Turnstiles Excerpt – Chapter 1
Martin opened his eyes. He squinted between his zippered lashes, stuck together with sleep. A small army of shoes marched past his face, which was half-hidden inside a dingy blue sleeping bag. His first instinct was to place a limp, protective hand on his red knapsack. He was inside a short tunnel that lay beneath a busy London street beside Hyde Park. He didn’t look up. He knew what their faces would convey, their cowardly faces. He was experiencing the real Europe, instead of peering out at it through heated hotel windows or hostel bunk beds or tour buses. He didn’t have to pay anyone for his space of concrete bedding. He was free. He closed his eyes. Martin was free.
He ignored his growling stomach as he smelled the subtle waft of fries from the nearby Hard Rock Café. Tourists, he thought. They were all missing the local colour. Except Joe the hotdog vendor, who was from the north, a Scot, an outsider. Hot dogs in London were a foreign idea, but it seemed to catch on like every other American phenomenon. London was a metropolis with people from every race sounding their thick British accents. It didn’t really matter who you were or what you were, only where you happened to become that person. Still, people could tell if you were from somewhere else, and Martin stuck out like a wounded hitch-hiker’s thumb. He had a quiet bond with Joe the Outsider and, on most occasions, received his hotdogs for free. Then he would usually lie under a tree in the park and watch tourists get charged two pounds by security for using the lawn chairs. The grass was free. Martin felt as though mindless sheep surrounded him. He had it all figured out.
A year before he had bought a cheap ticket to London and decided to depend on the day to see him through. Martin cherished every consequence. He held on to every face that examined him with curiosity or disgust. He always kept a plain expression. He had no reason to indulge anyone with his emotions. In fact, he barely spoke. Except to people like Joe.
When he opened his eyes again, a different army of shoes were marching past. The tunnel was never quiet, and he had long been used to the intrusion of echoing sounds and rustling pavement. It was a small sacrifice. He wriggled out of his bed and began to pack up. He would return later that night. Martin had become a familiar sight, and some of the locals knew this tunnel was his home. So did some of the other shoestring backpackers. Martin marched alongside the army and out of the tunnel. The sun was out, and again, he squinted. He ran a hand over his stubbled head and rubbed his eyes. He turned left.
The sun was already seated royally in the sky as Martin strolled down the wide, crowded sidewalk. He could see the faint shape of an umbrella a few blocks away, and as he came closer, he recognized Joe. Martin’s stomach began to growl again.
“Get your hotdogs here! Hello, sir, what a gorgeous day. Would you like a hotdog? Get your hotdogs here! Good day, love! Can I get you a hotdog? Would you like the works?” Joe called to the passing public all day long. He set up his stand on the same corner every day, and everyone who frequented that spot knew him. Some just by his ruddy, round face, and others knew him well enough to have a word or two. Martin felt he could relate to Joe, because it seemed they were both stuck in London making a living on the sidewalks, and most of the people bustling by chose to ignore them.
“Hey, Joe.” Martin showed a couple of teeth and then retracted his smile. Even though he liked Joe, he was still careful not to let anyone get too close. “Catering to the North American public, eh? It’s amazing you are able to sell hotdogs here. I guess if you had your way, you’d be selling cans of haggis.”
“Marty, my boy!” Joe’s face opened wide with good-natured eyes. “How was your night? Those bloody bed bugs didn’t bite ya, aye, lad?” he boomed in his rich, Scottish accent, completely disregarding Martin’s offhand remarks.
“Nah, Joe. No rats, neither. Just the bloody tourists waking me up in the morning.” Martin grimaced.
“Bloody tourists?” Joe raised his eyebrows so high they looked comical. “You better button your tongue, Marty. If there were no tourists, there’d be no hotdogs! Besides, what the devil do you think you are … a member of the general voting public? You’re the worst kind of tourist, Marty. You don’t pay taxes and you don’t leave!” Joe chuckled and flung a hotdog with ketchup and mustard into Martin’s waiting hand.
“See ya tomorrow, Joe,” said Martin without looking at his friend, and he began to walk away.
“See ya, Marty,” Joe said quietly and to himself, because Martin was already out of earshot. And they both knew they meant it. Tomorrow. Chances were they would find themselves in the same skin and doing the same thing. The two of them were like hamsters trapped in transparent, plastic balls looking out at the world, unable to break free of their bubbles and constantly bumping into walls.
The radio alarm clock began to hum in Willis Hancocks’ hotel room, which he rented in downtown London. He groaned, rolled over, and slapped his hand on the off button without looking. He rolled back and stared groggily at the dented pillow beside him. She was already gone, and he was trying to recollect the night before. He rolled his eyes towards the dresser. There was his wallet, open and most likely empty. His pants lay crumpled beside the dresser. He rubbed his hands over his face and gave a self-deprecating chuckle. Then he began to rise. He was anything but happy. She had definitely served her purpose, but the others had been more professional, and much more discreet. When this happened, he usually didn’t realize he had been robbed until hours later, when he found himself at a store counter fumbling for his credit cards.
“You cheeky little bitch,” Willis mumbled to himself as he flipped through his wallet. She hadn’t been discreet, but she had been thorough. Even his lucky franc coin from his trip to Paris was gone. It must have caught her eye. Ignorant street kid.
“She’ll never use it,” he mumbled. “Never in a million years.” And, suddenly, he felt vulnerable without it. He was used to having small charms in his pockets. They were little reminders that there was some luck in the universe, good or bad. Later that morning he was going to the courthouse to hear his father’s will. His father. He sure as hell had never been a dad. He hadn’t earned the title. Dads taught you how to play cricket on summer days. Fathers called from foreign cities to say, again, that they wouldn’t make it to the biggest day of your life.
Willis was tempted to throw the wallet in the wastebasket, but he gently placed it back on the dresser with an air of defeat.
An hour later, he was showered, sharply dressed, and hurriedly locking the hotel room behind him. He strolled with purpose through the chic lobby and out onto the pavement. He was not rushing to his appointment with excitement or even mild anticipation. He was rushing to get it all over with. He desired the whole matter to be dead and buried. There was a shameful question repeating itself over and over again in his head, and he tried desperately to ignore it … What did the bastard leave me? His only son. What did the bastard leave me? Bastard … bastard … bast— He began walking faster.
As he rounded the corner, the large, impersonal, grey building loomed before him, with its long, stone steps. He vaguely imagined guillotines. Willis couldn’t remember the streets he had walked, as though something else had brought him to this place without his knowing or consent. In many ways, it had. He did not want this part of his life to exist. Where was Occam’s razor for moments like these? How wonderful it would be to splice out all the undesirable bits.
Willis threw these encroaching thoughts from his mind and scurried up the stone steps. The engraved wooden doors looked large and imposing, but were surprisingly light and swung open with ease. Willis couldn’t help thinking that perhaps these doors were much like his father. If only he had taken the time to turn the doorknob. Once again he banished his useless mind chatter. None of it could be helped now. His father’s barrister, and friend, was waiting for him, perched on one of the many benches placed along the sides of the grand hallway. The white marble floor was immaculate. Almost so that, if he desired, he could see his reflection near his feet, but few dared to look at themselves in a courthouse.
The man rose to meet Willis. Willis knew this man well—too well. Sometimes the disappointing calls from his father would be telegrammed through this man’s voice.
“I’m sorry, son …” the voice would say, “your father has been held up in a meeting.” Even this man knew his father well enough to know he was only that. A father. A sperm donor. An absent male figure. The dictionary was far too generous with the word. Father. A male parent. God. One who originates, makes possible, or inspires something. The word dad was merely listed as a colloquial term or a shortcut for father. It was all so backwards.
“Hello, Willis,” the man said as he extended his hand, which was taken without hesitation. However, Willis shook hands limply. He was still overwhelmed by this place and these people and papers and things. They were all just things. Was he grieving? He didn’t know. It was all packed somewhere inside his big toe. Everything would take a very long time to reach his mouth and then his brain.
“Hi, Sam,” he answered in a voice that was barely audible. Sam motioned him into another room nearby. There were too many thresholds that day. The room was small and dimly lit. The blinds were down and the large desk and tall bookshelves seemed to judge Willis from their standpoints. Willis loosened his tie, feeling the musty tone of the heavy, dark brown books and neglected carpets. It was a furnished closet where many unsaid things happened.
“Would you like some coffee?” Sam offered. Willis thought he could use something a bit stronger, but he politely raised his hand in decline. Sam poured himself a cup and settled in behind the large oak desk. He folded and unfolded his hands and then laid them flat before him. There was no real sense of sorrow in the room, but the situation was delicate and Sam wasn’t sure where to begin. He didn’t want to touch a raw nerve.
“I have your father’s papers,” he began. He pulled an envelope out of a large, squeaky drawer in his desk and deftly handed it over. Willis didn’t make any move to accept it.
“Shouldn’t mother be here?” Willis stalled.
“Your mother conveyed point-blank that she isn’t interested in what he had to say.”
Willis nodded solemnly. She was still his widow, but he had been less than a husband to her. She had known the truth behind his unscheduled business trips years ago. However, she had kept quiet and continued to pack his lunch every morning and make pork chops every Tuesday night. It had been a different era then, and she probably made herself believe there was nowhere else for her to go. Maybe it would have been easier if he had run off and left her for good. Besides, she had to stay. She had Willis to think about. And now Hancocks Sr. was dead. The freedom of it was suffocating.
“Heart attack, was it?” Willis asked. He tried to sound casual. Sam didn’t answer right away. Instead, he let out a long sigh through his nostrils.
“Yes, I believe his heart simply gave out. Strange that it wasn’t his lungs instead. He certainly liked his tobacco, didn’t he?” Sam attempted to be warm, almost nostalgic. Willis squirmed in his seat. He felt his own heart tense.
Sam noticed his anxiety and decided to move things along. He was starting to feel uncomfortable too. He jerked the envelope impatiently towards Willis. The younger man glanced at him sharply, warily, as though he’d been wakened from a deep sleep. He didn’t want anything from his father. Not like this. Feeling cornered, he accepted the envelope and toyed with the seal.
“Do I have to open this now?” he asked, sounding like a child who didn’t want to do a chore. “Here?”
“I must be a witness to make sure you understand all the implications of your father’s last wishes,” Sam answered in a distant voice. Willis began to peel open the seal. The package felt quite heavy to be from a man who had been so empty. He pulled out a stack of papers attached with a clip. There was too much print—large blocks of ink that Willis didn’t want to swim through. He passed the document back to Sam with a plea in his eyes for some comprehension. Sam put his reading glasses on with an air of formality and began to read:
“Here states the last will and testament of myself, Willis Hancocks Sr., to be read upon my time of death. To my faithful wife I leave my property estate …” Faithful! How the bastard could even constitute the word and never know the meaning. Willis felt his innards turn and was relieved about his mother’s absence in this obscene mockery.
“… and to my only son I leave a portion of myself that I hope will fill the gaps I have left behind. …” The remainder of the document contained instructions for the dividing of his assets, including a generous portion granted to Sam for both his personal and professional services through the years. Willis barely heard the rest of it.
“How much?” he interrupted. Sam stopped in midsentence and removed the ominous glasses. His dusty blue eyes were small and beady. His lukewarm glance took on a cooler slant.
Sam had been a dutiful friend, even when it had gone against his better judgment. He was trying to be discreet, even now, by sounding vague and assuming his authoritative business voice, but the younger man knew him too well. Sam’s voice began to trail off, losing its facade.
“It’s quite a sum, Willis,” he replied in a serious tone.
“Your father wasn’t very good with his feelings. He didn’t really know how to express—”
“How much?” Willis was becoming irritable.
“Fifty million pounds, son.” His voice was like a dull thud in the room. Then he added, “Your father set up a trust fund for you when he found out he was dying from his clogged arteries. I’ve already taken the liberty of depositing the funds directly into your account.”
Willis felt immobilized in his chair. The cushion on the chair had suddenly become quicksand. He was a millionaire, just like his father. Just like his father. Willis wanted no part of his father’s impersonal, hard cash world.
His father was made of money, it seemed; still, he couldn’t take it with him.
“What about my mother, Sam? What did she get?”
“Your father made sure she would be comfortable. Hopefully, your mother was also given some closure.” Sam seemed uncomfortable and avoided eye contact.
“What if I don’t accept?” Willis said, but he thought, brilliant.
“Then the money will be given to the city,” Sam said with urgency. His loyalty still lay with his friend, and the last thing Hancocks Sr. ever wanted was to invest one cent in the government. He never trusted the politicians to do the right thing with their liberties.
If Willis had known, he would have marched down to City Hall and delivered the boodle himself, but the unreturned affections he carried for his father lay like silt in his stomach. He also didn’t want his father’s money to go into a new McDonald’s or a city parking lot. The two men stood up abruptly and shook hands. Willis just wanted to escape. When he emerged from the ominous courthouse doors, he took a long pause on the entrance steps. He drew everything in, and the world looked stranger. Even the clouds appeared to be moving faster across an otherwise pleasant sky. The voices around him slowed down. The tempo in the atmosphere was out of step. The mechanics in his brain had been reduced to a hamster in a wheel, overworked. What had just happened?
Martin had been wandering the streets all morning. The sidewalks were wide and crowded. The streets had a smaller ratio of traffic, and he was tempted to walk along the painted dotted lines in the middle of the road and dodge the cars. At least he would get paid if some careless driver bumped into him. The mob on the sidewalk lived by the rule of every man for himself. He unsuccessfully tried to avoid the shoving and gave it back where he could without making eye contact. He had grown sour and didn’t want to admit his thoughts, even to himself. The truth was that he was young and ready to accept his creature comforts again. He began to miss pillows, basic warmth, and friendly conversation. The problem was, he had delved so deep into his notions of the world being dictated by the evils of money, politics, and fads that he didn’t know how to slip back into the norm undetected. His rebellious nature had won him a reputation in the spreading vicinity of his tunnel life.
His thoughts pushed behind his eyes as he walked recklessly. What could he do now? He had no money. Suddenly, the colourful printed paper and accumulative clinking coins he once detested seemed essential. He kicked the pavement in defeat. There was no use fighting the greedy gods. Could he work? Would anyone hire him? Here? His appearance was almost frightening. He prayed for rain on the days between using the public showers, which cost two pounds. Martin didn’t want to admit that he had failed in his attempts to move against the grain, to not be a sheep. He always returned to his home in the underground walkway. After all, home was a place you could escape to after your legs grew weary and your head swelled with the pressure of people and words and laborious tasks, wasn’t it? Perhaps Martin’s home didn’t provide the best comfort, but it did provide him with shelter and a place to submerge from the busy streets. The hum of cars and shoes clanking on the grates above him provided company in the night when only a few stray souls, also hiding from the moonlight or police car beams, might join him or pass through, stealth-like. Martin wandered the streets of London by day and hid from them in the late, dark hours.
As he headed back to Hyde Park, he would often see the homeless people cluster together in alleys. They were prohibited from seeking soft grass beds in the parks, even in the warmer season. So, in alleys, they lit each other’s cigarettes and spat on the sidewalks. They swayed from the drink and huddled together to keep warm and upright. They cajoled with each other and laughed with smoker’s lungs. Martin didn’t know them, and he avoided them. Whatever choices those poor, fading souls had ever made in their lives, they had not chosen to live on the streets with every door closed against them. At least, he was sure the choice had not been a conscious one. How the warmly lit windows in every flat on every block must have appeared to them.
Martin was painfully aware of his free will. Still, he wasn’t ready to surrender. He had chosen the broadness of the streets over being confined in those brightly lit boxes of windows, looking down. Now his smug feelings had slowly turned to jealousy. He suddenly hated the working locals and carefree tourists, brushing by him cheerfully with their groceries and Harrods bags, for a different reason. They had something he didn’t have. They were free.
Martin sat down and occupied a piece of concrete.
As Willis rounded the corner, he almost tripped over a grungy looking young man sitting on the pavement. The man looked as though he had walked across the continent. The blue of his startled eyes as he glanced up looked lost and old. The young man’s expectant hand emerged from his jacket sheepishly and wavered open before him. Willis hesitated for half a second and then pulled out an executive-looking leather booklet from his inside pocket. He then pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and began scribbling furiously inside the booklet.
“Here, chap, here’s a big fat cheque, and all you have to do is authorize it. I hand you the keys to my palace,” Willis said. He roughly stuffed the piece of paper into the other man’s waiting hand and hurried off, jamming both of his empty hands into deep pockets.