Right now I am back at my familiar cluttered white writing desk, with the same hot keyboard beneath my fingers.
Yet I have returned from a busy few weeks, and so the following posts actually come to you from many places. From the waiting room of a dark and half-deserted suburban train station, late on a Saturday night. From a congested train carriage speeding away from that same station in the morning light of the working week. And from a quiet cafe in the heart of the city, where I sipped peppermint tea and donned my armor for the interview ahead.
It is interesting to see how the tone of my scribbling has changed, and the lessons – still being learnt – are not what I expected them to be.
Lets begin with what was written in the womb-like warmth of the station’s waiting room, sheltering from the dark and the cold outside. I had returned from a political conference in the city, exhausted and easily upset by the 40 minute wait for my connection. With a dead laptop, a dead phone battery, and no electrical plug working well enough to recharge them, I turned to my little black notepad.
Customer Service + Smiling at Strangers
“If I had written this, as I had intended, on the inbound journey into the city, it would be very different in tone.
The last few days have been fantastic; full of best-friends, giant beef burgers, too much white wine, and a quiet togetherness.
Yet, while I usually have cause to focus on the small, but powerful, positives among the everyday dullness, recently the reverse has been true. Days with a delicious itinerary of food, friends and fun have been blighted by minor blemishes.
I’m not thinking of the large dramas of life. There have been no grand tragedies of heart break and betrayal. The moment’s I mention are mild irritants, the minute details of daily living; a cross comment or disdainful expression that plants sour seeds inside you and begins to feed off your goodwill, becoming steadily more significant that it ever had a right to be.
On Monday the source was a family member, who channeled their bad temper toward me in snappish retorts to everything I said or did.
On Tuesday, it was the optician who spoke to me, for the entirety of a twenty-minute appointment, as though I were twelve.
His condescension replaced the disapproval I had had to endure in that opticians the week before, when I had stumbled in 10 minutes late. Ignoring my apology, the purported professional repeatedly informed her colleagues (within clear ear-shot of where I was sitting) that “this woman was EIGHTEEN minutes late”.
I should have shouted back across: “actually, I was only 10 minutes late, but your receptionist kept me waiting for 8 minutes, and these things happen anyway, you don’t have to be such a bitch about it!” I would probably feel much better now if I had. Especially as, a week later, I was left, for 20 minutes after the time of my re-scheduled appointment, waiting to be seen.
This theme of customer service could continue. One smiling cashier can make even the worst day a little less shit. Meanwhile, a more miserable member of staff can tread heavily on your spirit. It sounds ridiculous, but it is true.
The last ten minutes have just proved it. I am tired, I am hungry and, dismounting the train that had already carried me many miles, I found that the next one I needed to complete the journey by just a few more, had disappeared from the overhead screens. I prepared myself for a call home. I would just beg for a lift.
Except my phone had died. I had prepared for this eventuality, and packed the cable which would connect it to my laptop for recharging. Unfortunately, the laptop had died too. I also had a charger for that technology but, typically, the train had been devoid of even one plug.
‘Surely, the waiting room has one?’, I thought. Well it did. That is, it had one. And only one. And when I put my plug in, it did nothing.
After much huffing, and even more internal distress, I approached the only member of staff still on shift. She was sat in her perspex box, at the far end of the long waiting room. For the last ten minutes it has just been the two of us, walled in, with the dark pressing against the windows outside.
And she has been an angel. A quiet, unquestioning angel, probably around my age.
After explaining that I needed a key to make the plug work, giving me said key, and subsequently discovering that even then the plug didn’t emit enough power to use a laptop, she provided me with really clear directions to the phone box on the platform outside. And she offered me change to use it.
It wasn’t the help that was so refreshing, though, but the completely unassuming way in which she gave it. I didn’t feel like I was interrupting or being an inconvenience. She just restored a sense of calm to the whole scenario.
Now I wouldn’t want to reduce this to a moan about retail. After all, I worked part-time in that sector for five years. I know how difficult it can be. Yet I also realise, on reflection, that if I was ever rude or presented a glum face to customers, I was probably acting the same way with all the people I encountered that day, wherever I was.
Returning books to the library, catching the bus, walking around the supermarket, I was allowing myself to become absorbed in my own bad mood and let it leak over everybody I encountered. Including the cashiers I have just charged with so much responsibility for my emotional well-being.
I can’t help but recall one of the most memorable scenes in About Time. Or rather, a few seconds within that scene.
Towards the end of the film, Tim’s time-travelling Dad instructs him to live one day as he normally would, and then, after he has got into bed and turned out the light, to go back and live that day all over again. This time, he explains, he should relish every moment.
So, all be it skeptically, Tim does what he is asked. In his first encounter with the day, he has a demoralising meeting, concludes a court case with a look of exhaustion, and generally does a lot of rushing about. Among his hurried activities, he heads out onto the crowded London streets to buy his lunch. The camera only glances at the back of the cashier’s head. All Tim is interested in is handing over the correct change and getting back to the office.
When reliving those 24 hours, he revisits the brief moment in which pays for his food, and takes the time to look at the human being in front of him. The camera shows her face. She smiles joyfully at him, and he beams politely in return.
Later, the voice-over utters those now familiar words.
“We’re all travelling through time together, every day of our lives…”
In my love affair with this film, and in taking a very direct approach to the philosophy that lies at its heart, I have been drawn to its emphasis on that one word: ‘together’.
Together not just as friends, families and communities, but as strangers interacting in the course of our own respective journeys.”