“ ‘We’re all born with the most sophisticated hardware in the known universe,’ Bull tapped his forehead, ‘Your brain… and you want to get a good tune out of it while you’re here. Simple as that really. Where’s your ambition gone, Strenton?’
‘I was born retired…’ said Strenton, shrugging.
Bull Wendell half-heartedly flicked his beer coaster across the table, ‘…Retarded?’
Strenton threw it right back at him, catching him in his Adam’s apple, ‘You heard me right.’
It was Bull’s turn to shrug, trying another tack, ‘And you’re happy with that at twenty-four, yeah?’
The couple at the table next to them got up to leave and Strenton leaned across to drain the dregs from the man’s beer glass before responding, licking his frothy lips with the satisfaction of a cartoon cat.
‘Sure I am. The way I figure it, I got another forty years or so to keep dodging the bullets until society deems my lifestyle acceptable. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Strenton together again…’
Bull began to tear at the cardboard coaster, making sure each rip was neat and straight, ‘I don’t see it that way at all. You’re just phoning in sick to the job of being alive. Maybe it’s just your destiny to see everything but the nose right on the front of your face?’
‘So I’m broke. I’m like a… a…’
Bull coughed over him: ‘…BUM… s’cuse me…’
Strenton carried on like he hadn’t heard, ‘… a Zen monk, I got my writing, I got my woman, my music, I got my drink and my smoke, occasionally I’m tossed a juicy bone, what else do I need? Who are you to tell me I shouldn’t be happy?
With the coaster now in pieces, Bull turned to gnashing his teeth, ‘Fuck it, who am I to tell you how to get down? Face it though, it must be pretty damn easy being a Zen monk, hey? I mean their stress levels must be through the floor… but what a fucking a cop-out! Where’s the risk? The pain of life comes from engaging and getting stuck-in to the hussle-bussle of hopes and failures, the missed chances and soaring successes. Sit on a mountainside and reflect long enough and I’m sure you would keep peace of mind, but isn’t that just the ultimate avoidance tactic? The older I get, the more I cling to my certainties like a drowning man to an estate agent’s sale board. But it’s wrong: I should go out into the world with eyes open, wild with wonder and willing to forget everything I thought was true when presented with new truth. We never stop learning, the teenager eventually feels disappointed that he never actually becomes an adult to himself, we’re all just playing at being grown-ups, aren’t we?’
Strenton lit a cigarette and tried to blow a nonchalant smoke ring, but there was too much spittle in his mouth. Bull clasped his hands behind his head and leant back on the bar chair, continuing: ‘I’ve known you since school days and you’ve always been the same. Always a seeker, always dissatisfied with the present and searching…’
‘Yes, but I finally found what I was looking for…’
‘And what was it..?’
‘The real me. No front, no bullshit. We’ve got two hemispheres in our brain and science has just proved there’s a consciousness in each one. Both are us. That’s why when you ‘ask’ yourself a question, you can give yourself an answer. You can choose to make either voice your consciousness, but both will always be there. One is the real us, the other is our ego. I finally chose the real me.’
Strenton took a block of hashish from his pocket and checked around him before biting down on the brown lump like it was a Mars bar.
Bull straightened the creases out of his purple shirt with downward swipes of his palm, ‘So dope’s the answer then?’
Strenton licked his tongue around his top gum, clearing the sticky remnants, he leant forward grinning at Bull like a dog that’d just eaten a turd from a trash can.
‘Dope’s part of the answer, sure. Why not? It’s definitely in my arsenal. Hash keeps a man’s ego small and helps him be aware. Ego kills your honesty. Anyway, the truly enlightened don’t go around worrying about whether they’re enlightened or not, do they? If you’re a realized master, then you should be one anywhere, factory floor or mountaintop… Meditation is the surest long-term way, but drugs sure are a fun short cut.’
Bull ordered up another round of drinks, this time without Strenton even having to ask. Strenton was on a roll, the words spilling out of him and he could see Bull was buying.
‘If some Yogi put a gun to my head and asked me for my truth, then that’s exactly what I’d tell him. God and the Devil are human concepts, created by the wise minds of that time who felt the left and right hemispheres of their brain acutely, the division in man, and couldn’t understand how two such opposing forces could live inside the same small headspace without there being fireworks: Our incredible need, and it really is a fucking need to create, whatever form that creation takes: a meal, a painting, a farm, a play, a baby. Our selfishness versus our endless capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice. We may be born as blank sheets waiting to be written on by the experiences of our lives, even deeper than that there is a genetic disposition to feel love. But like the Ying Yan, there is an opposite force in us of destruction, a dark and primeval propensity deep in the tar pits of our being that we don’t like to talk about at dinner parties to devour and destroy everything in an obscene and glutinous hatred. So we spend our lives wrestling the two on the mind’s smack-down mat. Life always gives you a chance, you just got to have enough courage to take it. I’m just smart enough to realize that I know fuck all. Most people don’t want to be enlightenment anyway, they’re enjoying their lies too much. Treat them like mushrooms – feed ‘em shit and keep ‘em in the dark.’
The drinks arrived and Strenton took his off the tray before the waiter had a chance to put it down.
‘Two hemispheres; One man. I know all about the divided self. If you need something badly enough the mind has a strange way of bringing it towards you. Self-fulfilling prophecies and all that…’
‘Bullshit,’ said Bull flatly, ‘You reap what you sow.’
Strenton took a long pull from his drink, the ice rattling against his stained teeth, ‘The real trouble is I just like myself drunk and stoned, d’ya know what I mean? Either way, we’re still young, no need for second-chances or regrets yet, we’ve got time… just do what you love till someone pays you for it. Here, have another drink…’ “
(Excerpt from the novella: ‘The Bull That Wouldn’t Fight.’ © Harry Rinse, 1996.)
Time: 09:30. Date: Thursday, June 24th, 2011. City of London.
It felt more like a Monday. Harry Rinse had struggled to get out of bed when the alarm had gone off and pulling back the curtains to see a cold and grey drizzle sky had almost sealed the deal with him to throw a sickie, but he was out of time. Rolling over and feeling the beautiful cold of the other side of the mattress he saw his half-open sketch book on the floor and remembered he needed the money. He need the money badly. Maybe if he got out of bed and went downstairs he’d find a letter on the doormat with a big fat royalty cheque for his book and he wouldn’t have to go to work ever again? Maybe. Maybe not…
It was not, so like a zombie with salt on his tongue Harry moved to the kitchen and somnabulistically prepared his petit-dejeuner amongst the damage of last night’s French brandy bottles and Post-It notes. He shoveled in the cold porridge, feeling it settle in his stomach like wet cement and making every movement even more of an effort as he sluggishly got ready for work. Cack-handedly throwing the empty bowl into the sink he looked up at the old family photo taken nearly nine summer’s ago. It made his stomach sink even deeper than the porridge had. His eyes lingered on his daughter Chloe, she was holding a bunch of freshly picked purple posies to her chest and he allowed his mind to wonder to that glorious summer’s afternoon when everything had seemed to be buoyed up on an endless tide of laughs. With a remembrance that squirmed inside him like acid inside a marshmallow he realized that today must be her birthday. Another year had lurched by without contact. God how he missed her. Harry quickly jumped all over that thought, stamping it out of his head. He wouldn’t admit it to himself, he couldn’t, some truths were just too painful, especially after a brutal night of bottles and bones. He felt a sudden urge to call her, to forget all the back story, all the reasons he didn’t want to admit fault and just… call her. He stared down at his mobile phone, he desperately wanted to know how her voice had aged in the intervening years and beyond anything else he wanted to hear that voice forgive him, as he knew it would if only he’d call. But his pride wouldn’t let him and hell, he didn’t even have a current number for her anymore. Focus on now, that was a big enough challenge just to get through the fucking day. He put on his self-tailored cloak of failure and swirled out into the brutal morning.
Looking at his watch Harry prayed their wouldn’t be any delays on the Northern line this morning, but catching the notice-board as he descended the escalator he saw there were. He boarded the train and sat motionless in the Charing Cross branch tunnel waiting on a signal change. He reached into his leather satchel for his sketch book and began drawing the passengers that faced him as he usually did every week day. Each person looked different in their seat but their expressions were always the same at this time of the morning displaying a kind of washed out disbelief that was being propped-up by a crumbling front of confidence and mp3 players, with eyes glazed over dreaming of being someplace else.
But Harry wasn’t interested in their whys and wherefores, he just wanted to get into the right mindset before sitting in Court Number Two of the Old Bailey and sketching the scene for television and occasionally newspapers, as cameras continued to be banned from British Courts. Thank God, he thought to himself as the train pulled into Waterloo station, he wasn’t making any money from his writing so at least he could fall back on the skills he’d learned way back at art college when the future had still been anything he wanted it to be. Somewhere along the tracks of his forty-five years he’d stopped dreaming of the future, driven on through the present, to now arrive at dreaming only of the past. He’d lived in London for so long now that everywhere he went was loaded with past memories. Everything reminded him of something else, each bar, each building, each street sign. For this reason he loved to write, feeling he’d never really been fully present in anything he’d done, he liked to revisit it through his memory to re-live it fully.
He walked across Waterloo Bridge in the rain, resentful of how his options had shut down, how he’d allowed himself to be corralled into this cul-de-sac. The rain was beginning to soak through the plastic covering of his sketch-book and he knew his careful charcoal drawings would soon blur into one big soggy tea stain. Fuck it, he felt so depressed and angry he wanted to kick a priest in the face. The downpour caught him right on the centre of the bridge, the grey battleship River Thames stormed beneath him like everyone upstream had cried into it on this hopeless Monday. He ducked into a bus shelter and nestled into the corner, turning his back to the wind which whipped the rain in at impossible angles. He looked through the sketch book to check the damage. There was Monday’s sketch of passengers, the guy on the seat by the door had smudged a little but his distinctive purple cravat was clearly visible. Tuesday’s sketch the same, little bit smudged but the man in the door seat had a purple cravat that also caught his eye. How strange thought Harry, the same man in the same seat two days running on a rush hour train that carried hundreds of faceless people. Wednesday’s drawing showed the same. Harry turned to this morning’s sketch with hands that tingled with more than the cold rain. It was the same. There was the man in the purple cravat.
Harry tried to think back to the week’s journey but it was all a sleep-stained blur, how could he not have noticed? He looked over his shoulder to see a bus coming over the bridge, it pulled in, waiting for him at the stop. Harry waved it on and the driver shook his head, angry at the gridlock this rainy favour had caused behind him. Harry flicked back through the previous week’s drawing and his mouth fell open to catch the metallic rain like a wide bucket. In each sketch on each day there was the same man. Always staring at him, always in the same seat.
09:30. Friday morning. Waterloo Underground station. City of London.
Harry was so excited he could barely hold his charcoal to sketch the row of passengers. He’d teased himself by starting to draw the people sitting furthest from the door, but he could resist no longer and shot his eyes across to that end seat. His heart skipped a beat. there he was, suited and booted, the purple cravat perfectly creased.
At Waterloo station the man had got up and left the train. Even though this was Harry’s regular stop he still felt like a stalker. Turning out of the station and onto Waterloo Bridge the morning was bright and clear, the sun twinkled off the water and showered everyone with diamonds, it was a Friday to boot and the suited workers had an easy spring in their step. The difference a day can make, thought Harry as he watched his quarry pause at the centre of the bridge and look behind him. Harry knew he had to look anywhere but in his eyes… so he looked in his eyes. Harry knew he’d been made, it was now or never. He walked up to the man and leant over the rusty guardrail, keeping enough distance between them to still deny everything. He looked down into the eaves of the bridge and saw what looked like a green finch, its emerald green’ rump sparkling, but as his eyes focused a larger bird landed on the ledge putting it to flight. It was a mean looking magpie and it began to peck at something shiny reflecting the sun. Harry had always been the suspicious type and this to him was a bad omen, so in an attempt to ward off the hex he touched his imaginary cap. The magpie eyed him suspiciously and looked off into the direction the man was now headed. Harry felt confused and had a sudden twinge in his guts that he was being delusional, but once again he stamped down quickly on the thought. He needed this, he needed something to believe in, so quickening his step Harry followed him across the bridge and up through the narrow cobbled alleyways towards St. Paul’s Cathedral with its huge dome dwarfing the scuttling masses absorbed in the morning rush.
Harry watched the man walk up the great stone steps to the entrance where he paused, dwarfed in the imperious oak doors and looked again over his shoulder. Harry immediately leaned against a phone box and studied his fingernails feeling as self-conscious and obvious as a comic book spy. The man continued in to the cathedral just as the bells rang out the hour. Harry realized he was now too late to make the morning session of court, he was committed to see how far his fantasy would take him.
He shuffled sideways up the entrance steps like a depressed hermit crab and quickly scuttled into the building, scanning the cool and darkened interior for his subject. The air was thick with dust and incense, his cheap office shoes echoed on the stone with each step. Where was he?, Harry wondered. He found him in the transept paying for a ticket up to the Whispering Gallery. Harry resisted the urge to run towards him and confront him there and then, but he was sure the man had looked straight at him just before disappearing into the narrow stone spiral staircase that led ever upwards to the vaulted dome. The entrance fee came to more than Harry’s lunch and train fare money, it cut into his evening drinking budget, but he was so lost in the moment he didn’t care.
With each turn of the twisting torch-lit staircase Harry always kept the tip of the man’s long shadow on the wall ahead of him, picking up his pace each time it tapered off round the corner. He reached the Whispering Gallery exit that ran in a circle across the dome, Harry poked his head out to see the man sit down half way across the circumference and reach into his pocket, unwrapping a sandwich. Seating himself about a third of the way along from him, Harry stared up at the huge painted dome, it looked like a massive brain. He sat down and pressed his ear against the cold stone. On the other side, the man continued to eat his sandwich. Harry could hear the bubble of chatter, the same as when he’d put a sea-shell to his ear as a child. The twenty or so visitors were all leaning into the wall, testing out its acoustics. Harry strained his ear to hear whispers beneath the bubble, older noises stored in the stone telling four hundred year old secrets. A shiver ran along his ear canal to brain, he was sure one of the voices belonged to Chloe, his daughter. She was giggling and laughing, other voices became more distinct singing a Happy Birthday refrain, as if through water. He strained in closer still, his ear becoming a suction cup on the grubby masonry, but the voices all seemed to fade away into background noise, leaving a single baritone to come through:
‘Why are you following me?’ it rasped, the voice cooled through centuries of stone. Harry felt his ear redden and burn, he removed it from the wall, but quickly felt compelled to put it back again. The voice was still there, now growling and angry:
‘Yes, I’m talking to you, pal…’
Harry looked across the balustrade to see the man pointing straight at him. The game, such as it had been, was certainly up.
Harry limped across towards the man who was now putting his sandwich down and standing up, ready for the confrontation. It felt a very long walk and Harry felt his face redden as he neared, hearing his heart pumping in his ears. When he reached the man and began to speak, his voice sounded like a little girl being strangled.
‘Excuse me. I know this’ll sound odd, but you take the Northern line each morning south to north. Am I correct?’
‘Yes. But you know that because you followed me….’
‘I’m a writer, it’s nothing dodgy, I… was just following an idea… you’re in every sketch I’ve drawn… ’
The man took a step away from him and rested his hand on the guardrail. Harry quickly spoke to reassure him,
‘God no that sounds odd doesn’t it? I meant that I’m an illustrator and…’
‘I thought you just said you’re a writer?’
Harry was rambling, ‘Yes, that too, look, you’ve appeared in all my sketches going back months, I only noticed it yesterday, months… it’s really too much to be coincidence. It has to mean something, it has to. I was hoping you’d… oh I don’t know, it sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?’
The man’s body language softened and he leant over the guardrail, motioning Harry to join him with his hand. Harry looked over and took a deep breath, glad of the sense of distance. The man turned to him.
‘I know a lot of writers. When they get an idea into their heads, hey. I’ve even known a few bring their characters to life, show me the drawings…’
Harry was dumbfounded. He felt a tingle running up his spine like the sexy fingers of a snow-witch.
‘I knew it. I knew it had to mean something. Thank you cosmos. So what are you? Just a figment of my imagination, a piece of undigested gristle?’
‘The man laughed but when Harry didn’t laugh with him he stopped, looking at Harry as if he must be insane,
‘Um, sure. I’m your guardian angel, your own personal Jesus, or better still, a character from one of your books…’
Harry punched the air. Finally something was happening.
‘Really…?’, he spoke with such childlike wonder that the man could continue the deception no longer.
‘What the hell do you reckon? Of course I’m fucking not. Are you ok, I mean are you going through something?’
Harry suddenly felt foolish and slapped his hands on the wooden railing as if playing an invisible drum, ‘Sorry, it’s only when I said it out loud I realized how stupid it sounded.’
‘That’s Ok. I deal with a lot of writers in my profession. I’m used to it. I’m a publisher.’
Harry turned to him, the desperation now clearly visible in his eyes.
‘I know this sounds odd, but I could really talk to someone right now, you’re right: I am going through something. You seem like a good bloke, I understand if…’
The man patted him on the shoulder, ‘Sure thing. I was just killing time this morning anyway, truth be told. How about a coffee? I know a great place on the river.’
‘Prefer a drink?’
‘Whatever’, he looked at his watch, ‘a little early for me.’
‘I’m a writer, I need my oil for the mental cogs.’
‘Quite so, have you written anything I’d have read?’
‘How about ‘The Bull who wouldn’t Fight?’
‘Cadence?’, said with a hopeful look in his eye.
The man shook his head.
‘Then nothing you’d have read’, said Harry despondently.
Beneath them a long line of choristers were taking their places and fiddling with their sheet music.
11:30. Top Deck. Zen Restaurant & Bar. Tatershall Steam Boat. River Thames, Embankment side.
As Harry sat down amidst the relative opulence of the floating restaurant it suddenly dawned on him that he’d spent the last of his money getting into the gallery. The waiter floated over looking like he owned the place and Harry felt red-faced yet again, like he’d jumped out the water and was flapping on the deck for air with his empty pockets making no noise. He thought it better to speak up sooner:
‘Look I’m a little light at the moment, I’ll just have a water.’
The Publisher wagged a finger, ‘Nonsense, this one’s on me, pal. You’re having a bad day, so my treat. Knock yourself out.’
Harry turned eagerly to the smug waiter poised with his notepad.
‘Well, for starters I’ll have depression, followed by a main of self-doubt, and then for pudding – I think the low self-esteem soufflé – unless it won’t rise of course.’
The Publisher took off his sunglasses to wipe his forehead, his eyes twinkled in the water reflecting up from their starboard table.
‘That bad, huh?’
Harry drummed his fingers on the table in an attempt to defuse some of his building tension. He wanted to just blurt it all out and be free of it, but reminded himself he was in professional company. The Publisher was considering the wine menu.
Perhaps you need some rosé coloured glasses?’
Harry shook his head and drummed his fingers once more.
‘Can’t drink rosé, it makes me mean, well… meaner. The Pinot looks good though, perhaps a bottle of the Californian?’ Harry trailed off as his eyes locked on the price.
The Publisher waved his hand to the waiter in agreement, the waiter collected up the menus and sauntered off into the galley.
‘Please continue…’, he said.
‘I feel like an empty sewerage pipe,’ Harry began, looking out across the river to the far bank, ‘It’s like I woke up today realizing all my dreams have been unrealistic and now it’s too late to start again.’
Leaning over the side of the boat had caused the publisher’s sunglasses to slip down his nose and he pushed them up with his index finger.
‘It’s better to travel hopefully than arrive, eh? We men are like water, we find the path of least resistance… that’s why you get crooked rivers and crooked men.’
Harry laughed for the first time that week, ‘You’re not wrong.’
‘Look, seeing as fate has brought us together why don’t you pitch me some ideas then, I’m always looking for new titles. Tell me about ‘The Bull that wouldn’t Fight?’ Pitch it to me…’
Harry froze as if a rabbit, feeling altogether too depressed to switch into selling mode, but he forced himself to focus, perhaps life was throwing him a juicy bone.
‘Well it was a novella back in ninety-eight, but it’s already published. I’d rather pitch you my new stuff….’
The publisher waved his hand again, ‘Unpublished…?’
‘Hell yes!‘, Harry blurted out without thinking.
‘Got any Chick-Lit type stuff?’
Harry involuntarily gripped the table-cloth.
‘Shame. Chick lit’s where it’s at money-wise. Lot of money in the genre.’
The waiter arrived with the wine and Harry stole his glass from the tray before the waiter could put it down. The waiter paused and rolled his eyes. Three magpies landed on the boat’s smoke stack just to the right of their table. Harry craned his head, using his hand to shield his eyes from the bright sun.
‘Fucking magpies been following me all day, I swear.’
The Publisher followed his eye line, ‘That makes three for a girl, doesn’t it?’
‘Yeah, and four for a book deal’?
The Publisher returned his gaze to the table.
‘Lot a money in Chick Lit. You got a daughter?’
Harry’s sudden tension was palpable like a cloud had crossed the sun. He answered with a prickly defensiveness.
‘Nope. I’ve got a pot plant though. I’ve had it for a year and I’m really trying to take care of it. I figure if it grows, then I’m safe to take care of something bigger, like a dog… then who knows maybe a kid..? I’ll take baby steps… What I meant was maybe you could pump your daughter for ideas?’
Harry felt uncomfortable with the image that brought to mind and replied with a final, ‘We don’t speak anymore. Nothing in my life has turned out the way I thought it would.’
The Publisher nodded sagely and threw an overspill from the breadbasket over the side of the boat to one of the circling magpie, ‘You’re a glass half empty kind of guy then?’
Harry drained the last of his wine. ‘I am round here.’ The publisher recharged his glass from the bottle.
‘Don’t be too down. It’s probably not your fault anyway. Psychologists reckon that if you look at a person’s life in childhood: their loves and hates, their personality, then throw in their life-experiences to date then you usually find that adult sitting before you is exactly as they had to be. It was a natural logical evolution. Don’t beat yourself up about it, you didn’t really have a choice. There you were, mewling and puking in the crib, much like you’re doing now may I just say, born into the world with the most impressive hardware in the known universe, and an empty hard drive waiting to be filled with what was rolled in front of your face – slaps or kisses you didn’t have any choice in the matter in the formative years. Then once you reached maturity and the jelly of experience had set into an adult brain, your body begins to slowly decay and you spend the next seventy years putting out the fires of your original imperfect mould.’
Harry kept his eye fixed on the publisher, his left hand reaching out for the glass without needing to look, he always had a sixth sense for where his glass was in the same way a mother connected to her child. ‘Christ, you’re a barrel of laughs…’ he looked down at the water, ‘you’d better walk the plank.’
The Publisher gave a salute. ‘I don’t deal the cards, I just play with the hand I’m given.’
Harry was starting to feel the sincerity of the wine flood his bloodstream, warming his alligator blood.
‘I still believe the universe is uncaring, not to say it is evil; it’s just totally neutral and non-judgmental: Think what implications that really has for living. We have choice. We’re set free. I still believe there’s an energy that flows like a stream of brilliant light through the centre of every living thing that just IS. It’s not good or bad, it’s not sentient as we understand it. But, just like a tree falls down in the forest making only vibrations it takes an ear to turn that vibration into sound. The same with life energy: it needs a living host to register it and feel it as pure love.’
The publisher poured himself another glass.
‘And how’s that life-philosophy working out for ya?’
Harry picked up the bottle from the stand but it was empty.
‘Oh it’s surely over for me. I took my shot and missed’, He thumped the table, ‘I guess I’ve just got to deal with it. I’ve just got to come to terms with mediocrity and forgetting about all the things that should’ve been. I’m forty-five for Christ’s sake, look at the belly, the hair. Never again will I run my hands through long locks, never again will I sleep with a beautiful girl, ripe as a peach and bursting with fresh joy. I’ve seen them in the clubs and supermarket queues, looking at me like I’m their father.’
The publisher clasped his hands behind his head and looked up into the ozone, the words rushing through him and up to the cosmos.
‘That’s getting old for you, I guess. Just got to suck it up and accept it… or you could get rich and powerful, that works too.’
‘Sure, if I had success then I’d still be in the market, I’d be relevant… Ah, bullshit. My last novel was panned. No one loves an alcoholic but his barman. That’s why I’m working as a lowly court sketcher: my prose is flowing like this morning’s porridge. My last novel was called Cadence: about a man who believed everything had a vibration and could be measured, if every living thing’s vibration was sampled and turned into a note then he thought that would be the chord of creation, actually creating life. So he did it…’
The publisher avoided Harry’s stare by looking over at the waiter and dangling the empty bottle, requesting another.
‘You sure you not got any Chick Lit..?’
Harry exploded, the wine had given him a false confidence and he momentarily forgot who was paying,
‘Fuck the Chit-Lick. I could write ten of those fuckers in a day and still go out dancing.’
The publisher tasted the wine, swilling it around his mouth, taking his time as he considered things.
‘I’ve an idea. How’s about a bet then? It’s not as easy as you think. I’ll bet you can’t pitch me some chick-lit good enough to publish. If you can, then I’ll promise to take the synopsis and personally kick it upstairs at my publishing house. How about it? Go on, pitch me, bewitch me.’
‘Hell yes. You’re on. You better believe I need the money. I can write all house-styles. But where to start though, what’s the brief?’
‘Same as with all great writing. Start with the truth. But remember, as Brecht wrote: our job is not to show reality, but to show how things really are’.
Harry took a long breath.
‘Ok. I went into my local deli this morning from my Manhattan loft…’
‘Good, aspirational life-style’s a must for Chick Lit, she must work in fashion or journalism or TV, she must be moderately successful and good looking, but be single and dissatisfied with her life. It doesn’t matter that in reality most women would like to have her starting life-style of cocktails and taxis, massive Manhattan lofts and travel all on a P.A.’s salary, etc…’
‘Mmm, Ok. Well, she goes to get some sushi out of the deli refrigerator…’
‘No. New Yorker’s never buy the pre-made sushi – it’s guaranteed food poisoning. It’s got to be realistic.’
The waiter arrived with the fresh bottle, breaking Harry’s concentration.
‘Sound-bite me! Who’s writing this fucking thing? Ok, so she’s going in to buy a wheat smoothie and there was a real feral stink to the place and two men were mopping out the chiller cabinet. She asks the teller what’s creating this funk, and he said a disgruntled employee had shit into his own hand and hidden the turd at the back of the cabinet just behind the chocolate yoghurts. It was only when enough of the yoghurts had been bought that the shit was revealed: some poor woman had grabbed the last carton and thought it was leaking, but when she smelled her fingers she apparently screamed and ran out the shop. The teller had gone to investigate and there sitting royal and proud was the melting dump.’
A magpie landed on the guardrail and Harry quickly shooed it away, nervously waiting on a response.
‘Yeah, I’m not sure that’s what women want to read about… what else you got?’
‘Oh I don’t fucking know, something about being Size Zero and struggling with reality? Something about lonely twenty somethings with one too many cats and lo-cal chocolate bars? No? How about a single mother fighting against the odds to get her little shit of a son diagnosed with ADHD, whilst still allowing her weed-smoking boyfriend to beat him with an Xbox controller whilst she stuffs him with sherbet and E-numbers?
Harry once again drained his glass. The sky was beginning to cloud, adding to the temperature on deck.
The publisher looked at his watch as he mumbled, ‘Stereotypes don’t sell.’
‘You sure about that? Stereotypes wouldn’t have meaning if they weren’t actually anchored in a general truth. Think about it.’
A fly landed on Harry’s napkin and he slammed his open palm down on it, leaving a red and yellow mush on the brilliant white fabric. Unaware of the stain, he took the napkin and tucked it into his shirt, leaving the remnants of the fly exposed to the Publisher as the waiter approached with some canapés. Harry reached across him, once again unable to wait until the plates were put down. He picked up a chicken drumstick but instinctively feeling it too hot he released it back onto the descending plate, licking his sauce-stained fingers.
‘You ever think when you look at your palm how much your thumb looks like a chicken drummer?’
The Publisher looked out across the Thames to watch a passenger ferry scoot down towards the city. Harry saw it too, he looked through the fiberglass windows at the suited and booted commuters being whisked off to some important meeting further downstream, probably Canary Wharf he imagined.
‘Jesus, I used to have so much energy to compete. Where did it all go, eh? I’m like a fucking bomb that never went off. It’s all finished.’
The Publisher spat a pistachio nut shell out over the side, blowing it through an open fist, ‘God, black and white thinking is the curse of our age. The truth on anything, a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g is always gray. A complicated brain gray. It’s natural. When you’re young everything is so important and deep, it’s all new and fresh because you’re doing it for the first time. You’ve got a massive cannon of white-hot energy and you want to fire it all over something, but by the time you reach your forties you’re running out of gunpowder and pretty much dribbling blanks.’
Harry tried again for a drumstick but it was still too hot. He followed the publisher’s lead and picked up some pistachio nuts from the bowl, throwing them in his mouth and crunching down on the hard shells. He leant over the guardrail and spat out the crap, feeling his gums already starting to bleed.
The Publisher looked at his watch, ‘I got to go soon. Try again. Pitch it. The diamond-sharpest you can get…’
Harry wiped his lips with his cuff and tried to compose himself. With the clouds clearing, the sun shone on the table once more, illuminating the publisher’s purple cravat. Harry thought of Chloe, his daughter holding the posies.
‘OK. How this for a story then: We open on a young and good looking female scientist…’
Harry looked round the boat pretending to need inspiration, but there was only ever one girl’s name on his mind.
‘Let’s call her Chloe. She discovers a drug which when injected into her subject allows her to take over their mind and operate them just like a machine. It’s like Zombie Haiti chemical tribal compound. Now, Chloe had a tough childhood and decides she wants to punish her father for being such a shit. She tracks him down and injects him with the drug and takes over his mind, leaving him powerless to stop whatever situation she wants to put him in. He still feels everything, all the kicks and punches, but his mind is being controlled by the scientist. Chloe exacts her revenge on him by making him do all these crazy, embarrassing, reckless things, until he realises the error of his ways. The torture then becomes an atonement and he asks her for forgiveness…’
Harry broke off and wiped his eyes with the soiled napkin.
‘….But he fears he doesn’t deserve a second chance…’
The floodgates opened and he let it all out over the top deck of the restaurant, the magpies drinking up the hot salty tears, ‘…Sorry, I really don’t know where all that came from. Like I told you back there, I’m really going through it today.’
The Publisher reached across the table and patted Harry’s forearm in consolation.
‘Maybe you should call your daughter, huh?’
Harry brushed the hand away.
‘Not that it’s any of your business… Oh maybe you’re right. Hell I don’t even have a number for her anymore.’ He stood up, feeling a little unsteady on his legs but put it down to his being on water, ‘I need a piss.’
The publisher called out to him as he reached the deck door, ‘Stick with it Harry, I know all about the divided self. But it’s the writers and musicians who change the world, not the bankers.’
Harry made a cautious descent, his undersoles slipped on the wet rubber of the narrow stairs and he fell, bouncing down to the bottom on his backside where he was met on arrival by the waiter, smug as ever with arms folded and exasperated look.
‘Don’t worry, just finding my sea-legs, old chap,’ said Harry dusting off his work trousers. His bladder was filled to bursting and he needed to piss so badly he couldn’t think straight. In the back of his mind he knew he had to keep the publisher on the hook with a big juicy idea, pitch some more ideas to him, at least get a business card. As Harry shook the final drops he suddenly realized he didn’t even know this guy’s name. How strange of him not to have asked? He washed his hands, long and thorough, really scrubbing between the fingers like a surgeon, for the first time in years he felt like he’d purged himself of something. He felt sprightly and light as he bounced back up the steps. But when he got back the publisher was gone. The napkin had been neatly folded and next to it the tip of the check poked out from the restaurant’s black wallet. Harry opened it up to see the bill had been settled and wedged into the spine was a business card. Harry shook the card free and looked at it. On the back side was a phone number scrawled in biro, on the front was a name only. As he read the name the ship’s horn blew dislodging the magpies and sending them scattering into the sky. It was a name he knew well: ‘Bull Wendell.’
Harry felt on auto-pilot as he reached into his jacket for his phone and dialed the number. After a few rings it connected at the other end, a woman’s voice, changed by years but unmistakable, it was a voice he recognized instantly, ‘Hello..?’
‘It’s me…’, he struggled, gulping down the emotion. ‘It’s Harry…’
There was a pause on the other end of the line before a sound that came out on a rush of disbelief and relief which sounded to Harry as if it contained every vibration in the universe: