of his early transfer to someone else’s jurisdiction evaporating.

I tapped his back a few times. Nothing. Then, just when I feared the worst, he straightened up dramatically and the hood fell away to reveal a face about half as old as I expected, and twice as healthy. A baby-featured twentysomething, he could have been my son.

Unlike the man in the parable, clearly, he hadn’t been beaten or robbed, except maybe by Dublin pubs. So, almost embarrassed at having disturbed his nap, I gestured at the stormy waters. Whereupon he focused his eyes and muttered something like “Wo!” – but in a foreign language – as if he hadn’t expected a river.

When I asked where he was coming from – meaning a pub – he said: “Sweden!” And when I asked where he was going now, he also said, “Sweden!”. So I broke it to him gently that he was in a country called Ireland, and that I was hoping he had a hotel here, or better still, some friends.

Unusually for a Swede, however, he seemed to have a total English vocabulary of about eight words, none of them forming sentences. No doubt his command of the language had been more extensive before the pub crawl.

But one of the words he did know was “money”, because when I asked him if he had any, he produced a €10 note in triumph. This promptly blew out of his hand, and the panic at seeing his tenner flutter away nearly sobered him, although not to the extent that it wasn’t me who had to chase it down Victoria Quay like an eejit.

Anyway, at some length, and mostly in sign language, he indicated that he had a hotel somewhere. And that although he couldn’t remember the name or address, he knew the way. I wasn’t convinced, but I had to try to make sure he got there, or at least steer him away from the river.

At first he seemed to be leading us towards Temple Bar: a plausible destination. Then he veered off towards the Oliver Bond flats and Thomas Street, where I knew there was a marked shortage of hotels. And soon it became depressingly apparent that, as suspected, he was geographically clueless.

By now I was wondering how to get rid of him with a good conscience, when – lo! – I discovered that a roughly reciprocal thought had been occurring to him. For the previous 10 minutes, it was as if I was his new best friend: he’d told me so several times.

But maybe the street lighting changed, or something, and he saw my other side, because now suddenly he was suggesting I should leave him alone.

At first it sounded polite: like a drunken-Swedish version of “I’ve troubled you far too much already, kind sir”. Then he gave me a count-down: “Three-two-one”, and a small-but-unmistakable push to the chest. And before I could congratulate him on his improved English, he did it again, “Three-two-one”, this time with a shove.

In fact, even as I said “Okay, okay,” and turned to go, he was charging again, with another “Three-to-one” and violence in his eyes. Suddenly the fate of Brian Boru flashed before me. So rather than risk being slain from behind by a Norseman (what a bitterly ironic contribution to the millennium that would be) I backed away, watching warily as I reversed.

Later, from a discreet distance, I saw him walk down the middle of a street, with cars weaving slowly around him. This was reassuring in a way, because at least he was attracting attention. Later still, I came back in the car, ready to phone his whereabouts to somebody. But the drunken young Swede had disappeared: swallowed up, safely I hope, by the Viking city.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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