Sunday, February 24, 2008

Turnstiles - Excerpt

You pay a fee to be admitted through life’s turnstiles; to be propelled into experience.



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.”
“Marty, my boy!” Joe’s face opened wide with good-natured eyes. “How was your night? Those bloody bed bugs didn’t bite ya, aye, lad?” Joe boomed in his rich, Scottish accent, completely 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 gave a self-deprecating chuckle. 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. He was a lawyer, and was used to having small charms in his pockets. They were little reminders that there was some luck in the universe, good or bad. 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 he could tell that Sam was struggling with the fine balance between urgency and regret.. 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 was trying to be discreet about the will even now, by sounding vague and assuming his business voice of authority, but the younger Wil knew him too well. Sam’s voice began to trail off.... losing its facade.
“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.


As soon as Martin had sat down on the sidewalk, a man came around the corner at a rapid pace. He stopped short and caught himself from stumbling over Martin’s hunched frame. The moment was confused and Martin was rarely surprised these days. But the look in this man’s eyes was stricken and tormented. He thought he knew his own suffering until now. By habit, he already had his hand out and he suddenly felt ashamed. But before he could take it back, the man hastily said something about a cheque, and impatiently shoved something into his palm. The offering was so abrupt; somewhere in the back of Martin’s mind he wondered if it was a curse. And then the man was gone. Disappearing into the crowd and covering ground with long strides. Martin slowly uncoiled his fingers and stared at the crumpled ball of paper nestled in his palm. He began to delicately pull at the corners, as though recovering some ancient artefact, to free the item from its condensed shape. Then he stared longer in disbelief. The implications of the treasure in his hand registered rapidly. Okay, it was a cheque. He could barely get past all the zeros before he saw that it had not yet been signed. His fingers trembled as he held the thin paper. His hands did not grasp the cheque and pull at the corners as though trying to stretch more zeros out of it. They were not so confident. Instead, he held the cheque as someone might examine the feather of a long extinct bird. The greedy gods had shown some mercy. Martin quickly folded the cheque and shoved it deep into his pocket. He did not move. He sat for a long time with his hands clasped around his tucked in knees. He sat in an upright foetal position while wrestling with his inner voice. As harsh words ping-ponged between his ears, his own self-deprecating words, he wanted more than anything to feel comforted. He had seen the name on the cheque. Willis Hancocks, Jr. Even the name sounded like money. Why not Edmond Shawshanks III? He smirked at his runaway thought and then caught himself with a strange wave of guilt. Even in this humble moment, Martin could not lose his zeal for sarcasm. Perhaps he was still trying to shake the tormented look he saw in the stranger’s eyes. His train of thought turned. The entire episode was ridiculous. For over a year he hadn’t had to juggle more than fifty dollars, and that was on a good day. The only thing he had to do now was endorse the cheque. Fortunately, he would not have to forge the signature. Willis Hancocks, Jr? Hell, Martin didn’t look like anyone’s junior. Some people even gossiped in low tones that he didn’t have parents. Martin had picked up word that apparently he was an abandoned orphan. Perhaps they also thought he had been left in the London tunnel. Martin smirked to himself again.
He was not a malicious man. He knew that. He hadn’t put out his hand for charity until the thread got too thin and he could barely scrounge enough to eat. He hadn’t asked for this, had he? He wanted to run after the man and throw it back at him. If the man didn’t want it, then why didn’t he just tear it up? Why couldn’t he tear it up? Martin wasn’t sure about the workings of fate. He admitted to himself how he had brought on his own failures and, consequently, he was faced with a no exit sign. It was everything he had said he wanted, once. To be his own master and treat his experience on earth as being no more than a human body occupying space and living day to day, just as people had before government and laws and technology. Martin hadn’t expected a dead end to come so soon. And now there was an opening folded neatly in his pocket. But it wasn’t really his opening. It was a door in which that haunting, hasty man had closed.
Martin crouched on the pavement for the remainder of the day and, as the sun began to set, he slowly rose to his feet and started trudging back towards the tunnel. Home was only the distance of one foot in front of the other. He kept his hands out of his pockets deliberately until later he forgot his reasons why, and habitually shoved his chapped, closed knuckles into the shallow tweed pockets. The corners of the folded paper brushed against his startled fingers and, instead of rapidly jerking out his hand as though it would get bitten, he retrieved the cheque and toyed with it for a few minutes. He walked slower with a small grimace on his face. He placed the cheque back in his pocket and walked past the tunnel at Hyde Park. He always returned to the underground walkway. He considered it his home, but not tonight. He vaguely knew that he couldn’t go back there anymore.
. Martin aimlessly covered the streets of London for the better part of the night, and eventually found his sleep on a park bench in Soho. The morning came earlier than he was used to, since being in the tunnel he was sheltered from the sun’s dawning beams that pierced him like swords. He opened one confused eye to witness a familiar sight. Only this time he saw briefcases, flouncing skirts, and wristwatches marching past him. He didn’t really care to know what hour it was. Filling the hours today would not be an uncertainty. Today had a purpose. He sat upright and stretched his neck about to determine in which part of London he had landed. Soho. He hadn’t ventured so far in months. Already he was beginning to stretch his boundaries and now there was nowhere to go except further. He had tried not to think too much about the cheque in his pocket as he concentrated on the sound of the worn soles of his shoes scuffing the old cobblestones the night before. Everything seemed to echo at night without the buffer of bodies crowding the narrow back streets. He had been able to hear his thoughts in the rhythm… scuffle, scuff… scuffle, scuff… move ahead, move ahead.
Martin’s eyes had adjusted to the sunlight, and for the first time in ages he genuinely smiled to himself, mostly because the border between yesterday and today was ironically fated. Pray for rain and you might get hit by lightning. He noticed that the passers-by in Soho didn’t notice him, and he was quietly relieved. Sadly, he could not have smiled to himself so easily in Hyde Park. He was finally abandoning an identity that had created his own villian. Martin was shedding an old and useless skin. He spotted a barbershop on the opposite side of the street, reached into his other pocket, and pulled out five pounds. As he waited for a break in the traffic and jogged easily between the slowing cars, he was struck by another humorous thought that only the day before he would have wished for a car to hit him so that he could claim injury. Despite Martin’s growing lightness of heart at the change of events, when he reached the barbershop’s door he did not bounce through it like a normal person with an average weight on his shoulders. None of this was routine for Martin, and the reality of it smacked him in the face. For a moment, he suddenly felt like a criminal or a sub-human as he lingered outside of the establishment. He opened the door slowly and went inside, but not without a few bewildered looks from the handful of customers sitting in a row with their coffees and magazines. Even the barber, Antonio, who was doing a routine beard trim, raised one eyebrow, and mainly because almost all of his customers were regulars and he had never laid eyes on Martin. At first glance, the young man looked grubby and moth-eaten. His hands and face were dirty and his tweed jacket and jeans had hanging threads and discernible holes. His stubbly head was growing in dark roots. The most he required to look presentable was a bath, new clothes, and a clean shave. As long as he could pay, Antonio didn’t care what he looked like.
“Hey, look what the cat dragged in!” exclaimed one of the younger men waiting, but he had no supporters.
“Shut yer pie hole, Danny,” mumbled an older man seated beside the boy. Danny gave the man and Marty a cutting look and poked his nose back in the daily paper he was reading. Marty’s first instinct was to thump him, but he felt he was out of his league in this joint. He was the stranger.
“Take a number, lad,” Antonio shouted from the barber’s chair. He also gave Danny a disapproving glance. “I’ll be with you in two shakes.” Marty picked up a magazine and settled into the only empty chair left. He tried not to notice the gentlemen beside him, as they examined him. The older man at the end of the row piped up, “leave ‘im alone, boys. Yer no bein’ very subtle!” Antonio smiled to himself with his back turned. Marty remained unmoved until his number was called.
As he climbed in the chair, he noticed Antonio made no enquiring looks towards him.
“What’ll it be today?” he asked in a friendly jaunt.
“I…I guess I just need a clean up,” Marty muttered. He felt small in the chair. He wasn’t used to having anyone take care of him in any fashion. Now he was at the mercy of this man’s razor.
“I agree, you haven’t got much to take off the top… but you do look a bit grizzly,” Antonio jabbered on, “I mean no offence!”
“None taken.”
Then Antonio kept jabbering. Barbers were like Bartenders. And as a customer, you felt an obligation to tell them everything because they were being intimate with either your beard or your beer.
“So, where did you roll in from?” he asked easily.
“Hyde Park.”
“No, no… I mean, where are you from?”
Martin wasn’t sure how to answer and kept silent a moment. Then he uttered, as if he was afraid it were the wrong answer “…Hyde Park.” Antonio was silent as he trimmed Martin’s beard and moustache. There seemed to be a shift in the air, and Martin felt sorry for it. He was more different than he realized, and it was becoming rapidly apparent. How was he ever going to fit in again? It was a nightmare. Antonio wheeled Martin around to face the mirror.
“There you are, Mr. Hyde Park… like a new man!” Antonio exclaimed.

Wil slipped out of the alley and began to move with the crowd until he ducked into a familiar pub a few blocks away. That day there was a new face behind the bar, possibly the bartender’s son. He gave Wil a passing glance as he cleaned the mugs. Wil was thankful not to see a familiar face. He didn’t feel like shooting the breeze. He approached the young bartender and ordered a pint of Scottish Ale. The darker the better. And he proceeded to order the same for the rest of the afternoon, trying to clear away his own murky waters he found himself drowning in. Eventually, the man behind the bar, who he now didn’t recognize at all, asked him to leave.
“I think you’ve had enough drink for today, sir.”
“What? Oh shut up and pour me another.”
“I can’t do that, sir.”
“Well, then, I’ll get behind there and do it myself, then,” Wil shot back as he attempted to clamber over the bar. He felt a strong grip on the back of his shirt, and he knew it couldn’t be the young bartender because he was square in front of him, looking very bewildered.
“Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s rude to go helping yourself?” the deep voice from behind growled, and the next thing Wil realized he was standing out on the curb with a trail of jeers and laughter behind him. He wobbled for a second and leaned his hand on the wall. His arms and legs were like spaghetti.
“Cheeky blokes,” he muttered. He lifted his head to see a sea of people moving towards him, and in his drunken distortion he laid himself flat up against the building, in fear of being trampled.
“Whoa, there, where’s the fire?” he exclaimed. The only response he received were the disgusted grimaces on the faces of the passers-by. Wil began to move slowly against the crowd. He clung to the wall like a first-time ice skater. And then he saw him, and he remembered. That crouched, sorry figure was still squatting on the concrete. Wil’s eyes narrowed. He stood only a block away from the remains of his life, one block away from what could have been his future. But he knew that either way he would have still felt hollow. He had exorcised all of his ghosts by relieving himself of that cheque. That gift. That burden. Hadn’t he? Or had he invited more demons? He stood and watched and felt perilous. His form was highly conspicuous in contrast to the bustling sidewalk. And so was this strange beggar’s form. Neither of them seemed to fit, and somehow they were connected. Anyone watching from a distance would have taken note of this blocked interaction - the watcher being watched. But the beggar never glanced in Wil’s direction. He remained naïve to the entire scene, as he stared ahead, battling with his own spiralling thoughts, like demons ascending back into heaven.
The sun went down behind the buildings and Wil, still in a drunken stupor, was leaning lifeless against the wall. He had not moved an inch in an hour, and his eyes were still fixed on the crouched figure until it began to stir. The figure leaned forward and stretched into a tall, animated being, which then disappeared around the far corner of the street. Wil caught his breath; he had to remind his legs to move until they collapsed into an awkward trot. He followed the stranger, keeping a calculated distance. Part of him wanted to reach out his hands and grab him, apologize, and scour his pockets. Mostly, he felt obsessed about the man he had given his destiny to. Suddenly, the cheque was not just a symbol of money that had replaced his father’s affection. Wil had been irrational. He saw that now. And there was still a chance to make it right. If only to see where this man went… like a mother giving away her baby… simply wanting to know if the right choice was made. Wil was not in the right state of mind, and he had no real intention of doing anything. He followed the stranger all night, all the way across London, just to watch him fall asleep on a park bench in Soho. And he waited until morning.
When Wil awoke by the curb, he met more grimacing faces. He had once been one of those faces, thinking to himself “damn bum.” However, these faces were mixed with puzzlement at the way he was dressed. Wil appeared to be nothing more than a crumpled gentleman, except for the fact he still reeked of beer. He glanced across the street and further down to find that the park bench the young beggar fell asleep on was empty. He reeled around frantically, startling those around him with his wild, jerky movements. Then he spotted his target, entering a barbershop. Wil was willing to wait, but a bobby approached him.
“No loitering here, move along. There’s a hostel down the road. You can clean yerself up there.” Wil stalled for a moment, and made a motion to tie his shoe when he felt the swift pat of the bobby’s stick. Wil gave him a wary look before slinking away down the sidewalk.
“Get movin’, man.” The bobby growled and stood in an authoritative stance, surrounded by happy-faced, law-abiding citizens, and watched him go.

Wil felt a gnawing inside of him. A driving force that he didn’t agree with and one he couldn’t ignore. He was obsessed with the loss of his father, which led back to his childhood. Wil hated his own desire to be near him; to have a piece of him. And he had thrown his father’s last and only gift away, haphazardly, into the hands of a stranger. A stranger who, seemingly, was also leading a less than ideal life. Perhaps his father’s gift would bring this man happiness, if not love. There was such a bitter irony to it all. Still, Wil returned to the barbershop after he had sobered up.
When he reached the entrance, he lingered outside for a moment. The shop was empty except for Antonio who was sweeping the hair on the floor into a pile, which began to resemble a small, furry animal. Antonio looked up and saw an agitated-looking man loitering outside his shop. The man did not look like respectable clientele, so he decided to confront the stranger. A little bell sounded in the doorway as Antonio poked his head outside, startling the stranger.
“Can I help you with something?” Antonio sized up the stranger. A funny vibe told him that he was not in danger of offending a potential customer.
“Uh, yeah… yes,” Wil stammered. “I’m looking for someone who might have come into your shop earlier.”
“This morning has been very busy…”
“A tall fellow, tweed jacket, a little on the scruffy side?”
Antonio’s eyes visibly scrutinized Wil. He couldn’t explain why, but a protective inkling came over him.
“I vaguely remember a chap like that… but that was this morning…” he tried to sound evasive.
“Any idea which direction he might have gone?”
“Oh, I don’t know…”
“Think.” Wil was growing impatient, and then he realized how he was behaving and internally he kicked himself. He saw the suspicion in the barber’s face. “I mean, well, it’s important. If you can remember anything at all…”
“You could try Hyde Park.”
“Hyde Park?”
“That’s all I remember, chap,” Antonio was growing irritable. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Right… thanks,” Wil moved on down the street, not sure if he wanted to traipse back across London. Antonio stood in his modest doorway, watching him go, wondering what he had done.
“Hope you don’t find him,” he whispered.

Instead of taking the barber’s advice and heading towards Hyde Park, Wil headed back to his apartment. He sat in a chair near the window, his head tilted back, not bothering to put a light on. The next morning, his alarm clock sounded, as usual. He rubbed his head, trying to soothe his hangover from the day before. It wasn’t working. His back ached from a night spent on a park bench, and he wondered how the street people did it. They had no choice, of course. At the time, he felt he didn’t either. His father was gone, completely – every part of him that had been there or not. The possibility of him was gone, which rattled Wil most of all. He tried to rub out the truth, and moved off his bed in his rumpled suit that he been too drunk and tired to take off. He shed his suit on the ground and stepped out of the room, naked, into the shower. The steady pulse of water felt like a gift. Warm water, cleansing him; a bar of soap – he was rich. He stood there, eyes closed, wanting to stay there, feeling the weight rubbing on his skin. But, he knew he couldn’t, which kept his insides cold. He turned off the tap abruptly, like ripping off a Band-Aid; done. Okay, get on with it, he thought. He towel-dried and put on a new suit, the same dark blue colour.
The traffic seemed more chaotic than usual. Yesterday, he had shut out everything except his duty and then his pursuit. He forgot there were more people living and making daily decisions, clambering over each other for some greater happiness. Where were they all going? He hailed a cab.
“Where to, mate?” the cab driver asked, half-interested. It was his job to know where people were going.
“Hancocks and Associates Law Firm. Earl’s Court Square.”
“Law firm? Are you a lawyer?”
“What kind of lawyer? My brother-in-law is a small claims lawyer,” Cab drivers always wanted to talk, Wil sighed in his head. They drove around in their hard shells all day, disconnected from the world, but seeming to no everything about it through the sources they found in their customers or through the car radio.
“A criminal defense lawyer,” Wil answered, tersely.
“Oh, ho! You’re one of the big lawyers. Big cases, I bet. Are you handling the case of that murder that happened in downtown London last week?”
Which one? Wil thought, cynically. Instead he answered, “Possibly. There are a few recent murderers that are being looked into.” He was tempted to add, no trials, yet. But that was privileged information. The police were still trying to track down a few, as well. They only had the stories, no suspects. The newspapers were chomping at the bit, and he was glad he didn’t have to answer their phone calls, yet. Instead, he was trapped in a moving vehicle and being questioned by this guy, a roadway philosopher.
“You know, people can say what they like – but I don’t think they all need to go to jail.”
“No?” Wil mused, “You’d rather have them hanging around your neighbourhood then? Jolly good.”
“No, that’s not what I mean, exactly. I mean, they have to go somewhere where they can’t hurt anyone, including themselves.”
“We’re still just talking about the murderers, then?”
The cab driver was silent for a moment, as though he was being challenged.
“No, not exactly...” he started off slow and careful. “Anyone who had done any kind of harm to another human being – couldn’t they do something more useful to pay for that crime, rather than just rot in a jail? I mean, does anybody learn from that?”
“Most people don’t care if they learn,” Wil answered, more thoughtfully. It was a question he sometimes caught himself asking.
“How does it ever get better, then?”
“Sometimes it doesn’t. People want to see those criminals either die or they don’t want see them at all, ever again. They don’t want to know that those people still exist and that they are being sheltered and fed.”
“But, you try and get them off...” the cab driver let his thought hang out, somewhere near the windshield, still inside the car.
“Yes, I do.”
“That’s my job, to try and make sure the wrong people don’t go to jail.”
“How do you know?”
Wil didn’t answer right away. It was too early in the day to question his existence as a lawyer – his life, his career. For some reason, he was supposed to have this conversation. Here, now. Something was stopping him in this cab to give an answer, or something close to it, for his choices. “I don’t always know. I try to have faith in people’s stories; or find some explanation for their guilty actions. I guess I try to show that people aren’t always bad just because they may do bad things.”
“No offense, mate, but I’m glad I don’t have your job.”
For a second, Wil desperately wished that he was in the cab driver’s seat.

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