Look out! It’s in front of you!

Having dropped my mother off at the airport the other evening I was travelling back to my neighbourhood by metro. I was reading one of the books which I had picked up from a musty old box of donated books in the staffroom, quite an esoteric collection of works on meditation, psychology and so on. This one was ‘Views from the real world- early talks of Gurdjieff’. Not exactly ‘Shopaholic goes to New York’ and, quite frankly, a little heavy-going in parts even for my tastes. But it had looked interesting, so I was persevering with it. My mother had sent me a goodbye text, to which I was replying, so I placed the book, open on its spine, face down on my thigh. I became aware that I was being subjected to a full body scan by a woman opposite me. I glanced at her- not your usual maruja (fishwife)- tall, slim, with long black hair and a face that could curdle milk at 100 yards. At some point in this woman’s life, I suspect a very long time ago, the wind had changed. She turned to her husband, also lanky, academic-looking, with glasses and a white beard, and said quite loudly and distinctly, probably because she imagined I was a daft foreigner who didn’t speak a word of Spanish,

‘Oh yes, look at that one, that’s a really intellectual way to read isn’t it, book face down on your knee, oh yeah, she’s really going to further her education.’

I chose not to respond or rise to it, as ‘he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ It’s normal to occasionally make sarcastic remarks about strangers, or to take the piss, it isn’t exactly personal. I picked up my book, glanced coolly at her over the cover and continued to read. But how wrong can you be? This was personal, as I was about to find out. I could hear her still talking about me as I tried to read, and eventually when she said,

‘That one’s German, no doubt about it, pure Kraut, look at the face on it, that’s German that is-‘ I decided it was time to engage in battle.

I looked up, laid the book carefully on my lap and said straight at her, and in perfect Spanish,

‘Actually I’m English. But I do live here.’

The woman froze, the sneer fixed on her face in mid sentence, and in a surreal twist of events, her mortified husband leapt out of his seat like a Jack in the Box. Virtually bending on one knee he took my hand to kiss it, smiling ingratiatingly and bowing like a courtier, while gabbling,

‘Oh really, how interesting, we are Spanish. How lovely to meet you. We are Spanish. From Spain.’

All the while the minx stared at me with a face that seemed to be crumbling in on itself with unadulterated bitterness and mala leche (remember the bad milk?) and still she neither moved nor spoke.

At this point in the stand-off the appropriate latino response between two women would have been at the very least a mud-slinging row, at worst a hair-pulling cat fight. I chose, like Mary Archer, to remain fragrant, because I believe that in the end this makes you the winner anyway.

‘How very nice to meet you.’ I replied a little frostily but graciously to the husband, who returned to his seat cowering and cringing as though backing away from my throne. The pressed bodies in the carriage around us peered in on the scene, itching for a fight, I could tell. Everyone loves to witness a stinking altercation. But I wasn’t going to give the public what they wanted today. Implaccably I said to the hateful face pointed at me like a loaded pistol,

‘Do you have a problem, Señora? What exactly is your problem? Because there’s no need for you to be giving me the evils like that. I was just sitting here reading my book. I suggest you keep your comments to yourself in future.’

At this point, and all praise to the Gods of perfect timing, we pulled into my stop. I snatched up my book, wished the husband a polite ‘Good day to you, Sir’ and swept regally out of the carriage. For once I didn’t walk away playing the scene over and over in my head on a loop and kicking myself for what I could have/should have said. I’d said it. And with the panache of a Victorian dandy. How sweet it was to have put the mean old bitch in her place, and humiliated her in front of the entire carriage, and her husband, without even getting hot under the collar. Come on, you evil old cows, come on then! You want some more? Do ya? D’ya think yer hard enough? Think you can take me? Think again…..

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