Today I visited the Post Office at Ashbury. I arrived in the queue at exactly the same time as a woman with her two kids, and each of us stood back politely leaving a space in the line as if for a prior and invisible presence. “Do you want to fight for it?” she asked, meaning the empty space. I laughed and said no, and surrendered to her.
I was thus fourth in line. At the head was a very frail older woman accompanied by one I presumed to be her son. He must have been well in his sixties. She, her eighties at least.
Her space at the counter came about quite quickly, but she moved agonisingly slowly to it, pushing her empty trolley which appeared to be more for support than for any purchases. And in any case, I seriously doubted her ability to push that trolley with anything inside it. And inwardly I groaned at the prospect of a long wait.
Standing at the counter she looked like she was supported on two pins, so thin were her legs in her thick woollen trousers. Every time she needed something from her handbag which was in the trolley she had to journey around the circumference of it in order to reach the bag. Her shoes looked enormous. Her hair was thin on her scalp and her eyes looked weary. She never smiled.
Her son stepped to the side, out of view of the PO cashier and allowed his mum to do the entire transaction by herself. It was slow. Very slow.
She shuffled several sheets of paper, obviously endless, unnecessary details and regulations relating to a bill she had come to pay. How slowly she shifted from page to page before selecting one and reaching it across to the woman on the other side of the counter. She then offered a payment card—what an incredible advance in technology from the days when she, as a young housewife, presented cash to pay her first household bill from the wages her new husband brought home.
There seemed to be a problem with the payment and the cashier attempted to talk with her son. He was polite but deferred entirely to his mother as he once did when he was a boy and some stranger ruffled his hair and asked him how he was enjoying school. Now his polite refusal was entirely to preserve his mum’s independence.
Meanwhile she travelled the expanse of the shopping trolley, reached inside her cavernous handbag and retrieved some cash, maybe fifty or sixty pounds, most of a weekly pension I imagined. She once again circumnavigated the shopping trolley and handed over the money.
As the cashier began to process the payment, the woman began to reassemble herself, gathering her papers, closing her purse before finding its correct resting place in her bag. She was still busy being slow when her receipt was ready. Once again the cashier attempted to talk to her son, obviously about his mum because she kept making eyes at her as she spoke. The old, slow woman discerned they were talking about her and looked up from her tedious rearranging and flashed a look at them. It seemed to me like a look of defiance.
And then, while time passed sluggishly for me in the queue, I saw in her the young vigorous woman who once, long ago, bore this old man by her side. She was again the one whose lithe and supple back bent easily to pick him from the floor; whose strong arms pushed his pram; who cried at the separation of his first day at school; and whose breast swelled at his achievements. And I was shamed at my impatience.
And I was grateful for the serenity of the cashier who smiled throughout despite the growing queue behind.
And for the old man, her son, who cared for her so uncomplainingly and so wisely. Whose eyes betrayed his weariness at her long slow decline. How he looked apologetically at those of us in the queue who spent our time so carelessly while this tedious and ordinary drama played out in front of us. And how his eye caught my smile of encouragement. I hope he discerned my thankfulness that such small acts of love and devotion are still present and so visible even in a Post Office queue.