I looked up from my phone. My girlfriend had texted me. She’d changed her mind and decided to go for a drink with the girls from the office so could I get something for myself? Yep, I thought, I’ll also pass the off licence for a bottle of Australian red.
I started people watching, something I never do. I’d never taken much notice of how much people now walk around in their own world, without passing a word between them. People passed each other like unlit ships on a foggy night, unaware of each other and in danger of colliding. Heads tilted, eyes down and in total ignorance of their surroundings. I guess once upon a time people used to wander along with paperbacks or something. I can’t remember.
A man stepped out into the middle of the pavement, a newspaper (a newspaper?) under one arm, an umbrella under the other. With his Bowler Hat, he gave me the impression of a Magritte painting. He looked around at the tide of people ebbing and flowing around him, smiling and amazed as they avoided walking into him.
“Excuse me?”, he said.
Screen-lit faces continued to shine briefly then they were gone.
Palm-held virtual reality maintained its silence.
The man looked around once more, coughed politely and took the newspaper from under his arm.
He unfolded it and shook out the creases. Looking around once again he opened it, arms wide, and stood in the middle of the pavement.
Two lines of people opened up, one going east, the other west. I watched him stand like a beacon in the middle of it all. A low hum of voices murmured. He watched their faces, gently lit in the phone-glow, as they approached him, an unwanted distraction as they tried to avoid him.
“Can’t you move?”
“Do you have to just stand there?”
A gust of wind rustled the paper in the man’s hands. He ignored it and continued to stand there, arms wide, as an army of new-age hunchbacks flowed around him. I laughed. The other people at the bus-stop looked at me, now distracted from their own telephones. Smiling, I left my place in the queue, forgetting all about the number 38 that would take me home.
I took an Evening Standard from the rack and walked up to the man. Standing in front of him I opened the newspaper. I heard his paper shuffle as people continued to tut and moan their way around us. A face peered round his newspaper. He raised one eyebrow, disappeared behind his paper and cleared his throat.
“Shares due to plummet.”
Smiling, I scanned the pages.
“Sex scandal secretary wants top job”, I replied.
“Do you have to bloody well stand there?”, asked someone as they almost collided with us, his sappy smartphone face a picture of indignation. He went back to his phone and moved on. The man behind the paper coughed.
“Environment minister to quit over unethical shareholdings”
I took up the game.
“Woman jailed for manhood attack.”
“Price of oil to continue dropping.”
“Actress in no-underwear shocker.”
It continued to and fro as we worked our way through the papers, ignoring the protests of passers-by. Finally, we’d finished.
He doffed his hat to me as he folded the newspaper and stuck it under his arm.
“Same time next week,” he said, “but next time, bring a broadsheet.”