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Lopsided Charlie and the Sunshine under his Hat

by Ellen Harper 2 months ago in Short Story

The story of how Lopsided Charlie found his joy again.

Lopside Charlie woke up, looked outside his window at his world class sea view and smiled to himself. He had built a beautiful and colourful life for himself down here on the Sussex coast. His loved ones surrounded him; those he chose to live out his years with and show his unwavering loyalty to throughout the decades (and naturally, they to him!) For some reason or another they had all congregated together from all over the country in London and then, when they dreamed of a (moderately) cheaper and quieter life, Brighton. He loved them all dearly and they smothered him with so much love and adoration that sometimes he didn’t know what to do with it all.

Lopsided Charlie liked his routines. Every morning he opened his wardrobe and chose the perfect hat. The one that would be most appropriate for whatever the day’s festivities might entail. Canvas trilby’s, straw hats, bowler hats – they made his identity complete. His reputation as a man in a trendy hat would not falter now and as he settled on a pin stripe trilby – which he adjusted to cover up his indistinguishable baldness, the first sigh of the day fell out of his mouth as he caught his ageing, yet most would say charming reflection in the mirror.

He walked through his elegantly styled, well-earned Victorian bachelor pad with pride; Andy Warhol’s Pop Art mosaicking the corridor walls in a plethora of colours. As his bare foot stepped onto the black and white marble tiled kitchen floor, he winced as the cold propelled through his body, emitting the same chemical reaction as if he had walked through a bed of searing hot flames. But he liked this feeling, he desperately needed the shock for it reminded him that he was alive. Opening his balcony door with one hand, he grabbed his cigarettes off the unfinished oak dining table with the other hand, grateful he still had cigarettes left. He lit up and felt the cold air hit his face. He looked up to the sky and closed his eyes allowing the moment; that fresh sea air to eradicate the grogginess that had consumed him since he first awoke this morning.

Taking another drag on his cigarette, he suddenly felt her intertwine through and around his ankles, curl around his legs and scream for attention. Lopsided Charlie bent down and picked up his beloved cat, before holding her close to his chest. Her whining turned to purring as they both allowed the all-consuming love he had for her sit in the stillness between them. This cat had come to Lopsided Charlie at a time when he needed companionship most. She had saved his life and had almost filled that emptiness within him that had consumed him for so long. For that, she deserved the world and the world is what she would get. In return she showed him and only him love. None of the others that entered this kingdom so regularly; not the adults, nor the children that he so rudely adored would get a look in. Her loyalty was to this human who fed her fresh prawns in the mornings and let her sleep in the big comfy bed that smelled of him. Lopsided Charlie felt this unconditional loyalty and he knew he would be forever, eternally grateful for this true partnership of a lifetime.

* * * * *

A few hours later he was walking through the park, on his way to his perfect kind of Sunday. The pub, lots of food, (almost) too much red wine and his beloved friends whom he adored eternally. He had brought these people together from all different paths of his own life and they were now a united group. Most of them were married, some of them were single, but they all had kids. Lopsided Charlie had neither marriage or children and for that he was an outsider – but to them he was as magical, as warm and as wonderful as a friend could possibly be. He was at the top of the guestlist to every party. He was the god parent to every child. He was fun; he was jovial and he was very very kind. Before he had even walked through the door children pounced on him from every direction. There was one clinging on to each of his legs and another was attempting to climb aboard his back. They wanted to see his magic tricks, to hear his stories; to get the attention from him that he had saved up for them – for he had no one else to give it to.

Gently shaking off each one of these childlike anchors he sat down and was welcomed with the warmest of greetings – hugs and cheers all round. They were happy he was here, that he knew. His glass would not be empty tonight. As the day wore on Lopsided Charlie grew progressively drunker. Red wine made him sleepy and he could feel himself fighting to keep his eyes open as they grew heavier and heavier. But he was safe here, surrounded by his Brighton family. They would nurture him. Whilst they all also loved to drink too much red wine on a Sunday, eat too much food and embrace an uncontrollable belly laugh they always got home safe and they always got him home safe too. But the difference was that after they bundled him into a taxi and sent him home with his keys in his hand, they all went home in their little pods and tucked each other into bed; whilst he went home alone. Every single night.

As the night drew on he taught these children card tricks, he moved things across the table without touching them, he told them stories about pixies who lived in their gardens with a narrative voice that grew progressively more slurred. As he watched them roll around hysterically laughing at his made-up tales he realised they didn’t care who he was underneath the bravado. They didn’t see his darkness; they only saw his light. And the adults; his friends saw his darkness but they loved him regardless. As he took a moment to appreciate his environment he knew this was where he was meant to be. This was his family and this little armpit of love that tucked him in with their warmth and smiles was his home. But still he was sad and still he felt so so so completely and utterly alone.

* * * * *

‘What’s your name mate?’

Lopsided Charlie opened his eyes and looked around him. He assumed he had been bundled into this taxi by one of his friends as he recognised the voice to be coming from that stranger sat at the wheel of the car he was in the rear passenger seat of. He didn’t remember how he got here, mind. But honestly, when did he ever?

‘mate, your name?’ repeated the taxi driver.

‘Lopsided Charlie.’

‘That’s an unusual name, guessing it aint your real name? Where did it come from?’ the stranger asked, slightly smirking.

‘Well can’t you see I’m wonky?’

‘well, you look quite alright to me.’

‘That’s because you don’t really know me.’

Lopsided Charlie fell back to sleep knowing the next time he was awoken he would be at home in his bed, with his furry little friend licking his toes.

You see, Lopsided Charlie was sad. He had a sadness that went all the way through him. He felt it in his bones, his ears, every hair follicle of his basically naked head. He wasn’t hollow – he was full, completely full to the brim with emptiness. And the only way he could pour out some of the emptiness was to fill himself up with anything else until he overflowed and the emptiness fell out. His sociable lifestyle meant he bought, owned and consumed copious amounts of red wine and no one batted an eyelid. They all did it – everyone he knew. So, it was okay for him to drink red wine. Wasn’t it?

Lopsided Charlie was so wonky he thought. He was wonky and he was not okay. Everyone knew he was wonky, but he had his good job, his trendy and cool and expensive flat (with a garden) and he was still showing up and he was still smiling. So whilst everyone knew he was wonky, they couldn’t change their friend; all they could do was love him. But for them, when the games finished and the party was over, they put the wine glasses away and stopped. But for Lopsided Charlie he carried on. He carried on until he fell asleep and then he woke up and did it again. Whilst he worked, whilst he walked, whilst he stroked his cat. It emptied out his emptiness you see. It emptied out his emptiness and replaced it with nothingness – numbness. Nothing was better than emptiness and SOMETIMES it even felt warm; felt like a hug.

* * * * *

A new day was here. Lopsided Charlie went through his routines. Today he chose a green corduroy hat. A green corduroy hat the colour of sea glass. It perched on top of his head like a crown and for a singular, fleeting, blinking second he felt alright as he caught his proud, iconic reflection in the mirror. He felt like the sea today. He felt heavy and wavy but he also felt powerful and calm. Stopping on the balcony for his morning cigarette, every drag felt hard, rough and sickening and he stubbed it out with his Birkenstock-ed foot almost instantly. Instead, he pulled a cream button down blazer down from the coat hooks in his marble tiled hallway, tied a scarf around his neck and left the house out the front door with no apparent purpose or direction.

Lopsided Charlie loved to walk. It emptied his mind and helped him focus on the joyful things around him; the love and the wonderful life he had. He liked to watch people and if they were friendly enough he liked to talk to them too. He usually avoided the roller skaters and the skateboarders. He thought they had big egos that didn’t need inflating anymore. He did think some of their tricks were cool but mostly he felt like they were show-offs that thought they were too edgy, even for Brighton. But he did always like to talk to the swimmers. Those year-round sea swimmers who are always racing up and down the beach looking for some warmth, were brave. He wished he could do it too but somehow the cold, the waves, the post-swim shivering as you huddle on the beach under a too small, too sandy towel hoping that you dry before your appendages turn blue so you can put some warm clothes on didn’t really seem worth it to him. Especially not now. Not in the dead of winter. No thank you. But these people were brave and they always, always looked happy. So he would always tip his hat to them. If he saw them coming, he would tip his hat and awkwardly bow sideways in admiration.

Lopsided Charlie kept on wandering. He walked until he found himself under the pier. What a curious place to be he thought. It was quiet. The light was weird, if ghosts were real, this is where they would live – he had no doubt. It had a sinister energy. Above his head people were screaming with joy as they ate candy floss, lost dozens of pounds worth of shrapnel to the slots and their stomachs turned tables as they catapulted through the air on rides made to help those who are fully dead inside feel alive. He didn’t like rides. Was the world not hard and scary enough without having to stimulate your fight and flight mode (and all the anxiety that comes with it) for two minutes of adrenaline? No – it wasn’t for him. Up on the concrete, behind the pier and away from this pebbled beach kids were congregating; laughing – the naughty ones were passing round cans of K cider and bottles of cheap white wine.

Down here Lopsided Charlie was alone. It was quiet down here. Eerily peaceful. He had been alone before – well his whole life actually. But right here, right now he was alone alone. There was no Paul Weller playing in the distance to take him away from the loneliness. No cat to remind him what love was. He was alone and right now he felt more alone than ever. From his satchel he pulled out a plastic wine glass and a mini wine bottle. He poured the wine into the glass and sat down on the pebbles under the pier to watch the world pass by. The sea was so calm this evening. Her sound. Her strength. Her changing colours. She was still today. And she was so far out Lopsided Charlie could see the twinkle of the setting sunlight as it hit the wet sand. She was hypnotising him – inviting him in. Lopsided Charlie had this completely sudden and overwhelming urge to be in her, to be with her, to be at one with the ocean. He knew nothing in that moment other than he needed to be in the sea. He walked with tunnel vision to the shore, taking off his clothes layer by layer as he edged closer and closer. He was focused, he was determined and the world around him disappeared into a vortex of blurry nothingness as he took one more step closer to the edge.

He didn’t notice the cold as he stepped into the shallow sandy water. Each step further into the sea made him feel more and more at peace. As the blisteringly, bitingly cold water consumed his now basically naked body he began to swim outwards. Towards the nothingness of the murky English Channel. His arms moved – they did not stop. Nothing else was important to Lopsided Charlie at this moment. He was transfixed on his plan to be at one with the ocean. He kept on swimming, not noticing his arms beginning to tire. Not noticing the starlings singing in formation overhead, reminding all who could hear that soon a spectacular sunset would mark the end of daylight.

Time passed. Lopsided Charlie wasn’t sure how much but he knew it was passing quickly. And suddenly, just like that, a huge tidal wave of exhaustion hit him. He stopped moving his body and he flipped himself onto his back. He outstretched his arms as he floated aimlessly in the middle of the sea. He looked towards the sky – it was strikingly beautiful as colours of yellow, orange and pink layered the purple backdrop of the setting sun. He closed his eyes and he thought ‘what now?’ No thoughts came to him so he just laid out there in the still ocean with his eyes shut waiting for her to tell him what to do. And as he grew more tired she started to slowly, elegantly, calmly pull him down. Feet first he started to fall towards the ocean floor. Inch by inch he was submerged as the ocean was giving him her command; giving him what he wanted – to be with her. He felt calm as he succumbed to her grasp, her completely undefeatable power. He was almost fully submerged now, only his fingertips were left. Down he fell, the pull of gravity forcing him downwards as he surrendered to the moment, offering no fight. He was becoming at one with her majesty – she wanted to bring him the peace and fulfilment he felt that he had been seeking for all these years – that was all he knew.

Lopsided Charlie opened his eyes for a second. He wanted to see what it all looked like down here. He wanted to watch as the ocean took away all of his pain and all of his suffering. He wanted to be present as his life was sucked out of him, leaving his empty body bare on the dense seabed. He wanted to feel his soul arise again and he wanted to find his joy again, in another world.

But all he saw when he opened his eyes was darkness. All he felt was physical, excruciating pain as his body begged for oxygen. All he could taste was putrid salty water. Seaweed was starting to grab him and his arms fought against its grasp. Panic overwhelmed him as he made the decision in that moment, to fight for his life. He kicked and he kicked upwards, racing towards the ball of light that was shining down from the tiny moon that had now fully risen above the water’s horizon. He chased it upwards for what felt like an eternity, his lungs filling up as he gasped for air. His legs moved faster than he ever felt was possible as he chased life; survival and a fate that he wanted to take into his own hands. He broke the surface of the water and gasped as he felt life come rushing back into his body. The pain vanished as he realised this was not it. He did not want to die; he knew that now. Not here, not now. Not like this. Not alone. He wanted to live and he wanted his joy back. He just needed to know where to find it.

Lopsided Charlie looked around him. All he could see was dark, black water speckled by the white light of the moon reflecting down upon the sea and tucking itself into the creases of the waves. He looked towards the coastline. He could see the lights but he could not hear a single human voice. If he couldn’t hear them, they couldn’t hear him. Besides, what would they do if they could hear him? No red-adorned lifeguards were working at this time. Lopsided Charlie plucked up all his strength. If he had gotten himself into this mess he would have to get himself out. He swam but this time not with any great haste. He knew, or at least he felt for the first time in a long time, that he would be okay. One stroke after another kept him afloat – he could hear his heart pounding out of his ears. Every stroke was like pulling a sack of bricks as his legs started to give way. As a tear fell down his cheeks he knew he had to keep fighting and for the first time in a long time he wanted to fight for his life. He screamed in pain as he took another stroke. Slowly but steadily would win him this race for his life.

* * * * *

When Lopsided Charlie woke up he was face down on the pebbles, completely in the nude. He was definitely alone but he wasn’t sad and he wasn’t scared. He was freezing and he was definitely tired but what he noticed above all else was that he felt content and he felt accomplished. He was no longer overwhelmed with sadness. He was still empty and maybe that would never go – but he knew he needed to know more about his emptiness and find a way to make it bearable. He owed it to everyone who loved him so much. But mostly, he owed it to himself. He owed himself another lifetime full of happiness and he knew now he would never let anyone take that away from him, including himself.

Lopsided Charlie walked awkwardly back up the beach. He gathered up his clothes and put them back on one at a time. The warmth hit him like the sun when it peeps out from behind a cloud to heat up your patch of earth for a second on a murky Autumnal day. Fully clothed he walked up and out from the inside of the pier towards people, music, noise and the life he loved so much. He walked past the bars and the teenagers and the drunk students and for once he didn’t feel sad and alone. He felt their sun and he took a part of it, wearing it on his sleeve. Every day, he told himself, he would absorb a little bit more of other people’s sunshine until he was overcome by warmth and light and his darkness became small. Every day he would look for happiness and every day he would look for something that brough him joy. He would collect those small but infinitely powerful balls and he would wear them in his pocket and inside his hat so whenever he could feel the sadness creeping in, as it undoubtedly would, he could pull out these balls of happiness and remind himself of what it felt like to be warm (and maybe even full?!) inside.

Hat… ‘where’s my hat?’

It wasn’t on his head. He loved this green corduroy hat that looked like sea glass. As he ran back to the place he was sat – that morbid little spot under the eerily peaceful pier he saw his hat blowing around in circles as the wind tried to carry it away. In that moment Lopsided Charlie knew that the universe was and always had been on his side.

He picked the hat up and put it back on his head. He looked out to the sea and he nodded and he smiled. He tipped his hat to her and he awkwardly bowed sideways. He was grateful for her power and the lessons she had taught him on this cold, beautiful winters day.

Short Story

Ellen Harper

Read next: The Pebble's Game

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