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Encounter on a street called contagion

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I was walking back to my car from the supermarket, head in the clouds wondering how can you police synchronicity (long story) when in the distance a woman was approaching, slowly, falteringly towards me. She didn’t look like she was on her uppers, but then she didn’t look she was at peace with the world.  

As our paths drew closer, she appeared to be in her 40s, her hair was slightly dishevelled, she wore a face creased with hard years, though of course that was just my impression. She walked with a crook in her gait, as if her body didn’t quite know how to walk in a pandemic.

In the middle of the quiet street she half spoke, half shouted, in a voice gravelled and rutted, Do you smoke? I called back, No, sorry I don’t. She said it again, perhaps not hearing my reply, and again I said the same thing. I kept walking. I didn’t look back.

I might not be an artist but she, and her troubles, didn’t belong to me.
Hindsight is a fine thing, as everyone knows. In a very short period of hindsight, actually when I was back at the car, I thought to myself, Jesus mate, what sort of a hard time must someone be in to call out from the middle of the road to a stranger did they smoke. The obvious intention being obviously not to inquire about the state of my health or lungs, but to establish then that I might be carrying some cigarettes, and then the follow-up question, Could you spare a smoke?

Chastened with and by myself, I thought I’ll get in my car drive around to the servo, buy a packet of cigarettes, – and any would do I thought, and a lighter – find the woman and just present them to her, saying I found these in my car. A friend must have left them. He won’t mind, he’s gone back home interstate. You can have them.

But it was too late. After buying the pack, I started looking for her. She was gone. How is that possible I thought. There’s not too many places you can vanish into around these parts, and certainly not at the speed with which I saw her staggering/walking earlier.

Perhaps I had imagined it, the woman and the exchange. My instant regret, however, wasn’t imagined. Perhaps it had been a test of my character from the cosmos. Failed, failed miserably, the report would say.

Perhaps it was a variation on a theme. Orpheus and Eurydice, now two strangers, no connection, no meaning to each other, but this encounter. I didn’t look back, and yet still she vanished.

I parked the car and walked in and out of the supermarket, around its boundaries (please note officers, this was an exercise of sorts in doing what I thought would be a good deed), but still nothing.

I returned to the car, a cloud of guilt overhanging my steps. I felt as if I had let a stranger down. It was disconcerting.  I tried to rationalise it: I owed her nothing, I had been courteous enough to answer. I had actually told her the truth.

But then a question began nagging me: Why didn’t I engage with her more? After all, we were hardly likely to be run over. It was so quiet. In this timeless season, the time of day costs nothing, and you wouldn’t miss it anyway. Maybe in the passing of strangers in times of  pandemic, there is a cold breath of wind whispering, keep your distance. So I looked back, and didn’t see her or the past catching up on me. I saw a street, silent, and a darkening day.

I’ve left the packet of cigarettes in the car. Just in case. Maybe our paths will cross again and, when she asks Do I smoke, I can put myself in her shoes and say, No, but if you wait a sec, I’ll just walk to my car. I think there’s some there.

Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay

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