What I Did On My Summer Holidays by Martin Friel.
They had been friends for years but as Charlie looked across the table at Gene, he felt nothing but loathing. Sitting in that non-descript pub in the west end of London, looking at Gene with his face buried in his tourist guide, all he felt was loathing - loathing and hatred. Genes mere presence made him twitch with anger. He could feel his jaw tighten, has fingers cramp into a fist. He looked at Gene and wanted to punch into his head and release all the frustration. He looked at his surroundings. Faux Victorian gin palace decor, filled with copycat tourists, all doing the same things in the same places. True he was a tourist himself, but he wasnt your average tourist. Not the type to tick off the sights like a checklist. He liked to absorb a city by wandering, smelling, touching. But not that fucker Gene. He was in his element. Charlie could tell by that gormless look he had plastered all over his face.
Gene had enjoyed his holiday although he had noticed a growing tension between himself and Charlie but he put that down to the amount of time they had spent together. Two months travelling around Europe in each others pockets was bound to take its toll. But Gene was the kind of guy who was happy to go with the flow and he did not want to raise the subject of the tension between the two of them unnecessarily, hoping it would pass. He looked around the pub he liked it. Lots of glass, wood panels and tourists like himself. He always felt a bit safer in tourist haunts it made him feel that little bit more protected. He had enjoyed his European adventure as his mother insisted on calling it but all the same, he felt exposed when not in his East coast American hometown. Gene looked up and caught Charlie glowering at him. Gene raised his near-empty glass of beer and sent a smile over to his travel partner. He wanted to give the right signals, a gesture of camaraderie. He could feel the tension but was sure that it would pass just as gradually as it had arrived.
Charlies face didnt move as he registered Genes attempt to ingratiate himself. He thought about it and became convinced that never had he come across as annoying a fucker as Gene. They had been friends in high school and sporadically afterwards as they attended separate colleges but Charlie didnt remember him being so deeply irritating. Everything he said seemed to bug Charlie - from the inane questions that he asked to the pointless facts about buildings and places that he churned out on a near constant basis. Gene knew how to suck the joy out of any city of that Charlie was convinced. Everything had to be on a fucking schedule; Gene insisted on getting the most out of the day, a concept that was alien to Charlie. He had realised pretty soon into the trip, Prague it was, that he had made a huge mistake going on this trip with Gene.
Although things had taken a turn for the worse over the weeks and months, Gene had managed to enjoy himself nonetheless. He had squeezed all he could out of Europes great cities from Rome to Barcelona, Vienna to Paris and now, he was in the centre of the one he considered the most exciting, London. He was aware that Charlie had a different approach to the trip. He was more of a wander around and see what happens kind of guy but Gene thought they had made the best of it. During the day, Gene got to pack in his tourist destinations and at night, Charlie got to go to his bars and restaurants, wandering the streets at night, reaching out and touching the darkness. Obviously, there were times when Charlie wanted to do his own thing, but by and large, they had managed to spend most of the trip together. Gene knew he had been winding Charlie up but he was so desperate to do all he wanted to do in each city, that he kind of put that knowledge to the back of his head and ploughed on with his touristic mission. But he knew he could make it up to Charlie in London. That was one of the reasons he was relaxed about the tension. He was convinced the tension would soon be released.
Charlie didnt regret the whole trip just his idiot travel companion. He loved wandering around the cities at night, drinking in bars, meeting new people. That he loved. Less the fact that Gene was always there trying to get back to the hostel big day tomorrow Charlie. Always a big day tomorrow. Also less the tourist traps that Gene was so fucking insistent upon visiting, but most of the time he reluctantly went along for two reasons: One, he did want to see some of the things Gene obsessed about and two, he had wanted to stick with his companion.
Charlie considered himself an independent and street-wise guy, but still, something about the distance from home and the number of new places he had seen, made him feel more insecure than he usually would. A little vulnerable a vulnerability he couldnt fully face but couldnt ignore either. Having a companion helped. It was just that now he wished he had gone with someone else. In retrospect, the snap decision to travel to Europe with Gene had been a big mistake. He had thought it would be alright as they had known each other at high school but it had become rapidly clear as the holiday unfolded and they ticked off city after city on their travel plan that Gene had either changed or Charlie had never really known him properly. He just wasnt the type of guy the Charlie would usually hang out with. Looking over at Gene as he sat engrossed in his precious little guide book, he was absolutely convinced of that now.
When Gene had finished his drink, he broke the silence between the two by offering to get another round of drinks in. Charlie didnt even look up to decline the offer which, although he found it rude, Gene let slide. He was pretty sure that Charlies demeanour would change when he saw that Gene had managed to secure Jack the Ripper tour tickets for both of them. It wasnt really Genes thing but he knew that Charlie was dead keen on the Jack the Ripper story and was sure that when he produced the tickets from his coat pocket, Charlies mood would lift and that they could finish their holiday on a little bit of a high. When Charlie suggested they leave, Gene agreed and followed his friend out the door.
The way that Gene had just agreed and followed him out of the pub really bugged Charlie. He wondered whether he was being unreasonable with the guy and if he was being too hard on him. These thoughts were broken as he heard Gene, behind him, begin to explain the history of the pub they had just been in. When he heard that, he switched off, now convinced that this fucker, this man he had spent almost every waking hour with for the last two long months, was a prick of the highest order. His hatred for the man was intense now. He knew it was irrational but at the same time he couldnt help hating him. The hatred felt justified, almost good. Every time Gene mentioned a dry, pointless fact about a building or street name, it grated on his nerves. And the way Gene was nice to him even when Charlie had been openly hostile to him, not only made him lose all respect for the guy, it made him loathe him all the more. And here was Gene once again, talking shit and being nice to Charlie when all Charlie wanted to do was to smash his stupid, cheery face in. He started to savour his hatred, to chew on it.
Gene tried to get Charlie into the mood for the Ripper tour by explaining that the pub they had been in had existed at the time of the crimes, trying to set the scene for when he sprung his surprise. Even though Charlie was walking ahead of him, Gene could tell that he wasnt really listening to him but he carried on regardless. Sometimes he liked to just talk out loud like that to myself. It broke the silence that had come to dominate their time together. But the tour would fix all that. Gene was sure. He wasnt really sure what had caused the tension. He felt that he had always been accommodating to Charlie and genuinely felt, in the final analysis, that he was a nice guy. He felt bad thinking about himself like that but he really couldnt think of anything that would make Charlie not want to talk to him. He wondered whether Charlie had received some bad news from that he didnt want to share. Genes instinct was to know what was wrong, not to be nosey, but so he could help. He thought that he might broach the subject over a drink after the Ripper tour.
Charlie let out a long, over-dramatic sigh as he heard Gene asking him to wait as he went to pee. He turned briefly to see Gene duck into one of Londons many alleyways. He thought about carrying on and leaving him to catch up but decided that hed better take the opportunity to relieve himself too. He wandered down the alleyway towards Gene who by now had his back to him, pissing. Charlie stopped. He couldnt believe his ears. Gene was fucking talking to himself about how the alley he was in contained the back entrance to one of the most famous theatres in London and Charlie listened as this idiot rambled on about the most famous plays that had been put on there. Charlie felt his head go light; soft but full yellow flashes appeared before his eyes; there was a pressure behind them that he had never felt before. He floated towards Gene, still pissing, oblivious to his approaching friend. As Charlie made his way towards Gene, he stopped, bent down and picked up a half brick from among the weeds. He straightened up, paused and walked on, quietly but briskly. He found himself right behind Gene. His ear drums were pounding; he could feel every pulse of blood being pumped around his skull. As Gene burbled on about the theatre, Charlie raised the hand that was holding the brick and brought it down suddenly, cruelly and with force upon the back of Genes skull. Genes legs gave way and Charlie found himself following him down, voluntarily.
Gene turned round to see what was happening. All was confusion and pain. His eyes widened as he recognised Charlie looming over him, about to bring the brick down again. He couldnt understand. None of it made sense. The Jack the Ripper tour tickets flashed through his mind. The last thing he felt was the second impact.
Charlie struck two, three times more and ... stopped. His assault stopped as suddenly as it had started. Gene lay still, as a thick dark fluid ran out of a gaping wound at the side of his head, seeping through his matted hair and into the ground. Charlie was surprised that the blood just crawled and slid out in lumps he had expected to spurt about like hed seen in the movies. Charlie knelt over his friend and found himself placing his hands on the wound he had just created. He was horrified by what he had created but the fact of creation could not be altered. And that excited him.
Constable Taylor was talking idly with his fellow Constable when something caught his eye as they walked past the alleyway. He stopped and looked properly. He could see that there was a figure lying prone on the ground with another kneeling over it. He whistled to his colleague who had walked on ahead to come back with him down the lane. The late summer evening sun and the streetlights still not illuminated meant that the figures cast shallow shadows. Constable Taylor approached with caution. When he asked what was going on, the one that was kneeling down looked up, with a pale, pale face. As the figure explained that he didnt know what was going on, he had found his friend like this, Constable Taylor detected an American accent. Immediately he knew what had happened. Another couple of tourists, enjoying this city of his, had been mugged and this time, judging by the blood on the ground and on the two tourists, it had been a particularly violent mugging.
Charlie gave his statement to the police. He explained how Gene had gone down the alleyway for a piss and that Charlie had waited for him at the junction of the alley and the main road. Having waited over five minutes, he explained to the police how he had gone to see what Gene was up to only to find his friend lying on the ground with his head burst open. The police had informed him that although Gene had been very badly injured and might never recover fully, he had helped save his friends life. If he hadnt gone down the alley to check and attended to his friend, then Constable Taylor might never have caught the two out of the corner of his eye. Gene, the police said, was lucky that his friend was so thoughtful.
As Gene had not regained consciousness for three days, Constable Taylor contacted Charlie and recommended that he come in to the hospital to see his friend. He suggested that perhaps hearing Charlies voice, a familiar friendly voice, might help Gene pull out of his vegetative state.
Charlie approached the bed and the equipment that supported Gene with caution. Only he and Gene knew what had happened. As far as the police were concerned, he was a hero and Charlie didnt fancy giving them any reason to change their minds. He agreed to talk to Gene as the police officer had suggested. He took the cold, plastic seat next to the bed. He leaned in and whispered Genes name, telling him it was Charlie that he had come to see him. The heart monitor attached to Gene leapt into action but there was no sign of life in Genes pallid face. Encouraged by the police officer, Charlie continued to talk to Gene. The line on the heart monitor spiked again.
Constable Taylor excitedly told Charlie that he must be helping Gene and that if he kept it up, and visited regularly, that perhaps Gene would eventually pull out. He assured him that he and his fellow officers were doing everything they could to find Genes muggers and that he mustnt blame himself for what happened and repeated that if it hadnt been for Charlies concern about his friend, he probably would be in the morgue by now. He hoped that his words helped. But Constable Taylor knew his words were empty. The doctor in charge told him that Genes chances of survival were slim and even if he did pull through, he would be little more than a vegetable. Constable Taylor had held out as long as he could but after a while, watching Charlie nervously talk to his comatose friend, he decided he had to tell Charlie the truth. His friend was lost. There was unlikely to be any recovery. He told Charlie as gently as he could that it was best that he just go back home to America and get on with his life. He reminded Charlie that without him, Gene might never have made it so far and that he should take solace in that.
As Charlie walked out of the hospital, he felt lighter. He could feel the weight of the last few days lift with every step he took across the car park. He even permitted himself a little smile. He headed for the taxi rank where the cab that had dropped him off was waiting for him. He opened the back door, pushed his luggage across the seat and instructed the driver to take him to Heathrow.
In the hospital, as the police and doctors left the room, Genes heart monitor finally went silent.
* * * *
More stories from Winamop
Copyright reserved. Please do not reproduce without consent.