Hail Fellow Ill Met
A few weeks ago:
When we were going home on the bus, I was writing a message to Mum on our conversation notepad. An elderly man got on the bus and stood for a while, tucking his ticket away. I felt his eyes on me and looked up, and smiled. Then I went back to the message I was writing. Mum jerked her head towards him suddenly, and gestured apologetically, with a half-turn of her head towards me. I could imagine her saying, “I’m sorry, she can’t hear you.” He sat down across from us, where I couldn’t see him, and for the rest of the journey they talked politely, their voices lost in the roar of the bus. After a while I put my conversation notepad away, my message unread.
When we reached our stop and Mum moved towards the exit, I glanced at the man, intending to say goodbye. But he sat with his head turned away, so I said nothing. I didn’t ask Mum who he was or what they were talking about, and she didn’t mention him… he was just a passing ship.
Two days ago:
We were walking in single file along a narrow footpath, when we came across a bearded man on a ladder who was preparing to trim a hedge. He and Mum exchanged jolly-sounding greetings. Powered by her presence, I breezed past in my turn with a cheery smile. But I thought about how, on my own, I would either not look at him, or would raise my hand in a polite salute.
A little way further along, when we came onto the road, another man stood nearby. Again he and Mum made friendly noises. “People are so kind!” said Mum, as we passed on.
We went into Costa’s for coffee, but it was quite busy. All that was left for us was a small round table for two, wedged between a lady in the corner (reading a newspaper) and two gossiping boys. The woman looked up and smiled, and she and Mum talked for a little… I wondered if they knew each other. Then the lady went back to her newspaper, and Mum and I wrote to each other in our conversation notepad.
“It’s hotter than I thought,” said Mum. “Have you noticed that the students get younger every year?”
“I never looked,” I said.
Mum rolled her eyes good-naturedly, while I thought about the old man on the bus, along with years and years of students passing me by, unseen.
After a while I said, “You know why I don’t look at people? I don’t want them to think they can speak to me just because I smiled.”
Mum laughed and shook her head at me. “They don’t always — and don’t smile,” she said. “Just observe.”
A small mystery cleared up:
When we left, the woman reading the newspaper didn’t speak to us again — she was a stranger after all. But Mum later volunteered the information that she’d told us (when we came in looking for somewhere to sit) she’d been watching a single student taking up a table meant for four.
Oh, I so know the feeling! Especially when we are meeting my sister, and the three of us have to huddle (with two shopping trolleys) round a tiny table for two, while a skinny kid stretches out blissfully in a tasty piece of café ‘real estate’… and stays there forever.
Lady next to us — I share your frustration.