Tuesday. Late-afternoon. Muggy, sweaty sunshine. Crouch End. My feet hurt. I’d been walking for most of the day browsing areas of London I might like to live in. London was busy. My head was quiet. Thoughtful. Too much shit in there – men, life, work – all just questions without answers and I wasn’t expecting any so I let my mind sift through it all and wander along aimless along with my feet.
The high street was alive. Men. Women. In this shop and out of that one. To grab a coffee or not. Laptops. Cigarettes. Laughing. Talking. So much going on and it all drifted in and out of me as I meandered towards Crouch Hill to test out the overground links.
I didn’t see him as I walked past. I hadn’t noticed him at all. Ordinary. Bland. I was looking elsewhere. And then.
It was the words that snagged me. He spoke one sentence that cut through the noise and the heat and the ache in my feet. Maybe he spoke more. Maybe he didn’t. It was only one sentence I heard.
“But they’re my children too.”
I stopped. Automatic. I turned. I hid behind my sunglasses but watched all the same. Man. Suit. Crumpled. Him and the suit. Paunch. Balding. Not so very old. Phone to ear. Tie skewed. Fat fingers. Pink face. Hot. Tired. Stopped in the middle of the pavement. Staring at some place that wasn’t on the broadway at all. Somewhere he was about to arrive at and couldn’t understand how. Mouth half-open. Listening. Maybe. Staring at that place. Definitely.
It wasn’t the words so much. It was the tone. Defeated. Endlessly reasonable. Hopeless. Helpless. End of the road.
Me. Heart. Ached. Stared. Stories in stories in my head. Where was the little boy that had become this man? Was this a moment that child had ever seen for himself? The sheer awful mundanity. Standing still on Crouch End Broadway clutching a briefcase. Overweight. Broken. Downtrodden. Reasonable. No fight left. Staring at that place that was coming for him. Alimony. Dinner for one. Weekend access. Her. Fine. New man. Awkward phone call. Wishes he’d just buck up. Deal with it. Move on.
I heard it all in his tone. The banality of life’s little heartaches. The quiet and slow destruction of a man. The reasonable trying to hide the heartache. A slow creep into the dying of the light. No fuss. I was never here.
He saw me. I walked on.
It stayed with me all the way home. It’s with me now. Story. His. Probably untrue. Maybe he just had a bad day. Maybe he was trying to persuade the wife to let the kids do something and she wasn’t keen. Maybe he wasn’t all of the things I heard in that tone and it was just a passing moment. He’d get home. Dinner would be on the table. They’d talk. Watch TV. Climb into a sexless bed or dress in rubber and shag like rabbits for hours. Who knows?
But that tone. I can’t shake it.
Stories in stories in stories. They’re everywhere.