Monday and Tuesday passed without much in the way of interesting events. The Writer managed to smooth things over with his flatmate—after a lot of cajoling on his part; it turned out that Stasia was well under the impression that The Writer was a complete lech. (That may have been true; I don’t know the man all that well other than his bizarre thoughts on classical music and his ideas on writing.) He went back to normal life of avoiding talking to his German flatmates and getting tossed out of windows by a livid Greek woman.
I didn’t see The Drunkard, so I am left with the conclusion that he either found his way to being on very friendly terms with his French housemates, or they found some reason to reassemble the guillotine and decapitate him. After The Stalker’s punishment was up, I wasn’t to see him until Wednesday—which is probably for the best. The Student went in and out of madness, occasionally leaping out of bushes and screaming about how deconstructionism was missing the point completely, or how one simply could not read postcolonial literature in any way other than such and such. All told, The Student just really needed to go out on a date or two to relax.
Wednesday morning came and I left my flat earlier than I had planned. It had yet to become properly cold, but at this point, I was under the impression that it simply could not get colder than this. Oh, what a fool I was. I huddled in my pea coat and took up a brisk walk into the train station on the west side of town. I arrived in about fifteen minutes, bought my train ticket, and waited, leaning against one of the large white pillars in front of the station.
After I had been there for about ten minutes, watching the entranceway, The Stalker stepped out of the lobby wearing his usual black hoody, black jeans, and black tennis shoes. “Well hello, I was wondering when you were going to show up,” he said.
I blinked—after nearly urinating on myself upon seeing him walk out of the lobby—and said, “What? I didn’t see you come in.”
“Of course not,” he said, taking a paper cup from the pouch of his hoody and taking a sip. “But I saw you come in. I guess we’re a bit early, aren’t we? Lovely day for waiting around, I think. Not cold enough for the wind to settle into your bones if you’ve been sitting, observing, for too long.”
I was suddenly very glad I was not in a position where The Stalker could toss me onto the railroad tracks. “I guess so,” I said. “So, you looking forward to the Galleries?”
The Stalker nodded and leaned up against the other white column. “They usually provide ample opportunities for people watching. I believe that I could spend an entire week in each wing, and still get something new out of seeing the way people react to that which is on the walls.” He sipped from the paper cup again. If it weren’t so cold, I would have thought it was cider.
“But wait,” I thought, “it could be mulled cider. The bastard could be sipping on mulled cider at nine in the morning. Why, why would he be sipping on mulled cider at nine on the morning? Just to screw with you, Narrator. Just to mess with your rapidly-deteriorating mind.”
Thankfully, The Student walked up to the train station and gave the two of us a wave. I returned the gesture and said, “No need to go inside, there are machines right here that will give you tickets.”
The Student laughed and, after crossing the parking lot, said, “Nah, I hate dealing with machines. I’d rather deal with inept agents than poke a screen that’s got no personality.” He patted me on my shoulder and walked inside.
“Do I make you nervous, Narrator?” asked The Stalker.
“No. God no. Why would you ask that? I’m completely at ease. More at ease than they are in the military, I can tell you that. Ha!”
The Stalker sipped at his paper cup. “Good. Because I’d hate to think that I made you uneasy. Anyone save for The Writer, that is. I don’t think I like that man.” He looked across the street at the row of brown brick townhomes for a moment. “I might just have to toss him off Tower Bridge.”
My knees almost buckled. Him saying such a thing in such a calm fashion—as if he were saying “I’m going to have to toss this trash in a rubbish bin fairly soon”—made me doubt, and not for the first time, the sanity of being around this man in relative privacy. (There was, of course, a taxi rank, this being a major train station; but they probably wouldn’t have even noticed, most of them throwing a stick and watching a blue-eyed merle chase after it.) “Oh,” I said, “no, you don’t mean that. He’s nice enough in his own right. Eccentric and full of himself, but not an altogether bad guy.”
“I find him boorish and unnecessarily arrogant. Detestable qualities in any person, and I would have said the same thing about The Drunkard, but, to be fair to him, he saved me from being decapitated, so—”
“Wait, so they actually had a guillotine?”
The Stalker furrowed his brow and cocked his head to the side. “Of course they did.”
“Did you not think the French would have a guillotine?”
I scratched my head. “Well, it seemed a bit, ah, ridiculous.”
“I assure you that it did happen. I stared at Madame Guillotine and was prepared for my life to end at that moment, but cooler heads than theirs prevailed.”
The Student walked out of the lobby, putting his train tickets in his wallet. “Did you just say Madame Guillotine?” he asked.
“Indeed I did.”
The Student nodded. “Okay, just checking.”
Soon after, the remaining members of our party arrived at the station (The Drunkard among them, head intact), bought their tickets, and we all boarded a train just as it pulled into the station. The journey, thankfully, was nothing like our first trip to London, and the train did not at any point feel as if it were about to fall apart under its own weight and the friction of its wheels against the track. We arrived at Charing Cross, further, without any hint of trouble from chavs with dogs that had names of weapons. We ate sushi from a take-away place near the station and made our way to Trafalgar Square to go to The National Gallery.
Arriving at Trafalgar Square, I was struck by one thing in particular: the disturbing amount of pigeons. I was prepared for the sight of Nelson’s Column and the gigantic stone lions, as well as the Rastafarians (and there were quite a few of them perched on the steps leading from the street to the Gallery), but the pigeons were in the Square en masse. It looked like they had staged a successful invasion and were clinging on to their newly-won territory for dear life. I, of course, was the only one dumbstruck by this. All the rest of my group moved along as if there were absolutely nothing to see. The Traveler turned around, saw me standing there, and said, “Hey, Narrator, you coming, or are we going to have to come drag you to The Gallery.”
I pointed in front of me. This seemed an understatement so, arm and finger outstretched, I spun around in a single rotation. “The birds!”
The Traveler gave up and walked on. Eventually I managed to get over the pigeons and followed up the steps and into the Gallery.
It wasn’t a bad-looking building by any means, but, to be honest, I found the Museum much, much more impressive. Sure, there were great works of art in this building, in their own right a testament to the intellectual and intellectual achievements of mankind, but, come on. Take a look at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and then the Rosetta Stone. The Stone takes the cake any day. The Writer and I were the only ones who felt this way—apparently—as The Drunkard ran off giggling like a kid on a playground (I know, I wouldn’t believe it either, but I was there), The Stalker sidled off towards whatever dark corner he was going to go people watch, and The Traveler… well, The Traveler was interesting.
I have no doubt that he felt an appreciation for the art in front of him. However, everything had to have a purpose beyond the aesthetically pleasing, and for The Traveler, art’s purpose was chat-up lines. He walked to the information desk, bought a brochure detailing the more important works on display that month, and sat down on one of the benches next to the gift shop. I turned to The Writer and said, “What do you think he’s doing?”
The Writer looked around him. “Couldn’t care less, honestly. I’m going to go do some writing in the café. I don’t have the time to waste looking at pretty pictures.” He then stalked off to the right and down some stairs that led to the Gallery’s café.
I walked over to The Traveler, sat down, and said, “What are you doing?”
“Studying,” he replied, turning over sheets in the brochure faster than he should have been able to read them.
“For? I didn’t realize you were in an Art History course.”
He sighed and flipped the brochure shut. “My friend,” he said, “I don’t believe that you are fully aware that, as foreigners in this land, we have the Accent Effect.”
I cocked my head to the side.
“You know how, in the States, when a Scottish or Irish or English or any foreign guy opens his mouth he’s flocked over by women? Well, my friend, we’ve got that effect.”
“Bull. The Midwest non-accent that you and I have barely—”
“I say, sir,” The Traveler said, affecting an accent that I can only describe as Plantation Owner circa 1840, “when you find yourself against the wall, the only option you have is to find yourself a way to climb over that wall. Now, sir, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make the acquaintance of some quite lovely European women.”
And with that, I was left to my own devices. I wandered around the Gallery for about half an hour and saw very few things that caught my eye. One of them, an Indian painting from the 20s featuring a tiger prowling through jungle undergrowth, caught my eye only for the fact that it was the cover of an English textbook I had in my freshman year of high school. I took a picture of it, caught a dirty look from a guard, and moved on. I went around looking for some surrealist art—something by Dali, or his ilk—but found nothing. I apparently passed through hundreds of years of stylistic changes reflecting the times of which they were a part, but the only real difference I could tell was from medieval to the oil-Rennaisance-y paintings, to the more modern ones where shapes got a little less defined. Beyond that, I am a bit of a clod when it comes to art. I continued wandering through the building (and, a few times, I think I saw The Drunkard laughing maniacally and dashing through the wings with the speed of Sonic the Hedgehog), and thought about what I could do to waste some time. I could, by all means, go join The Writer in the café, but I thought better of that option: at best, I’d find him hunched over his notebook (one of those black ones that cost twelve quid with the elastic bands that keep them shut) in a look of dismay at not being able to find The Muse or whatever; at worst, I’d find him in the throes of creative ecstasy and be verbally assaulted for daring to interrupt him in such a loutish manner. I could go find The Traveler, but he was trying to work his magic; The Drunkard would be impossible to keep up with; and spending time with The Stalker was directly out of the question.
So, in the end, I decided to head out to Trafalgar Square and wander around until I got a call from one of my companions enquiring as to my whereabouts. I left the gallery, buried myself in my coat as much as I could, and shivered. It had warmed up, but, of course, there was now a stiff, cutting British wind passing through the Square. I sat down on the steps to the Gallery and looked around me. It was fairly easy to tell who was a tourist and who was a native: the tourists were huddled together and shouting “fucking wind!” and variants thereof, whereas the natives were one step away from skipping around and singing about how lovely the weather was that day. Taking my attention away from the people in the Square, I looked up at the column and thought about how, when you compared the size and height of the thing, it was a bit of a letdown that the statue of Nelson wasn’t gigantic. (Of course, that may have been simply because of how high up it was. The statue was probably capable of riding one of the lions like it was a horse.)
And then, I stood up and stretched. That’s when a man in a black suit and bowler cap calmly walked up to my side and asked, “Sorry to bother you, do you have the time?”
I took out my phone, got out that it was just past ele—and then the man stabbed a needle into my left bicep. I looked at him, the world started going wavy, and I said, “What’s that about? Don’t have your tea time scheduled in the factory? Limey!” and burst into laughter.
“Bloody Hell,” he said. He took out a walkie-talkie and said, “He’s not down. No, I don’t know why. He’s poking me with his mobile phone and laughing like a prat. No I don’t have another dose, and if I did, it’d probably kill him. I’ll—oh sod it.” He punched me in my mouth and I hit the steps.
The first thing I felt when I woke up was a slap to my face. I shook myself wide awake and looked around me. First observation: Tied to a chair. Second observation: Tied to a chair in the middle of an unfurnished and unlit warehouse. Third observation: The only two people in the warehouse with me were seated at a table about eight yards away and way on the other side of the place. I grumbled, and one of them looked up, pushed a button on the desk, and went back to scribbling something with what looked like a quill ink pen.
A door opened on one side of the desk. Another man in a bowler cap and suit walked into the warehouse. He made his way towards me, the sounds of his shoes clicking and reverbeating off of the cement walls. He stopped short at ten feet, crouched and said, “Hello.”
I tried to say something, but couldn’t quite get it out. Fourth observation: I had a ball gag in my mouth. This did not bode well.
“Oh yes,” said the man. “I think you’ll find that it will be quite difficult to say what you want to say. Until we figure something out, that is.” He stood up and paced back and forth for a moment. “Giraffe. The green giraffe frolicks happily until what?”
I cocked my head to the side.
“Until what?” The man shouted. He walk forward and yanked the ball gag forward.
“Penguins dance!” I shouted. First thing that popped into my head.
“Good,” said the man. He nodded and removed the gag from my head. “Had to make sure you were on the level, what?” He then took a banana peel out from his back pocket and slapped me in the face with it. “Are you who you say you are?”
He slapped me in the mouth with the banana peel again. “Do not make the mistake of fucking with me, gent! Are you who you say you are?”
“Yes. I think.”
He slapped me in the mouth with the banana peel twice. “Yes, or no, matey.”
“No!” Wait, yes I was. I was/am The Narrator, and I think I’ve said that to the man before. Had I? I don’t know anymore.
“Correct.” He put the peel away and this time took a Ziploc bag of ten sugar cubes out of his jacket pocket. “We are never who we say we are because we, that is, us, that is, ourselves, changes by the moment. Can’t very well be who we say we are if who we say we are is going to change the moment we say who think we are, yes?”
“Right. Now. Utmost importance that you pay attention to exactly what it is that I’m going to say forthwith. Follow?”
I nodded again.
“In seventeen seconds, from the time I stop talking, you will receive an apple. On this apple, the words ‘Hail Eris’ will be printed in the Copperplate Gothic font. You are to receive this apple, take the apple, and, this is more important than anything else, do not smudge the letters. You will take the Eris Apple and give it to a pair of pensioners on the train you will be taking this afternoon. You’ll know the pensioners when you see them.”
“How do you know what train I’m going to be taking?”
The man grinned, showing neon green teeth. “Oh, we know lots of things, my pedigree chum. Pull this off, and you may know lots of things as well.”
A couple of seconds passed and an apple dropped out of nowhere. I tried to move my arms, but as they were tied, I couldn’t. “Oh right,” said the man. He moved to the back and cut the ropes that bound me. Now, I moved my hands and picked up the apple. Sure enough the words “Hail Eris” were printed on the apple in black Copperplate Gothic.
“Welcome to the club, old bean,” said the man. And then, par for the day, he punched me in the mouth.