Brief Encounter – Frank McNally on sharing the pain of total strangers

The encounter reminded me of another stranger whose path crossed mine years ago

On a stroll around Dublin the other day, I was passed at the top of O’Connell Street by a woman who, at first walking along with great purpose, was suddenly and visibly overcome by a wave of doubt.

She stopped then and looked around as if she’d lost something or was lost herself. But after a few moments, she resumed her determined stride. And then, a little farther on, it happened again.

She was thirty-something, maybe, dressed casually but respectably in T-shirt and leggings. She was not drunk or strung out. And yet, every so often, she would pause and look stricken, before regathering focus and moving on.

Several times she started to cross the street, then always changed her mind. At the GPO, she asked a man for a cigarette and stood nearby, apparently to smoke it, even though it was unlit.


I had passed her now. But feeling curious – and involved – I pretended to queue for a bus until she strode by again.

On Westmoreland Street, it was the sight of a man begging that seemed to stop her. She didn’t speak to him, though. She just stood nearby, as if trying to retrieve a memory.

“Are you okay?” I finally asked her there; “You seem a little lost or confused.” “No, I’m not okay,” she answered, unhesitating. And when I inquired why, she said: “They won’t leave me alone.”

But asked who “they” were, she said nothing, instead staring at me with a hard, wary look that made me wonder if I was now one of them.

Even so, I offered help. Could I call someone, perhaps? No, she said, adamantly, as determined in her short bursts of speech as she was in walking.

And she seemed calm, at least, although when I asked again if she was okay, she repeated: “No, I’m not.” With that, I shrugged in vague, impotent sympathy and left her to her troubles.

The encounter reminded me of another stranger whose path crossed mine some years ago, although I’ve never truly forgotten it because I had to attend his funeral shortly afterwards and it still haunts me.

He had emailed seeking publicity for a project – a history/heritage thing – which I thoughtlessly agreed to do and then regretted. It seemed interesting at first. But when I read into the subject, it was worth at most 300 words – well short of a column. I tried and failed several times to make something more of it.

And it was only because he persisted in reminding me that, one morning when I had nothing else, I finally padded it out to the required length for next day. He was delighted, although I suspect the column was instantly forgotten by readers.

Anyway, one evening soon afterwards, I got a message from The Irish Times to say he had been trying to contact me by phone, urgently, and could I call back.

So I did – it was the first time we spoke – to find him in a state of panic. His had upset certain people, he told me, and was now being followed.

“Because of the column?” I asked, incredulous. No, he said, it was his own Facebook posts, where he’d gone into more detail on the project, that had angered them. He’d taken everything down now, but they were still after him.

When I suggested he go to the guards, he said he already had. But his story was like something from the Da Vinci Code. It was obvious to me that, although an intelligent and articulate young man, he was in the grip of some kind of paranoid delusion. Only his fear was real.

At one point in our conversation, he even asked if I would come out to his home and talk to him. This despite the fact that we were strangers, it was nighttime, and he lived a considerable distance from Dublin.

Besides, I was babysitting my children. So no, I said, I couldn’t come out. But again, I urged him to speak to the guards if he was worried. And with that we hung up.

His project had also briefly featured on radio. And it was the radio producer who texted me next day to say his body had been found somewhere.

Circumstances were ambivalent. It could have been an accident. It could even have been criminal – highly unlikely but in keeping with his delusions. Most probably, it was self-inflicted.

I went to the funeral partly in hope there would be somebody to talk to there about what had happened. But I knew nobody and, in the end, just left my name and details in the book in case anyone wanted to call me.

The guards would have had my number anyway – I may even have been the last person he ever contacted. If they did, they never called. It was an open and shut case. But all these years later, I still wonder if I could have said or done something different.