Another small step for Man


Up from the Cape: 25 Feb 2017


Many years ago in a pre-internet dynasty when we had to make our own entertainment by having coffee with someone, a friend and I were out with a colleague. This colleague was a man who might have been formed by an accretion process based on a fusing of minor disasters into a global one. If something was going to go wrong, it was almost certain it would go wrong when he was present. If I’d been at an airport and discovered he and I had tickets on the same flight, I’d have changed mine. Flying is a serious business and you can’t afford to be too careful at 30,000 feet.


On this day our colleague had been nursing a cup of coffee and listing the many and varied misfortunes to have rained down upon him in recent weeks. I suppose it’s inevitable that when life treats you like a target rich environment, there’s an element of tension that becomes incorporated into one’s muscle memory. At some point my friend got up to get a napkin, leaving me with our colleague. In those days my friend was someone about whom you might reasonably say he had “an impromptu sense of fun with little regard for consequence and sequel”. On his way back to our table, he reached around our colleague’s head from behind and held a napkin over his mouth while whispering “chloroform” close to his ear. I don’t believe either of us expected what happened next. Our colleague’s head whipped backwards in an abrupt catapult motion like a Roman Ballista. It propelled his glasses in a high arcing trajectory that brought them into collision with a spot on the wall close to the ceiling. It was a sub-orbital flight, but barely. The glasses impacted with a flat crack that made me wonder momentarily if they’d broken the sound barrier. They clattered noisily to the floor, and then there was silence. Many heads swiveled to look. It was like being present at a splashdown.


As my friend went off to recover our colleague’s property downrange, with me thinking they might still be hot from re-entry, the man himself blinked his little mole-like eyes and offered an opinion. In a resentful and tetchy voice he said that my friend “sometimes acts a bit young.” Most of us stumble through life with at least a measure of the gift of diplomacy (though in some it’s almost dormant). Mine came to my aid that day. Instead of saying what I wanted to say, which was “If you hadn’t been as tense as a Jack-in-the Box with a trembler mechanism, what he did wouldn’t have mattered”. Instead, I kept my peace and said nothing.


Our colleague got over the incident quickly. It may have helped that his glasses appeared to be made of some actual space-age material that was indestructible. They were returned to him intact. When we left with at least one of the staff still watching us, he was his normal philosophical and plodding self – albeit one who kept touching his glasses to make sure they were really OK.


A knee-jerk response to the least stimulus started me thinking about another story he’d mentioned. At the time I dismissed it as fantasy. Upon review I’m no longer certain. Long before the glasses incident, our colleague had told us the there were some people who liked to bait him during his daily commute to and from work. I guessed that much was true because he did exercise an undeniable draw for baiters. They’re lazy, and they like easy victims. He was made for them. They indulge in this sport until they find themselves on the wrong end of a victim’s bile, and sometimes – more satisfyingly – a fist that delivers it.


Broad details of the “baiting” story confided to us that our colleague had been on a train and had, he said, become suspicious that another commuter was making fun of him by nudging his bag for comic effect. He’d been dozing, unfortunately. Sleep is a treacherous foundation from which to review evidence, and never more so than if someone is drifting in and out of it while rigid with tension.  The word “nitroglycerin” should have an honourable mention here for reasons that will become obvious shortly.


The alleged “nudging” of the bag continued, and predictably there came a moment when our colleague, perhaps mindful of when Popeye says “I can stands no more!” went off like a land-mine in an enclosed space. In a flash, and to the astonishment of his fellow passengers, he reared up from his seat bellowing “Come on! Come on!” Normally that would be cause enough for concern on a crowded train, but he was also in the habit of carrying a small dissecting kit scalpel he used for purposes I’d never asked about. I hoped it was for sharpening pencils. He drew it from his pocket abruptly and held it in front of him, scattering loose change from his pocket all over the floor in the process. It must have looked like a hijacking in a sitcom.


I’m inclined to believe nobody had actually been messing about with his bag. Any nudging was probably nothing more than the incidental contact you often get on trains filled with slightly bovine sleepy commuters. From the perspective of his fellow-passengers, all they saw was how a furious lunatic sprang from his seat, apparently armed, and began shouting at them angrily without any apparent cause. He’s extremely fortunate the transport police weren’t waiting for him at his destination. If it had been the era of mobile communications we enjoy today, I’m sure they would have been.


Occasionally one of his stories was simply funny, though typically still revealing. It was drawn again from the days when he was commuting between London (where he worked) and Brighton (where he lived). There’s a point in the train journey where the line passes beneath the South Downs through something called the Clayton Tunnel. Normally, once entered, it takes a train about a minute to emerge into daylight again at the other end. It’s usual for a train’s lights either to be on already, or switch on as it enters the tunnel. On this occasion they were neither on, nor did they switch on. The carriage plunged into complete darkness immediately. Perhaps because entering the tunnel at speed always creates a sort of “whump” of air pressure, he awoke at that instant from a light sleep and found himself in total darkness. He told us he could see nothing, but could still hear the roar of the train as it passed through the tunnel. He thought he’d gone blind.

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