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In that moment I knew she’d become more than a client, she’d become a friend.

Having banged a gong in the street for the NHS, then volunteered for it, and done numerous shifts cleaning hospital corridors, I believed there was still more I could do to help those vulnerable during the pandemic. So when I heard about a start-up voluntary group in Nantwich, the hometown to which I’d returned after many years away, I automatically applied.

Some days later I was planting myself along with half a dozen others in someone’s back garden, to meet and greet and discuss how the group could function. It was here that I learned we were to be called the Buddies, a name I said I was not altogether happy with, which was the seeding of my nickname Mr Grumpy.

Soon after, I was running for between three and six ‘clients’, bringing in their shopping, delivering medicament, or just providing company. These weekly or so visits, I soon realised, made a vast difference to those unable to, or fearful of, leaving the house. But just as important, I soon realised, it made a vast difference to me.

I’d made no secret of my battle with depression, and I make no secret either of the sheer joy at seeing the faces of my clients light up when I am at the door. Clients who’re old and frail, bewildered at the state of where we are, clients who are sick, disabled, or just downright bored and lonely. Clients who don’t see a soul from one week to the next, except for me, smilingly clutching their shopping or bag of medicine. It is an absolute pleasure to such errands, even if it means queueing interminably at (let's say) one of Nantwich's most-stretched pharmacies.

I said this once to one of my clients, in apology for keeping her waiting. I’d come to know her as a sweet and unassuming old lady of 92, so imagine my surprise when she said, “It's not your fault. I dread going there, it’s worse than having piles. What can I give you for your trouble?”

“Well I don’t want your piles,” I quipped, “Unless it’s piles of money.”

“If I had piles of money I’d give you them as well!” she said, with a glint in her eye and an emphatic whack of her stick on the doorjamb.

And we laughed, and in that moment I knew she’d become more than a client, she’d become a friend.

I know I’m not the only one who’s made longer-lasting friendships during the past year, which I think is testament to the group’s success and sustainability. The throng of six or seven acorns planted in the back garden has grown considerably into a 100 or so coppice of oak trees.

Yet I suppose there is always a downside… As the coppice grew and grew, the Whatsapp chat grew and grew with it and sometimes I couldn’t hear the telly for my phone pinging. And so I grumbled, and in doing so indelibly underlined my nickname Mr Grumpy. But there was a fondness in my grumble, a glint in my eye too, because I knew it was pinging for a reason; the group was growing, and every single member felt happy to be involved in it, to be part of something important, crucial even, during these horribly difficult times. I understood that, and despite my complaint I felt exactly the same as all the rest. So even though my name is Mr Grumpy, I’m more than happy to be a Buddy.

"It's lovely what you do for us," said the lady, "And if I were thirty years younger...."

"You're more than welcome," I said, "but can we say forty?"

Blog contributor and Nantwich Buddie Mark Bickerton

Photo by EG Brown

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