COLUMN: February 4, 2016

I AM not really a touchy-feely person. I am more a shunny-shunny person. I guard my personal space as enthusiastically as the Israeli army.

If you take up position within 12 inches of me, I will lean back, if necessary taking up the pose of an expert limbo dancer. My theme tune is the Police song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”, but only the chorus.

Incidentally, none of this applies in lifts or on public transport, because it is clear the people around are not standing next to me by choice. We are all in it together, and it is horrible.

All of this is by way of setting the scene of last Monday night. On the way home, I remembered that I was down to the last sheet of kitchen roll and penultimate squirt of washing-up liquid, and called in at the late-night tiny supermarket opposite my office.

“Would you like a bag?” the man on the checkout asked. Yes, I thought, the last thing I want to do is walk through the city centre carrying kitchen rolls and washing-up liquid in my hands, appearing to all the world like a crack freelance cleaner who is always ready for action. It is definitely worth five pence to avert that eventuality.

“Yes, please,” I said, because even when I am ruining the environment I like to be polite.

But, as I left the shop, my bag swinging by my side, I began to feel annoyed about The Bag Of Bags, the bag for life in my kitchen, whose only purpose is to house about three pounds’ worth of carrier bags I have previously bought.

A sensible person would always have one to hand, but I do not want to be that person. I am surely too young to be the sort of person who has an emergency carrier bag tucked away – I was born after the Beatles split up and I barely remember James Callaghan, let alone Harold Wilson.

It was this line of thought which distracted me and made me not see the couple in the street until it was far too late. Had I seen them earlier I would have crossed the road and got on with my life.

Their voices were raised. “Oh, good,” I thought, as my every muscle tensed, “What I need now is to have to intervene in a violent argument with a man who is roughly three inches taller and 15 years younger and the only weapon I have is concentrated washing-up liquid.”

But, as I got closer, I realised that it was not an argument so much as a concentrated haranguing by the young blonde-haired woman. It was a relief. I veered to avoid them, when she said: “Excuse me, can you settle an argument between me and my boyfriend?”

I doubted that very strongly, but I turned around, dreams of catching the 25-past bus ebbing away.

“I reckon people don’t hug each other enough,” she said, as she swayed towards me, clearly drunk on something, probably not hugs. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know, I mean…” I began. “Oh! Can I hug you?!” she said, and before I could react she flung her arms around me.

I stared terrified at her hulking boyfriend and shrugged, my palms raised. He, equally bemused, made the same gesture. We had bonded, brothers in bafflement.

“See, you feel much better, don’t you?” said the woman as she clung onto me. No, I thought, please stop doing this. “Yes,” I said, “Can I go now?”

She did not let go, and, so much worse, her boyfriend said: “Oh, I’ll join in.” And he made it a triple hug.

Two young men approached. I turned my head and said: “I don’t know what is happening.” I was concentrating hard on my wallet and my phone, in case this was some sort of pickpocketing scam.

They were with the couple. “Oh, group hug!” one of them said, and they piled on too. I was in a sort of scrum.

“Well, this has been very nice,” I lied. “But I must get my bus.” They peeled away, leaving only the woman, who planted a smacker on my actual mouth.

She dislodged herself from me and sent me on my way. “Don’t forget you are loved,” said the drunken angel.

And, as I walked away, I realised that I had learnt a valuable lesson. Always have a carrier bag in your coat pocket.
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