I’m no good at thanking people. Some people are wonderful at writing thoughtful notes on pretty stationery, sending flowers, calling or presenting a gift. Me, I just feel intensely and really and truly grateful, and then I’m pretty much done.
Guilt about this comes and goes in the style of acid flashbacks, but usually not strongly enough to motivate actual action. I have a long List of Shame filled with the names of people without whom I’d have been sunk, or without whom I’d have fewer nice things, but just at the moment, as I’m in the middle of lots of tightly-scheduled travel, I’m strongly reminded of one particular unsung hero.
My sister, who is a writer, won a short story competition in Hong Kong in 1999. The prize was two tickets to New York on Air Canada—a prize unusual in the world of writing prizes, which typically consist of a note reading: ‘Congratulations, at least one person who isn’t your friend or relative has at least pretended to read whatever it was you wrote. Go ahead and feel smug for a few fleeting moments’.
Anyway, she won these tickets and, in a display of native discernment and taste, invited me to come along. I had to fly from Delhi to Hong Kong, and then we would fly from Hong Kong via Vancouver to New York, where we would visit our respective friends.
The afternoon before I was leaving I discovered that I needed a Canadian visa to even transit through the airport at Vancouver; my US visa, my free tickets, my two weeks in the Big Apple would be to no avail unless I could go through Canada. I raced to the embassy in Delhi, where a line of people was waiting to collect their visa, and explained my situation to one of the grim little official faces in the grim little official window, begging him to grant me a visa out of turn. He told me to sod off, which was fair enough, and I stood holding my passport forlornly, watching my New York holiday splinter into a thousand pieces, and making a mental note to immolate myself later that night.
Just then a casually dressed gentleman who looked like a Canadian stepped out of the embassy to smoke a cigarette. Perhaps because I was younger than anyone there, or perhaps because he was trained to spot a soul in distress, he walked up to the magic cordon that separates the people who want things to the people who can make it happen, and leaned over to where I was wilting in the afternoon sun and hiccupping with sorrow.
“Can I help you?” he asked. I told him my miserable tale, moaning that my sister was going to be furious about the wasted ticket. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “I’ll help you.” I didn’t think I’d heard right. “Yeah,” he repeated. “Give me your passport and come back in two hours.” The document pretty much dropped from my nerveless fingers into his hand. “Tell them Bill Marshall sent you,” he said, flicked the last of his ash off the cigarette butt, and disappeared into the side door from which he had emerged.
I didn’t have to ask for him, because when I came back my visa was waiting for me at the window. As I got on my plane the next day I fervently swore I’d send him flowers upon my return; a few weeks later I was back to just feeling everlastingly grateful. It’s been a long time, and I’m not even sure whether I remember his name right. But just for the record, Bill, and better late than never: Thank you.