Ian McMillan: Facing up to a surprise etiquette dilemma

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I went into a crowded café the other day to satisfy my almost spiritual need for a small espresso and a toasted teacake; I knew that once I’d taken those items on board I would be a more complete human being. Well, that’s my excuse. I’d certainly be a more rounded human being, if you get my drift.

Because it was Yorkshire on a Friday afternoon, the room was full and I thought for one shuddering second that I might have to leave and seek solace elsewhere but then I saw an empty stool. You see, the establishment thought of itself as trendy, so there was a row of high stools next to a shelf by the window, the idea being that you would, to use advertising language, perch’n’surf with your laptop or other internet-enabled device as you gazed out of the window and sipped your drink. I rushed towards the seat but then I stopped in my tracks; there was a banana on the stool.

You’ll understand my dilemma. I’m from Yorkshire so I’ve always been brought up to respect other people’s territory. When I was younger and played with my mates down North Street, if we happened to stray too far onto her path from the pavement Mrs Beck would come out and fix us with a stare that could melt parkin and shout, “Heyop! Get on your own part!” The dimensions of “Your own part” were never written down but everybody knew where they were. Whether it was your own part, your own bit, your own end, or as I once memorably heard, your own barrow handle, the unspoken assumption was that anywhere you went there was a map with invisible but firm boundaries that you didn’t cross, ever. It still happens, of course: there’s a space on a train seat, between you and your fellow passenger, that will forever remain No-Commuter’s Land and no matter how crowded Scarborough beach gets, there’ll always be a tiny area of clear golden sand between your game of cricket and the next.

So what of the banana on the café stool? Was it, for my purposes, the equivalent of somebody else’s barrow handle? If there had been a jacket draped over the back of the stool or a hat on the stool’s seat then it would have been obvious that the stool wasn’t free, but the banana was ambiguous.

I pondered which other objects might make you think twice before sitting on a stool, and which wouldn’t. A purse: no sitting. A five pence piece: sitting. A book: no sitting. A bookmark: sitting. A full tin of pop: no sitting. An empty tin of pop: sitting. This made it more difficult: if it had been a banana skin I would have sat down (moving it first of course so that I didn’t slip on it) because it would have been the fruit equivalent of the aforementioned empty tin of pop. But it was unused. It might have been somebody’s healthy snack.

I approached the stool. I spoke to the person at the next stool: “Is this your banana here?” I said, indicating it. The person shook their head and replied, “I think it belongs to that bloke who’s just left; I guess he’ll be back for it in a minute.”

Help me out here, please. What’s the etiquette for this?