I am taking a short walk in my neighbourhood. I am looking around, like I always do, checking out the shop windows, seeing autumn’s evidence in the coloured leaves, the pale sun, noticing the people and their clothes and their behaviour. The people aren’t as interesting and varied as they used to be – a lot of them have the same body language and the same expression: scrunched up shoulders, one hand raised to hold up an object which their chin and eyes tilt down to see, even as they still have forward propulsion. They move like automatons and their expressions are intense and concerned, as if whatever is on the object is worrying or very important and they’re trying to work out how to solve the problem.
If they’re not staring down at an object, they might have plastic plugs in their ears and a faraway gaze as they listen to whatever is being communicated – as I pass them, the bleed from the earpieces inevitably sounds like fast, repetitive electronic music. Other people walk down the street on their own but talking very loudly, clearly in conversation with an absent other. I check to see if they seem mentally ill, or have Tourette Syndrome – no obvious signs, just the shouting, and oh dear, this one is obviously breaking up with his girlfriend – he’s telling her she can’t do that to him, and she doesn’t understand, and what is he going to do now? All at top volume, in front of many strangers. I am embarrassed for him – he has lost his dignity – but I am also annoyed: I don’t need to hear his distress, I just came out for a constitutional and to go to the library and buy some eggs.
In truth, I also came out to see the people in my neighbourhood and feel a sense of community with them as we create the warp and weft of invisible threads of connection by sensing one another, with our eyes and ears and noses, and acknowledge each other’s presence in the way we move to accommodate each other. Bam! I just walked into the back of a woman who stopped for no reason other than to tap her object (I had glanced at the programme posted outside my local theatre having unconsciously made the judgement that people were flowing predictably along the pavement). “Oof!” I exclaim, and inevitably, because I’m British and polite, “Sorry”. She ignores me, completely and totally. I appear to have ceased to exist to her, and to all the others scrunched over their objects, and the ones listening to futuristic sounds, and to the conversationalists who don’t care if I hear all their pain, their arguments, their arrangements. I return home a little lonelier than before I went out. And I pick up my object, which I had deliberately left behind for my walk, and I enter into its little worlds in the hope of finding some solace.