COLUMN: October 3, 2013

I WAS walking to work briskly, cutting through the other commuters like a hot commuter through commuters made of butter.

I am no great shakes at most things – barely a wobble, generally – but I have been walking for 40 years now and I’m not bad. In fact, people often say to me: “Slow down, Gary. You are walking very fast.”

And I say to them: “Yes, and that is with plantar fasciitis, the chronic pain in the heel. Imagine how quickly I would go if I didn’t walk like Kevin Spacey in that film.”

And they say nothing back because all conversations have to end eventually, especially made-up ones.

Perhaps if I had been less single-minded about getting to work I would have noticed the woman who was about to cross my path, recognised her as Nothing But Trouble, and altered my course to miss her, like a heat-avoiding missile.

But I knew if I didn’t speed up I would be late for work, and I do not like being late for work if I can help it. Public transport had already done its best to hinder me and I needed to make up time.

“Excuse me,” she said, stepping in front of me. I screeched to a halt like the Road Runner in front of a small mound of grain on a desert road, while behind the rock of circumstance the coyote of misfortune held a rope from which was suspended the 10-tonne weight of grief.

“Are you local?” she asked me, in a northern accent. “I’m standing in front of you right now,” I thought. “I doubt I could be more local without having to marry you.”

“Yes,” I replied. Maybe I was gulled by her salt-of-the-earth-I-know-my-way-around-a-pie accent. She asked me if I knew the way to a high-rise building which is situated next to my office.

I could have given her directions, although they were quite tricky, but I was going her way. “I’m going your way,” I said. “I’ll show you.”

And the coyote of misfortune let go of the rope.

Einstein is often attributed with the assertion that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. Of course, he kept telling people he didn’t say it, but nobody ever believed him.

For I have done this before. I have taken people to the location they sought, and it always goes wrong. Last time I shepherded a group of Spanish people, and accidentally spoke to them in Italian. Before that, I got in a small car with four, eventually hostile, men and took them to the road for which I had misheard them asking, rather than the road they actually wanted.

And now I was doing it again. We walked. I noticed the pull-along suitcase behind her, with its thudding, scraping wheels.

“It’s just down here,” I said. The trouble with this particular high-rise is that it is completely invisible until one is in front of it. This is not a Harry Potter-type building. It is just that the much smaller buildings around it block its view.

I could tell she was sceptical.

But worse than that, she was very, very slow. Infuriatingly slow for a brisk pedestrian like me. Walking with her felt like walking with a thick elastic band binding one’s ankles together. She was making me late. Maybe I could ditch her here, I thought.

“I’m slow,” she said. “I hope I’m not making you late.”

“No, no, not at all!” I said. Politeness had screwed me over. I shuffled alongside her trying to match her pace and appearing incredibly patient. We had nothing to say to each other. All we had in common was a direction.

The wheels thudded and scraped…

“It really is this way,” I said. “It’s just invisible.”

She looked at me, worried. “No! It’s not actually invisible, you just can’t see it.”

I wasn’t helping. “It’s definitely there. It was there on Friday. Unless there’s been a terrible disaster.”

“There’s been a disaster?” she asked.

“No, no! I mean, I don’t think so…” Maybe there had been, I didn’t know. This was a new low. I was terrifying a Lancastrian woman and I was late for work.

“Honestly, I’m sure it’s still there,” I said. I was committed then. Perhaps I should be.

Eventually, 10 minutes into a four-minute walk, we rounded the corner, and there it was, glistening in the autumn sunlight, 30 storeys pointing to the sky. Perfectly visible.

“There you are,” I said. “No disasters.”

She looked me in the eye, then walked off without thanking me.

I didn’t blame her. I think we were both relieved it was over.

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