It’s a single drop of rain that lands on my lower lip: a cold smack that wakes me from reverie and from the crowd that spills from the train. I dip the edge of my tongue out and draw the water droplet inside. In the same movement, teeth scrape flesh and my mouth is dry again. I shuffle forward, inching along the platform, deferring and conceding ground to those more keen, less passive, than me. I find a rhythm at the steps from the platform. At the foot of those steps, my stride lengthens as I pass under the subway and out to the front of the station. I overtake a dozen or more people, side-step wheeled suitcases, dodge shoulder bags and limbs which jut and obstruct. Bit by bit, I seek to detach myself from this group of people as quickly as I can.
From station to station, over the last fifteen minutes, I watched familiar looks dart from one face to another, one or two of them alighting on me. These are looks which dare not show themselves as too friendly or affectionate: just acknowledging glances from the numerous same people I make this journey with every day. Looks that say no more and no less than, ‘you are the image of the man I remember from yesterday’. That image means no more to them than the one of the cobblestones they walk over each day to exit Bath station. That image is no more interesting than the leaves which adorn the tree at the station platform we started our journey from. The leaves will change colour soon and fall; they will momentarily transfix and capture the imagination of all who pass by them for a few seconds. That’s longer than my own image will live in their thoughts for, but I’m perfectly content to exist so plainly in their world.
I cross the road and see the dust and litter stuck in the gutter. These are items that the wind and rain and the rogue and unknowing interventions of people and traffic have brought together. Another drop of rain falls to turn the muddied grey cigarette butt at my feet to black. As the black soaks in, it’s like a light turning on, a bud becoming blossom. The first captivating image of the day.
I near the office, passing the newsagent on my right as I do, and cast my eyes down, again, to the grey flagstones. It was here, several months ago, that an old man with white hair fell to the ground with a loud and sickening thud. I rushed to him, together with another passer-by. She reached the man first and lifted him from the ground and managed to perch him onto the thick wooden ledge of the shop window. I stood there in front of them both and couldn’t quite sound the words I wanted to. The frame of his glasses had been pushed into the top of his nose and a bloodied flap of skin hung over their tortoiseshell bridge. One lens was smashed, but through the other I could see his left eye and a look that was so utterly displaced and forlorn that I instantly felt like I had suffered his fall and injuries with him. I rushed into the shop and asked for a tissue or cloth to take back to the man. When I returned, several others had gathered around to help. One man had placed a hand on his shoulder; the woman who had reached him first was knelt on one side with her hands wrapped around four of the old man’s long, bony fingers. On the other side, a man seated on his heels held forward a large swab of blue tissue, pressed into the old man’s forehead and nose to stem the flow of blood. I stood there, vague and slightly lost, for twenty or thirty seconds. I turned towards the office and then back to the small crowd. I placed the roll of tissue paper onto the wooden ledge, turned again and started to walk, frustrated and sad. When I reached the crossroads I looked back one last time to see the same people, as they were, the old man at the centre of three other forms bent in towards him.
The next day, I stopped at the same point and saw a rust-coloured circle and several smaller dots around it on the grey stone floor. His blood – the iron within it and the air all around it – and now these dark orange spots were all that was left of yesterday’s sorrow. Two or three days later, I passed him again, at almost precisely the same place. There was a bandage taped around the top of his nose and the right lens had been fixed. The sadness in his eyes was now less fierce. I found the raised edge of the flagstone that day too. It should have sat flush with its neighbour, but I placed my own foot against it to confirm the likely possibility of a fall that I had already witnessed and a shudder passed through me as I did.
A day or two later and the blood was gone from the ground. The broken glasses, his eye through the one working lens, the blood, the tissue: I’ll forever see these things for every day that I continue to go by here. This old man, who I have never spoken to, who could not hear the words that my mouth tried to shape that day, this part of a story within my life, this series of indelible images. And yet I, for him, will continue to be just an image that might register and then instantly disappear within a second of one of several, perhaps many more, of the remaining days in his life.
I reach the office and my head starts to clear all of these things: an emptying out of one lot of information, ready for another.
The rain never did really start, despite the promise of those earlier drops.