I only have one son left to walk to school, his older brothers having graduated to bicycles and secondary, and my morning stroll with Joa has become a worn path I will be sad to no longer tread. There is however one part of the school circuit I won’t miss, the social collisions with other parents. I’m not sure if I have already mentioned it but I am not very good at small talk. I have spent years successfully avoiding the stationary version of it but I have never fully mastered the art of uninvolved perambulation.
It usually starts with a concerted greeting from the locally renowned cross lady. Most days she appears amongst the parents and children as they make their way up the hill towards the school. She prefers the upper reaches of the journey, where the crowd is at its most concentrated, moving against the throng like a contrary salmon. ‘Good morning!’ She tells me. ‘Good morning!’ She always sounds a little urgent, a little surprised at her declaration but then she should, as for years she walked the exact same route glowering at everyone and demanding that they get out of her way. Such a cross lady and a tragic example of the toll that can be incurred by unnecessary interaction with strangers. I have no idea why she changed her salutation, not that it makes any difference, as when she says ‘Good morning’ it still sounds to me like she’s saying ‘Get out of my way.’
With the cross lady behind us we are almost to the school gates and it is safe to return my attention to my seven year old’s ceaseless attempts to spell seemingly arbitrary words, ‘precocious’ he says, proceeding to spell it magnificently incorrectly. The journey home however is much more perilous, for without Joa for cover I am thrust into a succession of potential greeting situations. I defend myself by donning reflective sunglasses and keeping my head down but of late my efforts have been undone by the committed smiles of an unknown mother. Short of crossing the road there is nothing I can do, it has become impossible to pass her without involuntary red facial tics. My reticence is not rudeness, just diffidence, and I am sure it has become as uncomfortable for her as it is for me, but there is no going back, we are entangled, on the very brink of vocal exchange, words will be spilt.
All of this would be bad enough if it were confined to the school run but inexplicably the phenomenon has spread. Most mornings I walk the seafront promenade, I like to get in about four miles, two miles out and then back. Walking is a wonderful way to clear the head, it has all the benefits of running but without the danger of shearing off your hips. I move quickly, with a determined yet slightly robotic stride, I look resolutely forward, earphones in, sunglasses on, hood up. I am impenetrable, a mandroid on a mission, I give off no signals, no interest in anything other than the fearlessly pursued horizon and yet the urge to mark my regular passing has for some become irresistible.
The prom attracts a lot of runners, the majority of whom are women, the ratio of women to men is not unlike the school run, about seven out of ten. Male runners have no problem ignoring me, indifference is their default setting but women seem to find me much more challenging. I have always told my wife Libby about these brief encounters, it never fails to get a laugh. Men like to think that the attention of a woman is simply confirmation of how fetching they are. I don’t consider myself to be particularly handsome, big, bald with a lengthening shadow. I am under no illusions, I simply have no idea why women smile at me. When I say women I mean woman. I wish I could say it was random, but it’s not, it’s always the same one. Perhaps I once met her gaze inadvertently, or she mistook a calf cramp for a smile but whatever it was the damage is done, we are now compelled to commit niceties. ‘You do know she doesn’t fancy you, right?’ Says Libby.
On the upside the prom is long and straight so I can spot a potential meet and greet from some way off. When I do I walk with a curly sense of anticipation, surreptitiously tracking the candidate. I pretend to be distracted by something out to sea, a lazy wind turbine perhaps, but the pull is always too strong and I glance back as we draw near only to feel the relief of misidentification. Occasionally and considerately she wears hot pink gloves that I can positively identify from a distance. This gives me time to change tack, to discreetly veer closer to the shade cast by the beach huts. Sometimes this works but more often than not I will see the pink gloves issue a converging course correction so that she might come close enough to deliver a winning hello and a double pink wave. I feel my lips tug back uncontrollably over reluctant teeth, my raising hand unfurling, my discomfort magnified by the certain knowledge that in half an hour we will pass each other on our return trips.
Those return trips are the most awkward for neither of us will yield, we head straight at each other, locked in a weirdly civil game of chicken. Her pink waves are always smaller, her hello becomes raised eyebrows, her smile becomes tight lips. It is clearly my turn to go first. ‘Good morning!’ I declare a little urgently, but what I’m actually thinking is ‘Get out of my way!’