Tutting, shuffling and huffing; the bus queue showed its disapproval of the man smoking a cigarette. They shot him semi-furtive glances, but said nothing.
‘What’s the problem?’ I whispered to Tommy.
‘Is it illegal?’
‘No, but it’s not very nice is it?’
‘Why does he do it?’
‘Too thick to realise it’s the twenty-first century, I guess.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Forget it,’ he said and turned away.
The cold clean edge to the air contrasted beautifully with the cigarette smoke. On the roof of a café a metal chimney reflected the sun, like an urban lighthouse warning of the fatty smoke from burning flesh.
The bus arrived and the queue inched forward. We sat down in the last two empty seats.
‘That’s better,’ said Tommy, unbuttoning his coat.
‘Better than what?’
‘I was starting to freeze to the pavement.’
I smiled. ‘I could tell you were finding it hard to appreciate the crispness of the day.’
He stared at me, smiled and shook his head. ‘Sometimes…’ he said and took out his phone. ‘Do you mind if I check this?’
‘Sometimes…’ I said, smiled back and shook my head in an attempt at humour, but he was too engrossed in swiping and pressing the screen to notice. I sat back and looked around. Almost without exception the passengers had their heads down and their thumbs on phones. Occasionally someone would show a neighbour something, as if the virtual world was more interesting than the one around them.
‘Tommy, these phones haven’t been around long, have they?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘And yet they’ve taken over your lives.’
‘That’s a bit severe, don’t you think?’
‘I see people on their phones.’
‘What did they do before they had phones?’
‘Well, they… do you know, I can’t remember. I guess they must have… read newspapers? Talked? That’s spooky; I honestly can’t remember.’
He fidgeted, repeatedly taking his phone out of his pocket and putting it back almost straight away.
The bus trundled along, passengers got off and passengers got on, but their behaviour remained the same – heads down and thumbs swiping.
‘We’re here,’ said Tommy. The bus was still moving, but he stood up and walked to the back, swaying as it weaved its way through the traffic. I followed.
The pavements were full of couples and families walking along slowly, stopping to read the menus in restaurant windows.
‘What do you fancy?’ asked Tommy.
‘I’ll leave it to you. No meat or fish though. You know that don’t you?’
‘Yeah, Purple, I know that. Wouldn’t be right to eat your equals would it?’ He laughed.
I knew he thought I was wrong and that the lower classes were born to be eaten, but I didn’t rise to his jibes. One day he’ll understand my point of view. One day your whole universe will understand my point of view. But not until I’ve fully understood you.
We meandered along the street, pausing every now and again for Tommy to check a menu.
‘How do you decide?’ I asked.
‘Well, they’ve got to have a veggie option haven’t they?’
‘Do any of them?’
‘They all do, actually they’re almost identical to each other.’
‘Is that why you’re looking inside as well?’
‘Yes. You don’t want an empty one do you?’
‘There’s a reason it’s empty.’
‘What sort of reason?’
‘You can just tell that something’s not quite right.’
It was fascinating to watch everyone choose where to eat, congregating in a few select places.
‘I know that tone of voice… what have you discovered about us now?’
‘The phones and forgetting what it was like before… the way you concentrate into a few restaurants without discussing it with each other… do you think you’re all connected in some way? On a higher level? Or are you being manipulated?’
He laughed and slapped me on the back. ‘You’re precious,’ he said, but was silent for quite a while afterwards.