Monday 10 December 2018

Sorrowful mystery

By David Medcalf

It must be the most over-used word in the English language as it is spoken in Ireland.


I bumped into darling Hermione the other day as she came out the door of the dining room of Medders Manor just as I was shambling in.

'Sorry.' 'Sorry.' We both said it, more or less simultaneously. No one had been hurt. No one dropped a precious heirloom as a result of this most gentle of collisions. No time was lost, no plans derailed, no buttons popped.

Looking back at the encounter, I actually found the accidental, glancing, gentle physical contact with a loved one was, if anything, more pleasurable than unpleasant. Dearest Hermione gave no indication that she was left in any sense distressed or traumatised or intimidated by the experience.

So what the hell were we sorry about?

She continued on her cheerful way, intent on shining the light of her infinite charm into some other part of the house while I pottered on from the point of impact in search a mislaid magazine. An article had appeared in one of the weekend supplements which I particularly wished to read concerning the diet of the lesser horseshoe bat.

But I found my mind wandering from the magazine and the bat and the threat to its existence posed by the decline in the number of insects. I was distracted by what had occurred in the doorway. Though we both said it, had we been sorry at all? What did we have to be sorry for?

There have been times - far too many of them - when I have had good reason to be sorry for my abject behaviour towards my esteemed and adored spouse. For I am the miserable sinner who forgot our anniversary, who scraped the paintwork on her car door, who served merlot red to our guests when sauvignon white was the obvious accompaniment to her immaculately baked salmon.

When I tendered apologies on each of these occasions, my 'I am sorry' carried the ring of contrition and came with a commitment to try to do better the next time.

Being sorry when someone dies is natural. Being sorry when found to be in the wrong may, if all else fails, persuade the judge passing sentence to knock a few months off. Being sorry for loss endured or for misdeeds committed marks us as potentially decent, fallible human beings.

On the other hand, being sorry for grasping a packet of broccoli at the same time as another customer in the supermarket deep freeze section is not necessary. Nor is being sorry for sneezing (farting is a different matter), or for wearing black shoes while everyone else has brown sandals. Yet we all do it.

It seems to be deeply ingrained instinct to say sorry - truly a sorrowful mystery, perhaps a habit born of colonial days when apologising promptly and frequently seemed like a good idea in the face of oppressive authority.

'I am so sorry, Lord Bletheringsop, for being on the public road when you knocked me down with your coach and four. I am so sorry you had to see my broken leg. I am so sorry you will now have the bother of evicting me and my family as I am clearly no longer able to do a day's work on your estate. I am so, so sorry for my miserable, pitiful, unwanted existence.'

I have taken to counting sorries: 'Thank you for the lovely lunch. Do you know that you said sorry 15 times in the past hour and a half? There really was no need to apologise for forgetting have sugar tongs in the sugar bowl. Or for the green towel in the toilet which clashed so luridly with the blue paintwork.' I wonder why we have not been invited back.

The time has come to work on some alternatives to the sorry - because perfectly serviceable alternatives exist. Next time I cause some oncoming pedestrian to waver six inches off course to allow me pass on the footpath, I shall suppress the urge to say sorry. Instead, I must react by saying 'I beg your pardon' or 'excuse me' as I veer six inches the other way. Save sorry for situations where there is genuine cause for sorrow.

Wexford People

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