Unless it's pissing down with rain or freezing cold, I tend to spend my lunchbreaks walking around Islington, where I work. I get an hour for lunch, so I can usually cover a fairly long distance before I have to head back. Most days I walk in a long circuit that takes me down Essex Road, then north-west as far as Barnsbury Road (it's a distance of about 2.5 miles, I think).
Most of the walk takes me along fairly busy roads, but the northernmost section takes me through some incredibly peaceful affluent areas (multi-million-pound early victorian houses, general all-round loveliness). Here I rarely see anyone other than the occasional young mother pushing a pram that probably cost more than my bass. Today though, I turned onto one of the broad old avenues to see a young woman -- younger than me, I'd guess -- running down the other side of the street. She was running in that flustered "oh god I'm so late" way, with her handbag clutched to her side and the other flapping around while she kept to keep her balance in some not-entirely-appropriate shoes.
I probably wouldn't have paid her the least bit of attention if I hadn't been transfixed by her broad-brimmed summer hat, which remained poised neatly on the back of her head; held on my some unnatural force (or perhaps hatpins) while she ran.
As she passed by a small black object pinged out of her handbag and clattered onto the pavement. She didn't stop, nor notice this had happened. "Oh dear," I thought, "she's dropped her phone." I watched her get further and further away, willing her with all my might to notice that she'd dropped it, but my mind powers are sadly lacking.
As she ran round a corner and disappeared out of sight a small argument broke out in my head.
"you should run after her, and give that back"
"but I can't be arsed. I'm hungry and I've got to get back to work in a few minutes"
"really? You're that lazy?"
"I'm sure she'll notice that she's dropped it soon, or perhaps some good samaritan will hand it into the police..."
"A good samaritan, in north London? pffft. Do you remember how stressful it was for Kristen when her phone was nicked?"
I jog across the road, hoping that I'll find a worthless make-up mirror or something else I can ignore without feeling too bad about it. Alas, sitting in the middle of the pavement is a shiny new iPhone 4, unharmed by its fall. I sigh, pick it up, and take off after her.
As I round the corner I'm struck by the thought that perhaps she's already gone into one of the houses along the street, and that I'll have to spend the rest of my lunchbreak knocking on doors and generally embarassing myself. Then I spot her, about a hundred meters down the road, jogging along a little slower now. I shout, but she doesn't hear me, so I run off after her.
At this point she hears a set of feet pounding down the street, turns, and sees a stocky bloke in a hoody bearing down on her. She then does what most women would do -- she starts running faster. I try shouting to her again, but my voice catches in my throat and comes out sounding like the crazed grunting of a madman. This doesn't help.
Luckily, I'm a lot fitter than I used to be, and I can chase down a young woman wearing inappropriate shoes pretty easily (I found that out today, by the way, it's not something I do all the time). I managed to get close enough to speak to her normally without having to shout. The sound of her crazed pursuer calmly saying "excuse me" in a clipped BBC-proper accent seemed to reassure her. She stopped and turned around.
"er. You dropped your phone."
I awkwardly proffer the phone, like a child giving a family present to a slightly intimidating relative at christmas.
"oh god, thank you!"
She takes the phone and smiles
"Thank you so much!"
I grin sheepishly, "that's fine... er..um.."
I turn round and walk away, feeling generally about as embarrassed as I do on the occasions when I've warmly greeted some who looked like a friend, but turned out to be a complete stranger.
Ten years at Crown Woods Secondary School has imbued me with a sense of deep embarrassment whenever I do something unusually noble or nice. It doesn't stop me from doing it anyway, but it does mean that I'm damned either way, caught between my conscience and years of backward social programming.