Monday, 16 December 2013

Chapter One of Turnstiles

Chapter 1
Martin opened his eyes. He squinted between his zippered lashes,
stuck together with sleep. A small army of shoes marched past his
face, which was half-hidden inside a dingy blue sleeping bag. His
first instinct was to place a limp, protective hand on his red knapsack.
He was inside a short tunnel that lay beneath a busy London
street beside Hyde Park. He didn’t look up. He knew w...hat their
faces would convey, their cowardly faces. He was experiencing the
real Europe, instead of peering out at it through heated hotel windows
or hostel bunk beds or tour buses. He didn’t have to pay
anyone for his space of concrete bedding. He was free. He closed
his eyes. Martin was free.
He ignored his growling stomach as he smelled the subtle waft
of fries from the nearby Hard Rock Café. Tourists, he thought. They
were all missing the local colour. Except Joe the hotdog vendor,
who was from the north, a Scot, an outsider. Hot dogs in London
were a foreign idea, but it seemed to catch on like every other American phenomenon. London was a metropolis with people
from every race sounding their thick British accents. It didn’t really
matter who you were or what you were, only where you happened
to become that person. Still, people could tell if you were from
somewhere else, and Martin stuck out like a wounded hitch-hiker’s
thumb. He had a quiet bond with Joe the Outsider and, on most
occasions, received his hotdogs for free. Then he would usually lie
under a tree in the park and watch tourists get charged two pounds
by security for using the lawn chairs. The grass was free. Martin
felt as though mindless sheep surrounded him. He had it all figured
A year before he had bought a cheap ticket to London and
decided to depend on the day to see him through. Martin cherished
every consequence. He held on to every face that examined
him with curiosity or disgust. He always kept a plain expression.
He had no reason to indulge anyone with his emotions. In fact, he
barely spoke. Except to people like Joe.
When he opened his eyes again, a different army of shoes were
marching past. The tunnel was never quiet, and he had long been
used to the intrusion of echoing sounds and rustling pavement. It
was a small sacrifice. He wriggled out of his bed and began to pack
up. He would return later that night. Martin had become a familiar
sight, and some of the locals knew this tunnel was his home. So did
some of the other shoestring backpackers. Martin marched alongside
the army and out of the tunnel. The sun was out, and again,
he squinted. He ran a hand over his stubbled head and rubbed his
eyes. He turned left.
The sun was already seated royally in the sky as Martin strolled
down the wide, crowded sidewalk. He could see the faint shape of
an umbrella a few blocks away, and as he came closer, he recognized
Joe. Martin’s stomach began to growl again.
“Get your hotdogs here! Hello, sir, what a gorgeous day. Would
you like a hotdog? Get your hotdogs here! Good day, love! Can I get
you a hotdog? Would you like the works?” Joe called to the passing public all day long. He set up his stand on the same corner every
day, and everyone who frequented that spot knew him. Some just
by his ruddy, round face, and others knew him well enough to have
a word or two. Martin felt he could relate to Joe, because it seemed
they were both stuck in London making a living on the sidewalks,
and most of the people bustling by chose to ignore them.
“Hey, Joe.” Martin showed a couple of teeth and then retracted
his smile. Even though he liked Joe, he was still careful not to let
anyone get too close. “Catering to the North American public, eh?
It’s amazing you are able to sell hotdogs here. I guess if you had
your way, you’d be selling cans of haggis.”
“Marty, my boy!” Joe’s face opened wide with good-natured
eyes. “How was your night? Those bloody bed bugs didn’t bite ya,
aye, lad?” he boomed in his rich, Scottish accent, completely disregarding
Martin’s offhand remarks.
“Nah, Joe. No rats, neither. Just the bloody tourists waking me
up in the morning.” Martin grimaced.
“Bloody tourists?” Joe raised his eyebrows so high they looked
comical. “You better button your tongue, Marty. If there were no
tourists, there’d be no hotdogs! Besides, what the devil do you
think you are … a member of the general voting public? You’re the
worst kind of tourist, Marty. You don’t pay taxes and you don’t
leave!” Joe chuckled and flung a hotdog with ketchup and mustard
into Martin’s waiting hand.
“See ya tomorrow, Joe,” said Martin without looking at his
friend, and he began to walk away.
“See ya, Marty,” Joe said quietly and to himself, because Martin
was already out of earshot. And they both knew they meant it.
Tomorrow. Chances were they would find themselves in the same
skin and doing the same thing. The two of them were like hamsters
trapped in transparent, plastic balls looking out at the world, unable
to break free of their bubbles and constantly bumping into walls.

The radio alarm clock began to hum in Willis Hancocks’ hotel
room, which he rented in downtown London. He groaned, rolled
over, and slapped his hand on the off button without looking. He
rolled back and stared groggily at the dented pillow beside him.
She was already gone, and he was trying to recollect the night
before. He rolled his eyes towards the dresser. There was his wallet,
open and most likely empty. His pants lay crumpled beside the
dresser. He rubbed his hands over his face and gave a self-deprecating
chuckle. Then he began to rise. He was anything but happy.
She had definitely served her purpose, but the others had been
more professional, and much more discreet. When this happened,
he usually didn’t realize he had been robbed until hours later, when
he found himself at a store counter fumbling for his credit cards.
“You cheeky little bitch,” Willis mumbled to himself as he
flipped through his wallet. She hadn’t been discreet, but she had
been thorough. Even his lucky franc coin from his trip to Paris was
gone. It must have caught her eye. Ignorant street kid.
“She’ll never use it,” he mumbled. “Never in a million years.”
And, suddenly, he felt vulnerable without it. He was used to having
small charms in his pockets. They were little reminders that there
was some luck in the universe, good or bad. Later that morning he
was going to the courthouse to hear his father’s will. His father. He
sure as hell had never been a dad. He hadn’t earned the title. Dads
taught you how to play cricket on summer days. Fathers called
from foreign cities to say, again, that they wouldn’t make it to the
biggest day of your life.
Willis was tempted to throw the wallet in the wastebasket, but
he gently placed it back on the dresser with an air of defeat.
An hour later, he was showered, sharply dressed, and hurriedly
locking the hotel room behind him. He strolled with purpose through
the chic lobby and out onto the pavement. He was not rushing to
his appointment with excitement or even mild anticipation. He was rushing to get it all over with. He desired the whole matter to be
dead and buried. There was a shameful question repeating itself
over and over again in his head, and he tried desperately to ignore
it … What did the bastard leave me? His only son. What did the bastard
leave me? Bastard … bastard … bast— He began walking faster.
As he rounded the corner, the large, impersonal, grey building
loomed before him, with its long, stone steps. He vaguely imagined
guillotines. Willis couldn’t remember the streets he had walked, as
though something else had brought him to this place without his
knowing or consent. In many ways, it had. He did not want this part
of his life to exist. Where was Occam’s razor for moments like these?
How wonderful it would be to splice out all the undesirable bits.
Willis threw these encroaching thoughts from his mind and
scurried up the stone steps. The engraved wooden doors looked
large and imposing, but were surprisingly light and swung open
with ease. Willis couldn’t help thinking that perhaps these doors
were much like his father. If only he had taken the time to turn the
doorknob. Once again he banished his useless mind chatter. None
of it could be helped now. His father’s barrister, and friend, was
waiting for him, perched on one of the many benches placed along
the sides of the grand hallway. The white marble floor was immaculate.
Almost so that, if he desired, he could see his reflection near
his feet, but few dared to look at themselves in a courthouse.
The man rose to meet Willis. Willis knew this man well—too
well. Sometimes the disappointing calls from his father would be
telegrammed through this man’s voice.
“I’m sorry, son …” the voice would say, “your father has been
held up in a meeting.” Even this man knew his father well enough
to know he was only that. A father. A sperm donor. An absent
male figure. The dictionary was far too generous with the word.
Father. A male parent. God. One who originates, makes possible, or
inspires something. The word dad was merely listed as a colloquial
term or a shortcut for father. It was all so backwards.
“Hello, Willis,” the man said as he extended his hand, which was taken without hesitation. However, Willis shook hands limply.
He was still overwhelmed by this place and these people and papers
and things. They were all just things. Was he grieving? He didn’t
know. It was all packed somewhere inside his big toe. Everything
would take a very long time to reach his mouth and then his brain.
“Hi, Sam,” he answered in a voice that was barely audible. Sam
motioned him into another room nearby. There were too many
thresholds that day. The room was small and dimly lit. The blinds
were down and the large desk and tall bookshelves seemed to judge
Willis from their standpoints. Willis loosened his tie, feeling the
musty tone of the heavy, dark brown books and neglected carpets.
It was a furnished closet where many unsaid things happened.
“Would you like some coffee?” Sam offered. Willis thought he
could use something a bit stronger, but he politely raised his hand
in decline. Sam poured himself a cup and settled in behind the
large oak desk. He folded and unfolded his hands and then laid
them flat before him. There was no real sense of sorrow in the
room, but the situation was delicate and Sam wasn’t sure where to
begin. He didn’t want to touch a raw nerve.
“I have your father’s papers,” he began. He pulled an envelope
out of a large, squeaky drawer in his desk and deftly handed it over.
Willis didn’t make any move to accept it.
“Shouldn’t mother be here?” Willis stalled.
“Your mother conveyed point-blank that she isn’t interested in
what he had to say.”
Willis nodded solemnly. She was still his widow, but he had been
less than a husband to her. She had known the truth behind his
unscheduled business trips years ago. However, she had kept quiet
and continued to pack his lunch every morning and make pork chops
every Tuesday night. It had been a different era then, and she probably
made herself believe there was nowhere else for her to go. Maybe
it would have been easier if he had run off and left her for good.
Besides, she had to stay. She had Willis to think about. And now
Hancocks Sr. was dead. The freedom of it was suffocating. “Heart attack, was it?” Willis asked. He tried to sound casual.
Sam didn’t answer right away. Instead, he let out a long sigh
through his nostrils.
“Yes, I believe his heart simply gave out. Strange that it wasn’t
his lungs instead. He certainly liked his tobacco, didn’t he?” Sam
attempted to be warm, almost nostalgic. Willis squirmed in his
seat. He felt his own heart tense.
Sam noticed his anxiety and decided to move things along.
He was starting to feel uncomfortable too. He jerked the envelope
impatiently towards Willis. The younger man glanced at him
sharply, warily, as though he’d been wakened from a deep sleep.
He didn’t want anything from his father. Not like this. Feeling cornered,
he accepted the envelope and toyed with the seal.
“Do I have to open this now?” he asked, sounding like a child
who didn’t want to do a chore. “Here?”
“I must be a witness to make sure you understand all the implications
of your father’s last wishes,” Sam answered in a distant
voice. Willis began to peel open the seal. The package felt quite
heavy to be from a man who had been so empty. He pulled out a
stack of papers attached with a clip. There was too much print—
large blocks of ink that Willis didn’t want to swim through. He
passed the document back to Sam with a plea in his eyes for some
comprehension. Sam put his reading glasses on with an air of formality
and began to read:
“Here states the last will and testament of myself, Willis Hancocks
Sr., to be read upon my time of death. To my faithful wife I leave my
property estate …” Faithful! How the bastard could even constitute the
word and never know the meaning. Willis felt his innards turn and was
relieved about his mother’s absence in this obscene mockery.
“… and to my only son I leave a portion of myself that I hope
will fill the gaps I have left behind. …” The remainder of the document
contained instructions for the dividing of his assets, including
a generous portion granted to Sam for both his personal and professional
services through the years. Willis barely heard the rest of it.
“How much?” he interrupted. Sam stopped in midsentence
and removed the ominous glasses. His dusty blue eyes were small
and beady. His lukewarm glance took on a cooler slant.
Sam had been a dutiful friend, even when it had gone against
his better judgment. He was trying to be discreet, even now, by
sounding vague and assuming his authoritative business voice, but
the younger man knew him too well. Sam’s voice began to trail off,
losing its facade.
“It’s quite a sum, Willis,” he replied in a serious tone.
“How much?”
“Your father wasn’t very good with his feelings. He didn’t really
know how to express—”
“How much?” Willis was becoming irritable.
“Fifty million pounds, son.” His voice was like a dull thud in the
room. Then he added, “Your father set up a trust fund for you when
he found out he was dying from his clogged arteries. I’ve already
taken the liberty of depositing the funds directly into your account.”
Willis felt immobilized in his chair. The cushion on the chair
had suddenly become quicksand. He was a millionaire, just like
his father. Just like his father. Willis wanted no part of his father’s
impersonal, hard cash world.
His father was made of money, it seemed; still, he couldn’t take
it with him.
“What about my mother, Sam? What did she get?”
“Your father made sure she would be comfortable. Hopefully,
your mother was also given some closure.” Sam seemed uncomfortable
and avoided eye contact.
“What if I don’t accept?” Willis said, but he thought, brilliant.
“Then the money will be given to the city,” Sam said with
urgency. His loyalty still lay with his friend, and the last thing
Hancocks Sr. ever wanted was to invest one cent in the government.
He never trusted the politicians to do the right thing with
their liberties.
If Willis had known, he would have marched down to City Hall and delivered the boodle himself, but the unreturned affections
he carried for his father lay like silt in his stomach. He also
didn’t want his father’s money to go into a new McDonald’s or a
city parking lot. The two men stood up abruptly and shook hands.
Willis just wanted to escape. When he emerged from the ominous
courthouse doors, he took a long pause on the entrance steps. He
drew everything in, and the world looked stranger. Even the clouds
appeared to be moving faster across an otherwise pleasant sky. The
voices around him slowed down. The tempo in the atmosphere
was out of step. The mechanics in his brain had been reduced to a
hamster in a wheel, overworked. What had just happened?
Martin had been wandering the streets all morning. The sidewalks
were wide and crowded. The streets had a smaller ratio of traffic,
and he was tempted to walk along the painted dotted lines in the
middle of the road and dodge the cars. At least he would get paid
if some careless driver bumped into him. The mob on the sidewalk
lived by the rule of every man for himself. He unsuccessfully
tried to avoid the shoving and gave it back where he could without
making eye contact. He had grown sour and didn’t want to admit
his thoughts, even to himself. The truth was that he was young and
ready to accept his creature comforts again. He began to miss pillows,
basic warmth, and friendly conversation. The problem was,
he had delved so deep into his notions of the world being dictated
by the evils of money, politics, and fads that he didn’t know how to
slip back into the norm undetected. His rebellious nature had won
him a reputation in the spreading vicinity of his tunnel life.
His thoughts pushed behind his eyes as he walked recklessly.
What could he do now? He had no money. Suddenly, the colourful
printed paper and accumulative clinking coins he once detested seemed essential. He kicked the pavement in defeat. There was
no use fighting the greedy gods. Could he work? Would anyone
hire him? Here? His appearance was almost frightening. He prayed
for rain on the days between using the public showers, which cost
two pounds. Martin didn’t want to admit that he had failed in his
attempts to move against the grain, to not be a sheep. He always
returned to his home in the underground walkway. After all, home
was a place you could escape to after your legs grew weary and your
head swelled with the pressure of people and words and laborious
tasks, wasn’t it? Perhaps Martin’s home didn’t provide the best
comfort, but it did provide him with shelter and a place to submerge
from the busy streets. The hum of cars and shoes clanking on
the grates above him provided company in the night when only a
few stray souls, also hiding from the moonlight or police car beams,
might join him or pass through, stealth-like. Martin wandered the
streets of London by day and hid from them in the late, dark hours.
As he headed back to Hyde Park, he would often see the homeless
people cluster together in alleys. They were prohibited from
seeking soft grass beds in the parks, even in the warmer season.
So, in alleys, they lit each other’s cigarettes and spat on the sidewalks.
They swayed from the drink and huddled together to keep
warm and upright. They cajoled with each other and laughed with
smoker’s lungs. Martin didn’t know them, and he avoided them.
Whatever choices those poor, fading souls had ever made in their
lives, they had not chosen to live on the streets with every door
closed against them. At least, he was sure the choice had not been a
conscious one. How the warmly lit windows in every flat on every
block must have appeared to them.
Martin was painfully aware of his free will. Still, he wasn’t
ready to surrender. He had chosen the broadness of the streets
over being confined in those brightly lit boxes of windows, looking
down. Now his smug feelings had slowly turned to jealousy. He
suddenly hated the working locals and carefree tourists, brushing by him cheerfully with their groceries and Harrods bags, for a different
reason. They had something he didn’t have. They were free.
Martin sat down and occupied a piece of concrete.
As Willis rounded the corner, he almost tripped over a grungy
looking young man sitting on the pavement. The man looked as
though he had walked across the continent. The blue of his startled
eyes as he glanced up looked lost and old. The young man’s
expectant hand emerged from his jacket sheepishly and wavered
open before him. Willis hesitated for half a second and then pulled
out an executive-looking leather booklet from his inside pocket.
He then pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and began scribbling
furiously inside the booklet.
“Here, chap, here’s a big fat cheque, and all you have to do is
authorize it. I hand you the keys to my palace,” Willis said. He
roughly stuffed the piece of paper into the other man’s waiting
hand and hurried off, jamming both of his empty hands into deep