Fear, sorrow and uncertainty stalk the streets in these troubled times

So there I am, pounding the street, revolving it all, when suddenly an epiphanous moment...

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We don't, as a rule, do torture in this column. Still less do we do beheadings. We know our limits. But if this really is the countdown to apocalypse, there's an argument for clearing one's desk and staring into the dying sun.

We don't, as a rule, do torture in this column. Still less do we do beheadings. We know our limits. But if this really is the countdown to apocalypse, there's an argument for clearing one's desk and staring into the dying sun.

I pound the streets when I am frightened, and I pound them when I don't know what I think. So if you felt your foundations shake last week, that was me, passing perplexed and fearful through your neighbourhood. On my mind an article by the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman in which he reminds us of the moral test that Ivan Karamazov sets his brother, Alyosha. "Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature - the baby beating its chest with its fist, for example - and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?"

And Alyosha's answer, "No, I would not consent."

Dorfman himself writes with that clenched classical austerity of the post-20th century artist confronting ruin. All is eerily quiet about his prose. An agonised calm, as though after the bomb. Which makes it hard to disagree with anything he says because that would be like disagreeing with the victim of an atrocity. Not that there is much to disagree with in his invocation of The Brothers Karamazov as a text for our times, nor his updating of Ivan Karamazov's question to meet contemporary contingency. Never mind the innocent baby; what if the person being tortured knows the whereabouts of a weapon primed to destroy millions - would Alyosha give his consent then?

Dorfman does not presume to speak for Alyosha, but the framing of the question plainly prejudges the answer. Are we so "scared", he asks, that we will knowingly permit others to torture for us, that we will give our name to "acts of terror that will eternally corrode and corrupt us"? No, we are not, the Alyosha in us is meant to reply.

Except that I am so scared. And I am not certain that I must in every instance say no to what Dorfman calls "acts of terror" - precisely when it is in order to forestall terror, in his own imagining of the dilemma, that we permit such acts to be done. For all the meticulousness of his thinking, doesn't Dorfman, at the last, elide the perpetrator and the victim? And why finally is he so scornful of our fears, as though there is pusillanimity in dreading our extinction?

So there I am, pounding the street, revolving it all, when suddenly an epiphanous moment ...

Coming towards me, looking as distracted as I must, a handsome man of early middle age, black hair flecked with grey, a bristling beard, strong in a leather coat, though it is a little too warm for a leather coat, Islamic in appearance, whatever that means, just as I am Jewish in appearance, whatever that means. For no reason that I can give at the time, I seek his eye. But we have almost passed each other when I realise he has spoken to me. I could just keep walking. He could have abused me. These are tense times. But if he has, and for this too I can give no reason, I want to confront him. Anyone would think I'm up to here with being abused by gentlemen of an Islamic appearance. In fact, not a one has said a wrong word to me or about me that I know of. So why do I turn and approach him, primed for trouble? Or is what I am really seeking intimacy?

Whatever he said the first time, now he asks me for money. I will not attempt to reproduce his words. His English is poor and he is too distressed to make much sense. Something about being an Egyptian, about being cared for by a Pakistani family in north London, about not being able to get work, though he tries every day, and about not being able to feed his children. Tears start to spring from his eyes. Not trickles of tears but fountains of them. Warm tears, too, they look. Not the cold tears of the practised beggar. Close up, his eyes are very beautiful. Honeyed. A lovely, mellifluous brown. Only his teeth, I notice, are rotten. And I can't decide what touches me more: what's beautiful about him or what's broken.

I open my wallet and give him what I hope is not an insulting amount. Then I touch the leather sleeve of his coat. He touches my arm in return. What else is there to do? He is weeping even more now than he was before, an unstoppable stream of tears, part hopelessness, part (God save us) gratitude.

Am I getting something unholy out of this? If I have been seeking intimacy, Jew to Muslim, is the experience more exquisite for me because he is asking and I am giving? I hope not, but who knows. I welcome the occasion for pity, that much I can say, and I think it is diffused pity I am after. I want to be sorry for every one of us.

But after the touching, what? I want to tell him that all will be well, but can't. Instead, I do something very strange - I put my fingers to my mouth and then extend them to him. What am I doing? Blowing a kiss? I don't blow kisses. Not to strange men. He, too, is mystified, but supposing it is something we do here, he returns the gesture. The gaucherie of it all is more than I can bear. To stem my own tears, I turn on my heels and leave him.

Looking back, I reckon that was a kiss I blew. A kiss of sorrow, partly. But also a kiss of fear for all of us, maybe kissing us both goodbye.

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