There is an elderly couple I greet on the street from time to time. I wave or nod or say hello as I walk by them because they are always stationary. She sits in an old plastic chair and he either stands near her or props himself against a tree or a fence or a building. I see them in the same general area but not usually in precisely the same place. I have never seen them walking either to or from their spot. They vary their placement, either sun or shade, depending on the weather.
They speak with thick accents and appear shrivelled and worn like elderly like The Potato Eaters but with less hats. This afternoon on the way home from work the woman asked me a question, she has never done this before. Our conversation was small and stilted but it has left me thinking. Here's the conversation as I remember it:
DS: Yes, I am coming home now.
DS: Yes. Work.
DS: No. University.
Woman: Good job.
I waved farewell and kept on walking. Factory? I don't know anyone that works in a factory. I don't even know where the nearest factory would be. Alexandria? Mascot? Somewhere out West a little? The first thing I think of when someone says factory is warehouse apartment, or party, or sad, dark and looming space with holes in the roof and rain leaking in. I don't think 'work'.
I wonder what she thinks I do at the university? Maybe she thinks I am a secretary, that I have a big wooden desk and a typewriter. I hope that is what she thinks I do. She would never have guessed my actual job.*
I was friendly to the woman as she spoke with me, smiled at her, genuinely wished her a pleasant afternoon soaking up the sun but I still felt a little guilty as I walked away. I felt like my life should have rushed into sharp focus and perspective, that I should have immediately felt some stark difference between what might have been her working life in a factory and mine which has exactly nothing to do with factories, but I didn't. I felt nothing of the sort, nothing but mildly interrupted because I had to fish out my phone and rewind the podcast I was listening to so I didn't miss anything. But then fresh guilt emerged at my lack of perspective and the huge black hole where I should have been thinking about the woman's life instead of my own.
This sense of guilt has persisted, through the end of the podcast, three rounds of Drawsome, one wee break and the eating of one spoon of peanut butter directly from the jar. Why don't I feel a sense of perspective? Could it be that I have become so fixated on the inner workings of my mind and my life that I am no longer able to be changed by a small chance encounter on a street corner?
I hope so.
I would like nothing more than to be largely unchanged by the world as it bumps into me, like a character from a Woody Allen film. I have always wanted to be like a character from a Woody Allen film who goes through something big, like a failed romance, and comes out the other end just exactly as they were before, maybe more so. Maybe they use the experience to write a book or a play but manage to avoid any personal growth or change. I admire those characters, how they distil themselves into becoming an even more interesting and dense version of who they were to begin with.
And so now the guilt is changing into hope. The sun is still out and the couple is still likely to be sat, weirdly without any cups of tea, in their afternoon spot, unmoving, not talking, just taking in the day. I have half a mind to go back there and talk to them about this, ask them what they think it means but I won't because that's closer to crazy than I want to go this afternoon so for now I'll go and make a cup of tea and think about something else.
*Not just the woman might have a hard time guessing but everybody, there is an extra layer of trickiness in that I am not employed by the university but that my employer has free and exclusive use of a building on campus.