Help the aged, lest they assassinate you

'Old people should use thei rlast moments to right some terrible wrong or rub out some terrible person'
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"Have you ever tried helping an old lady across the road?" said a voice in my ear.

"Have you ever tried helping an old lady across the road?" said a voice in my ear.

I was sitting in a train that had just stopped at one of those stations called Something Parkway, a name that means it is right out in the open country and nowhere near the town of Something. The sort of station where you only get out to get into another train. On the opposite platform there was one single passenger waiting, an old lady, and there were no less than three railway employees clustered round her, trying to find out what she wanted and attempting to make sure she got it.

I turned and saw that my companion was a distinguished-looking, rather elderly man reading a book.

"Me?" I said.

"You," he said.

I tried to remember. There must have been some occasion on which I had been nice to an old person. But if there was, it had entirely slipped my mind.

"No," I said.

"Well, you should try helping an old lady across the road," said the man. "It is an illuminating experience. It is one of the hardest things in the world to do."

"Why is that?" I said. "Because they resist being helped?"

"That's what I used to think," he said. "Very often old ladies won't set out from one pavement towards the other, and even when you've got them started, they may stop halfway. I remember once going across a road in Oxford with some old girl when she stopped in the middle of the road and started chatting, and I could see this lorry bearing down on us - I had to bodily drag her across!"

On the far platform the three rail employees were helping the old lady to look through her handbag for her ticket. I could see that they were getting rather frustrated with her though she, by contrast, seemed not at all displeased.

"Yes," said the man, "for a while I imagined that little old ladies whom you were trying to help across the street reacted with such lack of co-operation that you could almost base some scientific principle of inertia on them."

"Even harness their resistance and convert it into energy?" I suggested."

"But then," said the man, ignoring me, "I realised that the old ladies weren't resisting at all. What they were doing was trying to prolong the process."

"Prolong the process?"

"It is one of the great paradoxes of life that people with the most time behave as if it is running out, and people with very little time left behave as if they have got all the time in the world," said the man. "Young people are always in a rush - got to try this, got to go there, got to be off! Why? They've got all their life to do things. It's old people who should be in a hurry - they've got very little time left, so they should squeeze in as much as they can while they can. But do they?"

I glanced over at the far platform. The old lady was having things explained to her all over again, and enjoying every minute of it.

"No," I said.

"No, they don't," he said. "It's the opposite, if anything. Have you noticed that when old ladies are in front of you at the cash till in a supermarket, they make a great performance out of paying, and fiddle with their money and chat about the weather and their ailments...?"

"Yes," I said. "They're dithering."

"No, they're not," he said. "They're looking for company. Old people don't get much company. They need contact, conversation. That's why they take so long to be helped across the road."

"Is that why you're engaging me in conversation?" I asked in what I hoped was an engagingly frank manner.

"Me?" He looked surprised. "Oh, no. Nothing like that. I come from a different school of old people. I come from the school that believes that old age is the right time for a drastic gesture."


"If a young man assassinates a tyrant, he might spend the rest of his life in prison. If an old man does it, he's nearly dead already, so it doesn't matter. I have always felt that that old people should use their last moments on earth to right some terrible wrong, or rub out some terrible person. Go out with a bang."

"Right," I said. He went back to reading his book, but I couldn't help noticing that, when he got up to get out at the next station, and put his book in his briefcase, there was unmistakably a small pistol lurking beneath it.

I have been studying obituary columns with unusual interest ever since.