What We Don’t See

Her red dress means she's angry.

Her red dress means she’s angry.

I thought it was only in Tokyo that the sheer volume of commuters packs you in until you are unable to breathe. In London, it’ll be different.

I’m wrong. The crowd shifts around me, like an ever-shuffling sea. I feel my feet slightly lift off the floor. The mob unwittingly carries me from Ravenscourt Park to Hammersmith, where they stream out, pausing to exhale. The next deep breath will be expelled before entering the doors of offices, schools, hospitals, shops.

Seats flash their primary colours for only an instant before being smothered by Primark, Gap, the occasional Levis. It’s a dog eat dog world.

I stand directly before a ridiculously handsome man. There is a hint of the Mediterranean around his brow, nose, and jawline. His hair curls around his ears. The woman seated next to him seems immune to his beauty, and taps away at Apple’s latest.

To my right, the doors scream open. A voice – “Could you be more careful? I’m heavily pregnant and trying to get off!” Necks crane at the promise of an altercation. The handsome man doesn’t look up from his novel.

Blood is in the air. “Get off then, you silly cow!” A sudden motion from the corner of my eye as someone falls, or is pushed, from the carriage. We all stare at the offender, a small man with a beard and small round glasses. He looks like a professor. We all hate him now. A lady, her face flushed with indignation, makes slowly for the exit. Her stomach is swollen, her breathing is heavy.

We continue to glare at the professor as we continue on our way, but we turn our faces back to our gadgets when he glances our way, flustered.

Were there such attacks on the Yamanote Line, as we sped from one prefab station to another? I can’t remember at first, then a memory stirs.

A man in the white shirt, black trousers uniform of the salaried worker, skulking away from me. There is blood coming from his nose, and his hand is clapped to it. He tries to look nonchalant. Nobody notices, or everybody pretends that they haven’t noticed.

I made that blood come from that nose. I made it appear by cracking my fist solidly against it.

In Japan, you can see posters in public areas that read ‘Beware of the Perverts.’ I had been leaning against a post at Ikebukuro station when I felt the hand on my behind. I had tutted and moved away – a rather insignificant action that didn’t credit the indiscretion that had taken place. When the man decided to move in for another try, it dawned on me that a stronger reaction was appropriate.

The punch had not been a satisfying one – more of a squish than a crunch. Had he not turned so suddenly, I would have tried for a second shot.

Even afterwards, I justified to myself that I shouldn’t have been groped, because I was only wearing a baggy T shirt and jeans – hardly the stuff titillation is made of. Such is the mindset of the jaded commuter in Tokyo, too absorbed in thoughts of the next day’s tasks and the latest romantic developments to comprehend that a gross indignity has taken place. It was only later that disquiet set in. Had it been my sister, would I have been so unconcerned that no one had done anything while she was manhandled by a stranger?

The wheels of change were already in the air when I left Japan – the cartoonish pervert signs were slowly replaced by a graphic of an angry woman in an even angrier red dress, her pixilated face twisted in rage. The subject of her ire, a shadowed baddie with lascivious intent, received the glares of surrounding commuters. Times were changing.

Back on the London train, the slight professor disembarks, no worse the wear for his outburst.

Should I have said something? I should have said something.

The first three buttons of the Mediterranean man’s shirt are undone, revealing a generous expanse of chest hair. It is also slightly too tight, showcasing rather large shoulders. The look is too sculpted, too self-aware. He loses his appeal in an instant.

When he later picks his nose and wipes it on the seat, we all pretend not to see.


So that happened. It’s common in Tokyo. It’s not like similar things don’t happen in other countries, but even after several years, the ‘Women Only’ carriages really got to me. You see a lot of unusual behaviour on trains – once I saw a middle aged businessman slapping a girl who nudged him while she was doing her makeup. 

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