Esther Arthurson for Varsity

All I hear is the word “art” as the man, with an open but somehow shambolic face, adjusts the pile under his arm. I assume he is selling something; I smile, closed-lipped, and shuffle towards the curb, waiting for the traffic to clear so I can cross the road and be rid of this rather persistent salesman, who is continuing to approach despite my clear British awkwardness and non-verbal attempt to decline his offer.

He repeats himself: “There’s some great art in that hotel.” He gestures to the porch from which my mum and I have just dismounted, bags in tow, and almost loses half the contents of his armpit in doing so. The third time round I hear what he’s saying and, relieved but still suspicious, I nod and agree. He mistakes my politeness/civility for an invitation to continue.

“Some of the best I’ve seen, actually. There are some fancier hotels around here, but that one has the best art.” He glances back towards the hotel, eyes wistful and brimming with stories I may well hear if I stand here long enough. “Best art I’ve seen.”

My response is mundane, but enthusiastic. An “Mmm, beautiful” or something equally forgettable. He is closer now, hovering, but not awkwardly, and there is none of the madness in his eyes that I often associate, bigotedly or otherwise, with people who will not stop talking to me on the street. (This is something that I get more than your average person for reasons that I will never understand or cease resenting.) His face is unshaven in a way that could be a result of the early morning or a pathetic attempt at Movember, and his eyes are brown and earnest and interested. It’s hard to place his age, older than me for sure, but by how much is hard to tell.

Esther Arthurson for Varsity

He asks what I do in Cambridge. I tell him the truth: that I’m a student, that this is my mum who’s here visiting. Where are we from? Edinburgh. He laughs. “Edinburg. That’s what we say in New York.” Just like that, another piece in the puzzle of this man’s existence falls into place with a throwaway comment. What do I study? Theology. He nods over this, thinking, before replying something along the lines of: a very important subject. It’s my turn to laugh: my friends would disagree with him there, I point out. He says they’re wrong – there are wars being fought over my subject all the time. He’s not mistaken.

Esther Arthurson for Varsity

A gap in the traffic has emerged and we choose to cross rather than ask him anything in return. I guess I’ll never know what he does here in Cambridge, what brought him over from New York, or if that part was even true, despite the veracity his accent might suggest. I do know that the things under his arm are books, not art to be sold, and that he has a blue and white flag I don’t recognise draped over one arm and that as we step onto the road he is wrestling with a white knitted, be-bobbled beanie that, once conquered and aloft his head, makes him look a whole lot younger, almost toddler-like.

I like this man, possibly more than I like people I’ve known for ten years

His parting words, an unusual choice of farewell, follow us across the road – although thankfully he himself does not. “See you in the history books!” I smile back, a genuine one, across the cars forming a metal river between us. “What’s your name?” he adds, as if he truly will be searching for my face in a textbook thirty years from now. This makes me smile even more, although everything my mum ever taught me urges me to search for a fake name, as I often do in these situations.

Esther and her mum in the aforementioned hotelEsther Arthurson for Varsity

But no, I want him to see my name and recognise it if it ever pops up anywhere important. I’ve decided, in the past ten seconds, that I like this man, possibly more than I like people I’ve known for ten years. “Esther!” I shout over the engines, and I know he hears it because he throws his own back, like an expert tennis player returning a serve with grace and ease and an American accent: “John.” We exchange one last smile, and I shout something mundane like “Good luck” or “Nice to meet you” and instantly wish I hadn’t, that I’d left it there, but I’m not sure he heard it anyway. He’s meandering off down the street to a destination that I can only know in my imagination now, bobble hat bobbing along the street and out of sight. My mum looks after him. “Bless him. Look at his little bobble.” (My mother and I are far too similar.) There’s a pause as we watch him disappear. “Does this happen to you often?”

I would like to see John again, to continue the encounter that seems so forward and incongruous amidst the cobbles of Cambridge but would no doubt be commonplace over the rabble of New York. But, despite this wish and the tinge of regret that inevitably follows any unfinished conversation, I take the long way round the block to avoid bumping into him once I’ve waved my mum off to the station.

(John – if you read this, please do get in touch.