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Authors: Andy Palmer

Freedom Island

BOOK: Freedom Island
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organisations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 Andrew Portsmouth

All rights reserved.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, shared or otherwise circulated without the author’s prior consent in any form other than which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher.



Published by Andrew Portsmouth

First Edition, 2015; First Printing, 2015.


I dragged open my eyes, the world at ninety degrees, the evidence of a big night scratching at my mind. The sun squeezed between the blinds.
              It was a Saturday afternoon.
              I’d dreamt about the old days—dreamt about a girl I used to love—but woke up sore and alone. I put on my glasses.
              Often, on days like this, I’d wander in search of the murmur of unknown people, a café—Canterbury was full of them. But I felt too weak for the questions—‘milk or cream?’, ‘large or small?’, ‘cash or card?’. Instead I made a cup of instant coffee with undissolved bits floating on top.
              The phone was ringing. ‘Ollie Tonbridge,’ I croaked.
              ‘Hi, it’s Max. Feel like a run?’
              Maximilian Nadherny-Borutin—an old school friend—was also big on his diet and vitamins. I whined an excuse and returned the phone to its cradle.
              Max’s direct ancestors had been Czech counts and the owners of a castle in Bohemia, and he’d never ceased regretting the realities of modern life. He was simply above crawling in the dirt, although that’s exactly where he was: Max was a dentist, a profession of which I was deeply suspicious, what with people’s spit flying into your face every day. And, whenever we spoke, I felt that he was trying to look at my teeth.
              Max also piled into every pyramid scheme he stumbled upon in search of the legend of easy money, with each failure serving only to convince him more. So the promise of jogging not only guaranteed physical discomfort, but also the opportunity to buy the best personal care products in the world, or to make vast amounts of money like many other ‘very smart people’.
              I looked into the fridge and threw out a week-old carcass that was once a chicken. A year earlier, a colleague had part of his stomach and intestine removed after an encounter with a seemingly harmless old creature like this; it almost killed him. Funny isn’t it, how with a little help from nature, the exploited bounce back and bite us?
              I stared into the mirror, distorting my features, then lurched for the universal remote.
              Hopping through the channels, I stared at the successful people— successful because there they were there; there in the dream machine. I was interrupted by a surging burning sensation in the pit of my stomach. Jerking to my feet I ran to the toilet, heaving, then slumped onto the tiles. Wiping my brow with a damp, shaking hand, I made my way back to the sofa, recalling a dream I’d had about various famous people being my friends.
              I tried to remember the way I’d used to feel about myself. I’d catch a glimmer of it, occasionally, in my signature or in the eyes of a girl I used to know, but then it’d be gone. I checked the Internet. I kept track of my ex-lovers—the mysterious and the typical, and for each my alcohol-fuelled self-pity was now filled with sorrow, guilt and regret, in sequence.
              I tucked a book under my arm and took myself for a walk. Turning left out of the building onto the grimy back streets to avoid the superior glances on the main road, I remembered the street party there on Thursday. It had been Union Day, and the Flag of Europe hung in front of all the apartment buildings, as required by law: the old men were showing kids how to play games like rolling an old bicycle wheel along with a stick, or throwing balls at stacks of tin cans. They were all having a great time together, but strangely it had made me feel sick.
              I made my way further, piss and shit and vomit strewn everywhere like flowers in the countryside; a place where people assume the same rights as the dogs and pigeons. The summer sun would elevate all of it to the nostrils as a stifling, all-pervasive stench to force you into the road, where I walked even now to assuage my terror that some lump might fall from one of the decrepit buildings and pulp my head.
              On I went past the disenfranchised who were lying in the doorways; then the young men (how I hated them) standing and talking across the pavement; three massage–hair–manicure–pedicure specialists, one of which was for dogs; the bookshop frequented by nice girls in glasses; a pharmacy window promising eternal youth and then the twenty-four-hour solarium that doubled as a late-night knocking shop, where student girls from the countryside turned blonde and orange to subsidised their education; and then at the corner the Twinkle cake shop, a small family bakery that I was, on better days, particularly fond of.
              I stopped and gazed in at the colourful cakes and the bustle of the tiny store. Inside I could see the daughter serving. She was charming and insecure; a terrible scar somehow made her beauty greater, by revealing its transience. I often thought, when buying cakes I didn’t want, how I might tell her so, but I’d always felt an invisible distance between myself and those serving me. Our relationship instead tip-toed from strudels of propriety and gâteaux of tenderness, to hopeful cookies and lustful tarts, all destined for my bin.
              I wandered on, down into Brussels Street, lined with its exorbitant but empty boutiques—shielding the elite to the grime behind, peddling handbags as expensive as they were ugly. I passed extravagant identical cars and five-star hotels packed to the rafters with loneliness and frustration, along pavements used by the rich to sup their coffee and by tramps as a toilet. I passed, too, bewildered and ageing tourists.
              Others peering, leering from sightseeing buses. An old man and his wife glided peacefully past in matching electric wheelchairs; then two homeless people in a doorway—a man and a woman, filthy now and sleeping, but with love etched on their faces. I saw, in some of the anonymous faces that passed, my own sorrow—and all of a sudden a girl who from the back looked exactly like a girl I’d once known, my heart leapt and my legs scurried but as I drew close her face . . . a monster; a horror-film special effect, the face of an impostor.
              I had walked further than I’d thought. There was a rumble and I was caught in a downpour, feet squelching, jeans sodden, I was unable to stop—mesmerised by the smell of the tepid rain, the hypnotic lights blurring then sharper, the rain hitting the ground. Then as soon as it had started, the rain stopped. Numb, I wandered into Ring Café. Every one of my friends hated that tired old café.
              There were few tables inside as most had been moved outside, to entice tourists. But those were now wet, and I hated to sit on the pavement anyway. I found myself a place in the echoey emptiness with my back to the wall. I straightened up. My bad posture had prompted my previous two girlfriends, quite independently (as far as I am aware) to nickname me ‘Penguin’. Straightening, was a motion that many took as a cynical or superior response to whatever they were saying at the time; they would take subtle offence. Another habit of mine was sighing, the insides of which were a mystery, although someone had once said it might mean I had a heart problem. Sighing led people to think I was sad, usually resulting in sympathetic interrogation. I had also become more and more allergic to almost everything; my skin raging, itching and crumbling, eyes watering and welling such that people thought I was seedy, my throat tightening.
              A Viennese coffee sat before me; I hadn’t even noticed it arrive. Pensively, I picked up the sugar packet, gave it a shake and tore it open, emptying less than half its contents into the cup. I twisted the packet closed and placed it neatly back on the saucer. Even in troubled times, I had to consider my waistline.
              The café had no cappuccino, only Viennese coffee—which I detest—and Algerian coffee, piled up with artificial cream and a sickly syrup. I seldom felt at ease in cafés at the best of times. It was something to do with the way waiters would ignore me, busying themselves with fabricated tasks; in their glance a mixture of pity and disgust.
              ‘It’s probably because I am alone,’ I sighed, as someone took the empty chair opposite me, without asking.
              The misery of these days was fed by the nights. I would bore and drink and bore my unfortunate friends in kitsch little bars, with crazier and crazier details: they did not understand, how could they? Their sympathy, their relentless advice tempered with their self-satisfaction in their relative success, as they smugly generalised my soul. I would smile and laugh, share in their jokes, only to collapse an hour or two later into a speechless cave of sorrow—old, crumpled, hunched, winded and unplugged, barely able to move as though my ribs could collapse at any moment: a force I’d hardly known I had, gone. After an illustrious career of breaking hearts, my last girl had broken mine; chopped, diced, pummelled and stewed it. I was haunted—night and day—by her parting words; by my failure to win her trust and to overcome her fears; and by the thought of whom she might be with now. I could forgive her, and even myself: I was lost in a forest of forgiveness, but it was utterly impossible to forget.
              I was—she had told me—always fiddling with her hand, touching it, holding it, stroking it, squeezing it; rendering it all but unavailable to her for normal tasks like opening doors, picking up her jacket or scratching her nose: my actions of tenderness, she had explained, left her feeling as if she’d had a limb lopped off. I stared at my hands.
              After drinking my Viennese coffee and then the agonising procedure of paying, I made my way toward the Underground. The light was beginning to dim, objects were appearing to float and the poor—not even the homeless—were raiding the litter bins. It would take a little longer this way but I just couldn’t face the stifling trams packed with long-suffering fare-dodgers, and besides, I was in no hurry. I made my way down into the sweet, musty clouds of the tramp-filled tube station, warm and homely and revolting, reminiscent of Grandpa’s jumper yet more pungent or that up-close smell of pigeons only sweeter; it was the natural scent of humans, or at least alcoholic ones, and of the languid whores who loitered there all hours of the day. Then at last I was on the escalator, eyed by all the people ascending as I travelled to the grimy platform below. I stood in the crowd waiting for the train, as usual people walked through me: the weakest link forever waltzing back and forth to let them pass.
              The train arrived.
              I sat in a long line of strangers looking across the carriage at another long line of strangers looking back, sharing our peculiarities for each other’s amusement, to the whistling and rocking of the train. I usually prefer to stand, to avoid the embarrassing situation of giving up my seat for an old lady, but that day I felt too exhausted. One man had an unmarked white box perched protectively on his lap and was looking very pleased with it, and everyone desperately wanted to know what was inside: sideways glances every few seconds; an old woman with a face to tell a thousand stories about illness and strange neighbours; a teenager, bored; a couple in their early fifties, he, moustached, frustrated by his own ageing and disgusted by his wife’s, she, tired of his moods and arrogance, longing to break free but with no place to go; then a man I instinctively hated, dressed like me, hair like me, acetate glasses and stuffed up with pensiveness, like me; and a pretty young girl who I suspected had noticed me, in her peripheral vision.
              Bustling with puberty and poverty, this carriage reminded me of where I belonged. And what on earth could be in that box? A stop before mine, I gave up my seat to an elderly lady.
              As I left the metro I saw a young couple on a bench. Him nibbling at her neck, her revelling in it. ‘They’ve got it, whatever it is—what I want, they’ve got it!’ I thought. I was jubilant, then they noticed I was looking and I shuffled along inconspicuously.
              In fact, every day I would watch paradise walk straight past me—my own love, perhaps—anywhere, anytime, yet each opportunity seemed to pop up when I least expected it, when I was least ready, most helpless, and in a flash it would be gone. I was dismayed by these missed opportunities.
              The girl for me was out there, I knew it. Perhaps our paths had crossed again and again but I’d always found some thought or call or noise or mood to distract me, days weeks months busily passing when instead I should have been talking to the one I wanted. I just had too much inertia to jump on the wrong bus, to chase that fantasy, and I knew that any one of those lost moments might just have saved me.
              Cautious and analytical, I simply didn’t know where to start. The previous summer I had bought some plants, a gladioli and a few chrysanthemums, with a view to progressing to a goldfish and then perhaps a dog, then a family. But they had all died.
              I found myself at my front door as another storm erupted, fumbling for my keys, and in I went. I slumped on the sofa, immobile, the church bells chiming their accusations, the light impossibly gloomy, the air pressure tumbling as if it wasn’t day at all or rather one of those endless days they have in Finland, the rain aimlessly drifting in slow motion, horizontally even, everything stiflingly mouldy green or moody grey-blue as if the red had failed or when light reflects from a poisoned puddle, stagnant, toxic; all life made impossible in an apocalyptic sci-fi way.
              I was still on the sofa the next morning when I awoke. It was turning May. I always loved this kind of sun—bright but not hot—and I felt the life oozing back into my bones, my skin responding, the blood shifting. Canterbury could be fine at this time of year as the long winter finally abated and the gloomy streets began to lighten. I headed out. The trees, where there were any, were beginning to show buds of hope and in a few short weeks the gloves and scarves and winter coats would be gleefully stuffed away again in all those flats and houses, and the threat of flu would be past.

BOOK: Freedom Island
10.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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