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The Other Side of Everything

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Written on May 11, 2005, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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People don’t say “Hello” anymore, or even “Hi”, they make a strained estuary sound forced through facial muscles more used to showing displeasure or disgust for the sake of protection. Eyebrows level, mouth corners glued to teeth, unless you are kith or kin, the best you get is the traditional London recognition sound of “ooowite”.

It is supposed to be a question but it is said as a statement. “Ooowite?” is the more considerate form of the phrase, implying as it does more genuine concern for your wellbeing.

“Ooowite,” she said blankly as she went to pass me, but I could tell she was not alright. She was tired and the great dark skunk-induced rings under her eyes looked more ominous than usual. “I am fine, how are you?” It was a slight shock to us both, this formal middle-class rejoinder, and it was uttered and out in the open before I could grab it back.

She looked like an overgrown baby in a romper suit, the only part of her body showing the obligatory gap between the pubis and the navel. I estimated her to be anywhere between 16 and 20 years old, strangely timeless in that brief moment before men and babies take the rest of her life. We were walking through the slalom railings, put there to prevent teenagers on stolen ‘peds racing in the carpark. This meant we were suffering physical proximity, my black leather jacket passing within centimetres of her 100% unnatural fibre mint-ice-cream-coloured daywear.

She looked up at me, her own surprisingly clear grey eyes scanning left and right across my smiling face in swift anxiety. Realising I meant it, she said, “Been in hospital.” She said, “They didn’t know what was wrong.” Wishing I had stuck to formula but nonetheless now concerned I said, “Whittington?” and she nodded. “I’ve been there” I said sagely, trying to find a way of extracting the information without losing the entire morning to the exchange. “Did they sort you out in the end?”

She looked suddenly very sad and far older. “Got to go back for tests.” Without wanting to probe further, but not wanting to leave the poor girl in the lurch, I said, “You must be worried, that’s tough.” She hardened her face and twisted her neck around, as if expecting the test results to sneak up behind her. Looking back at me, starting to fidget and frown, she said, “Yeah, I might not come back.”

Shit, I thought, she means it. The final trip to hospital, the failure to return. She is living with this fear of sickness, of death, of the unknown. I was moved, didn’t know what to say. Then she said, “I might stay with her.”

“Sorry?” I said, completely confused. “There’s rooms for you to stay over. I might just stay there with her. She’s 78, everyone else is at work.” “Let’s hope she’s OK” I floundered lamely. “See ya!” she smiled, she moved past me, and we parted.

She’s not dying, it’s her bloody grandmother, I shouted gently to myself. I walked on, mentally weighing up the verbal exchange and marvelling at the misconstrued meanings, and at how the shift in concern had occurred, wishing I hadn’t asked her how she really was, but glad I had in fact done so.

I didn’t intend to confront mortality, I was just being more friendly than usual as a consequence of being less wound up. Formulas of greeting and recognition, I realised, serve many more purposes than just to establish and maintain civil relations. They tell someone you know who they are and that you accept their right to be there. They keep you connected to the health of the community. Vary them at your peril.

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This thing has 3 Comments

  1. Blog ho
    Posted 11 May, 2005 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    good writing.

  2. karma
    Posted 12 May, 2005 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    over here, even people you run into every day may not greet you. if you smile at them, they think you are a freak 🙁

  3. transience
    Posted 12 May, 2005 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    ooowite, this made me smile. can’t wait to go to london. that’s not gonna be any time soon, but i can’t wait. oh, and people here are very friendly. too friendly. it tires me because as a general rule, i am not.

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