Mary Killen

Dear Mary | 10 September 2015

Plus: An artist with too many friends; and a knotty legal problem

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Q. I regularly travel on the Ashford-St Pancras train and usually put my case on the seat next to me so that passengers can pass along the aisle, after which I put it down by my feet. Last week a woman pointed at it and said loudly, ‘Does that deserve a seat of its own?’ Irritated that my travel etiquette had been called into question, I sought out the woman and tried to explain. She was rude and dismissive, said ‘Have you made your point?’ and told me to go away. I did so, because her two young children and someone I took to be her mother were seated with her and, from their body language, had seen it all before. I fear she is a serial bossy-boots. I am a retired woman of a certain age, far from robust, and feel I was bullied. Mary, what could I have said to make her think twice before hectoring someone else?

— L.T., Lavenham, Suffolk

A. It is best to bear in mind that 5,000 mental health beds have had to be closed in the wake of overspending and that many of those who should be in secure units are instead out and about in the community. You can never be sure when abusive strangers fall into this group but it helps to assume they do. In the situation you describe you might have gained the upper hand by suddenly coming over all compassionate and mouthing ‘Sorry’ to the family in complicit manner.

Q. I’m getting pressure all the time from friends who want to see me and who assume that, because I’m an artist, I don’t ‘work’. Yet even if I was free all day I still couldn’t cope since, although I like all of them, there are just too many. It doesn’t help that I live in central London, but short of moving abroad how can I stop hurting people’s feelings?

—Name and address withheld

A. You will have to take a tip from Picasso, who in early life processed his otherwise unmanageable numbers of friends by declaring Sundays open-house day. Even if some friends require one-to-one consultations, it is better to offer them this diluted opportunity to see you than none at all.

Q. My father has just died and a friend’s daughter, whom I don’t much like, is doing her first job at the large law firm which is handling his estate. It is possible that she will not be working in the section which is dealing with it — nevertheless, the idea of her having access to my family’s finances fills me with horror. How can I find out tactfully if she has seen any of my family’s papers or is likely to? I see her parents regularly, and her occasionally.

— Name and address withheld

A. Telephone the relevant partner at the law firm and ask him or her to confirm that the files are only accessible by a restricted list of people, which would not include this girl. The partner will be used to such requests and is unlikely to be surprised by yours.