Wednesday, 11 April 2007

dazed and confused in old Bristol town

Flowering blackthorn

Tuesday 10 April 2007 5.20 pm Bristol Broadmead

It's one of those rare April days - the teatime westcountry sun is as bright as the sun that shines on Florence, the same sun that led generations of Renaissance painters to try to capture light and air in paint for draughty cathedral walls.

I am sitting in the market square facing into the sunlight. Everything has a bright lemon and red halo, Bristolian shoppers are transformed into angels emerging from the irradiance.

I have done the usual list of displacement activities that people do before they sit. I have checked my phone for messages (none). I have made a call, I have checked the news from the BBC. There is nothing else for it: I shall have to sit quietly and wait.

Sit quietly and wait. I am busy making 'sitting quietly and waiting' into active 'busy-ness', by forcing myself to become invisible. (Why bother trying? I am effectively invisible anyway, no one notices or cares that I am sitting here. That is the way that I like it.)

At Tesco Metro to my right, a hurly burly bouncer ejects a customer from the shop, shouting loud enough to distract me from my attempts to squeeze my atoms into outer space. 'Don't pick a fight with my staff. Go right away.'

The ejected man does not recognise the rules of social engagement. He is not frightened of the bouncer man, and the bouncer man does not like that at all. He cannot get the shopper to understand, so he does what bouncers are trained to do: he shouts louder.

The dejected man is old and his face is weary and careworn. Elderly Chinese, probably a recent immigrant. His English is not good, his clothes are from charity bags. He has the start of words, but not their endings. His sentences fade into a grey goo. He carries an aluminium NHS walking stick. He raises it to the man, threatening to beat him.

Fucggggg oggggg. Monegggggg is wrongggg.

Bouncer man, he needs no trouble. A Chinese man with a stick, shouting and putting two fingers up to him with tears and anger. He be trouble. Bouncer man walks away.

Leaving the man alone with his raging injustice.

He rushes to the shop window, raising his stick and calling out in cantonese rage. He open his bag containing two items: scones and chicken nuggets.

Three sexy school girls with long legs and pushed-up cleavages, flow past shrieking at him with derision, howling with laughter and menace, pointing and calling him 'weird psycho man'.

A long way from home, and a long way from being able to deal with their pubescent powers.

The man turns to me and walks towards my seat. 'Don't make eye contact', says a man sitting next to me. Don't make eye contact. Calling us, the man comes over. My companion slips away, leaving me alone.

He is standing in front of me shrouded in bright light, like an avenging demon. I avoid his eyes, but he sees into me anyway. He sits by me, pulling out the shopping from the bag, looking at the prices, adding up the totals.

At this point, he is no longer an unstable lunatic, one step from being sectioned; he is a poor man, who feels he has been robbed by a wealthy tyrant. He cannot bear the shame.

Then the red mist descends. The stick waves, the swearing and the shopping rage return.

I see my family at the other end of the avenue. I get up and walk to meet them.

My lasting memory is of the uncertainty I felt when he probed my invisibility, trying to draw me into his world. I could see his need, but I was reluctant to get involved. Yet, despite and in spite of myself, I was already involved.

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