My friend Don Bowen may be the only person I know who has sought to coin and popularise a turn of phrase. He wanted his expression to grow organically, so didn’t deploy a viral campaign. He waited for people to ask him what he’d been up to. And when they did, he would say: “Why, I’m as busy as a horse on an escalator.”
He hasn’t had much traction so far, probably for more than one reason. It could be that people lack the visual imagination to process the simile. Or they think the expression references a once-common form of cruelty. I’ve done what I can to help, on the rare occasion opportunity presents itself.
It’s mid-morning, and I am circling the kitchen table, head bent, a folded sheaf of paper in my hands. I have been trying to memorise a few bullet points so I won’t have to refer to the paper during a Zoom presentation I’m about to give. But at this point my mind has been wandering for some minutes. I don’t even realise I’m still walking in circles until I find my wife in my path. It’s her shoes I see first.
“Busy day?” she says.
“What?” I say. “Actually, it is. In fact, I’m as …”
“If you’re not doing anything, can you come and help me for a second?”
“Not doing anything?” I say. “I’m as busy as …”
“I just need you to look over this email that I’m about to send.”
“I’d love to,” I say, “but right now I’m as busy as a horse on an escalator.” My wife looks at me for a moment.
“So not busy at all,” she says.
“Have you ever seen a horse on an escalator?” I say.
“No,” she says. “Have you?”
“It means I’m unbelievably busy,” I say. “I’m about to give a talk.”
“Just come and look at this thing,” she says.
She leads me into the other room, where the middle one is sitting by his computer on a kitchen chair.
“What’s he doing here?” I say.
“He’s my social media person,” my wife says.
“He’s my podcast producer,” I say. “He’s meant to be producing my podcast.”
“You can have him later,” my wife says. “He’s busy right now.”
“He’s busy?” I say. “I’m as busy as a horse on an escalator!”
“What are you talking about?” says the middle one.
“It’s not mine, it’s Don’s,” I say.
The next morning my wife is away, and I have my podcast producer to myself. We sit at the kitchen table, a laptop each. It’s an ideas meeting, and as such it involves a lot of staring into the middle distance, in silence.
“I don’t really understand the concept,” the middle one says, finally.
“It’s about common expressions, and how they get started,” I say.
“And you’re gonna talk about that for 40 minutes,” he says.
“We’ll have guests,” I say.
“Fine,” he says. “But you have to email the guests, because I have no idea what to say to them.”
“I will,” I say, thinking: I won’t.
“Anyway,” the middle one says.
“Anyway,” I say.
“Ahhhh!” the middle one says. A sickening thud follows directly.
Behind me, a pigeon has flown into the glass of the kitchen window. I turn in time to see it fall to the ground.
“Oh my God,” the middle one says.
The dog runs out the open garden door to give chase. The pigeon, unable to take flight, decides to put up a fight instead. The dog has not anticipated this – it’s never caught anything – and hesitates. The pigeon backs away. The dog pounces. Their brawl takes them across the lawn and round the corner.
“Uh-oh,” I say.
I call the dog. A few seconds later it comes into the kitchen with feathers hanging out of its mouth.
“What have you done?” I say. “Did you eat its head?”
“Gross,” the middle one says. The dog coughs. Feathers float on the air.
I go outside to search the garden. Eventually I find the pigeon, ruffled but with its head still on, cowering under a bench. It looks at me, but it doesn’t move.
“Are you gonna die?” I say. “Do I have to do anything?”
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I go back inside, end the meeting, and shout at the dog. The next time I check on the pigeon, it’s gone.
I try to return to my work, but I can’t stop thinking about that pigeon, crouched motionless, looking about itself in wild-eyed horror. Like a horse, I think, on an escalator.