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Danny Wallace on how to deal with unwritten rule breakers

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Danny Wallace
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All I can think is, “How do you get people sent to the Hague?”

Do you know what the people sitting at the table on the train have done?

DO you?

Because I’ve only just worked it out and I am livid. I am filled with frustration. My blood is all aboil. I sit here appalled and incandescent, quivering in silent and impotent rage.

These people – this couple – have invented an imaginary friend.

Not like when we invented them when we were kids. It’s not a friendly pink elephant or a tiny fairy called Pipsy Sparklenose or some kind of sickly ghost child that makes our parents think we’re mildly disturbed.

No, this imaginary friend is a cynical imaginary friend. One they take with them on trains, magicked out of thin air to aid and abet social atrocities like the one they’re currently committing.

Oh, there they sit, one of them gawping slack-jawed at her iPad and the other one staring intently at a newspaper, while right opposite an ‘innocent’ jacket and an ‘innocent’ bag lie draped across two seats.

“Oh no, you can’t sit here,” these items seem to say. “Because there’s someone sitting here.”

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But there isn’t. The jacket and bag belong to these two clowns. They’re props. They have created a little set dressing for a play I’m going to call ‘Selfish Nits’. They have paid for two seats but because they’re so special they think they deserve four.

I keep watching people getting on the train and looking for somewhere to sit and walking straight past two perfectly good seats because there’s someone sitting there, and all I can think is, “How do you get people sent to the Hague?”

Well, I can remain a bystander no longer. I am going to have to act. It is time.

I am going to have to glance meaningfully at them.

So I do. I turn my head and begin a long, lingering look at them to start with, and then I glance quickly at the unoccupied seats. Then I shake my head almost imperceptibly and shift heavily backwards into my seat.

They do not look at me for even a second, but they will have sensed my look. I have a very powerful look. And the quick glance at the seats, which they will also have sensed, will have put them in no doubt of the narrative I am psychically sending their way.

Now that they realise I am onto them they must doubtless be riddled with guilt. That I, a brave traveller, have noticed their insolence, their arrogance – their theft! – because I briefly looked at them and then at the seats.

But the natural high of this adrenalised fight or flight soon fades, and I realise that I am not actually sure they got the message.

So I decide that in a minute I’m going to say something. Something cutting like, “How are the four of you doing?” or “Double date?” or “How are you enjoying all your very many seats?”

I will be hailed a hero, particularly by the silent woman opposite me who I have inexplicably decided is an ally in all this. I have convinced myself she feels the same way about this pair of total balloons and their amateur production of ‘Selfish Nits’, because I noticed she tidied her tea bag away after she finished her tea, so I have decided she gets it, she knows how to behave on a train, she must hate these two absolute drainpipes.

But just before I do, I remember a vital detail. This is the quiet carriage! There’s a sign that says so. They made an announcement to back it up. Phones are off and silence is golden. To start a confrontation would be to risk all that, but what is more important?

I am at a vital crossroads between enforcing society’s unwritten rules and breaking society’s written rules. This is quite the moral quandary for me. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Which one should take precedence? I am a rule-obeyer, but to force others to obey the rules would now mean breaking the rules myself.

In many ways this makes me like a hard-nosed TV detective willing to do whatever it takes so long as I get results. But why are some rules written down, and others not?

Why is there a sign saying ‘Quiet Carriage’ but nothing saying ‘Don’t Thieve Seats!’ or ‘No Imaginary Friends!’ or ‘Never Eat Your Egg Sandwich Next To A Stranger!’

Because guess what? Now the woman opposite me – the one I thought was an ally – has reached into her handbag and brought out an egg sandwich. Has the world gone insane?

I spend the rest of the journey glancing powerfully at an egg sandwich and then glancing also at some seats. No one pays any attention to this whatsoever. It is as if just glancing is no longer enough for Britain, and this shames us all. We’re going to have to become like France.

And next time, I’m bringing a printer onto the train, and I’m making my own signs.

Read the Danny Wallace archive here

(Image: Getty)