When I was at junior school one of my fellow pupils and arch-rivals was a small motherless child called Tanya who was the youngest member of a large noisy family which usually had one or two members detained at her Majesty’s pleasure at any one time. She regularly arrived at school fairly dishevelled in her sisters’ scruffy hand-me-downs and spent most of her time asleep on her desk where for the most part she remained undisturbed by the teachers. We had eyed each other warily on the very first day of term and since then there had been an air of antagonism between us.
I had a severe attack of the green-eyed monster when my mother at the bus stop one afternoon invited her to tea as if she were one of my best friends. I pleaded with her to withdraw the invitation but she was adamant and scolded that if I couldn’t be a gracious host I could remain in my room until it was bath time so begrudgingly I joined in the tea party pulling faces at Tanya whenever the opportunity presented itself and the old dear wasn’t looking. Naturally, I was too young to realise that this unloved child’s animosity was merely a shield against the harsh world in which she lived.
Imagine my disappointment when Tanya became a regular visitor for tea at Dyson Abbey. Despite this she was no less hostile with me even when I was forced to share my toys and meals with her and to add insult to injury she was always given a bag filled with my mother’s homemade baking treats such as butterfly cakes or maids of honour to take home with her.
Of course, what my seven-year old heart couldn’t understand was that my wise old mum knew this poor child was sorely in need of a good meal and it would be unlikely her proud family would accept charity so by inviting her for tea each week she was ensuring that this small neglected youngster would have not only a substantial meal but also for a short while a little compassion which was otherwise lacking in her young life.
Unfortunately, for Tanya her circumstances changed when her wayward father was incarcerated once again but on this occasion social services stepped in and just as fast as they started our shared afternoon teas came to an abrupt end as Tanya was despatched to live with a distant relative a few miles away.
It wasn’t until many years later that whilst queuing up at a supermarket checkout as a young twenty-something the woman in front of me said that she knew me and it took a while for me to realise I was standing in front of my old adversary, Tanya. We exchanged rather formal pleasantries but as she finished her transaction at the till, she made to walk away but then turned around and surprised me by saying “thank your mum for me, I’ve never forgotten her kindness; those tea parties with the delicious cakes and trifles were the only thing I had to look forward to back then”. And just as quickly she was gone from my life for the second time.
I cringed as I walked home reprimanding myself for being so mean-spirited and as I walked past a gift shop window I noticed a hand-painted sign which was part of the pretty shabby chic display. It simply said “Kindness begins with me“. It was inevitable that I bought it and it still hangs in my kitchen as a constant reminder that a simple act of kindness is like your fingerprint on the world and years later you can still hear its echo if you listen very carefully.