Small Things

Last week, the area around the Students Union at Sheffield University became littered once more with banners and posters, indicating that student elections were about to take place. It reminded me of something from my past. Something very small, but which changed my life. Something I had long forgotten, but am eternally grateful for.

In my youth, I too stood for election. Several times. Aged 12, for the Grey Court school council (“Use your Gumption, Vote for Sumption“); I lost by a landslide. Aged 17, as Finance Officer (“The Listening Candidate“) at my sixth-form college; I lost by a little.

By the time I reached Bristol University, I’d had enough of electioneering. But, egged on by previous incumbents Hannah and Laura, I agreed to stand once more: this time for the position of Chair of Fry Haldane (a society formed about 100 years earlier, to support students living out of halls; over the years it had acquired a record and video library, laundrette, and health-food shop; it organised film nights, parties, and other events; and the chair got to sit on the Students’ Union executive).

That year, 1989, was strange. The previous November I had begun the first serious relationship of my adult life, with the woman I believed back then to be the love of my life (the only person I have ever found the courage to ask out directly). Less than three months later she dumped me. I became severely depressed.

In between our break-up and the Union elections, I faked a suicide attempt (to my immediate regret, and to the terror of my then room-mate Ashley), and spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself. I was far from over this.

So, I did a small amount of campaigning, produced a few posters (can’t even remember whether I had a daft slogan this time), but my heart wasn’t in it.

The week of the election I sunk into my worst state yet. I had spent so much time in my own head, considering options, without solutions; fretting, crying, screaming inside. Finally I made a decision: leave Bristol. Quit university. Return to my previous life, boring but uneventful. I was going home. For definite.

By the time I set off, my mind was clearer than it had been since the break-up. There would be no turning back, I had covered off all possible arguments, and would not be talked out of it. I said as much to Ashley, who expressed sympathy, regrets, and understanding. And I set off.

Walking to Bristol coach station, rucksack on my back, I heard a shout. A beautiful woman called my name from the other side of Perry Road. “Dan! Dan… Sumption? I just voted for you!”

I have never been so discombobulated. It took seconds to figure out what she was saying. I panicked, considered my escape options, the last thing I wanted was human contact. Too late. She was crossing the road.

She came and she talked to me. A beautiful, happy, positive stranger who had voted for me. And I had to respond, somehow. Everything came spilling out. My depression, its cause, my decision to leave Bristol.

She begged me to reconsider. She took me back to her place in St Paul’s (an anomaly: she rented the attic of a family home—that’s not what first-year students do! But then, she was an anomaly: foster child, mixed race, eternally upbeat, shouts at strangers from across the road).

She told me her name was Bronwen, and that it meant “white breast”. We laughed. Her Afro-Caribbean heritage meant that her breasts weren’t all that white (presumably: not that I ever saw them).

And so, I stayed at university. And I won the election; and got to run my own record library, launderette, health-food shop, and events empire. And Bronwen and I would meet often for coffee (another initiation into the strange life of adults: I think she was the first person who ever asked me to meet “for a coffee”), and maybe a film at The Watershed. We remained very special friends for our time in Bristol.

Sadly, we lost touch after that – there was no Facebook in those days and I have never been much of a one for letters or (especially) telephone calls. But all the same, she changed my life. My depression continued, on and off, for two more years, often as severe as before. But through it all I remained at University, completed my degree, spent a great year running Fry Haldane, changed and grew as a person.

And all because a beautiful stranger once shouted my name from the other side of the street.