I adore the little burble of street theatre you get when someone realises they’ve forgotten something.
Do they slow down first, checking their pockets or their memory? Or do they keep striding on right up to the moment when they’ve decided they’ve got to go home to retrieve it, lock it, or switch it off? Some people simply stand there a minute, either contemplating their own foolishness or making a carefully weighted calculation as to whether what they’ve forgotten is more important than missing their train or bus.
Then it’s that rueful turn on the heel and the trudge back home.
What I really love about all this is that it seems to be one of the few occasions that the British, out in a public space, wish to put on a display for complete strangers. You will never, never, see someone turn right around and walk the way they were going without some accompanying dumbshow that indicates that they’re not odd, they’ve just forgotten something.
There are a delightful array of displays in use. I list below some I’ve observed. I’m sure you’ve seen others.
1) As already indicated, the show of slowing down while ostentatiously drinking in the realisation that you have, in fact, forgotten something. Often accompanied by glances upwards (searching the memory) or scuffles of pocket searching.
2) Standing still on the pavement, looking puzzled and peeved.
3) Checking of watch. Pocket. Watch again. Glance at the station. Loud sigh.
4) Catch of the breath while coming to a halt. Thinking about it, then a visible slump of the shoulders as you ruefully turn around. I can’t believe my memory has done this to me again.
5) Brisk about turn followed by a grim-faced stalk back past the following pedestrians, as if with an unruly toddler in tow. Tight-lipped, slight shake of the head. I do this all the time, you know. I’ll never learn.
6) “Gah!”, throwing, ideally, both arms into the air a fraction. This precedes, and is a warning of, the shameful turn.
7) For those nervous that passers by won’t have fully understood that this is a forgetfulness/travel perplexity, there is the dance of indecision. Stop. Half turn. Set off again. Stop. Half turn. Think. Go back a yard. Stop. Turn. Turn again. Hand on head. Set off, at a dash, mumbling under the breath.
8) This morning I was walking some way behind a woman carrying a bag and a crook-handled umbrella. She stopped, hit herself on the head with the umbrella handle, then turned. As she passed me she was keeping up the mouthed monologue that doesn’t need to be heard to be understood.
What’s clear is that we regard the act of completely changing direction as bizarre enough to require public justification. We would rather perform the dance of indecision, exclaim aloud about nothing, strike ourselves, stand there waiting to be sure we are being properly interpreted, rather than simply turn around and walk back the way we came. What is it that we fear people would think? That we meant to do it? That we turned back for no reason at all? Whatever it is, it must be bad if we, the British of all people, would rather than just get on with it silently, instead put on a display that involves talking to ourselves in public.