A stolen glance across a crowded train; a shy smile as you pass each other by on a windswept cliff path; a brush of hands as you reach for the same apple outside the grocer’s – you see a stranger, and you feel something. A connection forms as naturally as breathing, and you acknowledge it in an instant, and you see the other feels it too. But as quickly as the feeling arises, you bury it. You move on, move away.
But what if the moment lingers? What if you break down the societal norms of keeping a polite distance from strangers? What if you follow the pure instinct in your heart that this person could be significant in some way to you? What if you allow him to see your vulnerability?
Blanche DuBois, the protagonist of Tennessee Williams’ wonderfully sensual A Streetcar Named Desire, is famous for uttering the line: ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ You may think that you are unlikely to open up to a man whom you don’t know; but sometimes, the opposite is true. Sometimes, there is real comfort and release to be found in the kindness of a stranger.
The action in my book Burning Embers commences on a ship bound for Africa. The protagonist, Coral, is gazing down on the ocean, her mind awash with overwhelming memories of the past. She has lost her father, she has lost her fiancé; she is raw and vulnerable. Then a stranger, seeing that she is lost and in pain, comes to stand beside her and offer companionship. She knows nothing of him, and yet finds herself feeling safe in his company, no longer alone, and she allows the tears she has been holding within to fall. He offers a willing ear, words of comfort, a handkerchief for her tears. And then he is gone.
Of course, Rafe is soon no longer a stranger to Coral (indeed, it turns out that they are neighbours), but this first, chance meeting sets the foundations for their blossoming love. When he is a stranger to Coral, we see a kindness in Rafe that is less evident, sometimes, in day-to-day interactions later in the book, once they know each other and the pressures of the world around cram in on them. And in their first meeting Coral knows nothing but his wisdom, his attentive care, his interest in her – without the shadows of the past and the present crowding her impressions.
It is when we are strangers, I think, that we often convey the very best of ourselves. And it is when we are strangers that we can encounter some of the strongest, most romantic feelings of all.