Sunday, 22 March 2009


One of the merits of advancing age is increasing invisibility. By the time my hair is white, I shall probably float ghost-like down streets and be able to act exactly as I like without anyone noticing. But I'm not quite there yet.

I went to London to visit my parents on the day before Mother's Day. I reckoned I was probably even less visible than usual, slightly shuffling and convalescent after a late winter virus got me by the throat and left me tired and shaky. I stopped at an unfamiliar supermarket to get lunch ingredients and when a young woman rammed my shopping trolley into me, complaining that I wasn't quick or efficient enough at making way for her, I decided I'd probably slipped into the role of Unnecessary Older Person, as far as she was concerned. Perhaps she was too young to realise that most women are so accustomed to mild brutality and insults from strangers, that a rammed shopping trolley is hardly more than a slight annoyance.

As an older woman, I feel rather safer than when I was young. I've never forgotten the time - nearly thirty years ago - when I was walking across a university carpark and a car-load of drunken students thought it funny to drive the car at me a few times, hurling sexual insults and shrieking with laughter at their "wit." That really was frightening. I don't think they planned to hit me - though I couldn't be sure - but I wasn't sure they were sober enough to control the car, or that I could run fast enough to get away. I didn't go to the police. The headlights dazzled me so that I couldn't see their faces though I had a good idea who they were from the brayed, precise insults. The police were unlikely to take my word against a group of posh - and well-connected - young men.

That was the scariest instance but of course there were others. Men sometimes tell me I'm stupid to walk alone after dark but years ago I decided that I preferred to risk abuse and threats rather than live in a prison created by abusive strangers. I've had a fuller life as result. And by now I'm used to dealing with the occasional insult. They've tailed off as I've grown older and become more confident. I worry for my daughter, of course.

It was good to see my parents. I don't visit often enough. This was another short visit - four hours' travelling each way doesn't allow much time to stay, but at least I managed to cook lunch, wash up and deliver small gifts to my mum. I was pleased I'd made it, but more tired than usual - this year's viruses seem particularly draining.

I'd worried a little about getting the tube at Putney Bridge. Dad and I had been watching the football results and the unlikely scoreline - Fulham 2, Manchester United 0 - could result in a few disconsolate United fans on the way home. But all I saw were yellow-jacketed police - some on horseback - outside the supporters' favourite pub. Jubilant songs and chants filled the air.

Reaching the Piccadilly Line, I realised I could be standing for quite a while. The Victoria Line was closed for the weekend, pushing passengers onto other routes. The platform wasn't too crowded as I arrived but within two minutes passengers were three or four deep and more kept arriving. There was no point in letting a crowded train go in the hope of a seat on the next one. I boarded and followed the usual command to "Move right down the carriage." I was just reflecting on how shaky I felt and my probable invisibility when a young man stood up and offered me his seat. I wasn't so invisible after all - and immensely lucky. Plenty of other people who could have done with a seat were left swaying and strap-hanging. After thanking the young man, I immersed myself in my book - one of the Scandanavian detective stories to which I've recently become addicted.

My journey involved a change of mainline trains and a pause in a waiting room. The book, which involved axe murders, a bright young woman inspector and an older beer-drinking, chess-playing detective, had gripped me. I settled down for my 25-minute wait and continued with the story.

There were three other people in waiting-room: a young couple wrapped up in one another and a solitary man listening to music. It felt safe enough. Then the youths came in, giggling, pleased with themselves, possibly a bit drunk. They swaggered round, giggling. I was more interested in my book and perhaps this annoyed them. They stood in front of me, staring, thinking of an insult. Eventually, one of them came up with the epithet they wanted: "Book-reader!" They giggled. They tried it out a few more times, circling round me. I looked up, unimpressed, and went back to my book, "Book-reader!" they said again. And then one tried, bemusingly, "Sexy! She's sexy for a book-reader. Sexy for a nerd." I think I was supposed to be scared. I wasn't. They went out.

Later, when a couple of more people had entered the waiting room, they came back. They tried saying, at no-one in particular, the worst racial insult they could think of. They said it again and laughed. It plainly didn't apply to any of the people in the waiting room. They tried to start a conversation with a solitary young woman who was witting there. She dismissed them with monosyllables and they gave up, giggled and went outside again. I think the youths were beginning to feel cross that no-one responded to them - I hope they were. Perhaps it was their turn to feel invisible.


Anonymous said...

Book Reader as an insult feels so surreal that the idea makes me giggle. Part of me also feels sorry for the youths -- imagine growing up so ignorant as to never have read for fun. But I realize it is hard to feel either of those things while facing down a gang.
No such mitigating circumstances for the mob in the car. I have had a few unpleasant experiences over the years, but nobody has ever threatened my life, even in alleged jest. Even the distant memory of it must feel nightmarish...

Anonymous said...

You are very brave and very strong - well done! and sexy too!

Seeing kids roaming free range, wasting their time,its pitiful. This is something I never did.

Its good to read of the young man giving his seat for you, a lovely gesture. kllrchrd

Anonymous said...

you are not invisible!