But first a word of warning.
This blog is usually an enthusiastic nod to the pleasure of hedonistic pursuits. Fabulous morsels to nibble on. Dribbles down your chin. The odd sojourn into the wonderland of crisp luxe hotel sheets and Michelin plates of smears.
Not today. Today I witnessed something so intimate, so terrifying and so redeeming that I wanted to write it down, to cement the anecdote into existence. So here it is. And if you’re just here for chocolate cake and babbaganoush, do come back next time, this is quite possibly a momentary meander off-course.
The walk from our place in Marylebone to Soho is always a joyful one. Quick, brisk steps past the coloured, recessed doors of De Walden Street lead you past the elegant residences on Queen Anne Street and up to the breath-taking grandeur of Chandos House. I’m always surprised there’s not a pair of doormen in penguin suits and a horse and carriage with a purple plume waiting outside this Georgian treasure.
Today, as we rounded the corner beyond Chandos House we saw a middle aged man with blotchy skin and a young boy of seven, maybe eight. The boy looked gangly, perhaps slightly clumsy as he playfully bounced on to the curb and started towards the corner. Within seconds, the man had clenched his stumpy fingers in a steely grip around the boy’s blue sleeve and yanked him with such violent force I thought he may have removed his arm from its socket. And then he began to chastise and berate. Obviously not for the first time, as the boy hung his head and slumped his shoulders in a way that made me think he had worked out how to best manage the man’s fury and minimise the danger. Make yourself small Tom, make yourself invisible. He rounded his shoulders a little more.
We couldn’t hear the words, but they were spat with venom. Lash after lash, they smarted and barbed and pierced the boy. As we approached, the man clocked our adult eyes and adjusted his tone. But his contempt and loathing of the boy was palpable.
What we’d seen was awful – hideous – but was it enough to warrant intervention? There was no slapping, no punching, ostensibly no physical violence except the clasping of a hand around a small boy’s arm, which could reasonably have been explained to anyone not present, as concern that he might run on to the road. But this was bullying. Pure and simple bullying.
And this question, the ‘should I intervene or not?’ is perplexing. The blanket between bully and observer is thick and often impenetrable. It’s made of worry that you’ll be chastised for being a meddler, a sticky-beak, a nosey spinster; mingled with anxiety that it’s not your place, they’re the parent/guardian/custodian and you have no right.
The man released the arm but interlocked his fingers with the boys and clenched the little hand tightly. I hoped he had short fingernails as I was sure they were digging into the boy’s palm. I was mute, but J flung back a ‘be gentle mate’ as we passed. They were both oblivious.
We walked half a block further and stopped. What should we do? Go back? Have ‘a word’? Ask for help? We crossed the road and looked back to assess the situation. They were on the move. The boy had a little skip in a way that said to the outside world that this didn’t matter, that he was ok. No, there’s no problem here officer. But his head was lowered and his shoulders curved inward. Too hippy-trippy for me to think it was his body’s attempt to protect his gentle heart? Maybe. The man’s hand was moulded into the boy’s; he held it rigid to his side. His knuckles were white.
As we were looking at the two from across the road, the doorman of a high-end hotel asked if we needed help. Not us, no, thankyou kind sir. Yes, he said, that kid’s pretending everything’s ok, but you can tell he’s terrified of that man. I was glad to hear that I wasn’t the only one projecting non-verbal signs of distress on to this poor boy.
By this time they’d rounded the corner and crossed the road and stopped momentarily outside the Starbucks on Regent Street. More threatening words and ‘Tom’ continued to stare at his feet. They offered no answers. I was sure the protracted punishment for the not-obvious indiscretion, would include not being allowed to go into Starbucks, but the door opened and swallowed them both.
We crossed the street and saw Tom take a stool in the front window. Out of sight of the man, he no longer needed to pretend the venom of meanness didn’t touch him. A tragic despair cloaked his seven-year-old face. It was painful. He looked absolutely desolate. A young girl approached him with bouncy hair and a smile, (his sister?), but he had nothing left for her, it had all been used up to maintain the facade.
The man with the blotchy face started chatting to a woman, (Tom’s mum?), she looked kind, warm. I would have walked on. Sure, I would have turned my mind to Tom throughout the day – his look of utter and absolute despair was hard to shift – but I would have convinced myself there was nothing I could have done. I suspect I’m in the majority here; though that doesn’t soften my shame.
J turned to me; I think I’ll have to say something. Ok. Yes. Of course. And then she did what most of us are too cowardly to do. She approached the man with the blotchy skin and the woman’s smile slide down her face.
Excuse me mate. He turns. Genuine surprise.
I’ve just watched you bully that little boy. Shock. Guilt. Fear.
And I don’t know what he’s done, but he’s just a little boy and I watched you bully him. You can’t do that mate; he’s just a little boy. Ok? Sprung. No denial. No excuses. Blank.
We turned and left him to explain to the lady who’d lost her smile why a 40-something woman in a smart blue coat and designer specs would accused him of being a bully.
I was so proud of J in that moment. There was no brawling, no histrionics, no aggression. Like most bullies, when called on it, they cower and simper. But most of us are too afraid to challenge them and they go on, crushing the souls of the sensitive, and sucking the joy out of life so they can feed on the feeling of power.
And this is how Donald Trumps are born. Because we don’t think it’s our ‘place’ to intervene. It is our place. It is very much our place.
*nb: normal Scratch transmission will resume next post