The Writer, frantic, called me around one a few days after I returned to Canterbury. “We need to do storytelling, now,” he said.
Here I was, enjoying a sunny—yet cold—day on the hill, sitting on a bench and watching the undergrads trudge up the Eliot footpath, and The Writer had the gall to force me away. “Why?’
“Just,” he took a deep breath, cursed, “trust me.”
“Fine. I just got out of another writing class, right? We did something worse than defining plot. I need to get to some serious work, and the best way to do that right now is to meet up at The Sub-Pope’s Flock.”
A strange thing happened: A rabbit was hopping its way across the hill when a seagull barreled down from above and clutched it in its talons. I had no idea that seagulls could do that—I assumed that seagull legs were fragile things—and said, “Writer, can a seagull carry off a rabbit as if it were a hawk?”
“As if the rabbit were a hawk?”
“No,” I said, “as if the seagull were a hawk.”
“Oh. You need to work on your syntax, Narrator. Vagueness does not make friends.”
“Neither does not answering questions.”
“I don’t think so,” said The Writer. “Then again, I’ve never se—damn it, Narrator. Meet at The Sub-Pope’s Flock. Everyone else is going to be there.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes. Apparently they have fuck all to do with their time.”
I hung up, put the phone in the inside pocket of my pea-coat, watched the fading speck of a seagull carrying a rabbit, and decided that I’d walk down to town.
Now, even though I’ve spent a lot of time with you, Dear Reader, I don’t know if I’ve given you a decent description of the Footpath. So:
The path was divided into two parts: one for pedestrians, another for cyclists. In theory, this is a sound idea. In practice, it doesn’t matter a damn thing as people will ultimately do whatever they want.
The first part of the path follows the hill into a residential neighborhood. It cuts through a wooded area and is quite pleasant. If you’re walking down this path, you’ll probably meet at least one person you know at some point between leaving campus and the neighborhood.
The second part of the path cuts through a neighborhood and a park. If you’re a new student—or a visitor—you will get lost. To the untrained eye, all British neighborhoods look the same. You have a row of attached houses that, more or less, look the same—you have cars parked on the street, and, generally, they’re all tiny by American standards. To the trained, experienced eye, however, all British neighborhoods are just noticeably different. There may be a row of different trees, or a hedgrow may be better-manicured in one place than another, or there may be a friendly brown cat in one place and a friendly black cat in another, or one street may be infested by chavs—basically: you learn to pick out minutiae. For example, until I learned this stuff, I got lost in the neighborhood and wound up in Whitstable—a town about ten miles down the road and on the coast.
After walking into town for a month, I learned the ins and outs, but, nevertheless, it’s a steep learning curve. The park consists of a large green with football goals, and some benches. The place is riddled with running, yelling children, and running, barking dogs.
The final part of the path runs under a rail bridge and through the outskirts of the city center. You walk down the path, the rail station is on your right, and you come upon the River Stour directly in front of you. After following the river for a bit, you wind through sidestreets into the town center. Depending on which route you take, you may wind up right next to the Cathedral or the Westgate. I took the route that led to the Cathedral.
I cut through the sidestreets, dodged some children running mad with their backpacks clinging on for dear life, and eventually made it to the Cathedral Gate and the Sub-Pope’s Flock. I walked in, was greeted with a glare from the bartender—one day he’d bar us from entry, I just knew it—and walked to the usual table. Only The Stalker and The Student were there.
The Stalker sat, draped in his usual hoodie, usual pint of yellow cider effervescing in front of him, talking animatedly about the Illuminati. I sat down at the table and arched an eyebrow.
The Student sat with his head resting on his arms, folded up in front of him. He wore a black shirt, dark blue jeans, and a black suit jacket. He groaned. “For God’s sake, Stalker, I don’t know what you’re on about.”
“But you’ve read The Prin—”
“Yep,” said The Student. “I’ve read it, found bits of it funny, and decided I’d go on with my life, read something similar that wasn’t created during an acid trip, and never looked back.” He picked up his head and saw me. “Oh, hello Narrator. You’ve chosen an interesting time to walk in. The Stalker here was just talking about some nonse—”
“The Illuminatus trilogy is not nonsense. It is the tru—”
“It’s bullshit. You’re reading bullshit. You want something worth reading? I can get you a reading list.”
“But it has quan—”
“Don’t get quantum physics from a fantasy book.” The Student rubbed his temples. “God’s sake, man, that’s like people who get their theology from Dan Brown. If you want to learn without reading nonfiction, then, fuck, I don’t know, read Crichton or something. Crichton’s smart, he did research.”
“Narrator,” The Stalker said, turning to me—his eyes were pleading, “please, tell him it’s worthwhile.”
I held up my hands. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“By using The Principia Discordia as a source for your knowledge, you’re making life harder on yourself,” said The Student.
“How? How am I doing that?”
“Okay, let’s say you’re talking to—”
“I smell a nerdy conversation,” said The Drunkard. He walked in the front door wearing his denim jacket, ballcap, and a red scarf. “Howdy, gents.”
The Stalker slurped from his cider.
“Hey Drunkard,” said The Student. “Oh,” he said, “Rebecca’s coming along today. She’s been wanting to see what our sessions are like.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
The Drunkard, walking over to our table with a glass of whiskey in his hands, shook his head and said, “Too bad she’s coming today. The Writer’s going and, from what I could tell, he’s going to try to make a Point.”
I groaned. The last thing anyone wanted to hear was one of The Writer’s Points.
Rebecca, looking entirely too stylish to be associated with our group, walked in. She wore her hair up, had a purple coat, blue jeans, and a Star of David necklace so big that it could only be called bling. “Hey guys,” she said.
We raised our glasses. The Student walked up and kissed her, walked her back to the table.
“What were you two talking about?” asked The Drunkard.
“We were talking,” said The Stalker, “about philosophy, religion, physics—all those things that you wouldn—”
“Didn’t I hear someone shout ‘Principia Discordia’ from outside?”
The Stalker nodded.
“Ah,” said The Drunkard. “Then you’re bullshitting and wasting time. Good things to do.”
The Stalker fumed.
The Traveler walked in the front door wearing a suit and an overcoat. He ordered a lager and walked over to the table, draped the overcoat on the back of his chair, unbuttoned his jacket, and sat down.
“Well, well, well,” I said. “Look at Mr. Fancy. What’s the occasion, Mr. Fancy?”
“Laundry day,” he said. “Suit’s the only clean thing I have.”
The Writer walked in holding a briefcase, wearing his usual corduroy, button-up, and jeans. He cursed, walked over, went to the bar, ordered a pale ale, came back to the table and said, “Fucking people. Parasites. Sub-mental inch-worms.”
“Good day?” I asked.
He took off his glasses, put them on the table, and rubbed his temples. “You tell me. I go to this university for an advanced degree in Creative Writing, right? I want to learn the craft, I want to fully plumb the depths of Narrative. I want to work in such a fashion that, by next September, I have learned how to cut through the layers of what separates ‘reality’ from ‘fiction,’ and do it in such a way that I change people on a visceral level. That’s what I came here to do. Guess what they’re teaching in my class this term. Drunkard. Guess.”
The Drunkard shrugged. “Gardening.”
“They might as fucking well,” responded The Writer. “We had a discussion—a two hour discussion—about the way plot works. For instance,” he held up his right index finger, “did you know that, typically, in a tragedy, the hero loses everything?”
“No,” said The Drunkard. “Really? Shocking. Absolutely shocking.”
The Writer, irony seeping out like sweat from his pores, said, “I know. And in a comedy things end well.” He sat back in his chair and shook his head. “Fuck’s sake. If they’re just learning this in a Master’s level class, then God knows what they did in undergrad. Coloring, probably. Twits. Absolute twits.”
The Traveler cleared his throat. “Well, I don’t mean to rush you, Writer, but I’ve got an essay due in a couple weeks and I need to start researching for it.”
The Drunkard snorted. “Starting early, are we?”
The Traveler arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“Two weeks? I don’t start till a day beforehand. Still got a four-oh, too.”
The Student started twitching. Rebecca massaged his shoulders. “Traveler, you probably should have started a week ago. You can never have enough research.” He paused, tilted his head to one side. “Keeps you from having to come up with a lot to say on your own.”
The Traveler shrugged. “My method’s worked pretty well for me so far.”
“Right,” said The Writer. He cracked his knuckles, then his neck, then his back. “Now: We’re all aware that, in the past, you’ve accused me of being a pretentious hack.”
“I recall using stronger language than that,” said The Drunkard.
“Fuck off,” said The Writer.
“Something like that, yeah.”
“What you should remember, in addition,” continued The Writer, “that I said I’d kick off the next round with a story that you—you imbecilic grubs—could appreciate. I will give you—” he shuddered “—genre fiction.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Really? That’s hard to believe.”
“Oh,” he said, “you say that now. However, I was a child once—stupid, not yet aware of the desolation of the modern world—and I used to dabble in those things that are worth less than dog shit. I think I am more than capable of serving up a story that will make you escape into a world where there are no race wars, no sexist policies—in short, something that will make you feel all right, instead of the existential funk all of you should feel at every instant.” He cleared his throat. “Right:”