I got off the bus, buttoned my coat, and started walking. I turned right and then left, then left again. As I walked, I squinted up at the windows around me—searching for the orange glow of lights, or the electric blue of a television screen. It was almost six in the morning, not yet light. I was still looking when I rounded the corner that led to my street, and a man stepped out in front of me, holding a knife in his right hand.
It was the beginning of autumn in London, and that night had brought not only the cold, but new crisp smells of leaves and frost. At some point in the night, while I was still inside the hospital, a think blanket of fog had settled over the city. The man in front of me seemed to be shaking, or perhaps just shivering, because the knife’s blade was dancing in his hand, as though he was trying to cut slices out from the fog.
“Give me your wallet,” said the man. He was wearing a black beanie and a jacket with fur around the collar. The jacket was green and looked warm. The fur made his shoulders seem larger. The man‘s forehead was furrowed into black lines, which made his face look like an unfinished letter. Thin, wispy hairs had sprouted on his lip and chin.
“Ok” I said. I pulled my wallet out of my pocket. A single twenty pound note was poking out of the top. I looked up at the man.
“Do you think I could keep my oyster card?” I asked.
“What?” said the man with the knife. “No.”
“I have a monthly travel card,” I explained. “I’m going to cancel it when I get home, either way. It’s not worth anything to you. It costs ten pounds to apply for a new one. You need a special number for that, and I wrote it down somewhere and can’t find it now. It’s 16 digits long.”
“Shut up.” said the man.
“Ok” I said. I stretched out my arm, and he took the wallet, glanced inside it briefly, and put it in the pocket of his jacket. I noticed that on the wall to our left, our shadows, whose limbs were comically long, were playing out a farcical version of the same scene.
The man glanced around him. Even the rumble of distant traffic seemed to have been lost in the fog. My face was raw from the cold. I envied the man and his beanie and his jacket.
“And your phone,” said the man.
My phone was new, white, and felt somehow both light and heavy in my hand. When I woke up in my bed, it would be there, nestled like a precious egg.
“I don’t have a phone” I said. “I lost it. I was at a festival, in the toilet, those portable toilets they have at festivals. Someone hammered on the door. It was so loud. Deafening. I stood up really quickly and my phone fell out, and slid down the toilet into the tank. I watched it go under like a drowning man. There’s no way I was going in there, and no way that it survived. I don’t have a phone now.”
“Bullshit.” said the man. “Everyone has a phone. You better not be lying to me. You see this?”
He waved the knife again. To our left, his long-limbed shadow mimicked him. There was a pause.
“Yes.” I said.
“Yes what?” he demanded
“Yes. Your, uh, knife. I can see your knife.”
There was a pause. I was overcome with the sensation that we were both actors who had deviated from our scripts, and were now floundering to get back on track.
“Everyone has a phone,” repeated the man, like a mantra. “Turn out your pockets. Be quick. Don’t bother trying to hide anything.”
The phone was in my left front pocket. I slid it out and gave it to him. The man looked at it, and pressed a button, and his face was illuminated by the light. I realized that he was younger than I had thought. He tapped at the screen, keeping the knife floating between us.
“You have to swipe it.” I explained.
“I know how to fucking swipe it.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You got anything else?” asked the man.
I considered for a second.
“Not now.” I replied.
He nodded. “Where are you going to?”
“Home,” I said.
“Where’s that? You’re not coming this way. Turn around and fuck off for a bit.”
Neither of us moved nor spoke. The man put the phone in another pocket. He seemed to be staring over my left shoulder. In the distance, the sound of a siren grew louder. I was pretty sure it was an ambulance. It rose to a crescendo, and then faded away again. Another beat passed.
“Sorry about this,” said the man.
He had lowered the knife a bit. His wrists were illuminated by the streetlight, and under his big jacket, they were skinny, pale, with the same wispy hairs as his face.
“Alright,” I said, and suppressed an urge to say “see you later” or “cheers” or even to apologize back. Instead I kept silent, and walked backwards. I saw him vanish in the fog, but I kept going. It felt strange to walk without the familiar weight and pressure of my phone and wallet. I sat down on the pavement and started to count to a hundred, like hostages do in films when they are left alone. I realized that my heart was hammering in my chest and ears. I hadn’t felt scared. I hadn’t felt much of anything. I counted all the way to forty-five before I got bored, then picked myself up, shivering, and began to walk home, the silence ringing in my ears.
Tom Sanders is a twenty seven year old teacher living in Myanmar. He has been writing fiction for years, but has just recently started to pursue his dream of being a writer.