DADDY LONG LEGS

Every morning he walks along the pavement beside my car. The rush-hour traffic goes slowly on the outskirts of town so I have plenty of time to study him. He is young, unshaven. He looks preoccupied. From one hand dangles a roll-up cigarette, from the other a small boy in school uniform. The child is always struggling to keep up. I can judge my lateness for work by their progress. If they’ve only reached the zebra crossing or the traffic lights I know I’m OK but if they’re already down by the junior school I’m in trouble.

It’s a dull drive and to pass the time I am in the habit of assigning nicknames to strangers. There is Nora, for instance, an admirable but foolhardy woman of menopausal age who rides her bicycle in from one of the outlying villages every day, wearing wellington boots. And Boris, a wizened, mournful gentleman in a beret who gives the impression that he has absconded from some institution overnight and is only now returning, like Count Dracula to his grave.

I have christened this particular stranger Daddy Long-Legs because he has long, thin legs, and because I am taking it for granted that he is Daddy to this little boy. But there is a third reason: Daddy Long-Legs is walking in another world. He is not aware of the child whose hand he holds, is not noticing the redbrick terraces or the limp net curtains or the postman vaulting the low walls between weedy gardens. He’s blind to the sparrows copulating on the slate roofs and would be unable to say whether the sky was blue or grey. He doesn’t feel the rain when it falls; smells neither the freshening of pavement dust nor the exhaust fumes; doesn’t hear the grating of gears, snatches of jazz from rolled-down car windows; even pneumatic drills fail to get through. His face is armoured, his eyes and ears are closed against the world.

When I was just a child I captured one of these strange insects between my cupped hands; my parents referred to them as crane flies or daddy long-legs. At once its wings began a staccato dance against my skin and from between my fingers came a noise like row after row of skeletal teeth chattering. I quickly let it go. Who can tell what such a tiny, alien thing is thinking? Is there room inside it for anger or fear? Does it understand the nature of the trap it has fallen into?

It seems to me that if I were ever to reach out through my rolled-down car window and touch this man, I might feel a flickering of wings. And if I were to listen very closely, I might just hear the whisper of his dreams.

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