That was when Diane noticed his clerical collar. It was so out of place in the glow of the lights suspended over the street that it looked like an island in a sea of Christmas shoppers. She found herself looking for all four of the seconds that amount to intimate human contact in central London. Beneath these multicoloured lights, she realised with a tightening of her chest, he’d probably mistaken staring at his collar for making eye contact.
“Do you have a moment?” he asked her.
Diane hesitated. She’d lived in London for long enough that her instinct to disengage as soon as possible was finely honed, but he sounded so desolate that she didn’t want to walk away. He wasn’t carrying a placard, so hopefully he wasn’t completely deranged. “Well… just a couple of minutes.”
“Really?” The man sounded like he’d shouted down a hundred empty wells and just received his first reply.
Diane couldn’t help but smile. “What is it?”
“What is what?” The man slapped his forehead. “Of course. What is it indeed? I’ve got so used to everyone walking away when I speak to them that I’ve forgotten what I’m trying to tell them. To tell you, I mean.”
“Slow down,” said Diane, “and tell me.”
“Yes. Right. Good idea. Well, I just want to make sure everyone’s all right. Are you all right?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because it’s Christmas in two weeks.” He spoke as though Christmas was a day on which something deeply unpleasant if not clearly defined was due to happen. “Top time for suicides. Just look around you. Hordes of people who have come here for no purpose other than to spend thousands of pounds they can’t afford for things they’ll barely get a thank you for. Isn’t that what you’re here for?”
“I promise I’m not going to commit suicide.”
A blue light flashed across the man’s face, robbing his look of consternation of some of its gravity. Diane still wished she’d been less flippant.
“It’s true,” she said. “I am going to Hamleys to buy presents for kids who will probably have more fun with the wrapping paper than whatever I wrap in it.”
The man shook his head. “I fear for what our Lord would make of this. Christmas was supposed to be a celebration of his childhood.”
“If he was a child today, he’d probably want to know why he was getting all that gold, frankincense and myrrh when he really wanted a new playstation.”
“Oh dear. I fear you’re right. I do so fear you’re right.”
“I’m sorry.” Diane wanted to kick herself. She hadn’t meant to make the man hang his head in despondency. She decided Hamleys wasn’t going anywhere. “Look, do you want to get a coffee? Sit down for a few minutes. You look like you need someone to talk to. I promise not to make any more silly jokes.”
Diane silently repeated ‘no more silly jokes’ to herself. This man was clearly in pain.
“I’d like to,” he said. “Really I would. But now I have to go and buy my Christmas cards.”