metropolitan arrangement

A triplet of Germans discussed their favourite alcoholic beverages, and their friend who had got the Epstein-Barr virus. Some French thirty-somethings smoked outside. It was small. There were books, board games, a chaise-lounge. I took to the chaise-lounge, reclined with my pad and pen, scribbled some physics, and sipped orange juice — they had shut up their espresso machine. Who would serve me coffee at this hour? “Ne personne!” In Paris, one can sip one’s coffees and do physics until the early hours. But Lyon stops caffeinating at 7pm, or so it seems. The cafe closed. They offered me a plastic cup for the orange juice.

The metro was closed. It had been so lovely to ride the metro after dinner on a work night: tired parents with hyperalert children, sleepy office-dwellers, bantering teenagers. I saw a waiting taxi, but the 20 euro in my pocket would barely be enough to pay for it. I decided to cycle home. But use of the city’s bicycles requires that your card have a balance greater than 150 euro: and mine did not.

So I started the walk. A beautiful, solemn walk beneath a full moon. Hard black waters. Neat rows of over-bright street lamps. Stately houses reclining in yellow on the other side of the river. ‘The authentic Australian Bar’ sat moored to the quay. And I followed the Rhone, flowing with it through this large, stately — French — public space. Close to home, I thought.

He was young and very obvious. He walked behind me — faster steps and still faster. I thought about running. Or stopping. Or crossing the road. But then he was there, gently holding my arm: the beginning of an evening’s courtship. Two women were walking ten meters ahead.

“Mesdames!” I said, half-hearted. “M’aider?”

“Non non,” he said.

And I acquiesced. He was right: the women weren’t going to stop. They knew what was going on — everyone did. We all agreed to proceed according to plan. The plan involved handing over my cellphone.

“Telephone, telephone,” he said.

I didn’t have one. So he sprayed me lightly on the face. It felt fresh and dry. I imagined him as a school bully spraying deodorant at me in the locker-room. I thought about the locker-rooms at Lincoln High School. How I had always felt so bad, so dirty in that place: the ceiling stippled with caked-on flakes of dried deodorant spray. Later, they built a new facility which was much nicer but had a minor flaw: one part of the changing benches could be seen from the outside corridor. It was here that Maia once spotted me changing.

“I saw Hadleigh in his underwear!”

I tried to find the attention flattering. But, instead, I was enervated by the labour of finding a response.

“Okay,” I had said.

Returning to the Lyon quay, to the Rhone, to Western Europe, seemed like a reprieve. My assailant had now pushed me to the ground — limestone chips. White dust hung in the air, on my palms. I couldn’t bring myself to feel scared. When he had first held my arm I was barely alert to the thing that was befalling me. After the first few sprays, I had looked at what he was holding with curiosity. So small and black. Then Maia and the deodorant stippling and now he’s tapping me on the left shoulder and saying ‘telephone!’

I could barely be bothered explaining that I don’t own a telephone. I felt a pang of derision: life is more sacred than all these little details — phones, muggings, attacks on Westminster bridge. When I was in the hospital in Trieste, a kind hearted Italian man with a bandaged nose, led me to the television room where he pointed at a news show and said ‘your country!’ Theresa May was decrying an ‘awful act of violence’, but, recalling my own memories of London, I felt more sympathy for the outsider — that confused, lonely person driving a truck — than I did for the leaders and institutions that helped to build a world where the rich man can live in a tower beneath whose feet lie millions. ‘Poor everyone,’ I thought.

The fact remains: I don’t have a cellphone. In my mumbled state — caught between reminiscences and being mugged — I couldn’t quite say the right thing.

“Je n’aime pas des telephones!”

He paused. It was a funny thing to say. I smiled.

“Ah, non…” I said. “Je dois direr que je n’ai pas un telephone.”

I said it badly, or else he didn’t believe me, because he started pushing me again and saying “telephone.”

“Regardez,” I replied.

So he rifled through my coat and my pockets and grabbed my document case: which contained a single memo pad. This seemed to cross a line. My wallet had contained only 20 euro. My bag, now, contained a worthless pad. I was a disappointment to him — rich looking on the outside, but worthless to the mugger. He had risked exposing himself for nothing: for 20 euro. So he pushed me back again, against some railings. (How good, I thought, that he can’t quite push me into the river from here.) He tried searching my coat again. And my pants. And grabbing my crotch. Then he stopped, with the air of a child made self-conscious, and pulled me to my feet.

He was agitated. I felt sorry for him. Especially because he was half a head shorter than me and so youthful looking. He had a tracksuit on. It was adidas, perhaps. Noticing how neatly he was dressed, I thought ‘he’s so organised.’ I felt guilty for thinking this. ‘Why can’t I be afraid of him? Or angry?’

There was a pause.

“Umm..” he said, stepping back.

He pulled my glasses forward and, his elbow crooked in a funny way, doused my eyes with pepper spray — pushing me as he ran off. This is when it began to hurt. And, suddenly alone, this is when I first felt vulnerable.