Watching others – studying how they move, speak, relate to one another – is a bad habit of mine. For example, every day when I should be supervising a class, there I am, staring out of the window, observing the head of this or that department walking across the yard, stopping, remembering they’ve forgotten a document, or perhaps their coffee, and returning to their office. Or I sit at my computer, always distracted by people walking past. Like the girl with Tourette Syndrome, fuck this and that, little yelps and high-pitched calls. That’s the thing about watching people – it always leads to a clearer understanding of how we work. By seeing how bodies move, how people are unsure of themselves (although we spend most of our time trying to disguise this).
So why do I tell you this? I’m a writer, so therefore an observer, a nosey-parker, whatever you want to call it. It was a moment in Paris. On the Metro line number four (I don’t know what it’s called, but it runs north-south, in the middle of the city). A train arrives, sucks in a few hundred people and shoots off into the darkness. Stop and wait, and watch all the people coming down from the street, or across from another platform. Two, three minutes and the platform is crowded again. Like this, train after train, all day, day after day. This obsession with getting somewhere.
Myself, my wife, with all these others on the platform. I think the stop was Châtelet, as we’d just been to Notre-Dame de Paris. What a place! Thousands of tourists trying to see what all the fuss is about. I wasn’t sure. I’d seen dozens of cathedrals, and this one didn’t seem any different. The train arrives and a tide of people pile on, find a spot (standing, of course), slide into this or that gap, adjust a leg to fit here, an arm, a skateboard or scooter. All irrelevant. Because now I’m standing with my wife, and the train doors close, and the train takes off towards Château d’Eau.
So as you can imagine, I’m studying faces. People avoid eye contact, but they’re very interested in each other. Sometimes eyes linger, and there’s a sort of smile, but I think that’s just me, this hick from Adelaide thinking you can do this in Paris. There are old people guarding their trolleys, businessmen, hipsters in tight pants and groomed beards. And the back of a head. A boy, three or four, with mousy blonde hair, a hand on the pole.
I watch the boy, because I think it wonderful how such a small child lives in such a big city (I assume, his mother's carrying bread and groceries). Imagine growing up in Paris. Lucky kid. All the opportunities, culture, theatre, everything. Compared to me, raised in an oversized country town with a few towers for the electrical and gas company. No culture, a sport-fuelled indifference to books, and ideas. Anyway, at this point the boy turns and I notice a strawberry nevus, or birthmark, across the left side of his face. (By the way, I’m leaving out the stations we visit). I look away in case the boy looks at me. Like the Tourette girl – it’s rude. But then I look again, and see this small, round face with its imperfection (from cheek to chin).
There, are you happy, Stephen? Have you seen enough? Have you learned to know this boy, his face, his life, his fears, his feelings? I know nothing about Etienne, or Baptiste, or Clément, although he’s probably John. Is he teased? Does the mark make him upset? Will this get worse, will he fail to cope with the blemish and become depressed? Or has he barely thought about it? Has no one really mentioned it? Is it just me, projecting my fears onto other people?
By now we must be at Strasbourg Saint-Denis. Several herds of people have gotten on and off, and I’m still watching the boy. And here’s why I write the first of my microgrammes. The train stops, and I have to get off with my wife, and we walk towards the stairs. Something occurs to me and I stop, turn, and look back at the train as the doors close. And there he is, this boy, looking at me. A few seconds, eye-to-eye, as something passes between us. Maybe we’re both old souls, reunited? He just looks, and I wonder if I should smile, or wave, or return. But there’s no point. I take the steps and the day is glorious and bright, and the boy, headed north, is gone.
Welcome to Datsunland! This is a second hand car yard of the speeches I've given, the columns I've written, the essays, microgrammes, micro-fiction and micro-thoughts that have passed through my small, shy brain. Also, stuff so strange no newspapers, websites or publishers want them.