It’s Sunday morning as I write this (though I think it will likely be Tuesday before I post it) and I am, to put it mildly, quite irritated. Possibly I’d go so far as to say I’m angry. And frankly my state of vexation is over something so petty that I should be able to rise above it.
But I can’t. And I doubt I ever will. Although the moment that has put me in this mood was a matter of a few seconds, it will continue to haunt me for many months, possibly years to come. Oh, I’ll get over it. But every now and again the moment will wander uninvited back into my thoughts and I will, if only for a few moments, once again be a mass of seething rage.
But let us go back in time, to the hours that precede the event in question, for it was turning out to be quite a pleasant morning. Little Proclaims and I were out and about for our usual weekend morning jaunt. Boredom has dictated that rather than heading to the playpark across the road, we drive to different parts of Reading and find almost identical playparks. It’s mainly my boredom that has dictated this, but Little Proclaims appreciates a different swing every now and again too.
So today we ventured to a part of town that I’d not actually been to for a couple of years. It’s quite a nice middle class bit of the world, albeit with facilities that are somewhat dated. An example of this would be the outdoor exercise equipment. The very existence of outdoor exercise equipment rather speaks to the ‘well-to-do-ness’ of the area and it’s still in pretty good condition, which would definitely be indicative of the socio-economic status of the neighbourhood. Nonetheless the inspirational/motivational celebrity quotes on the machines do rather suggest that they have all been there a while given that they include one by Bill Cosby. I imagine it’s been some time since anyone felt massively inspired by him.
Little Proclaims had a lovely time on the swings and running around aimlessly in a new park, but it was a little cold and the time came when she was ready to depart. On the way back to the car we spotted a near-empty coffee shop and, feeling slightly indulgent, we went in. I had an overpriced americano and Little Proclaims made do with the provisions that I had wisely packed for her in advance – I’m not averse to buying her food from a café but she’s nowhere near reliable enough with her eating habits to justify the cost. She was happy enough with her own supplies and very much enjoyed the ambience. In particular, she was very taken with a big clock on the wall, and repeatedly exclaimed to the small number of other customers, “look, a big clock!”
My coffee finished, we relocated the car and set off for home. En route we were to drive past a branch of Marks and Spencer. It is one of the ones that mostly sells food and not much else. I happened to have an M&S gift card with some credit left on it, and knowing that we needed something for lunch, it seemed like a reasonable place to stop. Obviously, given its prices, M&S is not a habitual lunch-buying venue, but if you have an M&S gift card, then buying food is quite a good use of that card, because M&S food is rather lovely.
Little Proclaims quite likes walking around a shop and it’s quite nice to be able to give her the opportunity. Still, she can be a bit of handful, and once my basket was full of what we needed, I was somewhat overwrought. Perhaps that explains why what happened next put me in such a bad mood.
We made it to the tills. I was wearing a face mask as per UK law. Little Proclaims, being two, was not. I was carrying her in one arm and a basket of food in the other. I stood in line. The man in front of me turned around and said the following words to me:
“Will you step back?”
Of course I did. I was mortified that I might have crossed the implicit boundary of Covid safety.
Except that, once I’d reversed the mere three centimetres that it was actually possible to step back, I realised that I hadn’t in fact crossed any such boundary.
I may indeed have been slightly closer than the two metres we were all trying to stick to back in the early months of the pandemic, but I was well over the current 1m+ guideline that UK law currently stipulates. Plus I was wearing a mask. And there really wasn’t anywhere else for me to stand within the confines of the layout of that particular store.
But here’s the thing. There was loads of room in front of the man. If he was really that uncomfortable, all he had to do was take a step forward, rather than insisting that I try to step into non-existent space, overwhelmed as I clearly was with an energetic toddler trying to free herself from my one-armed grip.
And he didn’t say please. Even if I was in the wrong (and the more I assessed the situation, the less I thought I was actually in the wrong) it would obviously have been the innocent mistake of a slightly harassed parent. So a ‘please’ would have been entirely appropriate. Even if I had been so far in the wrong as to remove all doubt from anyone’s mind, had I actually been stood, maskless and breathing directly into his face, then I still think it would be the done thing to say please. We’re British for goodness sake. Manners are kind of our thing.
But he didn’t say please and frankly he didn’t really ask nicely at all. I felt like I was being admonished by someone who thought he was somehow superior to me. And nothing winds me up more than people who think they are better than other people.
Anyway, there was someone in front of both of us in the queue so we both had to stand there for quite a while and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that he, not I, was the one who had broken the accepted etiquette of polite society. And when there was even more space in front of him, to the extent that he could clearly move a long way forward and give me back some of the space I had relinquished, he didn’t bother until it was actually his time to pay.
And he kept looking at me, as if further admonishing my antisocial behaviour.
Now I’m not really an antagonistic sort of person. Indeed I would say I’m quite an affable guy. I don’t much like being around other people but I’m always very nice to other people when I have to be around them. I’m almost too easy-going. People tend to take advantage of my good nature. Most people would not know I have a dark side. But if you ask my parents, my siblings or my long suffering wife, they would all tell you that I do have more than a bit of a temper. And while my colleagues generally enjoy an easy ride working alongside me, those poor souls who have pushed their luck in the past would also acknowledge that I can, on occasion, demonstrate a level of petulance that is rather unbecoming. I am sometimes mistaken for a door-mat, but anyone who has tried to cross that particular threshold has generally found themselves metaphorically flat on their face.
Also, while I would never resort to violence, I do think I would probably be quite good at violence if the mood took me. Not compared to people who are professionally violent of course (boxers, military personnel, hardened criminals, chiropractors etc.), but to the average person I think I would be quite a scary proposition. Certainly compared to this man.
But I’m an educated and civilised sort, so I obviously wasn’t going to do anything improper. Also I had my two-year old daughter with me and it didn’t seem appropriate to seek any retribution really. And even if I were inclined to verbally or physically assault a smaller, older man then M&S just wouldn’t be the place to do it. There are security cameras for one thing.
Still, I think I showed great restraint. And you might be thinking that I’m over-reacting and actually he didn’t do anything that bad, so allow me to further describe my nemesis to you.
Firstly he wasn’t in M&S buying indulgent treats, which is surely the only reason anyone goes in to M&S. He was in there buying a bag of potatoes and only a bag of potatoes. Why would you go into M&S to by ‘just potatoes’? The sole reason for doing that is because you are too privileged to realise that potatoes are the same wherever you buy them and quite a lot cheaper in other shops. You only go into M&S to buy ‘just potatoes’ if you think you are too good for other supermarkets.
Also, while he was older than me, he wasn’t actually that old. Not old enough for anyone to seriously consider him to be amongst those that are particularly vulnerable to the virus. And while we can never really know anyone’s personal circumstances, if he is genuinely vulnerable or lives with someone who is vulnerable, then why was he in a shop buying only potatoes? Why wasn’t he doing a bigger ‘once-a-week’ shop or getting his groceries delivered? It’s not actually that hard to get delivery slots at the moment and no-one could ever need potatoes so badly that they would risk their lives to get them if they had adequate supplies of everything else. So he definitely wasn’t telling me to step back because he was worried. He was telling me to step back because he thinks he’s the boss of everyone.
And, because I was behind him in the queue, I was out of the shop in time to see him get in his car and flout the one-way system in the car park as he drove away. So clearly rules are only important when they suit him.
And what car was he driving?
A sodding Audi.
I did not punch this man in his smug entitled face, and for that I deserve a medal.