Michael McEnnedy left the busy main road and turned onto a shadowy back street. He walked down the middle of this long and claustrophobic single carriageway, enjoying the gloominess created by the rows of large warehouses that loomed over him on either side, the morning’s grey drizzle making it grimmer than usual.
He considered this his private route to work. It added five minutes to his journey into the centre of town so he rarely saw anyone else using it. On this particular morning, however, he was annoyed to see the small figure of a man at the far end of the dim road. The man walked swiftly, and what looked like a small backpack was slung over one shoulder.
The previous January Michael had resolved to use these few extra minutes that he spent away from the commuter crowds for some personal development. He had initially considered cultivating a walking meditation practice but had instead settled on reciting some affirmations, which he had managed to complete a half-dozen times or so in the last twelve months.
There had been some reason or another as to why he hadn’t been able to complete them all of those other days and now someone else using the road would mean he would be unable to complete them once more.
The rudeness of this man denying him his self-improvement irritated him immensely.
Instead, he pulled out his phone and began flicking between apps, every so often wiping away the tiny beads of water that that built up on his screen with his sleeve. He searched through the feeds to find something that he could make an amusing response or cutting remark to in order to amuse his friends but, despite finding a few possible articles and comments, he couldn’t think of anything. He typed out a few potential responses to one article, but they read as petty or mean and he deleted them all without sending them
His lack of wittiness was, he decided, this stupid man’s fault. How dare he come in to his private space and knock him off his game! He resolved to not acknowledge this interloper with his customary half-smile and nod and he would see how much this intruder liked people being rude to him.
Of course, it was not actually the man’s fault he couldn’t think of anything to write. Michael was not as amusing as he believed himself to be and, while it was true that he had managed to say a few things that were interesting enough to shared by a few hundred people, it had only happened a handful of times and the last of these was approaching six months ago.
But if you asked him that day, he would have told you it was just a week or two and he was about due for another.
The tall man was closer now. Had Michael looked up from his phone, he would have seen that man’s expressionless face had a nose pinched by a pair of thin, wireframe glasses. He might have seen that the man carried a deerskin briefcase which had a government seal embossed on the side. If he had noticed this, it might have caused him to wonder for a second or two which government department issued deerskin briefcases but, other than that, the man wasn’t all that interesting.
What was interesting, and what he also missed, was the small, furless creature that sat on the man’s right shoulder, its skinny legs and big feet hanging down in front of the man’s chest. It was about the size of a cat and grey in a facsimile of the man’s own complexion. It had one of its long, wiry arms wrapped around the back of the man’s neck for support while the other hung loose at its side. Its grin was wide; its short, pointy ears alert as it turned its large head backwards and forwards slowly, entirely fascinated with the world around it.
The creature paused when it saw Michael, its big, round eyes widening even further. After a moment, it waved shyly at him.
Michael missed this small gesture. He also missed the disappointment on the creature’s face that followed when the wave was not reciprocated. This was just as well because Michael was a somewhat sensitive lad and the thought of him being the cause of the creature’s sad face would have ruined his day.
The man smoothly sidestepped out of Michael’s way and floated on down the street as Michael flicked between his apps.
At the end of the alley, he turned back on to the main road and headed towards a pedestrian crossing. The morning crowds were thinner here and he saw a young girl over by the railings looking through her phone, panning it left and right. She wore a large, white jacket and a white woollen hat and looked like a marshmallow.
Suddenly she stopped panning and squealed in delight, pointing manically to nothing a few feet away.
“Daddy! Level 6 Marsbender! Daddy!” She shouted.
As Michael walked up to the crossing, he stole a glance at the girl’s screen, which confirmed his suspicions, and looked back just in time to freeze mid-stride as the father dashed out in front of him.
The man, in a brown jacket and a white shirt with an open collar, didn’t notice Michael nor the angry expression that Michael fired at him for this near collision. The man was too busy running to where the girl was pointing, a focused and determined expression on his face. He had started rolling up his jacket sleeves.
Michael sighed loudly and aggressively but seeing as it was just a sigh, the father didn’t hear it. Michael pressed the button to cross the road then pulled out his phone as he waited. After a last angry glance back at the man which the man-who was now slowly stepping forward, hands out in anticipation-also ignored, he started typing furiously.
“Left, daddy! No, right! Right!” Shouted the girl over to his right.
Today I shall walk around glued to my phone walking into people while trying to catch invisible monsters because I’m an asshole!
“It’s there, daddy! There!”
Michael rolled his eyes at the girl’s cries but hit cancel-it was, after all, a young girl playing with her father and Michael is no monster-but this morning was not going well for him.
He put in his headphones to find solace in his podcasts. He resumed the one he had started while washing the dishes the previous evening-he was 53 minutes into a heated debate between the three male hosts about whether the HR638–2 had better audio fidelity in the 2.4Mhz range than the recently released HR638-A.
Behind him, there were sounds of scuffling and grunting. He didn’t hear this as one of the hosts was being particularly emphatic about how headphones should offer as flat a response as possible, and not apply their own EQ to the signal.
As the host reached a crescendo in his impassioned argument, Michael missed the sound of a shirt ripping and a cry of pain. It was the kind of cry that a middle-aged man makes when a sharp, pointed object cuts deep along the palm of his hand.
The host finished his tirade and Michael heard the father let out a triumphant laugh and the young girl asking over and over again, “Did you get it?”
Michael responded to this with another impatient sigh and turned the volume up to drown out the girl’s glee. The lights changed and, with one last annoyed glance at the man (at which point he noticed that the man’s shirt was ripped and this sloppiness angered him further), which was also ignored, he crossed the road and continued down the street.
The podcast hosts later concluded that, although it was a close run thing, the 0.02dB boost in the HR638-A made it a better headphone for listening to men talk about headphones for three hours, so Michael added it to his wish list.
A few blocks on Michael came to a junction where someone was edging their way past a truck trying to turn right. The driver had moved far over to the left and had completely blocked the cycle lane, slowly inching his way forward. Behind him, there was now a long string of annoyed, wet cyclists waiting for this car to get past. Some of them were gesturing rather impolitely.
Michael had quite a few cyclist friends and he knew that they would be as outraged as he would have been had he been a cyclist to see this selfish and impatient manoeuvre, so he snapped a quick photo.
He continued walking down the main road. He had slowed from the Standard Commuter Pace and umbrellas and rain jackets flew around him in both directions as he carefully composed the post. The three podcast hosts were still talking but he had mentally tuned them out to focus on writing his story and was now only vaguely aware of them talking.
He considered it a public service and if it got shared among the cycling community and beyond, well, then he would have raised some serious awareness.
He looked up from his phone to see two damp Alaskan Noodlepuffs running past him and he barely had time to sidestep out of the way as a laughing, purple-haired girl came stumbling past him, dragged by the two exuberant dogs. She brushed his shoulder and he noticed that she smelled faintly of apples.
She turned and, with a bright smile, called out “Sorry!”
Michael was suddenly acutely aware of a middle aged man complaining in his ears about duplicate contacts and smartphone address books. Embarrassed, he pulled the headphones out of his ears (he realised later there was no way she could know what it was he had been listening to) and stuffed them in his pocket with his phone. Except he managed to drop the headphones, which bounced off the wet floor and thus requiring a quick wipe before being slipped into the pocket as well.
But the dogs were straining the leashes and, when he looked up again, he caught the end of the small wave the girl had given as she turned away.
Two helium balloons stuttered and jerked in the air like drunken friends helping each other home behind her. They were attached by string to her belt and he watched their progress down the street long after she had disappeared into the crowd. They were orange and purple.
From the road, an angry car horn directed at another distracted pedestrian snapped him out of his orchard-scented reverie.
The wet commuters and umbrellas and plastic-covered prams around him faded away as he walked on. His mind clung on to her memory, keeping him in an imagined world where a more confident version had smiled back at her.
He should have said something charming in return, something like “You have nothing to apologise for, the pleasure is all mine.”
No, not that. Definitely not that. Something better. (It’s always harder, Michael thought, to come up with these things in retrospect but he had enough faith in himself that, had he just opened his mouth, the right thing would have come out. He was sure he had it in him.)
Whatever he said, he knew with an uncommon certainty that she would have smiled at his witty insight, apologised again and then said: “Hey, you know, these dogs are a real handful. If you could just help me get them to the park, I’d be really grateful. Maybe I could buy you coffee afterwards?”
“Well, I’m supposed to be at work,” he would have replied, before smiling himself and saying “but I’m sure my team can survive without me for a morning!’
(Michael liked this response. It had a pleasing subtext: I’m responsible and important, but also spontaneous and fun.)
There would be introductions. She would have been confident and funny. He would be charming and gracious. They would walk together to the park. Eventually, they would kiss and things would move on from there.
He crossed the road and continued on, replaying the encounter again and again, improving it with every pass, until it was cinematic in its production.
What Michael didn’t know-what he would never know-was that for the only time in his lifetime, probability had been on his side. Of all of his thousands of previously imagined encounters, and all of the similar encounters he was yet to imagine, this one would have gone exactly how he ended up picturing it.
Sadly, Michael is no poet and his opening line would have been that aforementioned cringeworthy sentence. Luckily for him, Teri (for that was her name, which would have been easily forthcoming) would have found it endearing and graciously accepted the implied compliment. She would have responded using his exact words because, in fact, she was struggling with the dogs.
The two tragically named dogs-Fluffy Bonkers and Mr Snugglekins-belonged to her aunt’s friend, Sarah. Her aunt, without really meaning to, had a habit of impinging on Teri’s exceedingly good nature and indefatigable willingness to lend a hand. In this instance, her aunt had volunteered Teri to look after the Sarah’s dogs while Sarah visited the dentist for a root canal. The dogs, indulged as they were, instantly sensed that Teri was someone they could take advantage of and had been tirelessly running her through the city streets for the past 45 minutes.
Michael had no way of knowing all this, of course.
As he had struggled with his headphones, he had missed the smile that Teri had given him. It had started as the polite but perfunctory apologetic smile one often gives after an accidental encounter on a busy city street but, after seeing Michael’s not unattractive face (despite his beard), it had crept further up her face and lit up her eyes, becoming a smile that had recognised in him a kindred soul or, at the very least, someone who might be willing to help untangle Fluffy Bonkers from yet another pram axle.
He hadn’t noticed that she lingered for a moment before she waved goodbye, deliberately leaving a space for him to say or do anything to indicate to her that this spark of attraction was reciprocated. A smile, a wave, a word, anything-even that immensely cheesy line-would have been enough.
But Michael did not smile. He did not wave. He did not speak. And the world, never willing to hang about and wait for the unprepared to get their act together at the best of times, had moved on.
She had left quickly, assuming that she had upset yet another stressed-out morning commuter and chastising herself for totally misreading the situation.
Michael continued on to work all the while creating a meeting in his imagination that he would return to dozens of times throughout his life because, even as a possibility, it was beautiful-perfect because of what didn’t happen but could have (despite the romance of this initial thought, however, it gave Michael no comfort in the end, for this perfection was simply loss by another name).
But outside of his head all that remained now was the noise of the traffic, the slight drizzle that would continue all day, and the vibration of his phone in his pocket notifying him of things in his life that were loud and demanding and infinitely less important.
Hope and possibility, sublime and glorious and unable (or perhaps simply unwilling) to stand up to the obnoxious, gave way and Michael found himself thinking about the time and work and the possibility of having to endure Gareth’s we’re-pals-but-I’m-still-your-boss lecture delivered in his disgusting coffee-and-cigarette breath.
He checked his expensive smartwatch-he was so proud of it when he first bought it but today it had a little less lustre-and he felt that unpleasant and nauseating jolt of adrenaline that accompanies the certainty of lateness to something important.
He picked up his pace but was stopped by a red light at the last crossing before the office entrance. In their cars in front of him, the dry morning commuters slowly edged their way forward.