Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Turnstiles - excerpt


Martin opened his eyes. He squinted between his zippered lashes, stuck together with sleep. A small army of shoes marched past his face, half-hidden inside a dingy, blue sleeping bag. His first instinct was to place a limp, protective hand on his nearby knapsack. He was inside a short tunnel that lay beneath a busy London street beside Hyde Park. He didn’t look up. He knew what their faces would convey; their cowardly faces. He was experiencing the real Europe, instead of peering out at it through heated hotel windows or army bunk beds and tour buses. He didn’t have to pay anyone for his space of concrete bedding. He was free. He closed his eyes again. Martin was free.
He ignored his growling stomach. He could smell the subtle waft of French fries from the nearby Hard Rock Café. Tourists - they were all missing the local colour. He would visit Joe, the hotdog vendor, later on for lunch. He got his hotdogs free from Joe. Then he would lie under a tree in the park and watch the tourists get dinged two pounds for using the lawn chairs. He felt as though mindless sheep surrounded him. He had it all figured out. A year ago he had bought a cheap ticket to London and decided to depend on the day to see him through. Martin cherished every consequence. He held on to every face that examined him with curiosity and disgust. He always kept a plain expression. He had no reason to indulge anyone with emotion. In fact, he barely spoke. Except to people like Joe.
When he opened his eyes again, a different army of shoes were marching past. The tunnel was never quiet, and he had long gotten used to the intrusion of echoing sounds and rustling pavement. It was a small sacrifice. He wriggled out of his bed and began to pack up. He would return later that night. Martin had become a familiar sight, and some of the locals knew this tunnel was his home. So did the other shoestring backpackers. Martin marched alongside the army out of the tunnel. The sun was out, and again he squinted. He ran a hand over his stubble head and rubbed his eyes. He turned left.
The sun was already seated royally in the sky as Martin strolled down the wide, crowded sidewalk. He could see the faint shape of an umbrella a few blocks away, and as he came closer he recognized Joe. Martin’s stomach began to growl again.
“Get your hotdogs here! Hello Sir, what a gorgeous day. Would you like a hotdog? Get your hotdogs here! Good day, love! Can I get you a hotdog? Would you like the works?” Joe called to the passing public all day long. He set up his stand on the same corner every day, and everyone who frequented that spot knew him. Some just by his ruddy, round face and others knew him well enough to have a word or two. Martin felt he could relate to Joe because it seemed they were both stuck in London making a living on the sidewalks, and most of the people bustling by chose to ignore them.
“Hey, Joe,” Martin showed a couple of teeth and then retracted his smile. Even though he liked Joe, he was still careful not to let anyone get too close. “Catering to the North American public, are we? It’s amazing you are able to sell hotdogs here. I guess if you had your way, you’d be selling cans of haggis.” (Joe is a Scot – even more unwelcome in London)
“Marty, my boy!” Joe’s face opened wide with good-natured eyes. “How was your night? Those bloody bed bugs didn’t bite ya, ay, lad?” Joe boomed in his rich, Scottish accent, completing disregarding Joe’s offhand remarks.
“Nah, Joe. No rats, neither. Just the bloody tourists waking me up in the morning,” Martin grimaced.
“Bloody tourists?” Joe raised his eyebrows so high they looked comical. “You better button your tongue, Marty. If there were no tourists there’d be no hotdogs! Besides, what the devil do you think you are... a member of the general voting public?
“You’re the worst kind of tourist, Marty. You don’t pay taxes and you don’t leave!” Joe chuckled and flung a hotdog with ketchup and mustard into Martin’s waiting hand.
“See ya tomorrow, Joe,” said Martin without looking at his friend, and began to walk away.
“See ya, Marty,” Joe said quietly to himself because Martin was already out of earshot. And they both knew they meant it. Tomorrow. Chances were they would find themselves in the same skin, and doing the same thing. The two of them were like hamsters trapped in transparent, plastic balls looking out at the world without being able to break free of their bubbles, and constantly bumping into walls.

The radio alarm clock began to hum in Willis Hancock’s hotel room. He groaned, rolled over, and slapped an unseeing hand on the off button. He rolled back and stared groggily at the dented pillow beside him. She was already gone, and he tried to recollect the night before. He rolled his eye towards the dresser. There was his wallet, open and most likely empty. His pants lay crumpled beside it. He rubbed his hands over his face and chuckled. Then he began to rise. He was anything but happy. She had definitely served her purpose, but the others had been more professional, and much more discreet. When this happened, he usually didn’t realize he had been robbed until hours later when he found himself at a store counter fumbling for his credit cards.
“You cheeky little bitch,” Willis mumbled to himself as he flipped through his wallet. She hadn’t been discreet, but she had been thorough. Even his lucky Franc coin from his trip to Paris in 1980 was gone. It must have caught her eye. Ignorant street kid.
“She’ll never use it,” he mumbled. “Never in a million years.” And suddenly he felt vulnerable without it. This afternoon he was going to the courthouse to hear his father’s will. His father. He sure as hell had never been a Dad. He hadn’t earned the title. Dads played cricket on summer days. Fathers called from foreign cities to say, again, that they wouldn’t make it to the biggest day of your life. Willis was tempted to throw the wallet in the wastebasket, but he gently placed it back on the dresser with an air of defeat.
An hour later he was showered, sharply dressed, and hurriedly locking the hotel room behind him. He strolled with purpose through the chic lobby and out onto the pavement. He was not rushing to his appointment with excitement or even mild anticipation. He was rushing to get it all over with. He desired the whole matter to be dead and buried. There was a shameful question repeating itself over and over again in his head, and he tried desperately to ignore it… ‘What did the bastard leave me? His only son. What did the bastard leave me? Bastard… bastard… bast…’ he began walking faster.
As he rounded the corner, the large impersonal, grey building loomed before him with its long stone steps. He vaguely imagined guillotines. Willis couldn’t remember the streets he had walked, as though something else had brought him to this place without his knowing or consent. In many ways, it had. He did not want this part of his life to exist. Where was Occam’s razor for moments like these? How wonderful it would be to splice out all the undesirable bits.
Willis threw these encroaching thoughts from his mind and scurried up the stone steps. The engraved wooden entrance doors looked large and imposing, but were surprisingly light and swung open with ease. Willis couldn’t help thinking that perhaps these doors were much like his father. If only he had taken the time to turn the doorknob. Once again he banished his useless mind chatter. None of it could be helped now. His father’s lawyer was waiting for him, perched on one of the many benches placed along the sides of the grandeur hallway. The white marble floor was immaculate. Almost so that if he desired he could see his reflection near his feet, but few dared to look at themselves in a courthouse.
The man rose to meet Willis. Willis knew this man well. Too well. Sometimes the disappointing calls from his father would be telegrammed through this man’s voice.
“I’m sorry, son…” the voice would say, “your father has been held up in a meeting.” Even this man knew his father well enough to know he was only that. A father. A sperm donor. An absent male figure. The dictionary was far too generous with the word. Father. A male parent. God. One who originates, makes possible, or inspires something. The word Dad was merely listed as a colloquial term, or a short-cut for Father. It was all so backwards.
“Hello, Wil,” the man extended his hand, which was taken without hesitation. However, Willis shook hands limply. He was still overwhelmed by this place and these people and papers and things. They were all just things. Was he grieving? He didn’t know. It was all packed somewhere inside his big toe. Everything would take a very long time to reach his mouth, and then his brain.
“Hi, Sam,” he answered in a voice that seemed barely audible. Sam motioned him into another imposing room nearby. There were too many thresholds today. The room was small and dimly lit. The blinds were down and the large desk and tall bookshelves seemed to judge Willis from their standpoints. Willis loosened his tie, feeling the musty tone of the heavy dark brown books and neglected carpets. It was a furnished closet where many unsaid things happened.
“Would you like some coffee?” Sam offered. Willis thought he could use something a bit stronger, but he politely raised his hand in decline. Sam poured himself a cup and settled in behind the modest oak desk. He folded and unfolded his hands and then laid them flat before him. There was no real sense of sorrow in the room, but the situation was delicate and Sam wasn’t sure where to begin. He didn’t want to touch a raw nerve.
“I have your father’s papers, Wil,” he began. He pulled an envelope out of a large, squeaky drawer in his desk and deftly handed it over. Willis didn’t make any move to open it.
“Shouldn’t mother be here?” Wil stalled.
“Your mother conveyed point blank that she isn’t interested in what he had to say.” Wil nodded solemnly. She was still his widow, but he had been less than a husband to her. She had known the truth behind his unscheduled business trips years ago. However, she had kept quiet and continued to pack his lunch every morning and make pork chops every Tuesday night. It had been a different era then and she probably made herself believe there was nowhere else for her to go. Maybe it would have been easier if he had run off and left her for good. Besides, she had to stay. She had Willis to think about. And now Hancocks Sr. was dead. The freedom of it was suffocating. Wil squirmed in his seat. Sam noticed and decided to move things along. He was starting to feel uncomfortable, too. He jerked the papers impatiently towards Wil and immediately felt sorry for it. Wil glanced at him sharply, warily, as though he’d been wakened from a deep sleep. He didn’t want anything from his father, either. Not like this. But, feeling cornered, he accepted the envelope and toyed with the seal.
“Do I have to open this now?” he asked, sounding like a child who didn’t want to do a chore. “Here?”
“I must be a witness to make sure you understand all the implications of your father’s last wishes,” Sam answered in a distant voice. Wil began to peel open the seal. The package felt quite heavy for a man who had been so empty. He pulled out a stack of papers attached with a paper clip. There was too much print. Large blocks of paragraphed ink that Wil didn’t want to swim through. He passed the document back to Sam with a plea in his eyes for some comprehension.
Sam replaced his reading glasses with an air of formality and began to read:
Here states the last will and testament of I, Willis Hancocks Sr., to be read upon my time of death. To my faithful wife I leave my property estate…”
Faithful! How the bastard could even constitute the word and never know the meaning. Wil felt his innards turn and was relieved for his mother’s absence in this obscene mockery.
“…and to my only son I leave a portion of myself that I can only hope will fill the gaps I have left behind…” the remainder of the document contained instructions for the dividing of his assets, including a generous portion, which was granted to Sam for both his personal and professional services through the years. Wil barely heard the rest of it.
“How much?” he interrupted. Sam stopped in mid-sentence and removed the ominous glasses. His eyes were small and beady. A dusty blue. He had a luke-warm glance that took on a cooler slant if disrupted.
Sam had been a dutiful friend, even when it had gone against his better judgement. He tried to be discreet about the will even now, but the younger Wil knew him too well. He could sense by the way Sam’s voice began to trail off.
“It’s quite a sum, Wil,” he replied in a serious tone.
“How much?”
“Your father wasn’t very good with his feelings. He didn’t really know how to express…”
“How much?” Wil was becoming irritable.
“Two hundred and fifty million pounds, son.” His voice was like a dull thud in the room. Then he added, “I’ve already taken the liberty of depositing the funds directly into your account.” Wil felt immobilized in his chair. The cushion had suddenly become quicksand. He was a millionaire, just like his father. Just like his father.
“What if I don’t accept?” brilliant, he thought. Wil wanted no part of his father’s impersonal, hard cash world.
“Then the money will be given to the city,” Sam looked urgent. His loyalty still lay with his friend. And the last thing Hancocks Sr. ever wanted was to invest one cent in the government. He never trusted the politicians to do the right thing with their liberties. If Wil had known that he would have marched down to the city hall and delivered the boodle himself. But, he didn’t, and the affections he had carried unreturned for his father lay like silt in his stomach. He didn’t want his father’s money to go into a new McDonald’s or a city parade. The men stood up abruptly and shook hands. Wil just wanted to escape. When he emerged from the ominous courthouse doors, he took a long pause on the entrance steps. He drew everything in and the world looked stranger. Even the clouds appeared to be moving faster across an otherwise pleasant sky. The voices around him slowed down. The tempo in the atmosphere was out of step. The mechanics in his brain had been reduced to a hamster in a wheel, overworked. What had just happened?

Martin had been wandering the streets all morning. The sidewalks were wide and crowded. The streets themselves had a smaller ratio of traffic and he was tempted to walk along the painted dotted lines in the road and dodge the cars. At least he would get paid if someone bumped into him. The mobs on the sidewalk lived by the rule of every man for himself. He tried to avoid the shoving and also give it back where he could, and rarely did he make eye contact. He had grown sour and didn’t want to admit his own thoughts, even to himself. But the truth was he was young and ready to accept his creature comforts again. He began to miss pillows, basic warmth, and friendly conversation. Only now he had delved so deep into his notions of the world being dictated by money, politics, and fads, that he didn’t know how to slip back into the norm undetected. His rebellious nature had won him a reputation in the spreading vicinity of his tunnel life. His thoughts pushed behind his eyes as he walked recklessly. What could he do now? He had no money. Suddenly the colourful printed paper and accumulative clinking coins he once detested seemed essential. He kicked the pavement in defeat. There was no use fighting the greedy gods. Could he work? Would anyone hire him? Here? His appearance was almost frightening. He prayed for rain between using the public showers twice a week, which cost two pounds. Martin didn’t want to admit that he had failed in his attempts to rail against the grain, to not be a sheep. He always returned to the underground walkway. He considered it his home – after all, wasn’t home a place you could escape to after your legs grew weary and your head swelled with the pressure of people and words and laborious tasks. Perhaps Marty’s home didn’t provide the best comfort, but it provided him with shelter and a place to submerge from the busy streets. The hum of cars and shoes clanking on the grates above him provided company late in the night when only a few stray souls might join him or pass through, stealth-like, hiding also from the moonlight or police car beams. Marty wandered the streets of London by day and hid from them in the late, dark hours. As he headed back to Hyde Park, he would often see the homeless people cluster together in alleys. They were prohibited from seeking soft grass beds in the parks, even in the warmer season. So, in alleys they lit each other’s cigarettes and spat on the sidewalks. They swayed from the drink, and huddled together to keep warm and upright. They cajoled with each other and laughed with smoker’s lungs. Marty knew none of them and he avoided them. Whatever choices those poor, fading souls had ever made in their lives, they had not chosen to live on the streets with every door closed against them. At least, the choice had not been a conscious one. How the warmly lit windows in every flat on every block must have appeared to them. Marty was painfully aware of his free will in the matter. He wasn’t ready to surrender, yet. He still chose the broadness of the streets over being confined in those brightly lit boxes of windows looking down. Now his smug feelings had turned to jealousy. He suddenly hated the tourists brushing by him cheerfully with their Harrods bags, for a different reason. They had something he didn’t have. They were free. Martin sat down and occupied a piece of concrete.

As Wil rounded the corner he almost tripped over a grungy looking young man sitting on the pavement. The man looked as though he had walked across the continent. The blue of his eyes as he glanced up, startled, looked lost and old. The young man’s expectant hand emerged from his jacket sheepishly, and wavered open before him. Wil hesitated for half a second and then pulled out an executive leather booklet from his inside pocket. He then pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and began scribbling furiously inside the booklet.
“Here chap, here’s a big fat cheque and all you have to do is sign it,” Wil said. Wil roughly stuffed the content into the man’s waiting hand and hurried off, jamming both his empty hands into his deep pockets.


Stephen said...

looking forward to reading the whole thing.

Kristina said...

No fair teasing us like this...