My virtue is tested by Mr Ginger Beard and a bottle of Coke from WHSmith on the train

I started wondering whether there might be some retribution in store for this man. I settled on the mental image of him falling down an open manhole.

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To London, to have lunch with the children and catch up with some old friends I haven’t seen for about a year. I travel to London a lot more these days, and the Network Railcard paid for itself pretty quickly. The day is warm and I am thirsty, and I have time to buy a bottle of Coke. (A parenthesis: while there is a perfectly good independent shop about ten seconds’ walk from the station, some kind of force-field prevents me from leaving the precincts, and I go to WHSmith and pay £2.19 for a drink that generally retails at £1.10 or so. Why is this? And, more to the point, how are WHSmith actually allowed to do this?)

The train fills up a bit at Haywards Heath. Opposite me sits a man, about 30 I’d say, with ginger hair and a beard; not a hipster beard, just a, you know, beard. Pinstripe shirt, suit trousers, jacket over his arm, rucksack. He looks mildly harassed, as if he has been slightly over-promoted in middle management. I think no more of him; I sip my drink, I read my book. After a while the motion of the train induces a mild sleepiness, and I take a nap – from which I am awoken not too long afterwards by a “pschht” sound, as of that made by a one-third-drunk bottle of Coke being opened by someone sitting in a train seat diagonally opposite. I open my eyes, and there is Mr Ginger Beard, drinking from my bottle of Coke.

As I have said before, while I am genetically only a quarter-English, I was raised among the English, and have absorbed their best characteristics into the very fibre of my identity. I drink tea; I like a bit of self-deprecating humour; I love cricket. And I have absolutely no idea what to do when faced with a situation such as this.

Douglas Adams tells the story of how a complete stranger at a train station café opened, and started eating from, his packet of biscuits. “Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with,” he says. “There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your biscuits.” (When I google simply “train biscuits”, it comes up. You don’t even have to type in Adams’s name, so I suppose it’s pretty well-known by now.)

I found myself in a similar situation. On the one hand, the inclination is to do nothing. On the other hand, there is the sense of burning injustice. Inside me, something stirred; some ember of Pole, Frenchman or Jew flared back into brief life (I must get that DNA test done) and asked me whether I was a man or a mouse. Mouse, generally, but then this was clearly the worst outrage that had been perpetrated against me since that little shit Douglas Green “accidentally” pulled my shorts and undercrackers down in front of the whole school in 1971. So when Ginger Beard Man put the bottle down after his swig, I put my finger on top of the cap, looked meaningfully at him over the rim of my glasses and said, “Erm…”

He looked about him in something of a panic, said, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry”, then looked to his own rucksack and pulled, from an exterior pocket, a bottle of Coke Zero.

“Never mind,” I said, a gentle smile masking my anguish. Is he going to offer me his bottle in exchange? I wouldn’t want it, as I prefer the full-fat version, but he started drinking from it himself. And then after a while he made a phone call.

He was wearing Bluetooth headphones and was speaking hands-free, which means an even louder conversation than normal, so I got to hear ten minutes or so of a discussion about a water softener he was thinking of buying. It was as gripping as these conversations usually are, with the amazing twist in the tale – worthy of Roald Dahl himself – that he decided not to buy the water softener. So in other words, a conversation that in the end proved utterly unnecessary.

I started wondering whether there might be some retribution in store for this man. Had we been travelling to Brighton, I could have called upon divine justice to make a seagull shit on his head, but there aren’t so many seagulls in London, so instead I settled on the mental image of him falling down an open manhole. This of course rarely happens, so I entertained the possibility more in hope than expectation, but it helped pass the last ten minutes of the journey.

And then when he got up at Victoria I noticed that he had left his jacket on the seat. Wow, I thought, karma really works fast sometimes. That is seriously going to screw up his day. And then I thought: maybe he’s distracted because of bad news; maybe he is congenitally absent-minded. Maybe he is himself an instrument of Heaven, placed here to test my virtue. Also, do I really want to be that mean?

So I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Erm…” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy