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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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kate Nash playing the Globe on Albany Rd 30/3/11 £15 a pop