Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 9

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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"Your attention please," a woman's voice said over the public address system at Paris' Gare du Nord train station. "For security reasons, don't leave your baggage unattended. Any unattended baggage will be immediately destroyed."

I had slept in the train station.

After leaving the bar, my sense of the dramatic had only been able to tolerate walking in miserable weather for a few minutes before I found myself ducking into a Metro station. I went back to the hotel and sat there, waiting for Allison to come back. I felt pathetic, too tired to be angry. At about 1:30 a.m., I set Allison's Christmas present on the bed with a note:

"Allison,
I am going home. If you want to talk to me, I am at Gare du Nord. I will take the first train in the morning.
I love you,
Ben."

I kept the bottle of wine I had planned on sharing with Allison that night, emptied the wet bar of beer and took a taxi to the station.

"No train tonight," the taxi driver said in English after my attempt to direct him in French.
"But in the morning, yeah?"
"Yes. In a few hours, maybe. No trains now. I do not think."
"I'll wait."
"Américain?"
"Uh, no," I lied. "English."
"Anglais. Huh. Three lions. Your footballers are shit I think," he said, cracking a smile.

I was at the station by 2:30 a.m., the first train left at 06:37. After a few minutes of searching, I was able to find a cold, uncomfortable spot against a wall that had not been urinated on and set myself up there. I pushed down the wine bottle's cork with my pocket knife and drank it in large, stinging gulps, and cried as I waited for Allison to appear, apologize profusely and beg me to take her back. I allowed myself to fall apart. I cried so hard my lungs shook. I punched at my bag, I coughed and gagged. I doubled over, my head pressed against the cold floor and breathing in its dusty smell. I cried until I had no more energy for it.

I dreamt that Allison and I were lying in the shallow section of the creek that ran behind her house.

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

Allison took off her top; I rolled to my side and kissed her.

"I love you, Allison."
"Because I'm showing my tits in public."
"No."
"Yes. It's all you think about, Benjamin."
"Well, if it's all I think about... you want to?"

I kissed between her breasts, breathing in the mix of her perfume and sweat and the creek. The sound of the water danced all around us and I slid my left hand down her stomach to undo the tie on her shorts.

"Here?"
"Yeah, why not?"

She squint her eyes at me.

"Because I will get cryptosporidium in my fucking vagina. And this water is cold. And I'm lying on a bunch of fucking rocks. And my parents are drinking lemonade a few hundred yards away. Jesus, Benjamin. You just don't think."

I woke suddenly when the empty wine bottle rolled from my hand and clinked against the floor. It was a little past 5 a.m. Two soldiers looked at me impassively. Each man carried an assault rifle, a handgun strapped to his waist and a large knife at his thigh. They each had three hand grenades hanging from a bandoleer across their chest. Hand grenades? In what defensive scenario do you use a hand grenade in a train station?

I reached into my bag, grabbed a Heineken and cracked it open as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. I stood up with a grunt, slung my bag over my left shoulder and walked toward the ticket counter.

"Bonjour," I said as I passed the soldiers, and raised my beer to them.

...

I spent the first 30 minutes of the train ride to London in the toilet. The alcohol, lack of sleep and emotional overload from the night before had hit me with stomach-twisting urgency about 15 minutes before we were allowed to board. I had already exchanged all my money, leaving me with no way to get in the station's pay toilets. I twisted my body and squeezed my legs and tried desperately to think of something else, and I was at the point of rationalizing soiling my pants ("I've got other clothes in my bag. I can just go to the train's toilet and change. But then what do I do with my dirty pants? Put them back in the bag? No. I'll have to throw them away. But these are good pants. I like these pants,") when boarding began. I shoved my way on the train, threw my bag in my seat and locked myself in the toilet.

The toilet smelled pink; if pink has a smell -- baby powder, roses, a bottle of the cheap perfume high school girls wear. The décor was actually orange and blue, but the smell of pink was overpowering.

In college I had to read James Joyce's Ulysses, and according to my Cliffs Notes, two of the main characters in that novel associate writing with relieving themselves. I have always wondered if Joyce really intended for people to make this connection. Maybe he had his characters poop because that's what people do. Sometimes you just poop; food goes in, poop comes out. In any case, my whole Joycean creative process that took place in the pink-smelling Eurostar toilet was thoroughly unpleasant. I rocked back and forth and fought nausea as my bowels untwisted for several minutes. Fortunately, my stench was no competition for the room's pinkness.

I looked pretty much like I felt. In the toilet's mirror I could see the color had drained from my face, my skin was greasy and my hair matted. I splashed some water on my face and tried to clean up a bit, but it didn't help. I needed sleep. I needed to go home.

I was happy to see my bag was still there when I finally arrived back at my seat. No one had stolen it or mistaken it for a bomb and had it immediately destroyed. I set the bag on the overhead rack, pulled out my third beer of the morning and flopped into my seat. The woman sitting across the aisle raised her eyebrows slightly at me and I smiled. A young blonde-haired girl sat next to her, reading aloud in a beautifully posh English accent that made me feel low class. Listening to the girl read from her alliterative children's book ("Wally the Walrus wore a white waistcoat"), I thought: "I know more words than her, but can't say any of them with as much style."    

I heard the roaring thud of the train entering the Channel tunnel and felt the air pressure change as we descended beneath the sea.

"Are we in a tunnel, Mummy?" the girl asked.
"Yes, darling," the mother said in an equally posh accent. "This tunnel goes underneath the English Channel -- the sea between England and France. When we get out of this tunnel, we'll be in England. In about 40 minutes, darling."
"Back in England?"
"Yes."
"A train that goes underneath the sea," the girl said with a sense of wonder.

The mother then put on headphones and pressed "play" on her CD player. Loud and clear, I heard the straining voice of Michael Bolton. I sank my head into my hands and started to think about Allison. I tried to think about what I could do or say to get her back. I tried to develop a plan. I opened up my journal and decided to draw up a step-by-step method to win back Allison.

Part of me wanted to be able to just walk away, but that wasn't going to be easy. Unfortunately, the emotion you feel toward a person doesn't stop just because they want it to. No matter how politely you ask, a tree won't stop growing; no matter how loudly and forcefully you command it not to, you can't stop a tornado from ripping apart your home; and no matter how delicately someone lets you down, they can't stop you from loving them. When they break your heart it hurts even more. And to make matters worse, more often than not the person who's ripped out your heart and fed it to a dingo is exactly the same person you would turn to in this sort of situation.

"How can we be lovers if we can't be friends?" Michael Bolton queried.

Fuck this, I thought, and scratched out the only part of my plan so far: "Send teddy bear."

I reached up into my bag and pulled out another beer. It was still cold and tasted good as I took a long pull from the can. Then I sat back and sang along with Michael Bolton. I was singing along to "Can I Touch You There?" when I felt the pressure in my head start to ease. WhhhhhhhOOOOOSH! We were out of the tunnel. The car filled with sunlight, and the little girl leapt up on her seat and pressed her face to the window.

"Is this England?!" she shouted.

Her mother nodded.

"England! Oh, it feels good to be back! Sweet England!"

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