Half a second or so it lasted, an opportunity presented by one of those fleeting urban moments, an anonymous near-miss at the entrance to the tube. The staircase was quite wide, wide enough to have a metal handrail down the middle, and there were few enough people for there to be no clear need either to follow or ignore the rules: you had to choose, without choosing, which side of the rail to go down, or come up. I went left.
Just ahead of me, a male figure, bulky, youthful-looking from behind, perhaps two or three steps in front; he chooses right. As I take my first step onto the stone stairs I glance up, checking whether anyone is heading towards me and, if so, which of us will be taking what evasive action. (It’s an unsung part of London life, this quest for efficiency: it happens on the road as much as on the pavement; it is easier to pull out from a junction onto the main road in London than anywhere else in Britain, not because Londoners are friendlier, but because there is a common acknowledgement that we all want to get to wherever we’re going as quickly as possible.)
Heading up the stairs, and having chosen her left, a youthful woman, maybe mid twenties, dressed in professional clothes, returning from the middle of town and heading home. Because she’s coming up and we’re going down, and she’s leaning forward with the angle needed to get up the stairs at the requisite London speed, her cleavage is eye-catching.
(Is ‘eye-catching’ an admission that I looked? Or merely that I saw? In a field of vision that included all sorts of other things – few of which are now available to my memory – why should a cleavage have been so noteworthy?)
Young male to my right is on the same side of the hand rail as the woman; I’m on the other side. There is no one else on the staircase. She moves slightly left so as to pass him; he is closest to the handrail, and thus closest to me. I am moving slightly quicker than he is, and so for a fraction of a moment we are three in a line; him passing her coming up, me pulling alongside him going down.
There is a noise, somewhat grunted, guttural almost, could have been a word or words, but not audible or distinguishable to me. It, or they, weren’t aimed at me: it, or they, seemed to have been aimed at the woman. Involuntarily I turn to look towards the noise – the young man – and then, as I realise that the noise was not for me, I track towards where the noise appeared to have been aimed: the woman. As my head is moving, my brain is catching up: the young man has made a remark about the woman’s breasts, or her face, or has otherwise in some way indicated in a crude and unpleasant fashion that he has just had a sexual thought about the woman.
As my glance moves from the young man – he seeming to have accelerated, or me to have slowed, and now a step or so ahead of me - towards the woman – who is now behind me – she has turned towards and is scowling, in disgust or annoyance or something similar, at the young man. My movement catches her attention, however, and she sends her glance my way – and our gazes meet.
I give a physical and facial shrug that is some weird combination of shared disgust, apology on behalf of my half of the species, sympathy at what she has had to endure and hope that she’ll let it go quickly; and her eyes indicate, in a few hundredths of a second, some sort of relief, if not thanks.
And without breaking our strides or losing momentum, all three of us continue on our way – and it takes me a further few moments, by this time no longer on the staircase and heading towards the waiting train, to realise that I have just witnessed exactly the kind of behaviour about which I was railing in the previous blog post. Right there: thuggish, thoughtless arsehole participating in low-level but nevertheless debilitating sexual harassment.
The implication of my previous blog is that it is no longer enough simply for women to draw attention to this behaviour and to seek redress or remedy; it is the responsibility of men, too. Perhaps more so. It is my responsibility, whenever necessary – in debate and argument, in conversation, most especially whilst out and about and on the occasions when I am witness – to confront, to challenge, to rebuke. I should have captured the attention of the young man, and told him: hey, arsehole, you can’t do that.
I am disappointed at myself: half a second it may have lasted, but I should have had the presence of mind to intervene.
Commitment: next time I shall.
Expect a report in due course.