Thursday, March 3, 2011

In The Dolphin

After the worst half hour walk I’d ever had, we’d made it into town. Usually, the city was always at least somewhat busy. During the days, it was locals and tourists from England and around Europe, at night it was drunken students—mostly undergrads—roaming around shouting. If you weren’t careful while roaming, you’d probably wind up trodding in vomit and empty kebab containers.
Today, though, it looked like The Rapture had occurred. The streets were empty and, aside from light streaming through shutters, there were no signs that people were alive. We walked across the bridge spanning the stream they called the River Stour and turned a corner onto Pound Lane. About half a block later, we crossed the drive exiting from one of the parks and saw a display that, normally, contained an advertisement for something called a pantomime[1]. Today, though, it had something that stopped us in our tracks—for the better.
In the glass case, listed under Canterbury Council Events, was a full-sized retro poster of The Empire Strikes Back, with a date, three days in the future, listed. The cold in front of us was wiped out of our collective mind—and I do mean collective. Right then, we were not three separate people, two of whom despised one another; no, we were one person, one combined Fanboy. “We must attend that showing,” said The Writer.
“Didn’t think you’d need to say that,” said The Drunkard.
“Where is that place? The Auxiliary Marlowe? What the hell?”
“It’s...” said The Writer. He scratched his head. “I don’t know. Isn’t the Marlowe being torn down?”
“Yeah. It’s basically a hole in the ground right now.”
“Lads,” said The Drunkard, “never fear. We will find that place. It is our Dagobah, and this shall be our journey into the ways of the Force.”
This pleased us greatly, and we walked the next half block to The Dolphin, and walked inside.

The interior was low-lit, as always. There weren’t many people inside; indeed, the only person in the front room was a pensioner--who never seemed to leave the pub--with her orange juice, sandwich, and crossword puzzle on the table, and her walker next to her. The girl behind the counter was the redhead I vaguely remembered seeing from somewhere, but could never place. Murmurs came from somewhere in the back, so I figured we weren’t the only people in the place.
We shook ourselves off at the door like three dogs—prompting a disproving grunt from the pensioner—and walked up to the bar. We ordered some pints and meandered to the back, the thing that would double as a back porch. We took one of the tables, took off our coats, and plopped down in silence. Outside, wind blew. I saw a few birds in the sky fighting off wind in their flights to some other country, some place where they could exist in the sun and the warmth and not have to deal with so many fucking rainy, windy days.
I grunted.
The Drunkard grunted and drank half his bitter in one go.
“So,” I said after tapping the tabletop a few times. “Writer. What have you been up to?”
The Writer adjusted his glasses. “I’ve been working with my tutor, whom you may remember from the reading in which you made a complete ass out of yourself, in one-on-one sessions on my latest work. A short story, in the parlance of the proletariat, in which both of you, no doubt, find yourselves. It explores the deep, cutting divide found within each individual of even middling mental faculties, and explores how those individuals compe—”
“What’s the plot?” asked The Drunkard.
“Yes, you would ask about something so base as the plot, wouldn’t you? Can’t quite wrap your gourd around the concepts therein without having a full explanation of the material happenings therein. No, I’m not surprised, just disappointed.”
I looked at The Drunkard and, while his face was calm and not shaking, his knuckles around the pint glass were white, and you could see the glass vibrating against the table.
“Very well,” he said, “I shall endeavor to lay out the plot. It follows a young man, similar in age to ourselves, who finds himself in a different country than the one of his birth. In this country, he must combat the forces of mediocrity as he struggles to maintain his artistic worth in the face of—”
“This isn’t fiction,” said The Drunkard. “This is your life.”
The Writer gave off a little, smug laugh and I wanted to punch him.
“No,” said The Writer, “it’s fiction. None of it happened, thus, it exists in a plane of existence that is not this one. If you could wrap your mind ar—”
The Drunkard slammed his fists onto the table in front of him. “Shut up, you blathering jackass. What you’re doing isn’t anything that requires more imagination than that which is needed to change names. Your ‘conflict’ in the story, from what I can tell, is one step above whinging in a damned Livejournal entry about how no one understands you and you are a lonely artist, living on the fringes of a reality television-obsessed world.”
“Shut up, you fucking hack,” he said, dropping his voice low and jamming a finger an inch away from The Writer’s face. “Narrator, back me up on this.”
“Well,” I said, “I agree that it’s pretty unimaginative to write about nothing other than your life, viewed in the lens of, well, semi-fiction; but to shit on it with the gusto you’re doing is—”
“Absolutely necessary if fiction wants to survive another ten years,” said The Drunkard.
The Writer scoffed. “Please. Alarmist rabble rousing.”
“If there were a rabble to be roused, I’d agree with you. Fiction’s going through its death throes, man. If it weren’t for Stephen King and Terry Pratchett, the only people reading would be tweens and academics. And yet you continue to ream them at every opportunity.”
“They’re hacks who refuse to acknowledge the struggle of the daily grind—the horror that is the modern society built upon repressed emotion, feeling, intellect, and thought in favor of rote reactions to TV and pop music drilled into the mind by nothing more than repetition at an early age.”
“And you’re a specific, despicable breed of hack that refuses to acknowledge the value of looking at the world from the view of fantasy or science fiction; in other words, that the genres you decry are just as valid and able to provide social commentary as your beloved fucking Tolstoy.”
“Ha! Like what? Fantasy and sci-fi are nothing more than Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars.”
“My ass, you shit-brained piece of dog turd. Dune, Lord of the Fucking Rings.”
“I’ll give you Dune, just barely.”
“You’re a schmuck!” The Drunkard stood up, finished the rest of his beer in one pull, and stalked off to the bar, shouting, “Whiskey!”
“Congratulations,” I said, “you’ve broken him.”
“He was near breaking anyway. I cannot believe that the man is so staunchly in the camp of genre fiction.”
“Tolstoy’s pretty fuckin terrible, man. And really, the real world’s depressing enough if you read the news. Why would you want to read about it in your spare time with a book in front of you?”
“For information about the world around us! The human perspective!”
I dismissed this with a wave of my hand. “I know that argument, and it’s bullshit.”
The Drunkard arrived at the table with a couple of . “What’s he talking about?”
“Realism as a way to show the human interest piece of any modern event. I was about to point out that that’s what good journalism is supposed to do.”
“Eeeeeeh,” said The Drunkard. “Yes and no. It sells, but, you know, facts are important.”
“At any rate,” I said, “you can’t expect that argument to hold up when most of the news pieces are human interest bits that relate to a larger story, Writer. Look at an extended article in the New York Times magazine, for example. Most of those things are about how individuals deal with things like housing bubbles bursting, recessions, student loans, and any number of other crises that pop up from time to time. You can’t make the claim that it lies solely with literary fiction to deal with these problems.”
“No,” he said, “but the most intelligent amongst us go to literary fiction for insights one would not otherwise encounter in the base pages of the broadside.”
I sighed and The Drunkard gritted his teeth.
The redhead (Sarah, as I’d later finally remember) passed by from the kitchen. “Ma’am,” I said.
“Could please slap him?”
She reached out and slapped The Writer in the face before walking back to the bar.
The Writer looked shocked—but that might have just been because he was being abused by a woman who wasn’t Greek.
“I think that about sums up the mood of most of the people here,” I said. “Now,” I said, “I’ve got a question that’ll keep us away from talking more about your writing ideas—and thus keep us from having someone slap you again: You schtupping Rose?”
“I say!” said The Writer. If he’d had possessed a monocle, it would have popped off of his face in consternation. “Scandalous!” Right the fuck off. With a cartoonish pop.
“Who’s Rose?” asked The Drunkard.
“His tutor,” I said.
“Eh,” I said. “In the cold heated, ice-queen way that the English manage. Got a kind of dom feel about her.”
“Makes sense,” said The Drunkard. He pointed a finger at The Writer. “You’ve got a bit of the submissive about you. Kind of like one of the editors at the paper back at CRU who went off to New York for a few days. Never came back. Turned out he was accidentally killed in an S&M dungeon.” He suddenly grew serious. “Please, Writer, promise me you’ll be safe.”
“Fuck you,” The Writer said.
“I’m just looking out for you. Why, if you weren’t around to provide the hilarity of being the best straight man ever, I don’t know if I could bear it.” The Drunkard’s phone buzzed and his ringtone, Kinky Friedman’s “They Ain’t Makin Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” went off.
A couple of the other pubgoers looked over with a look that, if properly analyzed, would have betrayed a confusion of how to feel. The ringtone was only the—relatively—sedate chorus, and did not include the verse made up entirely of racial slurs, but it was fairly obvious that Sarah at the bar, the pensioner—who was mumbling something that just sounded like “what?” over and over again—and the artsy couple a few tables over did not know how to take something that made light of ethnicity. This was England, where they took guilt to levels of which a good Jewish mother could only dream. Talking about ethnicity was reserved for stand-up comedy and the BNP, and to have someone broadcast their ribald song at such volumes (meaning: audible), well, inconceivable.
The Drunkard answered it, nodded, and said, “Sure.” He hung up.
“Who was that?” I asked. The Writer was fuming and glaring out the door, trying to avoid looking at The Drunkard—something that was hard on his part, since The Drunkard was sitting directly opposite him.
“The Traveler.”
“He back in town?”
“Yep. Wants to make jambalaya for Christmas tomorrow; he got a hold of a few bottles of kosher wine, and said he’s going to make it the most Jewish Christmas ever.”
“By serving a dish including both shellfish and pork?”
The Drunkard shrugged. “I’m not complaining, man. I’ll eat the shit out of some jambalaya.”
“Taken literally, that would be disgusting. You gonna go Writer?”
The Writer grunted.
“D’aw,” said The Drunkard. “Did I get to you? Burn the ego of The Writer, did I?” He reached over and slapped The Writer lightly on the cheek. “Drink your beer, little Writer, and one day you’ll learn not to take yourself so seriously.”
And with that, The Writer stood up and left the pub.
“Well,” said The Drunkard, “I don’t think he’ll be going to Empire with us.”
I nodded.

[1] There aren’t many things I despise about England. Overall, I look back at my year living there as a student/unemployed person and have nothing but warm, fuzzy feelings everywhere around me. However, there were some things that really cheesed me off about the place. The predilection for overdrinking (rationalized by a few friends as “well they said we were going to binge drink anyway”) among the youth is one of them, right up there with fucking Essex. But the one that really takes the cake is the pantomime.
A pantomime, see, is a deliberately awful play. Seeing a deliberately bad movie is one thing, because you’re virtually encouraged to heckle the movie as you sit in your living room. But you can’t do that during a pantomime because it’s a time-honored (or honoured) tradition. It’s bollocks. Sitting through one, in my opinion, is worse than a wisdom tooth extraction without pain killers. If you ever hear a Brit talk about how superior British humor is to American, bring up a pantomime and see their faces melt like a villain in Indiana Jones.