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1 June 2016

She is a beauty and he a beast; I can’t not intervene

I’ve got to say something before the train doors open. But what?

By Nicholas Lezard

So I’m sitting on the Tube, on those mini-banquettes on the Bakerloo Line that, excitingly, run transversely to the line of travel. (To those poised to take to their laptops and complain that I have once again written about London, I should explain that I don’t really live anywhere else.)

A young man and a woman get on the train together. They are, clearly, a couple. The woman is gorgeous, a timeless, fresh beauty, of the sort that would have graced any era, whether in a wimple or an ATS uniform during the Second World War. The man has some very carefully arranged sandy hair combed in what we may call the Modern Brideshead style (too aggressive to be foppish but getting there), an expensive-looking sports jacket and, very prominently, a wristwatch that wants to suggest that it, too, did not come cheap. They sit down opposite each other and he rests his foot on the seat opposite him, next to her.

I have only two stops to go and am feeling not at my best – it’s noon – but I find my mind galloping into action. I have to say something, that much is clear. This is an outrage that cries to Heaven for vengeance but Heaven has other things to worry about these days and I realise that I have been appointed as the representative of divine justice, whether I like it or not.

Englishmen in general and Londoners in particular will know that saying anything on public transport other than “tsk” or issuing a loud sigh is the equivalent of the nuclear option and the trick is to come up with some elegant formula, as opposed to: “Get your feet off the seat, you prick.” (I would be most interested to hear what the etiquette is in other parts of these islands.)

A few factors have helped me come to this decision. They are clearly a couple (in their early twenties) but, as he talks, he does not look at her. Who would not look at her? Her very carriage and address have made me consider that maybe there is a God after all, and her face is like the coming of spring. He is not ugly himself, with perhaps a bit too much of the equine about the face, but it is not uninteresting. Unfortunately, he seems to know it. She, though, is looking adoringly at him. It becomes clear from their respective accents that he is of a higher social class than her. I use the word “higher” through gritted teeth. Again, he knows it.

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After one stop, I decide that this is what I will do. I will go up to him and say, “Two pieces of advice. One: never let her go. Two: don’t put your feet on the seat.” As I decide on this, I notice that he has now ground the sole of his foot more firmly into the seat opposite, so as to transfer any dirt that may rest there – and, this being London, be assured that there will be dirt – all the more efficiently into the fabric.

This has gone beyond the nonchalance his earlier posture was designed to affect; this is an act of aggressive selfishness. I decide that I should not address him but her, to give her the agency, not him, to offer her some helpful advice and not to waste it on this Morlock. For though he may be dressed as an Eloi, Morlock he is, at heart and in essence.

One has to time these things carefully and, as the train pulls into Oxford Circus, I stand by the doors. They take a few seconds longer than usual to open and, although my exterior is placid, my brain is as focused as a safe cracker’s. My nerves are as chilled steel and only a slight throb in the temple betrays any pressure. As the doors open, I lean over to the woman and murmur, not quite loudly enough for the man to hear, “Never trust a man who puts his feet on the seats on public transport,” and then make my escape, at perhaps slightly greater speed than normal, in case the doors stay open rather too long and the man wishes to take issue with what I have said. As I leave, I am very gratified to hear a peal of feminine laughter and I suspect that the unravelling of her relationship to this beast has now begun.

But my mind goes back to my first draft. “Never let her go.” How often does the man hear this advice and regret not taking it?

Interestingly, I once heard it, when an ex of mine (mentioned, many moons ago, in this column, under the pseudonym of the Lacanian) met another potential ex and later texted me with the words: “Don’t let her go.”

Actually, that “once” is somewhat misleading. I  mean “last week”. We may well return to this story. It’s  quite a good one, I think you’ll find.

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This article appears in the 25 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad