The other day we found a bookstore which has a cafe in it. These are little paradices, or is it paradie. What a sweet cool feeling to leave behind the clamour of the street and let the doors close on a spacious room whose wall to wall shelving is interrupted only by a serving counter, an espresso machine, a stack of cups.
We separated and began foraging round the overfull shelves like fish nibbling at the walls of a fish tank. I pounced on exactly the book I wanted, Alan Bennett’s diary extracts and essays; he carried to the table a small pyramid of Marshall McLuhans. Our coffee arrived. We began to read. The older couple at the next table got up and came past us on their way to the counter. The man, a bluff, rural Queenslander type, addressed me across my companion’s back. “So. How tall IS he?”
I said, “He’s right here. Why don’t you ask him yourself, if you want to know. Don’t you think it’s rude to talk across somebody about them, without addressing them directly?”
He was hurt. “I just noticed as he was wandering round the shop. I kept wondering, how tall is that bloke.”
I put my hand on my companion’s beautiful shoulder. He closed his book. “Imagine he gets asked that question a lot. Imagine we both do. Maybe it feels dehumanising to constantly be asked about something you can’t do anything about. I get asked it, too.”
His wife said, “Our daughter’s tall.”
I said, “Well, then, she will know what it feels like. It’s amazing how people feel entitled to ask that question when we are not even in conversation, we haven’t even spoken. I’ve even had people ask me my height, and then refuse to give their own – as though mine were some kind of freakish public statistic but theirs is personal information.”
“Our daughter’s six foot two,” she said, gamely. “Me too,” I said. Her husband said, across me, “Seven feet?”
“Nearly,” said the Marshall McLuhan fan.
“He’s about six foot eight,” I said. A series of fresh questions ran through my head: How old are you? How much do you weigh? Have you measured that beer belly, what’s its circumference? But the poor man was labouring so hard to restore the goodwill he imagined he’d lost, was so awkward in his warm-heartedness, that I didn’t want to make the point because clearly he would think I was being hurtful, he wouldn’t get it, he would perhaps even not have the resources for self-expression and processing his emotions that some of us have worked hard for, and I didn’t want to leave him with an insect sting all the rest of the long hot trafficky afternoon. The only thing I feel certain of in life is this: you don’t gain ground by hurting the people who have hurt you.