It was a chilly autumn Saturday a few days ago. I took my son, Felix, to meet a friend of mine, James, for lunch at a vegan fast food place in Hackney. To all you non-Londoners, the area is in the East End and can be a bit trendy and pretentious at times, but generally quite nice. The fast food place is called Temple of Seitan (seitan being the meat-substitute they use in their burgers), outside of which are were a few wooden tables and chairs for random people to eat whilst squashed up to one another.
The shop front is all clear glass so you can see the staff frantically serving food as the multiple hipster-type customers huddle up round the counter inside. It's a popular place as it's the only vegan fast food joint of its kind so it frequently has a line down the street.
James and I sat outside. I got Felix out of the buggy so that he could stretch his legs. He's almost 2yrs old now so being pushed around just doesn't cut it anymore! As soon as he got out he was off like a shot, running in and out of people's legs with a huge grin on his face. People around us clearly liked it too – several of whom were laughing with him and attempting baby talk.
The Temple of Seitan is on a slightly raised stretch of road and there are a couple of steps downwards about 10 feet away. Felix loves steps so I let him run to them, always keeping a close eye. He watched me for approval as he jumped up and down the steps. I gave my usual silent cheer and clap from a distance, making him smile at his achievement. He ran back to me giggling and buried his head in my lap for a cuddle, then ran to the steps again, and back and forth some more. I kept calling him over to share my fries, but he just wanted to laugh and fool around. I like to encourage this as much as possible.
At one point he ran near to the door to the Temple of Seitan that was swinging open and shut with people walking in and out. I went over to him and bent down and gave him a kiss and stroked his head, as I normally do a thousand times a day, and said "Stay away from the door Felix".
Then things took a change. I saw from the corner of my eye someone marching over from the store. I looked up and there was an angry man standing over me, probably early 30s, skinny with a beard. He hunched over me and shoved his face in mine "I've been watching you for 5 minutes!" he said aggressively, his eyes practically pressing into mine "Your child has been running all over the place bumping into people and the door almost knocked him out the way! You need to watch your child!"
I was shocked. I didn't know what to say. He stood up straight, looking down on me with such disdain as if I were filth, and turned to walk back into the shop. As I slowly stood up I could barely speak. I hate conflict. I managed to muster up some words "It's none of your business." I said, shaken. He turned around "Watch your child" he said with contempt. I looked behind him and saw about 20 people squashed together inside watching the scene. I felt humiliated. I could barely speak, but managed three more words: "How dare you," I said in a quivering, quiet voice that came out pitifully compared to his. The glass door closed behind him as he resumed his place in the queue.
I picked up Felix and sat down with him on my lap. I picked up some fries to feed him. My hand was shaking. "Are you alright?" said James. I told him I was. I gathered the strength to look at the shop window and noticed the horrible guy wasn't visible. He'd moved further down the line away from the entrance. But others were near the window and I was sure they were looking at me. Did they think I wasn't worthy of parenting? I wanted to go in and tell them that Felix is everything to me, that I would be nothing without him. I was ashamed.
I told James quietly how I felt. It was then that I noticed a lady in her 60s seated next to us, frizzy red hair and slightly plump, with what looked like her grandson. "Don't worry about him" she said to me with a Northern accent "You never know why people are the way they are. Perhaps he got abandoned as a child. Who knows? But people will always talk about things they know nothing about."
"That's true" I said, forcing a smile, "Thank you." It did mean a lot to hear her say that, to know that just one person didn't think badly of me. She changed the subject and proceeded to tell James and I about how she'd tried to make seitan once and it was a disaster. James laughed and I faked it, still with my mind elsewhere.
I noticed a couple of minutes later that the horrible man walked out of the shop with his food, looking straight ahead and not at me. I like to think he felt bad, but somehow I doubt it. In any case, I felt uncomfortable and wanted to go. I said my goodbyes to James, the lady and her grandson and pushed Felix in the buggy to the bus stop.
While we waited I felt a lump in my throat. Why had some stupid guy bothered me so much? 'That arsehole will not make me cry' I told myself, but with this defiance came anger. Felix started to moan about sitting in the buggy. "Just wait, Felix!" I snapped. I felt bad and I stroked his head. "We'll be home soon" I said. We boarded the bus.
When we got home Felix was happy as usual, crawling all over his granddad and running around the house. He ran into the hallway to play with his toy car on the wooden floor and I was alone with my dad in the living room. I told myself I wasn't going to give what happened another moment's thought, but I couldn't help myself.
"Something really unpleasant happened to me." I said. My dad averted his gaze from the TV to me. "Oh?" he said, concerned. I told him what happened. "Everyone in the shop was looking" I said, "They thought I was a bad paren…"
That's when the lump in my throat grew, the words stopped and I cupped my face in my hands. I cried.
"Don't listen to him" my dad said in a soft voice. He went on to tell me about how people sometimes feel they need to put others down in order to raise themselves up and gain a moral high ground. "You're a good dad" he said. This was what I needed to hear, and it calmed me down.
Okay, so I met an idiot who upset me. But because of him I also met a lovely lady and her grandson. She didn't need to talk to me but she saw I was upset and she spoke. It may have only been a momentary distraction, but it was a distraction nonetheless, and exactly what I needed at the time.
So thank you, lady with the frizzy red hair, wherever you are.