“Does it occur to you that you’re freaking out about this way before the fact?” asked The Traveler.
“Better to freak out about this now rather than later,” I said.
“That makes so little sense they wouldn’t be able to analyze it with a microscope.”
We were walking down the High Street of Whitstable the next day. It was starting to get ungodly cold, and, of course, the English rain made everything all the more unbearable. Yet, I was starting to get used to it and, though I learned to bury myself in my coat whenever I walked outside in the morning, I had accepted that this was going to be the state of things for the season. The Traveler, of course, didn’t complain about it at all and, walking down the street with me as if it were seventy and sunny outside.
Whitstable’s High Street is just about all there is to the town. In length, it’s about the same size as Canterbury’s, without all of the chain department stores. The town is situated right on the beach and, naturally, there are plenty of fish and chips shops, fisheries, and butcher’s shops. The landmarks—in my mind—of the High Street are The Playhouse Theatre (where we’d be performing Fiddler come April), a church with trees that look like they belong a few hundred miles south, a large pub called the Captain’s House, and, of course, the beach.
We walked up in front of The Playhouse. It used to be a church (when I found this out, I grinned a little bit, the atheist in me cheering on the slowly lessening ground of religion to the forces of Acting and Alcohol), had the sort of paint job on the front that made it seem like it grew out of the beach and simply found itself on the High Street one day. I stood there, staring at it and nodding. I thought, “Come on, you son of a bitch, I will defeat you.”
The Traveler, staring at me with the look of a psychiatrist watching a longtime patient, bore it patiently for the first fifteen minutes, then said, “Okay, we’re going now.” He wore a jacket, his usual cap, jeans, and held an umbrella. Rain pattered on the top of it.
I did not bring an umbrella. Instead, I trusted my pea coat and hat to keep me free of rain. This was a stupid idea.
“No,” I said, staring at the windows at the top of the theatre. “I’m not done studying my enemy. I need to know every—”
He grasped my shoulder and pushed me along towards the beach. “You need to know how to sing, is what you need to do. Staring at a building’s not getting you anywhere. Besides, you’re not going to be performing on the walls of the entrance, you’re going to be on a stage.”
“You’re right,” I said, moving past a grocery store. “I need to break in and study the stage.”
“Nope,” said The Traveler. “We’re going to the beach, then getting some fish and chips, then heading back to Canterbury.”
We moved down a side street, following a signpost that had beachfront written on it. “But my mission for today was to study my enemy,” I said.
“There is a lot wrong with you, and none of it, I think, can be treated by what psychiatrists and –chologists currently know about the human mind. Look, beach, whee.”
We stood on a wooden footpath leading to a pier. The ocean out there was not the sort of ocean that made me want to go for a swim. The water looked grey, choppy, and unwelcoming. White crests formed on top of the small waves that lapped up on the shore, and the grey, heavily-clouded sky made the scene look even more like something out of an old Gothic painting.
The beach was pebbly. It stretched for just about as long as you’d expect a beach to stretch, and a few people walked their dogs up and down the waterfront. About a quarter of a mile west of where we stood, what looked to me like a fleet of fishing boats were tied up to docks. A few of them had Whitstable Oyster Company stenciled on the sides, underneath the ship names, but it looked like the majority of them were owned by residents of the town.
I looked over at The Traveler and saw he had a large, content grin on his face. Even with rain pelting down on us and gusts of cold, cutting wind hitting us from the ocean, he was happy. “The hell you smiling about?” I asked as a few drops of speeding rain maneuvered underneath my hat, over my glasses, and hit me square in the eyes.
“Just listening to the waves on the shore.”
Yeah, the waves were making audible noise, but so were the seagulls a little ways away fighting over a folded-up package of chips. “Man,” I said, eyes still closed, “how you get this Zen in the face of disgusting weather, I don’t know.”
We walked down the seaside, passing some stacked crates, trash, a few people walking black Labs, and then a group of three chavs being harangued by a man in a white toga with dark skin, a big head of curly black hair, and a large beard. I listened in while The Traveler just looked around him.
“No,” said the man, just a hint of some strange accent seeped through, “that’s not what I said. What I bloody said, you idiots, is that the bird was dead. How could I put the bird around my neck if it were fucking alive?”
“Oi,” said one of the chavs—in a black track suit, his ginger hair gelled up in the crested bird fashion, “watch it mate. You about to feel some pain.”
“Aren’t you!” shouted the man, now jumping in frustration. “God damn! Speak the language.”
One of the chavs went to punch the man, who dodged, popped his arm up, grabbed the chav’s forearm, twisted it until there was a loud, reverberating crack, and then dropped it. “There.”
The chav dropped to the rocky beach screaming in pain and the other two bolted off towards town.
By the time that happened, we were long past, and I was walking backwards in order to watch. “Holy shit,” I said, “did you see that?”
“Don’t get involved in other people’s business, Narrator. Doesn’t end well.”
“But the dude just snapped the other dude’s arm!”
The Traveler shrugged.
“But the action! Bone-snapping action!”
I looked back and saw the man in the toga shake his head, fold his arms in front of him, and walk eastward. “What are you doing this week?” he asked.
“Not seeing a dude waste another dude,” I said, then sighed. “I dunno, The Writer wanted me to ‘attend a reading,’ as he put it.”
“Tomorrow night. Apparently it’s a world-famous poet.”
“In the world of the literati, that means over a thousand people in two countries know who the person is. He insisted that it would be good for me, hearing a legitimate writer talk about the Art of Writing.”
The Traveler nodded. You’re going to punch him by the end of the night.”
“Nah, I don’t think so.”
“I’m starting up a betting pool. Twenty to one says you will.”
“Twenty to one? I’m that angry?”
“You can tell.”
We walked into a fish shop and stood looking at the chalkboard on which dozens of options concerning fish were present. I expected there to be “Good Fish” and, if they were honest, “Bad Fish.” But here, there were fish I’d never heard of. Granted, the only fish I ate was tuna and salmon, but still. “I met a guy in Edinburgh during the festival up there a few years ago who reminded me a lot of The Writer. See, h—”
“A few years ago?” I asked. “How old are you, man?”
A woman in a black polo walked up to the counter and said, “Hiya.”
The Traveler ordered something called haddock—which I was pretty sure was actually a town between Canterbury and London, but who was I to correct them? I walked up and ordered cod—a safe bet—and waited with The Traveler at a table. “Anyway,” he continued, “the guy was a hipster, right? Exactly, that face you’re making is the same he inspired on anyone who saw thick black glasses and see-through white t-shirts on men as repellent. Anyway, he spent the entire festival talking about how the bands on the stages should have done this, or done this, or that, and, eventually, a couple Turkish guys who—I guess—had pretty good English went up to him and beat the shit out of him. Literally. There was poop coming out of this man’s trousers.”
“What’d you do?”
“I laughed. I mean, come on, the guy referred to one band as—hold on.” He pulled a little black Moleskine notebook out from his jacket pocket and flipped back towards the beginning. “He referred to them as, ‘Trying desperately to utilize Dylan’s early work, but, like an old woman with arthritis, Jumping Fish can’t quite grasp the important aspects of the work. The humanity of Dylan.’” He shut the book and put it back in his jacket. “You’re telling me you wouldn’t watch someone have at the guy for a while.”
“Doesn’t that contradict your ideals of compassion for other people?”
The Traveler shrugged. “They stopped after the hipster soiled himself—really, about four seconds after the first punch. After that, I helped him up and he was quiet for the rest of the festival. Everyone won.”
We got our food and walked towards the bus stop. On the way back to campus, we discussed the multitudinous things that could be discussed in the reading, and happened upon the conclusion that the most likely of them all would be a thinly-veiled allegory of sex.