Charlie was an Oxford man. That is, he attended until they found him under the sheets with a hired boy. Then they promptly relieved him of his education, his future. Thing is, where that might have discouraged some folks, it only made good old Charlie laugh. Fuck ’em if they can’t have a good laugh.
I met him in an Edinburgh hotel in ’57. It was a little after midnight when Charlie bounded down the stairs and flopped into an armchair by the fire.
“Why are you awake?” he asked me. I told him I was an insomniac but it suited me fine because I had recently taken up writing.
“You any good?” I shook my head and he laughed.
“Why are you awake?” I asked him.
“To ask you why you are awake.” We both laughed. I always liked meeting new people. I wanted their stories for my own.
Charlie and I spoke until 4 am and I told him things I’d never even told my wife. The certainty of never seeing this stranger again was very liberating. And he also just brought it out of me. There was something encouraging about his laugh as if I were the funniest bloke he’d ever met in his life. He was so cavalier with his story, giving it away for free to a stranger in a hotel lobby.
I though maybe he was admirable for living without regret, without shame. That, or he was completely daft.
We shared some whiskey and he told me of his plan to travel the world.
“I’ll see everything, I’ll meet everyone. And then I’ll pick the best place to plop myself down with the best people.”
I told him it sounded like a fairly sensible plan.
“Damn, I wish you wouldn’t have said that, Jim,” he said with a grin. “I really hate sensible.”
He shook my hand before he climbed back up the stairs.
“You’re a good man, Jim. Maybe you’ll write about me one day, eh? Just don’t make it shit.”
He left me there, laughing and I truly hoped I’d see him again.
Naturally, I didn’t.
As the years rolled on, I though of Charlie from time to time. It became a ritual of mine when I spoke to someone who had just been traveling to ask if they’d met anyone named Charlie. Perhaps he’d turn up in Singapore or Nepal. They all said they didn’t think so.
“You’d know if you had,” I’d say with a reminiscent smile.
I got on well with my life. My novels sold well enough to pay for a comfortable life for my family and I. And once in a while on the nights when sleep evaded me, I had a glass of whiskey and silently toasted Charlie and his traveling.
About twenty years ago, before I hunched over into the old man I am now, I finally caught word of Charlie. I met a fellow from America who was a playwright.
“I knew Charlie, alright. One of the best men I ever knew. He was actually in a show of mine years ago.” he said. I laughed, giddy with the news.
“Shame what happened to him,” the fellow said, shaking his head. “A group of guys jumped him in the alley outside the theater, beat him to death with baseball bats.”
My fingers went cold and my stomach turned. “Why?” I whispered, my mind too stubborn to put forth the truth.
“I suppose they didn’t like who Charlie went home with after his shows. Fear does funny things in a man. Turns to hate quicker than a wink.”
He told me it had only been five years after I met him in the hotel.
I spent hours awake that night, trying to decide if Charlie had been my friend. Could you call a man you only spent a few hours with decades before a friend? Did I have a right to be distraught? I wasn’t sure about that, but I woke up my son a little after midnight and poured him a glass of whiskey.
“Be who you are,” I told him. “You’re my son no matter what.”
He nodded and we toasted my friend and the life I’d imagined for him instead of the one he got.
more by NOELLE CURRIE
photograph by Michael Fertig