[I’m not the best when it comes to getting exercise but I do love to go out walking. When I’m walking I like to lose myself in podcasts or wander around toying with stories. I’m not a fan of being interrupted, be it by people I know or random strangers. Call it anti-social but walking is my time to not just keep fit physically, but mentally too. The following story is loosely influenced on several different events and encounters I’ve had over many years but is a work of fiction. The story is not deigned to offend however due to the religious content I felt it necessary to introduce the story. To be clear, my religious leanings are private and are not reflected in this work of fiction. This is a short story of a man on a walk who gets interrupted and struggles with his own insecurities and social anxiety. This is in no way a denigration of any religious group or belief structure. If you are susceptible to religious triggers, then please feel free to pass this one by. If not, then I hope you enjoy…]
At my age you’d think I’d know how to dress myself for the weather. Apparently not! Yes a trench coat does make me look suave, but in this heat its closer to a sweaty mess. As cars speed by on the road beside me there’s a gust of cool air but at this point the damage is done. Trying to remember if I used deodorant before I left the house, I can’t exactly check now I’m on the path into town. I decided that I did and that I really don’t care if I’m wrong. Its sweltering heat from that scorching sun, no-one can really blame me for being too warm. Sure they can judge my fashion sense but I’m pretty sure people do that to me on a daily basis anyway.
The self consciousness is distracting me from the voices in my head. No, not those ones! The one’s chattering from the earphones connected to my phone. It’s part of my walking ritual, exercising both body and mind. The steps are for my body, for my mind I turn to the never ending world of podcasts Today it’s something about how recent TV show was horrible, but I’ve lost the point of the conversation and I way too unfocused to rewind. I keep walking, dipping in and out of the podcast playing in my head and wondering what the drivers think of me as I wander into town. I start to argue with myself that I should have just got the bus. All I want to do is get some lunch and some ice-cream so I can sit out in the garden and enjoy the weather, but no, me and my foolish plans to get fit. I know there’s logic to this but I honestly don’t care. So I meander on cursing myself, poor planning, poor wardrobe, poor me. A bush whooshes by and nearly blows my hat off. Letting out a beleaguered sigh I adjust and keep on strolling. It’s a walk that normally takes forty minutes and I’ve been at it half an hour, but I’m barely half way down the road regretting every second. Make a note, buy shorts, It doesn’t matter if you don’t like them you clearly need more appropriate clothes. The only solace I have is the pavements are empty. It’s just vehicles on the road and they can’t hear me panting. There’s a diversion ahead so I take a slight detour under some hanging trees and some well placed shade. That’s when my stomach drops as skipping towards me I see two familiar figures ahead.
I know what’s coming next, it’s not the first time I’ve encountered their kind. I don’t recognise them and I don’t think I’ve seen them before, regardless, I’m really not in the mood. I’ll probably still stop anyway because I hate being rude. Always in pairs and you can tell them by the way they dress. I think it’s just that they’re meant to look smart but it really comes across like a school uniform. That however might have something more to do with their age. As they get closer it’s obvious the pair are rather young girls, one blonde, one brunette. As we march towards each other an emphasis on ‘young’ is startlingly clear. My eyes hidden by sunglasses shades, I take the time to give my soon to be new friends a once over. It may come over as judgemental but the first word that comes to mind is dowdy. Both girls very pretty but trying to look intentionally plain. Wearing long skirts, heavy cardigans and hair that’s still drying in plaits. They seem to be dressed worse than me for this weather but handling it far better. Their gaze locks on me and both begin to smile. I can tell their pace has quickened now they’ve found their next target. Subtly I look around for any possible escape, I’m sure they’re lovely girls, but I’m totally not in the mood for this. So with no way out, I’m trapped into what will likely be a religious debate. Just be polite they’re clearly just kids, besides I could use a short break in the shade.
The brunette takes the lead. There’s a welcoming grin on her face as she raises her hand to give me a wave. She seems sweet so I smile back and take my earphones off. As all three of us stop and exchange greetings, I’m immediately I’d thrown by their foreign accents. They speak perfectly clear and are very well spoken, but there’s no way I could believe for a second they’re from around here. Rather formally we shake hands and exchange names. They even had little name badges on which for some odd reason delighted me. I wonder what would happen If I started wearing one of those “Hello my name is…” stickers would more people speak to me in the world. Of course with my luck it would still only be charity workers or young girls like these two. After introductions the brunette asserts herself as the leader of the pair, starting with an innocent compliment to get my attention.
“Oh wow that’s a cool cowboy hat.”
I git my teeth, “Actually it’s a fedora…”
This isn’t a good start. I question the education system until it dawns on me that the only person in a 100 mile radius that cares about hats is me. Still I’m a little disappointed in her, although I’m not really giving her a chance. The girl clearly means well and it’s not like it’s the first time someone has commented on my hat. I continue my point and try to educate her in my own wonderfully pretentious way,
“…but I get that a lot. It’s the brim, its sort of water damaged so curves like a Stetson. I actually have a few but this one went best with my outfit today. Although I’m kind of regretting my choice now.”
I laugh at my own stupid joke, I honestly don’t know why. If I can bore them with ridiculous hat trivia they might get bored and walk away. No chance of that it seems, this brunette is quite good. She simply throws another compliment at me as if to save from what I would consider a faux pas, but if I’m honest with myself is an easy mistake.
“Well I think it’s really smart, it suits you” she says, still grinning away.
I give her the win on that one with a tip of my hat and settle myself in as the pitch finally begins. It’s all very familiar as she asks if I believe in a God and starts to tell me a little of that faith she and the blonde follow. I can see she’s really into it but I just can’t see past her age. I feel quite jealous that I’ve got nothing I’m this passionate in. Is that just a sign of my age or have I lost something in me. Am I actually at a place in my life when I could embrace religion, or is it just that I’m tired from walking in the sun and my defences are down. As she continues to regale me in a little religious history I grow a little concerned about the girls. All smiles and wide eyed for something I gave up as a child. Are they being taken advantage of? Practically kids out selling stories in what must be a foreign country for them and more than that this isn’t exactly the nicest of towns. I wonder if they get to have any fun, sure this town really sucks but there must be more to their days than trying to convert fools like me. I’d love to just change the subject and ask the girls to come run away with me. Not in a creepy way but to save them from this perplexing vocation. I claim that I don’t judge their choice but it’s hidden under a veil of accountability. It’s quite alarming that in these few minutes we’ve been chatting I’m now plotting to save them. They don’t need saving, especially not from me. I may not be a huge fan of people trying to impose their beliefs on me, or disturbing my walk, but for me to impose a ‘hero’ complex on them is just as bad. I don’t know a thing about them, what right do I have to say they need to be saved. Looking at them smiling clearly loving what they’re doing, how could I think that my life choices are better? Look at me I’m all alone today with nothing but a podcast in my head and a lust for ice-cream to chase the loneliness away. At least they have each other. Maybe I’m the one that needs saved, it’s just a shame I’m a lost cause.
I nod along as the brunette keeps talking and play up all the stereotypical verbal nods, I’m paying attention but it’s really not for me, I may claim to have an open mind but It’s pretty closed to all this. I think she realises this isn’t my first time and asks if I’ve spoken to people like her before. I lie and say,
“Probably, but I speak with that many people and my attention span is pretty terrible. I think it’s the hat, gives people an ice-breaker before they realise how dull I am”
I laugh again at my own joke. Now I’m annoying myself. Stop you’re nonsense and let the girls get on with the pitch so you can politely decline and go get that ice-cream you’ve been craving. They have questions about my personal life and I get the feeling it’s to try and put me at ease before moving onto the more theological queries
“Do you believe in a higher power that helps comfort and guide you?”
Now that’s a loaded question and could be a fantastic opportunity to have a little fun. The natural answer is Batman. What other figure brings us comfort in the dark of night, secure in the knowledge that the world is always safe. He’s a sentinel for justice and an inspiration to be better. If I were to rock the girls with ‘I am vengeance, I am the night…’ would they even understand. It would be rather cruel to belittle their beliefs just for a stupid geeky joke. Yet the temptation is there and it would certainly end our little meeting. There’s really no benefit in hurting their feelings, I may be the wrong audience for their preaching, but there’s never an excuse for unnecessary cruelty.
Instead I answer politely, trying not to offend. A simple no would have sufficed but that’s never been my style. At this point I’ve decided it’s completely my fault the conversation keeps going, quite the little attention seeker I’ve become. I give a long winded response about being balanced and in no need of spiritual guidance. I’m not actually sure if any of it made sense. It’s quite likely I contradicted myself more than once but the girls excitedly listened, eyes wide as ever. Maybe they just like talking to new people or were fascinated by the strange man in the hat. Whatever the reason for their undivided attention, they listened to each tedious word. As I wrapped up my sermon and told them I had no interest in the path to enlightenment, I thought that would be the end little chat. I wouldn’t be so luck as there was a follow up question. The blonde now took her turn and posed quite the peculiar question.
“Who do you think controls the universe?”
‘Hydra’. No, stop it! Okay it’s an odd question but no stupid geeky answers. I literally have no idea how to seriously answer. My sunglasses hide the shock in my eyes. I really hope that question isn’t in some sort of manual. Maybe she meant to say something else and it sort of came out wrong but the brunette didn’t appear to react. Is this actually a legitimate question? Taking a deep breath I stumble my way through a reply.
“Well no-one can really control the universe, let alone mankind. We seek out guidance but rebel against control. If our freedom is taken away by someone imposing their will and control mankind rises up to reclaim what it’s lost. There is no real control, not unless you give up your freedom willingly, but that’s just not in our nature. At least not in anything I’ve ever seen.”
As I ramble on the girls nod and smile. I’m pretty sure I was quoting something from Captain America but they don’t seem to mind. I wonder if that question was a test. Maybe I wasn’t meant to have an answer, I was meant to show an open mind. I think I’ve established with myself that my mind is far too clogged with comic kook trivia and not exactly as malleable as required.
Finally realising I’m not an interested candidate, the girls wrapped things up by giving me pamphlets and business cards in case if I change my mind. Not entirely giving up on my eternal soul but knowing our chat would go no further, the girls thank me for talking with them and encourage me to visit their church. I delicately ignore the invitation and stick with a goodbye. I tell them it’s been a pleasure talking and I really don’t think that way a lie. For as much as I claim to hate being interrupted when I’m out walking the attention was quite nice. I could never do what they do, walking up to strangers on the street and just start talking. It seems so foreign to me, let alone talk about something as polarising as religion.
As I turn to walk away I put my earphones back in and start the podcast playing. The girls wave goodbye and I find myself reciprocating. Is this me being polite or have the got to me in some way. Despite the babble playing in my head, my attention is still with the girls. What am I doing with my life that I have nothing better to do than go out shopping alone and my big plan for the day just to sit in the garden and read in the sun. Before I know it I’m gotten into town and am moments away from the shops I want to visit. My mind resents and I rattle through my shopping list. Reclaiming a little of my sanity from that last mile of introspection I shake off my feelings of inadequacy. Its a gorgeous day and I’m not at work, do whatever makes you feel happy. I get a spring back in my step even though I’m a little exhausted from the walk. A flicker of a smile flashes over my face in determination that I won’t let a brief stop to my sun baked saunter affect my day. So with that I march straight down the high street, my confidence soaring and head it the clouds.
It explains why I never noticed the cute charity worker as she catches my eye with a smile…