He appeared just seconds after it happened. The knot of anxiety still held in my throat and all I wanted to do was turn back to them and scream, “Wankers!” I pulled my coat tighter and felt stupid, like I’d brought it upon myself. Like the unprovoked attack had something to do with the way I looked; the way I walked; the way I was. Like I was broken and they could see it.
I was trying to remember what language it was that had a word for that feeling; when you spend the next indefinite amount of time thinking of things you wished you’d said. I was thinking all these things, which is why he took me by surprise.
It was really bright. Bright enough that he appeared bleached and half his wayward quiff disappeared as the sunlight rushed through it. He said something quite laddish, like “You alright, love,” or “You ‘right, darling,” and I thought this was going to go all wrong as well. Then he used the exact word I had wanted to; the one still floating around at the back of my mind.
“Wankers, aren’t they!”
Just like that. Outright! I smiled slightly and said that I thought so and he grinned a big, broad grin that made his eyes wrinkle. I guessed that he must be a little older than me. Maybe not much, twenty-four or twenty-five. It seemed like he was pleased with my response. He said something about seeing it less and less, which was good, but that it made his blood boil. He pushed his hands into the fur-lined pockets of his flight jacket. He just walked next to me and it seemed fine.
He said that he didn’t know if he should say something. He felt like rushing in might seem just as chauvinistic. Then he paused, waiting for my response. He carried on awkwardly when I didn’t say anything. He said he didn’t want to upset me and said he could leave. He said it’s an easy thing to do on a street, and chuckled. I smiled and just said, “No.” There was a breath and a beat as we carried on walking.
He said that he didn’t want to interfere, but that it made his skin crawl and he couldn’t help it. He said he was glad I wasn’t angry, though he used the term pissed and for a second I thought he meant drunk. I said that I couldn’t be pissed at someone for being kind and, as I said it, he smiled like he couldn’t hold it back. I liked that humility wasn’t his strong point.
His trainers squeaked slightly with each step. I wouldn’t have noticed, but in the silence he kept looking down at them. He gave them that look that people give babies who cry at inappropriate times, in restaurants or at weddings. The leaves on the street were turning orange. His thick tan coat hung open, underneath all he wore was a white vest. He was really skinny; all jacket and black skinny jeans, down to his squeaky trainers.
My Mum would have called him a Teddy boy. In life she’d have probably told me that reference was wrong, but in my memory of her that is what she would have said.
“Be careful, darling,” she’d say. “Those ones will break your heart.”
All the same I trusted him. He seemed genuine, unlike those prick builders. The wolf-whistles still echoed in my head, but the list of profanities was slipping away; replaced by what to say in his company.
We weren’t talking then, just walking side by side. We were locked together in a stationary way; like it was the tarmac moving toward us, not us moving forward. I felt he could hear my mind ticking and he jumped in with an anger I couldn’t get out.
“I hate these past-it pricks who think they can just shout whatever they like, up on the roof where no one can touch them.”
Before he could continue I said I didn’t want to talk about it. He just said, “Oh,” and his shoulders dropped like he’d done something wrong. Then he went to cross the street to give me space. I put my hand out.
“Sorry,” I said. “Not like that. Can we talk about something else, that’s all.”
There was silence and eventually he said “Like what,” and I laughed and he laughed and when we stopped laughing we still didn’t know.
“I’m Keith,” he said.
I said that he didn’t look like a Keith and he said I could call him whatever I liked. I thought for a second, smiled at my Teddy boy analogy and said that I’d call him Ted. He grinned and laughed; even though I hadn’t let him in on the joke.
“It’s getting nippy out here,” he said, looking at the sky.
“It is, Ted,” I replied.
He grinned and ran his hand through his hair. He said something funny. Something about the weather comment being his best idea for a conversation and I’d killed it. I apologised, unconvincingly.
Then it was upon us, the end of the road. He looked left and said, “I’m this way.”
I looked right and wondered if I should follow. He interrupted my thoughts, like he’d heard.
“You that way?”
I nodded and he just smiled and walked away, backwards. I felt the distance between us growing as he laughed and said, “Different roads.”
I tried to agree, but he’d already gone.
That was months ago and the memory has faded. I’ve walked that road a hundred times. To and from work I dash, dream or linger.
On Monday I took a different road, fuelled by the need for caffeine. Juggling a leaking cardboard cup and a newspaper, my muttered swearing was met by laughter.
“You just aren’t the lucky sort, are you?” said Ted.
Personally, I disagree.
Ben Warden first fell in love with storytelling during his degree in Film, Television and Radio, where he had the opportunity to take a single module in script-writing. Ben has been storytelling ever since. His first book, Life Without, was published in November 2012.