Thomas Ovans wonders about breakdown of the social contract

A few days ago, my wife and I got on a bus at about 5 o’clock on a weekday evening.  Unsurprisingly the bus was crowded and we had to take two separate seats alongside pre-existing passengers (or “customers” as they are called nowadays).   In London, one does not normally pay much attention to the other occupant of a double seat before slumping down next to them.  So I was mildly surprised when my new travelling companion remarked “You’re brave”.  Even as I began to ask him what he meant, I noticed he had a box resting on his lap – the kind that might be used to carry a small animal.  “What’ve you got in there?” I asked him politely; and, with a calmness that was only slightly feigned, I began peering through the box’s air holes –  prepared, I suppose, for a glimpse of some kind of reptile or large insect.

“It isn’t in the box,” he said; and these five words are likely to stay with me for quite a long time.  For indeed it wasn’t in the box.  It was on the back of his hand.  And it was a tarantula.

Well, to be exact, he said it was a tarantula and I was in no position to argue.  It was certainly a spider with a body the size of a mouse and eight hairy legs each about three inches long.  (However the legs were not spread out flat and the creature would probably not have completely covered a dinner plate: I would not wish to be accused of exaggeration.)

As I relive the moment, I recall that its feet were darker than its legs, giving the impression it was wearing small black ankle socks.

“Do you often take it on the bus?” I asked him, calling on all the sang froid I possessed.  This effort probably raised the pitch of my speaking voice by a semi-tone or two. “This is number seven,” he replied, somewhat elliptically; “I’ve got six more.”  Fortunately they were not about his person: this was a new pet he’d been to fetch from somewhere near Marble Arch, and the other half-dozen were at home.

“She’s in a good mood today,” he reassured me.  And indeed the creature seemed quite peaceful as he was stroking it.  But no, it wasn’t dead or a dummy – as subsequent events made clear.  I found myself wondering if it was subject to rapid mood-swings.

We continued a civil but (on my side at least) slightly strained conversation about the habits of arachnids for a couple of stops and then the person sitting next to my wife got off and I said I thought I’d move to sit with her.  Whatever respect I might have gained evaporated at once. “Coward,” he jeered in lightly mocking tones.

In fact I wasn’t going to escape very far because my wife was only one row further forward and had heard most of our conversation – except for the bit about the spider not being in the box.  So she wasn’t quite as alarmed as she might have been when my erstwhile companion leaned forward and asked me “What would you do if I put it in her hair?”

“I’d hit you” I said, which surprised me almost as much as I hope it startled him.  At any rate he seemed to conclude we were no fun any more and turned his attention to laughing at a woman who had nearly sat down with him before jumping away when she saw what she was next to.

By the time we finally got off the bus, the spider-man had struck up a friendly conversation with an African gentleman who seemed quite untroubled that the tarantula was now walking up and down its owner’s arm while he kissed it and called it sweetheart.

While no animals were harmed during the unfolding of this story, I think we must assume that a number of London Transport bye-laws were being broken.  But neither I nor any of the other passengers appeared to feel inclined to remonstrate with the amateur naturalist. And probably no one thought of telling the bus driver because we suspected that, even if we did so, he would not come out of his cosy little cab to take any action.

At one level, this is no more than a funny story.  Nobody was hurt.  Nobody was really threatened.  Yet it shows how one person with – what shall we call it? – a severe lack of empathy is free to do pretty much as they please if others do not assert themselves.  My own brief verbal threat of violence was hypothetical and conditional; and it did not address the offence the spider-man was already giving.

Why didn’t I ask him nicely to please put the thing away?  Was it because I genuinely thought he might turn nasty (or should that be nastier?) if he was upset?  Or was I governed by the rather feebler reasoning that it would be so embarrassing if he ignored my wishes and I didn’t know what to do next?

In the short run it is often easier to tolerate, or even humour, low-level anti-social behaviour than to confront it.  But situations with eight legs can climb up several levels fairly quickly: suppose the bus had lurched and the spider had fallen to the floor to scuttle among a crowd of easily-panicked commuters…

During that short bus ride there seemed to be a collective lack of confidence about applying the pressure of group disapproval to one inconsiderate individual.  There might, of course, have been a corresponding insensitivity on the part of that individual to any such group pressure: but that possibility was never tested.  I wonder whether many of us have lost (or surrendered) all capacity for exercising any control over the society we live in.

A few weeks before the spider incident, we saw a bus on the Euston Road being surrounded and then boarded by armed police officers.  I have no idea what had provoked this action and I am in no position to comment on it.   But might this serve as an example of what could happen more frequently if we are content to remain inactive in awkward situations until some critical threshold is reached – at which point we all suddenly feel entitled to dial 999?

Thomas Ovans is an Irishman living in London.  For many years he was a writer and editor of academic books and journals but is now exploring a wider range of subject matter.