A gentle stroll on a beautiful warm June evening sauntering from the Barbican Hall to Cannon Street station, I entered the last carriage of my train home having just witnessed the former FBI director James Comey being cross-examined by a BBC Newsnight presenter. My thirty-minute journey would allow an opportunity to review my notes, or so I thought, on the key arguments around Comey’s decision to re-open the Clinton email investigation only a few short weeks before the American Presidential election. Incidentally, both Democrats and Republicans want his guts for garters, but that’s another conversation.
On train journeys, my preference is to face forward so I approached a set of six seats, three by three facing each other. Choosing the aisle seat, my co-passenger was a medium-built Chinese man who sat in the middle facing backwards so we were seated diagonally to each other. Hunched slightly forward on his seat my co-passenger concentrated on his phone with his right leg crossed over his left but in horizontal fashion so that his foot was a little too close for my comfort. Noticing this as I bent down to the seat, I ‘accidently’ pushed his foot with my rucksack because the sole of his shoe was within touching distance of my freshly laundered crisp white trousers. No reaction.
Is it in the Arab world where it is culturally verboten to have the sole of one’s shoe on view? As I wrestled with this question, try as I might, I could not tear my eyes away from the nets of pale blue webbing on a well-worn ascis trainer leaving a seemingly indelible mark on my mind. Although only a inconsequential irritation in the greater scheme of life’s discomforts, a minor disgruntlement caused by an inconsiderate commuter can set a negative tone for the day.
As the train departed I delved into the London Evening Standard, I proceeded to mirror my co-passenger’s posture by placing my right leg over my left with my foot facing my co-passenger. Battle had commenced and we were now in a stubborn psychological war. Within seconds, realising that my foot was inches away from his neatly folded jacket atop his rucksack on the seat directly opposite me, he emitted an unmistakable grunt as he jigged around on his seat grabbing his possessions and placing them on the spare seat on the other side. Remaining immobile throughout I continued to read my newspaper. Or pretended to. Both of his feet were now placed firmly on the floor. Yet still I did not move a muscle. I would reciprocate, but not just yet: a respectable interval was called for.
Only minutes later I could hear ‘click….click’. The discreetest of glances darting away from my newspaper revealed that my co-passenger was pressing the metal buckle on the belt of his black jeans. ‘Lock…..unlock’. After a few seconds delay, again the ‘click….click’ sound and again. And again. A provocative attempt to catch my attention perhaps or was there a undercurrent of something more malevolent at play? Is he threatening to flash? The train clanks and shifts track and as it judders, I instinctively uncross my offending leg. As the train approaches the platform my co-passenger grabs his possessions and rises to leave at Lewisham while we studiously ignore each other.
And here’s the question: was the ‘click/lock…….click/unlock’ merely a noise to catch my attention – a demand to shift position or did it have a more sinister undercurrent. In a climate where revelations of pervasive misogyny spew from the media on a daily basis, am I merely suffering from a heightened awareness of manspreading and all its connotations.