A regard for human frailty

Image of Susie Boyt

I was walking down Tottenham Court Road bickering with myself like an old married couple: “You can’t possibly.” “Oh, yes, I can, and what’s more, I will!” “Well, then, I wash my hands of you.” “La la la, fingers in my ears.” People despair of those silent couples in restaurants, breaking their bread rolls into 20,000 miserable crumbs but I rather admire them. The two characters inside my head, in their grandest incarnations, resemble Cordelia and King Lear at the moment. Imperious, hurt and blustery, he needs constant reassurance and reparation and entertainment. Severe, modest, moral and exacting, she sure isn’t going to give him any of the things he seeks. Can you imagine? It’s far from ideal.

Yet the dry, bald streets around me seemed promising enough. I like London leafless and littered and grey. Where I live, there are too many trees and not enough grime, which makes me feel grimy. In the shopfronts, the dregs of Valentine’s day – red, pink and purple – were being dismantled eight days too late, only to be replaced with the greens and yellows and lilacs of Easter. And so it rolls on, I thought; if it’s not one thing it’s another. The whole year parcelled up into little bite-sized excuses for marketing and chocolates and card-stock. But I wasn’t letting myself get away with such tired observations.

“Oh, do be quiet, what nonsense you spout, you are one of the few people who actually believes in all this stuff. Ridiculous personage.”

“Oh, yes, yes I am, you’re right, so sorry.”

Behind some Easter chicks and bunnies with ironic expressions in a vaguely pastoral looking window display, one large Valentine sign remained undimmed, its white font, on a sugar pink ground, suggesting coconut ice. The poster said: “Life Without Love Is Not Worth Living”.

I had to read it a couple of times.

I marched straight into the offending store, primed for a top-notch skirmish. Sentences hammier than those uttered by the most ardent am-dram-prone colonel, got up as a pantomime dame for the Boxing Day matinee performance of Aladdin after a few too many Tio Pepes, jostled on my lips. I approached a charming looking woman with sausage-shaped kiss curls. “Can I see the manager please?” I asked, quite reasonably. Startled by my tone, she flinched so deeply it was almost as though she were dropping me a curtsey. Moments later the manager was produced: thin, nervous, sandy-haired, pointlessly tall. All of 19, I suspected.

“Listen to me,” I began. “What is the meaning of your terrible hoarding? It’s not only vindictive, nasty-hearted, mean-spirited and irresponsible. It’s completely factually inaccurate. There are lots of things in life that are worthwhile, that may have nothing to do with love, like work and music and cakes and paintings and beautiful dresses and limericks and, I don’t know, have you seen the new Muppets film? It’s surprisingly moving and uplifting ... I mean how would you feel if a very downhearted person, who was having a terrible day, walked past this sign and agreed with you and, I don’t know, decided to kill himself? What if it was your sister, who had just been jilted by her first love, or your widowed grandpa? Is that what you want? What a brilliant idea to pick on one of the most vulnerable and stigmatised groups in society – the unloved – and put the boot in. I mean that’s probably worse than what the government’s doing. You’ll never be a first-class store manager or a first-class human being until you learn to have a little regard for human frailty.”

(Hearing myself slip into some dialogue from The Philadelphia Story, I paused for a moment in case the fellow himself was an aficionado and took me to task over it, but luck, for once, was on my side.)

“Shame on your store! Shame on you!” I finished.

Tears sprang into the manager’s eyes and his arms flailed about in the air for a few seconds, whereupon he tore down the terrible hoarding and fainted into the ample bottom of a Jacobsen egg chair, upholstered in powder blue, special offer 15 per cent off.

Of course, the above conversation never took place, apart from in my imagination. I held my tongue and kept on walking, cursing and fuming wildly. But one of these days, I shall do such things!


More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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