Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Way Forward: Chapter 19

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

A breeze played with the drapes, allowing flashes of bright morning sunshine to dance on our naked skin. Claire lay on top of me, resting her head on my chest. I kissed the top of her head and played with the curls of her hair. We had just had incredibly good sex.
There are certain happy moments in life when your brain decides it wants to absorb everything. I closed my eyes and took in the world through my other senses.

I heard a car move through the side street below, the wind pushing open the drapes, Claire's breathing, the faraway chimes of the Guildhall clock marking the quarter hour, my Winnie the Pooh watch ticking on my nightstand and the quiet roar of a city morning.
I felt the comfort of Claire's weight -- the two of us melting into each other -- and her heartbeat against my stomach, the light touch of her eyelashes against my chest, the texture of the bed sheets, the softness of her skin, the cool of the morning setting lightly on my body and the kisses of wind that pushed through my tiny room's window.
The taste of her cinnamon mouthwash and perfume lingered on my breath.
The fresh, clean smell of the late-May air mixed with cinnamon and the sweetness of Claire's perfume. I took in a long, deep breath through my nose and it sent electricity through the early-morning/post-sex haze in my brain. I drew in breath until my lungs were stretched. It felt as if they were filled with pure oxygen.

I moved my hands to the small of Claire's back, then moved my right hand along the rise of her rear. It's a very laddish thing to say she had a nice ass, but she did. You know those movies where a woman walks by and all the men fall out of their chairs? Claire had an ass like that. It was perfectly rounded and a pleasure to behold. If she wore the right pair of jeans, I would find excuses to stay a step or two behind her when we walked around town. Lying in bed with her now, I felt the smoothness of her skin and the curve of her body as it sloped from her perfect ass to the small of her back. I ran my fingers feather-like up her spine and she moaned in approval.
I felt her head lift from my chest. I opened my eyes to look at her. Her face had that sort of quality that made me want to reach out and steal things to give to her. She was ridiculously beautiful, the kind of woman for whom you would gladly make a fool of yourself. She rested her chin on her hands and looked at me with pale-blue eyes and smiled. She had a coy smile that came from the right side of her mouth. She had soft lips and freckles across the bridge of her nose, which you could only see up close. Her blonde curls fell in strands across her face.
"That was alright," she said.
"Go on, then."
"Say what you always say."

I played dumb.

"'What are you thinking?' You always ask that after we shag. And the one time I actually have an answer, you're not going to ask?"

I did always ask that. I had been about to ask her again, she had simply beaten me to it. It was nervous habit. Claire laughed and smiled and talked and talked and talked, but she still seemed mysterious to me. I would ask her what she was thinking in an attempt to quiet my fears, but usually she would respond with, "I don't know," or "Why do you ask?"

I once read that if you work for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, they teach you how to hold a conversation without ever really giving away any information. Perhaps Claire was a member of a British intelligence organization. Claire Alton; super spy. It would explain why I felt I was missing out on something. That feeling always seemed strongest after we had sex. Perhaps that's just when I was the least self-confident -- lower levels of testosterone and all that.

"So, what are you thinking?"
"Hmm, hmm -- I'm not sure I want to tell you now."
"Oh, but you've built it up."
"Come on."
"I'm having your child."
My eyes went wide. I stopped breathing. She let me suffer for about five seconds then burst into laughter. She put her hands to my cheeks and kissed me.

"Darling, you're so cute when you're terrified."

She kissed me again. It was a deep, breath-stuttering kiss. She let out a light sigh. Her hair fell into my face, blocking out the rest of the world. I took in the cinnamon and perfume and the warmth of her breath. I was lost in her. The universe existed only between the two of us. I felt like a child who had made a fort out of couch cushions and pillows, sitting inside with my heart skipping in the excitement of my safe little place. Yes, I've just compared a naked woman to a pillow fort. I'm sure it speaks of deep psychological trauma, but it made me happy. I think it made Claire happy, too. She finished her kiss and stayed in our self-created cocoon.

"Do you know any other languages?"

Her lips were touching mine as she spoke.

"That's what I was thinking. Not very exciting, really. I was just wondering whether you know any other languages. I should think it would be rather sexy for you to speak to me in another language."
"Oh. No. I mean, I know a little bit of Spanish, but mostly I would be able to ask you what you had eaten for lunch and whether you enjoyed it. And I can book a hotel room. Nothing very sexy, though," I said. "I can fake a London accent."
"How would that be sexy, darling? Don't you know any French?"
"All that time you spent in France, and you didn't pick up any French?"
"Not really. The French I know can pretty much be used in a single sentence: 'Bonjour, monsieur. Je voudrais aller à la gare, si vous plais. Merci beaucoup.' It means: 'Hello, mister. I would like to go to the train station, please. Thanks.' And, while we were on our way to the station, I could ask him if I could speak to you: 'Je parler à Claire? Non? Merci.' If it turns you on for me to ask you to take me to the train station, I can do that. Take me to the train station, Claire. Take me to the train station all night long."
"Hmm, hmm. That's all you know?"
"Oui. Well, all that and 'oui.'"
"I took French for A levels. I'll teach you some more: Je t'aime. Do you know that one?"
"Nope. What's it mean?"
"It means I like you, Benjamin Stout."

She kissed me.

"Quite a lot."

She kissed me again.

"I like you, too," I said.


I knew what it meant.

Everybody knows what it means.

I had decided to play dumb. When in doubt, play dumb -- it worked for Colombo. His playing dumb was always seen a stroke of genius. Why not do the same when a woman says "Je t'aime" to you?

She also knew exactly what it meant. She had to. I doubt you would get very far as a British secret agent without knowing what "Je t'aime" means. And while I am not a product of the British school system, I am sure they, too, spent most of their teenage years parsing the difference between liking someone, like-liking someone, and loving them. Claire had told me she loved me, and I wasn't really sure how to respond to that.

Standing in the shower, letting the water tap against the top of my head and run down my face, I tried to assess this new fact about my world. It fit with Claire's secret-agent persona that she had chosen to tell me she loved me in a different language. With the exception of sex, she was rarely direct. She operated on a need-to-know basis. Definition leads to clarification. Claire had defined our relationship slowly and then clarified it with subtlety over the weeks and months. It was a little thing when she started waiting for me to open doors for her. It was a little thing when she started wearing one perfume over another because she knew it drove me crazy. It was a little thing when she started calling me "my Ben." But each thing revealed a whole new understanding of our relationship. I was hers. It wasn't odd; it just offered a new clarity to my universe with her. It was like finally seeing the grass beneath my feet -- I had suspected it was there, I had felt it, but I hadn't chosen to press the issue. I had suspected there was love. I had felt it. Now it had been (partially) revealed.

I tried to think seriously about love, which is a very stupid thing to do. Love just is. You can't analyze it into being. You can't sit and logically ponder love, because love is beyond the capacity of logical human ponderance. You can think about the times and dates and places and people and things that stand on the periphery of love, and whether you want to accept or deny it, but trying to think about love itself is waste of time. It is or it isn't. To that end, I had accomplished absolutely nothing by the time I stepped out of the shower.

Claire, meanwhile, had put on a CD. She was wearing the bed sheet and dancing in happy flowing sex angel circles to "Place Your Hands" by Reef. She had pushed back the drapes; the room was filled with the smell and warmth of morning sun. She looked at me, smiled, and moved her erotic dancing toward me with open arms, her athletic, naked body highlighted by the white bed sheet. She let the sheet fall to the floor, then, pulling away my towel, she pressed her nakedness to mine, and kissed my collar bone, then my chest and then my stomach as she danced.

Of course, like any right-thinking male, I had had this sort of fantasy thousands of times. Beer commercials and music videos and male magazines are built on what was now taking place in my bedroom. But I had never actually expected to be living it, so I had never developed a legitimate plan of action. In a porn film, some of her friends would have shown up and we would have had ridiculous and awkward sex in all sorts of acrobatic and unsatisfying positions. In a cartoon, I would have hit myself in the head with a hammer and steam would have come out of my ears. In real life, of course I was aroused, but I was paralyzed. Despite having dreamed about this sort of thing since I was 13 years old, I had completely failed to come up with a plan for dealing with such a contingency. Instead, I carried on with what I had been thinking about in the shower.

"Perhaps I'll skip the trip to Wales this weekend," I said.

Claire was straddling my leg as if it were a stripper pole. She clawed at my stomach and kissed my hip.

"With your canoe club? Oh, but darling, you should definitely go," she said.
"I don't know. I mean, this is one of the few weekends you'll be staying in Pompey and I'm heading out of town. It's just…"

Why was I carrying on with this conversation? What fool discusses weekend plans when there is A NAKED WOMAN ON HIS LEG?! She started grinding her way back up, kissing my stomach and nibbling just below my rib cage. In my head I was hearing the same sort of buzzing noise an amp makes before you plug in a guitar. I was being tortured by my inaction.

"I'm staying here for revising," she said. "My term ends early and I have a large paper due. You would only distract me."

"Are you sure? It's just that things are… just… going so well. I thought maybe -- I don't know -- I thought maybe I should stay."

She wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me, pushing her tongue into my mouth and running her fingers in my hair. She started pulling me toward the bed.

"I'll be here when you get back, darling," she said. "Right now, fancy a shag?"


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Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Way Forward: Chapter 18

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

I spun onto Andrew and cinched his right arm behind him. I tightened the hold to the extent that the back of his hand touched between his shoulder blades and I hooked my left arm around his neck. I was able to get him sloppily to his feet by lifting him up at the throat, I then effectively threw him down the stairs and hustled him back toward Harry Law Hall. I was supporting my weight on him, keeping my left leg as far from danger as I could, so I had to steer him through town by kicking the backs of his legs and locking my grip.
We went spinning through city centre in a fit of violence. We were a two-man version of the Tasmanian devil from Bugs Bunny cartoons.

"I see. You're the big American. You think you're fucking Rambo, do you?"
"Shut the fuck up. We're going home."
"I hate you. You fucking bastard! You're so hard, huh? You're going to kick my ass? You fucking wanker! Fuck off!"
"Shut up! I have no problem with beating the shit out of you, Andrew. I will choke you out."

This went on for every step home -- him calling me Rambo and me making threats I had picked up from professional wrestling. Occasionally I would relock my grip on him and he would leap into the air in an effort to avoid the pain. To be honest, I'm surprised I didn't separate his shoulder, I was trying to. And yet not one person expressed even the slightest concern about the fact that a mobile public assault was taking place. It really says something about a town when you can march someone through a major public thoroughfare, their arm twisted up behind their back, the both of you screaming obscenities, and no one says a word. Portsmouth is that kind of town. How can you not love Portsmouth?

The fight carried through city centre, through Guildhall Square, into Harry Law Hall, into the elevator, up to the third floor and down the hall to the Andrew's kitchen. I opened the door and shoved him in. We were greeted by Jared, Connor, and Andrew's parents. Andrew and I were both disheveled and breathing heavy. His nose had started bleeding again. Andrew went instantly calm upon seeing his parents. I let go of him and fell back against a counter, suddenly feeling again the pain in my knee.

"Hello Mum. Hello Dad. Benjamin and I have just been having sex."    
"We did not have sex, Andrew."


I returned £247 of Andrew's money to his parents, as well as Take That's greatest hits CD and the Spice Girls' Spice. I decided to keep The Best Irish Album in the World… Ever, as payment for saving Andrew's life. It was, in fact, not the best Irish album in the world, ever. It was not the best anything in the world, ever. There's a lesson in that, I think.

His parents told me the whole story of Africa and Andrew's manic depression and said they were taking him back to Newcastle to be committed to a mental hospital. They had been through this sort of thing before and figured that it would take a while to get him back to normal. It made me sad. He wasn't a drug addict but someone whom fate had been cruel to. Jared, Connor, several other people from the floor, and I escorted the Bern family out to their little red car and said our final goodbyes figuring we'd never see Andrew again.

A few weeks later, his parents brought him back to Pompey to visit for the day and collect the last of his things. He was doing a little better and was going to be allowed to complete his semester's coursework while up in Newcastle.

To keep him from feeling overwhelmed, Andrew's parents asked that we reintroduce ourselves to him slowly. They sat him in his old kitchen and asked that we come in one at a time. I was the last person to walk into the kitchen.

"Do you remember Benjamin?" his mother asked as I stepped in.
"Course I do. Hello, Benny. Remember when we had sex?"
"We did not have sex, Andrew."


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Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Way Forward: Chapter 17

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

"We are not buying a camera, Andrew!" I was shouting as I limped up Commercial Road.

He shot ahead of me and disappeared into the crowd when I got stuck waiting for the Station Street crosswalk. Once I crossed, I caught sight of him again, far up ahead on the pedestrian section of the road, leaving a cash machine.

"No cameras!"

A woman to my left jump-stepped away slightly, assuming the limping man next to her was just another lunatic shouting random things in the city centre. That happens a lot in Portsmouth -- such types are the bulk of supporters of Portsmouth Football Club. I caught up with Andrew as he was walking out of Dixons, smiling, with a plastic bag in his hand.

"You did not just buy a camera."
"Of course I did," said Andrew.

He was distracted and looking around at all the shops.

"You've got to take it back."
"Why?" he said, not looking at me.
"You don't need a camera. How much did this cost?"

Something was definitely wrong. Prior to losing his mind, Andrew had been one of the tightest people I had ever met. If you ate food at a pub, he would stare at it and ask if you were finished until you gave in and let him clean your plate. He only drank the cheapest alcohol he could find -- Tesco bitter, usually. Most of the time when we went to the pub, he would stock his jacket with beer cans, buy a half pint at the bar, and spend the rest of the night refilling the glass from his jacket. Andrew was not the sort of person to wander into Dixons and purchase the first £60 camera he could get his hands on.

"No. No. You've got to take this back."
"What fun is there in that?"
"You've got to take it back, man. Really."

He handed me the Dixons bag as if it were filled with dog shit.

"You take it back," he said, and walked away.

I did take it back. The shop assistant said she had suspected there was something wrong with the man she had sold a camera to in record time and had expected it to be returned.

Andrew was nowhere to be seen when I got out of the electronics shop. I limped from shop to shop and caught up with him again as he was coming out of H&M with a box of shoes -- £110. Again I insisted he take them back. Again he refused and handed the bag to me in disgust. Again I sought a refund. This pattern repeated itself at W.H. Smith, and Woolworth's. He would just be leaving a store as I finished returning goods to the previous shop.

Outside of Woolworth's I sat down to have a look at my knee. I gently pulled up my trouser leg and saw that blood had run down into my sock. My knee was too tender to pull the trouser leg all the way up, so I could not yet see the purple two-inch L-shaped divot taken out the front, black with grit and soaked with blood. It wouldn't have done me any good to look at it right away, anyway. I could lightly touch it and feel that it was swollen up -- that was enough.
I gingerly let the trouser leg back down and took a deep breath. The fun of hanging around a guy on a drug high had worn off. It wasn't like a Kerouac novel at all. In movies and books, crazy people are always portrayed as unwitting sages who offer wacky but oh-so-true pieces of wisdom. Bullshit. They are, in fact, a pain in the ass. If crazy people were as cool and fun as we always portray them to be, we wouldn't lock them away. I needed to get Andrew back to the halls. He walked up to me.

"I'm going to HMV next, would you like anything?"
"Yes. Buy me the best Irish album in the world, ever."

I said that as a delay tactic, hoping to slow him down by having him search for something ridiculous. I had no idea there is, in fact, a 38-track double CD compilation titled The Best Irish Album in the World… Ever. Andrew had bought it by the time I caught up to him -- along with CDs by the Spice Girls and Take That.

"There is something seriously wrong with you," I said as I examined his musical selection. "The Spice Girls, Andrew?"
"Oh, yes. They're brilliant." Then he started singing: "So tell me what you want what you really, really want."
"I want you to shut up, Andrew."
"I'll tell you what I want what I really, really want."
"I want you to shut up."
"I wanna..."
"Shut up."
"I wanna..."
"Shut up."
"I really, really, really wanna..."
"Shut the fuck up, Andrew," I said, grabbing his shirt.
"No. It's 'zig-ah-zig-ah.'"

I started walking into HMV to repeat the return process but changed my mind when I saw Andrew heading toward the open market area. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday stalls would line Charlotte Street, along the southern edge of the otherwise abandoned Tricorn Centre (you were wondering when it would show up, weren't you?). I realized the stall owners would not tolerate his strangeness with the same kindness he had received in the shops -- they'd just thump him, and then thump me for asking for his money back. I stuffed the CDs in my back pocket and limped after Andrew as fast as I could.

Sure enough, he stole an orange.

"He's on drugs, he's on drugs!" I shouted to the stall owner who was coming around to separate Andrew's head from his body.

The stall owner jogged a few more steps for good measure and then decided to let me deal with it.

"You had better get hold of him," he growled as I limped past.
"Working on it."

Andrew and I started an odd, slowly accelerating chase. I tried to limp my way to catch up, but he walked faster, and then broke into a jog, and then into a run. We tore through the market and the abandoned ground floor area of the Tricorn. As we came out onto Commercial Road again, I was out of breath and my leg was screaming in pain. The knee had stiffened up and was almost impossible to bend, making my run look like a flailing Morris dance. Andrew turned again, ran through the ground floor of the Tricorn's car park and into a stairwell.

When I saw him break for the stairwell, I started screaming: "Come here, Andrew! Come back here! Don't! Don't!"

Don't jump.

I had been subjected to far too many anti-drug films in school -- the ones where Johnny smokes his first marijuana cigarette and makes a bee-line for the tallest building in town. In those films, Johnny's girlfriend always shows up just in time to shout "Noooooooooooo!" as he swan dives into the pavement, convinced that can fly, man. I was not a girl in a blue-jean jacket with my hair pulled back in a pony tail, and our chase was absent a soundtrack by The Jets, but I felt myself now living the role. Andrew was headed for the highest level of the car park.

I scrambled up the steps one-legged -- taking them three at a time with my right leg and then bringing my ailing left leg up level, doing my best not to bend it. Putting all the strain of the chase on only one leg and pulling myself up the handrail, I was able to tumble up the cramped and filthy stairwell at a pretty good pace, occasionally catching a glimpse of Andrew's feet as he ran ahead. My right thigh muscles were burning as I rounded the fourth story and my lungs were fighting for air. At the top, Andrew was already peering over the edge of the barrier wall.

"Just hold on a second. We've gotta get back home, Andy."

In my head, I was trying to look calm. But I was drenched in sweat and tilting my head back trying to take a full breath. My knee was radiating pain and I was wincing with every step.

Andrew hopped up onto the wall and looked down, then looked at me.

"Just hold on a second. Goddamn it, Andy."

I saw his feet lift into the air.

I will avoid unnecessary suspense and tell you he did not die -- a fact that is somewhat amazing to me. I have since tried to recreate my speed and it is impossible, even on good legs. The whole mechanics of what I did does not actually work. And I would tell you that what I did could not be physically done had I not been the one to do it.

What I did was close the 15-foot gap between me and Andrew in light speed. I jumped up onto the barrier, wrapped my arms around his waist from behind and pushed off the wall, bringing the both of us crashing back onto the car park's top floor. From my childhood years of watching professional wrestling, I can tell you that I hit Andrew with a spinning belly-to-back suplex; once I pushed off the wall, I turned the both of us in the air, so Andrew landed facing away from the barrier. He stuck out his arms and landed on all fours. If I had not been so focused on keeping a tight grip on his waist, I might have landed a little better. Instead, I broke my fall again with my left knee.

The pain that shot through my leg was so intense and explosive that I was not able to scream any obscenities. I just screamed. Still gripping Andrew, I rolled onto my back, bringing him onto my stomach, and lifted up my knee -- growling through clenched teeth. Andrew appeared temporarily fazed by my reaction to the pain.

After a few seconds of thought he asked: "Ben, did we just have sex?"

"The hell? No, we did not just have sex, Andrew."

I let him roll off me, keeping a grip on his belt, and the two of us lay for a moment in a patch of oil and cigarette butts, catching our breath. Andrew tried to get up but my grip on his belt kept him seated. Wordlessly, he tried again a few times to pull away while I watched, giving him a deadpan expression that displayed the futility of what he was doing. I'll sometimes antagonize my nephews in the same way -- holding their shirt and watching them grow increasingly frustrated as they fail to escape. It's kind of cute. Andrew wasn't cute, but he was flailing in the same sort of way and making whining little grunting sounds.

He grunted and pulled again, pushing against my ribs.

"Calm down," I said.

He grunted and pulled again, this time kicking my left knee.

And I snapped. 


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Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Way Forward: Chapter 16

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

There were bits of grass in Andrew's hair. His black T-shirt was stretched and had patches of dirt; the left shoulder highlighted a field of dandruff. His cheeks were ruddy and his lips were both chapped from the sun and wet from drooling as he laughed. He was a mess. With my right hand I swatted a few pieces of lawn out of his hair and tried to pat away some of the dandruff in the same motion. I was trying to do it in a manly way, so it was more of a haymaker slap.

"Wipe your face, kid."
"Don't hit me," Andrew said, reeling.

His sudden movement caused me to lose my balance as I brought my left arm up for defense. He attempted to swing at me, but I blocked it with my right arm.

"Calm down. I was only getting some shit out of your hair," I said, again swatting the back of his head but with a bit more force.
"Don't bloody hit me!" he shouted, and shoved me in the ribs.

They say Spaniards are good lovers and that Britons have a good sense of humor; Americans are good at violence. I caught Andrews's wrist and twisted his arm.

"I don't know what your fucking problem is, Andy, but if you're trying to start something with me, you know that's a shit idea. OK? You will lose. I will throw your ass down these fucking steps."

Andrew fell back, jerking his hand free and sulked. The two of us finished our second beers in silence. The third beers went the same way. As I opened my fourth beer, I tapped his knee with mine and said: "Didn't mean to hit ya, Andy."

I watched as four early-teenage boys showed up at the foot of the steps carrying the red pallets used as bread trays in Tesco or Sainsbury's -- flat pieces of sturdy plastic, about 2 feet by 3 feet, with handles at each side. By the boys' demeanor, the pallets were stolen (Why wouldn't they be stolen? What teenage boy would purchase a plastic bread tray?). They had decided to use the pallets as sleds, launching themselves from the midway point of the Guildhall steps.

To do this, they steadied themselves on a step and set the pallet level. A rider's legs would be apart and on the steps, bracing him against any forward movement. Once the boy had worked up the courage, with one quick move he would bring his legs up onto the pallet and hurl down the steps at terrifying speed. The real trick appeared to be leaning back enough that the lip of the pallet didn't catch on each consecutive step. It was incredibly unsafe. If a rider were to put too much weight forward, the pallet would catch and launch them like a tossed Muppet to the pavement of Guildhall Square. It was the sort of outright stupid and preposterously bad idea that only a group of teenage boys can think up. They were sure to end up in hospital.

I had to try it.

I sipped my beer and tried to look calm. I tried to get Andrew to pressure me into doing it. If a guy wants to do something stupid, he tries to get his friends to dare him into doing it. He thinks that being dared into doing something will somehow absolve him of any personal responsibility for the act. This lack of accountability, in turn, will somehow make him impervious to any horrendous consequences.

"Those kids are weak," I said, nudging Andrew. "They should go from the top step, not just the middle."

The correct answer, of course, "If you think it's so easy, why don't you try it?"

But Andrew wasn't keen. Instead he said: "It looks terribly dangerous. And I'm sure it will get them arrested."

So I was left to play the peer pressure game with myself: You haven't got the balls; put up or shut up; win or go home; it's gut-check time; do or do not, there is no try. I was rocking back and forth and gulping beer, working up the courage. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Andrew start to pull at his hair.

"Oh God," he said. "I'm just so tired of this I have got to…"

He got up.

"Where are you going?"
"I've just got to get going. We've been sitting here for so long, and how much of our lives have been lost? It's just slipping away. We've got to do something. The tough go shopping. My mum says that. I should go shopping."
"Ah, man. OK. First let me have a go at this sledding."

I drank down the last of my beer and went to talk with one of the boys.


Andrew moved to stand impatiently at the bottom of the steps while I asked one of the boys if I could use his sled. With Andrew waiting, I only had one chance to make a sledding attempt, so it had to be big. The beer was swirling my ego to unsafe levels: I'm an American, goddamn it; we don't sled from middle steps. The boys gave me devious cheers as I hiked to the top step. Each of them took a position for best viewing of the event. Two of the boys gathered at the bottom of the steps with Andrew, one of the boys opted for an on-the-course vantage point and stayed at the middle, and the fourth boy -- whose pallet I had borrowed -- followed me to the top.

Here was my plan: instead of balancing the pallet on a step, I was going to set it out on the level area at the top of the stairs and make sure I was properly situated before making my descent. I was bigger and drunker than the kids, so the trick of quickly bringing in my legs as the pallet was moving would require too much coordination. Once I was properly set, I would scoot off the ledge and quickly lean back. Then I would glide to the bottom of the steps with such finesse that a statue would be erected in my honor and step-sledding would become an Olympic sport.

From the top of the stairs, there appeared to be considerably more steps than I had previously supposed -- about 700,000 of them, I now felt -- dropping away from the Guildhall entrance at a roughly 50-degree angle.

"Oh, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior on a pogo stick, those are a lot of steps."
"Come on, Benjamin," Andrew shouted. "The shops close in an hour."
"They're right fucking over there," I said, nodding toward city centre. "Give me a minute."
"Come on!"
"Shut up."

I set the front end of the pallet about an inch from the ledge. The pallet seemed to shrink when I sat down. I had to pull my legs up to my chest in order to fit, hooking the arches of my feet on the front edge. My butt pressed against the back edge. I sat there for a moment with my knees to my chin, assessing the newly realized danger of this stunt.

"Come on," Andrew said again, as if I were his mother refusing to let him leave a dress shop.
"Shut up!"
"If you're scared, sir, you should just go from the middle step. Or maybe lower," the boy next to me said.

That little bastard. He called me "scared." He called me "sir." I shot him a look that let him know that I was not afraid. But, of course, I was afraid, so the look I gave him probably let him know I was trying very hard not to soil my pants.

"OK. Just scoot forward, lean back, and hold on," I grunted to myself. "I can do this."

I gripped the handles tight, scooted forward, leaned back, and...


Scoot. Lean back.


Scoot-scoot. Lean back.



Only the front six inches or so of the sled now hung over the first step.

"Hmm, I think I need a push," I said.

Obviously, that was a very dumb thing to say. Just examine the situation: you've got a loud, semi-drunken American trying to prove his manhood to a bunch of kids by dangling over a veritable cliff of concrete steps; you've got one slightly thuggish English teenager standing behind him. "I think I need a push," was a really, really stupid thing to say. Sadly, I realized this fact about a micro-second too late -- right as the boy pushed me hard in the small of the back. My head jerked back with speed, and I saw the faces of Andrew and the three boys light up as I launched over the ledge.

"Oh, shit."

I have since come to the conclusion that "oh, shit," will be my last words. I say, "oh, shit," any time something bad happens. I said it when I was 16 years old and managed to land my father's car on top of a fire hydrant; I said it the time Melissa-Kate McNeal got drunk and tried to set my sweater on fire with me in it; and I said it now as I bounced down the steps of Portsmouth Guildhall with blistering speed. I said it a number of times, actually -- each time I felt the jarring kick of another step taking apart my spine. But I said it like this: "Uh! Shih! Huh! Hit! Uh-huh! Shih! Hit!"

What really concerned me was the speed. I think I actually skipped the first two steps, thanks to the boy's push, and hit the third with a force that sent my spine crashing into my skull. By the fifth step, I was moving at a speed that now makes me want to wet my pants as I think about it.

"Lean back! Lean back!" I thought.

It was awful. It was genuinely the least-fun six seconds of my life. My teeth rattled. My internal organs felt pulverized and twisted. I could feel the beer in my stomach searching for an escape. My knees bounced into my chin and I bit into my lip. I decided it had to stop.

If I had held on for just a little bit longer, I would have been fine. The amount of time that "just a little bit longer" implies is so miniscule it is practically immeasurable. I was already at the last few steps by the time my scrambled brain was able communicate to my body that it wanted to bail out. If I had held on for that "just a little bit longer," I would have slid onto the flat surface of the square, proudly claimed my title as "Coolest Man in Portsmouth," and quietly promised myself to never do such a thing ever again.

Instead, I sprawled out my legs, dug my heels into the third-from-bottom step, locked my knees, and swung upright like a high-speed house-raising. The speed launched me forward and I found myself trying to gain footing in mid-air. And again in a period of time so small it was practically immeasurable, I had control, then I didn't, then I did, then I didn't. I landed hard, driving my left knee into the pavement, and rolled upright onto my feet. I limped in fast circles.

"Oooh, shit! Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. Motherfucker. Shit, shit, shit, shit. Cocksuckingfuckshit, shit, shit, shit," I hissed.
"W'hey!" one of the boys shouted.
"You alright?" shouted the boy at the top of the steps.
"Yes. Fine," I said, then went back to hissing. "Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. Christ. Shit, shit, shit."

I could feel tears in my eyes. The pain in my knee made me see double. I was wearing the stupid fake grin that men attempt when we are in pain. I was trying to laugh, trying to play it off as if, you know, that terrible crash ending was all part of the show. My pride hurt as bad as my knee. There was a hole in my jeans and I was pretty sure I was bleeding.

"Benjamin, that was amazing," Andrew said.

He was grinning. His big tea-stained teeth glistened in his drooling mouth. He looked like a complete and utter nutcase (which, of course, he was).

"Especially the end," he said. "You really should have seen it. Perhaps we could get a camera and you could do it again. There's an idea. Let's go get a camera. Come on, let's go shopping."

He turned and started toward city centre in his high-speed upright walk.


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