Archive for the ‘books’ Category

When we changed from primary to secondary school, again my mates and I were split up into different classes. In my new class I met Jonas. Jonas had wavy brown hair that I always wanted to run my hands through, and a snub nose, and a beautiful, expressive mouth that made me think of lions, and of that scene in “God’s Army” where the Archangel Gabriel says: “Do you know how you got that dent, in your top lip? Way back, before you were born, I told you a secret. Then I put my finger there and said ‘Shush!’”

During the braks I still hung out with Hector, Orcun, and Leo, and Jonas sometimes joined us for football. Like us he was also part of the run-about table tennis crowd at the concrete table tennis tables in the school yard. When I had to be with my own class, I spent most of my time in his company.

Jonas could tell great jokes, and had a keen eye for the weaknesses of our teachs. No one could imitate them like he, cruel and true. And he was always ready to join in any mischief. But at the same time there was something very fragile about him, some sort of puppy dog quality, the way he would follow orders, and his quick, darting looks, checking out the eyes and faces of those around him, if we were still laughing, if we were all still with him.

That winter I had graduated, via Grant Morrison, from superheroes to the wonderful worlds of Garth Ennis, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis. I had tried to convert Jonas, and had first given him Morrison’s Invisibles and then The Filth. One afternoon in late May we were at my place. Jonas was deeply immersed in the sexual misadventures of Greg Feely, and somehow we got talking about pron. It was all red faces, and machismo, and giggles. I kept taxing his face for signs of rejection and was always ready to jump back into joking, but Jonas proved reluctantly interested.

“Want to?” I asked finally.

“What?”

“Wank.”

“Now?”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

Jonas hesitated, but he didn’t say no. So I sat up against the wall, and began to unbuckle my belt. After a second he followed suit. We were both very hard but also tense and uncertain. When we both had cum, grunting and panting, we fell back and got a major case of the giggles.

After a while we recuperated, but neither of us made a move to clean up or even pull up his trousers again. Jonas liked at me, a bit concerned, and asked: “Isn’t that gay?”

For a second I was tempted to say: ‘Nah, we’re just messing around,’ or something like that, but I steeled myself, and said. “I am gay.”

He gave me a long look and I couldn’t read his face. Then we heard ‘Nessa come home, and got cleaned up. A short while later Jonas said he had to get going, and left. And the next two days he was oddly reserved in school. He didn’t cut me or anything, but there never seemed to be a moment when we were alone together, and no mention of that afternoon was made.

The following weekend our class made a three-day excursion to an old monastery in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, a couple of kilometres north of Berlin. The weather was very hot, but still with the humid green heat of late spring. On the bus ride Jonas had sat with someone else, and I was fully decided to ignore him and forget about him. But that evening, after supper, when we had some time to do as we pleased, he came up to me in the hall and told me to follow him. He lead me to the herb garden, where we were alone but for the last of the evening sun. And behind a dogberry bush in full bloom he pulled me to him, awkwardly, not knowing were to put his elbows and knees, and kissed me with those wonderful, leonine lips, long, and wet, and without any skill.

“I am, too,” he said, when he finally let go of me.

Together with the sun our shadows faded from the gothic, red brick wall of the ancient building, but I will forever remember the smell of those dogberry roses, and the wind in those gnarled, old oak trees, and the taste of the hostel cantina supper on his tongue, and the sense that maybe, just maybe, there could be an ordinary life to be had on this here planet, for me.

For one month we were an item. A secret, covert, closeted item, to be sure, but a real couple. We went to the cinema, we held hands, we snogged behind the school, and we made out on my mum’s couch. Then came the summer holidays. He went to Italy with his rents. I waited, eager for his return. When he came back, he had fallen in love with a girl and wasn’t gay any more.

Continued here

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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.

Step out the door and it feels like rain
That’s the sound on your window pane
Take to the streets but you can’t ignore
That’s the sound you’re waiting for
– OneRepublic: All Fall Down (2007)

Edinburgh’s northern boundary is the Firth of Forth, the estuary of the River Forth. I crossed it on the road bridge from South Queensferry to North Queensferry.

It felt good to be on the move again. It felt good to walk once more with the long, even paces meant to cover distance. The drizzle on my face felt good, and the street under the air cushioned soles of my new boots.

In the middle of the bridge I halted, leaned against the eastern railing, lit a fag, and looked out, across the firth and through the bars of the old Victorian railroad bridge beyond at the sea beyond. I had glimpsed it every now and then when I’d been on Carlton Hill, and Arthur’s Seat, but I’d never paused and looked at it.

I thought about it and figured that the last time I’d really looked at the North Sea would have been as I crossed it on my way from Berlin to Wotton-under-Edge – I counted the days in my head – 39 days ago.

Tolkien came to my mind and his famous lines about the dangerous business of going out your door, about those who wander, and about whither their road will lead. And Gaiman’s comparison of how change might be less this big, swooping thing that carries your off, and more like a thief who steals little things, night by night, until nothing familiar remains to keep you.

It all seemed so long ago, Berlin, my aunt’s, that day I had set next to Alice by the pond under Wimley Hill. Even the Big Chill, and bloody Leeds. As I stood on the Forth Road Bridge, smoking my way through half a pack, and watched the ships go by, and he trains on the other bridge, and the as the drizzle slowly soaked through the hood and began to trickle down my neck, as I stood there, I became aware that something had changed in the two weeks I’d spent in Edinburgh. Was it something fundamental, something inside of me, or just one of the little things, just one step along the winding road that was taking me ever onward? I didn’t know.

Behind me the setting sun was a piece of burnished silvery sky shimmering through a frosting of clouds, and the Firth of Roth was an arrow pointing towards that failing light. Slowly they were inching towards each other, the one about to extinguish the other. My shoulder ached and throbbed, past love bites of Leeds and Edinburgh not quite yet letting go of me.

The cuts Julie had given me had healed well, initially. But Ponyboy, endlessly fascinated by them, had again ad again toyed with them, probing, prodding, making me squirm and squeal. Again and again he had asked me how I had gotten them. Every time I made up another answer: My crazy father had cut them into my wanking arm so that Jesus would deliver me into faggotry. Drug dealers had tortured me to et me to betray a lover who’d turned narc. I had cut out the tracking device implanted by aliens and was now on the run from Men In Black.

Two days before I had left he had all of a sudden held me down and rubbed the mushy salt-and-vinegar soaked remains of a fish’n’chips cinner into my arm, and the black sludge from a beer can we’d used as an ashtray. It burned like battery acid. I twisted and screamed, but he just held me harder, and rubbed it in more forcefully, until I was bleeding again.

“What the fuck are you doing, you aşağılık herif?!” I screamed and punched him hard into the face. He sat back, and smiled quietly through the blood.

“Noo ye’ll ne’er forgit, ma wee sluagh. Noo ye’r kenmerkt.”

And indeed the salt and vinegar had made the lips of the wound puff up, and the beer-ash-mix had seeped under the skin like tattoo pigment. And now, two days later, everything had grown angry red again, and hot, and painful.

I flicked the last cigarette butt out into the gusty air between me and the waters below, watching its glowing tip fall and tumble and disappear. The I shortened the shoulder strap of my satchel and walked on.

A few hundred meters down the A90 on the North Queensferry side of the bridge, at the North Access bus stop, a lorry stopped at my thumb. The door opened and from high above me a small face smiled out from behind thick, black horn-rimmed glasses and a wiry, black moustache.

“Hey, lad. Gaeing north?”

“Sure,” I said and took the hand he offered me and hauled myself up and into the cab. Later he stopped at the lorry park in Ballinluig for the night, and offered me to stay in his cabin if I wanted.

Continued here

There was a clique of blokes two years above me, lead by swimming ace, wealthy lawyer’s son, and ditsy girl’s favourite Samuel Richter. Samuel had two lieutenants and a couple of sycophants, plus two or three female groupies, and at school you rarely saw him without his entourage.
He and I hadn’t really crossed paths before. I had only been aware of him because early on Tim had pointed out that Samuel was known to be the meanest bully in school, and I had decided to stay as far away from him as I could. Not because I was afraid of what he might do, but of what I might.
Wednesday I had to live through a lot of whispering, staring, and averted glances when I looked back. But on Thursday happenstance took me on my way from one classroom to another past Samuel’s posse. There was a lot of hushed giggling as I approached. Suddenly one of the girls stepped up to me and asked me loudly:
“Hey, um, I have something of a problem. Could you…?”
I looked at her, guarded, uncertain what this was about. The way the posse nudged and snickered I suspected it wouldn’t be anything I would find amusing.
“Well, you see, my period just started, and I forgot to bring a tampon.” Here the giggling from the group broke out into loud snorting and gwaffing, and the girl herself couldn’t bite her dumb grin away any longer. “Can’t you help me out with one… Patricia?”
I blushed – damn that blushing – and just walked on.
Things quickly got worse. Nobody threw tampons at me, there was no concerted effort to attack or anything. But the requests for make-up tips, the lewd winks and blown kisses didn’t stop. I gritted my teeth even though it was hard. It was so damn hard. But I did keep my temper bottled up. I doubt I could have done it for as long as I did without Uncle Valya, but well, I had Uncle Valya and our work together to look forward to, and that was what I concentrate on while I bit on the insides of my cheeks until I tasted the blood or clenched my fists hard enough to hear my knuckles pop.
Then, sometime next week, I found that during gym class someone had pissed onto my clothes. And a few days later someone used my same inability to have an eye on my stuff during gym to cram my backpack, books and everything, into the toilet, before pissing on it and flushing. One day I found a pile of dog crap on my bicycle seat after school, and another time someone poured what I think was soiled cat litter into my backpack.
(I kept all of this from my mum and from ‘Nessa, mostly because at the time I had more money than I knew what to do with from my work with Uncle Valya, and so I could relatively easy replace the stuff they ruined.)
I never caught anyone directly, but from the way there was always someone from Samuel’s posse around to watch and giggle when these things happened, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was behind it.
And then there were the vids. One morning in the second week of this, a small bevy of beauties stood tittering around a mobile phone, going into whisper mode as I approached. However instead of regarding me with the amusement or scorn I had come to expect, they did something far worse, they regarded me with pity.
I was about to skulk past them when one of them almost shyly tugged me on the arm.
“Patr…” For a second she stopped herself, horrified. I am certain, that she had almost called me Patricia to my face. Then she forced herself to go on: “..rick. I think you should, uh, see this.”
And she showed me her mobile. On the screen the boy’s locker room. My class, changing back into street wear after gym. I could see myself, alone, silent, untouchable, a ghost amongst boys. I could see myself undress and reach for my jeans, start to get in, hesitate. The camera man, whoever he was, zoomed in, not on the wet trousers, but on my face, caught the flashes of shock, rage, and humiliation, before I clamped down my visor of haughty street nonchalance.
“I’m sorry.” She said, and she even looked as if she really was. I mumbled a quick thanks. Later I palmed the mobile of some arsehole I was certain would also have this vid, which sure enough he had, and a few more, including one that showed the cat litter being poured into my backpack, and my reaction when I found it. Also some of me being cat called in the halls. Most were done by the same artist, the one with a penchant for capturing the humiliation in my eyes.
That day, on the way back to Kreuzberg, I threw the phone into the canal.
Only once Samuel stopped me in a hall directly. He looked at me, his face serious, slightly shaking his head, like a disappointed father, and said:
“If I found out I was a dirty faggot pig, well, I hope I’d have the strength of character to ask a vet to put me down. But then, I guess when you are, you are also too sissy for a clean solution like that.”
His mates slapped his shoulder for the good line and they all trundled off, joined in satisfaction about having stuck it to the queer kid.
Now, please do not think that everybody participated in this. The more public displays of homophobia usually earned the name-callers disapproving looks, especially from the more socially minded girls. And as far as teachers took any notice, they too were of course very much against bullying. Of course that only made things worse. This form of a disapproval was after all part of what the comedians where after.
And when I couldn’t hide the results of the cruder (if more anonymous) jokes, most witnesses were shocked and appalled. But I suppose I couldn’t deal with the support any better than with the attacks. For one, I hated those girls who thought they could make a political symbol out of me. It hadn’t worked when I was the ex-con from the bad side of town, and it worked even less when I was the boy with the sexual identity issues. Also with a lot – not all, mind you, but enough – of those displaying shock and disgust at the practical jokes I had my doubts. Faces were turned away too fast to hide anything but amusement. Voices raised in the name of justice were too smug, too certain, to sound anything but happy about this opportunity to polarize. There’s no better news than bad news, right? I was a spectacle, and if people were on one side of the argument, or the other, none of them were on mine. Well, I suppose, I wasn’t on anyone else’s either. So maybe it all worked out.
What little social contact I’d had dried up with Tim. Even positive attention solely turned around my role as pariah, and mostly served to make those willing to talk to me feel better about themselves. So I more or less stopped talking at all, and did what I always did when facing an unconquerable enemy. I withdrew into books.
Of course, this was only a big thing for me. Every day school stuff went on as usual, tests, sports, school yard romances. Even for Samuel’s posse, this was just one amongst many amusements. There was other kids to torment (under other pretexts), girls to impress, teachers to toady to. This was just one small part of life. Only for me, for me it meant the end of my attempt to fit in and get along.
I was sitting by myself on a boulder in a corner of the school grounds more or less hidden from the main yard, reading Douglas Hofstaetter’s excellent Escher Gödel Bach, when Florian found me. Florian Maxim was one of Samuel’s chief lieutenants and one of the creative brains behind the campaign. If I’d have to finger anyone as the video artist, I’d have named him. Of course I had no direct proof, but he always struck me as a man who understood real pain. He grabbed the book from my hands and tossed it to one of his mates. They started throwing from one to the other, glancing at me from the corners of their eyes, expecting me to chase after it like a nervous squirrel with a bladder problem. I just leaned back and enjoyed their skilful passes. The blood in my mouth was soothing.
Florian turned the book around to read the title and overjoyed he called out: “Hey, Samuel, guess what, Patricia is reading about Dödles.” (Dödle is a silly kid’s word for penis, and it rhymes with Gödel, the mathematician mentioned in the book’s title. I know. Haw-haw.) They amused themselves a while making Dödle cracks, but I was more concerned with checking out how deep my fingernails would go into my palms to pay them much attention. Eventually Samuel got bored with the whole game.
Two days before I had made a pretty bad mistake. A girl had asked me how could I put up with all of it when she saw that somebody had written “I take it up the rear” on my hoodie with indelible magic marker. I tried to appear nonchalant and quoted a German proverb: What does the oak tree care when the boar rubs against it. It’s a good sentiment, even though like most sayings there is something of a lie hidden inside. Like the one about the sticks and stones. It would be nice, but it just is not so. Anyway, I said it while Florian was in the room, and he must have heard it and reported it to his leader.
So when Samuel was bored with the taunting, he took up position in front of me, hands on his hips, pelvis thrust forward.
“Hey, Patricia, hungry for Dödle?”
I looked up at him. At my old school peeps might have warned him that the flickering in my eyes was a serious warning sign. But even if, I suppose it had been too long since anyone had challenged him in his position as top honcho of the school yard, and if there would have been someone he might have considered a risk that someone wouldn’t have been a short, queer kid two years his junior. Also, I don’t think that he had ever been in a real fight in his life.
“Don’t know, Sam. Haven’t seen yours, have I? Is it any good?” I asked through clenched teeth. There probably were hectic red splotches all over my face.
He laughed, carefree. “Better than all the Turkish dick-kebabs you’ve been getting at home, you can bet on that.”
And then another idea occurred to him.
“Hey, tell me Patricia…” He nestled at his fly. “Does the oak tree mind if the boar waters it? Cuz, I really gotta take a leak, you know.”
“Samuel,” I croaked. “Don’t take out what you don’t want to lose.”
He decided to call my bluff. And that was when I decided to end my period of non-violence, the one that had started when Hendrik had had me in a head lock almost a year before, and then had kissed me long and hard.
The fight was short and ugly. This wasn’t the back gate of an insignificant Kreuzberg primary school. This was a high school for the pride and joy of Berlin’s most influential national and international leaders. We had hardly found our stride when the first teacher was trying to break us up. But I wouldn’t let one lady in high heals and a tight skirt keep me from trying to put hurt onto Sam. After a second’s hesitation he, too, got back into the spirit of things. It took three teachers and two 12th graders to finally separate us.
By points I clearly lost that fight. And I have to be fair: none of Samuel’s sycophants joined in to help their glorious leader. Once he got it that I meant business, he didn’t wimp out. Of course, he was two years older, about 15 kg heavier and a good head taller than me. Anyway, I like to think that I gave him a run for his money.
Afterwards, when we were waiting in front of the principle’s office, me with a split lip, a closed eye, and torn up paper tissues stuffed into my nose, and him doing his best to prevent anything from touching his swollen family jewels, he suddenly grinned at me.
“Hey, Patricia. I take back what I said. You may be a poof, but you’re no sissy. I guess you can stay at my school.”
And he offered me his hand. But Samuel was no Leo, and I wasn’t six anymore. For a moment I was very, very tempted to hit him again, as hard as I could. Just to see that grin turn red as blood gushed from his nose. But I decided to find back to Ghandi and Jesus. Well, almost.
“And you may be an arsehole, Sam, but I promise you, I’ll never put my Dödle in it.”
We shook on it.
I was suspended for two weeks after that, while there was an official inquiry at the school. It ended with me having to state a public apology, being warned that the least antisocial behaviour on my part would lead to an immediate relegation – and that any more display of violence would also be reported to the police. After this I could feel how the administration was just waiting for another slip up so they could get rid of me rikki-tik. They had proved their social responsibility by accepting me in the first place and now by showing me leniency once, but that was it. The rest was a foregone conclusion, a pre-written script they expected me to play out.
Continued here
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
So far, so simple, right? Because that should be all I have to tell about Leeds. For the next three days Julie and I worked the arcades and high streets on her crew’s turf, and by Saturday I had bought back my freedom and left town. And if that had been all that happened, I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned any of this in the first place, or at best skimmed over it. Because, in the end, what does it tell you so far? That crime doesn’t pay? That there is no decency amongst thieves, no hospitality amongst crooks? My, what news, eh?
If that had been how things had gone my story probably would have ended here, too. I would have continued my journey, and eventually I would have been caught and deported to Berlin, or I would have tired of the whole stupid Huck Finn shite, and slunk back myself, or, most likely, I would have just… oh well, what is the point of guessing, huh? As Aslan says in the Narnia books: “To know what would have happened, child? No. Nobody is ever told that.”
So, what did happen? Well, I may not understand my own choices, but I can try to tell you what they were.
***
I woke up sometime later in the darkness, shivering and hurting. I had to piss but nowhere to do it. Feeling around I found a corner – pissing hurt like the devil, and would for a couple of days – and then I crawled as far away as I could.
The smell of the piss was strong. I could imagine the puddle spreading outward, eating up grains of sand and dust on the way, until the concrete’s capillary suction and gravity’s pull overcame the surface tension, and it would soak away into nothing but a dark, wet stain. I remembered the taste of Hendrik’s piss, the pain from his beatings, the night in the forest, the cold and the dark and the fear. I cowered in the corner and tried to cling to his image and how we would get a kick out of all this.
I had no idea what time it was. What if they had decided to just leave me there. It didn’t look as if Britrail or whoever officially owned these premises was still using them. How long could you survive without water? Three days? Wasn’t dying of thirst supposed to be really, really unpleasant? Didn’t it drive you insane, wasn’t that what we’d told each other as little kids?
But I didn’t cry, even then, I didn’t cry. I couldn’t.
Eventually the door was opened.
“Want something to eat, before we go to work?”
It was Julie again. She hadn’t turned on the worker’s torches this time. Faint, grayish light filtered in from outside. I nodded, blinked up at her, limped out of my cell.
“Did you piss in there?”
“And let me tell you, the state of your facilities are a disgrace.”
She shook her head, as if dismayed by my manners.
“You locked me up in there,” I snapped. “What did you want me to do? Suck it up?”
In the first room stood a boy, no older than ten, skin as black as Julie’s. He wore a gray sweatshirt, hood drawn up over his New York Yankees baseball cap. In his hand he held what looked like a blue and yellow plastic Nerf gun.
“Who’s the…” I was going to say ‘squirt’ when my body went rigid. My jaws clamped down, almost severing the tip of my tongue. I rose up on the tips of my toes, and all the air went out of me with a whistling sound as if I was a bicycle pump. Somebody was beating a rapid-fire nun-chuck tattoo on my thigh, while the other muscles in my body seized up in one massive cramp. I toppled like a felled tree, everything stiff, right onto my face. Then the nun-chucks stopped pummelling my leg, and I lay there, twitching and moaning.
“What the fuck? Nate! What you do that for, you knob?” Julie shouted.
“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to. It just went off!” the little boy shouted back.
Julie knelt down next to me and removed something from my leg.
“You okay?”
I rolled onto my back. Blood was streaming down my nose. Groggily I tried to sit up. I felt as if I had just run a marathon. I was badly winded and shivering all over.
“What happened?”
Julie held up two little metal barbs on wires, thin as hairs, and coiling away to the tip of the nerf gun.
“You got zapped by a taser.”
She helped me get up, lead me outside. The sky was overcast and spitting, but the air was indescribably warm and sweet. I leaned against the wall under the bridge. Nate came out after me, looking embarrassed, angry, and rebellious.
“Got a fag?” I asked Julie. She dug out a pack Mayfair King Size. For some reason the health warning labels were in Spanish. I tore off the filter and Julie gave me fire.
“Sorry about that. My bro is a fuckwit.”
“Am not!” Nate flared up, but Julie hit him good-naturedly on the bill of Yankees cap, making it slide over his eyes.
“Cut it out, Julie,” he complained.
“You okay again? Getting zapped is a bitch, I know.”
“Oh, do you, now?” I said, sarcastically.
“Yeah, I do.” She took the big blue-and-yellow gun from Nate and showed it to me. It said x26 on the side, and west yorkshire police. “Bryan got it off a copper. Gave it to me. For protection.”
“And you gave it to your baby brother ‘cuz your rents can’t afford real toys?”
She rolled her eyes. “He was supposed to zap you. If you try to run.”
I smoked some more and wiped the drying blood off my lips. A commuter train roared passed. From within peeps in suits and ties stared back out at me, for a moment almost close enough to touch but still worlds apart. The train faded with the familiar sound. Tack-tack, tack-tack. Tack-tack. I flicked the butt of the fag onto the tracks and nodded.
We went into the house at the end of the row. Like all such houses everything inside was narrow and shoddy. The kitchen was filled with junk, microwave, blender, bread-maker, electric coffee grinder, espresso machine, juice extractor, you name it. On what little countertop was not occupied by all that crap, unwashed dishes were stacked.
“Can you cook?” Julie asked.
“Uh. Depends.”
She got orange juice, eggs, and bacon from the fridge, several cans of baked beans from the shelves and sliced bread from a bread box.
“Wash a couple of pots, pans and plates and make us breakfast.”
“You’ve got to be joking.”
“You are here to work off one and a half K, aren’t you? Stop complaining and get to it. Maybe we’ll let you have some.”
Food turned out okay. I got my fair share, too. Afterwards I had to wash up everything, scrub the counters, and wipe the goddamn floor, while Julie lounged on one chair, a foot in an unlaced Doc Martens boot on another, smoking Mayfairs. Her brother was sitting on a third chair, hugging the back, chin resting on top, fag in one hand, the x26 in the other.
The council house officially was Julie’s grandmother’s. During the three days I was there, I never saw the old lady leave her bed-room. I just heard her shout slurred orders to Julie or Nate from time to time. Julie’s mum was away for a couple of years for some drug offence. The corresponding grandfather had died a few years ago. Julie’s and Nate’s dad, a refugee from some Caribbean island state, had been deported shortly after Nate’s birth.
Julie and Nate had been left in the care of their alcoholic, bedridden grandmother. Or the grandmother had been left in the care of Julie and Nate. Who keeps score anymore, huh? All those kitchen appliances, the bloody big flat screen TV in the living room, the stereo, all that was paid by Julie, mostly from selling dope I think. She also had gotten her little brother an X-Box and a wii and bloody BMX bike that he never used. Cleaning up the house was that last inch that she couldn’t go without giving up her integrity, I guess.
After housecleaning I got to take a shower. Nate watched me all the time, but it still was heaven to wash all the blood and grime from my skin, and put some disinfectant and plasters on my various scraps and cuts, and tend to my feet. By the time I was dressed again Tyler was there to take us to town.
It took some effort from both of us, but after maybe six or seven attempts Julie and I had our routine down. I picked the marks. I would have preferred a third man to scope out potentials and “mark” them with a chalky handprint (yes, that’s where the term is from, and a damn good technique, too), or at least someone who would conspicuously bump into the mark, so that he pated himself down and showed me where he kept his stealables. But we had to do without.
Of course they said that there was a third man, keeping an eye on us, or rather on me. That Wednesday it was Tyler, on Thursday a bloke called Roger. I caught a glimpse of them every now and then, but he wouldn’t participate.
Anyway, the way we made it work, I picked the mark and made the lifts. Julie didn’t have any training beyond low-level shoplifting, but she had enough people sense that she soon figured out how to tell when I would move. She came my way then, passing me just as I had the wallet. I would drop it into her hand and overtake the mark, with hands and pockets as clear as my conscience, while Julie would walk off in the opposite direction.
We did that all afternoon and most of the evening, until the streets began to grow empty and it became hard to find excuses to get close enough to peeps. Tyler took us back to the house, where we sat for a while in the kitchen, counted the money, drank beer and just joked around. Without Melanie around, Tyler was pretty amiable. But they kept me cornered the whole time, so that I would have had to go through one of them to reach a door or a window. And when I had to go to the loo, Tyler went with me.
Later the whole crew would meet somewhere in Harehills. Julie got a lilo and a sleeping bag from a cupboard. Stacked neatly in one corner of the cupboard was a bunch of sandbox toys: A dark blue plastic bucket, the handle of which had long ago been torn off and lost, a shovel, and two or three sand moulds. I remember a yellow one of a plane and a red one of an elephant. But most of all I remember the way Julie took them down and the way she held them.
“They were Nate’s.” She tried to say it with a laugh as she handed me the bucket, but her eyes couldn’t help but stare past me and a couple of centuries to the last time he had been child enough to use them.
“If you have to go.”
It was about 10 pm when she locked me in again. It wouldn’t be before noon the next day that she let me out again. She hadn’t thought to give me any light, and somehow I was too kahretsin proud to ask for one. 14 hours of sensory deprivation. The only thing I heard was my own breathing and the rustling of the nylon sleeping bag on the rubberized fabric of the lilo, and the occasional ringing of a coin on the concrete floor when I dropped it – practicing sleight of hand with a coin was the only thing I could think of to pass the time. (I felt still too battered to practice aikido.)
Thursday went similarly to Wednesday: I had a noonday breakfast with Julie and Nate, and cleaned their bathroom while we waited for Roger to pick us up. I watched Julie water down her grandmother’s gin as much as she dared. Nate told me how Julie had once tried to concoct a mix of water, syrup, food colouring, and artificial rum flavour to create an alcohol-free rum substitute, but how their grandmother had got serious DTs, and so they went back to the gin. Nate laughed as he told this. I had to think of the sandbox toys again.
In the afternoon and the evening we made more money until it was time to go back. We had a couple of beers in the kitchen. Roger and Julie slagged some of their friends for fucking around behind the backs of their respective boy- or girlfriends. Finally Roger reminded Julie that they were expected at the Leeds International Pool, and Julie sent me to the loo before lockup. When I took too long, she whistled and called me: “Heel, Fido. Heel.” But her grin when I came out was infectious. After that followed another 14 hours of sleight of hand and bad dreams.
Continued here
Just because you don’t understand it
doesn’t mean it isn’t so.
– Lemony Snicket (The Blank Book, 2004)

Their names, of course, weren’t really Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Louie was Louise Thomas, and Dewey was her daughter Drew. Drew had been 3 years old and her biological father long gone from their lives when Louise met Hugh. I don’t know how they came up with those nicknames, but once they got them they stuck.
They were on their way to the Big Chill music festival that is being held every summer in Deer Park at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire. This would be the fourth year that they attended. The festival started Friday, two days after we met.
Huey had pre-cooked the chilli Louie had been heating over the camping stove, and after he was done taking care of my feet, and checking – for the umpteenth time, because of the accident – Dewey’s pupillary light reflex, he relieved Louie of cooking duty for some last minute seasoning.
Louie disappeared in the camper. When she came out she tossed a heavy, clanking bag to Dewey. “Better set it up while there is still some light. It’s bugger to do by the light of a torch.” Dewey groaned and looked at me, but before she could ask, Louie interrupted. “Huey has just spent an hour patching up this young man’s feet. He is not going to do the work for you and ruin all of that again, you hear? Get going.”
Then she pressed a pack of clothes in my arm, topped by a towel, and some soap.
“Over there is a barrel with rain water. Please wash. Thoroughly. And then, I don’t know, burn your clothes or something. You stink. Oh, and…”
She put a fourth pair of flip-flops on top of the pile. They were black. I wondered if she sold them or something. “So you don’t get your feet messed up again.”
I put on the thongs and limped across the orchard to the barrel. The water was reasonably fresh and deliciously cool. I stripped and washed, head to toes. The clothes turned out to be hers: A pair of black unisex briefs, black shorts, and a black men’s shirt. When I came back she looked me over.
“Looks better on you than on me. Keep them. Now let’s eat.”
The chilli was good. They had crackers with it. Dewey drank coke, Huey and Louie had beer. At first Louie handed me a can of coke, too, but when Huey saw me look at the beer, he said: “Go ahead, take one.”
Louie looked cross but didn’t say anything.
Afterwards I shared my last fags with Louie and offered to do the washing up, but Huey wouldn’t hear of it.
“You keep off those feet until the morning, you hear! Just stay here with Dewey, Louie and I will take care of it.”
To that Louie added: “And no stealing.”
I was too relaxed to be pissed off by the remark. “Not on your watch, ma’am.” I said, grinning. (Come to think of it, she did look a bit like Demi Moore.) Dewey sat down on the chair next to me. Huey and Louie left for the rain water barrel.
Dewey and I made polite chit-chat. We talked mainly about music, and films. When there was a natural pause in the conversation like they sometimes happen when nobody really has anything more to say about the current subject, Dewey suddenly asked:
“What if I really did?”
“Did what?”
“Try to, what you said. With the car.”
“What?” I was puzzled. “What did I say? Hump it, you mean?”
She nodded shyly.
I stared at her. Above the cloudy sky was still a bright, if faded pigeon blue, but down here shadows were crowding in on us, and the trees, deadwood and underbrush had run into one another in the murk. Even the dark red camper was beginning to lose its definition. But Dewey’s face stood out clear and pale, like a frightened apparition on an age darkened painting.
“Dewey, that makes no sense. I was just making a stupid joke.”
“Never mind, hey, wanna come to the festival with us?”
Her conversational zigzagging made me vaguely queasy. “I don’t have tickets.”
“But it would be so cool. You could sleep in the tent with me. And it’s fun. But sometimes it’s boring, and it would be more fun with you. Please?”
“I don’t have any bloody tickets. I bet there aren’t any to be had one day before it starts. And if there are, they’ll be terribly expensive.”
“Can’t you just steal one? You’re a thief aren’t you?”
I hesitated. “Yeah, I am. And I suppose I could. But I don’t know…”
“But you will stay with us tonight, right? Sleep in my tent?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think your rents would be cool with that.”
“Why? Cuz you could steal something?”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
It took a moment for the penny to drop. She blushed, giggled, and swatted me. “Nah, never mind that. I’ll manage that.” And she jumped up and bounced off, to join her rents at the barrel.
The three of them began lengthy deliberations, a dubious murmur punctuated by drawn out pleas, with the occasional sharp exchanges between Louie and Huey rising above the rest. For the second time that day I thought about scarpering, and if my feet hadn’t hurt so bad, I probably would have.
The night settled around me, and with the darkness clamminess crept into everything. Huey and Dewey returned the dishes to the camper and Louie sat down on the chair next to me.
“Well, thanks for the supper and everything,” I said.
“Yeah, well, you are welcome.” She hesitated. I was still thinking about how I could extricate myself from it all without sounding rude or crude, when she began: “Look, Dewey…”
“It’s okay, I’ll tell her I can’t stay.” I interrupted. “I’ll make it, like, totally my idea if you want.”
“No. Well, the thing is…” She floundered.
“If you’re not cool with it, that’s totally okay with me. If she was my daughter, I’d probably feel the same. And I’ll be okay on my own, really. What difference does it make if I go now or tomorrow.”
She swallowed. “No, we will not make you leave in the middle of the night. Yes, you will be on your own tomorrow, and that’ll be for the best, but you stay with us tonight. Don’t even act the tough guy, now, okay, it’s really just about you staying in her tent.”
I looked at Louie levelly. I don’t know, she was a bitch, no doubt about that, and I had no idea what kept Huey and her together, but somehow I respected her. So I decided to make that leap. I took a deep breath and said:
“Okay, listen. I don’t know if my word means anything to you, there isn’t any reason it should, but Dewey isn’t really my type. I mean, I like her, she’s a sweet kid and all, but it’s not just that she is a couple of years too young for my taste, she’s also not equipped the way I like ‘em. Chromosomally.” I adjusted my crotch. “And anyway, I’m way too knackered for any funny stuff tonight.”
“Oh.” She thought about it. “You mean, you’re…”
“As a bottle of chips. So, if there is anyone you need to worry about me hitting on, my first choice would be Huey. I like big and bearish. Just, don’t ask me to prove it, that’d be awkward. I don’t perform well in front of an audience.”
At that she had to laugh. She leaned back in her chair and looked at me. Then she nodded.
Dewey returned and told me I would read to her now. I asked if she wasn’t too old for that that but she gleefully said, nope, she wasn’t. So, after a second nod from Louie I crawled into the tent and Dewey switched on an electric torch and gave me the big brick of a book she had brought along. It was Inkheart, which gave me a bad sting. The last person I had read this to had been ‘Nette.
Dewey showed me where she had stopped reading. I began, and soon I was lost in the harsh, dangerous, and hauntingly beautiful world of Meggie Folchart. Eventually Louie poked her head in, handed me a second iso-foam mat and said:
“Don’t stay up too late, girls.”
Dewey did one of these happy little squeaks that only girls her age can pull off, hugged me, and then hugged her mum good night. After that Huey also came by. He was a bit more sombre and gave me a tube of zinc oxide cream for my feet before wishing us a good night.
After they were gone, Dewey snuggled up to me and had me read on. And while I did, she rested her head on my left arm and let her fingers trail the long, silvery scars on its inside.
Continued here
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. I’m trying to tell you how I became a thief. The shoplifting, that might have been my first attempt at it. Well, it wasn’t actually. Before that I had sometimes taken some money from my mum’s purse, although never without feeling, well, not so much guilty as cheap. Dirty. Low. And when she sent me for groceries I often kept some or all of the change for myself. I usually did that with a rather clear conscience, calling it a carrying fee in front of myself. Once, when I was about 10, I stole a really cool key chain with a skull pendant from Leo, even though I knew I would never be able to wear it. Everybody would instantly recognize it. I stole it anyway, and I felt curiously good and bad about it at the same time. But none of that made me a thief. At best someone who stole.
All of this was before I went to juvie, obviously. This is what lead up to my arrest, to the whole year before that blacked-out Friday night in Neukölln, and my final break out at Wotton-under-Edge. My fighting problem was at its worst then, and I knew I was about to be kicked out of school. The rozzers were regular guests at my mum’s flat. I was going to counselling twice a week, but that was a total waste of time. I mean, I suppose it cannot work when you do not tell them what’s really on your mind. But how can you when you cannot even tell it to yourself, when the very thoughts they want to hear are the pain you are trying to get away from, are exactly that which is so bad that getting the shit beaten out of you is a welcome distraction. How can you reach someone for who being tortured has become addictive, the thing to look forward to?
The next school year my academic performance was really going below par as well. I mean, I am no genius, but when half your class is still struggling with the common language, it doesn’t take much to stay abreast. But that year, well, I couldn’t even muster the effort for that. By the spring of 07 it was clear that I would have to repeat the year if nothing was done. My mum made me take private tutoring, even though we really couldn’t afford it. All through summer I had to job to pay her back some, and the planned trip to my aunt in Gloucestershire fell flat also.
I managed to scrape by, just barely in French and Chemistry, but enough to move up to 4th form. With all my studying and jobbing, babysitting little Nicky, and the thing with Hendrik, I had hardly spent any time with my mates all summer. So when sometime in late August after football training Hector suggested a poker game at Old Luisenstadt Graveyard I felt more than obligated to agree.
My mum returned from work around 10 pm. ‘Nessa, Nicky, and I had already had supper. When my mum looked in on me I pretended I was studying for school, but I had hidden a Travis McGee novel inside the massive chemistry textbook. Nicky was asleep. Mum and ‘Nessa talked for a while in the kitchen, then Mum withdrew into the living room, where she slept on the sofa-bed.
Around midnight I went to the loo. Mum had fallen asleep over a crossword-puzzle. I pulled the cover up to her shoulders, put the biro and the puzzle book onto the couch table, and turned off the light. When I put on trainers in the hall, ‘Nessa came out of the kitchen.
“What the hell do you think you are doing, bro?”
“Just going to see Orcun.” Since he lived next door I figured that would be the easiest answer.
“And you are putting on a jacket for that?” She pointed out the tracksuit top I was wearing. Say about her what you want, but my big sister is a sharp one.
“Didn’t say I was going to see him at his place,” I conceded.
“You are not happy unless you are fucking things up, aren’t you, Rikki?”
What can I say? She’s right I suppose.
The night was bloody marvellous. The air was damp and cool, hazy with a hint of mist from the canal. It smelled of dust, straw and dew, just the way a summer night is supposed to smell. I biked down Admiralstrasse, Grimmallee, and Körtestrasse, and no ten minutes after leaving the house I climbed the fence of the graveyard.
I was the first and I had some time to visit ‘Nette’s grave. Leo found me there. He had brought beer and handed me one. I lit a fag for him. He squeezed my shoulder and we went over to the big stone angel with the chipped off face that guards the oldest part of the grounds. Hec and Orcun joined us there.
We stayed until dawn. On the way back to Kotbusser Tor we stopped at a bakery. Officially it was still closed but we went to the back door and the apprentice sold us a couple of warm sesame rings anyway. And when I let myself into the flat, mum was waiting for me.
I had expected her to sleep in, since that week her shift at the supermarket didn’t start before 10 am. Normally she wouldn’t have been up before 8. But Nicky had had a colic that night and his implacable crying had woken her around the time we left the graveyard. She had only meant to look in on me to get a glimpse of her youngest peacefully asleep or something, but when she had found me gone she had pressed ‘Nessa for info and ‘Nessa had told her I’d been gone all night.
My mum has never had the energy to care much about my private life, but with all the bother and expenses of getting me through the previous school year, she totally blew her top this time: I was grounded for three weeks, football training and all. I was to go to school and back right after. When she was at work, I was to call her from the phone at the flat so that she could see via caller ID that I really was where I was supposed to be, and she made sporadic calls to make certain I staid in. I was supposed to use the time to study. Of course she couldn’t know what this would cost us all in the long run. None of us knew what this would lead to. Because in those three weeks I discovered that art and joy of larceny.
***
Over the summer I had read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I had liked it a lot and read a number of interviews with Mr. Gaiman about the book. I learned that one of the books he had used for research had been The Big Con by David Maurer. I had tried to get that at the library, without success. What I had found instead, amongst a lot of books on card and coin tricks, was How To Be A Professional Confidence Artist by former Michigan rozzer Dennis M. Marlock. HTBAPCA isn’t actually meant to be a how-to book, or if, it’s rather meant to be a how-not-be-scammed book. In the end, I think, it mostly is a why-confidence-artists-are-really-not-cool-at-all book. But to me it was a revelation.
If I hadn’t been grounded I may never have read it. It didn’t look particularly interesting, but rather dull, a small press pamphlet. So I had put it aside and more or less forgotten about it. I might even already had gotten a reminder from the library to return it. But then I was grounded and once more began using my entire waking time to read. And eventually I picked up Mr. Marlock’s pamphlet.
At first I wasn’t really that into it. The writing is a bit too smug for my taste, too cocksure. The first chapter is on change raising. It sounded positively barmy. I was certain that what he explained would never work in real life. But the good thing about that technique is that you can at worst only embarrass yourself with it. Even if caught nobody can prove you did anything with criminal intent.
I was bored. I was pissed off at my mum. I felt another fight coming on. No idea with who, but my blood temperature was rising, and I knew that sooner or later someone would be along, just when I was about to boil over. And I would be in trouble again. I needed a distraction. Hendrik, who had kept my temperature down for the last couple of weeks, was gone from my life for good, so there wouldn’t be any help there. So when my mum sent me to buy groceries one evening I decided to give it a try.
Like I said, this wasn’t the first time I stole something, but still this was different, I knew that, even before I did it. This was serious. I wished to defraud someone deliberately and see if I could not learn what it had to teach me. I wasn’t setting out to pinch some chewing gum or cigarettes, this wasn’t giggling excitement, a lark to pass the time. That I went at it alone was telling enough. This was like drinking on your own. When I went into the supermarket on that August afternoon, I went like a samurai going to battle.
At the supermarket they have these shopping trolleys that take a Euro coin as security deposit. It was early evening, rush hour at the checkout lanes. The sales girl had just started processing a mum with three hyperactive kids when I approached her about some change to release one such trolley. I had to wait a good while for the sales girl and the mum to get everything tallied, paid, and packed away (again, amidst kids climbing on the conveyor belt and other waiting customers, begging for sweets, and chasing each other around). I kept hovering patiently behind the sales girl and smiling benignly at the kids. This was going just as I had hoped.
By the time she was free to help me, she was quite apologetic and thankful for my patience, but at the same time also under pressure to get on to the next customer in line, who had already been waiting even longer. I handed her a twenty Euro bill and got a tenner, a fiver, and some coins in return. I smiled again and began to say thank you, when in putting the money away I discovered a 1-Euro-coin sized token that you can also use to release a trolley. I slapped my forehead and asked her to please take the fiver and the coins back, in return for a tenner, as I really did not want to carry all that lose change around.
“Okay,” she sighed, and took the fistful of money I put back into her palm, while giving me another tenner.
With just that hint of uncertainty and doubt in my voice I said: “That should be all.” Just enough to make her check if she really got the whole 10 Euro worth of change, enough to make me seem innocent if she hadn’t gotten all. And of course, she hadn’t. I was two Euros short. That was odd. I was puzzled. Hadn’t I just handed her back what she had given me? Had she really given me the full amount in return for my twenty? I searched my pockets while the annoyed murmuring from the queue was getting louder and more urgent. She still remembered my own patience with her and the mum, but worry lines were beginning to show on her face.
I put the tenner between my lips and patted myself down with both hands. There, some change, most of it in coppers. I count out three fifty cent coins, one twenty and one ten cent piece, that is two Euros.
“Look here,” I said, taking the tenner from between my lips, now obviously very embarrassed and in a hurry. “Here is twelve. Together with eight I just gave you that is twenty. Just gimme back my original twenty note and we are done; after all, I got the token for the trolley.”
Under pressure from the customers she counted the money and right enough, twenty Euro. She gave me back my banknote and let me go. She had a somewhat troubled look on her face, but even trying to think it through she could not find any fault. She shrugged it off, and hey, I was a polite and honest looking German boy, not some pidgin speaking Turkish hoodlum or a Yugoslav gypsy, it was probably alright.
But if you have been keeping count you know that there was nothing honest about the whole transfer, and in the end she paid me 10 Euros for the dubious pleasure of my company. I left with my old twenty and a brand new tenner from the supermarket till – and then took my token to another supermarket around the corner to do my shopping there, just in case she caught up later.
When I left I felt great. It wasn’t the money, though for a 14 year old from a household where a single mum had to work 2 jobs to see her family fed and clothed, 10 Euro is nothing to be sneezed at. But that wasn’t what gave me that incredible high. No, having been able to fool her, messing around with her in plain sight, und under the scrutiny of dozens of annoyed witnesses wishing me to hell, and still getting away with it… what a rush!
I did it as often as I could. When my mum ended the grounding, I spent my afternoons on the shopping miles of Berlin and milked every small and mid-sized store I could. I avoided the really big places, large department stores and such, figuring they would have cameras and detectives and that they might have schooled their cashiers to catch this form of deception. But I hit all the little boutiques, the expensive sweet shops that sell gift hampers and gold wrapped pralines by the ounce, and all the other shops scattered along Tauntziehen, Wilmersdorfer, Tor, and Schlossstrasse, around Hermannplatz and Leopoldplatz. I only steered clear of the area around Oranienburger and Kotti. I was too familiar a face in my own Kiez to risk getting a rep for change raising there. Word would have filtered back to my mum.
I made some fascinating discoveries. Computer shops were amongst the easiest targets – they were used to handle large amounts of money and the personnel was definitely more interested in the technical than the commercial side of any transaction. But every now and then there would be a math wiz amongst the nerds that would make me at once. Often enough they wouldn’t suspect foul play at all, though, but just correct me, complacent in their mathematical savvy.
Kindness is definitely a down if you want to go far in the business world: Friendly shop keepers are much easier to dupe than grumpy, forbidding ones. Gender and age on the other hand seem to be in no way related to how easy a mark can be suckered.
Every now and then I encountered a cashier that was trying to shortchange me as I was trying to raise the change. Shortchangers aren’t exactly thick on the ground, but shockingly common if you try enough. One time we both recognized each other at the same time. It was a cheap jeans shop off Rosa Luxemburg Platz and the garishly made up half-Arabic girl might have been doing it out of sheer boredom. Certainly her chewing gum held more fascination for her than her few customers – who, truth be told, turned out to be only window shoppers. But she was skilled enough to obviously not have started with it that day. Of that I am certain. When we made one another we looked at each other, first guiltily, then angry, sizing each other up. And then we both had to laugh. We each took back out original investment and I left, strangely relieved. I had met myself, and we had disliked each other less than I would have expected.
But as fun as raising change is, it is a somewhat elaborate con for a usually pretty low gain. Once you start to fish for larger sums than ten Euro people tend to get much more careful. (Once I did walk away from a computer shop with two fifty Euro notes that I had let them give me for allowing them to briefly handle the five hundred that I had brought along. I never could repeat that stunt, though, and eventually got into trouble for trying. I had to leg it and leave behind a good deal more than those one hundred, so in the end the attempt to go for big fish was a net loss for me.) Which meant that eventually I began to hunt for other games.
Most grifts require two or more peeps – usually at least one roper who engages the mark and a cap who comes in and takes over. Those that can be played by a lone grafter require some serious skill at sleight-of-hand when for example you swap the mark’s money at the crucial moment for a wad of worthless scrap paper faced back and front by a single real banknote. So, after doing a bit of research, and beginning to train my fingers to do what I wanted them to while I was focusing attention elsewhere, I decided that I might as well pick pockets directly. In the end, that to me is the purest form of the art: Your dexterity and skill at misdirection against the mark’s perceptiveness and presence of mind.
I said my first time going out to raise change I went like a Samurai going into battle. In a way that is of course total bollocks. The very essence of a Samurai is that he follows a lord, that he adheres to a code. A true Samurai is never selfish. He sacrifices himself for his lord, not just his life, but his personality, his innermost being. With Hendrik I actually tried that, even though I suppose in the end I failed. Or he proved unworthy of the sacrifice. I still do not know which it was. But being a thief I did nothing of the sort. It was utterly selfish. But there still was something of Bushido in all this.
Life in every breath. Focusing all of existence on a single moment, letting that moment expand to fill the entire universe, so that time stops and each second becomes an eternity unto itself. When I stole, everything else ceased to exist. I finally had found something better than fighting. I had found something better than wanking, better than sex. It was my daily worship, my mass and prayer.
If books had been my heroin than thieving became my cocaine.
Continued here
All my siblings read to me from time to time when I was little, not just Lukas. ‘Nette was actually quite the bookworm. But I didn’t really discover the beautiful world of literature and the blissful escape it can provide until I was 11 years old. The first book to open that hatch for me, into another, saner world, was the Satanic Mill by Ottfried Preussler. I was sitting in one of the ugly orange moulded-plastic seats outside ‘Nette’s hospital room. My mum was inside with her and the docs, and I was scared shitless. I was supposed to have read the Satanic Mill weeks ago, the test was in 2 days, and I thought, what the hell. Anything to take my mind off the false smiles, the hollow promises, and most of all off the desperation in my mother’s face as she made herself believe the lies.
And you know what? It worked like a charm. From page 2 onward I was lost in the strange, bleak, romantic, magical world of the boy Krabat and his fight against the evil miller. I kept reading every free minute I could scrounge up, deep into the night, and by the next evening I was through. I remember the moment of waking when I suddenly ran out of words the way Wile E. Coyote runs out of street to stand on. I flailed and grasped for anything to keep me from plummeting down into the harsh chasm of reality. What my fingers found and clung to was ‘Nette’s bookshelf. I opened Michael Ende’s Neverending Story, and I suppose I haven’t stopped reading since.
Of course there were comments in school and at football training. But two of my psychopathic fights later those comments died. Reading didn’t make me soft. It made me somewhat numb, however, and that was exactly what it was supposed to do. Is it a wonder then that I found my true vocation in a book?
Continued here