Yesterday, I had an appointment in Islington at 10am. It’s a bit of an awkward location to get to by public transport from my house, and only a 30 minute walk away, so I wrap up warm and brace myself for the terror of storm Eleanor, with my woolly hat firmly on and my flimsy umbrella in hand. It turns out, it really isn’t very cold.
Because I am a natural “time optimist”, I have allowed myself approximately 4 minutes less than the recommended time offered by Googlemaps, and every red light at the pedestrian crossings makes me feel a little bit twitchy. But, I’m very used to doing things by the skin of my teeth and I’m a pretty fast walker when I have to be, so I’m confident I’ll still make it on time.
It’s only as I approach Caledonian Road that I remember I need to stop for cash. This was not accounted for in the time budget. It’s okay, I tell myself. Withdrawing cash takes literally 45 seconds. Nobody ever got in trouble for being 45 seconds late. (Addendum: they almost definitely did...)
Across the road, conveniently nestled between a Tesco and a Nisa, I spot an available cash machine where nobody is queuing. Bingo. I snake across the road, in and out of the criss-crossing traffic, keeping my eye on the prize. But before I reach the other side of the road, a middle aged woman gets out of her car and steps up to use the cash machine just before I get there. It’s okay, I remind myself coolly. 45 seconds for her, 45 seconds for me. Let’s not sweat the small stuff here.
But it doesn’t take her 45 seconds. Because she’s rummaging in her purse for her bank card, and then rummaging in her purse for a piece of paper. And then she’s checking her balance, and then she’s asking for a printed payslip, and then she withdraws some cash…
I look around, appealing for a witness to unite with over the sudden rage that is now boiling in my bones. Nobody should take this long at a cash machine! Especially when people in the queue have somewhere to be and not an awful lot of time to get there. But there’s nobody around to back me up on this one, so I breathe deeply and scan the street for another cash machine. There isn’t one. I look at my phone. Time is ticking on, and it’s growing more and more difficult to feel optimistic about it.
As the machine beeps, and expels her money, the lady glances over her shoulder apologetically and says, ‘Sorry!’ with a sheepish smile.
“It’s fine!” I say cheerily, not only because I’m British, but because even in my impatient fury, I know it would be completely irrational to say anything else. I get ready to step forward when she puts the money into her purse, but I quickly notice that she isn’t actually finished! She rummages in her purse again, pulls out another bank card and another piece of paper and proceeds to repeat the whole thing again!
You’ve got to be kidding! Is this some sort of a trick? I think to myself. Is there a hidden camera? Has this whole thing been set up to test the level of tolerance amongst unsuspecting members of the general public? If there are cameras, they’re no doubt having a field day watching my pursed lips and curling fingers. I can almost hear the time lords laughing at me.
Careful planning - 1. Time optimists - 0.
Just when I’m about ready to interrupt her, to ask her how long she’s going to be, she turns around, hastily stuffing the money into her purse and steps to one side to allow me to use the machine.
“Sorry about that,” she says.
“It’s fine,” I repeat. With a smile, obviously.
“It’s for an old lady. It’s for my friend. They’ve messed up her money over Christmas and she’s so confused. She doesn’t know if she’s coming or going. I’m just trying to help her get straight again.”
And in that moment, I feel like the worst human in the world. It was for an old lady! That’s why she didn’t know her pin, and why she had so many different bank cards, and why there were so many different transactions. I am just the worst.
And for the remainder of the walk, I can’t stop thinking about it. Not just the cash point lady, but all the other instances where similar things must have happened. When people got cross or impatient with somebody else without really knowing the full picture, or the true justification for it.
I thought about the time I got taxi home from The Strand after I fainted having some travel vaccinations. I didn’t speak to the taxi driver and probably didn’t even say thank you when I got out, because all my energy was being channelled into not being sick. He might have gone home and complained about a rude passenger he had that day, who thought she was too good to even look him in the eye.
I thought about the day my mum died, when my dad and I found ourselves wandering around Sainsbury’s like zombies that evening, trying to decide what on earth to feed a mourning family. In a fluster, my dad knocked over a cardboard tray of pizzas and then told the shop assistant to pick them up. The shop assistant might have gone home that night and told his family about how rude a customer had been to him, and without knowing the full story, they might have joined in with how rude it was.
I thought about the time a man on the bus yelled at another man for playing his music too loudly, and it escalated really quickly and turned into a fight. Everyone was thinking that the first man should have just asked more politely in the first place, but what if that annoying music was the final thing to push him over the edge after a really rubbish day?
Only last week, my husband and I were in a car park and the woman in the car behind us started beeping her horn when I leapt out of the door for two seconds to close the back door properly, and then she beeped us again when we stopped to let a pedestrian walk across the zebra crossing. We rolled our eyes at her irrational impatience and joked to each other, ‘Oooh! why is she in such a hurry?’
But the truth is, we had no idea why she was in a hurry. She might have just had some terrible news, or might be rushing to an emergency, or might have been feeling really unwell.
We can’t always know what makes someone behave in a certain way, but they’re probably not choosing to be awful or annoying on purpose. Sometimes they might, but we’ll never know that, and maybe those people need to be shown a little more kindness and patience than the rest. It's a big world out there and we've all got to live in it together. What's the harm in assuming the best in people when you don't know what it's like to be in their shoes?
You’ll be pleased to know I wasn’t actually late in the end. I quickened my pace, power-walking the rest of the distance, and arrived looking like a royal hot mess. But, hey - at least I was on time. And I was reminded of a really valuable lesson.
Doubting time lords - 0. Time-optimists - 1.