Say what you see

Observing people is the first step to understanding them. Take a tip from James Webb Young, and watch. Then write...

By: Clare Howdle,   4 minutes

people notebook

A while ago, I read a book by James Webb Young. I wrote about it and I remembered it.

Today it got me thinking again. About how it’s so easy, especially in our line of work, to group people into categories, demographics, target audiences. So I thought I would stop for a second and look. Actually look at people, doing things, being people. And write about it. There and then, without editing and without pause for thought. Just write. That’s where good ideas come from, after all.

So here they are. Exactly what I saw, written when I saw it…

1. He stands by the railway crossing, red flashing light glinting off his ringed fingers. So many rings. All big. All gold. All saying something. His briefcase rests on the road, perfectly placed between his knees. He’s nudged it that way with the tips of his Doc Martens, polished to a high sheen and now settled one foot either side, exactly 90 degrees from the plane of the case.

The train is nowhere.

With an absent-minded movement that betrays the regularity of this situation, his left ringed-hand reaches up high, under his rib cage and inside his jacket, right-side, pocket-side. He pulls out a blue cigarette packet. Super K? L&B? Something cheap. He isn’t even looking when he does it – eyes trained on the road, the rails, cursing the still invisible carriages that have slowed down his day.

The cigarette comes thin and white as he shakes the packet, slipping into his fingers, then between his lips, one smooth motion, clockwork.

Red flashes dance across his eyes.

His wirey, grey-ginger coated cheeks suck in as he inhales, his spidery beard wriggling on his chin. It wants to get away from here too. From the dropping ash and nicotine, across the railtracks and away. Free to roam.

But it can’t because we all have to stay where we are. Until the red lights stop.

2. There’s four of them. In the window. All long hair. All patterned jumpers. Teeth and smiles. They were studying I think but now they’re talking, with long drawl out vowels and words used in a way that I don’t really understand. LOL.

Two of them stand up and walk to the counter, pulling their elastic skirts down. They study the offerings, pick a chocolate and a Danish twist. Order a meatball sub. Their legs don’t look like cake has ever passed their lips, or if it has their thighs weren’t paying attention, the disinterested fat cells of youth, happy to sit back and wait for a while. No rush. Let them eat cake.

For now.

Her jumper hangs off her shoulders, shocking pink bra strap pushing through the fabric while all the while digging red into her flesh. She turns, numbered wooden block in her hand, and walks back to her seat. The lightning bolt motif on her top strikes from boob to groin. A warning for the boys. Or an invite?

As she sits down a pouf of air squeezes out of the cushion under her weight. Giggles. Her Ugged feet push up against the rim of the table, sliding it away and spilling coffee. More giggles. Her friend flicks her hair and starts whispering, face down low eyes looking left and right. The others join her, hunched over the table, conspirators. One of them starts patting the back of her neck with her palm. She looks hot. Does she know something they don’t? She has a feather tattoo on her wrist and her jumper looks like the sort my Dad would wear. Except he wouldn’t wear it with sheer black leggings. Or that tattoo. Flicking her hair too now, Ugged feet girl squelches into her meatball sub. It oozes from her mouth so she tips her head back to catch the juice, wipes away the rest with a crumpled napkin.

‘…he actually licked his lips!’ whispering girl exclaims, triumphantly. Shoulder shaking ripples around the group.

They laugh. Out. Loud.


3. Both of them look like they are playing frozen statues. He lifts his leg and holds it high, rubber skin smooched down, dangling from his calf as he tugs and yanks himself free. His other arm stretches wide into the air and every now and then he stops, freeze frame, to get his balance. Strike a pose.

She bends low, spine exposed, hair hanging over her face. Her jeans are bundled around her ankles being inched up by fingers clinging to belt loops while her spare hand tousles her loose locks dry. And just like him, every few seconds she pauses, looks up through her hair across the beach to the grey-green sea.

He’s shed his skin so now he stands hand on each hip, wetsuit cast away, eyes waterbound, super still this time. She crouches, scrags her towel-dried hair back then stands too, close to him, mirroring his pose as her bikini soaks through her t-shirt and her not-so-dry pony tail drips down her back.

The waves beat the pebbles in a crashing nod of respect – surely directed at her, for braving its chilling temperatures wetsuit free. She actually nods back.

I’ve won, she’s thinking.


4. His feet barely lift off the ground as he edges forward, stick leading him on. Hat bowed, collar up he is shielded from everything around him, eyes on the prize. A park bench. A view. A little rest.


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