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Danny Wallace on how to deal with an unwanted public conversation

I am walking down the street, late for a thing, when I suddenly get an important business email on my phone.

I need to reply to this.

I spot a bench, sit down and start to tap out my reply. It will be quicker sitting down where I can concentrate and then I can be on my way and not as late for the thing.

It works. I’m nailing it. Correct use of capitals, no errant apostrophes – all in all, a class email.

And then a very scruffy gentleman carrying a blue plastic bag approaches.

I stare back down at my phone and he pauses in front of me, waiting for me to look up. I try not to. He’s still standing there.

“Hello,” he says. “You don’t have any objections to me sitting here too, do you?”

It is an extraordinarily polite thing to say and my heart melts.

“Of course not!” I reply, gregariously, and he smiles.

Right. I’m nearly finished. I check that my important business email is correctly worded and that I haven’t accidentally put a kiss at the end.

The man sits down and immediately opens up his plastic bag. He takes out a can of beer.

OK! Good email! No kiss! I can go now.

“What a lovely day,” says the man, not looking at me, and my heart sinks because now I can’t go. Not because he’s spoken to me, but because it will look like it’s because he’s spoken to me.

“It is,” I mumble, and I wish I was wearing a watch, because I could make a big deal of looking at it and then shouting, “Oh no! I’m late!” It’s not as easy to do that with a phone. You could be looking at anything. You could be looking at an ovulation calendar. So instead I try a “tsk” sound as I stare at the screen, then I shake my head and I slowly start to get ready to stand up. The key will be to keep looking at my screen and shaking my head as I move quietly away, which will demonstrate how distracted I am by whatever news I am reading, and that it is this news that is taking me away, and absolutely not the presence of the man.

I just have to leave it a few seconds so he can see how comfortable I am in his presence and how cool I am with him and how normally I would love to hang.

Then he cracks open his beer.

I wince. I can’t go yet. If I go, he will think it is because of his beer and the fact that it’s only 10.30 in the morning. I just don’t want him to feel judged.

More importantly, I don’t want him to judge me.

So I pretend like there’s just one more thing I have to do on my phone from my bench-office next to a guy drinking beer, which is totally ace, and then I’ll be off.

“I said, ‘What a lovely day,’” he suddenly says, pointedly, and that must mean he didn’t hear my reply. He thinks I’ve rudely ignored him!

“It IS a lovely day,” I say, beaming, making sure I make direct eye contact this time and that he can see my lips moving. He has a very grubby face, but he nods, satisfied that I have finally answered him.

All that time he must have been thinking, “What a judgmental idiot for not replying – well, I’ll show him! I’ll just say it again, but louder! That’ll put this ‘norm’ on the spot!”

Now he thinks he’s taught me a lesson. If I get up and leave, he’ll think he’s won some kind of moral victory and seen me off in shame.

“Look at you,” he must be thinking. “With your ‘important business email’ and your ‘things’ you’re late for, holding your ‘smartphone’ which inexplicably always brings up the FTSE index whenever you swipe it wrong, even though you don’t know what the FTSE index even is.”

He is right about me. I should ask him a question to demonstrate how unfazed I am by his presence.

Also – what if this man turns out to be Jesus, returned to Earth, and this is a test? That’s exactly the kind of thing people say He does, isn’t it? Even with so much going on in the world right now, and so many places where He could probably do some real good, I bet sitting down on a bench near a Greggs to test me is top of His list.

Oh, that would be all I’d need. Judge not lest ye be judged!

Still. Long shot.

“What a really lovely day,” I say, because it is literally all I can think of.

The man takes a swig of his beer. He doesn’t reply. How come he gets to not reply? Should I now say it louder and really close to his face?

The words hang in the air.

“Well anyway,” he says, and stands.

He begins to waddle away, very slowly. Doesn’t even say goodbye. Plus he’s going in the same direction I want to go. I have to stay here until he’s out of sight. Overtaking him will look like mockery. I remain on the bench for a bit. I am late for the thing.

I hope he liked me.

Play that funky… commercial?

Danny Sidebar

“Our ads will be a lot more believable if we show some real customers.”

“OK. Anything in particular?”

“Yes. An older, trustworthy lady. But wait! Make sure they sound like they’re in a German funk band.”

Tips for the grooming market

Danny Sidebar

Hygiene products are so lovely-sounding. ‘Fresh’ this. ‘Fragrant’ that. ‘Revitalising’ the other.

I think the makers of Boudreaux’s Butt Paste missed that memo.