Archive for the ‘beginnings’ Category

From here the path gets rougher, and some of it I only remember through a haze. Some of it I don’t remember at all. And some I wish I didn’t.

There isn’t much to tell you about Inverness. I staid in a hostel where I was woken at 5 in the morning by some Spanish backpackers sharing their checking out process with the world. My shoulder felt swollen and was hurting something fierce. Unable to find my way back into sleep I walked down to the harbour. It was a charmingly ugly and practical affair without any touristy frills. At a kiosk frequented by oil-stained labourers stinking intensely of fish and burnt diesel I got a cheap breakfast of kippers and bitter tea. The labourers made fun of me, of my too large army surplus clothes, and the fact that I belonged in school and not with them, but I could laugh with them and it made me feel rather good.

I answered some mails and wrote a blog entry at an Internet Café and set out for the outskirts of Inverness to hitch a ride along the A862 around Beauly Firth and then north, into Ross-Shire or maybe along the East Cost. That was how I got that lift with the plumber in his old white Ford Transit. He seemed fine at first, but it didn’t take me long to realize that he was pissed out of skull. I tried to get him to let me out along the way, but he wouldn’t ear of it.

“Whitfor?” he asked, sniffing suspiciously. “A thocht ye wis gaun tae Beauly?”

“I, er, changed my mind. I want to go West instead, to, et…” I racked my brain for some tourist attraction that might be West of where we were. “Loch Ness?”

“Ye think A’m fou, dinye?” he shouted accusingly. I didn’t know if by ‘fou’ he meant ‘full’ or ‘fool’, but I thought, either was pretty accurate.

“Ye think A’m tae fou tae drive, dinye? Bit A’ll pruve ye, A’m nae fou ataa!”

And he took both hands from the steering wheel and shook then in the air. Maybe he was thinking of bicycles and how driving without hands might prove your sense of balance, I don’t know. He laughed at me triumphantly. The van drifted into the opposite lane. There were cars coming our way.

I shouted and tried to grab the wheel. The van swerved and wobbled.

“Whoah!” he shouted, wrested the wheel from my hands, and got us more of less back on course. The honking of the other cars dopplered and faded behind us.

“Git yer hands oaf! Are ye tine tae kill us?!”

“You were…” I began shouting back.

He interrupted me with a slap to my shoulder that made me gasp with pain.

“A wis barrie! A haed aathing unner control. Twas ye what naur kilt us.”

While we were shouting e was only facing me and not paying any attention to the road ahead. I was afraid anything I might say would just make things worse, so I shut up.

For a while he muttered darkly to himself. Then, when we arrived at the turnoff, he said: “Wast he wants tae gae, wast we’ll gae. A’ll tak ye tae Struy, aye, bit nae faurer.”

The roofs of Beauly were already visible to our right, while the sign pointing straight ahead said “Struy, 9 miles”.

“No, no, I’ll go to Beauly. Let’s go to Beauly!” I tried to stop him, but too late.

For the next fifeen minutes I was quiet, securely buckled in, clinging to the handgrip, feet braced against the floor of the footwell, as he drove down the narrow, tree-lined country road, running the engine alternately at too low or too high revs, cutting curves, and swerving around oncoming traffic. He kept up a false cheer and talked to me all through, but I didn’t listen.

Finally he stopped at a telephone box in Struy, grinning, deeply satisfied with himself.

“See? See? I telt ye. A’m nae fou ataa.”

“Yeah, well, thanks, you crazy fuck,” I said, jumped from the van, and slammed the door hard behind me. I could see his face twist in anger behind the windscreen. He shouted something and shook his fist. Then he gunned hi engine, made a tight turn, and roared away back the way we’d come.

It was around noon. The sky was overcast and grey, but it wasn’t raining. Cured from any wish to hitchhike for a while, I decided that since I was here now anyway, instead of going back those 9 miles to Beauly I’d follow the road along the valley of the river Glass and see where that would lead. After half an hour the sun came out for a while and showed me that the trees were beginning to change into their autumn finery. Summer was beginning to end.

Eventually I came across a bridge to a crossroads and a couple of grey stone houses. I was still pondering my choices – shops, police station, and Glen Afric, or Glen Cannich and Mullardoch, or Drumnadrochit, public loos, and a camping ground – when a group of backpackers only a couple of years older left a shop ahead and came towards me. So I bummed them for smokes.

***

The next day I left when it was still dark. Everything was hazy with booze and shame. I couldn’t find my jacket, the M65 I’d bought back in Manchester, and the T I had been wearing was soiled. I took it off and left it on the middy ground of the camping site, put on my spare and the hoody I’d carried in my satchel.

The road towards Loch Mullardoch rose quickly out of the valley, and soon Strathglass and the Cannich camping ground were hidden behind a thicket of birches. I was shivering and didn’t know with what. I froze and sweated at the same tie, my shoulder hurt something beastly, the pain radiating out, joining forces with a headache and a sore throat and the pain from my kidneys where Trevor, or maybe Fred, had hit me when I wouldn’t hold still.

After a while I got out of the birch wood, and when the sun rose in my back my shadow leaped out in front of me, hurrying ahead and showing me the way. I followed, glad of anything that took my mind off the night I was leaving behind. And even though I felt sick to my stomach I began to run.

The valley opened up, wider and wider, and the mountains on both sides grew higher. The river flowed through several small lakes, and after a couple of hours I cam to a huge concrete dam, cutting across the valley. I climbed the last rise at the side of the dam and looked out over Loch Mullardoch and the lonely, treeless mountains that sheltered it.

I was seriously ill, and I knew it. It was more than just the effect of booze and the pot from last night. I was running a fever, and I needed a doctor to look at my shoulder and the ugly blue-red veins that were snaking away from the inflamed wound like little tentacles under my skin. But the road ended at the dam. I twas either turn around and creep back to Cannich or go on into the wild.

The fragments of last night that were stuck in my chest burned worse than the fever. So I stepped off the road onto the unmarked trail along the Northern shore of Loch Mullardoch.

Even today, a couple of years later, I can’t tell you exactly what happened. Oh, I remember the events, mostly, and frankly, the details are none of your beeswax. Yes, in the end it had gotten rough, enough that I might have the law on my side – though nancy boys should beware of such assumptions – but in my heart I knew that for the most part I could have stopped things. I could have fought harder, or run away, or called for help. In the end, I, some part of me, had let them do it.

It had begun friendly enough. I’d bummed them for that fag, we’d gotten talking, and they’d invited me to their camp fire. They’d shared their hotdogs with me, and their beer and the joint. We’d talked some more. They’d been from down under, on a pre-college trip to the old country, jobbing in London and travelling around when time and money allowed them to. I’d told them pretty much the truth, just sufficiently altered and vagued up to keep my legal identity and origins hidden. I had called myself Alan, and eventually sexual orientation had come into things.

On the shore of Loch Mullardoch I missed the bridge across a brook and instead followed the narrow path upward. Now and then I had to ford a tributary. Water ran into my boots and made my feet heavy and cold. Every step was hell. I sweated like a pig when I moved, but when I rested I trembled with chills. Halfway up the mountain I had to throw up, but I had this mad idea I mustn’t leave the trail but that I couldn’t, like, soil it either. I tried to hold it in, to get on where it touched the river again, but ended up puking the remains of those sausages all over my chest and arms and hands.

The path dragged on and on, past a couple of small waterfalls, and eventually lost itself in the heather and bracken of a wide, deep corrie. All around me the rounded humpbacks of the mountains rose and dove under the low, shifting sky. In the middle of the corrie a single dead tree stood at the convergence of the many little streams, bone white, and supplicating. I dreamed a gathering of people into the wilderness, and I heard drums and whistles, and then lost track of things.

You see, they had been curious, the boys from down under. I think that had been genuine. In the beginning they had just asked how it was, you know, to be with another bloke. And they got to musing how it is different to get a blowjob from a bloke or from a girl. After all, a mouth’s a mouth, innit? They made low cracks, jokes in high voices, flapping a limp wrists. Where exactly was the line across which those jokes crossed from crude to cruel, from sleazy to savage? When had I stopped being a guest and became a victim? And how much did I participate in this transformation?

***

I came to by the side of a small lake in a deep valley, with high, rocky slope behind me. My satchel was missing, as was any memory of how I had gotten there. All I could remember was a fucked up dream about some weird party, or maybe a procession? We had been walking somewhere, along some dark road. Or maybe it had been a boat crossing a vast underground body of water?

My palms were marked with fresh, uneven scratches, the kind you get from climbing rough rocks, as were my knees, the trousers torn above them. And, most annoyingly, the lace of my left boot was torn. Other than that I felt good. The fever had mostly passed. I was still weak, and very thirsty, but that was all.

I drank from the lake, repaired my shoe lace as good as I could, and got going. I crossed a couple of kilometres of wild, hilly country, and earthen, rusty heath, until I came to a large lake. The sky was a sickly shade of saffron, and the sun, hidden behind clouds, shimmered on the waves like hammered brass. And as far as I could see only untamed wilderness, except for one small rowboat far out on the lake.

I hollered and waved my arms. For a while nothing happened. But then I saw that the boat was coming towards me. Against the glare I could not make out who as at the oars until it was almost upon me.

“Hullo there, m’boy. Everything alright?” It was an old chap, tall and whip thin. He was wearing an old, long sou’wester, a thick, woollen jersey, dungarees, and tangerine Wellingtons.

“Hullo, Sir. Um. Can you tell me were I am. I seem to have gotten lost.”

“I’ll say. Good grief. You look a fright.”

I looked down on myself. My black hoody was stiff with mud and dried vomit, so were my fatigue trousers, and torn. My hands and knees were scraped and dirty with peat. I had no backpack and no coat.

“Everything is alright, Sir,” I said hastily. “I just lost my way.”

“Want to come into the boat, m’boy? I can ferry you to the other side. Got a small lodge there. Catch your death out here like that.”

I hesitated but then gave myself a push and stepped into the rocking dinghy, careful not to step on the fishing rods and tackle box that cluttered the bottom.

“Better sit yourself down, m’boy,” he said, and when I had settled down on the seat in the stern, he offered me his hand. It was old, and bony, and very firm.

“Benedict Isaac Roth.”

“Colin Campbell,” I answered. He looked at me for a second, astonished. Then he laughed. “Alright, Colin. Come along then.”

He took me across the waters of what turned out to be Loch Monar, one valley over from Loch Mullardoch. Mr. Roth was there on a fishing holiday. In the lodge he had rented he had maps of the area and on them I figured out that I must have walked about 7 kilometers from the Coire an t-Sith to the northern slopes of the An Riabhachan, a path fraught with steep ridges and sheer cliffs.

“By rights you should be lying dashed on the rocks of the Sgurr na Lapaich, m’boy. I know what I am talking about. What were you thinking?”

I didn’t tell him. He told me some more of my monumental stupidity, made hot tea and baked fresh scones, which he served thick with melting butter and strawberry jam. Then he heated enough water to fill a small wooden tub and had me wash and warm up. I had a look at my shoulder but it seemed a lot better. There were thick dark scars now. The surrounding tissue was still ruddy and tender, but that angry throbbing was gone, that tight feeling of a tomato about to burst, as were the bluish-red veins.

“Where to now, m’boy?” he asked me when I had towelled myself off. “My trust chariot isn’t far.” At my raised eyebrow, he chuckled and added: “An old Daimler, very comfortable ride. If you want I could take you someplace.”

“Like where?” I asked.

“Like Inverness, or Glasgow.”

I put on my trousers and saw that he had patched the tears at the knees while I had bathed.

“Thank you, Sir.”

“My pleasure. Well? Look, let’s not mince words, shall we? You have got nowhere to go, have you? I used to be a lawyer in my old life, and quite a fine one if I say so myself. So, if there is some institution, some halfway house perhaps…”

He looked at my face and saw refusal written all over it. He sighed.

“Where will you go then?”

My T smelled pretty bad. I put it on anyway and grinned. “The world is my oyster.”

He smiled wanly and handed me a long, neon orange shoelace.

“So I noticed.”

“Wow, what did you get that one for?” I took the shoe lace and ran it through my fingers. “Really dense fog?”

“I can keep it if you prefer limping around with one unlaced boot, m’boy.”

I threaded it into the oxblood Doc Marten. The colours clashed horribly. I looked around for my socks, but they had been replaced by a fresh, dry woollen pair.

“I took the liberty of disposing of your old rags. Try these.”

“I couldn’t, Sir.”

“Well, you’ll have to go without any then. I burned yours.”

“You haven’t. You haven’t even got a fireplace in here. They’re probably just in the trash.”

But thinking of Huey and his lesson, I took them and finished dressing.

“Seriously, m’boy. Where do you think you’ll go now?”

“Seriously?” I showed him on the map. “I thought this trail here, and then to Skye.”

He gave me a couple of tips about the route, and a small nylon backpack, and some provisions.

“Take the map, also,” he added. “Don’t want you to get lost again, do we?”

Mr. Roth took me with his boat back across the lake. I tried to say my good-byes, but he just shook his head, waved, and rowed away. And I turned west.

Two nights later I arrived at the road circling Loch Carron, and I made an astonishing discovery: It was already Saturday, August 30th, 2008. It had been Tuesday morning when I had left Inverness. Which meant that I must have lost not one, but two nights and a whole day, delirious in the Mullardochs…

The next night, showered and dressed in a stolen pair of boxers and a fresh, black T, I was lying in a bed in a hostel near Kyle of Lochalsh. It was a shared dorm and there were a bunch of travellers in the room with me. Some were getting ready for bed, coming from or going to the bathroom, while others were lying on theor beds, reading guidebooks, or talking quietly. I had a top bunk, and I was on my back, staring at the ceiling above me, and suddenly I began to tremble. It wasn’t the fever or anything. And it wasn’t no relief either. I was just shaking with my whole body, enough to make the bed begin to rattle against the wall. I curled up into a tight ball and hugged my knees to my chest and tried to breathe evenly, until it passed.

I knew that Mr. Roth had been right. By rights I really should have been dead. My bones should have been lying in some gorge, being picked apart by scavengers and bleached by the rain and the sun.

The next day would be the first day of school after the summer holidays in Berlin. Tim, and Samuel, and Florian, and also in another part of the city Leo, and Orcun, and Hector, they would all be sitting in their chairs in their various class rooms, tomorrow, staring out of the window. Only my seat would remain empty.

I had to think of the “The haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. Best damn ghost story ever, IMHO. Except maybe for “The Ghost of Canterville”. At the end of “Hill House” Eleanor, the main character, is driving the car and wondering: “Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?”

That had been me. All the time I had secretly been waiting for some heavy hand to fall on my shoulder and stop me. To catch me and send me back. I hadn’t truly believed that I could actually escape, simply by walking away.

I knew, as I lay there, in that bed in that hostel, near the shores of Skye, surrounded by strangers, that I should turn around. That it would be the sensible thing to do, to go back to my mother, to get things back on track before they would spiral completely out of control.

I knew that I should do that.

But I also knew that I wouldn’t.

This wasn’t just something I was doing anymore. It was who I had become.

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I picked him up Saturday morning shortly past 8. His rents were both there to see him off. As always, I was on my best manners, and shook hands with them.
Tim apparently had never been on a bike tour, or if, at least he had never packed his bike by himself. I had to laugh when I saw how (and what) he had stuffed into his backpack and how he just stuck the rest under the simple spring loaded clamp of his luggage carrier. Most of it would fall off at the next corner, and his shoulders would be stiff and sore by nightfall. I made him leave half of everything at home, redistributed the rest and secured it all on his rack with a couple of spare bungee cords.
Like most rents his dad could be trusted to do the most stupid, insensitive thing, like, clap me on my shoulder and tell Tim what a practical and sensible fellow I was, and that he should learn from me. Apparently the old chap thought I would have a good, manly influence on his wimp of a son, or something. And not wanting them to rescind their permission, I smiled stupidly and promised I’d bring back their boy in one piece by Sunday evening. I know I’m far from the first when I demand a test and licence for the right to raise children, but anasını satayım, I mean, sheesh, what a salak!
It was about 65 km each way, a nice, relaxed ¾ day tour, half of that through the city, half outside. The weather was fantastic and we had great fun. Not far from the city border we stopped at a supermarket to get lunch. I taught Tim how to raise change, mostly to secretly spite his dad, and he did it beautifully. A bit later we went for a swim at Kleiner Stienitzsee, a small lake not far off our route. Tim claimed to have forgotten his swimming trunks (I mean, come on, what was I supposed to think?), so I said, that was okay, we’d both go commando. Good thing the water was still freezing cold. Or perhaps not. Maybe if it hadn’t been, things would have been different. Maybe that was one of those moments that pass totally unnoticed at the time, but where secretly life suddenly goes off on a totally different direction than it would have otherwise.
We camped wild in Rotes Luch, a beautiful, shallow moorland valley surrounded by a forest of tall spruce trees. We cooked sausages on a stick over a small campfire, had beer and talked until late into the night. He had seen my tat during our swim, and the scars on my arms, and he shyly asked me about them. Later he told me a bit about his own dad and their problems with each other: How he had to play-act a role all the time, but didn’t dare to just drop the act. He didn’t actually come out, and say anything directly, but what would you have read into this?
He obviously wasn’t used to the beer, though, and when he fell asleep pretty much as soon as he laid down, I blamed it on that and the long tour under a scorching spring sun. It took some time, hot and bothered as I was, but eventually I found sleep, too.
Sunday we went for a quick swim at another small lake, and had breakfast in Buckow, a nearby village. We had a look at the house were Berthold Brecht had lived for a while and then went to a small fun fair. The cherries were in full blossom, and it was totally romantic. Tim seemed happy, and we kidded around. Nothing overt happened, and maybe that should have tipped me off, but, well, hope keeps the misery in place, huh?
Eventually we went back. The return trip was long and tiring, but in a good way. If you’ve never biked down Frankfurter Allee in East Berlin in full end-of-weekend rush hour you may not know what I am talking about, but something tiring and even a bit  monotonous and dull can still sort of create a bond with the person you are doing it together with, you know? At least that was what it felt like to me.
I delivered him to his rents’s house. We stopped in the drive way. He got off his bike and opened the door to the garage, while I remained standing, my own bike still between my legs. He came over to me and asked if I wanted to come in for a drink or something. It was late, and I was tired, and didn’t want to overdo it. So I said, no thanks, I’ll head back to Kreuzberg. He said okay, and thanks for a great weekend,  and we’d see each other Monday in school. I said sure, and then there was a silence, the sort of silence, you know, that asks to be broken by a good-bye kiss, chaste but hinting at, well, at possibilities.
Was it a risk? I suppose so. Hey, you have to admit, the cues had all lined up pretty much, and given his usual shyness, I figured I would have to be the one to make the first move. Maybe I should have just held hands under the cherry blossoms in Buckow. Things might not have gone quite as bad then, although maybe it wouldn’t have made any damn difference.
I kissed him. He froze up for a second, just long enough to make me realize that this had been a bad mistake, but not long enough for me to brace myself. Then he gave me a savage push. I feel over, bike, luggage and all. For the briefest of moments he looked down at me, and all I could see was his face awash in horror. I just have no idea what the horror was about. Me? Himself? Something else? Then he disappeared into the garage, the door slamming shut after him. I was alone.
After a while I extricated myself from the bike, put my luggage back into order, and rode off, unable to think anything but an endless repetition of “stupid, stupid, stupid,” the entire time. I went home, sick to my gut, and spent the rest of the evening lying on my bed, listening to Belle & Sebastian, staring at the ceiling, and feeling very sorry for myself.
To this day I do not know the truth. Had I so completely misread him? Was he straight and I had just been projecting things? Was he queer, but unable to admit it to himself? Had he suddenly been afraid that someone, his rents, might see us, and had gotten cold feet? Much later, when I met Alex, I got the idea that maybe Tim had been abused and physical intimacy caused him to go fight ‘n’ flight. But the end of it is that I don’t know. We never spoke again, except for the most perfunctory and unavoidable exchanges in class.
He did however talk about it. To his best girl friend, who went to the same school as us. And she told her best friend. Who told three others. By the time school was out on Tuesday everybody knew that I was not only an ex-con and a thief, but also a queer pervert who had tried to kiss-rape poor, little, vulnerable Timmy.
And then the taunts began.
Continued here
As I discovered during the next couple of days, Tim was neither a troublemaker, nor a teacher’s pet. He was an outsider, but of the more or less accepted kind. He was a bit of a music nerd, you know the kind who spends his free time either tinkering on his stereo or browsing dusty, under-lit off-high-street music shops for ultra rare CDs or even vinyl.
And while I suppose that most of our class mates were still blind to it, I could already see that in two or three years, Tim would shed his shy cocoon, and find a place amongst some hip crowd, as a DJ perhaps, or even in some indie rock band. He’d probably not be the lead singer, but I could picture him as the taciturn bassist, you know, the bloke who secretly is the backbone of the group.
He was terribly cute, too, in spite of his argyle slipovers and colour-matching knee socks that his mum made him wear. He had soft, floppy, dark blond hair, large, baby blue eyes, and a small and pouty but very kissable mouth. He was terrible at football, but a surprisingly good track and field athlete. He read a lot, and mostly stuff like French poetry at that. Almost all of his friends were girls, but none was his girlfriend, if you know what I mean. Hey, sue me, but we all have our prejudices. Why should I be the exception.
Our taste in books differed, but books were the first ground on which Tim and I could found a tentative friendship. Up to then, I never had much patience for poems, and French was to me just the school subject I loathed most. Tim gave me Baudelaire and Villon, and no matter what happened later, I will forever be grateful for that. (I gave him William Burroughs and Denton Welsh, and he seemed to like them, too.)
There were a couple of other boys, mostly the sporty ones, I got along with okay, but I didn’t really feel comfortable around them outside of the gym, just as they very obviously didn’t feel comfortable around me. Those girls who took an interest in me – amongst them some of Tim’s friends – seemed to see me mostly as a welfare case. Sticky tolerance oozed from them like sap from a wounded pine tree. When I didn’t react to that with the expected fawning gratitude, they put me down as an unwashed, football playing hooligan, and I suppose they weren’t all that wrong.
Tim stuck with me, though. He provided me with info not only on other kids, but also on teachers and the administration. For all his seeming wide-eyed innocence, his vague social confusion, and not-quite-stuttering demureness, he was a keen observer, and I liked that a lot in him.
We met a couple of times after school – always at his place, though. My mum’s flat isn’t exactly the place where you want to take a new friend whose father owns an 8 room villa in Zehlendorf. We played Guitar Hero and Bioshock, and watched tivoed episodes of CSI Miami or House MD. Slowly the weather got warmer and spring began to really show off.
One evening in late April I was lying on his balcony (yeah, his room had it’s own balcony facing the park sized garden) smoking and staring at the sky. Tim was sitting inside at the open door, cross-legged, and trying to repair something in a model airplane. It was getting late and I knew I should get going. The house of Tim’s rents was close to the school, and the school was a good 15 km, that is about 45-60 bike minutes, from my mum’s flat.
Not that I minded. Quite the contrary. After half a year of having been locked up, I really looked forward to those daily rides. I dunno why, but riding my bike through the morning and the afternoon rush hour traffic was about the closest I came to even remotely feeling free, until I got through my shaking spell outside Wotton-under-Edge that is. The wind cooling the thin film of sweat on my face, thigh muscles working, denim caressing the skin of my legs as I peddled down Schlossstraße and Unter den Eichen, ducking and weaving through the avalanche of steel all around me, with engines roaring, purring or idling, car horns honking, and the multitude of breakfast radio stations blaring through rolled up car windows from all sides… it was half workout and half waltz.
No mind.
All presence.
Sheer bliss.
But right then, on that balcony, I felt lazy and complacent, as I watched the smoke dissipate in the sky above me. I looked over to Tim, his face screwed up in concentration as he reached with a pair of delicate pliers deep into the body of the air plane. I remember the tip of his tongue, surprisingly pink, peeking out between his narrowed lips. I scraped together what little courage and self-confidence I had left and asked Tim: “Want to go on a bike trip with me?”
“Hmm?” He looked up, trying to focus on me and this new idea.
“Just a one night camping trip. Maybe to the Märkische Schweiz? Next weekend? We’d be back by Sunday evening.”
He looked at me as if it was the most outrageous, absolutely unheard of suggestion. But then, after a brief hesitation, his customary shy smile appeared. And then he said: “Let me ask my parent’s for permission.”
He put down the plane, jumped to his feet and darted out onto the landing. There was the subdued murmur of a conversation, and the distinct sound of Tim’s voice pleading: “Please, mum!” And when he came back, he had a bounce in his step and a broad smile on his face.
“They said yes.”
Continued here

Take a breath, take a step, meet me down below
Everyone’s the same
Our fingers to our toes
We just can’t get it right
But we’re on the road
– OneRepublic: All Fall Down (2007)

How can I explain to you why I’d let some bug-fuck crazy cunt shoot bloody big holes into my body? What fucked up path had lead me to a point where I schemed to get her to riddle me with bullets? Where I plotted to have little 8 gram bits of lead rip chunks of flesh from my limbs, tear open my veins and arteries, break my bones with the force of 500 joules, and paint red the raw concrete walls of a back staircase in a dinghy Greek guesthouse? I kinda wondered so myself on that Wednesday evening in the October of 2009, while I was, you know, lying on the cold steps of that staircase, no longer able to breathe, my chest nothing but a spread of hurt: Where had the road begun that like a sentence running into an ellipsis ended in these three sharp reports not 200 meters from the lapping waves of the Aegean Sea?
I suppose the deceptively easiest answer would be that this road began at the front door of my aunt’s house in Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, England. I stepped on it when I left there shortly before 9 o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, 29 July 2008. I had been 15 years, 157 days, and a little over 16 hours old, and everybody, including myself, expected me to return more or less straight away to my mum’s flat in Berlin, Germany. That morning nobody had any idea that it would be almost half a year before my mum saw me again, and that by then things had progressed way beyond the point where I was still in control of my fate.
That morning my cousins Jane and Alice accompanied me to the bus stop. My own private farewell committee. I had spent two lovely weeks at my aunt’s, the first time in three years. The last time before had been during my twelfth’s summer. When the time had been up back then I had cried and they had let me stay until school started again. But the era of tears was past now, their well long dried up. So I had to leave, however miserable I felt about it.
I have always been close to my aunt and my cousins, especially to Alice. Alice is one of those people that know how to be bad and look good at the same time. That summer I had asked her how she did that. We had been sitting on a fallen tree by the side of the pond under Wimley Hill, sharing a fag and squelching our naked toes in the mud. Alice had taken a long drag, elbows resting on her knees, and given it some thought.
Finally she said: “Maybe ‘cuz I make peeps think I see them how they want to see themselves? You know, once they swallowed that, they don’t dare to scratch on my façade either. So not to rock the boat they are sitting in.”
Maybe that’s it, I thought. I never learned how to do that – for all my lying, I can never make peeps think I see them for anything but what they are.
Alice looked up at me through her fringe, ginger like everybody’s in our family, with her inscrutable amber eyes. And then she did that thing where she lets her face slowly split from side to side by a maniac grin. The smoke curled out of her mouth and nose and she crossed her eyes trying to watch it get caught in her hair. And with a gravelly voice she said: “Course it helps that I’m cute as a button.”
God, do I ever miss her. Kahretsin.
Anyway, that morning, Alice and her sister Jane delivered me to the 9 o’clock to Stroud. We exchanged hugs and kisses and promises to mail and skype and all that, before I hoisted myself up the steep and narrow steps and found a seat by the window. I stuffed my backpack and jacket into the net above, popped the earphones of the mp3 in and settled down for the 30 minute ride to Cainscross. Jane and I exchanged a last wave. Alice was already drifting across the street.
As always the mp3 was set to random play. Snow Patrol struck up as the bus pulled away past the war memorial and St. Mary’s. “Light up,” Garry was singing, Mark and Jonny plodding heavily through the bleak rhythm. “Light up. As if you have a choice.”
The sky was clear, tinted emerald by the bus’s windows. The last of the grey stone houses rolled by. To the right the landscape opened up towards the valley and Blackquarrie’s Hill on the far side. To the left black and white cows dotted the green grass slope that reached into the sky past the window frame, all the way to the edge that had given this place its name.
“Even if you cannot hear my voice I’ll be right beside you, dear.” Gary sang on, cheerful hopelessness dripping from his voice. “I can hardly speak. I understand why you can’t raise your voice…”
For two weeks I had succeeded in staying mostly in the here and now. I had left Berlin in Berlin, and had been happy with that. But now I found myself helplessly watching my mind rush out ahead, back, back towards the life I had left there. I tried to cling to England, to soak it up, breathe it in, but I was failing fast.
The meadow of Coombe Hill to my left and up ahead became the sickly green interior wall paint of Plötzensee juvie hall, the lynchets running across it bars in front of the windows. That’s the past, I tried to tell myself. Look to the future. The rest of the summer, the coming school year, and the next and the next, they all loomed ahead. Family and friends, teachers, enemies, everything.
“Slower, slower. We don’t have time for that. All I want is to find an easier way to get out of our little heads.”
Have you ever had a panic attack? When all the heaviness and doubts and fear of your life become this fist closing around your chest, squeezing the air out of you? Your heart begins to flutter and race and skipping its beat like a miner’s bird suddenly aware that there is no exit, no light, no other purpose to its existence but eventually snuffing it.
Everything closed in on me, the aisle of the bus a long tube, stretching, and tightening, and finally tipping over, becoming a well with green balefire glowing hellishly at the bottom, and I was falling into it.
I clawed at the neck of my T-Shirt and tried to calm my breath, but all I did was make it worse. Then I couldn’t stand it any more. I rolled out of the seat, half crawled and half ran forward, bumping into seats and elbows, gripping backrests and shoulders for support. The driver said something, sharply, probably telling me to sit down or so but nothing reached me through the music and the panic. I stammered confused, jumbled pleas to let me out, nonsensical explanations about something forgotten, something left behind. I was about to scream at him when the good man – amidst sighing and eye rolling – brought the wheezing wale of a bus to a stop.
Doors opened with a hiss. I stumbled off. Doors closed again. The leviathan shook itself to life and roared off, leaving me beached at the side of the B4058. Alive. Breathing the air of a free man. It was not even seven minutes past nine. On the mp3 Snow Patrol’s “Run” gave way to Sixx AM’s “Van Nuys”. Life would never be the same again.
I had gotten off next to the tennis courts between Valley and Holywell Road, just outside the old town. Jane and Alice wouldn’t even have made it back to my aunt’s by then. I had no idea where to go, no plan what to do. I only knew that I couldn’t go back.
Perhaps guided by a craving for open spaces I decided to walk up to Wotton Hill and sit under the beech trees there, try to see the Canal, and think about it. I walked back to where Adey’s Lane starts up the hill when I suddenly realized that I had left everything on the bus: The backpack, clothes, the lunch my aunt had packed for me, the book I had borrowed from Jane, my mobile phone, the tickets, the wallet, money, passport, everything. Even my jacket. All I had left was the clothes I was wearing, the moss green Firestarter T-shirt my mum disliked so much, blue jeans, and the canvas trainers in that vivid shade of rosso corsa that I liked so much; that and the mp3 player.
Two kids, younger than me, were coming my way on the other side of the street. I called out to them.
“Hey!”
They looked over to me.
“Can you catch?” I asked.
No reaction except for mild bewilderment. I decided to take their Brooklyn street-wear attire as cause for optimism, and wrapped the earphones tightly around the player.
“Here!” I called and tossed it in a high trajectory across the street. One of them caught it.
“Cheers,” I called and walked on past them.
“Hey, uh. Thanks, man!” One of them shouted after me. I grinned.
The last bit of the lane leads pretty steeply uphill through a narrow strip of chestnut and beech trees. At the top I turned left onto Old London Road. The sun was in my face, and I didn’t notice the sign post until I almost walked into it. It pointed to my right where the Cotswold Way – a national trail leading through most of Gloucestershire from Bath to Chipping Campden – goes into Westridge Woods. At the edge of the woods a fox stood in the shadow of a hawthorn bush. It looked at me attentively for a moment, then it turned around and disappeared in the brambles.
I scrapped my plan to sit on Wotton Hill. I would walk the Walk instead, and see where it would lead me, and what would happen.
When I reached the first trees of Westridge Woods I began shaking, badly. I began to stumble, had to put my hands on my shaking knees, reach out for a tree for support. It was a crippled old oak, gnarly and half dead. I was afraid I would pass out. But I didn’t fall, didn’t have to sit down.
It wasn’t another panic attack, you see, quite the contrary. Was I afraid? You bet I was. Was I excited? Definitely. But more than anything, all of a sudden, I was relieved. The wave of relief flooding me was so strong, so palpable, filled me so completely, it was almost like a seizure. I was really going. By God, I was. Right here and now.
For one moment the fear resurfaced, a corpse buoyed by gas rolling over in the water, beckoning me with a rotted arm. For one moment I thought about going back. But the moment passed, the corpse sank again below the surface. I was still shaking, but I could get up again, stumbled forward. I walked on into the woods. And after a few hundred meters the hiking did its magic: My body got into the rhythm, step, breath, step, breath, and the mind followed along.
Continued here