Life in this age of constant connection is interspersed with episodes of incommunication, in which spontaneous, “natural” conversation seems to stutter and fail. Here are four examples, all genuine.
I walk into the Transport Office at work. There are three employees, no customers.
“How can I help you today?”
“Could you tell me the procedure for getting a bus pass?”
“No problem. The information is all on line.”
“How much does it cost?”
“The prices are all on the website.”
“How long will it take?”
“You should allow 10-15 days at peak times.”
“Is mid August a peak time?”
“Could be. Waiting times are on the website.”
“Do I need a photo?”
“Is there a booth anywhere?”
(In a tone of amused condescension.) “Er… use your smartphone.”
In search of the appropriate white backdrop, I retire to the toilets armed with an iPad and hope that no-one will burst in on my improvised photoshoot.
I am outside on the square, strolling back to my office after a coffee break with colleagues.
A stranger addresses me in an earnest tone.
“Excuse me. You’re a TV personality, aren’t you?”
(With insistence.) “You’re from Oxford aren’t you? They said you were from Oxford.”
“Yes, but I haven’t appeared on TV for about 20 years.”
“I saw you last night.”
“I don’t think so.”
“On Robot Wars.”
(Smile waning.) “Sorry, I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s the programme you were on. Your robot got knocked out.”
(Smile now wry.) “Well, that’s a relief.”
(Stranger shakes his head and disappears into a shop.)
I am reading on the bus going home.
A large woman is seated next to me, earbuds firmly in place. She rises purposefully to get off, knocking my glasses onto the floor.
I retreat rapidly into the corridor to make way and to retrieve my glasses before they cease to be. Bending over, I back inadvertently into another passenger, also advancing towards the exit smartphone in hand. The bus jolts, I lose balance and tread on her foot. She yelps. I apologise profusely. Neither she nor the other lady makes any form of acknowledgement.
I return to my seat to resume reading but feel numb and resistant to the insensitive clamour of the words on the page. I toy with the idea of proposing myself as a new Marvel comic character – the Invisible Bulk.
The bus has reached the end of the line and the driver is having a cigarette break. We are still four stops away from my destination so I remain on board. Silence reigns. All nine passengers are gazing into their smartphones or into the middle distance with their earbuds on.
The silence is broken by a loud and doleful whining sound emanating from one of the passengers with earbuds. The lament continues, wavering between loud and soft, for about a minute, without apparent rhythmic or melodic form.
The relief is palpable when the driver re-starts the engine and we continue on our way. At no point is there any reaction of any sort from anyone.