We were in the supermarket to buy a pear for Imogen. She’d been asking for one all day, ever since she saw a picture of a pear in the morning and been reminded that they existed. There were no pears at home, so I found myself in a supermarket, a single pear in my hand, queuing up to pay.
And I felt embarrassed.
It had been a tough six days, on top of a tough six weeks, which had come off the back of a tough six years. I was tired, and had been worn down by the harsh reality of living and moving and having my being in this tainted world. We had returned to the UK from Australia just under a year ago, and were gearing up for our fourth house move in as many months. I had been wearied by the dehumanising journey of simply trying to secure a place for my family to live. I had spoken to countless robotic voices, and a fair few human ones, giving and taking various details. I had been dragged through the mill, weighed on the scales and been found wanting; judged by our absence from the country and by our inadequate income. Whenever I described our situation I encountered awkward pauses, credit checks and patronising explanations as to why we needed to jump through a dozen impersonal hoops. After all that suspicion and contempt, my embarrassment made perfect sense.
You see, there I was, surrounded by shoppers with bulging trolleys and heaving baskets, holding one pear. Do you understand? We were wasting their time, me and my pear. Me, the less than human, offering something that was barely worth their while to sell. What would be the response of the worker at the till? Mockery? Contempt? “One pear? Couldn’t you have at least bought two or three?” Would I even be worth any emotion? It’s a difficult thing to find yourself in a place where the best that you can hope for is to be ignored.
I was called forward to a till. An older man, not old, but older than me, with a scattering of awkward teeth left in his mouth, like Stonehenge after an earthquake. I prepared myself for the worst.
“Just one pear today,” I said, offering my feeble excuse to the God of the Till, hoping to stave off his wrath. If I make light of the situation perhaps I can escape with just a disdainful smile. I think I could handle that.
“Just one pear,” he repeated, but there was no judgement there.
I handed him the fruit. It was duly processed.
“Fifty-four pence, sir,” he said, without a trace of sarcasm.
Was that expensive for just one pear? I didn’t care, because he called me ‘sir’. Did you hear that? ‘Sir’! Me, with my solitary Forelle pear! Surely I did not deserve a ‘sir’, not for fifty-four pence, but it was given anyway.
Emboldened by this kindness, I passed over a five pound note.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, as though the tedium of having to count out four pounds and forty-six pence worth of change was a precious gift that I was passing on. How much effort would he have to expend for my pittance? How much of my fifty-four pence would make its way to his pocket? Surely none, and yet…”Thank you, sir,”
He passed over the handful of gold, silver and copper shrapnel. I received it as though I were receiving a communion wafer.
“There you go, sir. Would you like a bag?”
Nowadays you have to pay for the privilege of a bag, but not then. In those days, they were free. And he makes the offer. A free bag for my one pear! What generosity of spirit! What grace!
“No, thank you,” I said, smiling as I passed the fruit straight on to my delighted daughter.
No bag, but the gesture meant more to me than a thousand bags.
“Have a good afternoon,” I said. I meant it.
“You as well, sir,” he replied. He meant it too.
I swear to you, in all seriousness, there were tears in my eyes as I walked from that till-bound saint and out of that supermarket. Until that moment, I hadn’t realised just how bruised I was, and neither had I realised just how hungry I was for a little kindness.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” said Jesus, “and I will sell you a pear.”