Walter’s seat jerked forward as the airplane clawed the Heathrow tarmac. He grabbed at the empty air in panic as his mind was still unsheathing itself from sleep. He looked out his window torpidly and it dawned on him he had made it; he had landed in London. So far it looked just as he imagined—cloudy and dreary, so dreary in fact he fell back asleep.
“Sir . . . Sir,” his British flight attendant nudged him awake again later.
“Yeah-yeah, what?” Walter said, arising to a now empty plane.
“As much as I’ve enjoyed having you here, I’m sure you have other places you need to be.”
“Not right away. This plane’s kind of nice now that it’s quiet and empty . . . But I can’t stay on, can I?”
The flight attendant shook his head amused. “No, unfortunately not. Did you need help with anything?”
“No, I think I’ll be okay,” Walter said standing woozily. He’d overdone the wine trying to make himself fall asleep during the flight. It worked, just not until an hour and a half before the flight landed. “Just a little tired, kind of hungover—just a little of everything right now, that’s all.”
“It was a stressful flight for everyone,” the flight attendant said, “but you especially. That’s why I let you sleep as long as I could.”
In an ominous beginning to Walter’s trip, the elderly British lady in the aisle seat of his row had a heart attack an hour into the flight, forcing an emergency landing in Las Vegas and leaving him with the entire row. The middle seat was never filled by standby.
“I saved you some fruit and muffins since you slept through breakfast,” the attendant said handing him a paper bag.
“Thank you... what was your name again? Sorry, it always takes me two or three times to remember a name and my brain is always at its worst in the morning.”
“Ambrose? Like Saint Ambrose. How’d I forget? Anyway, Ambrose, you’ve been very kind this whole flight. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome sir. Just doing my job.”
Walter picked up his backpack and began moving up the aisle. “Oh,” he said turning back. “Do you know what happened to...”
“Abigail? The hospital said she’s still recovering, but doing fine. The heart attack was just a small one.”
“Oh thank God. You don’t know how happy I am to hear that . . . Well, take care Ambrose.”
“You too Mister Huxley. Also, welcome to London.”
After going through customs and getting a coffee, Walter sat on a bench in baggage reclaim to sip it while waiting for his checked suitcase. As he did so, people passed him as if he wasn’t even there. As a test, he took off his hat, leaving his freshly-shaven face unobscured, but still, not even a stare. He was no one again. The bells of his bellbottoms began swinging excitedly beneath the bench.
Once with his suitcase, he walked slowly through the airport, taking in his surroundings without interruption from fan, paparazzo, gawker, or heckler until reaching the London Underground—aka “the Tube”. As he boarded the train, funny English accents chattered like companies of parrots; the trashcans read “rubbish”; someone said his phone battery was “flat”. The most minor of quirks were the first to catch his attention, but were the most affirming of his new existence: he was alone, five and a half thousand miles away from home; a foreigner in a foreign place; an American with an accent. It wasn’t a third world country—the natives even spoke English, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t allowed to be a little culture shocked. He’d also been so caught up in the trip being Amber’s gift that he’d forgotten indeed it was a trip, a trip to a place he’d never been in a world he thought he knew so well.
As the train accelerated, the gray and sooted outer west reaches of the city jetted over the windows, many of the cracked and cobbled buildings looking as old or older than his native country. So used to the full color of the California sun, the muteness made him feel off kilter, as if he were inside a black and white television set.
Nearing the city’s center, the train dug underground and began stopping more frequently, billowing with occupants—drunk occupants, so much so there was a miasma of stale beer in the car. A group of men then boarded with paper masks on of the most well-known members of the monarchy and squeezed in next to Walter. He asked the paper-faced Duchess Catherine the cause.
“Whaaaat?!” the man behind the mask cried.
“What’s going on?”
“What do ya mean what’s going on? The fuckin’ queen mate! The fuckin’ queen.”
That’s right, Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant. Before her heart attack, the elderly lady on his flight had made mention of it. The Queen was going to be carted down the River Thames today for all of London to see in celebration of her being queen for sixty years. But also, it was an ornate excuse to be drunk in public.
At the stops nearest to Buckingham Palace, the miasma dissipated, and by Walter’s stop, Russell Square, the car was almost empty. A wide elevator—or “lift”—then carried him and his luggage up from the deeply buried station and spit him onto the sidewalk. There, he drew in his first breath of moist, outside London air. The roads around him were narrower than the ones back home, and all the buildings looked to be laid in brick or carved out of stone, earthly shades of red, brown and tan, stained with rain and glossed with moss. Bright green treetops lined the street perpendicular to him, and red and blue Union Jacks hung over the sidewalk in front of him and everywhere he looked.
He continued following the directions provided in his Contiki travel wallet—almost getting run over because he forgot the new orientation of car traffic—until arriving at the Royal National Hotel. The instructions then guided him to an underground side entrance of the hotel labeled “Contiki Basement”. Inside the basement, which looked like an empty nightclub, it was a dead silence compared to the streets above.
“Ello,” a cutely chubby Aussie girl behind a stainless steel counter in front of him said. “Checking in?”
“I guess so,” Walter said.
“Your last name?”
“Huxley, Walter Huxley.” Her eyebrows furrowed as her search came up empty.
“Could it be under a different name?” she asked.
“Yeah, my hitchhiking ghost probably, Amber Evans.”
“I mean my girlfriend—ex girlfriend. Uh, forget about it. Sorry, I sometimes make these inside jokes with myself and forget there’s other people around.” She looked at him puzzled, but politely humored him.
“Long trip?” she said.
“Where you coming from?”
“Oh, lucky you. I’ve always wanted to go there . . . Ah, found it. Sorry about that. Amber Evans and Walter Huxley. I’ve got a single room with a double bed for one night, then have you leaving on our European Horizon tour tomorrow. Is Miss Evans arriving later?”
“Um... no. She actually won’t be arriving at all.”
“Ah, you booked the trip before the breakup. We see that a lot.”
“Actually, there was just this kind of thing, this uh… event. Truthfully, she kinda... she kinda died.”
“She kinda died?”
Walter cursed himself for not leaving it at breakup. “Not kinda,” he said, “she just died.”
“Oh my goodness. Like on the way here?”
“Oh, no-no. It was over a year ago.”
“I’m so sorry. You poor thing. And now you’re going on the trip in her memory? That’s so sweet. You must’ve loved her a lot.”
“Yeah…” he laughed uncomfortably. “Actually, she became my ex-girlfriend before she died—I mean like, right before she died. She’s not my ex because she died. So she’s kind of like my ex-ex-girlfriend . . . Maybe I should call her Dos Equis.”
The counter girl shook her head slowly and was bug-eyed as if he were holding up the place. He couldn’t tell if she was just extremely confused or thought her life was in danger because the only reason he had an ex-ex-girlfriend was he had killed an ex-girlfriend—which he kinda had.
“You know Dos Equis,” Walter said, “like the beer—Spanish for two X’s? That’s right, maybe you don’t have Dos Equis over here. But yeah, you’re kind of right. We—I mean she—booked this trip before we broke up, then we broke up, then she died, and then I still came . . . I’m sorry, can you just ignore me right now? I’ve gotten maybe an hour or so of sleep in the last twenty-four hours and I’m starting to go a little haywire.”
The girl looked afraid to speak. “Um… yeah,” she said. “So here’s everything you need for the room. Lemme go get your sleeping bags—I mean sleeping bag, just one sleeping bag.”
“Sleeping bag?” he asked.
“Yeah. You won’t need it here, but for some of the hostels you’re staying at during your trip. I’ll be right back,” she said leaving then returning with the sleeping bag. “So that’s everything. If you have any questions, or need some suggestions of what to do here in London just lemme know—I mean let us know, as in the Contiki staff. I obviously won’t be here all the time, but somebody will be . . . Oh, I almost forgot,” she said handing him a printout. “Take this paper to the hotel front desk to get your keycards—I mean keycard because it’s just you now, but you can get more than one still too . . . I’m sorry,” she sighed sharply. “I’m still new here and honestly the whole dead girlfriend—or dead ex-ex-girlfriend thing is throwing me off a little.”
“Hey, it’s okay, Amy,” Walter said reading her nametag. “You’ve been very helpful . . . Well, if I’ve got everything I need, I guess I’ll go now.”
“Yes, you’re all set . . . Hey, I get it now.”
“You get what?”
“Your inside joke with yourself. It’s because your ex-girlfriend—I mean, your ex-ex-girlfriend is d…” She stopped. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t find that kind of thing funny.”
He smiled. “I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t think it was funny myself.”
At his room door, Walter struggled to open it with the keycard he’d been given. Two jockish males dressed like they’d just come from a pool party approached the door to his right.
“Contiki?” one of them asked in an Australian accent.
“Yep, Contiki,” Walter replied.
“CONTIKI!” they both yelled.
Down the hallway, two more jocks appeared, looking almost identical to the first two. “Contiki?” one of them asked, also in an Aussie accent.
“CONTIKI!” the original two yelled again.
“Contiki,” Walter said after and apathetically.
“CONTIKI!” the other two yelled back.
“CONTIKI! CONTIKI! CONTIKI!” all the Aussie jocks began to chant.
Just what I expected, Walter thought, frat boys.
His door finally opened after jamming his keycard into the receptacle innumerable times and ways.
“Where ya going mate?” the original Aussie asked.
“My room…” Walter said in a bothered tone.
“Put your stuff away and let’s go drink at the pub downstairs.”
“It’s still a little early for me to start drinking. I’m honestly pretty tired guys and just want to relax for a bit.”
“Ah, don’t be a puss bloke. C’mon, let’s go drink.”
“How about I join you down there later?”
“All right, but you better come. You heading out on Escapade tomorrow?”
“No, I think my trip is called European Horizon.”
“Ah, that’s a bummer; you won’t be with us.”
Thank God, Walter thought. “See you later guys,” he said, and closed his door. CONTIKI, CONTIKI, CONTIKI... they began chanting from the other side as they marched down the hallway.
He set down his bags and stood by the room’s window which had a partial view of the London skyline. Below him, bubble-shaped taxis went down the wrong side of the road and London’s iconic red telephone booths littered the streets. He felt like he was dreaming and the abatement of sleep only heightened it, like the glass in front of him was not a window, but a television screen. Everything on the other side looked like a movie set. Something about it didn’t feel real.
A wave of fatigue then came on again and the bed began tempting him. Must not sleep, he thought. I have too little time here. He then remembered seeing a coffee pot in the hotel lobby and headed there.
The coffee pot, which was left over from that morning’s continental breakfast, had just enough left for a good-sized cup.
“Damn, is that the last of it?” he heard a female Australian accent ask from behind him just as he was about to pour.
“I think so,” Walter said. “Looks like they already put everything else away. But we can split it.”
He turned around and was met by a girl about his age, but the majority of the hotel’s guests were about his age. A tomboy, she had dark, shaggy, moptop hair, and wore a baggy, black shirt under a plaid flannel. Her face was warm and makeup-free with large pea green eyes and a charming Koala-like nose.
Females are friends only. Females are friends only... Walter chanted to himself. He sort of had a thing for tomboys and was finding her very attractive. However, since this was supposed to have been him and Amber’s trip, he felt a strange obligation to be faithful to Amber during it. But also, he was determined to learn how to keep his blood flow balanced around attractive women, what he was realizing was the root of many of his problems.
The girl’s mouth suspended open upon seeing him, and suddenly she became nervous. “N-no, that’s okay,” she said. “Take it. There’s not really enough for two cups anyway.”
“No, really,” he said, “We can make two cups out of this.”
A guy with shaggy hair and baggy clothes like hers then came out of the nearby lobby elevator. “Did we miss breakfast?” he asked the girl. His stoney eyes drooped lackadaisically, and he had a permanent and slightly crooked smirk. They looked like they could be relatives, but his accent was distinctly American, twanging somewhere between a meow and Tom Petty.
“Woah,” he said noticing Walter. “I see you made a new friend Kourt. Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
Walter tensed. The first American he’d encountered on the trip and already he was recognized.
“Actually,” she said. “I haven’t even introduced myself yet.”
“Why not? You’re his biggest fan.”
The girl reddened. “I just... I just figured this wasn’t the best time for that,” she said looking at Walter. “But anyway, I’m Kourtney, and this is my brother Curt.”
“Just like...” Walter started to say.
“No, different spellings,” Kourtney said.
“I see. Well, nice to meet you. And I’m just Walter now, in case you had me confused with Quinn Quark.” They laughed.
“Yes,” she said, “and that’s why I wasn’t going to say anything. I figured you didn’t want to be reminded of Quinn Quark right now . . . However, since I have the opportunity, there is something I’d like to ask you related to music.”
“What’s that?” Walter asked.
“What tuning is ‘The MagPi Song’ in?”
“You know about ‘The MagPi Song’? I only uploaded a demo to SoundCloud.”
“Like Curt said,” she smiled bashfully at him, “I’m probably your biggest fan. It’s the only song I haven’t been able to learn on guitar and it’s driving me crazy.”
Friend only, friend only... Walter repeated to himself.
“Um, it’s DGCGCD,” he said, “I borrowed it from ‘The Rain Song’.”
“Ah, that makes perfect sense,” Kourtney said. “How did I not think of that myself? Thank you. So, are you here with Contiki?”
“Yeah. I’m leaving on the European Horizon tour tomorrow.”
“Wow, and here I was under the impression Contiki was only for partying college kids.”
Kourtney laughed. “What makes you think we aren’t?” she said. “That’s their reputation, which is somewhat earned, but also somewhat exaggerated. It’s really just a great way to travel cheap. This is my second one and I still have friends from my first I talk to all the time.”
“Hey,” Curt said, “Don’t mean to intrude, but either of you going to drink that coffee?”
“You can take it,” Walter said. “I was going to see if they can make a fresh cup at the hotel pub.
“Thanks,” Curt said and poured out all the pot’s contents into a cup.
“Guess I’ll be getting some coffee at the pub too,” Kourtney said to Walter. “But after that, if you don’t have plans, Curt and I are taking a bus to Stonehenge in an hour if you want to join? Tickets are super cheap because of the Pageant. Also...” she brought her index finger to her lips, “...we’re bringing a few joints to smoke there.”
On the bus ride to Stonehenge, Walter learned Curt and Kourtney were technically half brother and sister and had spent their whole lives living a part on separate continents. Their father had been a roadie for Dire Straits on their 1986 Brothers in Arms tour and impregnated Kourtney’s mother on a stop in Sydney after he told her he was the band’s bassist. But being a rather active groupie in the eighties, by the time her mother realized she was pregnant, she was unsure who the father was, so Kourtney spent most of her life without one. However, after taking an at-home DNA test the year before, she was matched to Curt, and with the help of their parents and the internet, the pieces of the story were connected. Contiki, though, was the siblings first opportunity to acquaint themselves in-person.
Once arrived, Stonehenge was nowhere near as exotically isolated as it looked in pictures. Instead, it was surrounded by ropes, a walkway, parking lots, and of course a gift shop, but the trio was able to find some solitude atop one of the many surrounding burial mounds that sprouted up from the countryside like lumpy land warts.
“How’d you get weed on the plane?” Walter asked Kourtney after she pulled out a joint.
“In tampons,” she said. “I could’ve waited until Amsterdam, but I wasn’t going to go to Stonehenge and not get stoned.”
After sparking up, they leaned against the land wart to smoke. Passing the joint, they sucked in the verdant expanse of English countryside speckled with sheep in front of them and the endless quilt of cloud above them.
“This is some really great shit,” Walter said taking a toke. “I’m so glad I met you guys. Fate’s been dealing me a lot of shit hands lately, but just in time it deals me Curt and Kourtney. It kind of reminds me of something from this book I’ve been reading called a karass. It’s when a group of people are cosmically connected for a purpose, but they may never know fully what that purpose is or everyone involved. I just feel like I’ve known you guys much longer than I have.”
“I know that book,” Curt said, “Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut. It’s one of my favorites. ‘If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons, that person may be a member of your karass.’”
“Of course you would know it,” Walter said smiling. “You’re a member of my karass! It was also a favorite of a close friend of mine’s who’s sort of the reason I’m on this trip. That’s why I brought the book along with me.”
“I guess that means I should read it too,” Kourtney said.
“Don’t worry,” Walter said. “I should be done soon and I can give you my copy. Man, this is going to be a great trip. It already is.”
When they returned to the Royal National Hotel that evening for their pre-trip meeting in the Contiki Basement, however, Walter’s great trip was rained on.
“Hey, it’s Quinn Queer!” a short American serviceman—judging by his crewcut—shouted as Walter entered the basement. “Where’s your dress?” He, along with two other servicemen he was with, then erupted in laughter, but in Walter’s mind it was everyone in the room.
He tried to laugh it off, but inside he was drowning and the laugh came out sounding like a gag for air, then tears began filling his eyes uncontrollably. His European safe harbor was collapsing.
“Are you crying?” the serviceman said, and began laughing harder. “Oh my god, you really should be in a dress.”
“Okay enough!” a female Contiki representative barked like a British drill sergeant as she went to the front of the room. “I know the meeting isn’t supposed to begin for another couple minutes, but let’s make something very clear upfront; there is zero tolerance for disrespect. And maybe you’re not offended by the name Quinn Queer,” she said directly to the serviceman, “but as a gay woman, I am. And if I hear you say that name again or make any other derogatory remark, it will be my absolute pleasure to send your ass packing. Got it?”
“Yes ma’am,” the serviceman said soberly as his friends chuckled under their breaths.
“Thank you,” she said. “Well, with that out of the way, let me introduce myself. My name is Anna, and I am your tour manager, but not your babysitter. Before we start roll call, there’s a few things you should know. Our bus, along with another group’s bus, will be leaving from the hotel courtyard at eight a.m. sharp tomorrow, but you need to be there no later than seven-fifteen so we have time to weigh everyone’s luggage. Please keep this time in mind if you go out drinking tonight. Also, hopefully you already weighed your luggage at home as the European Union requires all bags to be under twenty kilos or forty-four pounds each. After weighing the luggage, both buses will then travel together to the channel ferry in Dover, then once we arrive in France, our bus will continue to Amsterdam…”
“Hey man,” Curt whispered to Walter, “once this shit’s done, Kourt and me are going to Camden Town. You in?”
“I guess,” he said.
“Come on, cheer up. You’ll love it. There’s a reggae show tonight that’s rumored to be 420-friendly. You know another joint and some music will get you smiling again.”
Walter’s face was able to make a half-grin until…
“Amber Evans,” Anna said calling roll. “Amber Evans . . . Is there an Amber Evans here?”
Unthinkingly, he stood from his chair and ran for the exit.
Outside on the street, Walter began pacing and breathing heavily like a disorientated drunk, bumping into people and tripping over his toes. His mind felt like a sock in a dryer, unable to orient its spinning surroundings.
Almost by accident, he then stumbled into one of London’s famous red phone booths and fell to the floor. There he huddled into his knees and stayed until Curt and Kourtney eventually found him.
“I’m sorry,” Walter said as they opened the door. “I think I might be—may be-be-be—having a mild to severe anxiety attack right now. I’m not sure. I just don’t know what to do. I want to run away, run away back home, but I can’t. Back home is even worse. I just want off this planet right now. Is it too much to ask to have one place in the world where nobody knows you, where I’m not Quinn fucking Quark? I hate this! I fucking hate this! I don’t want to be here anymore—”
“Stop it!” Kourtney said and grabbed him forcefully by the shoulders. “What are you getting so worked up about? No one’s out to get you, calm down. You’re just famous, not at war. And that guy back there is a complete asshole and everyone knows it. You are a good, kind, extraordinary person, and anyone who can’t see that isn’t worth your worrying, okay? They’re probably just jealous or insecure about themselves, and it’s not your responsibility to make them feel better. Now, we already gave Anna your name for roll, so you don’t have to go back. So what do you say we get some music and weed in you, then see how you feel once you’re thinking straight?”
Walter smiled at her. She smiled back.
“I love you,” he couldn’t help himself from saying. There was a brief pause, then they all erupted in laughter.
“Come on,” she said helping him to his feet. “I love you too Walter,” she said hugging him. “I already did as an artist, but now as a friend. And...” she gave him a knowing eye as if his hug had told her something he wasn’t willing to say “...just as friends. I know I don’t need to, but something tells me I should let you know I’m gay.”
Walter exhaled, partially relieved, partially disheartened. He then smiled and said, “The good ones always are.”