I was keen to find somewhere warm and dry as soon as possible and we passed by a number of seemingly pleasant cafés, but Amber has her favourite coffee spots and she naturally assumes that I will follow wherever she leads like an obedient, caffeine-free sheepdog. Being terribly unfit, keeping pace with Amber whilst also keeping pace with her conversation was a very demanding task. I quickly found myself out of breath and each word that I managed to squeeze into her loud monologue was punctuated by someone stepping in between us or my desperate attempts to catch my breath. Add the icy rain and cold wind into the mix and before long I was gasping and wheezing like a cardiac patient.
As we walked the steady incline against the main flow of the crowd, my attention was lured away from our conversation and towards a man who was standing in the middle of the street ahead of us. From what I recall there was nothing exceptional about him; he looked to be in his late fifties or early sixties and at first his greasy hair and ruddy complexion suggested that he was a tramp, but under closer inspection I noticed that he was too well dressed to be a tramp. Equally, he was too well dressed to be a typical Saturday shopper. He wore an expensive-looking business suit and he had a professional demeanour about him, but his dishevelled appearance was far too scruffy for a local businessman out on his lunch break. However it was not his appearance that drew my eye to him but rather his unmoving stance in the middle of the street. He stood absolutely still in the centre of the main thoroughfare and shoppers poured from either side of him like a fast stream spilling around a pebble, all seemingly oblivious to his presence and appearing to avoid bumping into him purely by chance.
As I glanced towards the man I was surprised to discover that he was staring straight back at me. Eye contact with a stranger in the centre of town is a very rare occurrence; it is not the friendliest of places and strangers who approach you are invariably selling something or trying their luck at squeezing some spare change out of you. But there were no advertising hoardings nearby, he had no magazines in his hand and he was not making any attempt to strike up a conversation with the members of the public around him. ‘Pervert’, I thought, ‘standing in the street and watching the women and young girls pass by’, so I decided to throw a few obvious glares back at him to warn him off and scold him for his creepy behaviour. But each time our eyes met he seemed unashamed to have caught my attention and he made no attempt to break eye contact, in fact I noticed that a large grin was creeping across his face in response. And then, as I considered the reason for why he had singled me out from the crowd, I realised that it was not a voyeuristic stare but a knowing grin. A smile of recognition. I wondered whether I knew him, or at least whether he knew me. Is he a family friend or someone whose name I cannot place? On any account, should I acknowledge him and politely smile back?
Then, as I pondered my response to the stranger, I noticed that his countenance and posture was starting to shift. With every fleeting glimpse that I took of him, I saw that his entire body was beginning to distort; his face reddened and the lines on his forehead deepened, squeezing every knotted vein to the surface of his skin. His hands tightened into fists at his side, his shoulders stiffened and his back began to bend as though his spine was being twisted, causing him to hunch forward most unnaturally. Although transfixed by the rapid disfigurement of his face and body, in my peripheral vision I was surprised by the apparent indifference of the bustling shoppers to his physical transformation. Why did they not acknowledge that he was there? Could they not see him? And then, to my horror, as he unashamedly held my gaze, I watched the man’s smile widen until his perverse grin became an almost maniacal sneer and I swear – although I feel foolish admitting to it – that I spotted a row of sharp, needle-like teeth protruding from between his thin, grey lips.
My face flushed and every hair on my body bristled as adrenalin began to pound through me. Something wasn’t right about him. He felt out-of-place. I felt out-of-place. I was instantly flustered and looked down at my feet to avoid his gaze, but all the while I could feel his stare burning into me, taunting me and daring me to look at him. The roar of the crowds whirled like a maelstrom around me causing my head to spin and my chest to tighten and as I continued to walk my legs grew heavier and heavier with every step that I took towards him. For a brief second I thought that I would pass out, so I turned to Amber for help but it was as though a veil had been drawn between us. She was deeply embroiled in a conversation with herself and when I tried to speak her name the words caught in my throat.
As I came within a few feet of the man I was gripped by the paralyzing fear that he would shout something at me or step forward and touch me. What would he say? What would I do? Realising that I was sinking deeper and deeper into a mire of panic and confusion, I made a desperate and concerted effort to compose myself and in a rare moment of bravery I decided to confront the man directly as we passed each other by. Ice cold adrenaline coursed through every vein in my body as I lifted my head and our eyes met once again, only this time he was almost within touching distance and I could see every line on his face, every drop of sweat on his brow and the dark, hollow pupils of his eyes. And then, as we held each other’s stare, I understood the connection between us.
He did not want to touch me or speak to me.
He just wanted me to see him.
The roar of the crowd faded away into a dull and distant hum, the bustling activity that was taking place around me seemed to slow and grind to a halt and everything in my peripheral vision melted away into a blurry haze as my focus was entirely absorbed by the stranger. It was the most bizarre experience, but I was not afraid. Although I found the stranger’s appearance to be extremely unsettling, there was something extraordinary about him that fascinated me and even now I recall that, for the few seconds that I shared in his intimate presence, I really felt as though I had glimpsed through the shallow emptiness of my immediate surroundings and into the realm of the supernatural. And yes, I confess that it was a strangely peaceful and comforting experience.
Flustered by the close physical proximity between us, I broke eye contact with the man, held my chin down tightly against my chest and stared intently at my feet as I hurried past him and pushed Amber into the nearest café. She barked something at me for my clumsiness and once inside I feigned interest in the sandwich menu near the door, but I was compelled to look back out onto the street to see whether the stranger was still there. Unable to resist the temptation, I stepped into the café window and searched up and down the street, but he was nowhere to be seen.
I was haunted by the encounter throughout the remainder of the day and I was preoccupied during the romantic meal that Alex had arranged for us later that evening. Sleeping was an impossible task that night and I lay awake, obsessively replaying the incident over and over again and wondering who the person was and why he had singled me out from the crowd. Even now the face of the man is so fresh in my memory that it continues to disturb me.