From the very periphery of my vision, I saw someone sit down at the table next to mine.
Reading a book, I was only dimly aware of his presence at first, but it soon occurred to me that the man was staring into the side of my head, like an off-duty phrenologist who doesn’t believe in a work/life balance.
Too bashful (okay, frightened) to challenge his gaze immediately but too distracted to return to my book, I instead looked straight ahead for a second as if exchanging glances with the studio audience.
As I did so, I realised that the pub was relatively empty. He had selected the table next to mine above all the other tables to choose from. My one free moment in an otherwise hectic week was being tarnished by a staring nutter.
I decided to risk a glance in his direction. I did so with trepidation in case his eyes were mad, whirling pinwheels or ghoulish empty sockets in his head.
But no. Normal human eyes. And as I met his gaze, the man immediately stopped his staring and looked down into his pint instead. At least he wasn’t bonkers enough to think that staring at other people in such close proximity is normal behaviour. In fact, he didn’t look mad at all. He was a youngish man, conservatively dressed and drinking a pint of Ruddles County Ale.
A mad person wouldn’t drink Ruddles would he? Yet he had sat down next to me in an otherwise quiet pub and he had definitely been staring. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and return to my book.
But I couldn’t. I soon felt the tractor-beam tug of his horrible eyes.
Reading Dostoevsky while suspecting being stared at is like trying to urinate in the presence of an expectantly blinking kitten. Despite conscious efforts, it is impossible to relax the correct muscles.
I looked up at him again and he quickly returned his attention to the froth of his Ruddles. It was becoming a fairly silly game.
As if God in his Heaven was tiring of this silly game and had decided to throw in a plot device, I suddenly needed the toilet. I didn’t want to take my coat and bag with me and I had half a pint of my own Ruddles left to enjoy.
I decided to put the man’s staring powers to good use.
“Would you watch my pint while I go to the bathroom, mate?”
He responded with a cordial and perfectly un-insane affirmative gesture. Excellent. A good leader recognises the special skills of his followers and this man was good at staring. He could look at my things and prevent them from being captured by crows while I was micturating.
Upon returning, I was dismayed to find that my pint had gone. The staring man had watched my pint very well. He had watched it disappear into the hands of the glass collector.
I shot the man a “WTF” expression but he seemed too distracted to notice.
“Yes!” he said suddenly. I followed his gaze to a television screen mounted on the wall above my table, upon which a phosphurdot footballer was celebrating his goal.
The mad staring-eyes man had not been looking at me at all. He’d been looking at the screen above my head.