When I was in my late ‘teens, I used to participate on certain weeknights in a ‘soup-run’ down to “Cardboard City” (as in those days we called it) on the Thames Embankment. Sometimes the soup was returned (not in quite the same form as you had handed it out, if you see what I mean). But there I met a woman who had very evidently fallen on “hard times”. Truth to tell she was dirty and dishevelled and appeared to have lost every semblance of self-respect. “Old Annie” was well known all right, but for all the wrong reasons. Then quite suddenly she disappeared.
Enquire as I might I couldn’t find her, although I must have visited every hostel for the poor and night shelter in that part of London. Then I had (what some refer to as) a stroke of luck and to cut a rather lengthy story short, I traced old Annie to St Luke’s hospital-home for the dying in Bayswater. (Indeed, on one of only two occasions that I visited Annie before she died, I was approached by a tall, striking in appearance and gracious lady, who, so I gathered in those days, was working there as an Almoner· and was seeking any available information on Annie’s next of kin etc. Many years later we were to meet again on the ‘inaugural platform’ of the British Psychosocial Oncology Society (BPOS), at King’s College, London and later, when I had the privilege of spending a few weeks working at St Christopher’s Hospice Sydenham, Kent. It was, of course, the late Dame Cicely Saunders, in those days a Lady Almoner** and before she embarked upon further study and training, to become a singularly distinguished consultant physician, who devoted her life and time to the UK Hospice Movement.
As I sat by Annie’s bed, I observed a tattered Bible resting on her locker. She asked me to read a psalm to her from her Sunday school days…”about the Shepherd and his sheep”. Clearly someone – perhaps even Annie herself – had been there before me, since the place in the Bible contained a makeshift bookmark in the form of a sort of tract headed, “When the Truth Hurts…” only someone had crossed out the “Hurts” and written above it “Heals”. When – even right at the end of her days and forsaking all lesser goals, pursuits and dreams – old Annie fastened onto firm and enduring thoughts in the form of what she perceived to be truth, still glimmering from those far-off days of childhood, it shone through with beacon-like radiance – “Even when passing through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid. You will be there…” Thus she did – such was and is my belief and desire for her – find hope and peace at the last.