In the lobby of a hotel, I skip gaily down some stairs before coming face-to-face with a tall man I recognise immediately.
“HI!” I half-yell, at once surprised and delighted to see him.
Who’d have thought it? Him and me! Both here! I make a big happy face and await a similar response from him.
But his response is to mutter “hello” in quite a formal way and keep moving.
And in the blink of an eye I realise I do not know this man at all. This man is a mystery.
“Who’s that guy?” I say to Colin, nodding subtly at the gentleman when he returns from the toilets.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Why?”
“I just shouted ‘hi’ loudly in his face like I knew him, but I don’t know him.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Because I thought I knew him,” I say.
“I did that once,” says Colin. “To Olly Murs. On the street. I shouted, ‘There he iiiis!’ and pointed, and then had to keep walking when I realised he wasn’t my mate and he was Olly Murs.”
Colin tells me this a lot, and then I usually say, “Murs is a weird name,” and he says, “It’s a really weird name.”
But I’m distracted. The man is chatting with another man. Maybe they are famous actors. If they are, they certainly aren’t spending their money on clothes.
“I’m a bit embarrassed,” I say.
“I can’t look at him in case he thinks I’m talking about him.”
I immediately look at him again.
“He probably gets it all the time,” says Colin, waving my concern away and sipping his pint. “Relax yourself.”
And then, a moment later, I am hit by a wall of imagery.
Still after still.
It’s like a modelling catalogue is flipping from page to page in my mind.
There’s the guy sipping a pint! There’s the guy in a forest!
There’s the guy looking at an egg in a café! There he is holding up a fat parrot!
“He’s the boyfriend of a vague acquaintance!” I say, ready to punch the air. “That’s who he is!”
I’ve never met him. I’ve never even been in the same room as him before. But I’ve seen so many photos of this man on Instagram that I know his face so well. His girlfriend takes an insane amount of pictures of him. I don’t know how they get anything else done. I’ve seen photos of him on boats. In bed. Lying on beaches. In a camper van nibbling a brioche. Some people post thousands of pictures of their children. This woman just posts picture after picture of this man. It’s too much. And the weird thing is, in none of these photos is he smiling. It’s like he’s the unwilling participant in an enforced photolog of his own life. He always looks a bit tired and like he’s just said he doesn’t want to be in another photo.
A weird thought strikes me. I’m genuinely surprised that he said “hello” before. Not because it was polite, but because I think I’d always assumed he was mute. A mannequin trapped in a picture frame. A meat-puppet stranger whose life I’ve been watching through someone else’s eyes, narrated by one-line comments.
There’s one thing I’m delighted about. It’s good that he’s out here in the world, talking to another man, and that this one small event in his life will in no way be documented, except by me, here, in a widely-read magazine. I am pleased he has made this break for freedom, and that in this small moment of peace he is not merely the ‘subject’ of something – not merely a pet being made to pose in picturesque pubs with a beer tasting board alongside a description like ‘mmm dreamy weekend’ or ‘found the cutest place to shelter from the rain!!!’ – although again, I obviously mean except for here in this thing you are reading which is distributed nationwide.
“You should say hi,” says Colin, but that would be weird. What am I supposed to open with? “Hi, I recognise you from the very many photos I’ve studied of you!”?
No. Better to allow this man a brief respite from the specific and niche level of fame he has found himself wading through. To 200 or so people, this man’s a strange sort of celebrity, whether looking at eggs in a café, or holding up a fat parrot. I’ll allow him his peace, and besides, by the time I get home I’m sure there’ll be a new photo of him cooking a meal or not smiling with a dessert for me to look at.
“Ba-bye,” he says, suddenly, as he passes our table and nods at me. I think this nod is meant to acknowledge our earlier interaction. It could just as easily have been a cry for help.
And off he goes, leaving the real world for the digital, where he will no longer have a voice, and simply be the silent star of someone else’s stories.
I turn back to Colin. A moment of contemplation passes.
“Murs is a weird name,” I say.
“It’s a really weird name,” he says.