Chapter One – London
<The secret to absolute peace is
to neither have nor not have…>
I was born way too early for my own good; a teeny tiny wisp of a thing with bright blue eyes, deep black hair and a hole in the heart the size of Alaska.
Apparently I wasn’t meant to last very long. A few days tops. But as luck would have it, I went beyond expectations and survived.
Actually, I thrived, and for a brief moment of childhood, life became something exceptional; one exhilarating, cubby-house-building, top-of-the-tree-swinging moment after the next.
I was a precocious little fellow with a single character flaw… ahem… alright, I probably had a few more than one, but let’s not spoil the moment. That is to say, I pretty much believed everything I heard, as long as the words came from the mouth of someone older than me.
Unfortunately, just at the point when my life was going really nicely, some miserable glass-half-empty type happened to point out that “life always gets worse the moment it looks like it’s getting better.” I don’t think he was talking to me at the time, but apparently I took this to heart; and so, right about the moment when I was pretending to shave with ice-block sticks (circa ten years old), my happiness made a beeline for someplace else.
Right after that… Well, let’s just say, something happened that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. For a while, it turned me into one quivering mess of fear and loathing, happiness now just a figment of someone else’s imagination.
When I was sixteen, my long-neglected intuition decided to pay me a visit. It was like a gift from the gods, and woke me to what I was creating for myself – nothing but misery. It made me remember the importance of following my heart over my head, irrespective of how terrified that sometimes made me feel.
And so I made a pact to myself. I recognised that I couldn’t spend the rest of my days digging up the same pain, just to appease some part of me that liked to suffer. I suddenly had the notion that I could turn things around; that I didn’t have to have a life as bad as it was. That I could somehow become, well… fearless.
It was an odd pact for a sixteen-year-old to make. But it changed everything.
Years later, when my favourite – and richest – aunt surreptitiously handed me a wad of cash and told me to have fun, my first thought was that I needed to travel to London. The idea washed over me like a hurricane blown dandelion and stayed there, from the moment she handed me the money to the moment I started investigating the price of flights. Then it settled contentedly at the back of my mind, occasionally tickling me with excitement throughout the following days.
Needless to say, I finally arrived. And after a week in a cheap hostel, I found accommodation in a slightly rundown, five bedroom share-house half a kilometre south of Tower Bridge. To date, I’ve been living here for sixteen months, have a job in a bar, have good friends – namely, my best mate Ben – and not much else to account for myself except for the occasional propensity to drink too much.
I guess you could say I’m a work in progress…
Physically, I’m tall by family standards. When I stand up straight, I’m six-foot-three worth of gangly arms and legs. And if I’m being particularly impartial, sometimes I look strangely awkward – as though I’m still trying to work out how to fit inside the confines of my body.
My hair, as mentioned, is black, although I still have the crazy on again/off again pleasure of bleaching it white. It’s almost always cut close to my head to hide the slight curl that sprouts if I let it grow longer. My eyes are no longer completely what I’d call blue – somehow, through natural progression (or maybe just puberty), they’ve begun to look more grey than blue. Perhaps that’s just a trick of the light, but either way, I guess you could call me average looking, sometimes a bit above when I comb my hair the right way.
This morning, I awoke as I do every morning, to the sounds of Blur.
But when Bublé finally pushed me out of bed – as he has a wanton habit of doing – I did so with an uncomfortably persistent but familiar thought rolling around like a lotto ball inside my head: It was time to move again.
I sang loudly over the squeal of the hot water pipes, trying to squish out this one particular grandiose idea, but it was like having a traffic cop directing cars between the folds of my brain: every time I tried to pursue another direction, this one got right of way and came wheeling back at me.
I dressed and left the flat, slowed my pace to watch the mime making faces by Blackfriars Bridge and then continued on along the river.
London in springtime is a queer experience to behold. In the space of an hour, with just the smell of sunlight in a hazy sky, everything turns to pot: boys and men out shirtless kicking footballs in the park; women in light blouses fanning themselves as if the heat has become unbearable – when in fact it’s really just a shade short of cold; the tourist walks, yesterday almost deserted, now abruptly punctuated by the laughter of children; their parents moving about with blissfully stunned looks, faces stretched upwards towards the heat of the golden sun. It is a peculiar thing to witness, and quite at odds with what I’m used to in my home town in southern New South Wales, where everything seems a little bit slower to come to the boil.
Don’t get me wrong; I like good weather as much as the next guy, but by the time I finally reached the Southbank Centre, I was ready to do a Rocky run up the steps to the bridge over the Thames to Embankment Station – if only to escape the maddening dodge and swerve of the walkers slowed down to eke out the warmth of the sunshine.
On the other end of the bridge, the homeless busker greeted me as he always did, with a nod and a grin. Sweat was beading on his forehead as he beat out a creatively mournful rendition of ‘Love me do’ on an old plastic rice container.
I returned the smile, throwing a pound coin into the can at his feet. “Have a nice one mate,” he said between verses.
“You too,” I responded, completing our morning ritual. A few steps later, I was walking through the tube station, trying to dodge the numbed out passengers as they passed in and out of the turnstiles.
Leicester Square was its usual charming effervescent self, packed with the regular crowd of cheap-theatre-ticket gawkers and backpack-wearing tourists, some plonked in the middle of the square as though they had no energy left to get to the side. I skirted a large group of these, frowning slightly in annoyance, and then squeezed past a well-dressed young man hawking eternal salvation who smelled peculiarly of stale pizza and cheap musk cologne.
At the café, I ordered “a cheese and tomato croissant – lightly toasted with a thick layer of oozy butter – and a massive café latte” with the girl at the counter. (She knew me well enough to giggle in derision.) As I swallowed my first mouthful of coffee, I came to the inevitable conclusion that I would go ahead with it, regardless of how it might turn out for me. I started to sketch out the priorities in my mind: first I resign, then I get a ticket, then I tell everyone who needs to know.
Later, as I unstacked the mats from the bar floor, my boss appeared, rollerblading in with a very dazzled and out of breath white terrier dragging on a lead ten feet behind. They disappeared into the office until the dog returned, tongue lolling from the side of her mouth, and padded wearily towards the water bowl in the kitchen. Craig was out several minutes later with the cash till tucked beneath his arm. As he rang open the register, I moved over to the public side of the bar and sat down on the barstool opposite him. “How’re things?”
“Gooood,” he replied, raising an eyebrow. “How’s it with you?”
“Umm… yep fine. Ermm… I need to put in my resignation. I’m going away for a while… err… Well it could be forever. I think it might be for a long while at least.”
He nodded back slowly, shut the till door and turned fully in my direction. “Where are you planning to go? Back to Australia?”
He snorted. “Really? Okay. What are you going to do there, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Umm… Well, I haven’t quite figured it out. Maybe disappear into a cave or become a monk or something.” I felt myself turning a warm shade of pink. “I’m not sure yet. I just know I have to go to India.”
Craig gave me a slightly clever smile and turned back to the register. “Shall we see you returning enlightened then?”
“I… I’m not sure. I doubt I even know what that means,” I said, turning a deeper red.
“Well, alright then, though we’ll be sorry to see you go, Chris. You’re welcome to come back if you need to. When are you thinking of leaving?” he asked, walking back around the bar and pulling out a cigarette.
“A week or two I guess. I’ve gotta finish up some things here first before I leave, and I… Well, I haven’t even booked my ticket yet. I’m not sure what else I need to get, like visas and things…”
“Okay. Just let me know when you’ve booked and you have a definite date and I can change the roster around a bit.”
“Thanks Craig, I appreciate it.”
He smiled kindly. “No probs.”
An hour before my shift ended, Ben arrived from the gym and pushed his bag across the counter. I bent to slide it under a shelf at my feet, poured him a drink and returned with his change.
“What are you grinning at?” he asked as I handed him the coins.
“I’m going to India,” I answered.
He laughed at me as though I were making another one of my jokes (he called them “Chris jokes” and was at pains to stress that they weren’t in the least bit funny). At last, he realised I was being serious and his bushy eyebrows turned downwards. “Why?”
“I’m not sure, to be honest,” I admitted. “I just have this feeling that I need to go.”
He stood up, walked around the edge of the bar and pulled me into a bear hug, his arms seeming to envelop me twice over. “Well, you gotta do what you gotta do, I suppose. Though you’d better make sure you come back here because I was only just getting used to the sight of you and I’d hate for all that effort to go to waste.” His nose wrinkled at that and I could see a sadness behind his eyes that I didn’t expect.
Finally, I was ready to leave.
On the eve of my departure, and after another farewell dinner, Ben and I dropped into the backseat of a London cab from Soho, driving across Tower Bridge towards home. We were both silent, in reflective moods as the blue painted metal of the bridge flashed above us. Truly I was grateful for it, scared to speak for the sudden fear that welled up like a bloating fish inside my chest. Time is short, it seemed to say, and if you’re not very, very careful, this trip might be the last one you ever take…
“You’ll be careful, right?” Ben asked, seemingly aware of my troubled thoughts.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “It’s not like I’m gonna be the first guy to travel on his own to India.”
Ben smiled and turned to stare out the window. I followed his gaze, then shuddered; felt as though some force were squeezing my intestines with crystal gloves.
The following day, as I heaved my bags onto the scales at Heathrow, I had absolutely no idea of what I was getting myself into.