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27 May 2016

When do you step in when a stranger is in distress?

Methodically, he lined up four cans of beer, spirit miniatures and a glass of wine, and got to work on them. In a very British way, I pretended to ignore it.

By Mark Watson

A little while ago I was on a commuter train during rush hour – on my way to a show somewhere in the Home Counties – when a man got on and sat next to me. In appearance he was just like the sort of businessman you’d expect on these trains: a middlingly expensive suit; short, neat hair; an iPad on which he was surely planning to open a spreadsheet, close it again, and catch up on Game of Thrones instead.

But when the drinks trolley came round it became obvious that all was not well. My new companion – whom I’d barely glanced at – ordered enough booze to kill an elephant. Methodically, he lined up four cans of beer, a couple of spirit miniatures and one of those depressing glasses of wine with a foil lid that you have to peel back. He began drinking them, one at a time, with absolute joylessness. He was clearly trying to usher himself into something as close to oblivion as possible. Plenty of people have felt like this on the outskirts of Stevenage before. Yet I couldn’t help worrying – and all the more so when I noticed he was red-eyed and seemingly on the point of tears.

Everybody else was studiously, Britishly ignoring his behaviour, but I’m a citizen of the world and so I took the more moral approach: pretending to ignore it while sneakily checking out the texts he was sending. They painted a bleak picture. He’d split up with his girlfriend. I don’t like to come across as some sort of voyeur, but her name was Becky, she lived in Guildford, and she had broken his heart. The tone of his texts was somewhat apocalyptic.

I was faced with a classic human dilemma: how much should we poke our nose into each other’s lives? I responded with a classic human decision: to do nothing until he stumbled off the train at Knebworth, and then exchange wry glances with everyone around.

A few months later I glanced at a newspaper and saw that recently a man had jumped on to train tracks, killing himself, very close to where we’d been. My heart froze for what felt like a few seconds. I made myself look at the picture.

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It wasn’t the same man. It was a mere coincidence. It felt like a happy ending, in fact, until I reminded myself that it was still a very sad one.

How would I have felt, though, if it had been the same man? Appallingly guilty, I think. Even though I probably had no chance of changing the way things were for him, it would have felt as if I’d shirked my duty to another human being. Yet if I see another distressed commuter on today’s train (to Sheffield) will I make the effort to overcome personal diffidence and social taboos, and utter the question: “Are you all right?” I want to believe that I will. But a part of me suspects I’ll do the same as last time: observe from afar, let the situation take care of itself and hope that one day there might be a column in it.

This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster