The last time I was in England, I had made my way in through Gatwick airport—a large enough beast in its own right. This time, however, I found myself in Heathrow. In fact, none of us had been through Heathrow airport, save the Traveler. So, when we exited the plane, made our way through the confusingly long departure gate, onto a train leading to Customs, and then finally into the Customs area, only to see a queue made up of what seemed to be four hundred people, we each had our own negative reactions.
The Student: “What is this, Kafka?”
The Drunkard: “Glad I got some whisky on the plane.” He then took a one-ounce bottle out from his pocket and took a swig.
The Stalker: [Incoherent muttering]
The Writer: “I can tell you another story, if you want.” The Drunkard answered this question for us all, “When I have a bout of insomnia, then I’ll come to you.”
Myself: “Vey iz mir.”
The Traveler simply took out a paperback copy of a book called Last Chance to See and started reading.
It would be an understatement to say that I was disappointed by the ensuing half an hour. It would be even more of an understatement to say that I was displeased by the fact that it took an additional twenty minutes, on top of the half hour that found us only halfway through the queue, to get to the front of the line. Everyone in the queue was just as unhappy with their circumstances, and registered their impatience in at least fifteen different languages. I wish that there were some interesting event—a man in the queue going insane from boredom and bumrushing the Customs agents, for example—that I could tell you about, but aside from one man who was coughing and sweating a superb amount, there was nothing of interest.
We passed through Customs fairly quickly—it is amazing how little hassle one gets when one has a visa—and found ourselves past the bizarre no-man’s land of an international airport, safely inside the British borders. That is, most of us were safely inside. I looked around and noticed that one of our party were missing. I turned to the Traveler and said, “Where is The Stalker?”
That ever-watchful individual replied: “He was detained by a very strong-looking man in camouflage.”
Certainly this was a bad thing. If the Drunkard, who had consumed eight ounces of Jack Daniel’s whilst in the queue wasn’t detained solely on account of his reeking of alcohol, then surely The Stalker must have done something atrocious that showed up on his record. “Um.”
The Drunkard blinked. “Hey, Quiet Kid’s gone.”
“Just as well,” said The Writer, “he is a thoroughly frightening individual.”
The Drunkard responded with what could have been mistaken as an impression of Beaker from The Muppets. “Listen, putz,” he said, walking up to The Writer. Now, we were all roughly the same height—five-nine to five-eleven—and so seeing a man roughly the same height as another man, walking up to the second man and attempting to tower over the second man in a drunken haze is a sight worth seeing. But, as it turns out, The Drunkard had learned some tactics of intimidation from wherever it was that he had been, and managed to cow The Writer. “One of our guys,” continued The Drunkard, “falls behind in battle, we don’t fuckin say ‘oh leave him behind.’ You get me? We’re a platoon.” He jabbed The Writer in the chest. “We’re a fuckin squad. The Three Musketeers.”
“Five Musketeers,” I put in.
“Right,” he said, “Five Musketeers. All for one and one for all. You get me, son?”
“I’m the same age as you,” The Writer said.
The Drunkard slapped The Writer, the sound reverberating across the Customs Hall and briefly calling attention to us. “Pull yourself together!” shouted The Drunkard.
Now a man in a police uniform approached us. “Help you, gentlemen?”
The Traveler put on his most winning smile. “Everything’s fine here, officer. Just having a little reenactment of Abbot and Costello.”
The officer, who at that moment seemed like he was half a foot taller than the rest of us, studied us with the look of cold British justice in his eyes. He leaned forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I always loved ‘Who’s On First.’ Can never understand bloody baseball, but it’s a brilliant bit.” He straightened up and tipped his hat to The Traveler. “Right, carry on.”
After the officer walked off, The Traveler turned to The Drunkard and said, “Friend, I know that you have strong emotions when it comes to putting The Writer in his place, and God knows that sometimes he can be downright infuriating and I’d like to bash his head in—”
“Hey—” said The Writer.
The Traveler smacked him over his head with his book. “Sh. But you have to keep it down sometimes. However,” he said, clearing his throat, “I agree. All for one, and one for all.” As we had arranged ourselves in a rough circle, he put his hand in the middle.
I followed suit, as did The Drunkard, and The Student.
The Writer hesitated a moment, said, “Fucking hated that book,” and put his hand in the center.
At that moment, The Stalker walked up to us, blew some hair away from his eyes, and said, “What?”
“We’ve just made a pact,” said The Student. “All for one, and one for all.”
The Stalker studied us for a moment. Dear Lord, I thought, his eyes are actually black. Then he reached into his right eye, pulled out a contact, revealing brown eyes for just a moment, rubbed his eye, and put the contact back in. Ah, I thought again, there we go. “Whatever,” he said with a shrug, walking towards the baggage claim.
I would later find out that, over the course of a hundred years, the time it took to travel from London to Canterbury remained the same. Initially, I was shocked—this slowly moved to confusion, then to anger, then to acceptance. All I knew upon leaving Heathrow (aside from the initial awe at the sheer size of the airport) was that it would take five hours to get to Canterbury from London. As I was planning on avoiding jet-lag as much as possible, I set about trying to find a decent cup of coffee to keep me awake. As it turned out, finding coffee was actually quite easy. The trick of the matter was that getting a good cup of coffee was incredibly difficult.
We had an hour and a half layover in London Victoria coach station. When we arrived, I asked my companions if they would like a cup of coffee. The Drunkard responded with “only if it’s Irish,” laughed, and took a drink from an ounce bottle of vodka pulled from his coat, so he was out. The Writer said something about not drinking coffee without having his notepad around, and refused. The Traveler grinned and shook his head, “oh, you naïve fool.” So I assumed he was against it. Only The Student said he would go, so we left our bags with our friends and wandered out of the coach station.
The coach station is never a place of excitement or interest, much less at ten o’clock in the morning on a Sunday. The only people out on the streets had a very dejected look about them, as if the gray sky had made its way into their very souls and become a part of their being. (A British friend of mine would later tell me that Londoners are actually friendly people; they just really, really hate their jobs.) For a second, the thought that I should run around posing as a psychiatrist and passing out prescriptions for Prozac flitted through my mind with wings made of concern for my fellow man. The moment passed, though, as a pain shot through my head. I had gone without coffee for far too long.
We walked down the street, not really making note of the historical buildings all around us—quite disturbingly really, considering I had spent most of my life wanting to see even a square foot of this metropolis. We passed two teenagers wearing track suits, holding gold cans marked Carlsberg Special, arguing about who owed who a fiver. I made momentary eye contact with one of them—the taller of the two—and he looked back at me, said, “Oi mate, you startin’ or sumfin? Wanna ‘ave a go?”
I was not fully aware of my surroundings. Usually, when I run across another person acting hostilely towards me, I feel abject terror, curl into a ball on the street, and wait for the danger to pass. However, right now, I blinked at the man. Some part of me, some subconscious instinct which knew that a good Brooklyn accent is a universal sign of don’t-fuck-with-me-as-I-have-killed-a-man, and said, puffing out my chest, and cracking my knuckles. “What the fuck you sayin, kid? You wanna fuck with this? You don’t wanna fuck with this, I’ll bust your fuckin head in right on this Godamm street so fast that your fuckin girlfriend here will piss her pants. Ever seen what happens in a lynching? Son I will wreck your shit harder than an L.A. cop on Rodney Fuckin King.” Then I surprised myself by pushing the tall man—he had a good six inches on me—into the street.
His friend, the shorter one, turned and ran faster than anyone I have seen outside of a track meet. The taller of the two, who had burst into tears by this point, ran inside of a pub. I saw him cower in the window, cracked my neck, and continued down the street.
The Student, who had spent the whole of the encounter watching me with amazement, stood still for a moment, finally recovered himself, and then ran to catch up, “Holy Hell,” he said, “what was that?”
The events of the situation played themselves back in my mind’s eye and, a bit shocked myself, I said, “I have no idea.”
We walked on for a few moments, discussing whether or not such a feat could be replicated witht the same results, when we managed to find a chain coffee store. It was similar to Starbucks, but the color scheme was different and, for me, this was enough to mean quality. We walked in, ordered two Americanos to go, paid, walked out, sipped the drinks, and spat them out in unison. Slapstick comedians the world over would have been overcome with jealousy due to the flawless execution in our coffee spit take.
The Student, who was a much more pampered coffee drinker than I, turned a shade of green I had only seen in comic books. “Good God,” he said, “what is this?”
I sniffed the coffee. It smelled normal, even quite good. “I don’t know, but I think that we are going to have to set up a trade route with the States in order to get some decent coffee.” I tossed the cup into a rubbish bin and walked back to the coach station. The Student followed suit—eventually.
I sat down next to The Traveler, who asked, “So how was the coffee?”
“We managed to perform a perfectly synchronized spit-take. Abbot and Costello are rolling in their graves in envy, I believe.”
The Traveler nodded. “Yeah, they don’t know how to make a good cup of coffee over here. Something to do with the Empire, I think.” He shrugged. “I think there’s actually a good shop in Canterbury, though. I’ll show you it some time.”The bus pulled up shortly, we boarded, and I promptly fell asleep