Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 14

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

"Where the hell have you been?" Jared asked.

I was walking back to Harry Law from the train station.

"Out, Mom," I said, trying to sound like a dejected teenager. "Why do you care?"
"Sorry. We can't find Andy. He wasn't in his room this morning. We've been looking for him all day."
"You check that arcade?"
"Which one?"
"The one on the pier -- near where we went swimming last night."
"If I were whacked out on a two-day drug binge, that's where I'd go."


"You want me to go, don't you?"
"Yes," Jared said. "I'm sick of this shit. Listen, Connor had the caretaker call Andy's parents and they're on their way down from Newcastle. So we gotta find our boy."

Our boy. That was the way he talked. He would also emphasize the seriousness of his statements with hand gestures that made him look as if he were frisking a bear.


I found "our boy" at the arcade, being chased away by a very angry woman wielding a broom. He was laughing as she took swipes at him, seemingly enjoying taking blows to the head. I was still several hundred yards away, walking up the promenade, when he saw me and ran full speed in my direction.

"Hello, Benjamin, my good comrade."
"Andrew, what'd you do to piss off that woman?"
"Who?" he asked, panting and showing his big teeth.
"The woman beating you with a broom."
"Ah, her. I think she's a lesbian. I've been on walkabout today, but no one seems particularly keen. Now you're here, though, we can go on walkabout together."
"Yes. Like the Aborigines. That's what they do, you see? They just get it into their heads that they are going to have an adventure and then they go and find one. It's all to do with lines, you see. I've been to Africa."
"Aborigines aren't from Africa."
"I didn't say they were."
"OK. And you're not in Africa now, are you?"
"I could be. Although, if you think you are in Africa now, I assure you this looks nothing like it. Perhaps we are both in Africa and dreaming of Portsmouth."

His face was bright red -- he had been out in the sun all day. His hair was messed and I could see caked, dried blood in his nose. At least he was fully clothed. He needed to get out of the sun but I was immediately happy he had rejected my offer to go into a pub. We would surely have been kicked out and I had already had enough pub fun with Andrew the night before. We decided instead to go to Victoria Park. By "we decided" I mean to say that Andrew announced that's where he was going and I chased along after him.

If I were to re-create Andrew in a movie, I would insist the actor walk like Groucho Marx. Andrew didn't actually walk this way, but something about his upright and stiff gait portrayed the same sort of wandering madness. His face seemed to be warning people that even he did not know where he was going, so they should give him wide berth. And he moved fast. I had to jog to keep up with him.

"Andrew, what did you take yesterday?"
"What drug did you take? Or drugs? You're on something right now, aren't you?"
"I'm not, not, not, not, not on drugs," he said, laughing.

As it turns out, he was telling the truth. I wouldn't learn this until later, but Andrew had, in fact, lost his mind. And he had, in fact, been to Africa. The two were connected. Andrew's family had traveled to the African continent the summer before, fulfilling his childhood dream of going on safari. It was an exotic trip that required exotic vaccinations, such as the one used to prevent malaria. In one of life's notoriously cruel turns, Andrew became a statistic -- one of the very rare cases in which the malaria vaccine sparked a serious and lasting side-effect. In Andrew's case, the side-effect was manic depression. The vaccine permanently altered his brain chemistry.

His condition was so cruelly severe he didn't just swing from happy to miserable but would lose touch of reality if not on medication. That medication was lithium, about which Kurt Cobain so famously sang. Cobain's song, though, neglected to mention that the major problem with lithium is that it makes you sleepy. That's good if you've got a long flight to Bangladesh, but not so good when you've got a university project due in a few weeks. So, Andrew had chosen to skip a dosage or two. He had, indeed, not taken any drugs -- including those prescribed to him -- and slowly reality had slipped from his grasp.

Now he was speed-walking through traffic and clambering over the road barrier in the middle of Winston Churchill Road. I stood at the crosswalk and shouted at him to stop, but refused to follow. I suspected that Pompey drivers might tolerate one lunatic in their path, but they would take aim at the second.

I caught up with him in front of O'Neill's pub, where I could look up and see Harry Law Hall. I'd like to say that at that point I was smart enough to steer him back home, where we could keep him out of trouble until his parents arrived. But I didn't. I was amused by what I perceived to be Andrew's drugged-out haze. I had been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac at the time, and the idea of following around a nutcase seemed cool to me (damn you, Jean-Louis Lebris).

Andrew and I zipped across Guildhall Square, past the war memorial, and through into Victoria Park. The park had once been voted "Best in Britain." I actually bragged about this fact in letters home. I was easily impressed. I was filled with wonder that it could earn such a distinction. Portsmouth alone has some 67 parks and open spaces -- think of how many there are in the whole of Britain. Yet, somebody, at some point in time had sat in Victoria Park and thought: "This is it. This is the best park in the country."

Winston Churchill famously said: "Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash."

Churchill's line is one that a number of tourist books use when they write their one or two paragraphs about Portsmouth. But clearly it is inappropriate. The story of Pompey is rum, sodomy, the lash, and the BEST DAMN PARK IN THE WHOLE OF BRITAIN!

I forget now which year Victoria Park earned its distinction, but there is a sign that tells visitors all about it, along with a series of monuments to just about anyone and anything. There are monuments to groups of people who died of cholera in the early 20th century, plaques dedicated to ill-fated lifeboat crews, and statues of people for whom a historical reference cannot be found. It's been a while since I last visited the park -- there may now be a memorial to Crazy Andrew and His American Friend.

"I am quite fascinated by black people," Andrew said. We were sitting on a bench under a large, flowering tree. "They just seem to know things more than we do. They are more in touch with the earth. More a part of it. Especially your American black people. Have you noticed they can wear anything? You can wear a clock around your neck if you are a black man. Or pull one leg of your track suit up to your knee. Or wear your cap back to front. Or do anything you like, really. And no one points at you and says, 'You look foolish.' I wear normal clothes and they do that to me all the time. It must be something in their skin."
"I suppose. You know what I dislike about Americans? You fit in. You fit in here better than I do. How is that fair? You don't even speak English."
"We speak English, Andrew."
"No. No, you do not."
"If I don't speak English, how can you understand me right now?"
"I am incredibly intelligent. I have that little fish in my ear. You do not speak English. English-English -- that's what I am speaking to you right now. You -- I do not know. I do not know what language you speak. It is not English. English-English -- that is what I speak. Girls say I mumble. They will speak nonsense to you but will not speak to me. I'm speaking English-English and they won't speak to me."
"I think it may have something to do with your approach, Andy," I said. "Like last night -- you can't just walk up to a girl and start snogging."
"Why not? I've seen you do it."
"You've got me speaking languages I don't speak and doing things I don't do. Who am I, Andrew? What's my name?" I said, waving my hand in front of his face.
"Ben. Ben. Benny Hill. Ben in the cat house. That spells 'bitch,'" he said, giggling in a high-pitch voice. "You snogged that bird in the red dress at O'Hagan's."

He had me there. In fairness, I have absolutely no recollection of such an event. But he was telling the truth.


I had actually been OK for the first few nights after Allison dumped me. With the holiday still on there wasn't much to do, but I developed a little daily routine. I would wake up at 7 a.m. and listen to the Radio 1 Breakfast Show whilst lying in bed. When the show was over, I would shower, get dressed, and walk to the news agent to buy a Toffee Crisp and The Guardian. I would return to the warmth of my room, eat my candy bar with tea, and read the paper. Then I'd spend an hour staring at something: the construction scaffolding across the way, a wall, American Foreign Policy in the Nuclear Age by Cecil V. Crabb Jr. -- all held equal interest. Then I would make lunch.

After lunch I'd go for a walk through town centre, or down to Southsea, or over to the Hard; anywhere there were people to watch. I would stop into a pub or two along the way to warm up. According to student legend, Portsmouth has more pubs per square mile than any other city in England -- there were six within a one-minute walk of Harry Law Hall. After my stroll/one-man pub crawl, I would return to halls, fix myself dinner, spend another hour or two staring at something, then lie in bed and listen to Radio 4 until midnight.

This was a nice pattern of living that held up until the fourth day, when the something I chose to spend the evening staring at happened to be a picture of Allison holding a sunflower and smiling, her hair dancing in the wind.

"Especially if you're alone tonight, we wish you a safe and peaceful goodnight," the presenter said as Radio 4 signed off the air for the evening.

I clicked on the light, sat up in bed, fished the picture of Allison out of the trash bin, broke the seal on a bottle of Smirnoff and poured myself a shot. I left the radio on and took my last sip of vodka directly from the bottle in toast to "Prayer for the Day," five hours later. Then, weakened by heartbreak and Russian booze, I reached for Elvis' Aloha from Hawaii album. The alcohol had pretty much done away with my motor skills and I pressed my face close to the stereo to read track numbers as I skipped forward to "An American Trilogy."

When I was 4 years old, I saw a TV program about reincarnation. Most of it was lost on me, but the element that resonated most in my preschool mind was the idea that I could have been someone famous in a previous life. I decided I had formerly been Elvis Presley. I spent the next several weeks sitting in front of my dad's stereo, listening to his Elvis records and perfecting my speech pattern to mimic how I thought I had sounded before being reborn into a small industrial Texas town. Eventually, my father grew concerned by my behavior and informed me that Elvis had died in 1977 -- a year after I was born -- so it was impossible for The King and me to be one in the same. I gave up on reincarnation, but Presley's music stayed with me. I turn to it most in hard times.

"An American Trilogy" is my song of last resort -- a nuclear weapon for the soul. I listen to it when I need to fight off the urge to put rocks in my pockets and find the nearest river. Sure, the song is over the top, and, yes, I know it was supposed to have been ironic but Elvis didn't get it. I don't care. When he strains to sing "Glory, glory halleluiah," and that bass trombone hits, oh, man, there's something wrong with you if you don't start crying.  

I collapsed into the chair at my desk and was shaking as Elvis' voice went soft.

"...all my trials, Lord, soon will be over."

With tears streaming, I wrote a 15-page letter to Allison to let her know she had completely destroyed me as a person. She had broken me. And I wanted her to feel like shit about it. If the guilt caused by my letter didn't drive her to take her own life, I was certain she would come crawling to my door and beg me to take her back.

I spent the next few weeks in varying states of minimal sobriety. I was trying to numb myself to the pain of losing Allison, but only making things worse. Thoughts of her would smother me like a lead blanket. That's a stupid simile, and inaccurate -- what I felt was more immense, like being trapped in tectonic plates of frustration and grief.

I had planned my whole life around the assumption that Allison would always be a part of it. In the narrow thought tunnels of drunkenness, the absence of Allison in my future meant the absence of a future. I was like those people who refuse to believe in evolution because if one part of the Bible is wrong, the whole thing is wrong. I could not see myself finishing university because Allison would not be at the graduation. I would never get a job because Allison wouldn't be there to come home to. No Allison, no life.

But you have to exist somewhere, so I existed in Portsmouth -- the pubs and nightclubs of Portsmouth, usually. For the most part, I have no real recollection of that time. I remember little flashes, and I learned about some other things second hand. That month is littered with tales of drunken exploits: the time I drank two bottles of Wild Turkey and wandered into a Japanese girl's room to vomit on her bed; the time I picked a fight with a bloke three times my size; the time I found an office chair in a London alleyway and insisted upon dragging it back (via Tube, train and bus) to Portsmouth; the time I passed out on the toilet floor of the student pub; the time I decided everyone from Canada was my nemesis; and, of course, the time I made out with the girl in a red dress. But again, I don't actually remember doing that.

I remember going to O'Hagan's that night. I remember smoking several of Connor's cigarettes, and I remember lying on the concrete outside Harry Law Hall. I had only worn a T-shirt down to the pub and had fallen to the ground in such a way that the shirt was midway up my torso. I remember feeling the cold of the pavement in the small of my back and shivering, but not being able to move. I remember that a group of blokes carried me up to my room and all I could do was laugh as they accidentally ran me into walls. I remember, also, that just before going out that night, I received a thick envelope in the post from Allison.

"This is it," I thought. "This is her response to my letter; sure to be filled with her overwhelming remorse and pleas for forgiveness!"

Instead, it was 15 pages of scribble, none of it coming close to so much as forming a single legible word. I recognized the graph paper as my own. In blue marker, atop the first page, was a note in Allison's handwriting: "Ben, what is this supposed to mean?"

In my drunkenness I had sent her pages and pages of completely unreadable wobbly lines and dots. And I had no idea what it meant, either. Even if I hadn't been drunk, my memory is crap -- I had allowed myself to remember it as a brilliant essay on the state of my insurmountable grief, but I didn't actually remember what it said.

So, I was well on my way to being able to write another 15 pages of nonsense when I reportedly met the red dress girl. According to Connor, he had chased me away from his table after I smoked all his cigarettes. I found a spot in the corner and struck up a conversation with the red dress girl and her very large boyfriend. After some time, the red dress girl had become very touchy-feely with me and somehow managed to convince the boyfriend to go and get us all curry from a nearby takeaway. As soon as he left, the girl in the red dress and I locked in passionate embrace and the exact location of each other's hands could not be determined.

There are conflicting reports as to how things ended, but I know that the next morning I woke up with about two dozen scraps of paper in my pockets (still a mystery, that), but no red dress girl by my side.


"I deserved a good kicking for that, Andrew."

He was standing halfway in a shrub now. I was pretty sure he was urinating, but he seemed to be moving around far too much.

"She fed you. Did you know that? She sat you up and fed you," he said.
"I had heard that."
"You're a bastard that you can get away with that," he said. "Connor and you and Jared -- you can get away with anything because you're American."
"It's not all like that, though, Andrew. When Allison dumped me I went through some shit times. That's just one good story out of a dozen bad ones. Most nights I just cried like a pussy."

You have to use phrases like "cried like a pussy" when talking to men. You can't just admit you were torn up, that it felt as if your rib cage had been cracked open and your heart ripped out, that you had been left feeling empty and hollow and the idea of even having to live until next Tuesday was terrifying. You have to make it sound like you're upset at yourself for having ever cared about the girl, in the same way you'd be upset at paying someone $200 to replace spark plugs that you could have put in yourself for $12.

"I drank so much during that time that I have probably screwed up my body for life," I said. "It was not a happy time, man. I was really shattered over her."
"My pee looks like a fine single malt scotch. Care to have a look?"
"This girl, this is the ginger one? The one you were drinking over? She had ginger hair, yeah?"
"Allison. Yeah, she had red hair."
"Is it true what they say about ginger birds? You know, down there?"

I had been asked this question a lot. The idea that pubic hair can be some other color than brown or dark brown captivates the male imagination. The vaginas of red heads hold a mythological status among men, and I had been to the Promised Land. Other men may become world leaders, make millions of dollars or even become prophets of the Lord, but I have seen and touched the vagina of a red-haired girl.

"Yeah, it's the same color as up top," I said. "I think the popular phrase is 'fire crotch.' It was more of a wildfire, really -- she didn't shave."
"Was she supposed to shave? Oh, am I supposed to shave? Do you shave your pubic hair, Benjamin? Is this what Americans do -- shave their pubic hair? Is this how you pass the time?"
"No. I don't shave. And she doesn't have to; it's just nice if she does. It makes it easier if you're going to be doing any work down there, know what I mean?"

He stared at me. He didn't know what I meant.

"I had sex in the front seat of a Fiat," he said. "That was my first time. When I was 16 years old. It was terrifying and uncomfortable. I still get nightmares about it. I was so nervous that I am certain I did it wrong. I'm rather sure she was completely disappointed. These trees are too loud."


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