Paris. June. The old man stood and waited and stared until he saw himself in the youth that passed him by. It was a warm morning, but the clammy stink of the city still felt fresh. He leant against the wall, studying the parade of young pilgrims file happily through the gates of Pere Lachaise cemetery.
Drongos, wastoids, slackers, burnouts, yuppies, guppies and trust fund tits. Then he spotted him, the one he’d been waiting for. A lanky, round-shouldered, blonde-haired streak of piss in an Elvis T-shirt. He was the one.
The backpacker followed the crowd. Even if they didn’t know where they were going, the path to Jim Morrison’s grave was clearly marked. Fellow travellers had signposted the way by defacing other tombstones en route. ‘This Way to Jim’ was the nicest of the messages – it had a flower next to it. Many were rude, crass and unpleasant.
Imagine thinking it was okay to write ‘G N R Rule’ over someone’s plot? The disrespect tainted the experience, souring his tongue. It was a rites of passage for every good Doors fan to visit the grave when in Paris. The tradition was now a cliche plenty of non-conformists liked to do together.
When he got there, it was just a grave. There was no spiritual awakening, no door of perception awakening within. Just a bunch of wannabes hanging around, posing in shades, before a warden came and shooed them away. No-one was allowed to stay longer than ten minutes – there was a steady flow behind waiting for their own turn at the ritual.
“Why don’t you leave your mark?”
The voice was cut-glass English. He turned to see an old man, anywhere between seventy or eighty-something, staring at him. Yes, he was talking at him.
“Leave my mark?” He was confused. Did he know him? What was he talking about?
“Look around you kid.” He gestured to the stains on the grey stones which remained unscrubbed. “Everyone else does it. Don’t you want to fit in?”
“No, not like that.” He shook his head. “It’s… bloody rude.”
Over the old man’s shoulder, he could see the warden glaring at them both. A shudder of embarrassment came over. Was this a test, some kind of entrapment?
The old man snorted. He was almost as tall as him, maybe even same height when younger, but age shrunk people down. “Balls. Some have them, some don’t.” He was carrying a walking stick and stomped it three times on the ground before walking off. “Kids today.”
HE ALWAYS MADE FRIENDS WITH HIS T-SHIRT
Amsterdam. June. He was lost and wasn’t the only one. When you’re stoned and its dark and you’ve come out of a coffee shop after way too many smokes and strawberry milkshakes all the canals and bridges look the same. He just started walking, figuring his natural sense of direction would lead him back to the hotel, then he realised he didn’t have one.
The Americans were in the same boat. Two guys, three girls. “Hey man, do you know where the Bevlana Hotel is?”
“Only if you know where the Hotel Belle Vue is,” he said. “Because I haven’t got a fucking clue.”
They liked his T-shirt. He always made friends with his T-shirt. It was given to him, home-made, by a grunge-punk boy-girl duo who called themselves ‘Anal Cunt’, although the moniker changed every few months. The white short-sleeved shirt featured a Warholesque punk-pop art fluorescent picture of Elvis on the front. Above it said: ‘The Only Good Redneck Is A…’ Below it said: ‘Dead Redneck’. A lot of people wanted their photo taken with the neon king, especially American turistas.
A picture was somehow taken, the group pointing at his T-shirt. He imagined the result being a mess of blur and dribble. If you could barely stand, holding a camera was shaky ground. The group decided on a new direction to head, one of the girls sure there was a lamppost she recognised.
“You wanna come back with us dude, too late to stop partying, too early to sleep…”
He shook his head and shrugged, heavy-lidded. “I’m just… you guys have one on me…” They wandered off, laughter floating away with the canal stream.
“You should go with them.” He turned and saw an old man standing by the waterside. He didn’t know how long he’d been there.
“Ah, think I’m partied out for one night. Just trying to find me way home.” He paused, foggy brain struggling. “I don’t suppose you know where…”
The old man sniffed. “At your age. Pish. No time to sleep when there’s sights to smell. Ah well, I’ll help you lad. Belle Vue, you said, know just the place…”
WHEN IN ROME, AS THEY SAY
“Oh baby, you’re so beautiful.”
The hooker would have been pretty if she wore less makeup – attempts to mask deep lines of a hard life from a young age only aged her more.
“Is she talking to you or me?” said the old man. They had walked into the red light district, strolling down the canal past neon windows of glazed-eyed girls in their underwear, enticing or shaming with their wares. The coot told him he knew where he was going, this was a shortcut, but he didn’t believe him anymore.
“You need watering my lad,” the old man said. “Balls must be filled to the brim by now. You’re here, they’re there – when in Rome, as they say.”
He’d thought about it before, sure, lying if he didn’t, but the idea never appealed. There were plenty of young backpackers easy to meet on holiday. Like-minded twenty-somethings all in the same boat, ready to enjoy each port they docked. He wasn’t prudish, just didn’t get the attraction of paying for something you could have better for free.
They looked at each other and looked at the girl, then back again. The old man snorted. “Well, if you’re not going to, then I will. No shame anymore, get to a certain age and you really just stop giving a shit.” He turned to the girl. “Come along milady, show me your etchings.”
The old man offered his arm to the girl and they walked into a red-bulbed open doorway. She looked over her shoulder at him and sucked her teeth so hard they clicked, then they were gone.
Eventually, he found his hotel by chance, after an hour pretending he knew where he was going. The joy of recognition and ensuing sigh of relief almost finished him.
Across the road from the Belle Vue he saw the Americans again, arguing with two policemen and an angry hotel manager. The melee was an arrogant conflict of stoned amateurs versus professionals who saw it every night – kids who shat under the pillow and feigned indignation when caught. He started to wave at them, then stopped, beyond caring; he trudged back to his room and collapsed on the bed fully-clothed.
THE BIGGER THE BARGAIN, THE CHEAPER THE THRILLS
Bucharest. July. The corridor was wide and dark and stank of mould. He found the light switch, but the yellow bulb only stayed on for a few seconds before going out again.
He thought he was the only one on the hotel floor, until he heard the scream, silence from the other rooms amplifying it. Something about dangerous shitholes attracted him, they added a tinge of excitement to the adventuring.
His first hostel room in Bangkok had dried blood on paper-thin walls and a ceiling fan that lowered its blades over the bed when turned on. A beach shack was open boards with a rubber hose shower. The bigger the bargain, the cheaper the thrills.
Coming off the train, mob graffiti marked sides of buildings, the Russians had moved further west in the new dawn of capitalism, staking territory across their neighbours and Romania had been taken hostage. He was exhausted from hopscotching too many nights taking transit naps, stretching his budget by saving on rooms, but now he desperately needed a proper shower and a bed This was the city to do it in – the cheapest so far.
Walking down the main drag from the station he found the hotel that best suited his pocket. A huge crumbling edifice to another world, pillars dusty and chandeliers filled with webs. He booked in, asked for a wake up call the next morning and hit the town.
Another drunken night later, one filled with river views, Irish bars, cafe breasts, pickups and alley chases he found himself back where he started, head spinning, stomach bubbling, realising he hadn’t showered after all.
He pulled his smelly towel out, haphazardly unloading half the bag’s contents across the floor, threw off his cargo pants and padded barefoot down the empty, gloomy hallway to the bathroom, feet sticking to the carpet. The shower didn’t work, the bulb flickered and the bathwater ran cold and brown. He splashed a bit then gave up.
He started when he saw the two men. They were black-suited, shaven-headed goliaths, wide as they were tall, standing either side of a closed door. Bangs and screams echoed from inside the room.
ADVENTURES NEED HEROES, RIGHT?
He paused, their size meant a sideways shuffle to get past and they weren’t moving. He looked at them and they looked at him and when he looked back and they kept on staring, expressionless, shovel fists clasped.
He turned away and heard one of them snigger. “Dracului de păsărică hippie.”
He didn’t understand the words, but he guessed it wasn’t a compliment. Nearing his room, the old man stood against an open door.
“Wonder what’s going on there?” the old man said.
The old man smiled. “Young strong man like yourself should check it out. Who knows? Could be a damsel in distress. Adventures need heroes, right?”
The banging down the hall stopped and the silence was even louder. The two gorillas were still standing there, motionless, staring back at him.
“Turkeys need stuffing too,” he said. “Depends how dirty you want your hands.”
The old man cackled. “Never know unless you find out. Just imagine, always wondering what might have been. Man could go crazy thinking like that.” With a wheeze the codger sidled into his room and closed the door behind him.
Sitting on his bed, half-washed, sticky from sweat and sewage water, he got up, struggled to pull his cargos on, before the gurgling of too many mixed cheap drinks sent him back to the bed in a dizzying spin.
The knocking on the door started him up. It was midday, he was late to check out, the clerk hadn’t bothered with his wake-up call.
When he made his way downstairs, after a ten minute flurry stuffing his bag with the detritus scattered around the room, he saw a skinny woman scrubbing the floor and walls. She worked feverishly, scowling and muttering as her arms pumped the carpet. Bloodstains took elbow grease to get out.