Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 6

The Way Forward: Chapter 6

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from or

It was cold and dark in Portsmouth when the lumbering P&O ferry finally settled into port, but I was happy to be back. The air smelled fresh. My head was swimming from the cold medicine I had bought in the duty-free shop and the cheap bottle of red wine I had won in a ship's pub quiz. I bought a four-pack of Heineken in the shop just before getting off the ferry. I find it interesting that Heineken is sometimes considered a high-brow beer in the United States. In England, it was often the cheapest stuff they sold at the liquor stores, and it was even cheaper in a ship's duty free. I already had one of the cans open by the time I got to the customs official. When I saw him, I started fumbling through my things to get at my passport but he just smiled and waved me on.

"No need, son. Welcome home."
"Cheers," I said, raising my can to him.

The double-decker bus to Portsmouth city centre was idling outside the ferry terminal when I stepped out, and I decided to pay the £1 fare rather than walk 30 minutes home in the cold under the weight of my backpack.

"Quiet night?" I asked the driver.
"Yeah," he said. "You're the first person I've had on all day."
"I'm surprised they've got you working."
"I'm surprised they've got me working, too. None of the city buses are running. But I get paid extra for working the holiday and I'm off in an hour. No worries. You're American."
"Uh. Yeah."
"You'll be wanting to ride up top, then."
"That's OK. I'm the only person on the bus. I don't want to be rude."
"Go on. You won't hurt my feelings."

Up top, I stuck out my arms and felt like I was flying through Portsmouth's wet and cold deserted streets. My head spun and I tried not to laugh too loud. The city looked new and oddly beautiful. Shimmering light reflected from the wet streets. Then I began to recognize the route we were taking and felt a rush of excitement as we neared city centre. I thought of my warm bed and my tea kettle and the bag of chocolates on my desk -- all waiting for my return -- and a grin spread across my face.

In the town centre a few perfectly insane people were setting up tents and sleeping bags to queue for the next day's big after-Christmas sales. I tried to think of how cheap somebody would have to sell something for me to sleep rough in the miserable cold, especially when my bed was only four minutes' walk away. But they were happy and laughing, sipping from steaming mugs of tea and wrapped up like Arctic explorers. I actually thought about joining them. I asked a camper in front of a men's clothing shop if he knew whether the shop would be selling Irishy wool sweaters at ridiculously low prices. He said he didn't know, and I headed home.


Anne and Tony, from down the corridor, were in the kitchen when I came in to fix a cup of tea. They were from Hong Kong but had adopted Anglo-sounding names. This seemed to be the only concession to British culture that most of the Hong Kong kids were willing to make -- Anne and Tony spoke pretty rough English. Tony seemed to struggle with basic greetings. While the rest of the students that shared the kitchen slapped together simple meals of sausages and beans or Tesco frozen curry, Anne and Tony prepared full meals with dozens of ingredients and filled the kitchen with smells that made my stomach ache with hunger.

"It smells very good," I said, letting my American accent drawl out.

I always felt I was being condescending when I spoke so slowly and clearly to Anne and Tony, but I had noticed I was one of the few people that they would talk to.

"Soup," Anne said.
"Egg," Tony said.
"Egg drop soup?" I asked.

They nodded and smiled.

"Well, it smells great," I said, and turned to go back to my room.
"You look bad. You want some?" Anne said.
"No. I'm not going to take your food. Thank you very much, though," I said.
"You look bad," Anne said again.
"Always too much," Tony said.
"Yes, always too much. Eat some soup."
"No, really. That's OK," I said.

We went back and forth on the soup issue for a few minutes until questions flashed through my head of whether I was committing some sort of major cultural sin by refusing soup. But then I worried that accepting the soup would prove me to be a greedy American who expects everything handed to him. This is what you do as an American in another country -- take every little moment and analyze it to death for fear of reinforcing stereotypes or setting off a diplomatic nightmare.

"OK. If you have any left when you are done, I will have some."
"Always too much," Tony said.

A few minutes later, Anne and Tony were at my door, smiling, with an enormous steaming bowl of what would prove to be the best soup I have ever eaten.

It snowed the next day and the day after that, and Anne insisted on nursing me back to health with more soup and mint teas, and little fried pastries.


My room in Harry Law Hall was tiny. But it was home. University life is like that: they give you a 9-foot-by-17-foot cell that is only slightly more yours than a seat on the bus and it becomes one of the most treasured things in your world. I had my bed, my student-issue duvet, my nightstand, my desk, my uncomfortable chair, my gray-carpeted walls (that never made sense to me), my little toilet and sink and shower, my big closet, my shelf, and my stereo. The stereo was the only thing that was really mine. It was the first thing I had bought upon arriving in Pompey -- £85 at Argos. It was the best stereo I've ever owned. And now, in the weakness of illness and the safety of my room, I put on track seven of the The Cure's Wish album and set it to repeat.

The view from my window was pretty uninspiring, most of it taken up by the red brick of the Courts of Justice building across the walk. Workers had erected scaffolding alongside the building in September, but generally opted not to do any work unless I had to study or write a paper, at which point they would find the loudest tool they had and create billowing clouds of brick dust to waft into my room. Now that it was December and my window was closed, they had chosen to put off working for a month or two. The scaffolding stayed until May, and when they tore it away the building looked exactly the same.

I stood at my window, watching snow gather on the planks of the scaffolding. Beyond the courts building lay the ugly square buildings of Portsmouth and then the ugly square buildings of Gosport across the harbor. On a clear day, I could watch ferry ships as they pulled into port; from my viewpoint (I couldn't see the water) the ships looked like office buildings crawling across the city. On this snowy day I could only see down to Mercantile House, about one-fourth of a mile away. It was one of the university buildings. Take the ugliest building you've ever seen, squish it thin, paint it white, and you have Mercantile House.

I heard the crash of beer bottles and looked down across a car park to my right to see Gerry, one of the bartenders at O'Neill's, throwing them in a large metal bin behind the pub. O'Neill's was one of several pubs along Guildhall Walk, which ran just to the east of Harry Law Hall. Gerry, in short sleeves, threw his cigarette in disgust at the snow and stomped back inside the pub.

I hate Robert Smith, lead singer of The Cure. He looks like a fat scary clown. But there is one song that will save him from his rightful place against the wall when the revolution comes. That song is "Friday I'm In Love." Just the first few cheesy chords of that song will set my mind spinning in memory of all the good things about Allison. I can see her smile and that look -- her head tilted and eyes shining -- that told me she was thinking about me. I can smell her perfume. I can taste her skin. And I can feel the warmth of sunshine and the solidity of her kiss. My God, she knew what she was doing when she kissed. I sometimes wonder if she didn't always know what she was doing.

"Friday I'm In Love" was our song. My song for us, at least. It reminds me of the day I knew I was falling for her. It was actually a Saturday. Allison and I were sitting in the back of a green 1990 Honda Civic, being driven home from the Minnesota State Fair by her older sister, Kelly. Against my protest, Kelly's boyfriend, Sierra (what kind of name is that for a male? Who would torture their child with that name?), insisted upon playing the Wish album.

Allison and I were 17 years old -- heading into our senior year of high school -- and we had spent the entire summer together. We went to movies and the mall and a few concerts. Most of the time we just walked along the rocky shallow creek that ran behind her home and talked.

We talked a lot. When I first came up from Clute my Texas accent always got in the way, and most conversations with girls went like this:
GIRL: "Say 'fire.'"
ME: "Far."
"Hee-hee. Now say 'oil.'"
"Ha, ha. OK, what's the thing you write with? You know, it has ink in it..."
"A pin?"
"Not a peeyen. It's a pen -- pEHHn. Ha, ha."

Needless to say, this sort of thing got old quickly and I spent most of my first year in Minnesota teaching myself how to speak without an accent. I fit in alright after a while and I felt pretty comfortable around most of the guys on my soccer team, but I still tried not to talk too much. Most of the time I just mumbled through conversations. Allison opened me up, though. She made me feel as if I belonged there. I had never met a girl who would talk to me as much as Allison. After a few months around her, I felt safe. She made me feel as if I could say anything and it would be OK.

I had never thought about kissing her, though, until that day in the back of her sister's Civic; then I realized I had always wanted to. I was slumped down and exhausted from a day spent in the late-August sun and feeling the cool of the air conditioning finally reach me and looking out at the yellow and orange and pink of the sunset and feeling happy just to take in deep, tired breaths. My right leg relaxed and pressed up against hers. I looked over at Allison. She was also exhausted. It's funny to think of how tired she looked. Not sexy tired, but exhausted -- "ridden hard and put away wet," as my grandfather likes to say. Our relationship began at a moment when neither of us had the strength to move or the strength to resist. She was resting her head against the window and the colors of the sunset shone on her face. She smiled at me. I moved my hand to her knee and smiled back. Robert Smith squealed. I was done. She had me.

And now, in the safety and quiet of my tiny piece of Harry Law Hall, I lay down in bed and relived the moment. Then I fell asleep and dreamt she and I were lying in a creek.

"Take off your top," I said to her.
"No. People will see."
"They won't see. Come on. Take off your top."

We were in a shallow section of the creek that ran by her house. It had been a dry summer and the water was no more than an inch deep. We were 19 years old -- about to start our second year in university, me at Macalester College in St. Paul and her at the University of California, Davis. It had been a long summer. The water was cool against the heat of the early August sun. She undid the clasp of her bikini top and the soft white skin of her breasts seemed to glow in the sunlight. I rolled onto my side and looked at her. Her red hair danced in the flow of the creek. The water pushed against us and I felt as if we were floating away from all the rest of the world. I couldn't see anything else. There was only me and her. The only air I wanted to breathe was hers.

"I love you, Allison."


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Joanna St. James said...

Hi Chris just doing a drive by from the nut press. Good luck with the writing

Kath said...

Love the narrator's voice in this chapter. Having lived on the Isle of Wight and visited Portsmouth a number of times from there, I have to ask why you set the book there - it's an interesting choice anyway!

I think it's a great idea to post chapters from your book on the blog, as well as making the whole available as an e-book. I've downloaded it to my Kindle and am looking forward to reading the rest of it now.

Good luck with The Way Forward and future writing and thanks for stopping by Wales Blog Party at The Nut Press this weekend.

Jane Lovering said...

Hi there! Another hit from the Nut Press party (I'm the one in the pink frock dancing the Macarena on the table with the avocado dip down my front). Nice extract, keep up the good work!

Chris Cope said...

Kath -- In part I set the book there because it's not the sort of place people usually set books. Many writers have a bad habit of choosing exotic locales, or romanticising their setting. Additionally, as a reader it has always bothered me to read books taking place somewhere other than where I am -- in the sort of places I don't live, can't afford to live, etc. I have always loved that Vonnegut would frequently set his books in some nowhere semi-industrial town in Indiana.

Kath said...

So did you live and study in Portsmouth? Is that why you set the book there? I wasn't criticising your choice of Portsmouth, btw, I just wondered why there.

I totally agree with you that some places are used more than others in fiction and not always handled that well. I'm trying to find a modern take on Florence, one of my favourite cities and it is suffering from having been romanticised in what I've read so far.

Chris Cope said...

Kath - I did live in Portsmouth, many moons ago. I was an exchange student there for a year. I returned to the United States afterward but the experience stuck with me and was part of the motivator for my eventually moving back to Britain.