The people we pass again and again in cities can become as familiar as landmarks. But, Fiona Hyde wonders, what happens when those not-quite-strangers disappear?
It’s funny, the relationships you can forge with total strangers. A few years ago, there was a couple I’d see on my way to work every morning. They always seemed to be running late, noticeably rushing along. Sometimes you’d see them even breaking into a fuck-we’re-really-late jog, which looked out of place in the surrounding pavement shuffle. I heard their accents a few times. English. Over for a job? I couldn’t tell. Must be, going to the same place every morning at the same time. “Why don’t they just leave earlier?” I’d think. But then, I was always late for work too.[restrict]
I caught myself wondering whether or not I was as familiar to them as they were to me. Did they notice me too? It led me to wonder about whether or not they’d miss me if I stopped appearing. Would they think I was dead? Or maybe had moved away? I’m not sure why my mind jumped to ‘dead’ before ‘moved away’.
I’d thought about this before, of course. About who would miss me if I died. Who hasn’t? There was a place I frequently went after 2.30am to get bottles of expensive, disgusting wine illegally. I was generally in high spirits when I arrived there, with a rotating cast of co-conspirators at my side. The man behind the counter would give me gone-off sweets and multi-packs of crisps for free sometimes. I’d wake up with the ill-gotten spoils scattered around the living room or kitchen — once I awoke to six Bounty bars staring at me in a distinctly accusatory manner as I staggered by to fill a pint of water. Six is surely excessive by any standard.
He’d open the wine for me if he didn’t have a screw-top bottle. He’d never sell it to me for any cheaper, despite me asking every time. I managed to kick the late wine habit, my self-esteem and bank balance having taken a particular battering after a long run of idiocy. I wondered if he’d miss me. Would he noticed I’d stopped coming? Would he think I was dead? Would noticing my absence be the same as caring about it?
Bear with me. I was addicted to chat rooms when I was around 10 or 11, which my parents discovered after receiving an obscene phone bill for all the dial-up internet I was steaming through. They cut off the internet after that. A clean break. We didn’t get it back until I was around 18. I’d cadge access in my best friend’s house after school and even started getting the bus into town on Saturday mornings to bask in that monitor glow in various Temple Bar internet cafes. I became a regular. Not just in the cafes, but in the pizza place nearby too. I’d always get the same thing: a slice and a can of Coke, bringing it back to my perch in the internet places, eating it as I fired up another cryptic Myspace bulletin intended to make the boy I fancied like me back.
The staff of the internet cafes never bothered much with me. They do stick in my memory though — a goth woman who shouted a lot and an older man who blared trad and rebel songs during his shifts. We never really forged any kind of a bond. Actually it was the pizza place guy who broke the spell. I’m not sure we ever spoke much, but we knew one another. We were on friendly terms, but it wasn’t necessarily a chatty thing. Then one day he said, “Excuse me. Can I say something to you?” He spoke with an Eastern European accent. Sure, I said. “You’ve been coming in here a lot over the years. And, well, I have to say that I feel like I’ve seen you growing up.”
I stopped going out of awkwardness. He’d broken the membrane that separated our little interactions and I didn’t know how to fix it. I saw him at a bus stop on Dame Street a few years later and didn’t quite know whether to say hi. I guess at least he knew I wasn’t dead.