The Reader

I was two years into my working life when I started looking for distractions. Every day I woke up at the same time, took the same train, sat next to identical grey faced suits and headed to the office. As we all do, I began trying to liven up my days by playing games. If I didn’t have a seat I would try to guess who was getting up next and position myself first in line for their place. If I managed to sit down I studied my fellow passengers and wondered what they did, how much they earned and why they looked so miserable.

Once I got off the train I had a dreary ten minute walk across one of the city’s generic high streets, before arriving at my desk. This walk was by far the least interesting part of my commute. There were too many roads to cross and cars to look out for to play guessing games, and anyway they would have been redundant; it was clear that everyone was heading to work in an office and wanted to be somewhere else. On top of this I was usually either just on time or running late, so speed was of the essence.

One Thursday I was jogging down the high street to get to work when I noticed someone. A tall, moustached man with round glasses, wearing khaki slacks, a striped shirt and a jumper thrown over his shoulders. There was nothing strange about him at first glance, but he stood out and I recognised him again the next day and the next. He always wore the same expression of feigned arrogance, it was as if he wanted to think he was better than everyone he crossed but knew he wasn’t.

Over the following weeks I saw him almost every day. He was always wearing the same slacks with a striped shirt and a jumper draped over his shoulders. His timing was incredibly precise and it got to the point where I could tell if I was late depending on where our paths crossed. I gave him a back story; he worked in a niche industry and was unhappy that he kept being ignored when it came to promotions. The problem was that in the office everyone thought he was a bit strange. Certainly not manager material. He struck me as the sort of person who would one day show up to work with a rifle.

As the months passed I began to tire of my commute games. I wasn’t interested in what the person next to me did for a living and by the looks of things neither was she. I couldn’t care less where each passenger was getting off and obtaining a seat as quickly as possible had turned into more of a war than a game. I was slowly perfecting the art of predicting when someone was getting ready to leave their seat. A slight facial movement when the name of the next station was called out, a glance at the nearest exit or, the hugely obvious, putting away a book. The next step was positioning myself in such a way as to block any potential rivals. Although certainly not boring, this daily stand-off was not fun.

The one element of my commute which did remain interesting was the perfectly normal yet strange man I crossed every day. After a few months his back story was quite complete. He had moved to the city after growing up and attending university in a small town. There he had been the local big shot. Praised by his parents and teachers alike, he was more or less promised a lifetime of over achievement. Buoyed by 22 years of flattery he headed into the city expecting instant success, only to realise that he wasn’t so special. People younger than him told him what to do and the new secretary had a more distinguished degree than him.

Despite the unconscious recognition that he was no longer a big fish in a small pond, but rather a sardine in the ocean, he maintained an aura of self-entitlement. He had been bullied at school and was not the most popular student at university, but he had always consoled himself with the fact he would make more money than all of them put together. Now that it wasn’t happening, he felt betrayed. Not only had his lecturers lied to him, but his parents, his own flesh and blood, had deceived him and set him up for failure and disappointment. Now he was stuck in an office where no one liked him, unable to find a new job and too proud to head back home.

I found myself adding to this backstory while I was at work or during weekends. I had gone into such detail with this man’s fictional life that I was beginning to consider writing his biography. Why not? It might make for interesting reading and I had always wanted to write fiction. I already had my ending: he was going to carry out a shooting in the office. The only problem was that writing a book was more complicated than I had first thought. You need a beginning, a middle and an end, and it all has to flow seamlessly. I began to run out of inspiration. Sure I had the basics, but I needed more. I decided the best thing to do was talk to him. That would surely provide the answers to the questions I had. Or at the very least the questions, I could make up the answers.

How do you talk to a stranger? The most obvious place to start would be asking him the time but that would end the conversation before it started. I thought back to the networking training I’d been given, but that didn’t seem very relevant. I thought about how I had met my friends. Mostly at school and university, usually through a mutual acquaintance. Perhaps the best approach to use was the same tactic employed to talk to women. I had seldom approached a girl outside of a bar but friends of mine had. Their opening lines were usually cringe-worthy and seldom resulted in more than an awkward laugh. I decided to Google it.

I browsed the internet’s “How to talk to a stranger” literature and was disappointed. These sites were clearly written for people who couldn’t communicate with anyone, let alone a stranger. I decided I’d just say hi and see what came of it. At the worst I’d have an awkward 15 seconds every weekday until one of us switched job.

“Hi.” No response, he ignored me and kept walking. Exactly what I was expecting. I decided to try again and again and again. For one week every day I said hi and every day he ignored me. This wasn’t helping my book and I was beginning to lose interest. I had put a fair amount of effort into my writing so far and I didn’t want it to go to waste. I played around with the idea of following him until it didn’t seem sinister, and booked a half day off work.

As I headed down the high street I was worried about two things. Firstly that he wouldn’t be there and secondly that someone from work would see me and assume I was heading to an interview. As it turns out it went fine. As soon as I walked past him I turned and began following from a distance. He went to the train station and took the District line. I followed.

After three stops he got off at Turnham Green and headed for a passage near a bridge. I was familiar with the area as I played tennis there once a week. I knew that the path he had taken was a cul-de-sac. There was no way into the buildings on either side as one was an abandoned fire station and the other was the wall that bordered the train station.

I waited for 20 minutes and he didn’t re-emerge. My curiosity got the better of me and I headed down the path. It was completely empty except for a group of homeless people who were sleeping. I decided to head back, more intrigued than ever.

While I was at work I listed the possibilities. He either found a door somewhere in the road that I had missed or was it possible that he had entered a different path? I was sure I had seen him go down the road with the homeless people but doubt began to creep into my mind. Perhaps he had headed in a different direction and I had it wrong. But how could I have made such a glaring mistake after following him in broad daylight?

Later that week when I went to tennis, I took a detour and headed down the cul-de-sac again. It was around seven in the evening and only one of the homeless people was in the area. He was there every Thursday, sat under the edge of the bridge with his face buried in a book. I always gave him any change I happened to be carrying and tried to catch a glimpse of the book he always looked so engrossed in. Today it was “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” by John le Carré.

I checked the cul-de-sac for any possible exits and found none. Perplexed, I decided to ask the man I referred to as “The Reader”. He informed me that there was no way out of the street unless you climb over the walls on either side. He added that this would be very difficult and would probably require basic climbing equipment.

I ended up taking another half day off work to lurk outside the passage. At this stage I was quite embarrassed by the lengths I was going to in order to solve my mystery. Four weeks had passed since my initial stalking exercise and I was determined to get something out of the time and energy I had invested. I decided the best day for it was a Friday, as this was smart casual day in the office and I would not stand out. I got to bridge well before the moustached, mystery man and pretended to type on my phone as I scanned the exit of the tube station. He showed up bang on time.

As soon as he emerged from the underground, I began walking towards the cul-de-sac to avoid giving him the impression that he was being followed. I turned the corner, made sure I had a view of the entire passage, bent down and pretended to tie my shoelaces. He walked past me and once he reached a boarded up doorway which used to lead to the fire station, appeared to lean into the building. I waited, again pretending to type something on my phone, until he remerged dressed as a tramp. At this stage another smartly dressed individual walked past me and headed for the same doorway.

I turned around and headed back to the tube station. So I had been right to think there was something strange about him. At this point I was faced with the dilemma of either continuing my research or using what I had to write a short story and then potentially heading back at a later date to get material for a sequel. I decided the easiest option was to talk to The Reader. Surely he would know what was going on.

The following Thursday I headed to his spot under the bridge and asked if I could disturb him for a minute. I was unsure how to phrase my question without potentially offending or even worrying him. In the end I decided the best thing to do was just ask him straight. He told me he was very much aware of the situation in the cul-de-sac and that the people I had seen were wealthy, jobless individuals looking for some excitement. They had first begun showing up about six months ago and their numbers had since swelled considerably. They were very quiet and spent their days sleeping and discussing each other’s families and pets, but did little else. He had expected the novelty to wear off fairly quickly and for them to stop coming but their numbers kept increasing.

When the first two had shown up and changed into well-worn, dirty clothes he had thought it was part of a TV programme or some sort of charity research group. However, when more and more began to turn up, he decided to ask and was told that they wanted to experience life on the street. The Reader suggested acting as a guide for them but was told they didn’t want to stray from the cul-de-sac. The road was just hidden away enough for them to feel free but safe. They also refused to stay past 8pm.

Although an interesting story this was not the inspired novel I was looking for. This seemed more like something out of one the tabloids: “Eccentric Rich Pretend to be Poor”. I was stuck in two minds about what to do with this information. Either I could embellish it and use it as inspiration for a novel or simply write a series of portraits on these men so bored with life that they had taken to playing dress up in the streets of London. The portraits sounded far more interesting although I had no idea how to approach my subjects for interview.

They hadn’t seemed to mind that I had seen them change into their disguises, however, they might not want the information to be public. What I had on my side was that they might just be bored enough to want the attention. I made the decision to approach my original subject to see what he thought. After all, we knew each other quite well at this stage.

The next day I set about typing up the story so far. I did not include the full backstory I had given to my protagonist but almost everything else. I might as well be honest about the whole thing. It took me a couple of late nights to get the story written up in a way that I was satisfied with and then I printed it out and took it to work with me. As I passed him I tried to hand over the pages but he pushed them away thinking it was some sort of flier. I insisted and walked alongside him. I told him he looked like someone well read and would appreciate his advice on my short story. I was gambling that he did indeed think of himself as well read and he paused and took the sheets of paper. I told him I would ask for his opinion the next morning.

As it turned out, I never saw him again and even got worried he might report me to the police. I had allowed myself to get caught up in my own personal view of events and did not realise he might think I was insane. When I told some friends about my investigation they were shocked that I could follow someone, to the point that I would take time off work. They said it was me, and not him, who should be embarrassed by the story. None of my friends are writers so their reaction did not bother me, however, it did open my eyes to how my protagonist might have perceived my actions.

Weeks passed and still no sign of him. Had he stopped his games? Was he scared I would follow him again and expose his group? Or was he simply taking another route? I asked The Reader if he had seen him but he said he did not pay attention to who joined the group anymore. Still nervous that he might have involved the police, I momentarily ceased my investigation. I also gave The Reader £10 and made him promise to keep me up to date with the group’s activities. Now, every Thursday he provides me with a run-down of events. Nothing exciting has happened so far, but I’m hopeful that the story for my first novel is hidden somewhere in the cul-de-sac.

Michele Martinelli

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