Does it really matter?

"To err is human, to forgive divine" - who said that? Sounds like Alexander Pope to me, that poet of proportion. Anyway, it makes me think of a small Yorkshireman in a small car. And of a Scottish woman called Harriet.

Thirty years ago I was living on a farm in North Yorkshire, England. One day I parked my Ford Transit van in the marketplace of the nearest town. Once I'd finished distributing posters for the local drama club, I hopped back up into the driver's seat, shifted into reverse ... backed ... and then, unaccountably, I met resistance. I accelerated. The resistance held.

I slid the door open, and headed for the back of the van. And there was the small Yorkshireman in his small car. And there also was a disproportionate concavity in his car's front wing (fender).

"I had no idea you were there," I said.

Yorkshiremen are famous for blunt speaking rather than a ready forgiveness. But he just smiled. "It doesn't matter," he said. "The wife just popped into t'shop yonder."

"B-but - you'd better have a look!"

"Nay," he said, still smiling, "I'll fix it when I git 'ome."

"It's quite a dent."

But he wouldn't budge. All I could do, finally, was thank him effusively for being so remarkably nice.

This was about three decades ago, and I've never forgotten that forgiving man.

I thought of him again recently here in Glasgow, Scotland, where I now live, and where I am a member of another drama club.

Although I could carry most of the props I'd gathered for our next play in my car, I couldn't fit in the bed frame, bed ends, mattresses, and pillows. Some of these items were borrowed from a friend and some from the Territorial Army. The T.A. is Britain's volunteer military force. Harriet is in charge of miscellaneous equipment in our local T.A. center, and she lends items to drama clubs.

Since my car was too small, I requested that another member of the club ask Matt for assistance. We regularly employ Matt and his truck to transport scenery from clubhouse to theater and back. Matt is the salt of the Glasgow earth. He is bluff and self-confident, and he willingly collected the bedding and delivered it to the theater.

I have had long, pleasant conversations with Matt. But then something unpredictable happened after our final performance. He didn't turn up. Another club member phoned him. He reported back that Matt would come right over.

When he arrived, I asked if he'd load the bedding items first, as they would be returned to their owners the next day. Everything else would be dropped at the club rooms beforehand. I also offered to meet him the next day and help deliver the bedding.

"Just write it all on a piece of paper," Matt said. But when I later handed him the piece of paper in the club's driveway, he suddenly turned on me. "You'd better change your attitude," he said loudly, his face red, "or I'll never do this job again."

I was flabbergasted.

I retreated into the clubhouse. Paola was in the kitchen. We decided Matt might like a cup of tea. Paola offered to take him one. "We'll deliver it together," I said.

It seemed to do the trick. Later, he seemed more amiably disposed toward me. "I do this job all the time," he said with a grunt by way of explanation. "I know what to do."

But I was baffled - and I found it hard to forgive and forget the incident.

During the next few days he did deliver most of the bedding back to its owners. But Harriet at the T.A. said he hadn't returned the pillows or the mattress cover. I was extremely apologetic. "Don't worry about it," she said. "Don't make a drama out of it."

I found the pillows at the club. But the mattress cover must still have been in Matt's truck. About a week later someone discovered that Matt had thrown it out.

I phoned Harriet, armed with embarrassed apologies. I offered to pay for the lost cover. "Och," she said, "don't you worry your head. And don't you go slanging off the driver, either. And don't think this means you can't borrow stuff from us again. It's not a drama. Nobody's died."

I thought she was just using an expression. But when I returned the pillows a few days later, there was a bus outside the T.A. center unloading military personnel, sun-bronzed and immaculately uniformed. The usually empty street was awash with women, children, cameras, and jubilation.

When I handed Harriet the pillows, she said: "You've come at a very special moment. I'm glad to have the pillows back. But I'm far happier to see these guys back safely. They're just home from serving in Iraq."

She didn't even mention the mattress cover.

Forgiveness is a proportion thing. Missing mattress covers, dents in cars, unwarranted insults - what do they possibly matter in the larger scale of things?

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