Exeat by Catherine Wilkinson

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Ruminating vows and resolutions, Ludo packs his rucksack. He is going to lie. Even to himself. Whether the latter is possible, and not delusional, is, he decides, a fascinating philosophical question, and in his case the answer is, or will be, ‘yes’. But until the initiation of this trip, he had seemed genetically incapable of lying so OK, if not lies per se, huge exaggeration. On the assumption he manages any conversation at all. And then, just maybe, he can distend the wall of his bubble. He rakes back his fringe with his fingers. Passport, cash, card, tickets. Tick.

Ludo spends the journey clenched and hiding in his earphones, hunching his lean frame on seats of bus and train and plane. His legs jack-knifed, his knees wedged to the back of the seat in front, feet dangling. He needs his cocoon. To re-charge and re-boot from the onslaught of term, the incessant banter. He barricades his space with bags and wary glances. Burning. Itchy. A hippy-trippy girl sits next to him on the airport train. Sucks her hair, the tip of her plait. And eats tuna salad from a cardboard deli-box. Ludo loathes to hear or see people masticate. His own habit is to squirrel food away to consume at his desk in front of his Mac screen. But who the hell eats freaking fish next to a stranger? Ludo recoils, grapples with himself. Don’t be such a jerk. Burrows deeper.

Throughout his travel, he focuses on his I-phone – a.k.a. his shield and lifeline. Or he reads his props behind a GQ. He’s packed his genuine favourites but worries as to their predictability, the scope for accusations of pretentiousness. Tobias Wolff’s ‘Old School’ (Ludo secretly sympathises with the subconscious plagiarism whilst feeling he should scorn). Two graphic novels. Yeah yeah, geek. The Penguin little black book of Nietzsche, ‘Why am I so clever?’ He nearly knows the text verbatim, likes it with him though. If the hippy chick had seen it … or, worse, spied, peeking from the top of his rucksack, his small soft toy moose (talisman not teddy) – he’d have looked an utter knob.

Finally in Berlin, Ludo begins to unfurl. The craved urban anonymity affords a little relief. Berlin. Ludo winces. He’s a walking cliché. But, he justifies, it really does have to be winter-grey Berlin. A city, after all, which epitomises repression and liberation, walls and creativity. He regurgitates his deliberations. He’s driven by his dream to direct films. He has always, independently, wished to do so, regardless of his elder brother’s growing success in this field. He’s not copying. He’s nothing like awesome bollocks big-bro. If Ludo is to pursue his own creative mission, he must venture beyond his lair-like study (ach, he yearns for his comfort zone). Seek action, authenticity. And he will. He is. OK. Onwards.

Adapting his walk, which he fears looks weird, Ludo wanders. Table-tennis tables are planted sporadically, incongruously moored – set into concrete in the Strasse pavements. At the innovative project Kolle-37, Berliner children construct elaborate and permanent dens on the bald grass and beaten earth of the park squares. Ludo mooches around Friedrichshain – East Berlin, of course. Fusion street music reverberates. The suggestion of hash, skunk-jumbled herbal whiffs. His brother identified the smell to him once, in patronising warning. Buildings and fences branded with tags, faded yet garish. Yeah, all his virtual groundwork confirmed, Berlin is indeed urban art’s ‘graffiti Mecca’.

Eventually he eyes a bar, rejects the tourist beer gardens and the Korean Soju. He is aiming for edgy. ‘Barbie Deinhoff’s’, lurid fluorescent lights announce. Sublime. This should do. Ludo gauges the bar. It appears open to all … persuasions, as is the adage. Suitably dissolute. Ludo hankers hedonism. In theory. He enters. A mighty contrast to the preceding austere Holocaust memorial he had felt obliged to view. So pungent, he gulps and swallows hard. Cologne, stale liquor, smoke, ammonia, musk. Dark – dim lighting – well, that fits. Louche: excellent word he considers. Students, artists perhaps, intellectuals maybe. Perfect, all sound fodder. OK, a little more daunting, cross-dressing is apparent – no, get it right, ‘broad spectrum gender variant’, much more appropriate terminology. Ludo fingers the tablet in his trouser pocket. He really should not mix his meds with other influences. Ah what the hell.

Ein kleines Bier bitte.’

(He is, after all, a scholar and a linguist.) Momentarily transfixed, he tries to shift his gaze from the bartender’s full lips, the upper lip curling over a fat emerald screwed into the right canine tooth.

‘Willkommen junger Mann.’

Ludo squeezes a small smile in response to the bartender’s grin. He grips the cold glass of beer and retreats. At the furthest point of the bar, he leans against the edge of a high bar stool. Watching as he himself wishes not to be watched.

Ludo ponders that in this era of celebrated androgyny, gender-fluidity, non-binary et al, sexual identification or clarification is supposed to be at least quasi-redundant. He recalls his ‘cool’ aunt recounting a train trip in India in the 1980s. A ‘hermaphrodite’ in a violent-pink sari (jeez, archaic medical label or what). Paid not to strip in the sweaty crush of the second-class carriage, such bribes constituting a livelihood. Nevertheless, he does not think it wholly unreasonable, upon occasion, to have some decent clue, a bit of a steer. He’s flummoxed by a few individuals. The fear of presumption or causing offence grows each term, proportionate to his socio-political education.

The beer begins to unwind him, the bitter hops cleansing. Ludo has a two-day free pass. Well, not quite free. He has told his parents he is with a friend for the exeat. Most uncharacteristically, he has fudged the school. Sweet euphemism for lie. He consoles himself, his always viciously active conscience, that now, as a sixth former, he is not legally obliged to attend school, aware his logic is warped. He pats Moose in his jacket pocket. Two days. To discover what? Already too jaded to expect epiphanies. Usual tussle, observation versus action.  He remains twitchy, hungry. He orders frites from the bar and wolfs them silently in the dark recess, surreptitiously licking the residual crystals of salt from each fingertip.

A second small beer later, he has mellowed sufficiently to reply to an English guy, much older than him, who arrives at the bar. After a few mutterings, Ludo seizes from within his social armory and deploys a conversational tactic used sometimes with success. He sets Bom, as the guy’s nickname turns out to be, a bit of a conundrum.

‘OK, right, so, physics’ challenge yes? If you had to chuck a live grenade far away from you, right, would you be better off on land or in the water? Challenge accepted?’

Surprisingly, Bom knows the reasoning well. Better on land because in the water it is the longitudinal shockwave that kills you, collapses your lungs. And if on land, lie down so the soles of your feet are the most exposed surface area for the flying fragments of shrapnel. Wild coincidence, Bom, it transpires, was a ballistic missile engineer in the British army and his father even served in the air force during the Berlin air lift in 1948. After the infuriation of textbook inconsistencies on the point, Ludo is psyched to have verified, finally, that the remaining Allies’ planes took off every three minutes in order to address the land blocks.

Having conducted a real and interesting conversation with a stranger, Ludo rewards himself with another small beer. He can engage for limited periods on ideas, science, theatre. This, he can do. It is the social lubricant chit-chat with which daily he struggles.

After a very minor exchange with a student in the restroom, which Ludo nevertheless scores on his growing list of encounters, he settles back in his corner. Another beer, this time unbidden – cool, how hospitable, why not – slides down the bar and duly slips down his throat. Ludo is just a little intoxicated. Feeling furry-friendly, gently lucid. Not the ‘beer-screaming’, over-chummy level reached by his brother’s strapping mates. A girl lands on the bar stool next to him. Ludo retracts like a poked spider. She is not however, akin to the glossy, sporty, clever school creatures who intimidate him and his peers. No, she is a bit bo-ho. Gamine. Short, blue hair – whoa, funky. Unusual grey eyes. A touch furtive he notes with empathy. He shrugs. Not his type at all, to the limited extent he has the luxury of a type.

Yet they manage to chat. A mélange of English, German and French.

‘Ich heisse Ludo,’ he started, ‘it means light, licht.’

‘Faiga. Ich heisse Faiga. For. Vogel. Bird ja?

Vogel? You are like a little bird. Sorry. Du bist wie ein kleiner Vogel.’

She half smiles, as if she might have heard this before. He spasms in terror – at being too personal, or lame.

‘Blau Wellensittlich? Like a blue budgie… .’

A smidgen more of a smile this time. Momentary relief. Keep trying.

‘Ludo is a name for Mystiker, mystics. And scholars, Gelehrte. Philosophers. Umm philosophes. Oui? I mean Ja?

Oui, c’est chouette, cool, sehr cool.

The language obstacles give excuse for any pause and Ludo’s fear recedes, minutely. Schuchtern. One of Ludo’s first German words he tells her – the professor would hush it, softly sigh it, to the class so they would discern its meaning from sound and never forget it. Shy.

A little later their heads almost touch as they dip to hear against the rising racket of the bar. His dark brown against her soft blue, feathered. He catches her scent just for a moment – floral, oddly enough. She touches his forearm, an intimacy which makes him start. And she looks at his hands, his long pianist’s fingers.

Iche male … je peins…’, she offers, miming an artist’s flourish.

‘You paint. No bull-fish. Of course you do. Biensur’, Ludo manages a grin.

‘I play’, he flutters symphony movements.

‘Fur eine Rockband? Und singen?’

‘Hell no, ich kann nicht singen. Stage fright. Afraid. Nicht. Klassik. Klassiche Musik.’

He flushes at her faint tease, another term she teaches him: ma louloute. My honeypie.

After just one more small beer, and the refusal of a shot glass of viscous liquid smelling of the dentists – not from crazy-tooth dude, he seems to have finished his shift – Ludo does not flee when Faiga suggests they go upstairs to her studio above the bar. Come see my ‘etchings’, join me for coffee, seriously? All the lines from his vintage film collection. But he knows his ability to converse is waning. He contemplates. He is not completely naïve. There is undoubtedly a question mark as to whether this is lust or commerce. It is not strictly what he, allegedly a major wuss, would desire. He remembers a laddish conversation in relation to a fictitious, fantasy call-girl the night before his sixteenth birthday. ‘Would you … her?’ The kudos of losing ‘it’ still illegal is the ultimate aim, apparently. Ludo had replied he would not, and cited concerns as to whether coercion or trafficking would have been involved. Cue jeering, much mirth. He is aware it was a convenient hybrid of cowardice and conscience. If we train our conscience, it kisses us when we hurt’. Super-schmaltz from his little black Nietzsche bible. He wishes the programming of his own psyche would hurry up a bit.

Carpe diem? As often lectured. Or, better, carpe noctern. If it came to it, he does have cash. He giggles inwardly at his feeble pun, only remotely funny because of the ‘affluence of incahol’ and a little bit more in his own personal Prozac cocktail. Another internal snicker. And then he follows her to the stairwell. Slightly spacey, bit surreal. Deliberately, he places foot upon step after step. School joke: his big ‘hobbit feet’. Will another of his quirks matter? He cannot sleep at night with any rogue item untidy upon the floor. He snorts at his priorities.

Faiga opens a purple door and gently tilts her head for Ludo to enter. Against his chivalrous instincts, he steps into the dusky studio, is hit by a glow of orange lava-lamp, thick vanilla incense. Whoa, serious retro vibe. The door closes behind him with a gun-barrel double click of lock. ‘Es tut mir Leid.’ Was that a sighed sorry? A shot of adrenaline sobers. A rapid animal-instinct appraisal of the balcony window scope. For across the room, the bartender smiles with canine glint of jewel.

glasses

Catherine Wilkinson

Ludo is part of a collection of stories loosely linked by brain wiring anomalies, SPECTRUM. Published also by Storgy, another, GHOST APPLES, invites you to meet a boy with a busy little head. A story about insidious conflict – with a teacher, time, and within himself. ‘A super realist timbre that sings’, it is rich, rural and lit by fascinating snippets of nature. GREY WIZARD features in Issue 11 of the literary magazine, ‘the lonely crowd’ and was introduced as ‘an exquisite painterly story concerning the death of a horse’ – a sensory-focused work also lingering upon art and chromesthesia. The latest and longer story, BOTANICUM, involves the restoration of a glasshouse, hyperacusis, honey, and grief. Written in 2018, ISLAND JOURNAL blends memoir, travel, frivolity, nature and pyscho-geography, and is currently being worked upon in audio format.

The pandemic having both popped the bubble of an MA and thwarted a nomadic existence, Wilkinson’s caravan has stopped by a vast lough in Tipperary – more precisely, in the garden yard of a ruined castle tower upon which nightly sits a big white barn owl.

You can read Catherine’s previous STORGY publication below:

Ghost Apples

Discover more about Catherine’s writing below:
‘Grey Wizards’: The Seeds

Twitter: @CatherineWilk2

Feature image by Domenic Blair from Pixabay

pencil


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