leah mc­fall

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - NEWS -

When a stranger per­forms an act of grace ev­ery­one re­acts with com­plete sur­prise. No­body ex­pects kind­ness from a stranger.

Have you ever sat in the back row of a do­mes­tic flight? In the planes with 29 rows? I to­tally rec­om­mend it. It was def­i­nitely 29, my row. I was pleased to be at the back, as it was an evening flight and I felt like nod­ding off. It was pleas­ant to discover that I was also in­ti­mately close to ev­ery­thing the flight at­ten­dants were do­ing back there: swirling cof­fee, un­pack­ing cups, talk­ing about which shifts they pre­ferred and com­ment­ing on the pas­sen­gers.

I freak­ing love it when I don’t have to strain hard to eaves­drop; when the eaves sim­ply drop, like a tray ta­ble, into my lap.

I was early to board this par­tic­u­lar flight. I set­tled in and as the other pas­sen­gers boarded too, I re­alised there was some­one ad­vanc­ing along the aisle car­ry­ing flow­ers. I couldn’t see this per­son, or her flow­ers, but the flight at­ten­dants were keep­ing me se­ri­ously posted. “Oh, aren’t they gor­geous?” one of them mur­mured. “It must be her birthday,” ob­served the other one. “Or she’s a grad­u­ate. We’ve had lots of them to­day.” There was a pause, and then the first one said: “She’s go­ing to put them in the over­head locker. Be­cause she’s young.”

I thought about this. Would I have put flow­ers in the over­head locker, be­cause I was young? I guess so, be­cause where else would you put them, un­less you asked for spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion, which at 21, I would def­i­nitely not have done.

Wait a minute – I’d still put flow­ers in the over­head locker, prob­a­bly. Does this mean I haven’t reached emo­tional mat­u­ra­tion, even in my 40s? (I guess we’ll never know, be­cause the last time any­body bought me an em­bar­rass­ment of flow­ers was when I’d just given birth to our son, and be­fore that, our daugh­ter. If I have to have an­other kid to be given six ger­beras and some Queen Anne lace, I think I’ll tag off the bus at the next stop, driver.)

One of the at­ten­dants glided quickly down the aisle and in­ter­cepted the flow­ers, of­fer­ing to put them in the back. She’d an­tic­i­pated a need, in­ter­vened to avoid any awk­ward­ness and her ap­proach was so charm­ing, she made ev­ery­one lis­ten­ing (me) be­lieve it would be grant­ing her a favour to bur­den her with this prob­lem – the in­con­ve­nience of stor­ing an out-sized bou­quet.

Later I’d imag­ine her, hid­den be­hind the pul­lacross cur­tain, bury­ing her face in that beau­ti­ful crush of pe­onies.

When a stranger per­forms an act of grace (step­ping aside, say, in a su­per­mar­ket queue be­cause you have only two items and they have more), ev­ery­one re­acts with com­plete sur­prise. The till op­er­a­tor raises an eye­brow; the re­cip­i­ent usu­ally stammers a thank you and then scut­tles off with their gro­ceries, semi-em­bar­rassed.

No­body ex­pects un­forced kind­ness from a stranger. This is be­cause you’re no­body to them and their choos­ing to priv­i­lege you, at 2pm in Count­down, sug­gests that, in fact, they do think you have value. Your time mat­ters, who­ever you are; even though they have no idea that, in fact, you are run­ning late to col­lect your lit­tle boy from kindy and you don’t want him to be the last kid sit­ting for­lornly on the mat, wait­ing to be taken home. Now you’ve just been handed the gift of 10 min­utes.

This would have any­body blink­ing, as­ton­ished, into the light; let alone you, who has learned to have low ex­pec­ta­tions of ev­ery­body.

But the win­ner here is the per­son who let you pass. That per­son just ex­pe­ri­enced their own grace. It’s not just a nice, smug feel­ing for them; it ac­tu­ally thaws them out. It’s like an ice-shelf melt­ing into warm wa­ter, ac­tu­ally.

They’ve just dis­solved into their own soul, right there in front of the till, just be­fore they swipe their Onecard and then re­mem­ber, al­most too late, to ask for coun­cil bin bags. And that tiny mo­ment of de­frost­ing – let’s say it’s a 10-sec­ond thing – was worth the wait.

Elsa freezes ev­ery­thing be­cause she’s scared, Maddy ex­plains to me. A web of ice crys­tals spreads across the land. The ice only melts when some­one does a self­less, lov­ing thing.

Chip away, chip away. Carry a pick, and chip away.

“They’ve just dis­solved into their own soul, right in front of the till, just be­fore they swipe their Onecard and then re­mem­ber, al­most too late, to ask for bin bags.”

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