I’m reading a new book – big surprise there to anyone who knows me. It’s got so that if people in my office find a stray book lying around, they leave it on my desk because they assume by default that it’s mine. Nine times out of ten they’re right.
But this is a book by Rachel Joyce, called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I had no idea what it was about but I bought it because my mum recommended it. Reading it over my dinner tonight (nothing, but nothing, beats a solitary meal, good music on the stereo, the end of the working week, and a good book), I was struck by one paragraph. The protagonist, Harold, an elderly man on an unlikely pilgrimage, is meeting and talking to strangers. This is his experience upon talking to a silver-haired gentleman with an unusual and secret problem, with whom he has just shared teacake:
Harold sat in silence. The silver-haired gentleman was in truth nothing like the man Harold had first imagined him to be. He was a chap like himself, with a unique pain; and yet there would be no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a cafe and did not share his teacake. Harold pictured the man on a station platform, smart in his suit, looking no different from anyone else. It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that. Moved and humbled, he passed his paper napkin.
The weights we all carry. The hundred thousand pains and joys and fears and nobilities we all carry within ourselves. I may be the only one in the choir who knows what an empty wine bottle to the face feels like; but I’m not the only one to know fear, or anger, or loneliness, or grief, or the crippling small weight of my own vulnerability. Every single person I sing with tomorrow, every single person I see tomorrow, knows those things. And possibly, we all think that we’re alone in that. Maybe sometimes we need a reminder of the fact that we’re not.
If my consumption of teacake will help with that, then I’m happy to make the sacrifice. Or even caramel slice.