Sunday, 25 January 2015

One by one (by one, by one)

There's a small woman hopping up and down on my right shoulder. She looks a bit like me, but for some reason she's speaking with a gorblimey accent. She's leaning forward with an agitated air and saying into my ear: "Don't. 'E's not worth it. Walk away!"

I try to listen to her. I take a deep breath to calm myself. But it doesn't work. So I turn, and stride along the aisle, past eggs and dried fruit, in the direction taken by a young man a couple of moments ago. At the top I look left, only to see him disappear behind swinging doors into a staff-only area. I exhale, and square my shoulders.

"'E's not worth it!" hisses the mini-me again.

But I'm walking over to the door, beside which a senior-looking staff member is ticking things off a list. 

"Excuse me?"

She looks up. Beside us, an industrial-sized rotisserie splats and fizzes, turning rows of browning chickens.


It's been a good weekend, so far. I've seen friends and relaxed and felt enthusiastic about things again. In slightly giddy mood I went to Waitrose and piled my trolley full of rich, tasty food, planning to cook a big meal for my family. I thought: I am nearly well, my loved ones are all well - Grace is calm, happy and productive - January is nearly over. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Then I turned a corner and two young people, dressed in the supermarket's uniform, came towards me from the opposite direction. The young man -  jaunty walk, shoulders back - was just about to arrive at the punchline of a story that was already making his female colleague giggle. As he walked past I caught the end of his comment: ".. like a special needs one, you know? So you have to look after 'em!" His colleague smothered laughter. They walked on.

But I was stuck. A victim of a walk-by shooting in the bakery aisle. I felt like I'd been splattered against the shelves of finest organic flour. Someone was laughing at my daughter again. I felt sick and sweaty. I felt like I was overreacting. I felt like I wanted to run after that young man and shake him til his teeth rattled.

I looked at all the food in my trolley. I didn't want to eat any of it. Up popped the worried little woman on my shoulder - the one who fears being a spoilsport, a humourless, professional complainer. I batted her away. One by one, I thought. I have to keep tackling them one by one, until there are fewer people who think it's ok to make Grace an object of fun.

Thus, when the senior-looking staff member looks up and says "Yes?" - I say: "I've just overheard a member of your staff make a joke about people with special needs that I found offensive. Do you think I could speak to him?"

The woman blanches, and says very quickly that she will go and get the duty manager.

"It's just - " I begin, - "I have a daughter - "

She stops me and says: "Me too. I'll be right back."

I wait for five minutes. I still feel sick. Then two young men walk up to me. One is the duty manager, who looks very uncomfortable. One is the young man who spoke. His face is a perfect blank. He looks at me, and fixes a bland smile, and clasps his hands together.

"I would like to apologise for my comments," he tells me. "They were taken out of context."

Wait, what? Out of context?

"That doesn't sound like an apology," I retort. "Whatever is going on in your head you should not be voicing it here. Do you have any idea how upsetting it is to be here and shopping and overhear someone making a joke about that?"

Urgh. I am so very un-eloquent.

He smiles blandly at me again, and presses his hands closer together. His expression doesn't change.

"I would like to apologise for my comments," he says again.

Go on then, I think.

There's a pause.

"I have a daughter with autism," I tell him. "And I'm sure I'm not the only person in your shop right now who is living with someone who has special needs. Do you have any idea what my home life is like?"

Double-urgh. Why one earth did I say that? Why can I not explain such an uncomplicated thought. Use your words, I tell myself, as though I am four.

The duty manager is still silent. The other man smiles blandly at me again.

"I would like to apologise for my comments."

Oh, enough.

"Ok then," I say tiredly. "Thank you. Please don't do it again."

I walk away and I don't look back. I think: I don't think I did that very well. I think: That was embarrassing. Then I think of Grace, and I think how glad I was that she wasn't with me, to overhear someone walk past and mock her so blithely.

One by one. It doesn't matter if it doesn't always come out right. It just has to keep being said. Until maybe, at some point, we don't need to say it at all.

Postscript: On Monday Jan. 26 Waitrose contacted me at home after seeing this post, widely circulated on Twitter. A spokeswoman said: "These kind of comments are not expected and not allowed. We will be contacting our learning and development department to comment that this has been happening, so it can be incorporated into future programmes, and a team sent out to reiterate our policies."


  1. How does that saying go 'attack as a form of defence', is it? Poor show from the 'manager' there, but a sad insight to how people really view those who are different. I almost used the words 'who are more vulnerable', but started to question that - to be describe someone as vulnerable, we have to accept that people are at risk - that's not on, is it? Thank you for pulling that unthinking person up.

  2. Thank you for this post and for your courage in doing the right thing. "'E was worth it."

  3. So powerful and so important! Your last point summed up how I feel, perfectly: "One by one. It doesn't matter if it doesn't always come out right. It just has to keep being said. Until maybe, at some point, we don't need to say it at all."

  4. All you can do is hope that later, when the embarrassment of being called out over his behaviour passes, that young man will reflect a bit on what he said and how it felt. Hopefully, then he'll be embarrassed over having said it or even thought it. Maybe that one young man will evolve, just a little bit.

  5. Thank you for doing that. I've only done it once. At Gatwick waiting for delayed baggage on baggage return. Hideously busy. My autistic son (13 at the time) found himself some 'space' and was standing still, smiling and oblivious to all around him including 4 children aged around 8, who I watched circling him and laughing at him, their parents nowhere to be seen. I had one eye on him and one eye on the 'return' and my younger son. I did nothing til one of them dared another to go up behind him and tap him on the back and then run away. My son swung round very anxious. They walked past me laughing their heads off but I was sufficiently distanced from my son (who can't cope if I talk to strangers) to call them over. They already looked shell-shocked and guilty. I asked calmly if they'd been laughing at 'that boy over there in green'. 'No', they lied. I didn't want to frighten them but told them in no uncertain terms that I had been watching them laughing at my son and that they should never, ever again for the rest of their lives laugh at anyone, ever, who was behaving in a way different to them. Then I just said 'off you go' and waved them away. They were floored. We saw them again on the train platform, still looking quiet and a bit shocked. I do think of them and wonder if I got through to them. I like to think I might have given 4 young people something to think about for the rest of their lives. Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly felt worth trying.

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