A brief adventure in the dangerous complexity of ordinary life, starring no one of importance
My watch shows 15:20, ten minutes left until I'm supposed to meet her. Plenty of time, but I'm not doing anything interesting here so I might as well head down Albion Street early, I can hang around for a few minutes in Virgin to pass the time. I came into Waterstones because I thought I would browse the crime thrillers section but there's nothing new there. While I was standing there a tall, heavy woman in a green business suit took three Patricia Cornwell books off the shelf and walked away with them in the direction of the checkout. I wanted to tell her that only one of them was good, but I was afraid to say anything in case she thought that I was criticizing her reading taste. Maybe she'd already read them and was buying them as a gift for someone she already knew, in which case my comment might make her feel bad or draw some kind of defensive insult from her about my reading tastes. You never know.
I turn away from the shelf and move towards the exit. As I'm walking out I tense up, as I always do when I leave a shop without buying anything. I'm afraid that as I'm passing through the outer doors someone will chase after me, accusing me of stealing something, or that the sensors at the door will go off, triggered by my mobile phone or by something I've bought in another shop that wasn't properly deactivated. I try to act natural, realizing as I do that I'm being absurd; I haven't stolen anything, therefore acting natural was what I was doing before I tensed up. I've probably made myself look suspicious now. I fight the urge to look over my shoulder to see if anyone is watching me, knowing that this would make me look even more suspect, and all the time knowing that I'm being stupid in all of this paranoia. I don't seem to be able to help it.
I approach the doors. A young woman is holding one of them open for me needlessly, but politeness makes me speed up my step so that she doesn't have to stand there for too long waiting for me. This makes me forget to be nervous about the staff mistaking me for a shoplifter, and before I know it I'm out of the doors, standing beside the Big Issue salesman who always works there. Before I can walk away decisively down Albion Street he senses my momentary lack of purpose, catches my eye and says "Big Issue, help the homeless, mate?" Almost before I have time to shake my head politely he says "You couldn't spare fifty pence for a cup of tea could you mate, I'm getting awful cold standing out here." I shake my head again and turn away, and as I'm going I hear him say "Thanks anyway mate, have a good day." I wonder if he's being sincere, and what he really thinks of me. Probably hates people like me, who obviously have money to give but don't give it. I sometimes give change to people on the street if they look like they need it but I've been confused about that recently because there's been a government advertising campaign telling people not to give money to beggars because they'll just use it to buy drugs or alcohol. I don't know if that's true but it's added an extra complication to my decision-making process - how do I know if someone is a drug addict? It's impossible to tell. Maybe they're just very hungry. Maybe they're ill. Maybe they're on prescribed antidepressants. Maybe I should have given him some change for a cup of tea. But he's selling the Big Issue, isn't he? Big Issue salesmen make plenty of money. He can afford a cup of tea. He only asked me for money "for a cup of tea" so that I would think "Oh, it's cold, I feel sorry for him, tea is warm, I'll give him some money." There are all kinds of tricks I've read about that people on the street use. Always ask for a specific amount of money. Always say what you want to use it for. Always make eye contact. Single people out and be persistent. If I catch someone trying to use tricks on me I'll never give them money. But then, maybe they really do need the money, and they're only using the tricks because they have to? It's so hard to know what to do.
Albion Street is busy - it's Saturday afternoon and everyone's in town spending money. I walk behind an elderly man for a few seconds until I get annoyed at how slowly he's moving, and overtake him, having to turn sideways to avoid two young girls who don't make any attempt to change direction in order to avoid me. I deliberately allow my shoulder to bump into the one closest to me as a reminder to be more aware of the people around her; as I walk on I hear her say "asshole" but I don't turn around. It wouldn't be very dignified for a man in his thirties to get into an argument in the street with two teenage girls about who bumped who and who has right of way on the pavement. I shake my head to get rid of the momentary annoyance, and look up into the sky. The sweet cold blue of the morning and early afternoon is becoming cloudy, crisscrossed with contrails and darkening towards rain and sunset. I read something on the Internet about jets that spray chemicals in their wake - "chemtrails" that cause respiratory illnesses and infections. It's a favourite of conspiracy theorists but I often wonder if there might be something in it. It's hard to separate fiction from fact on the Internet. The contrails above my head look normal, but how would I know? Ever since watching the X-Files I haven't felt the same way about government secrecy. I used to think that the government would want to look after the people no matter what; then some stupid TV show freaked me out enough so that I started trying to find out for myself what was going on in the world. Crazy shit. Thousands and thousands of people convinced their governments are deliberately poisoning them fifty different ways, from fluoride in the water and barium in the air to flavourings and sweeteners in processed foods, pesticides and fertilizers, contaminated meat...they can't all be wrong. I don't know what to think. I just hope everything will be okay. I feel powerless to do anything. Look how blue the sky is in that patch above the tall grey office building, where the clouds haven't spread yet. I'd like a blue sky like that for when I die, so I could look at it and sort of disappear into it. But why am I thinking about death?
My attention comes back to street level with a snap just in time for me to avoid walking into a mother pushing a buggy directly at my feet - I jump away and she doesn't even look at me as she passes. She's about five feet tall in her sneakers, wearing grey track pants and a pink sweater and has her hair tied back in a tight ponytail; she has a cigarette in her mouth and a tight, hard expression on her face, as if she's just waiting for someone to say something to her so she can explode at them. I decide once again not to say anything; she's a mother with a child, that's Moral High Ground without even trying. If she wants to push her kid into everyone's feet what do I care? I decide to pay more attention to where I'm going.
There's a queue of people waiting at a cash machine outside the Alliance & Leicester; I walk through the same gap that everyone else on the pavement is walking through, between a tall young man and a woman wearing a brown fur coat. I wonder to myself whether it's rabbit fur or something else. Possibly it might be fake fur. Something seems strange to me about this woman wearing a fur coat because she's quite young - mid-twenties - and she's not wearing any makeup that I can see. She doesn't seem to be the type who would buy a fur coat like that and wear it in public. Maybe she forgot to dress warmly enough for her weekly shopping trip in Leeds with her mother, who's waiting around the corner in the car with the engine running, waiting for her to return with cash. Maybe she stole it. She looks uncomfortable about the fact that the space in front of her is the designated gap for people to walk through; she's afraid that someone will try to take her place in the queue. I know that feeling, and I try to give her a sympathetic smile as I walk past, but she doesn't meet my eyes.
I look left and right as I'm crossing the small, curving part of the road that leads the traffic off Albion Street, and then I'm on the pedestrian section, busier and more spacious, and I quicken my pace a little. My attention sharpens a little and I can see everyone's trajectories as if they were drawn on a screen for me in magic marker - the woman crossing from left to right will pass within two feet of me if I keep my current speed and direction, and once she's past I can change direction very slightly to pass between two men who are walking close to each other but not together. The man on the left is heavy and muscular but has a soft, passive expression on his face, and seems completely harmless. The man on the right is smaller but has a scar on his forehead and two days worth of stubble, and hard, almost expressionless eyes that I'm afraid to meet; I try to leave more space between us than between me and the large man. This makes me think of animals in the wild establishing a pack hierarchy - the larger animals will usually be most dominant because it's hard-wired into most animal brains that size is a good guarantee of victory in a fight. However, some animals can compensate for lack of size through sheer aggression; also, the more successful fights an animal has been in, the more confident and aggressive it will be. Studying psychology made me start thinking this way, and trying to find parallels between people and animals; I can't count the number of times I've had this exact thought in this exact situation. It's as if my mind is stuck in a loop, and I wonder if it's possible to change my thoughts, or even if that would be a good thing to do.
As I'm thinking about this, I change direction again because I've noticed that a girl who has just emerged from the hairdressers and is talking on her mobile phone will cross my path in a few seconds if neither of us changes course. I get annoyed by people talking on mobile phones while they walk, especially if they're female - I've noticed that for some reason, women are made very unaware of their surroundings when they talk on the phone, more so than men. I make a very minor shift, just enough to carry me close behind her as she crosses in front of me. It's getting crowded here, with people crowding into shops and exiting them in random directions, and there's a large crossroads ahead where there are flows of people blending together like streams of water flowing into a pool.
I remember, for the thousandth time, that I used to write poetry when I was younger. I see an image for a brief moment of the people in front of me as particles of water flowing into and around each other, and the city as a maze of tubes and wheels and gates and streams channeling the flow wherever it's supposed to go; then the image disappears again. I breathe deeply, walking a little slower, the task of figuring out everyone's trajectories becoming more difficult as I'm surrounded more and more closely by faces, bodies, directions, conversations, all of them belonging to people I'm seeing for the first time and will probably never see again. I absorb each face as best I can and my mind runs at high speed trying to tell me how I relate to each one; this one is a man of forty whose career is making him wealthy and confident. He may have money but he is probably not as happy as I am due to his neglect of the creative side of his personality. This one is a young, plain girl with an intelligent but sad expression. I would like to give her advice about life and possibly for her to fall in love with me, although I would have to refuse her, sadly and with great kindness. She would always remember me as she went through the rest of her life with a renewed sense of inspiration and confidence. This one is an angry young man, probably unemployed, resenting most of the people around him who have money to spend recklessly in the shops. He would be able to beat me in a fight but I don't have to fear him because people here would automatically help me rather than him; I'd never willingly go into "his" area of the city where I'd stand out and be in danger. I imagine the two of us in a fight, and him pulling out a knife, his eyes desperate and full of blind hate. I mentally disarm him, hurting him but not too badly, just enough to humiliate him. This one is a woman of about sixty with heavy, obvious makeup and a furry hat, her expression frozen in a perpetual grimace of social self-consciousness; she means well in most of the things she does but her rigid, outdated and religious beliefs prevent her from understanding the world she now lives in. I'd like to tell her that everything she thinks is wrong. I'd like to tell her that her generation failed their children and grandchildren in the worst way; they taught us nonsense and superstition and punished us for questioning them.
Each one of them is gone in a second, never to enter my life again, and all the thoughts I have about them are wasted, unrecorded and useless to me or anyone else, passing delusions about passing people, each thought designed to give me an excuse to feel superior to every person I see. I've seen this before, known it and recognized it, but I have no way of stopping it. It's me.
All the trajectories become confused and I have to keep slowing down and speeding up, turning to avoid people, being moved away from my chosen path, always trying to get back to it, always steering myself towards my goal. Virgin, the familiar red signs, the sound of music from the open doors. The patch of blue sky is almost gone now behind the grey building, and I think it might rain soon. The mood in the street is one of haste and even fear, as if we can all smell the rain. We have to complete our missions for the day before the rain comes. Slippers and masking tape, bin liners, new shoes. A newspaper and a cup of coffee, a new book, some CDs. Fly spray, a pair of black combats, underwear, computer screen wipes, peanut butter, a set of screwdrivers. I look around again and a new thought enters my head about every person I see; I try to imagine what their missions are, right now. Where are they going and why? A woman in a tight plastic anorak walking hastily towards Safeway; she's looking for cheap shampoo and conditioner for her children but she doesn't like going to the city markets. A man in a suit walks past, forcing me to step aside a little; his frown tells me that he's going to meet his wife, and has just come from meeting with his girlfriend. The old woman is still heading towards Boots; she has haemorrhoids and she's dreading going to the counter with whatever treatment she buys because she thinks of it as an "old woman problem" and she doesn't yet want to think of herself as an "old woman". She still wants to feel attractive. She doesn't want to be forgotten about.
The three goth teenagers walking near me towards Virgin don't have enough money to buy music but they want to test out a system one of them has suggested for getting the security tags off PS2 games without being seen; they look excited but a little nervous, and one of them, the "mule" who will have to take the risk of getting the stuff out of the shop, is wearing a large trenchcoat and looks distinctly worried, his cheeks a little flushed and his eyes darting from side to side a little. I'm making all of this up, amn't I? I enter the shop and lose sight of the teenagers as they head downstairs and I stay upstairs to browse the DVDs. I find an uncrowded spot next to one of the shelves and check the time on my phone. 15:24. Six minutes until I meet her.
I'm not really interested in buying anything but I don't want the staff to think I'm just loitering so I pick up titles at random and look at the backs. I start to play a game with myself by trying to find titles that link to the title I've just looked at. Fist of Legend with Jet Li. Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt. Falling Down with Michael Douglas. Down and Out in Beverley Hills with Nick Nolte. Beverley Hills Cop with Eddie Murphy. Copland with Sylvester Stallone. I get quite into the game and become less conscious of the people crowding around me hunting for the bargains. Land and Freedom. Free Willy. Good Will Hunting. The Good Mother. I start to make notes of titles that I skim over in case I need to use them later, and when I spot "Fist of Fury" I become obsessed with the idea that I can end the game by linking back to the first title, "Fist of Legend". I start to work backwards: Fist of Fury. The Fast and the Furious. The Fast Show. The Truman Show. I get stuck at this one because I can't find anything to link with "Truman", and I start to get a little annoyed as I scan the shelves, thinking that maybe I should cheat a little and skip back a couple of titles and find a better one to link "The Fast and the Furious" to. It occurs to me that I could make the game easier, or maybe just more complex, by allowing myself to create links based on actors as well as titles. Suddenly I remember what I'm supposed to be doing, and check the time on my phone again. It's 15:30. I forget all about my little game and head for the street exit of Virgin, having to shuffle along for a few seconds in a line of people leaving the shop, beside another line of people entering. The security guards look tense and suspicious, and once again I try to act casual so that they don't think I've stolen anything, while at the same time having a brief fantasy of how angry and aggrieved I would act if they accused me of stealing.
I turn right out of the exit and head towards the second, smaller Waterstones on Albion Street where I'm supposed to be meeting her. There's a man in his fifties slumped in a doorway being talked to by two cops, one male and one female. He's refusing to meet their eyes, and they're refusing to leave him alone. I watch as I pass by; his trousers are darkened around the crotch and his face is puffed up. He's the kind of person I shouldn't give change to, because he'd just spend it on drink. I'd give change to the man who sits on the bench outside the Leeds Art Gallery, surrounded by plastic bags full of his possessions, reading. I'd give change to the young guy who I always see walking around the city centre asking for change, because he looks like a good person. I'd give change to someone who just appraoched me and wanted to make a phone call. Someone who'd locked themselves out of their house. Someone who really needed it. I wish I knew how to make those decisions. I wish I knew who to give change to and who not to give change to. It's only change. It doesn't matter, does it? I want to do the right thing. I always try to do the right thing. That's good, isn't it?
The rain's coming. When we meet up I'd like to go to Starbuck's and sit down for some coffee and maybe some cake. Not the chocolate cake, maybe the carrot cake. Carrots are good for you, so carrot cake must be better for you than chocolate cake. The coffee will make me jittery but I like that feeling sometimes, and I want to sit down somewhere; I feel crowded out. I'm still seeing everyone's trajectories like watery tentacles pushing blindly in front of them, like in Donnie Darko. I'm weaving between them, trying to find the path of least interference as I hurry towards Waterstones. After Starbuck's we'll go home. I lay out my afternoon in my mind as a series of neat steps, destinations strung along a timeline, the next goal always in sight. I walk past another Big Issue salesman, the annoying one who's always standing around here saying "Big Issue sir, madam, sir, ladies, sir, lads, sir, madam" to everyone who walks past. I avoid making eye contact and pretend he's not there. The sky is boring and the edges of the streets are dirty, and everyone knows where they're going, and so do I. I'm at Waterstones now.
She's there in the doorway, waiting.