THE SUZI FEAY COLUMN : watch out, there's a nutter about

ONE evening as I was bowling along to Charing Cross to catch a train, I stopped by the doors of the National Portrait Gallery to help a man who looked hopelessly lost. Normally I'd swerve by just like anyone else, but a sideways glance confirmed that this one at least didn't look like a lunatic. Middle-aged, a luxuriant head of gilded hair, clothes smart-casual, air of amused bewilderment. "Excuse me?" he smiled. Probably just wanted to know the way to the Ambassadors' Theatre. "Yes, can I help?" I responded. "Well, I hope so," he sighed expansively, speaking very slowly. Almost immediately I realised my mistake.

"I don't come to London very often," he began, still in that maddeningly languid voice, "and when I do, I'm always struck by one thing ..." I thought of the train leaving in five minutes, and began to shift my weight from foot to foot. "Perhaps you can tell me, love: why are all the women in London in such a hurry?" I mumbled something about it not being a great metaphysical mystery in my case: that I was late for my train. Back came the riposte: "No, but all the women in London can't be running for trains." At this I exploded: "You've seen all the women in London, have you?" and ran off, him bellowing after me: "I pity you, love!" and me yelling "idiot" back at him.

Somehow the warning signs - nutter alert! - never seem to register with me. I am the woman, after all, who didn't notice she was being flashed at in the Old Kent Road. It was at a bus-stop on a hot day. I stood at the kerb, and a queue of grannies, with a lone young black guy at the end, were jostling under the shelter. Most pairs of eyes were slanted up the road, straining for a glimpse of approaching bus. He, meanwhile, stood at ease in a wide stance, fists thrust into the pockets of his mac, holding it together at the front. When I scanned the queue a few moments later, the man had separated the wings of his mac and displayed a sort of wrinkled dried-fruit arrangement amid bobbly pubes. The surreal thing about this was that the grannies, all oblivious, were still squinting ostentatiously up the road. "Well," I thought indulgently "that's one way of keeping cool." Just then the bus squealed up, and I got on. Suddenly a shaming flush of blood rushed to my face - "he flashed at me!". As we set off, I looked back at the flasher, the only person who hadn't got on: scowling now, mac furled once more, utterly gutted at my lack of response.

You'd think in certain places you'd be safe from the malice of strangers. Take the recent Faber summer party: not the literary Nirvana it once was, one suspects, with one author looking at his watch and exclaiming: "I've got to be home for Men Behaving Badly". There was no sign of Ted Hughes, so I spent half an hour talking to the author of a vegan cookbook who suddenly announced that he'd fall into a coma in 10 minutes if he didn't eat some carbohydrate. This was a conversational damper, to say the least.

Another chap I introduced myself to proved more difficult to shake off: quite literally, since he kept pursuing me round the room, squeezing my arm or shoulder. What is the best social response to unwanted physical contact? I usually opt for a poker face and stiffening of the body, but I think I might have to be sterner in future. I extricated myself with great charm, or so I thought, but still he kept popping up, usually when I was deep in conversation with other, more interesting people, thus ignoring the cardinal rule of party-going: thou shalt not persist once thou hast been fobbed off with the line "excuse me, there's someone over there I simply must speak to".

Finally, as the party was starting to thin, he materialised before me on the balcony, grabbed my arm, and when I said "please don't do that" snapped: "Oh, you're a c---, aren't you!" Into the stunned pause that ensued, I squeaked: "What? Come again?" "Well, you are a c---" he said with a tight smile. Then, while I groped for a suitable response, my thoughts being, roughly: "bastard!" and "my, haven't things changed since the days of T S Eliot", vengeance intervened in the somewhat unlikely form of a gay journalist, someone I knew by sight but had only just met officially. He leaned over and remarked to the oaf: "If I were a red-blooded male, I'd take you outside and punch you in the face for that. Perhaps it's just as well that I'm not." The oaf came over all truculent, the GJ stood his ground, and for a moment it looked as though this might end in fisticuffs. Then, with a "you're not worth it mate" the GJ grandly offered me his arm and we swanned off together with great dignity. Which just goes to show that we can generally rely on not just the malice, but the kindness of strangers too.