This morning, my kids and I walked by someone I used to work with – and with whom, over the years, I have stopped to chat several times. This man was staring under the bonnet of his car. He was looking concerned.
I called out a greeting to him, using his first name – and lightly, or so I thought, I referred to his car trouble but, although he looked up, he seemed neither to recognise me nor to want to try to remember who I was.
Knowing that he has become somewhat famous as an author of crime fiction since the days we worked together, I then wondered whether he must often be greeted by people he doesn’t know – and that in fact he has come to loathe this presumption of intimacy on the part of the world. I continued with my walk, feeling both sad and a little hurt.
It was only when my son told me that he had heard a small, high voice as we were passing – a small, high voice which might either have belonged to the author or someone else who had been sitting in the car – this small, high voice rising to a: Will you let me deal with it? – that I realised my greeting would have seemed as presumptuous as any stranger’s, and that both to the author and to the possible person in the car, my so-called light and joking greeting could not have been any more badly timed.