I suppose to him I Iooked like working class trash. With my broad features and dark, tired eyes maybe I came across as just another insignificant middle-aged foreign worker heading home from the night shift.
And I admit, I hadn’t tried very hard that morning. It was my day off and, focused on getting Renata to her early morning flight at Heathrow’s Terminal 4, I had foregone a shave and a shower, simply throwing on a hoodie and an old pair of jeans before heading out the door.
Yes, I had noticed the deleterious effect of my appearance on the level of customer service at the airline counter but, with forced humility, I rejected the urge to fetch my airport ID pass from my pocket and hang the lanyard around my neck. The “Head of” in my function title, clearly visible on the front of the pass, has proven to carry at least a little weight and corresponding respect with it – combined with proper business attire, of course – even if the title itself is the somewhat obscure and dubious “Head of Multi Faith Chaplaincy”.
To me he looked like what he probably was: a successful young executive returning home from his latest conquest abroad, decked out in a tailored suit and bespoke shoes, using one hand to guide his exclusively-branded, wheeled carry-on, and the other to clutch a take-away cup from Café Nero. Clearly his devotion to a penny earned was the only thing motivating him to take the Piccadilly line rather than a cab to a posh Central London address.
I don’t have the necessary degrees in psychology to know what makes a man like that, even in the early hours of a Saturday morning, to go looking for yet another victory. But I do know that he saw in me a clear expression of just such an opening; I was an easy target for a gratuitous shot of privilege. Joining the carriage at the Central Terminal Area, he confidently surveyed the seating options and, spotting a space next to scruffy me, made his choice, ignoring the half-dozen other empty seats in my section.
The banging of my knees with his luggage was, I believe, purposeful. As was the ‘man-spreading’ of his legs as he took his seat beside me, using the minimal space requirements of his small wheeled bag as a reason to push my knees aside. There was no need, the aisle was empty, so I didn’t budge, leaving his leg pushing hard against mine to no avail. And leaning back in his seat he pushed his arms onto the armrest, only to find that, on the left-hand side, my arm was already firmly established and had been so since the train left Terminal 4.
He pushed. I didn’t move. He pushed harder. I held firm.
There are a good many things I have yet to understand about this society, but this isn’t one of them. I get it: it is at all times and in all places incumbent on those with an inferior status to acquiesce to the whims of those of a higher status – lineage, money, education and linguistic accent often being the primary determinants of such entitlement.
Clearly I was in breach of a social contract. The young man, probably 20 years my junior, reacted to my intransigence with a sudden, violent shake of his whole body as he tried all at once to push me into the corner he wished for me.
I was the Rock of Gibraltar.
I did not budge, I did not take note; I said nothing. If he wanted more space he could jolly well move further up the carriage to where there was plenty of it.
Having for the moment exhausted the manoeuvres associated with his strategy, he now took a different tack. In a most haughty and exquisite-sounding English he looked me straight in the eye and made a completely nonsensical remark about what “cramped spaces one encounters on the Tube”, as if that – in a nearly empty carriage – was the sole reason for his shenanigans and, seeing the strength of his argument, I would now surely melt away into the far corner of my seat.
However, my brain, suffering from too little sleep in the night before and too little caffeine at breakfast, took me in an entirely different direction.
Renata and I, as is our habit, have been watching a variety of TV thrillers, primarily of the police-detective-nabs-bad-guy type. A few weeks ago a character in one of the three series we’ve been watching cast an insult at another, a barb that was at once as evocative as it was delightful in its eloquence: “Well, if I wanted the opinion of an a**hole, I would just ask my own.”
Now, two weeks later and being confronted with the spectre of an abusive and disagreeable character mouthing absurdities right in front of my face, my brain went searching for a suitably appropriate audio file with which to respond.
Scanning the “Recently Saved” category, it came up with a near perfect match.
“Well,” I started, “if I wanted the opinion of an…”
Halfway through the aforementioned sentence I questioned whether I, as a priest, should be saying this.
But I had started, so I would finish.
The man’s reaction was as justified as it was ineffectual. He freed his right hand from the luggage handle and hauled off and punched me in the gut. Thankfully I was hunched forward and wearing enough winter clothing – and carrying enough excess winter weight – that the blow, though given in earnest and with all that he had in him – did nothing more than cause me to suck in my breath and jump to my feet.
Now I came to my senses. Yes, the man was considerably smaller and lighter than I, but he was also much younger. More importantly, I had enough where-with-all to know that, even if I wanted to take him on, to win this fight would be to lose it. I saw the headlines in the paper, following a police arrest: “Lead Chaplain in Fight on Tube”.
I removed myself to one of the empty sections of the carriage, smouldering. At first I consoled myself with the thought that I had done exactly What Jesus Would Do if he had been confronted with such a pompous pretender. The man deserved to be put in his place. His attitude was egregious and, lucky him, I had given him pause to go home and consider his life!
In the end I settled more realistically on the conviction that this episode is yet another in a long line of my own daily failings to keep my ordination vows, evidence that God has more than enough work left to do with me.