I am not always very good at keeping my mouth shut. Once, a very, very long time ago, I was briefly and most unjustly, detained in what was then called a ‘remand home’. On the first morning, after a dismal and meagre breakfast, all us ‘girls’ were marched off to ‘lessons’ which took place in a vast and chilly hall.
One of the instructors – I hesitate to use the word ‘teacher’ – began castigating a girl, somewhat older and tougher than I was, for her stubborn refusal to read aloud. She was a poor reader and, after a stilted and obviously painful beginning, she had dried up completely.
The instructor was a thin, hard-faced looking woman with a neat, pleated, plaid skirt and a nice line in sarcasm. For a time, I watched her torment her victim whose faces burned an angry red. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I stood up and spoke out.
‘You can’t talk to her like that,’ I said, and I really believed it. There was a terrible hush as all the other girls looked a me. I saw quite plainly the horror in their eyes.
After the briefest of pauses, the outraged instructor turned her attention to me. I was left in no uncertainty as to the contempt in which I was held and soon I, too, was flushed in the face and very close to tears. I was given a book containing some simple comprehension exercises and sent to work alone in a corner. I was not to to speak or be spoken to for the remainder of the morning session.
I though about this incident the other day when I had occasion to ‘speak out’ again. The context was a very different one but, once again, I could very easily have found myself wondering whether it might not have been better just to bite my lip. The trouble is that I never really stop to consider the possible consequences and, one day, this might well be my undoing. This is what happened one Sunday morning on the way to a visit to Heartlands.
David and I were on our way to an open mic event at the Red River cafe. The day was chilly but bright and we were in a good mood as we strode across the car park. David, eager for his promised breakfast, was a step or two ahead. We were still carrying on a conversation as I followed behind.
As we approached one vehicle, a man opened the driver’s door and came round to the rear of the car intent on opening the boot. As he did so, David and I passed by and David’s arm very lightly brushed his elbow. The ‘collision’ had been so inconsequential that David himself was not aware of it and he did not see, as I did, the man’s features twist into an expression of angry indignation, as he turned round to confront, not David, but me since I was following behind.
The man, who was, I would guess, in his late twenties or early thirties, emitted some dark mutterings. These were clearly directed at me but the sense of them I could not understand. I stopped in my tracks, pulling up short, and turned round and looked him.
‘Sorry?’ I said. My tone was questioning. My demeanour expressed surprise and bewilderment.
‘Don’t mind me,’ he he snarled nastily. ‘I’m just getting to my car.’
‘It was nothing,’ I told him in disbelief at his manner, ‘and I’m sure that nothing was meant by it.’
‘Well,’ he said, downright surly now, ‘you could see I wanted to open my boot.’
‘We were merely following the path,’ I said. I was still struggling to understand why he was so angry. ‘You are, I am afraid, a very rude and aggressive young man.’
This was the point at which, I suppose, he might have produced a knife. David pointed this out to me a short while later. He might have had a knife and he might have used. Sadly, such things have happened. On this occasion, though, what happened was this: he bowed his head and looked suddenly ashamed.
Perhaps he had realised that, in front of his wife and his three young children, he was being very rude and unnecessarily aggressive to a couple of older people whose only ‘offence’ had been to pass too close to the boot of his car. I wondered whether they were about to go shopping. The car park was close by Tesco Extra. Tesco Extra is crowded at that time on a Sunday. Bloodshed could have been the result.