Friday, 25 May 2012

Sunshine & Strangers

I smile at people I don’t know.  I chat with strangers in a shop or park without a moment’s hesitation. So does my Mum so it could be genetic.  But my British friends tell me it’s more commonly an Australian characteristic; due to the relaxed feeling sunshine, board-shorts and thongs (aka flip-flops) create.  Personally I think they’ve watched too much Neighbours and Home and Away, but I take their point. We all tend to be more approachable and light-hearted when the sun is shining. 

There are exceptions of course: good humour doesn’t reign in New York when the temperatures soar.  Indeed the city gets so aggressive, summer is the only season I won’t visit.  Well, not since a lady pulling five dogs in conflicting directions across the pavement, wound me in multiple leads until I tripped and fell into a pile of construction rubble.  In the debilitating heat neither the lady, the dogs or anyone else bothered to help me up.  So I struggled in vain to brush off the dust and stem the flow of blood.  Ok, they were only scrapes on my arms, but they hurt!  And I wanted sympathy!  Or at least some manners! 

Shortly after, I found myself locked out of the apartment I’d borrowed on W72nd St, wearing a tank top, no bra, high-heeled sneakers (yes, they were fashionable at the time), and a pair of shorts so skimpy that anywhere outside Central Park I looked like a hooker.  Indeed if a man in a Homer Simpson t-shirt hadn’t taken pity on me as night fell (my wallet also locked in the apartment) I might have slept under one of Manhattan’s famous bridges.  Instead the gentle Long Island Dentist took care of me until my aberrant flat-mate picked up her messages and came to fetch me.  

My point is that I’ve met many kind strangers in my travels.  Sweet people who’ve given me directions, comforted me after a robbery, or provided somewhere to sleep when I found myself homeless.  Once, for example, I missed the last flight out of Charles de Gaulle on route to visit my brother in Albi, near Toulouse.  I was skint and had no choice but to crash in the airport lounge until morning.  Another passenger who’d missed his flight, heard my distress and insisted I be chaperoned to the closest Airport Hotel - where he promptly booked and paid for a room up the corridor from him and his five-year-old son, and then invited me to join them for a late supper.  I didn’t know this German gentleman until the moment he extended his hand in friendship.  He didn’t put the hard word on me.  He was just a genuinely good person.  (Ok, later he put the hard word on me.  But that was after we had stayed in touch, gone on a few dates, and he’d made me a rather unexpected proposal of marriage… so that’s another story. )   

At any rate, when the sun came out gloriously in London this week I had hopes of burgeoning bonhomie.  I’m afraid, however, that after just one innings my score with strangers hit an all time low. 

I lay in the grass in Marble Hill Park for a couple of hours on Tuesday, longing to feel the sun on my freckled skin.  Mooching to a riverside pub about 6pm, I found it crowded with a terrifically ebullient atmosphere.  Lucky to score a bench-seat with my back to the wall on a medium-sized balcony, I contentedly sipped a pint of lager.  With papers spread on the table before me I began to do some work, but regularly my gaze settled on the river.  I was immensely happy and the world seemed innocent.  

Anon a man came and stood beside me. I felt him staring. When he asked if he could rest his glass on the edge of my table I replied: “certainly, no problem”.  The slightly drunk and scruffy chap tried to engage me in conversation.  We exchanged pleasantries but instinct told me to keep it short.  Then he announced (ask would be a stretch) “move your bag so I can sit there beside you”.  My skin crawled as the seat was only big enough to share with someone with whom one wanted to be cosy.  I suggested: “please feel free to take the chair from here (on my left) and move it to where you’re standing if you’d like to sit down.”  He grumbled but pulled it around to my right.  A few minutes later, seated at my table, he interrupted with: “are you a school teacher or something?”  (I find it strange but, the world over, if you take work with you into a pub people always say that… ask any freelancer who needs to temporarily escape his/her four walls.)  When I looked quizzical he added: “don’t worry, I’m not trying to pick you up. I’ve got plenty of women…”.  “Yes and I’m Henry VIII”, I thought to myself.

Some quiet bliss followed; only to be disturbed by him blowing smoke in my direction.  I hate smoking.  Yet as it’s less common Down Under than in Europe, Australian’s who smoke usually have good etiquette.  After several puffs in my face I said: “excuse me, but would you please be kind enough to exhale in the other direction… as I really don’t like smoking”.  In my world of manners I absolutely expected an apology.  He’d joined my table after all.  What I got instead was a scowl and reports about how many women were desperate to sleep with him.  This pock-faced, short man was clearly delusional.

Alarms bells should have started ringing when he subsequently conducted a conversation on his mobile about a friend who had (only) six weeks left in gaol.  Yet I was well into the throws of my work and wanted to complete it before indulging in a second pint and risk losing my coveted position.

Eventually an acquaintance engaged him in conversation.  Moving to my left and pulling at the remaining chair to prepare to sit he said: “can I sit here love, do you mind?”  In the exact moment I looked up the new guy blew smoke in my face, and the following words tumbled from my mouth: “actually, as you’ve asked so nicely, I’m afraid I do mind.  I really don’t want to be sandwiched between two smokers… could you perhaps move the chair from there to the other side, so as to speak to your friend without having to lean over me?”  He was stumped for a moment, processing this request, but then began, to my relief, to do just that.  I started to say “thankyou for asking so politely, I do appreciate it…”, but Mr Pock-face with the mate in goal and an abundance of lovers, dived into the void and began to exorcise his demons.   

In increasing volume he abused me with insults such as “slag”, “bitch” and “f**king scrubber”.  The other chap tried once to quieten him, then stuttering “sorry, I didn’t mean this to happen”, pushed through the crowd to make a quick getaway.  Ordinarily I’d stand up for myself, but I was stunned by the bitter surprise and force of the little man’s aggression. And he simply wouldn’t stop.  There was nowhere to move without coming physically closer to him, so after a failed attempt to reason I quickly realized further attempts would only make it worse.  I sank into the table and feverishly drained my beer.  He stood over me, railing against me, Australians in general, and all f**ing women until I could no longer contain an overflow of tears.  He mocked me then, throwing insults over his shoulder even as he pushed his way through the crowd, down the stairs and out onto the street.  People stared.  Conversations stopped.  No-one offered comfort, assistance or comment.

Then the uncomfortable moment passed and the happy hordes went back to their own business.  I was alone.  Mortified and shocked that abuse of this nature could be hurled at a woman without a single person doing anything to stop it.  That is an ugly side of our world unfortunately; people’s failure to step up.  And the weight of that, against the beauty of the sunset and the sanguine peace of the day, was a heavy load. 

I gathered my things, made my way out the opposite side of the pub, and then burst fulsomely into tears and cried for twenty minutes.  I felt horrible for a few hours in fact; all the time knowing the jerk wasn’t worth it, but struggling to throw off the cruelty.

The White Swan in St Margarets used to be my local.  We’ve carved fond memories, so the belligerent loser won’t stop me going back.  But it certainly put a dint in my enjoyment of the sunshine. 

Perhaps this kind of experience makes one more grateful for positive encounters?

Perhaps I attract strays and am bound, therefore, to get the occasional mutant? 

Perhaps it was random and I shouldn’t over-analyse? 

I am reminded, anyway, of a phrase repeated by so many it’s hard to correctly attribute authorship: “don’t let the bastards get you down”.  

Not when the splendid summer is finally arriving and there are more potentially kind strangers around the corner…