I have met the greatest hero in the world. Her name was Jackie and she had bowel cancer.
‘Jackie’s going to beat this,’ she told me. ‘Jackie’s going to win.’ And I smiled and nodded, and she smiled and nodded back, even though we both knew this was a victory that would never happen. Weeks later, I was called to certify her death. Jackie wasn’t brave, because by definition, bravery suggests that someone has a choice. A choice to face a fear or turn away. Jackie had no choice, which – to me – made her the greatest hero in the world.
I have met the greatest hero in the world. He is a teenager called David and he has schizophrenia. Before he was admitted, he had been living on the streets for three years, because his mother didn’t want anything to do with him, and yet every Sunday, he would wash and shave and wear his best clothes, and sit in the visitors’ room in the hope that she would change her mind. She never did. David is the greatest hero in the world, because each week he still waited for her, with eyes full of forgiveness.
The greatest hero in the world is a porter who makes a patient laugh on a long journey down an anxious corridor. She is a nurse who bends to tie a patient’s shoe lace. He is my father who, even as he lay dying of cancer, was only concerned with whether we knew how to stop the back door from sticking and where he kept the spare batteries for the torch, in case there was a power cut.
I grew up on a diet of heroes and villains, on big, bad wolves and Little Red Riding Hoods, on Bill Sikes and Oliver Twist. My heroes were pointed out to me. The narrator waved flags and fired warning shots, and told me who I could trust and who would eventually let me down. As an adult, I try to use my childhood template, but the grown-up world is less clear cut. We struggle to find a hero for our stories. Far from heroic, our main characters stumble and deceive, and fail to deliver. It would be easy to give up, I think, to lose hope.
The other week, I saw a man walking hand in hand with his son. As I got closer, I realised the father was in his sixties, and the grown-up son was severely disabled and had microcephaly. I wondered about the story of their lives, the courage they needed to get through each day, and I realised I had found two heroes right there. I realised that heroes are not necessarily our main characters, but they live within other strands of the story, quietly at the edges of our lives.
Interviewers have often asked me about Goats and Sheep, and why I chose to write about ordinary people. It’s because I have never really been interested in kings and queens, and movie stars. It’s because I believe the ordinary is really quite extraordinary, and it’s in the ordinary that we will find these acts of kindness. Acts of kindness that show more courage, more heroism than we could ever imagine, and away from the main stage, each of these heroes has a story to tell.
Perhaps now we need to hear them more than ever.