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 Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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"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?"
"£60."

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.
    
"Shit."
    
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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