I like the fact that my life has something of a routine. I do end up out-and-about with work, but when I’m not, those daily-days in the office are calming in their regularity. I know that pretty much every day at some point between 2 and 3pm I will stretch back in my desk chair and ask anyone who’s listening: “Do you mind if I have a nap now?” – and obviously never do – and that at any point it will never be long before someone will get up and do a tea run.
A particular treat in the last year or so has been spotting the people around me whose routines fall into step with mine as I travel to and from work. I took delight in noting during April that Red Coat Black Hat Lady who I cycle past each morning had lost the hat for spring, and in June she transitioned to a blue summer jacket. I’m not sure what to call her now, but I find great comfort in these minor tweaks to the routines of the people I encounter each day.
A recent addition to my repertoire of daily characters has come to be known as River Man. There’s no weird explanation for this – he doesn’t have kelp for arms or anything – but I take a walk to the river every lunchtime to clear my head and see how the birds are doing – particularly the five goslings, all called Ryan, obviously – and River Man just happens to have the same routine as me. He intrigues me, in part because he seems to wear the same clothes every single day: faded red chinos, a white shirt, and a blue bomber jacket, although the latter was notably absent in the recent hot spell. What’s even odder about it is that it seems no matter when I go out, with a variance of about half an hour around 1pm, I see him on his way in or out.
I first encountered River Man about six months ago. I was walking down to the river and he was walking back, and we almost bumped into each other round the corner. We both looked up, smiled at each other, stepped aside and carried on. That was one of the only times we have ever made eye contact, despite our subsequent ongoing shared routine: we’re just both too British to acknowledge each other’s presence. Recently, we’ve started accidentally leaving our buildings at the exact synchronous moment that means we reach the path up to the river such that we would fall into step. Each time I see him coming I either boldly stride ahead so I end up ahead of him, or loiter a little by my office door so I get there just behind him. I’m fairly sure he’s spotted me awkwardly doing both. Either way, the thought of accidentally falling into step with this stranger is mortifying.
It has been suggested that I should maybe say hello to him one day. It has also been noted that the situation reads like the beginning of a romantic comedy novel: both of these notions make me laugh. The thing is, I know the good Christian – and probably human – thing to do is to say hello to him: we both see each other so often it’s insane that we never have. He really is ‘my neighbour’, so I think I’m contractually obliged to show him love. But the truth is, I kind of like not knowing who he is.
I like that he could be anyone. He could be brilliant, and utterly charming. We could get talking and he could be the friendliest and most fascinating human being I’ve ever met. But equally likely, he could be dismissive, uninterested, and unfriendly, and I don’t want to shatter my mental illusion that he’s brilliant and that he loves birds as much as I do.
River Man is my Schrodinger’s Cat of anonymous interactions. He is ‘both alive and dead’: he is both lovely and awful, both my new friend and my awkward avoidance, until I open the lid. But I’m scared of the odds against him, and the weight of expectation that I’ll always have to talk to him if he actually turns out to be a pain. People are easier when they’re imaginary – or held in a state of character quantum superposition – especially when you’re shy.
So, for now, River Man is going to stay as one of my daily routine characters, just in case he turns out to be awful. I can love my neighbour by praying he decides to invest in new jeans, right…?