Predator and Prey

David Attenborough’s voice

On the vast plains of the Penneys homeware savanna, a small Grant’s Gazelle picks her way past the rows of bed clothes. Distracted by the sight of a particularly fluffy cushion, she pauses in her pursuit of wildly unnecessary purchases.

A small movement in her peripheral vision attracts her attention. Suspicion causes her eyes to widen and she freezes, staring blindly across the shelf of vanilla bean tea lights. She can feel something watch her through the tangle of children’s clothes. A moment of utter stillness passes, and reassured by the lack of movement, she continues on, trotting past the scented candles.

Out of the corner of her eye she spots another movement. She stops next to the tea towels. Something is following her. Now truly alarmed, she picks up the pace and makes a break for the relative safety of the ground floor. The predator behind her veers off only to come at her from the side and corner her at the foot of the stairs. Her heart flutters with panic.

“Heyyyy….” says the jackal. “How are you doiiiing?”

“Fine thank you” says the gazelle, because maybe she is overreacting? He hasn’t really done anything yet after all. Maybe he’s just an overly friendly jackal. She tries to step around him but he places a paw on her. She doesn’t like it.

“Excuse me,” she says, and sprints up the stairs before he has a chance to react. A swift run gets her to the till, where I hand a t-shirt to the woman behind the register, because I am the gazelle and this metaphor has gone on for long enough.

As the cashier slowly scanned the barcode, my mind ran down dead-ends and alleyways in a frantic effort to keep ahead of my anxiety. I thought about asking the cashier if there was, per chance, a jackal of a man lying in wait for me, but on one hand I thought that if he hadn’t followed me from downstairs then I might seem a bit hysterical, and if he had, then I might freak out the poor woman. And what if security asked him to leave? Then what? Would he wait outside for me? And he was foreign and hadn’t exactly done anything other than make me feel very uncomfortable. Would they think I was a racist?

I kept my mouth shut and paid by card. She handed me my bag and I took it as slowly as possible, stalling for time. When she started to eye me suspiciously, I realised I could put it off no longer. I turned around inch by inch and…

… And he was there. Waiting. Smiling. Staring.

I shook my head at him as if he were offering me something, and bolted for the door. Afraid to look back in case he took any eye contact as a sign of encouragement, I headed up the street and across the road. I pushed into a throng of people in an effort to disappear. I am no stranger to people following me, and I’ve learned that my gut feeling is usually correct. This time my gut feeling was that I was being hunted. I made a sharp right into a women’s clothes shop and made directly for the stairs at the back. I tripped down them two at a time before heading for the farthest corner. When I had nowhere left to go, I turned around.

Only to find him there. Behind me. Waiting. Smiling. Staring.

He moved to corner me again. A frightened “No, leave me alone” hissed through my teeth and I dodged him. Back through the store. Back up the stairs. Out a different door to the one I’d used coming in.

At this point, I was texting Scrubs. Partly because I didn’t know what else to do, partly in an attempt to normalise the whole situation.

“Some dude is following me” I wrote. “Wtaf”

A quick lap of the ground floor told me he wasn’t giving up.

I tried hiding in a food hall. Every time I turned in an aisle he was behind me. Waiting. Smiling. Staring.

I was lagging and my panic levels were through the roof, so I did the only thing I could think of and ran upstairs, straight into the women’s public toilets. I sank down on the red PVC seating provided with a sigh of immense relief.

I honestly could have stayed there all day if necessary. I sat there for twenty minutes. A peek around the doorway revealed he was leaning against the wall, scrolling through his phone, presumably waiting for me.

I considered calling the police. I dismissed it as hysterical.

I waited another twenty minutes.

Finally, he left. I emerged from the toilets and glued myself to the wall as I scooted around the perimeter of the shopping centre and made my way to the exit. Once out on the street I felt exposed, like he might appear out of nowhere at any moment. I hid in the Asian supermarket until my tram arrived, and made sure he wasn’t getting on before I hopped on myself.

Honestly, the stress. I know people say that all the time, but seriously THE STRESS. I got a migraine and had to spend several hours in a darkened room almost crying with frustration.

Every so often I tell myself I should get out more, go into town more often, but then something like this happens and it makes me want to become a cloistered nun. Except, you know, without the nun part. I am a perfectly average person in every way so if this is happening to me, it must be happening regularly to an awful lot of people out there. Either that or I have the invisible tag of “ABSOLUTE SUCKER” attached to me somewhere and I have yet to shake it off.

I used to enjoy bumping into strangers and striking up a conversation, but more and more I find myself immediately wary of anyone who so much as catches my eye, much less tries to talk to me. I am becoming a social hermit crab, and my earphones are my shell.

I don’t want to feel like prey. I want to feel like a (tiny) lioness, well able to stand my ground against any jackal.

Maybe it’s time to take up martial arts.

The Human Turtle

sennheiser_momentum_on-ear_headphones_cream

I feel like there are certain universal social cues that everybody understands. I think everyone would agree, for example, that people wearing earphones are generally not looking for a conversation.

Despite this, somehow, for some reason, people break this seemingly simple rule with me all the time.

I can’t tell what it is about me that invites this kind of behaviour. Is it my tiny stature? Is it something about my face? Do I have an invisible ink tattoo that reads ‘TALK TO ME’ under strip lighting? It happens a lot. A man once motioned for me to take my headphones off in Tesco while I was looking at packets of rice, and when I did so, he said, “I just wanted to tell you, you have really lovely hair.” And then he sat back on his heels and stared at me expectantly.

I’m not really sure what he was waiting for. I cast a surreptitious glance either side of me to make sure there were no hidden cameras. I hadn’t even brushed my hair that day. There was nothing worth complimenting there. I thought about the food I still needed to buy for dinner. I thought about the awkwardness of the moment and how it would only increase if I got stuck in front of him in the checkout line. I thought about the fact that he probably thought he was being nice by interrupting my day to pay me a wholly inexplicable (and unnecessary) compliment, and I thought about the fact that by doing so he was making me deeply uncomfortable. Then I slowly placed the packet of basmati rice back on the shelf, said, “Thanks,” turned around, and left the shop without a backwards glance.

I beat a hasty retreat in all awkward situations. I am basically a human turtle.

Of course, sometimes I’m not given the option of being a turtle. Sometimes I am trapped by wretched misfortune. Sometimes I am on a 6am flight next to somebody who insists on a conversation.

The last time this happened was relatively recently. I’d had to wake up at 4am (which I’m sure you’ll agree is not at all conducive to a pleasant demeanor), and I was looking forward to listening to a podcast and napping on my two-and-a-half hour flight. I decided earbuds wouldn’t cut it, and brought my heavy duty Sennheisers to completely block out ambient noise.

Unfortunately I hadn’t counted on the persistence of my fellow passenger. Before we had even taken off, I felt a tap tap tap on my shoulder. I removed my earphones, expecting the flight attendant, and instead twisted in my seat to meet the smiling face of the man sitting next to me.

“Are you off on holidays?” He asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, just for a week. You?”

“Oh no, I live there now.”

“Oh, nice.” I put my headphones back on. I lay back and closed my eyes.

tap tap tap

I took my headphones back off.

“Do you know anyone over there?”

“Yeah, I have family there.”

I put my headphones back on, feeling a little guilty for being so rude. Still, if I’m honest, there are very few people I would want to have a conversation with at 6am; a stranger sitting next to me on a plane is definitely not one of them.

tap tap tap

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

I ripped off my headphones and turned my body to face his. I stared daggers of pure, undiluted hatred straight into his soul. He stared back at me with a bland expression of irritating, energetic cheerfulness. I crumpled back into my chair in defeat.

He talked to me without pause for the next two and a half hours.

It would be more accurate, in fact, to say that he talked at me, as he didn’t seem to require any actual participation on my part. At first I thought he might just be a nervous flyer, and this softened my attitude towards him. I felt a lot better about him tapping me on the shoulder three times when I thought it stemmed from nervousness rather than an obnoxious disregard for my personal space.

“Do you not like flying?” I asked, sympathetically.

“What? Are you kidding? I love flying!” He replied, before launching into an exhaustive list of the many places he had visited.

My juicy grape of sympathy shrivelled instantly, and hardened into a sour raisin of resentment that can only truly be understood by people who are too polite to extricate themselves from these sort of situations.

He told me about everything he had received for Christmas. He told me about his grandmother, his niece, his woollen jumpers, his hobbies. He told me about where he lived, and why. He told me about his parents, his siblings, his holidays. At one point he paused in the middle of a story to point over at a man who was similarly talking the ear off a woman a few rows ahead of us.

“God, look at him. You can tell she’s not at all interested and he’s just chewing her ear off! Poor woman.”

I stared at him. “Yes,” I said dryly. “Can you imagine?”

He shook his head in an agonizingly oblivious show of pity and then continued with his extremely detailed story about his family pets.

By the time we landed, I think I knew almost everything there was to know about him.

I collected my suitcase feeling dazed and wondering once again what it is about me that invites people to ignore the sacred social cue of the headphones. Does this happen to other people with as much regularity? If you’ve had this happen to you, how did you handle it? If you’re someone who has interrupted a stranger wearing headphones… why?

I’m off for a walk now. I’ll be wearing my headphones.

I hope I haven’t jinxed myself.