Friday, 11 June 2010

The Cruelty Of Strangers

I’m sweating in the oppressive heat of the underground on my way from Angel to Kensington Olympia. I’m on the first leg of my journey on the Northern line on the way to Kings Cross and I have just sat down. Almost immediately, I have the misfortune to hear the guy wearing sunglasses sitting beside me loudly say: “Gays should be put in line and shot. They’re disgusting”. This remark is said without any shame in the kind of voice intended to be heard by all around, inviting controversy. His friend opposite heartily agrees before the original imbecile goes on to theorise: “Being born gay is bollocks – come on, do you see two year old boys trying to make out?” I struggle to ignore the temptation to respond to this ludicrous line of argument and manage by internalising my rant.

This is the fourth thing I have heard or witnessed in one day to shake my faith in humanity and genuinely shock, surprise or disgust me. Earlier in the day I encountered a child arguably more unfortunately named than God’s Promise. Who names their son Endurance? Calling the register, I struggled to stifle a smirk, immediately thinking of condoms and later of the Japanese game show. Towards the end of the same lesson, I stopped another student from walking out of the class. When asked where they were going, they cockily informed me they needed to fart and could they please leave the room. A few hours on and another child I have expressly told to stay put abandons ship. I go to challenge him but a learning support assistant stops me and calls me over to tell me she has given him permission because he needs to "break wind" and this isn’t something I want to witness. I don’t remember fellow students ever pre-empting such an event while I was at school or recall ever encountering this request in the five years that I was teaching in Leeds. I’m sure the accepted approach was to hope for a “silent but violent” variety and cause class uproar while strongly denying any involvement – there was none of this unabashed pre-admittance and this class avoidance technique was unheard of.

Leaving Victoria train station early one Sunday night slightly bleary eyed I saw what appeared to be a man hosing down the pavement. As he got nearer to me, I narrowly missed the projectile stream of urine. The sight of men peeing against a wall is fairly commonplace but not a man walking in broad day light seemingly sober towards a crowded train station with his flaccid dick out, weeing as he moves. I was horrified and things seemed to have reached an all time low. If I had been in India this everyday sight would have been no more shocking than seeing a woman squat in the street or someone pooing in the slums and beyond. Obviously things deemed unacceptable in one culture are the norm in another – in the UK abandoned dog turd incurs a fine, whereas horses seem to live by a whole different set of rules but if we were in Hungary you wouldn’t bat an eyelid if a horse trotted past wearing a giant diaper.

Being called fat in India is often intended as a compliment, suggesting wealth and good health. The Nigerian guy in Malaysia who told me I was a “big girl” had intended to woo me, rather than mortify me. If someone in England was to call you “fat” or a “big girl” defences would go up and they would be judged as rude. Yet, in the last month and a half, two rather distressing encounters have occurred. Browsing the sales rack in Primark, I was flabbergasted when a woman looked at me and told me “You’ll never fit that over your bump.” Completely startled and far too polite to retaliate, my face flushed and my internal monologue began. This woman was the kind who in age had retained a trim figure and had obviously enjoyed the sun bed throughout her life. She clearly persisted in buying clothes far too tarty or young for her age and was pawing a skimpy tight-fitting mini dress as she gave me this uncalled for and frankly unnecessary advice. It was only weeks later telling the story to my sister, that we formulated the perfect come back – I am aware I do not have the figure of a model but at least my skin fits me.

Having survived such pleasant commentary from an aged skank, I should have been prepared for my next shock. Talking to a hotel receptionist in Bristol, a rather rotund fellow guest listening in unasked decided to share his opinions about our destination and then proceeded to ask me: “Do you have a bump?” Initially oblivious of his meaning, I looked to me knees thinking that perhaps I had unknowingly knocked them. As I began to look back up, the penny dropped and that same characteristic rosiness returned. Once again too stunned to speak and too polite to retort, it wasn’t until days later we decided I should have asked him if he was hungry.

A few days ago on the radio, I listened to stats claiming most people worry about giving up a seat on a bus or train for a seemingly pregnant woman for fear of getting it wrong and causing offence. Since my travels, I am fully aware I need to get back in shape but pregnant! It is just my luck to have met the few individuals who manage to fall outside these statistics. A steady build-up of these disturbing encounters has left me severely doubting humanity. I am in serious need of a door holder, bag carrier or “bless you” to remind me such individuals are thankfully in the minority.

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