“What’s wrong with you?” asked The Student. “I come out here for a breather and here you are, passed out on the steps with a banana peel stuck on your face.”
I looked to my right. Sure enough, there was the banana peel. “I had a very, very weird dream.”
“Have to do with banana peels?”
“Well, I’m not sure that was a dream.” It occurred to me to look at my bicep. I unbuttoned the top two buttons of my shirt, peeked down, and sure enough, there on my left bicep, was a very small puncture, swelling like a small mosquito bite. “I think it was about a blue jay flying around singing Iced Earth lyrics.”
The Student pointed at my feet. “And the apple with ‘Hail Eris’ on it? You been reading The Principia Discordia?”
“I don’t know what that is.” The apple was still there, so all of that probably happened. I checked the rest of my person and found a plastic banana pinned to my blazer lapel. There are some days when you walk around as if everything were normal for a few hours, and then, all of a sudden, you desperately wish that you had just stayed in bed that morning. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel that in the warehouse, but I sure as hell felt it now. “I could tell you why I’ve got a banana pinned to my jacket, why there’s a banana peel at my feet, and why there’s an apple with Copperplate Gothic writing on it, but you wouldn’t believe me. Let’s just say that I’ve had a very interesting time of it while you all have been prancing merrily around the Gallery.”
“Prancing merrily?” asked The Student. He burst into laughter and sat down on a bench—by this time we walked down the steps and found a group of benches next to one of the fountains. “Hardly. The Traveler got into a fight with an Irish guy after making a pass at his girlfriend; The Drunkard is, as of five minutes ago, trying to explain to a guard why he felt the urge to run up and kiss a Da Vinci; and The Stalker… well, for all I know The Stalker is prancing merrily around the Gallery.”
Well, all told, it certainly did seem that everyone had an interesting day in the art gallery. I folded my legs underneath me on the bench (it was really a comfortable position and made the back feel better—try it sometime) and said, “Well, okay then.” It was the only thing that seemed appropriate. “And you? Anything interesting happen? I’m guessing you avoided making a pass at women.”
The Student nodded. “I felt it was for the best to go against my instincts today. Way I figure, if I don’t do anything for a few days, maybe I can reverse the trend and get, you know, some actual good responses. Something beyond, ‘Oh look, here comes my boyfriend,’ and then an ensuing mad dash to get to safety.”
“Worth a shot, if nothing else.”
We saw The Traveler walk out of the Gallery flanked by a couple guards. He saw us, waved, and shook hands with the guards. Whistling the Ode to Joy while walking down the National Gallery stairs after being flanked and escorted by a couple of guards was just about the last thing I expected to see from The Traveler, but, of course, that’s what happened. “Hello, gents,” said The Traveler. “How’s things? Good Lord, Narrator, where’d you get the bruised mouth?”
“Same place I got the banana and Erisian Apple,” I said, holding the two objects up. “Also, this nifty banana pin.” I pointed at the pin.
The Traveler, wisely, didn’t pursue the matter further. I asked him what happened with the guards and the affronted Irishman, and he responded that while it almost came to fisticuffs between the two of them, with the help of the guards as a tough mediating entity, the whole occurrence was in the past and everyone parted with no hurt feelings.
Soon, The Drunkard exited the Gallery, joined us, and had essentially nothing but obscenities to say about the way the institution was handled. “Motherfuckers think they’re so fucking high and fucking mighty with their damned superior accent. Balls. Balls!” he shouted, shaking his fist at the National Gallery as if it were his nemesis in a comic book. “Baaaaaaalls!”
The Stalker appeared behind us—despite the wall behind us and the fact that none of us saw him exit the Gallery, or even come down the stairs, or approach us from behind. One day, I thought, I would have to follow this man and get some idea of how he managed to do what he did.
We all determined that, though the trip wasn’t a complete flop, it was a let-down, and the only way to salvage the journey would be to head to the nearest pub and have a conciliatory pint. After the pints, we would head back to Canterbury, and pursue our own endeavors—scholastic or whatever else.
On a whim, we decided to leave from London Victoria instead of Charing Cross. We walked in the station and I realized that, like airports, train stations are largely the same no matter where you go. We found our train—in a spot of luck, it happened that a train was due to leave in a couple of minutes. We boarded and found that most of the seats were already taken. We split up around the second carriage and took what seats we could find. I managed to snag a window seat, and so at least had something to look at during the return journey.
The train was quiet. What conversing there was on the train was done in low tones. A drink trolley came down the aisle way a couple of times. A couple times, I almost nodded off to sleep, but whenever my eyes shut and I felt that heavy feeling that immediately precedes sleep, I jolted awake, the command of the man in the bowler cap ringing in my ear. Of course, that whole situation was absurd. I looked around me and at the other passengers in the car. Surely there wouldn’t be people on this specific train to whom I was to give an apple. Why, if I had told The Student the situation, then he probably would have been able to tell me that, in reality, it was an ages-old British custom to give marked apples to people passed out on the sidewalk. You see, he would have said, it started with George III, who figured out that when someone was hung over, the best food to help them was an apple—and, being a benevolent ruler, whenever he walked by someone unconscious on the street, he dropped an apple to help speed them on their way when they woke up. Yes, I thought, that was surely it. Comforting to know that your rulers cared about you, the mere peasant.
From the seat in front of me, I heard a mobile phone go off. It was “Baby Elephant Walk.” I twitched. I hate that song. Always have since my parents tried to force me to learn it on the piano with the witch of my instructor. We passed out of the city and into the more leafy suburban areas that were, in turn, about to give way to the rolling countryside. “Oh hello, dear,” said the woman in front of me. It sounded like the voice of an older woman. A chill went up my back, and I stood a little bit and peeked over her chair.
Indeed, she had a bush of grey hair, the musk of the elderly, giant pearl earrings, red glasses, and wore a floral shirt and blue trousers. The man in the seat next to her read a newspaper and looked entirely disinterested with both the contents of the paper and whatever it was the woman was doing. Judging by the wedding rings and the man’s impatient sigh whenever the woman spoke, I figured they were married. I sat back down.
“I’m glad to hear that,” she said. Now I was just listening out of curiousity. “I’ll have to invite her over for tea whenever we get back into town. Sorry? No, we’re just on the train right now. Rather packed.”
I looked out the window. The train passed by some fields where the main crop seemed to be large, thick sticks. The English stick harvest would be quite the success this year, I guessed. Occasionally, I saw a few horses standing in the fields with blankets over their backs. “Lazy horses,” I thought. “Can’t go out and get their own blankets. Have to rely on humans. Scum.”
“I’m sorry,” said the woman, “how much are they asking? Forty-five thousand pounds for the shipment? Of the rockets? Just the Kalashnikovs? You’re putting me on, Deidre.”
Now I sat up and leaned forward. Did I hear that right?
“No, Deidre, I know what Kalashnikovs cost, and twenty crates are not forty-five-thousand pounds.”
Guess I did.
“Well you can tell them that I’m not some bump on a log. They’d better do their homework before deciding—yes, you’re right, I apologize. All a part of the dance to do this bargaining back-and-forth, isn’t it? Really, I don’t understand why these deals can’t be straightforward anymore. I’ll tell you what, you tell them to lower their price or throw in some more incentives or the deal’s off.”
There was a pause. I looked around. No one seemed to even be stealing a stealthy glance at the woman. Was London Victoria a hub for weapons deals at the hands of old ladies? Were the pensioners I saw on the streets actual crime lords, and should I stop growling at them when they were walking incredibly slow on the High Street? My entire world-view had been shattered in the course of overhearing a minute-long conversation, and I desperately wished that one of my friends were nearby to help me work through what was going on. I looked down at my hand at the apple. Seemed likely that this was the couple to give it to.
“What, Deidre? Oh, they’re on the other line. Yes, you take the call, and I’ll be waiting.”
Now was probably my chance. I stood up again, and said, “Ma’am, excuse me.”
The pensioner looked up and gave me the warmest smile I’d gotten since the last time I saw my grandmother. “Hello, dear. Oh, you’re American, aren’t you? Simply splendid, and here I thought you all didn’t travel outside your country.”
Yes, I bet this woman could make one hell of a chicken noodle soup. “Oh, we do from time to time.” I held out the apple. “I was told to give this to you and your husband, ma’am.”
The woman took the apple with a bitter look on her face. She turned it around in her hand, saw the words printed on the skin, and nudged her husband. “Look, Harry.”
The man folded up the newspaper and saw the apple. “Oh, blast.” Now he took the apple in his hands and turned it, then sighed, “Lad,” he said. “Be glad we know the adage about not shooting the messenger, because right now, I am right pissed.”
The woman jabbed him with her elbow. “Harry! Language.” She turned to me. “I apologize for Harry, dear, we were just so looking forward to going to Jamaica over the winter holiday, and now it seems we won’t be able to. Did you get any instructions from the man who gave you this apple?”
“No ma’am, they just drugged me.”
She studied my face, then looked at my jacket lapel. “Ah, I see from your jacket that you’ve been inducted.”
I looked down, saw that the banana button was still there, and blushed. “Er, I guess so. Forgot I had that thing on.”
I moved to take it off and the woman stopped my hand midway. “No, you don’t want to do that. The Organization are very, very keen on their members wearing their pins at all time. Tradition and whatnot, you see.”
“Um, well, yes.”
The woman smiled again. “Well, thank you, dear. Harry, I expect this means they’ll be waiting for us when we get home. Do you have their money?”
“In my backpack.”
“Cyanide capsules in case Robespierre is with them?”
“Good.” The woman sighed. “That Robespierre is an out-and-out psychotic.”
I sat back down in my seat and wished very, very hard that the two would not need to use their cyanide capsules. “Oh good, you’re back, Deidre,” the woman said back into the phone. “I’m afraid that the deal is going to have to be called off. Yes, I know horribly inconvenient, but that’s the way these things go. Why? Because my instincts tell me that it was time to call the deal off, and you do not get to where I am today by not knowing when to trust your instincts. No, I’m not snapping at you. Right, we’ll talk later on. Hail hail hail hail hail Eris Eris Eris Eris Eris, dear.”
I sat back and leaned my head against the back of the chair. I wasn’t sure what was going on. Maybe I should start going to Friday night services more often. Maybe all of this—getting drugged and interrogated about my identity and then given an apple, hearing a weapons deal—was all divine retribution for not going to shul. Perhaps I should have listened to The Traveler when he talk about admiring religion instead of inwardly laughing at him.
I looked back outside and, just for a second, saw a gigantic ape holding an apple sitting on a white, fluffly cloud. I blinked and the hallucination was gone, but it was enough to make me desperately wish that I had a nice, stiff drink in front of me. Looking out the window, the only thing I saw was sheep looking like nice, fluffy pillowcases standing in the middle of the fields. A stiff drink and then a good nap. That’s what I could use.
At the next stop, the person next to me and the older couple got out of their seats and left the train. As she stood, the woman turned around and said, “Remember what I said about the pin, dearie.”
The husband turned to me and said, “Remember that you got lucky about this not being a bad day. By all rights I should have shot you for bringing the news that ruined our trip to Jamaica.” He reached into his jacket pocket and showed me a dillinger.
“Oh put the pop gun away, Harry. Let’s go before the train gets moving.”
Then they left.
The Student came over from where he was sitting and sat down next to me. “Did you make some friends with a couple of pensioners?” he asked. “Nice of you, I’m sure they don’t have a lot of people to talk to at their age and without much in the way of social events.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Oh,” I said, “I’m sure they have plenty going on in their life. Really, the worst mistake you could make would be to underestimate the elderly.”
The train got moving again, and we were an hour out of Canterbury when I suddenly fell asleep against the window.