Tuesday night I was well and truly picked up. It takes a lot to embarrass me, but there are times when you want to turn the clock back and avoid what just happened.
Filling up with diesel at the Tesco station, I went in to pay. I scanned the card for fuel and two cartons of milk. Returning to the door, I paused to look at the item on the shelf. At this point the cashier said “push the button”. Since I was the only person in the store and without looking, I reached out and did exactly what he offered. A millisecond later the fire alarm went off.
People dived back into their cars, trying to overcome hell in front of the yard, but hell, of course, was not, because there was no fire. The cashier jumped up from behind the counter, explaining to me when he pointed out the window, “Listen, buddy, I told him to push the button on the pump, not you.”
He grabbed the phone and called Tesco headquarters and explained that it was a false alarm because I saw a vision of a fleet of fire engines rushing towards us. People on the street sighed with relief, and one person who came to the rescue told me, “Unauthorized deployment of fire alarms could lead to criminal prosecution.” I wanted to tell him where he could put his fire extinguisher.
The walk back to the car was one of the longest I had. It was only about 10 meters, but every step seemed a mile. The muttering began. Something like “Was this clown on TV?” There was no point in explaining what I thought I was told to press. Sometimes the less you say, the better. I discovered this many years ago. I was sent to interview a famous figure in the art world. I won’t mention his name to avoid further embarrassment other than to say that although I was a big fan of his work, I didn’t realize he was tiny.
When I entered the room, I immediately noticed that he was about 4 feet 8 inches, and instead of ignoring this surprise, I allowed myself to shake his hand and immediately comment on his height. At the last second, not to say, “Hi, wow, I thought you were taller,” I tried to fix myself in the middle and make him feel better, so I actually said, “Hi, wow, I thought you were smaller “.
He looked at me as if I had something stuck to his shoe. You really know if you have a mess with the introduction. This feeling of regret penetrates your bones. You want to rewind and start again, but then it’s too late.
Intentions are often good, but delivery is a disaster. So it was when I was sitting in an empty chapel in Belfast. A colleague went to the parish house to arrange an interview. I sat alone on the bench and stared at the tabernacle. Suddenly a very old and frail woman touched me on the shoulder and said, “Father, can I have a blessing?” I had to explain that I was not a priest, but in a moment mixed with generosity and madness, I made the sign of the cross over her head and she went happy. A second later I heard a voice say, “Have you just blessed her?” My friend came back and I didn’t understand. I was beet red. “Even I miss you,” he said, falling into his seat with a laugh.