Tim Key: If you're English, when is the right time to intervene in the life of a stranger?


Click to follow
The Independent Online

When do you step in? That's what I've been mulling over this morning in my hotel room, in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.

When was the last time you threw out all considerations of polite pussy-footing and Englishness and intervened in the life of a stranger? I did it about an hour ago, at breakfast, and now I'm lying on my Bulgarian bed, buzzing. I made an intervention. I did the right thing.

Here's the situation: I was sat on the next table from a loud-mouthed Canadian and his docile, bespectacled business partner. The Canadian had a Sony Vaio and I knew he was Canadian because he kept yelling about ice hockey and Toronto and Jermain Defoe and because his laptop bag had a maple leaf insignia on it. He was pissed that his emails were not getting answered and in particular he was pissed that a lawyer seemed to be replying to his emails without reading them. But mainly he was pissed in general. And he was bawling about all of this right down the throat of this other guy. His veins were popping out from his temples and he was YELLING. And the other guy never said a word. Just took it. God I felt sorry for him.

The little fella was English and sat in misery throughout. Like a schoolboy breakfasting in a wind tunnel, he was gripping his chair with one hand, keeping his glasses on with the other and occasionally dipped down to nibble muesli. He looked unhappy with the onslaught but he looked used to it. Trapped in this relationship, he just focused on chewing his oats and agreeing with everything. At one point the Canadian asked if he was even listening and he confirmed that he was. There was a pause as the Canadian ate an egg. Then the tirade began anew.

Unfair. Unjust. Grim. But what could I do? When a Canadian gets like that, should you step in? The Canadian finished his meal and licked his plate and yelled at his shrew. "WE'LL MEET IN THE LOBBY AT 10.30!" I couldn't bear it. This poor sod condemned to spending the day in some bleak conference room on the outskirts of Sofia, nodding dopily as this massive twerp ran through his PowerPoint.

And yet still I didn't intervene.


Clearly Michael didn't have a jacket. He looked so sad. He probably only had the Fred Perry and grey tracksuit bottoms he was eating his muesli in.

The Canadian barrelled off to put some more gel in his hair, leaving our man sat, head bowed at his table, Bulgarians shutting down the buffet beyond him. I didn't know what to say. He sat there a while as I took notes on what I had seen. He needed some Michael-time, I think. Recovering from the jet of exclamation marks and spittle he'd just absorbed. He sat motionless. I checked my phone: 10.30.

It got to 10.35 and he still wasn't moving. I was getting concerned, if I'm honest. Why was he still here?

10.40. I looked at the man. Once or twice he would steel himself – lift his minute frame an inch above his seat, but ultimately he couldn't do it. Maybe I imagined the single tear dropping into his saucer.

10.45 and I could bear it no longer. Against all my instincts, I intervened.

"Mate. 10.45. You were meant to be in the lobby at half ten".

He looked across at me, surprised. Then sad. Then surprised again. Maybe 20 years older than me, something obviously didn't feel right about hearing my contribution. He rose from the table, and there was a coffee stain on the bottom of his Fred Perry.

"Yup," he said, almost inaudibly. And he shuffled off to meet the Canadian.

I sipped the last of my coffee and nodded. I had stepped in. I cracked my knuckles. Well done me.