Uncharitable thoughts – do you ever have them? There are times when those niggardly strands of consciousness threaten to swamp me, though I do try not to give rein to the snarky words swirling behind my lips. I would like to say that as I’ve aged I have become more patient, but that just wouldn’t be true.
Like all writers I spend a lot of time comfortably alone, and when surrounded by people, no matter how loved, for any length of time I get twitchy and have to take myself off to recalibrate. I am currently spending time with my granddaughters, age almost three and almost two weeks. It is pure joy, and I am so very lucky to be able to do it. My patience with them is sure, but I still need time alone. So the other day, when Doc McStuffin and Princess Sofia were beginning to grate, as My Little Pony did thirty odd years ago, I flew the confines of toddler and babydom for a couple of hours, when my daughter’s friends came to visit the new addition.
Armed with a shopping list for the household, a sop to my conscience, I drove to Brent Cross. Shopping malls are one of my least favourite places but this particular venue I can find without getting horribly lost in the maze of byways that make up Hendon, far outside my comfort zone of Hampstead. I savoured the thought of a solitary latte accompanied only by the rapid-fire speech of the Polish staff at the almost-empty coffee shop. I revelled in my solitude.
And then, irritation of irritations, I sensed a body hesitate behind me then slide a tray holding a coffee, milk on the side, and a blueberry muffin onto the table not six inches to the my left. A quick scan of the establishment confirmed it had not filled as I lost myself in the paper. My shoulders stiffened and my teeth clenched as I readied a harrumph.
Was it the tweed-clad arm pushing the tray, or the shock of slightly too long white hair, or the precisely knotted tie over a check shirt tidily tucked into twill trousers skimming the top of brilliantly shined brogues stopping my bile? A second glance showed a face more lined than expected considering the relatively smooth hand pushing the tray. A trimmed white moustache and heavy tortoiseshell glasses were almost my undoing. The elderly gentleman could have been my father, except he died just over four years ago. Our eyes caught, his vaguely apologetic as he unfolded the Independent, and I smiled at the thought of my father reading anything but The Telegraph.
“Do you mind terribly?” he asked, nodding to the table.
“Not at all,” I replied, pushing aside my paper and turning slightly towards my neighbour realising that whilst I had been escaping human contact, he, I quickly learned recently widowed, was longing for company no matter how fleeting. We chatted, for half an hour or so in the mall pleasantly empty of harried shoppers, about the fate of the abducted Nigerian girls, the Arsenal v Hull game, about the general perfidy of politicians, and I smiled again to think I could have been talking to my father.
We parted company with a handshake and as I watched him, stooped and sad, make his way to the escalators, I thought of the exhortations we make to our children and grandchildren about sharing. I am determined to try harder to quash those uncharitable thoughts, and remember sharing is not just about toys but time, even if it’s with a stranger in the mall.