…unable to grasp your direction, balance, orientation
It was a sunny day, a rainy day, bright, cold and dark. Smith could hear the sounds of the birds, the sounds of the cars, the sounds of the people walking past him, talking, whispering, shouting, their footsteps, they were running, or walking, or standing still. They were coming towards him. They were walking past. They ran past. They would be running all day. Then everyone stopped. But after a moment, a few seconds, or maybe it was a minute, maybe time stood still for a minute, they all started moving again, running, walking or gesticulating. People were pointing up towards the sky, across the street, at each other. People kept walking past. It was cold.
Smith decided to walk to the end of Oxford Street, as far as the roundness of the library, the openness of Saint Peter’s Square, the brightness. He could see the straight line in front of him, above people’s bobbing heads, between them, resting on their shoulders, above an umbrella, between the back ends of a pair of double-decker buses, reflected in the marble and glass of the building he walked alongside. And then he saw him. It was him. His reflection in the dark glass. That man.
But then he was gone. Smith could only see his own reflection in the glass, surrounded by the shoulders, coats, umbrellas, hats and shopping bags of other people – a morass of other people. Other people who kept walking past, flashing past, walking, rushing, weaving. And then his own reflection was gone as the light in the sky changed and the glass reflected nothing but the vaguest of shadows.
It was rush hour and Smith was caught in the rush. So he was rushing. He was run through with a sense of time being wasted, time dripping, time approaching a cut-off point. An umbrella jabbed him in the shoulder. A bus yelled and surged past. There were cars and taxis everywhere, they were cutting across the footpath, appearing out of side streets, parked up, indicator lights flickering, momentarily surrounded by the onward movement of people until they could find themselves the briefest of gaps.
Only the briefest of gaps existed in front of Smith. There was only a half yard between his face and the back of someone else’s head, upturned collar. Half a yard in which to move forward. Not having faith in this gap, Smith kept his eyes on the ground, on the half yard of space which continued, form each moment to the next, to open up at his feet, where he could put each foot down, onto burger wrappers, cigarette butts, into puddles, balance on the curb, following the backs of the shoes of the person in front of him, the black heels of shoes just visible beneath the length of a grey coat, until they were drawn forward in the next step, and the next step, and the next.
All Smith could do was take each step. Each step. Each step taking him towards Saint Peter’s Square. Each step taking him forward. Each step fully absorbing his attention, until the half yard gap into which he had been stepping snapped shut, and he couldn’t take another step, and looking up he allowed his attention to be absorbed by the millions of little pictures jostling against each other in the rain: lamp posts; bus stops; two red cars; several dun coloured umbrellas; the back of a woman’s head; the lower half of an old man’s face, his hat keeping the rest of his face in shadow; a wall of double-decker buses; a yellow newsagent’s sign; bunches of insipid flowers hanging over the door of a florists; a neat row of black cabs; red hair; illegible fly posters, their ink draining away; a child smiling; an orange traffic light; one pink umbrella; a patch of blue sky above the roofs of the horizon; and the rise and fall of that man, the limping man, his beard and round glasses, in profile, across the street, walking the other way.
And then the crowd began to move forward and backwards once more, and a half yard of space opened up around him, but Smith could no longer focus on the space opening up before his next step, he turned around and forgot about his steps, each step, where he could place it, where his foot would fall. The rise and fall of that man. He could no longer keep in step, no longer stay in line. He stepped on someone’s shoe, brushed up against rucksacks, glanced off big men’s shoulders. He had to keep his eyes on the figure of that man, now walking in the same direction on the opposite side of the street.
Now the almost imperceptible rise of Oxford Street became an almost imperceptible downward slope, became a steep slope, a drop, he was falling. Brushing past people, brushing umbrellas out of the way, now sliding down on the edge of the street, falling past trapped cabs and buses, their heat and noise, their hissing and juddering, Smith couldn’t take his eyes off the figure of the limping man. Until, jogging alongside a bus or a van, his view interrupted for a moment. Then Smith felt a sharp pang of anxiety. When the vision of the strange man was once more restored, he was walking in the opposite direction. Having turned around, he was now walking back up the street, back towards Saint Peter’s Square.
Now making his way across the street’s four lanes of traffic, having turned to walk up the steep slope of Oxford Street, Smith became trapped between the flow of two lanes of traffic in the middle of the street. So he continued walking towards the vague brightness of Saint Peter’s Square which he could see out of the corner of his eye. But all the time he kept his vision focused on the profile of the subtly limping man, until that profile collapsed into the sight of the back of his head, receding down the sudden wide openness of Portland Street, being obscured by the heads and shoulders and umbrellas and coats of everyone and everyone else.
Smith began to run now. He got to the footpath between a slowly moving gap, formed by the back of a white van and the glass front of a bus. Running along the edge of the footpath on Portland Street, Smith searched for the profile of the limping man. He had a clear idea in his head of the image he was seeking, but he couldn’t find a match. Perhaps he had run too far, he must have passed him, he might have gone into a shop, stopped walking, turned around and walked the other way again, disappeared. Smith had to stop.
He reappeared on the opposite side of the street, carrying a newspaper and wearing a different coloured coat. He just then opened an umbrella and hiding behind it walked up Princess Street, walking briefly on the edge of the road, and then into the crowd on the footpath, his open black umbrella merging with a hundred open black umbrellas moving up the street. Smith had to stop. He had to run. He had to catch up. Running across the street. Stopping. A bus coming towards him. The beeping of a car. The sun shining. The rain stopping. It was cold. Smith had lost him. Was lost. In the middle of the intersection of Portland Street and Princess Street.