One more for the road…

The nature of friendship has been the subject of my musings of late, and a discussion on the theme with an old housemate led me to recall an experience from almost 15 years ago.

I had made a financial mistake.

I’m still not sure exactly what it was, but I think I subtracted one from the tens side rather than a two, or a three, or a nine, and it plunged me into a week of chaos.

I realised it right before I was due to head off for a weekend away. I did the sums in my head and, to my horror, discovered that not only had I bounced a cheque to my housemate, but also that until Friday morning, I had not a penny to my name. Actually, that’s not quite true. The cup of change by my bed had about £1.74 in it.

In hindsight, that seemed fitting. For about six months, I had been doing a temp job that barely paid me above minimum wage. This was good because it taught me how to live in London on what was essentially an ox’s salary. It was bad because, well, stuff is expensive in London. There had been times of such intense poverty that my breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted almost totally of the free biscuits and coffee at work.

But I had just taken on a new part-time job, and even though it hardly made me rich, it was certainly a welcome step up in salary. I was starting to imagine what it would be like to live as a normal human being. It was something I had been looking forward to: a job with a living wage. I was so close.

My first payday was to be that Friday. I somehow had to make it four days until then. One last week of being one of the great unwashed.

I did an inventory of what I had to survive one week. The list read something like:

£1.74 in change.

A handful of winegums. (Not even Rowntrees … some cheap brand!)

Half a box of cat food.

Endless cups of hot coffee (courtesy of work).

One package of digestive biscuits.

That was it. I had no money for a travelcard, so after work Monday, I headed out into the cold London evening and walked from Russell Square to Hendon, where I lived at the time. I’d always been curious how long it would take me to walk that far. This was as good a time as any to find out.

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One of my favourite books when I was younger was The Long Walk. It was written by Stephen King under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, published decades after it was written (when King was still in college, which is just depressing). It concerns a competition in the “not-so-distant” future in which 100 young men simply begin walking. They are required to walk a minimum of four miles an hour. If they go under four miles an hour, they are given a warning. They have an hour to walk off the warning. If they receive a fourth warning, they are shot.

There are stilted political implications in the story, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they are. But the story fascinates me still. I mean, it’s simply walking. Anybody can do that, right?

From my workplace in Russell Square to where I lived in Hendon is, according to Google Maps, about seven miles. Not an overwhelming distance and, as I mentioned, I’d been curious about walking it anyway.  This final week of poverty seemed like an ideal time to finally go forward with the experiment. So, after a long day at work I packed up my bag and turned onto Great Russell Street at 6:02 p.m.

I walked fast. It was exciting, really. Why don’t people do this all the time? Up, up, I went, along Eversholt Street, past Euston Station, past the Koko nightclub and Lyttelton Arms, through bohemian Camden Town with its weird and wonderful people, past Stables Market and Cottons Rhum Shop, and into Chalk Farm. I moved at a steady pace, passing all the office workers and meandering shoppers. It was I who could not be stopped; it was I who was on a savage journey. Four miles an hour? Please. I’d double that, backwards, blindfolded, walking on my hands.

Belsize Park is an area of London where I have spent much time (I later worked in the area for five years), but I have never really understood it. An old girlfriend lives there, and, like her, everything is a little too precious. I had barely been back to the area since we’d parted ways, and I was reminded why; people in Belsize Park can make you feel like you don’t bathe often enough, like you’re this swarthy minion swooping up from the city’s underbelly, lurking in to sully their happy, lily-white pseudo-suburbia. The whole area makes me want to drink six cans of some cheap, nasty lager, and then fart. Preferably in a crowded Starbucks.

That said, when I walked past Tapeo, a lovely tapas restaurant where the ex and I had spent a lot of time together, the pangs of envy were overpowering. Nobody here chooses what they have for lunch simply on the basis that it’s only a pound-fifty.

Plus, my feet were starting to hurt. I’d noticed it as I went past the Sir Richard Steele pub, which, all considered, isn’t bad. But I was only three miles into my journey and had another four to go. It was 6:47. Not bad time, I thought, but a pace I was unlikely to keep up.

I felt the blister just after going past the Everyman Theatre. I walk on the backs of my feet, something you’d think would help my posture but doesn’t. Right there, on the base, right under my ankle, it started to swell. I kept wondering if it would squish as I moved forward, soaking my sock. But it wouldn’t. Just a squersh, squersh, squersh, as it shifted with each step. But, nevertheless, on I walked. I had declared to my housemates that I would make it back to the house by 8 p.m., and time was wasting.

Through Hampstead, down past Queen Mary’s House on the western side of the Heath (7:23… good pace still) and into Golders Green with its kosher butcher shops and Middle Eastern restaurants.

Speaking of which, it occurred to me that I was starving. I hadn’t eaten all day, which, sad as it is to say, wasn’t that highly unusual a situation for me as it probably should have been. But I was expending energy now, starting to slow perilously toward that 4 mph threshold, and it was beginning to look like calories might not be as wretched as I’d always believed. But the compiled change (up to three quid now!) in my pocket was to be used for tomorrow’s bus rides. No food could be had.

It dawned on me that I was a complete idiot. When people heard that I was broke for the week, I received a surprisingly high number of offers to help. Here, Dave, let me order you a pizza; hey, what’s your bank details? These entreaties were kind, warm-hearted, and downright touching. But, to me, they missed the point. This was a test for myself, one last week of struggle, something to never forget, something to put in the pocket of an old coat and discovered years from now with a fond smile. This was a project. This was life as art.

As I trudged up Highfield Avenue toward Brent Cross station, six miles into my journey, “life as art” was starting to look like a tremendous load of bullshit. I was hungry, cold, and, to my alarm, my calves were starting to cramp up. But, at this point, what choice did I have? I couldn’t exactly waste the whole trip by hopping on the Tube now and wasting valuable pennies. I had to make it home. Wait… is that a hill? Jesus! When did we get hills around here?

If I had been in the Bachman contest, I would have been shot somewhere around the Brent Cross Flyover.

But past the shopping centre I went, almost home now, so close. In the distance, my house. I glanced down at my right shoe. The sole of it was flapping aimlessly. “Come on, matey… hang in… almost there.”

I put my key in the lock. I heard a “Wow!” from one of my housemates. “We weren’t expecting you until 9, at least!” It was 8:11.

Weary, I forced a weak grin. I wanted to curl up on the sofa in front of the telly, and not think about how hungry I was. I shuffled to my room, peeled my shoes off, crowbarred my socks onto the floor, and shuffled back. My housemate, to whom I had accidentally bounced the cheque that had started this whole mess in the first place, was standing outside my door.

“Dave, do you want some food? We made you a pizza.”

They had. It was most wonderful.

This week wasn’t even half over. And all it took to wear down my “I don’t need help, this is for me, I must prove myself and remember and make it last” was an oven pizza and two warm housemates on an old battered sofa, administering a Cosmopolitan mag quiz (“What Kind of Lover Are You?” I think it was), huddling up in blankets, staying safe.

Because your friends, the ones who are there for you, they would have no place in the Long Walk. If you slow down, they don’t shoot you. They crouch beside you, offer you their shoulder, take your arm gently, rub your back, and tell you, “I’m here.” Then, once you’re up again, you carry on down the road, together, scarred but stronger, ready for the larger, fiercer battles ahead.

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Creative acts of love

Lately, it seems to have become almost reflexive for our society to frame any sensitive topic — from the London riots to international terrorism to the economy — by asking “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

To judge from early Mesopotamian wisdom literature, this conundrum is as old as civilisation. It hinges on a pair of interesting premises: “Bad things” occur and “good people” never cause them. “Badness”, it appears, resides somewhere on the fringes, outside of ourselves and beyond our control — more often than not, in somebody else.

The challenge lies in separating the bad from the good. For instance, can a “bad thing” produce a “good” result? What if my dream is your nightmare? And why does someone “evil” so rarely resemble the face that we see in the mirror?

Once, on the Tube, I overheard a mother caution her daughter to be careful near “all the bad people”. The little girl scrutinised the face of each passenger preparing to exit the train. Then, puzzled, she tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “Mum,” she said timidly. “How can you tell which are the bad ones?”

These were the thoughts that came to mind the other day when some friends in Surrey discovered, much to their chagrin, that someone had nicked their recycling bin. The bin, after all, had been marked all over with their address in permanent ink against such an event.

And now, in a gesture of sublime audacity, the anonymous neighbour who took the container had actually returned it near to the front of my friends’ house, full of newspapers, in time for the weekly pickup! Apparently, the vandal not only recycles — he or she is a reading, even thinking, individual!

What is one to make of a literate bandit who cares about the environment? Good apple or rotten to the core? Who can hope to understand another’s motivations?

The odds that we could guess why it happened are slim. Honest mistake? Lapse in judgement? Opening salvo in a secret campaign to eradicate the concept of private property? Somebody needing a visit to Specsavers?

In the ancient wisdom monologue Ludlul bēl nēmeqi, (“I will praise the Lord of Wisdom”), a pious man concludes that we could never disentangle the good from the bad, enjoying the former and avoiding the latter, because the will of the gods is too obscure to understand. That may be true on a cosmic scale. Seemingly inexplicable events will continue to beset us. But what remains within our hands is our reaction. We are free to respond with love or hate, anger or kindness… with creativity.

During his years of incarceration, Nelson Mandela fashioned a garden out of 16 oil drums sliced in half and filled with rich, moist dirt. His jail-yard farm of almost 900 plants included spinach and strawberries, lettuce and cauliflower, onions and broccoli, aubergine and more. Some of the bounty he gave to the kitchen to serve his fellow inmates. Much of the harvest he gave to his jailors. His heart remained unshackled in spite of his captivity. In the words of Langton Hughes, he was free within himself.

In time a puzzle hints at its own solution. The saga of my friends’ bin is evolving. After running through the usual gamut of emotions — from grumbling about un-neighbourliness to wondering how to catch the interloper red-handed — another idea emerged. What about… phoning the council to request another container? And having it ready — adorned with a bow — to present to the “stealth recycler”?

The phone call took less than 10 minutes — a fraction of the energy that would have been expended had my friends’ irritation gone unchecked. Now, the scenario had shifted from seeking confrontation to offering a gift in the hope of resolving a mutual problem. While the outcome is uncertain, the chances it will end on a friendly note have improved as a sense of equilibrium has been restored. Eventually, they might even laugh about it together.

Maybe life is just one big salvage operation. Recycling love — now there’s the ultimate haul!