Archive for the ‘fags’ 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.

It was raining again when I entered Glen Dee. The sky was as rugged as the ground, clouds, torn, chasing each other, sunlight coming through the ragged opening in scattered bursts, the way a gunman might occasionally strafe a besieged house with bursts of automatic fire. The hills on both sides of the glen grew into mountains and the path itself plodded ever upwards.

In the evening I reached a mountain whose lopsided peak jutted out impressively over the glen, like a cock straining against tight trousers. As I found out later it’s called “Devil’s Point” in English, which was the polite translation of its Gaelic name as it was told to Queen Victory when she travelled through these parts. A more literal translation would be “demon dick”.

There was a small stone hut at the foot of the Devil’s Point. I thought about spending the night there, but when I got close, I saw that a group of happy hikers were just getting cozy inside, hanging freshly washed socks from the window sill and busying themselves with the fireplace. I greeted them half-heartedly, without breaking my stride. I hurried past the hut and up a small path that lead to the ridge joining the Devil’s Point and several other peaks to a plateau.

I had not intended to climb any of these peaks. I had wanted to stay on the trail along the valley. But the path to the stone hut had taken me away from the main trail, and once I was there and saw that it was occupied, I only had the choices of either staying, or turning around, or walking on, uphill.

I didn’t want to stay. Helen and John had been all the company I craved that day. And I didn’t want to turn around, because doing so would have made it only to apparent to those hikers that I was avoiding them. And somehow that moment I couldn’t have born the shame of my cowardice becoming visible to them. Even if it meant having to drag myself up that devilish mountain.

I cursed myself every exhausting and agonizing step. Each made my shoulder throb with a deep, dull fire. And when the night had quietly done away with the last of the dusk I found myself in a large corrie, illuminated only by the wan light of a distant, gibbous moon – an immense natural amphitheatre made up of moss-covered rocks and steep slopes. And I felt very lost, and small, and terribly exposed to the heavens.

The corrie was lines with little brooks. I found a dry, sandy spot between two of them, had the last of Helen Campbell’s sandwiches, emptied the bottle, tended to my feet, and finally smoked my last fag and gazed down into the Glen, and the tiny flickering light of the hearth fire in the stone hut far below me at the foot of the mountain.

As I sat there I was still mulling over the things Helen had said. And her question whether I believe in God and in Jesus Christ.

Just to be clear on this, I do believe in God. I do. I do. But… how do I say this?

My Dad had been raised a Roman Catholic, and my aunt had converted to the Church of England when she married. My cousins had been raised Anglicans. My mum is from a family of strict Prussian Lutheran protestants. My oldest friend and neighbour, Orcun, was from a family of moderately devout Muslims. And Hector’s parents were lapsed Communists and strict and vocal atheists. From the beginning I had known that whatever anyone wanted to claim about religion, there was always a way to look at things differently.

My mum had me and my siblings baptized in the local Lutheran parish, and all but me went to Confirmation class from 12 onward. I was the only one to flat out refuse to go. But that was the extend of my mum’s involvement with the Church. The only times I ever saw her even talk to the vicar was during ‘Nette’s funeral, and at Nicky’s baptism 2 ½ years later.

Primary school offered religious instruction for Protestants and Catholics, but none for Muslims, so it mainly served as a segregator for the main ethnicities – the German kids mostly went to the Lutheran class, Polish kids to the Catholic, and the Turkish and Arabic kids had a free period (but usually visited a Qur’an school some afternoons of the week.) Again it seemed to me that somehow religion was less about truth and more about belonging, about identity and taking sides.

I remember how astonished I was when I finally received religious instructions how boring and meaningless everything was that I was being told about God and Jesus. How God – supposedly almighty and all-knowing – was this soppy stern chap who in some never fully explained way was supposed to love everybody (like, what does that even mean?) and watch over the entire world and every littlest critter in it, and who for some reason was to be credited with every good turn but never to be blamed for everything that went wrong. And Jesus, the son (or incarnation, they never could tell me which) of this almighty God, had brought even more love and forgiveness into the world – I kept wondering what a perfect God needed a version 2.0 for – but then got killed rather badly for it.

And then I looked around in my world, and inside myself, and saw all the violence, and the callousness, the pettiness, and how messed up and dirty and run down everything was, and I thought, kurwa, He sure is doing a terrible job.

I also began to seriously resent my teacher, and God, because if there was any truth in what she told me about God’s intentions and power, then God must either hold one hell of a grudge against me, or – and that was even worse – I must be so unimportant that in all his omniscience He never noticed me.

And then ‘Nette started her confirmation classes, and in the nights we would talk about what she had learned, and what she was thinking about all of it. And we’d try to make sense of it ourselves. And once again I was astonished, this time because the stuff we read was nothing like that boring, pedantic, and utterly ineffective God the grown-ups had been telling me about.

The God of the bible is a truly wicked bloke. He is rash to anger and totally overreacts to everything. He blunders along and often acts before he thinks and then comes to regret it later, or changes his mind in mid-stride. He blusters and boasts, sulks, and refuses to admit when he’s made a mistake. He’s bloodthirsty, and untrustworthy, and incredibly vain. But He is full of love – and not that boring, serene love my dried-up teach was going on about, but a love that years, and hurts, is proud, and tender, and that knows how to forgive, not for morals butt for passion. Who could read the story of God and David and not be moved by the flawed, fiery passion for one another?

The bible is full of great folks, and I was pissed off that the teach had made them all sound so dull. There was David, and his suggestive, well, not even love-triangle but love-quadrangle, with King Saul and Saul’s son Jonathan and saul’s daughter Michal. I mean, talk about kinky. David’s career as an outlaw and rebel, his ascent to kingship, his trouble with his own sons, and his less than glorious old age.

Or take Jacob, the thief, liar, and runaway, who got into actual fisticuffs with God, and who God loved so much that he re-named him Israel. Or Job, who took God to court and forced Him to show His true colours. Or Moses, who I think it can be argued is the only person other than Mary who has a reasonable claim to the boast that God made love to him, but who was still turned back at the border of the promised land and had to die, alone, in the desert.

At the age of 10 the New Testament was a bit boring for me and often very hard to understand. But even there were hidden gems that the grown-ups had withheld from me: Why do they gloss over Herod’s mass child murder in the Christmas Story? And who came up with these three boring old kings, when the actual text tells of an numberless group of wise men – possibly wizards! – from the East? And then there are moments like the one when Jesus begs God to spare him, when he is filled with fear and doubt, but God refuses him and Jesus is nailed to the cross anyway. Later when ‘Nette’s tumour had metastasised into her bones and she had to be given morphine, an still it hurt her so badly, I had to think of the crucifiction and what it would feel like to have nails driven through my wrists and the spans of my feet.

This God of the bible was a God who made sense, a God who fit the world I was living in. It wasn’t a God I could approach about a new bicycle or a Playstation, sure, but it was one I could somehow respect.

Until he murdered my sister.

That long Saturday afternoon, as I walked up Glen Dee and climbed the Devil’s Point, He was a lot on my mind again, and for the first time in years I asked myself if I still had faith. If I was, as Helen had said, putting my fate in the hands of God.

The idea bothered me, it bothered me a lot. I mean, if I allowed for God as the charioteer of destiny, I could hardly avoid it, could I? But it rankled with me: Since her death I had never begged. I preferred to take what I wanted and be damned the consequences. I didn’t want handouts from Him.

When I was sitting up on the mountainside, shivering in my damp clothes in the night’s chilling breeze, I tried to see the world through the Atheist’s eyes. It was surprisingly easy, under those racing clouds, with the cold and distant stars blinking through them from afar. It was easy to imagine the vastness to be empty not only of matter or warmth, but of meaning. But it remained a thought experiment. It didn’t truly relieve me of my conviction.

It did make me remember those nights, though, when I’d lain in my sister’s bed, had felt the warmth of her body against mine, smelled her skin and the shampoo in her hair, and when we had gazed out through the narrow window, so high on the wall – the same window that I would try to flee through from that lady rozzer only a few years later, condemning myself to jail and all that followed – and through which we had looked at the very same stars that I was seeing now, from the slopes of the Devil’s Point. And the memory hurt. It hurt with a raw, sudden intensity I had not expected, and I wanted to cry out in pain.

Instead I bit down on that pain, and spit it onto the gravel, and snarled: “Yeah, well, fuck you, too!” And I curled up as tight as I could, under those cold stars, and surrendered myself to the nightmares once more.

***

It would be easy to leave it at that and to move on to the scary White Van Man from Beauly, and that beastly night in Cannich, and my near death experience in the Mullardochs, but that would be dishonest.

When I woke up I was very cold and did a double Aikido session before walking back down from the Devil’s Point. The day was misty and gloomy and I was hungry and very thirsty. By the time I reached the hut the hikers had moved n. I looked around inside, vaguely hoping to find some left over food, or to warm myself on the ambers of their fire, but only warm ash remained, not enough to do me any good.

My shoulder hurt if anything even worse than the day before. It made me think of Ponyboy, and I knelt down in the middle of the room and wanked. That made the pain flare up, but I gritted my teeth and brought myself to a sad, whimpering ejaculation onto the floor. Still kneeling I pissed on it as well. Then I buttoned up and left.

I drank of the cold waters of the Dee, filled up the bottle, and walked on. The sun came out for a while, and to my right be Ben Macdui reached for the sky. Clouds came and went, but the mountain remained, its peak dipping in and out of the wisps of mist.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the mountains in Scotland, but they are nothing like the Alps, or the mountains of the Balkans. The Cairngorms may have rocky cliffs here and there, and sometimes there are clumps of trees at their feet – pine, and birch, and aspen, and bushes of juniper and rowan – but other than that they are these rounded humps, steep, but startlingly smooth, overgrown with heather and lichen in the valley, but the tops  bald and covered in immense fields of lose, round, fist-sized stones. Walking amongst them is like paddling a small sealskin canoe through an immense herd of gigantic whales.

And so, their steep, smooth walls flowing out ahead of me along the valley’s sides, the valley floor itself rising like a wave to the distant pass, in spite of my anger and resentment, it made my spirits lift.

And when I passed a gushing creek coming down the mountain I veered off the path and began to hike up a pathless mountainside. It was hard going, and soon I was out of breath, but I didn’t slow down. My eyes were constantly on the lookout for the next good foothold, my brain kept calculating distance and balance, and once again it was his magic of movement, the trance of the trop, that pulled my heart along.

From time to time it rained, and the cold water ran down my body underneath my clothes. Then the sun came out again and dried me. And then, finally, in densest fog, I reached the heap of stones that marked the highest peak of the Ben Macdui, the highest peak of the Cairngorms.

Look, I don’t want to take back anything I just told you about my relationship to God, or life, or anything. It didn’t change anything, it didn’t convince me of anything. But still… while I stood there, catching my breath, the sky tore open, the mists around me blew apart, the world unrolled all its horizons, and the sun set everything ablaze. All the wetness caught and magnified her fierce fire, like a universe of jewels. No religion or philosophy dreamed up by humans can say as mayn good tings about the world, or say them as convincingly, as the sun, the air, the water, and the rocks did just then.

After that it was all downhill. By afternoon I surrounded by trees again, where I promptly got lost. By nightfall, tired beyond endurance, I ended up in Inverdruie, where I spent the night. Monday I first had a look at the Aviemore Centre, a piece of daring architecture from the 1960s so incredibly uncool that it is actually kind of cool again, and hitchhiked to Inverness, where I arrived in the evening.

Continued here

The day began misty and grey and eventually it started to rain, quietly at first, then harder. Walking I enjoyed the way the Doc Martens felt different from the Chucks I’d worn all those weeks before. The Docs were much heavier, of course, but also with the Chucks you can feel every last pebble and ridge of earth through the soles, and through the canvas top even thick and tall grass can be felt. With the Docs, new as they were, the leather not yet quite broken in and the sole still stiff, it was as if a red carpet had been rolled out underneath me, as I made my way through grass and bushes, through puddles and mud.

I followed first the Perth-Inverness railroad tracks to Pitlochry, where I got some grub and more fags, and then the B8079 that in turn follows General Wade’s old military road from around 1730 through the Pass of Killicrankie into Blair Atholl.

Hey, have you ever noticed how things that are normally considered beautiful, like winter snow and summer rain, turn ugly when you encounter them alongside a road with heavy traffic? How things otherwise pure and innocent get corrupted by the noise and the dirt and the haste of modern life? And have you ever noticed how in all that corruption and ugliness, in headlights reflected in wet tarmac, in the blackish sludge and gravel of a road shoulder meeting the lifeless, oil-soaked soil, in the nagry hum of traffic buzzing past in the rain, and in the way all passers-by lose their faces helmeted with hoods and shielded with umbrellas, how in all of that there still is so much beauty?

Well, when I reached Blair Atholl that Friday noon I was thoroughly sick of that stark, industrial beauty. Aside from a few mornings in Edinburgh’s Holyrood and park this morning’s swim in the river had been the first time in almost 3 weeks – since coming into Marsden out of the Pennies – I had been away from the company of Peeps, and I was sick of them. Sick of their noise, of the smell, sick of their gazes, of showing up at all in any other person’s mind, or them leaving dirty tracks in mine. I wanted to get where I would be all alone. So I forwent a visit to the sterile looking Blair Castle and headed straight for Glen Tilt, the river valley that leads into the Grampian mountains, whose peaks had beckoned me since I had seen them the day before.

Just for the record – What I did was dead stupid, okay? I went into the mountains with nothing but a single change of clothes, a water-proof poncho, a couple of apples, 2 cans of tuna, and some cheese and sliced bread. I didn’t even have a water bottle, let alone a map, or a compass, or a tent. Even if I stuck to the valleys and voided risky climbs, and even if there was still some tourists around, in spite of all the rain, this is how peeps get killed. It was plain stupid, and even a city boy like me should have known better.

Also, it turned out that Doc Martens are not exactly ideal for wilderness walks. Not enough profile and the soles get slick when wet. The first two days I had some trouble with sores and blisters, again, though that was mostly die to the newness of the boots. But Huey had taught me well enough, and I was equipped to deal with that, so I stopped every hour or so to lance, wash, dry, and dress the blisters, and to tape irritated skin, and that went okay.

For the rest of the day I walked uphill along the stream, between the steepening, mostly treeless hills. Eventually the little road made way for a narrow stony path, still following the water. I rested when I had to, but I always kept walking on. Only when it got so dark that I could no longer be sure of my footing I found a soft, grassy knoll partly sheltered by a rocky outcropping, and simply curled up in my poncho.

I stand by what I said about the danger, you understand? But if you’ve never done that, just walked into somewhere with no clear idea where you are, and just laid down to sleep on the bare ground under the naked sky, far from any other human being, well, you don’t know what you’ve missed. It’s uncomfortable, it’s cold, and the hunger can be a bitch, but the sense of freedom. Man, there is nothing in the world that can beat that. Nothing!

It took me some time to find sleep, and I was woken by bad dreams twice that night, but each time it was still too dark to walk on. The second time, however, the rain had stopped and the clouds had opened up to reveal a magnificent, starry sky. For a while I sat, Indian style, on the slope, smoked, and looked into the incredible vastness above, before settling back down for a few more hours of sleep. That time it was deep, and lasted until I was woken by voices echoing from the rocks.

Continued here

The lorry park offered free showers and a Transport Café. When the suczka  in the BP shop wouldn’t sell me fags, I went into he café for a coke and swiped two packs from tables I walked past. The driver had gone for a shower and a meal and I idled away the time at the Outdoor Activity Centre net to the petrol station, studying advertisements for white-water rafting and bungee jumping and other exciting adventures for rich pussies. Later the driver cam back carrying a pack of four large cans of Stella, which he shared freely. I got the narrow top bunk, and together we listened to a Best of Italian Opera mix and talked for a while about the Highlands, and the freedom of the road, and how it was disappearing a little bit every year. Then we settled down for the night.

I felt very comfortable in the cosy shelter of the lorry cab, in spite of the pain in my shoulder. I enjoyed the smell of patrol, beer, male sweat, and aftershave, the hypnotic lights from passing cars that came through the cracks in the drapes and moved white bars across the walls and ceiling, and the sound of the petrol station and the rain on the metal roof directly above my head. Eventually I drifted into sleep, and for a few hours I found rest in the deep sea silence and darkness of dreamless sleep, before the nightmares started again.

My dreams of that time came in two shades. Either it was that of the madding crowd. I would be in some place thick with peeps. Sometimes it was my old school, or the Prinzenbad public pool, where I used to go with my mates in the summers in Berlin, or it could be something from my recent life, like, say, a theatre or gallery I’d hit with Charley in Edinburgh, or the Headrow in Leeds, where I’d worked with Julie, or the camping site at the Big Chill. Wherever it was, it always began with me going about my business, alone. But then something would happen with the crowd. Sometimes they would start to mutter and talk amongst themselves, too low for me to understand. Sometimes I realized they were talking in some language I didn’t know. And then they’d begin to stare. Someone might ask me something in gibberish and get angry when I couldn’t respond. Or they’d start pushing me around, and shouting all together at me in an unintelligible cacophony of exclusion. In the end though the real horror wouldn’t come from those crowding me from head on but from someone being suddenly in directly in my back, touching me from behind, hot breath on my neck, too close to bear.

In the other kind of nightmare, I’d be stalked. Those would begin with me alone in some place that had been populated on moments ago, you know, Mary Celeste like. There would be food on the tables, and steaming mugs of tea. Tellies were on, flickering, but set to a quite murmur. There might be open books about, or fluttering newspapers, or unfinished letters, the pen still lying on the paper, the ink not yet dry. At first it wouldn’t be eerie, but seemed perfectly natural. As if I knew where they all were, and why. Sometimes I could hear peeps nearby, around a corner or behind some wall. Never loud, but, you know, present in their absence somehow. I knew they weren’t far.

But then something would enter. I’d notice motion behind a row of trees perhaps, or hear a floorboard creek beyond a door that’s been left ajar. Whatever It was, It would slowly come closer, prowling, lurking, circling me, moving behind furniture, or behind me. And I would realize that all those peeps that moments ago still had been just around some corner, that they were all gone now. I was all alone. Even if I’ start to shout for help, nobody would be there to hear me. Nobody would come. And I would become afraid. Terrified. I never had a clear idea what It would do to me when It caught, but I knew that anything would be better. Anything. Anything but that.

That was the dream I had that night. When I woke up with a start I painfully hit my head on the ceiling of the cab. For a moment I was convinced that It had followed me from the dream and was now going to grab me. Then a large lorry passed outside. It’s headlights illuminated the entire cab and I saw that nobody was there except for me and my still snoring host.

Too shaken to lie down again I got dressed in the darkness, grabbed my bag, and crept out. I lit a fag, crossed the A9 and the fields beyond, and climbed down the bank to the shore of the river Tummel. There I stripped and stepped directly into the cold, rain-swollen waters, and washed the stink of fear from my skin. The current was pretty strong. The water surged and swelled around me. In the distance I saw otters glide through the waves, look up, and disappear.

The overcast sky was beginning to grow grey when I walked back onto the shingle beach. I was shivering, partly with the cold, and partly still with the tension from the nightmare. I stepped into my boots, tied the lose laces once tightly around each ankle, and began training Aikido, hard enough to break out into a light sweat again. I kicked shadowy enemies, blocked their invisible blows, and rolled across the ground to evade their attacks, the pebbles scratching my back bloody. When I was done the shivers had passed.

There was hardly any traffic sounds from the A9, down there in the river valley, and when I finally got dressed, the birds around me began greeting the new day. My aunt is mad about songbirds, you see, she got her garden planted especially to attract them, and she is always pointing out one or the other of her little feathered friends, which is how I knew most of those that started singing all around me then: Thrushes and Robins, Tits, Siskins, and Blackbirds. And with their dawn chorus my soul, too, suddenly took wing, and soared, rose above the gloom of the night, rose, and rose, and revelled in the glory of the new day.

“All your life,” I sang quietly. “You were only waiting…”

“Blackbird” echoed with Aimee Mann’s gentle, hesitant voice in my mind, and I hummed along as I walked back up the riverbank and then northward, between the river and the road.

Continued here

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

Ponyboy was crawling around in the rain and the muck in the alley behind the pub. I helped him to his feet, put his left arm around my shoulders, and with some effort got him to tell me where he lived. Fortunately it wasn’t very far.
All the way I revelled in the warmth of his body as he leaned, shivering, on me, and the feeling of his rain-slick, greasy, clammy skin against my palms, and in brushing against the barbells piercing his nipples and only too visible under his wet My Little Pony tank top, and in the smell of puke, and sweat, and cigarettes, and pot, and some medical stink that I assumed was from his smack addiction.
I realized suddenly that it had been over a year that I had quit my own H addiction, and that I’d gone completely without since. Being a thief had completely replaced my libido. Sure, I had wanked, quite obsessively at times, but the last time I’d gotten any of the real stuff had been that time Hendrik had made me wear his girlfriend’s clothes and had then screwed me, calling me by her name all through, and demanding of me to answer in a ridiculous falsetto voice and pretending to be a horrible caricature version of her.
Amına kodum, was I ever in need of a good fuck.
But nothing of the sort happened that night: I finally got Ponyboy into his flat, a dank, one-room cellar affair that smelled as if it hadn’t been aired out ever, while for the last two years every weekend two unwashed teams of rugby players had had wild orgies in there, and in between the place had been used alternately as a meth kitchen and a field hospital. The gray sheets of his bed actually felt greasy. I dumped the near comatose boy onto it and lay down next to him.
Ponyboy said something that sounded like “I’ll be back in a moment” and started snoring. I lay next to him for a while. We were both still fully clothed (well, I was, he was still wearing his stage outfit), and soaking wet from the heavy rain. When I started to shiver, I took his bed covers that were lying – I swear, I’m not exaggerating here – in a heap on top of loads of unwashed underwear, an overflowing ashtray, and several half eaten, already partially mouldering, and mostly tipped over cups of instant noodles. Hence, it too was wet in several places, and just extremely nasty. I think the only way to ever get it clean again would have been to burn it. I think I have slept cleaner under bridges and supermarket loading docks.
That night it was the perfect cover for me. I put it over myself and Ponyboy, hugged him tight, and just lay there in all that grime, and wetness, and soaked in his presence. After a while I got too horny to bear, unbuttoned my jeans, and wanked until I blew a load into my boxers. For a brief while I fell asleep.
Very early that morning I stole out of Ponyboy’s cellar flat, and rang a very annoyed Charley out of his bed. I pestered him until he connected me with an ethically challenged locksmith who would make me a copy of Ponyboy’s front door key without asking any questions. (He did take a pretty hefty fee, but what was I really going to do with all the money Charley and I were making?)
That done, I sneaked back into Ponyboy’s place, crept under the cover with him, and woke him with a blow-job.
What can I tell you about Ponyboy? We didn’t really talk about much. He was somewhere in his early 20s and enrolled in something artsy and futureless at Edinburgh University. He was from Gretna, in the very South-East of Scotland, near the English border, and claimed he had been conceived in the shadow of the Lochmaben Stone. My favourite tattoo on his body was the phoenix rising from his crotch, and the three symbols on his back, one of each shoulder blade and one on the nape of his neck. I supposed they were the letters “G” (or perhaps “C”), “Z”, and “J” (or maybe “I”). Each was about the size of my palm and heavily ornamented in skulls, bones, blades, screaming faces, hangman’s nooses, and other symbols of death. At the time I sort of assumed they were his initials, though I never asked him for his name.
He asked me once. I was lying on his bed, on my side, hogtied, and trousers around my ankles. He had lit a fag and put it between my lips. I watched crumbs of still glowing ash fall and burn tiny holes into his rumpled, gray sheets. He was sitting next to me, naked, glowing in fresh, post-orgasm sweat, and folding little fighter jets from his huge stacks of sheet music – his rents had once made him learn the piano, but he had since sold his instrument to pay for H. He tried to knock the fag from my mouth with his paper planes, but all he could hit was my belly and shoulders and the top of my hat.
“Wha’ is yer naem, ma wee sluagh?”
“What does it matter to you?” I tried to growl around the cigarette, but it fell from my mouth. Fascinated we both watched it burn a big, smouldering hole into the sheets and mattress, but eventually it winked out and nothing really caught fire.
“No’in,” he admitted, and rolled me onto my stomach.
For the most part my routine that second week in Edinburgh was to be woken by nightmares and sneak out hours before Morpheus relinquished his hold on Ponyboy. If it was early enough that the city was still mostly asleep I’d go to walk to Holyrood Park, go for a run, and practice Aikido in the valley between Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags. Then I’d return to Curtis’s, Matt’s, and Marci’s flat for a shower and maybe a change of clothes, and go to a Laundromat nearby to wash what I’d worn the day before. Around noon I’d meet with Charley, who’d usually make me eat something, and we’d decide what games to play that day.
Eventually we’d end up in some pub, get pissed, and I’d bid him good night. Then I’d walk over to Ponyboy’s and peek through the window. When he wasn’t home, I’d just let myself in and nap on his bed till he arrived. When he was there, I’d watch him through his window until there was a good moment to sneak in and sort of just materialize out of thin air next to him. He must have figured out that I had a copy of is key early on, but I think I managed to startle him at least a bit every day.
I really liked my time there, and in a way Charley and Ponyboy became very close friends, probably the closest I ever had aside from Leon. But after two weeks – two weeks of increasingly unbearable nightmares at that, I started to suffocate.
So I invested some money in new equipment like waterproof clothes and lovely 10 eye oxblood Doc Marten’s boots to replace the Chucks I had worn to tatters. And sometime in the afternoon of Thursday, 21 August 2008, without ever saying good-bye to either Charley or Ponyboy I walked to where Telford Road becomes the A90 and struck out my thumb.
And that was my Edinburgh episode. I’ve never been back, and I left nothing but a long line of hurt marks and two blokes who didn’t know anything about me. I thought that with leaving Charley I had finally turned my back on Leeds for good, too. Never in a million years had I thought that Edinburgh could ever come to haunt me. It would be half a year before I would figure out how wrong I was.
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
There was no more talk of the missing 200, of course. Bryan even tried to give me back my 500 and wanted to talk about how much of what we had made the past three days should be mine. I took a perverse pleasure in refusing all of it. Bryan couldn’t understand me, but Julie did. In the end she told him to leave well enough alone.
The next day, around noon, the crew met in the pit again. Bryan paid out 100 pounds to everybody, and an extra 200 to Tyler and Roger each, for watching me, another 200 to Melanie for catching me, and 400 to Julie for handling me.
“I think, Jan and we are quits now.” Bryan said.
“I think he needs a little memento,” Lonnie said. “Something so he doesn’t forget the lesson he’s learned.” He took out his knife, flicked it open, and looked challengingly at his leader. I saw at once that Bryan wouldn’t dare to refuse him.
So did Julie. She stepped up to Lonnie.
“You’re right,” she said. “And I’ll be the one who gives it to him.”
Lonnie eyed her suspiciously.
“You’ll not go all soft on him?”
Julie gave him a contemptuous look.
“You know I’m better than that,” she said. “And so is he.”
Reluctantly Lonnie gave her the knife. Julie came to me.
“Take off your jacket and roll up your sleeve.”
I looked into the semi-circle of faces around me, some pitying, some eager. One or two looked away. Not Melanie or Lonnie though. I did as told and gritted my teeth.
I hissed and winced as she made two deep cuts into the flesh of my upper arm, just underneath the shoulder, one perpendicular to the other. Like a rough L. Her eyes held mine, while she cut. Her eyes. Wide, and dark, and warm.
“So you’ll always remember us.”
Blood ran down my arms and splattered onto the concrete floor. Pat-pat, pat-pat-pat, pat, pat-pat. Roger took off his bandana and tied it around my arm. Mark offered me a fag and then gave me the whole pack and his lighter – a beautiful Zippo with the Death image of the Rider Tarot engraved in it’s side.
“Keep it man,” he said and averted his eyes.
I put on my jacket and hung the satchel over the other shoulder.
I walked 20 minutes to the Richmond Hill bus stop on York Road. My arm hurt like hell. I got bandages and some ibuprofen at a pharmacy I passed. I munched the Ranger candy while I waited for an eastbound number 18A, and put on the sterile pads and gauze with one hand and my teeth as good as I could.
Nate was waiting for me in Garforth, at the end of the line. He gave me the parcel, it was about the size of a one pound brick of coffee, if maybe a little bit heavier, and wrapped in plain brown paper. To this day I have no idea what it contained, although the idea of drugs certainly crossed my mind. I also considered simple cash, or jewels, or a disassembled gun or some electronic gadget or data storage medium, maybe packaged in polyethylene foam. Anasını satayım, for all I know it might just have contained a Bob Marley fan T-Shirt. After all, since the box underneath the brown paper might as easily have been made of plastic as of lead, the weight didn’t really tell me anything either.
I did shake it once and listened. Nothing clattered inside. Other than that I made no attempt to figure it out.
On Aberforth Road I put out my thumb. The third car to stop was northbound, a Volvo driven by an overweight and wheezing software sales rep who almost before we got rolling again began telling me in mind-numbing detail the advantages of the products he sold over those of his competitors. The ibuprofen dampened the throbbing in my shoulder while Leeds faded behind me in the drizzle and the gloam.
***
Why didn’t I run, when I could have? Why did I offer to take the parcel? Why didn’t I simply dump it in the first rubbish bin after I left town? I told you, I have no answers. I cannot even claim that it seemed like good ideas at the time. Everything about Leeds seemed like a bad idea, but I did it all anyway.
So, somebody tell me: Was this destiny? Was this providence? Because in a way, this was when this whole story truly started. This was when its inexorable end began to sneak into my cards. From here on out those three shots fired by the Aegean Sea were beginning to reverberate down the skein of fate that tied me, and Sim, Alex, Charley, Meryem, the Serrathas, that arsehole in Berlin, the chicken hawks of Jelenia Gora, the Ahimsa Corporation, even Steward, all of us together.
It is funny to think about it that way, to think about those brief moments in time, these random, ill understood choices that I made so unimaginably long ago now. But you cannot turn back time. The past is with you, always, and you just gotta learn to stand atop the rubble and to continue on your way, best as you can, until you finally run out of road.
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
I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?
– Hemmingway (attributed)
There is three things that contributed a lot to me ever starting out to be a thief. One is fighting. The other is reading. And the last is playing poker. But I guess I better explain that.
I never could get my temper under control. I hatedmyself for it but that didn’t help. According to my sister ‘Nessa I’ve always had it. The way she tells it I did little else as a baby than scream and toss matchbox cars at her and Lukas. I’m not quite convinced that there isn’t a second side to that story but unfortunately I was too young back then to still remember now.
But it is true that I have always been fighting, all my life, and with nobody as much as with Lukas. Lukas is seven years older than me and physically of course I never had a chance. But that didn’t seem to stop me. I don’t really know why we never got along. To tell you the truth I don’t even know what sort of a person he was when he was younger. Now he is a real arsehole, a total chav. He signed up for four years of voluntary military service after school. To him girls are just mobile life support systems for boobs and snatches. He talks about little but his latest conquest. His regard for his mates corresponds to how often they get laid. For the few girls he actually regards as human beings it’s the same, only the other way around. What of his free time isn’t spent on the pursuit of one night stands is spent on his abs, biceps, and tan. He talks with a pretend lower-class, migrant, wanna-be hip-hop patois. He is a walking cliché in almost every regard.
But he must have been different once, a long time ago. My earliest memories of him – he must have been 10 or 11 then – is of him reading to me how-and-why type children’s books of which he had dozens. There are still a few around, most of them torn and defaced with crayon scrawls. My work, I must assume. And when he was 12 he used to cook for our dad, my sisters and me, when mum was at work. I haven’t seen him cook in years. I think, when I arrived, for a while at least, he tried to be a good big brother. And I suppose, I never tried to be a good little brother in return. Whatever it was, eventually he gave up, on all of us.
So, almost from the beginning we have been fighting. And I do mean fighting: The slapping, punching, kicking, spitting, biting, pushing, clawing kind of fighting. Even before our dad left us, Lukas claimed I was a bastard, in that traditional illegitimate sense of the word. And when dad went, Lukas claimed I was the reason. And later, well, he blamed me for much of what followed as well. I suppose Lukas blamed me pretty much for everything that went wrong. And who knows, maybe he was on to something. Children are cruel, that’s a given. As a rule they are not stupid.
When ‘Nessa hit puberty my mum tried to put the four of us into a boys’s and a girls’s room, instead of the old’uns, young’uns pairing we’d had going until then. The experiment lasted for one week, leaving me blooded and wailing every night. Don’t get me wrong, Lukas would have needed the patience of a saint to put up with my incessant needling and obstinacy. And neither of us had a patience that was anything of the kind. So my mum put him back into one room with ‘Nessa and me into the other with ‘Nette.
(Our rents had named us Lukas, Vanessa, Anette, and Patrick, but only Lukas was actually called that by anyone but our mum. To everyone else Anette had always only been ‘Nette, Vanessa ‘Nessa, and I only answered to Rikki. And yes, if you are wondering, there is a reasons why I spell it with a double-k instead of the more traditional c-k-y, but this is neither the time nor the place to go into that.)
As for the rest of the world, it was a little bit like that as well: Every new group I’d become a part of, every new class, a football team, summer camp, anything, it wouldn’t take me long before somehow I would get into a fight with the biggest, meanest bully around.
I am not a big guy, never was. Maybe a tad on the stocky side when I’m well fed. And I really would pick the biggest, toughest bloke I could find. That meant I would lose almost all of those fights. But the psychopathic, all-out way I went about it usually meant that after this first fight people would pretty much leave me alone. Long after the bruises and the punishments those fights earned me were forgotten the fear – I dare not quite call it respect – of hair-trigger Rikki persisted. Rarely did anyone need a second demonstration.
Please, don’t think I was courageous. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Nor was I trying to be strategically clever. I never set out to do this. In fact, I dreaded these fights when I saw one coming up, I just couldn’t help myself. It was as if there was something in me, some force I did not understand myself, that demanded this of me, like a sacrifice, like a proof for I don’t know what.
Violence is a funny thing. Sure, it’s scary. I mean, it bloody hurts, you know. On the other hand there is something very liberating in just closing yourself off from all rational argument, in drawing a line around yourself and reducing all communication across it to the staccato Morse code of blows and kicks. Little can focus the entire world to such a fine and clear point as unbridled violence. How many angels can fight on the head of a pin? All of them, mate. All of them, forever. There is a little bit of paradise in an honest fight, when nothing remains of the world but me, the other bloke and that strange satisfaction when we connect.
And it got worse and worse. In the past years I’ve gotten into fights with more or less everyone: Kids, teachers, random strangers on the street, or on the bus, and with bus drivers kicking me off for fighting. Hell, even with a cashier at a supermarket for not selling me fags. And with rozzers of course. Always bad news when you kick a police officer. They take a dim view on that, let me tell you.
A very few times I even blacked out during a fight, switched to autopilot. I would come to afterwards, victorious or vanquished, but with no memory of what had happened. That scared me badly, when that last bit of self-control went up in a red haze, and left me entirely at the mercy at whatever demon I had allowed into my life.
I only managed to stop when I started stealing. Well, more or less.
Continued here