March 15, 2013 11:16 pm

My interference gene awakes ...

Sometimes it is necessary to wade into muddied moral waters to ensure the greater good

Some things are just plain wrong: taxi drivers who try to come in with you; perfume for newborns; using a hot cross bun as a burger bap.

Some things are not ideal: downing a cocktail while you read the bedtime story; people texting you their thanks for dinner before they have closed your front door; hoping someone behaves really badly so you can vent your free-floating anger without feeling like a heel.

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Susie Boyt

Some things are just faintly annoying: an excellent review that states your novel is written in the first person present tense when it is, in fact, third person past; a famous film star pretending she has read a book by Philip Roth when it is clear she most certainly has not; people implying they would rather you did not use the linen huck towels in their bathroom, because they are “for guests”.

But many things take on more shadowy moral complexities. Sometimes it is necessary to wade into muddied moral waters to ensure the greater good. It’s all very, very delicate, involving refined navigational strategies, courage and no fear of embarrassment.

I was sitting in a noodle bar in Piccadilly, following a long stint in the library, flicking through an interiors magazine when I spied the fabric of my dreams. My heart suffered the sort of sharp contraction that generally indicates the arrival of material longing or vomiting. The fabric had highly faded stately-homeish cabbage roses on a blush coloured ground with some faint golden trellis. I think it may have been embroidered, it was hard to see. I scanned down for the price. I knew it would be expensive, hundreds of pounds a metre. It was £7,381 per metre. Sadly, I whinnied down my fantasy of billowing curtains to a cushion. Then a pin cushion.

My disappointment was shortlived, however, as next to me two young men were discussing the dynamics of a marriage proposal. One was advising the other. Riveted, I pushed my soggy noodles to one side.

“Do I have to, like, get a ring and everything?”

“We-ell ... I dunno, I guess, well, yeah, you do really.”

“God, what a f****** pain. Where do I go for that then?”

“Well, is she like really fussy? If she is a nightmare about stuff like that just pick up something cheap just to keep her going and say you didn’t want to choose the actual one because you thought she would prefer to do it herself and then together you can get one she likes.”

“Yeah. I mean she works in fashion so she’s never satisfied with anything. Maybe I’ll just say ... I mean, can’t I just say, ‘Look, I didn’t waste my time choosing something because you’re such a control freak you’re never pleased with anything I do,’ and then just give her an IOU for a ring?”

“Yeah, that sounds like a safe bet, then you can have fun choosing it together.”

“Yeah, right.”

“When did you decide you wanted to get married? Last time I saw you, you didn’t seem that happy with her.”

“I know, but this is the first time I’ve ever been in a relationship when I only feel resentful about 50 per cent of the time, so I knew from the start it was something different.”

. . .

It seemed to me suddenly that the chances of this man’s proposal being accepted were awfully slim. Although he was no Cary Grant, I could not help myself feeling a little for his plight. I could see my interference gene was rising to the surface but there are rules about things like that so I paused before acting.

Having recently joined Twitter (I know, I know), and occasionally using it as an extra layer of conscience, I wrote the following to my followers: “Man next to me is asking his friend about proposing. Advice so bad any woman will say no but it may be for the best. May I intervene?”

Twenty people wrote immediately saying of course I must. I was practically in a Nora Ephron movie. The course of true love was at stake. I could create great happiness, why was I even doubting it? Act fast. Their grandchildren would thank me. And so on. I had thought someone might write, “Perhaps these two are better off apart?” But they did not. Why not?

I waited for a pause in the conversation and then in my most casual, least interfering voice I said, “I am so sorry but I could not help overhearing your discussion about rings just now, and I had an idea. It might be worth crossing the road and having a look in the Burlington Arcade. Almost anyone would like a 1920s three-stone diamond ring and they have them at all price points.” (I have never used the expression “price points” before but I thought the phrase carried a certain quiet authority.) “You can keep the receipt obviously. And” – and then I really took my life into my hands – “you might want to consider booking yourself on to an anger management course.”

Then I ran.

Susie Boyt will be speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival on March 20. Follow her on Twitter @SusieBoyt

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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