Seán Moncrieff: When it comes to Christmas and Covid, Hell is other people

The hope of a beautifully-lit advert-type Christmas crashes into frantic consumerism

At Christmas time in Dublin, hell has become other people. Photograph: iStock

At Christmas time in Dublin, hell has become other people. Photograph: iStock

 

On the way into work, I had to nip into the shops to make a quick purchase. (Slippers, if you must know). Slipper-buying is, for me, not a process that involves a great deal of deliberation. Choose a pair that fits and don’t have rabbit heads on them, pay, and off I go.

Which is what happened. While making my way out of the shop, I walked down the escalator. I was on the right side. A woman, standing on the left side, recoiled when she saw me doing this.

“You can’t walk past people,” she exclaimed. “You can’t walk past people!”

Just for clarity, I’m pretty sure there was nothing threatening or rude in the way I was walking. I wasn’t swinging my arms wildly. I didn’t have a length of timber on my shoulder. I wasn’t singing. I was just walking. I’ve never had any complaints before.

Nonetheless, this woman was outraged at what I had done, and intimated that I was an appalling person for having done so.

The woman may well have been having a full-blown attack of the Christmas Crankies

I reacted with sarcasm: because that always helps resolve conflict situations. I thanked her for outlining the escalator rules for me. Pretty weak sarcasm, actually, because as anyone who has travelled on the London Underground will tell you, there are escalator rules: you stand on the left side. You walk on the right side.

L’esprit de l’escalier translates as “staircase wit”: meaning all the snappy comebacks you think of long after an encounter has taken place. This was literally a case of that. I should have told her to call the Escalator Police. Or that she could sue me in Escalator Court.

Later on, ensconced in my new slippers, I told Herself about what had happened. Rather annoyingly, she opted to be kind; to opine that perhaps the woman was having a bad day. Even more annoyingly, Herself is probably right.

Not that realising it at the time would have made much of a difference. Asking if she was having a bad day would probably have enraged her further. She was hardly going to confide her troubles to some slipper-carrying stranger who wantonly walks past people.

Rather than angry, she may have been scared.

It may have been the physical situation: there we were, on the escalator in Marks & Spencer (nothing but the best when I’m buying slippers) while some mind-numbing song involving snowmen or Santa jangled in the background. The woman may well have been having a full-blown attack of the Christmas Crankies.

Every year, you can feel it in the centre of Dublin: the emotional temperature gradually ticking up. People go into town imagining a relaxed stroll around the shops, only to encounter hordes of other people with the same expectation. They bump and weave around one another, spurred by the nagging realisation that time is running out, that they are nowhere near filling the long list of presents they need to get; presents they haven’t even thought of yet. The hope of a beautifully-lit advert-type Christmas crashes into the reality of frantic consumerism.

And it’s a tension further magnified by the knowledge that we shouldn’t really be doing this at all. We shouldn’t be collecting in large crowds. It’s not safe. Yet that crashes into our experience of the last two years. Everything that has been sacrificed, and our desperate, essential need to navigate back to something like normal life. Even if it’s the annoyances of Christmas shopping.

Sometimes, I can be a bit slow. Because it only strikes me now that what agitated that woman may have been more to do with the latter than the former: by walking past her, I came within two metres. We were both masked and it lasted less than a second, yet it was enough to greatly alarm her. Rather than angry, she may have been scared. She may have felt that fear from the moment she walked out her front door. Another French phrase: L’enfer, c’est les autres. Hell has become other people. 

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