The Curmudgeon


Sunday, September 03, 2006


A Tale

A woman stood at the traffic lights, waiting to cross the road. Her dark coat and hat were meant for a far colder day; weighed down with a plastic bag on each side, she resembled a lumpy mother holding her lumpy white twins by the hair. Her face, crushed between hat-brim and collar, was inanimate yet somehow furtive, the tics and twitches struggling and suffocating under the doughy flesh. To the extent that they were visible, her blunt and shadowed features went unnoticed; even while she waited, staring stolid and motionless at the zebra, two passers-by had brushed unknowingly against her.

At last the lights changed. To her right, a bus slowed jerkily and halted, vibrating with impatience. On the far side of the road a dark green saloon with its single occupant headed a growing, growling queue; and beyond the saloon an invisible motorcyclist was audibly making plain the harnessed potential of his engine.

The woman stepped off the pavement and began walking across. Observed from on high by the bus driver, she placed one foot in front of the other consciously and with care, as though on camera or a rickety footbridge. The laden, knobbly bags banged against her ankles. She kept her head lowered, as if using the zebra stripes on the road to measure her deliberate progress.

She had completed perhaps two-thirds of her journey when the lights changed again. The bus gave a gasp and a creak and moved away, dragging a draught which pulled at the woman’s hat. As she came within view of the motorcyclist he goaded his engine to an even louder roar, and the driver of one of the cars – perhaps the second or third behind the green saloon – sounded his horn.

The woman halted, causing the driver of the saloon to lift both hands from the steering wheel in pleading exasperation. After a moment, the woman dropped both her shopping bags which, well-fed, remained upright on either side of her. Slowly, the woman’s knee began to buckle, so that as she dropped her body turned to the left and she faced the driver of the green saloon.

It was, the driver must have thought, some sort of attack brought on by the heat. The woman’s head had drooped, so that her hat came loose and threatened to fall. As her hip came into contact with the road’s surface, she placed both hands on the ground. At that point another horn sounded, and was joined by an irritable chorus. The woman’s head jerked upward; the hat fell away, exposing her wiry grey hair; her eyes narrowed, staring at the driver of the green saloon. With the smooth efficiency of an eyeblink, her feet and hands placed themselves beneath her body and levered it upright. She stood on all fours and, her yellow teeth glinting, she snarled.

Drivers behind the green saloon, who could not see the woman, gave vent to renewed impatience. The motorcyclist, who had watched the whole performance, moved back a few yards and then abruptly accelerated past her, rounding the next corner with a sharper turn than necessary. Still on all fours, the woman hurried away, vanishing silently down a side-street.

Her shopping remained in the road. After a few moments, the driver of the green saloon got cautiously out of the car and, ignoring the clamour of horns, picked up the plastic bags and put them carefully on the rear seat before driving away.


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