Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 13

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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We ate lunch at the Spice Island Inn, a pub that has sat -- under various names -- at the tip of Old Portsmouth since the 1750s, when it was home to smugglers, prostitutes, press gangs and all other sorts that dwelled beyond the city walls. The pub's current name recalled the exotic days long before its own existence, when the area was home to a healthy spice trade. It was here that the city of Portsmouth actually began, in 1194. In a fit of irony, Richard I gave Portsmouth its city crest -- "an azure shield bearing a gold star and crescent" -- just before heading off to fight Muslims in the Crusades.

There is a section of Moorhead, Minnesota, along the Red River, that was once home to an endless string of brothels. There is a shopping mall there now. So, too, had the rich and seedy past of Old Portsmouth been wiped clean. It is no longer set out by city walls. Where there were once dozens of brothels, pubs, and bathhouses, there are only two pubs, a newsagent, a bed and breakfast, and several nice homes.

The Spice Island Inn was overpriced for Portsmouth, but my favorite pub nonetheless. I was easily fascinated by the thought that people had been imbibing there years before anyone had come up with the idea for my country. I imagine the Spice Island had been host to a number of drunken conversations on what a terribly bad idea America had been. Actually, I know it has been host to that conversation at least once -- I was there. But you get my point.

In the summer, when the sun was shining, one could sit outside the pub and watch the ships roll in and out of Portsmouth Harbour: ferries to France and Spain, smaller ferries to the Isle of Wight and Gosport, military ships, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and occasionally, the massive Queen Elizabeth II cruise liner as she crawled up the harbor toward Southampton. Whole days could be happily lost watching the world sail past, sitting in the sun, nursing pints of beer. In late March it was still a little cool for sitting outside, but tables had been set up anyway to take advantage of the day's sun. Claire and I chose to sit inside. I felt bad about her paying, but took advantage of it, ordering Guinness.

I was stupid happy.

"You're bouncing," Claire said.
"I'm sorry. I'm in a good mood."
"You're happy?"
"Yes."
"Good."
"How could I not be happy? I'm drinking Guinness, it's a beautiful day, and I am having lunch with the most beautiful woman in the northern hemisphere."
"The northern hemisphere?"
"Yes. There is a woman in Australia who is more attractive than you. But she's incredibly flatulent."

Claire gave her soft laugh -- "Hmm hmm" -- and we stared at each other while I took a long sip of Guinness.

"Do you really think I am beautiful?"
"Yes, of course. You're not looking at you right now -- I am. And trust me, you are beautiful. Sometimes all I want to do is look at you, you are that beautiful. It doesn't seem real that I'm sitting across the table from someone so beautiful."
"You're laying it on thick. Finish up your pint and we can go for a walk along your little wall."

She was talking about the remaining section of city wall, built by Henry VIII, that had once separated Portsmouth from the sea, as well as the iniquity of Old Portsmouth.

"It's not my wall. It's Henry VIII's."

I then told Claire my joke about Henry VIII not being able to bring forth a son, but he could sure as hell fortify the sea. It was a line I had stolen from my Let's Go! guide, and it was never funny to English people. If something is worded as wit, Americans will happily accept it as such, but English people got hung up on the joke's historical inaccuracy.

"Henry VIII did have a son -- Edward," they would say.

"Henry VIII did have a son -- Edward," Claire said. "Actually, I think he had a number of sons. Six I think. They just didn't live very long."

I politely excused myself to go to the toilet.

When I came back, Claire was staring at something in her hand: a small orange piece of paper. When she saw me, still across the pub, she shoved the piece of paper back into her purse.

"What were you looking at?"
"My train ticket. I was thinking of tearing it up."
"Why?"
"Because I want to be with you this weekend. I go away every weekend, and more and more I find myself spending those weekends thinking about…"

She looked down at her purse. I knew what she was saying -- I felt it, too -- but I decided to give her an easy way out. I played dumb.

"Course work?" I said. "I suspect it can be hard to study when you're at home."
"Hmm hmm," she laughed. "You. I think about you, Ben."
"I think about you, too."

I wanted to keep talking. In quick flashes my mind laid out extensive plans of how the two of us could spend the weekend. We could go up to London, or to Bath. I really liked Bath, but perhaps that's because I'm American -- she might not be at all impressed. Well, we didn't have to go if she didn't want to. Maybe we could get all dressed up and go to a proper restaurant. There was that one Italian place in Southsea that looked good. And on and on and on and on; I wanted to tell her everything -- how crazy I was for her, how badly I wanted to do some ridiculous thing like make a T-shirt that said "Ben + Claire = 4-Ever." But I stopped myself from saying any of it. I realized I would just be making things more difficult. I would be pressing her to define "us." Things had been going quite well undefined.

"But, you know, you should probably go see your parents," I said. "They're expecting you. I'm sure they miss you during the week. And you've already got your ticket -- no reason to waste that money."

Her elbows were on the table and she stared at her right hand. She bit the nail of her left ring finger.

"I don't suppose I can just not show up."

She looked up and caught me staring at her. She smiled.

"But I don't have to go for a bit. Let's go on our walk."

...

At a memorial to the first shipload of Australians, sent 13 May 1787, Claire asked if she could hold my hand.

Wait.

I buried the lede there. Claire asked if she could hold my hand -- that's the important information. Where exactly it took place is pretty much irrelevant. I mention it only to give a sense of location, so they'll know where to put up a plaque honoring me: "This rather confusing sculpture is in memory of the boat loads of criminals who colonized Australia, but more importantly, it marks the exact spot where Claire Alton asked to hold Benjamin Stout's hand."

Like putting her arm around me, this holding-hands-in-public thing was new. This, too, made me stupid happy.

"Well, yes. Of course I'll hold your hand," I said, looking around.

There were other people walking along the wall. She was holding my hand in public. Other people could see us! Holding hands! Look at us! We're holding hands! It's strange that you can have sex with someone numerous times, but the day they ask to hold your hand in public is the day your head explodes. When I felt the warmth of Claire's hand, I felt short of breath. Now, suddenly I was as terrified and filled with joy as I had been at age 13 when Beth Tagan had dared me to kiss her at the Imax theatre in Valleyfair.

You know how at the end of Empire Strikes Back Han Solo gets put into a frozen state? Imagine if somebody had slipped him a few dozen Ecstasy tablets just before -- that's how I felt. I wanted to run and scream and jump up and down and pump my fist in the air and completely ruin the moment with celebration. But I locked it all inside and tried to walk normally, as trying to prove sobriety to a police officer. I couldn't breathe. I was unable to speak.

We walked in silence, hand in hand, Claire at my right side, until just before the start of the Southsea Promenade. Claire stopped.

"When are you going to kiss me?" she asked.

Again, this was new. But I responded to it a little better. I pulled her toward me, wrapping her left hand around my waist and bringing my hand around to the small of her back. Our lips touched and again my head exploded. Again I felt my breathing break into sharp, quick breaths. She was small enough that I could wrap my right arm around her and tap my rib cage with my fingers. Her hair danced on my face in the wind. I felt the warmth of sun on my neck and took in a deep breath, feeling all my muscles go loose and then tighten in excitement. I pressed her close to me. And I don't mean to spoil the romantic image, but I was sporting a powerful erection.

Claire seemed to be thinking along the same lines; her hands slipped underneath my sweater. Her fingers were cold from the early spring air, adding to the chills running up and down my spine. We were locked in our kiss and time and the world stopped for us. After several minutes, she pulled back and put her head into my shoulder, trying to ease the sexual tension.

"Oh," she said, letting out a breath. "I'll miss my train. Oh God. I shouldn't go. I should stay the weekend."

An intelligent man would have fallen to his knees and begged her to do just that -- stay. Don't go to Bournemouth. Don't go anywhere. Ever. Don't ever let go of me. Instead, I walked her back to Harry Law Hall, where we got her bag and headed to the station.

...

"The train arriving on platform 1 is for Fratton, Cosham, Fareham, and Southampton Central," announced a man's recorded voice at Portsmouth and Southsea station.

Claire and I were on the platform, still holding each other's hand. I opened the train car door and lifted her bag inside. She stepped in and looked at me.

"I know your birthday was last week," she said, smiling. "I'm sorry I didn't give you anything."
"You gave me a lot," I said, squeezing her hand.

She leaned forward and kissed me again. A conductor stepped out from a few cars down and banged on his door. I looked at him and he pointed at me with raised eyebrows.

"On or off?" he shouted.

I finally let go of Claire's hand, shut the door, and stepped back.

"I'll be here when you get back," I said.

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