Looking back, I can now make sense of that bleak semester I spent alone at the Quarry in Surrey. The previous six months I had witnessed a military coup in Thailand, famine in Ethiopia, and been arrested for espionage in the Yemen. The 17th century cottage on the estate of Lady Bronwen Astor proved the perfect sanctuary.
I’d been almost everywhere yet belonged nowhere. Born in an affluent North American city, shortly thereafter I was dragged off to live in hot, difficult places. This made me an outsider, a ‘reverse-refugee’. The move to England was meant to straighten me out. But shell-shocked, disorientated, and in low orbit around London, I seemed incapable of kick-starting that career in journalism.
One blustery night in May, on the eve of my twenty fourth birthday, I was in my room listening to the wireless. Storm clouds were gathering and the treetops teetered back and forth. The antique wooden writing desk opposite my bed, its bevelled top slid open to reveal an untidy array of handwritten notes and unfinished stories, and my Canon Typemate portable electronic typewriter were all covered in a layer of dust.
I was studying the world map on my wall, searching the continents between the Tropics for somewhere warm and exciting to go next, when the door bell rang. A visitor, now?
I hurried down the stairs to the front door and opened it. There stood a wiry young man, his face covered in self-styled anarchic tattoos. “Hiya,” he said grinning. “I’m Andrew. I’ll be staying for the week.”
I scratched my head. “Ah, Andrew. Lady Astor said you might be coming, but I wasn’t expecting you for a couple more days.”
“Well here I am. Fancy a pint?” Looking up at sky I wondered if the idea might be a bit rash, but he insisted. “I‘d really like to celebrate. It’s my first night out of prison.”
I grabbed my coat and an umbrella and we headed to the nearest pub. The look in his eyes as he tasted his first glass of Chippington’s is still fresh in my mind. He couldn’t say enough about how good it felt to be free.
Andy was a kindred spirit, another lost soul confined to the periphery of society. Our paths could not have been more disparate - his eighteen month in prison for assault and car theft began about the same the time I dropped out of university to conquer the world - but now they had crossed, at the gates to the asylum.
“Her ladyship asked me what I wanted to do with my life,” he said, eyes darting around the pub. “What sort a question is that for a twenty year old Guilford punk from Carlisle, just out of prison? I’m happy if I get a job as a street sweeper and somet better than a squat to kip in.”
We shot a few games of pool, sized up the talent, then headed back to the Quarry. On the way home I let slip my birthday was tomorrow. “Blinding!” he said. “I’ll bake you a cake.”
The next morning I found him in the kitchen whipping up the icing. He had already baked a dozen cup cakes and prepared as many sandwiches. “I hate the bloody Queen!” he said, frantically beating the bowl. “I mean, why should she have two birthdays, eh? Why not one, like with everybody else in the world, you know.”
I was touched. Someone I hardly knew putting all this care and attention into celebrating my birthday. “I’m throwing you a party. Already invited some people. We’ll need supplies.”
In town we picked up a litre each of whisky, vodka. and scotsmac. Andy tried to score some gear from an old mate, offering him an invitation to our party as payment, but the geezer said he had a wife and kid to think about now. In the end only Sister Andrew dropped by the Quarry, briefly for a nip of whisky and a piece of cake.
As the night progressed Andy acted out stories from his ‘jack up days’ in Guildford. “I was living with Sharon, beautiful Sharon, hooked on smack and fixing in squat toilets. I remember her shuddering in my arms like a kitten. I brought my hand back to give her a slap, like. But it was too hard. I couldn’t hurt a girl like that. It was like she wanted me to hate her, you know.”
We talked until dawn when I bid him good night. It was the last I ever saw of him. Later I was awakened by the police. Lady Astor’s BMW had been stolen. They found it wrapped around a tree a few miles away. And Andy was on the run.
Bronwen blamed me, said I must have encouraged him. I was heartbroken. Why hadn’t the blinding geezer from Carlisle asked me to come with him?