Duflinkë the Dubious Shuttlecock

Overview: Perhaps the first rock’n roll novella about badminton, this story takes place in Asia when a once-promising junior badminton star decides to beat the world number one at the WBF World finals in Beijing. But Ernest Duflinkë is riddled with arthritis and a bad attitude, who is more interested in spending the afternoon drinking pints rather than doing drills on the badminton court. But what happens at the end will have the reader up in arms long after the 60,000-word novella is done.

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A Novella by

Fletcher O’Keefe

*

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, when life is a bitch, beer is a must.” – Anon

“Always remember, I have taken out more from alcohol than alcohol has taken from me.” – Winston Churchill

*****************************************

Dedicated to Raphi Kanchanaraphi,

a great man who gave his time

to make others better players,

and better people.

Table of Contents

            PART ONE

  1. Duflinkë’s First Badminton Court
  2. Boarding School
  3. Resuming Tom Foolery
  4. The Summer of ‘82
  5. Pressures of Winning
  6. New Vistas
  7. Overburdened
  8. The Blues

PART TWO

PART THREE

  1. Rekindled Fire
  2. The Open
  3. A Move Beyond
  4. A Rock’n Roll Star

PART FOUR

PART FIVE

PART ONE

Chapter One

Duflinkë’s First Badminton Court

For Ernest Duflinkë, life had always been about getting the most of each day: taking advantage of down time by finding something interesting to do. And since he was born an identical twin, this meant from the earliest age he was focused on getting into as much mischief as he could with his twin brother Wren. Whether it be playing games outdoors or cycling to far-off places to find trouble, they were inseparable and unceasing in their quest for Tom Foolery. And the twins were damn good at it. Years of non-stop training and mutual encouragement had produced, by a very young age, a profound fluency in their mischievous craft that others their age were drawn to them. Their friends marvelled at their imagination and ingenuity to find mischief amongst themselves, usually ending up with the twins daring their friends to reach new heights of silliness, and always ending with laughter.

Duflinkë just happened to have born into it. It was his destiny to have had this early exposure to mastering Tom Foolery. And it was always a competition to see who could be the silliest.

And this aspect of his upbringing didn’t really show its importance in the development of his character until later in his life. Being an identical twin, and this complete immersion in mischief during his childhood, would give birth to rather extreme character traits that were to haunt him throughout his life.

One time, after he had finished his junior badminton career and was taking a year off university, he decided drop by the local badminton club when he was in Singapore. He was in Singapore on his way to spend a year in Australia during a year off university. He had landed in Singapore after having traveled mainland China, Hong Kong and Thailand before he was to fly out from Singapore to Sydney. He had a few days to kill so he looked up the badminton club where the national team practiced and dropped by with a pair of shorts and wearing old badminton shoes. That morning he had woken up with a splitting headache beside the prostitute he had picked up the night before, empty bottles littered throughout his hotel room.

Looking around the room he started remembering what had transpired the previous night, and realized he had 20 minutes to get to the badminton club to play Singapore’s top junior.

He hastily woke up the young woman and paid her the money he owed her and watched her walk out of the door. He desperately drank some tap water but when he saw an unopened beer he opened it and drank it quickly. The warm rush of the booze hit his cheeks as he walked briskly to the badminton club where to his surprise a crowd had formed. They heard of the match and wanted to see one of Canada’s best juniors play their number one.

He showed up without a badminton racquet, so he had to ask to borrow one of the ten his opponent had in his racquet bag. Genuinely surprised by the dishevelled mess in front of him, who represented Canada’s best badminton junior, the Singaporean was doubtful. If only Duflinkë could have seen himself, he would have cringed. But he did cringe over the years whenever he would replay that scene in his mind’s eye. It was a match of genuine importance between two countries and he had spent the night before partying it up, preferring to make the most of his spare night before his match.

Reckless. So reckless.

But this recklessness was a well-oiled skill he had developed over the years being the twin brother of Wren, the master mischief maker.

For young Ernest and Wren, it really all started in Winnipeg when their family had moved there from Toronto for their father’s new job. This was to become a regular thing: picking up and moving for their father’s job. But for the twins it didn’t matter where they lived, just as long as they were allowed to spend their days playing together. Having bought a house in River Heights in downtown Winnipeg, the young family didn’t know any of their neighbours so they decided to join the Winnipeg Winter Club – a place where their kids could spend their time inside, protected from the extreme cold winters Manitoba was famous for.

And that’s how Ernest first started playing badminton.

Duflinkë’s father had been fired from his job in Toronto, but he had relied once again on his excellent resumé to find a job as an executive for a company that made paint. His father didn’t know anything about paint but they hired him because of his degree from McGill University and his master’s degree from the University of Western Ontario. And because of his good looks; His father had mastered the executive look with his trench coat and eyeglasses that companies were impelled to hire him despite not having a reference letter from his previous job.

Every two years he would be fired and once again the family would have to move to a new town where it would all start again.

But in Winnipeg Ernest’s parents had high hopes for his new job and invested the family in the Winter Club family membership. Perhaps seeing how much mischief his twin sons managed to get into wherever they lived, an idea was born to throw both boys and their sister into a robust regime of sports whereby they could polish their desire to play with the skills and rules needed to succeed at sports. And that’s what they did. The three of them played badminton every Saturday morning followed by skating on the massive indoor ice rink and then indulging in cheeseburgers or grilled cheese sandwiches at the snack bar. And bowling, though the bowling usually ended up with one of the twins in trouble from mischief.

Duflinkë could still recall the first day out on the badminton courts. The courts smelled different than any other sporting arena he had been in. And his liked how chilly it was so that after running around the court he wouldn’t overheat.

The year was 1972.

“Will you two get ready to go please?” Duflinkë’s mother yelled to them from the back door. It was cold that morning, so much so that they could almost see their breath freeze in the morning air. Duflinkë’s father had thought it was a good idea and fit with his idea of immersing his two sons into a sports milieu, to make a hockey rink in their back yard. He had succeeded in creating an uneven, crooked, and snowy rink that stretched the entire length of the backyard.

“Watch out!” Ernest let loose with a slap shot in the direction of his brother, but failed to get any air on the puck.

“What are you doing?” said Wren.

“That was close.”

“I know, exactly.

Both twins had freezing fingers. They had developed the habit of waking up early and putting on their skates and playing shinny on the rink in their backyard. Despite its crookedness, it was for the twins a masterpiece of brave ingenuity by their father. And it was something they were determined to get the most out of before it melted in the spring. But most of all it was a physical manifestation of their father’s love for them. Perhaps in some kind of subconscious way, this appealed to them the most.

They reluctantly took their last shots on net and then skated to the corner nearest to the backdoor where they tiptoed on their skates to the steps and removed their skates. Both twins sat beside each other breathing into the cold morning air. Any passerby would not miss the fact they were identical twins.

Inside they deposited their skates in their bedrooms and grabbed their bag filled with their badminton stuff. It had only been the week before that they had all been at the Winter Club where they had gone into the badminton lounge and watched some adult players play on the courts below. Ernest’s parents were impressed with the calibre of the game and by the hand-eye coordination required to master such a game. Only minutes later his father had introduced himself to the badminton pro. He enrolled the twins and their sister Gladys into winter badminton program every Saturday morning.

And so they arrived that morning onto the cold badminton courts, the young badminton coach gathering the kids around him in a huddle.

“First we warm up. Follow my lead. First stretching.” And so he sat on the wooden court and stretched out his legs, then his waist and then his upper body.

“Now we run around the court five times.” There were six courts side by side, each with their own tight net and mesh. There were no other lines on the courts except those for badminton, a rarity in North America where there were very few real badminton courts, especially with such a fine hardwood finish as these courts.

“Okay, now we do drills. Four to a court. Okay, get to it.” They all scrambled to a free court. “First we do drop shots, in and out, like this.” He hit the shuttlecock to his sidekick, a junior who was years older than the kids on court. He struck the birdie high and back of the court where Marty, the coach, hit a perfect drop shot at the net. His sidekick returned it short at the net where Marty ran to and dumped the birdie just over the tape. The sidekick then hit it high and back to the back of the court where Marty again hit a drop shot. He repeated the play at the net and then returned to the back of the court and hit another drop shot. And repeated.

“This is the drill we’re going to do now. Remember to be gentle with your drop shot and to plant your right foot firmly first at the net to then use your wrist to control the return of the bird over the net. Try to do what I just did. It develops footwork and a good stroke. And finesse, which is above all needed for this sport.”

Ernest and Wren had only hit the birdie around a few times before this so moving to the back of the court and then to the front of the court proved to very tough. There were some players who know how to do it but to orchestrate so many variables in one intense second or two seemed impossible. But for the twins they were determined to get it right. Time after time they hit the bird into the net or missed the bird entirely as they ran back and forth, all over the court trying their best to get a rhythm going. To be sure this was a tough sport, especially compared to hockey or soccer. But instead of being frustrated, these six-year-old twin brothers were motivated to get it right.

And so it was born: Saturday mornings became the highlight of their week. It was his first challenge where Duflinkë felt he had to work for it. He had to beat his brother at it. And he had to beat his sister at it too. He knew he could do it and by only doing drills he had the time to master it. So he and Wren worked at it hard every Saturday.

But things were to lose their lustre not long after starting on the badminton court when his father began to harass them with critical comments. Instead of being supportive, the twins only heard about their shortcomings. But he saved his harshest cuttings for the hockey rink in the backyard where he yelled at Wren a lot. It was strange because whenever it was just he and Wren playing on the rink, it was fun and there was a lot of laughter and yet there was still evolution of skills, but whenever their father was present it became an exercise in who would leave the rink first in tears. It was a dynamic that would one day prove deadly.

Throughout the years the twins kept with their badminton in whatever city their family ended up living in. In the years that passed their father’s behaviour became more and more extreme, soon culminating in a bipolar diagnosis. But even after going on his medication, the black moods did not disappear. More and more incidents involving Ernest and his brother with their father were becoming the norm, much to the alarm of their mother. In due course Duflinkë’s parents separated, more as an act to protect the children from his violent outbursts.

And during this time the twins started to behave badly, getting into trouble at school and doing things that were out of the ordinary compared to other boys their age. Throwing stones at houses on the way home from cubs every Tuesday night became more and more dangerous and extreme to the point they were finally withdrawn from cubs when the year ended. And there was the odd theft. Ernest stole a guy’s wallet from his locker one time at the Boulevard Club while they were living in Toronto and was caught. He paid back the money he stole but more worrying was how he put the guy’s ID in Lake Ontario to get rid of evidence. These were red flags for any mother but with both her sons lashing out in such ways from an overbearing father, there were deeper murmurings of future portent that caused her grave concern.

The separation could not have come any sooner.

Chapter Two

Boarding School

One of the results of the separation was putting Ernest and Wren into different schools. It was decided that a private school education would be the best course for the young boys, with an equal emphasis on academics and sports. Finding the right schools was their focus during their grade seven year, with each brother writing exams for many different private schools. Each boy had the natural intelligence to get into these schools, and certainly excelled in sports, but with the very few available seats, competition was fierce.

But all that changed when they were both offered a position at different but very good private schools. Wren would remain in Toronto as a day boy and attend Crescent College School on Bayview Avenue, and Ernest would be a border at Trinity College School in Port Hope. They twins didn’t mind being apart because they had spent every single moment together for every year of their young lives, so having a break from each other was a good thing they reckoned.

Most importantly both boys would be able to live outside the wrath of their bipolar father who had developed a knack for being hyper critical and demeaning to both boys. And to their sister too. In fact, at one time during that grade seven year just before their father was asked to leave the family, he had lost his temper and grabbed Ernest’s sister by the throat and pinned her against the dining room wall because she didn’t want to eat her salad. It was a very intense incident and one witnessed by the twins’ grandmother, who they assumed had encouraged their mother to follow her instinct to protect her boys from an unstable man who was emotionally abusive.

For Ernest the change was just what was needed. He had recently engaged in some rebellious behaviour during his grade seven year, namely drinking with school mates and vandalism. For Ernest it had been a natural progression from Tom Foolery with his twin brother to the next level up with his friends. Since his brother was at a different school he had met some new friends who were more into mischief than sports. His mother complained he had fallen in with the wrong crowd, but for Ernest they were all good except one or two. He liked his new friends, and they were all good at their own thing.

But once Ernest had been sent to Port Hope as a border, things completely changed for him.

Every single minute in his day was determined ahead of time, except for one hour after dinner. But instead of acting out and rebelling against authority he found he had a healthy dose of respect for his teachers and his new school for the traditions and the rigors of boarding life. The strict regimen – once accepted as something like a vitamin (that to adhere to the structure and rules would be good for him) – he did just that: adhered to the rules. He still fooled around with his new friends at boarding school, but it was all innocent fun. After all, he was already a master at Tom Foolery.

Much laughter was had at the school.

But there were some darker forces there too. One thing people never hear about when it comes to boarding school was that troubled boys were sent there during the early grades, and TCS was no exception. There were some troublemakers that were in a whole league of their own, who broke the rules for the sake of breaking the rules rather than to laugh and have some fun. Duflinkë was quick to identify these guys, and he wisely stayed away from them as much as he could.

The year was 1979.

It was an intense change but it was the emphasis on sports that made the adjustment a success. In the Fall term he played football, but his season didn’t last very long because he hurt his knee. It wasn’t serious but it was the first time he was told he had what they called ‘loose joints.’ His build was not well suited for a contact sport like football. But the injury was halfway through the season and by the time it mended it was time for the snow and for hockey. And on the ice, covered with pads and steel, he was at ease. Duflinkë scored goals playing centre throughout the whole season, the lower school team coming in top of their division. It was during the second term that things had changed a lot for him and he for the first time started having nightmares about the abuse he had suffered from his father. He had blocked out the spanking on the bare ass with the wooden spoon and had completely forgotten the time when he was in grade one when he father had become so livid after hearing him use a swear word that he grabbed Ernest by the arm and rubbed soap in his mouth until his gums bled. The soap slid around and bruised his lips and had made mincemeat out of his gums, but it was the humiliation of it that hurt the most. He had cried and had yelled for forgiveness, but his white-faced father had let loose on him, trying to hurt him for using a swear word.

When he remembered it, he woke up that night in a start. The window beside his bed in the dorm was covered with ice, and the wind outside made a hissing sound in the single-pane led-laced old windows that were 120 years old. Duflinkë spent an hour hovering under his thin sheets trying to stay warm as his fellow classmates slumbered through the night. Later that day he was in a fistfight with someone from his dorm. Something in the dream upset him and had awakened something inside him, like a fermenting injustice that now had sun and water to grow into its own force.

“Little Miss Perfect here thinks he’s better than everyone else, don’t you Ernest?” Brent Sutcliffe had always rubbed him the wrong way. And what Sutcliffe was now saying, Duflinkë thought others thought too. He had excelled at everything he had done at school, in the classroom and on the sports field, which made him a target by the other boys. Sutcliffe had struggled, watching from the sidelines maimed by envy. And this was him lashing out.

“No, I don’t,” he replied, uncertain what to say. He had always avoided conflict no matter what. It had been one of the things he and Wren had always done to avoid fighting each other. When all else failed, no matter what, they never resorted to fighting. But fights happened a lot at boarding school. Twelve-year old boys being mean to each other is a kind of ancient hazing practice as old as time itself.

“You goody-goody brown noser,” Sutcliffe taunted. “You ain’t cool at all, are you? Here, suck on this.” Sutcliffe reached over and hit him on the face, making a smacking sound. Everyone in the dorm immediately surrounded them, no one taking anyone’s side. Duflinkë wrestled him to the floor and pinned him on his back with his knees and then hit him in the face, landing a shot on his cheek. A red welt showed immediately on his face but that didn’t stop him from landing another blow, leading to cheers from his classmates. But he stopped when he realized that Sutcliffe wasn’t fighting back.

“You give?” he said to Sutcliffe, uttering the decisive words that would determine the winner.

“Get off me!”

“No! Not unless you give up.” He wrestled him some more but was able to keep him pinned on the dormitory floor.

“Yeah, I give,” he said, falling onto his side after Duflinkë had rolled off him.

It proved to be a decisive point of the school year with the majority of his classmates now looking at Duflinkë as the undisputed leader of B Dorm. There were 12 young men in B Dorm, so it was a valuable thing to have earned the respect of your roommates. Achievements were respected at the school so the boys were not dismayed to respect one of their own who was excelling at sports and academics but who – at the same time – maintained a modest persona. But for Duflinkë, being called a goody-goody, had a long-term effect on his upbringing. No more did he want to be seen as the achiever. Henceforth, after his fight with Sutcliffe, he took a backseat to being number one and preferred to be in the middle of the pack, instead focused on learning for the sake of learning rather than trying to be number one.

It was a lesson learned that would have tremendous consequences with Duflinkë and his particular set of talents.

Right around this time the school had its annual badminton tournament that was open to all students from grades seven to thirteen. Duflinkë signed up, thrilled at the opportunity to play badminton at boarding school. If he was going to be a middleman, from now on at least he could dominate on the badminton court. He could have the one thing to do well at. It would keep the wolves at bay.

Perhaps from ability or perhaps from a nonchalance that had developed over the years, he hadn’t expected the tournament to be so serious. He hadn’t expected players from the faculty or from outside of the school to be eligible to play in the tournament. He was only in grade eight and wasn’t even full grown but he found his skills on the badminton court were still sharp, as he overwhelmed each opponent on his way to winning the tournament. He didn’t think much of it, but his headmaster did. Charles Tottenham the headmaster of the lower school had always liked Ernest Duflinkë but when Duflinkë had won the badminton tournament in the spring, he took him under his wing and began to talk to him more, always sure to call him Duflinkë, never Ernest.

“Duflinkë will you be playing the squash tournament coming next weekend? If you can win the badminton tournament you could take the squash title too.”

“I was thinking of it, sir.”

“Well why don’t you then. It would be great for Bouldon House.” And he did enter the tournament and he won the squash tournament, though he had to admit there were so few players who had signed up.

“There you go young Duflinkë,” the headmaster said to him after his victory. “You don’t have to be big to win on the court.”

“No sir.”

The headmaster put his hand on his shoulder in pride.

Well done young man.”

“Thank you, sir.”

For weeks and months after this Duflinkë would relive the feeling he had from these four simple words. And the more and more he did, the more it dawned on him he hadn’t ever heard them said to him. His father had never uttered these words to him ever, yet it was what every thirteen year old boy needed to hear from their father.

Chapter Three

Resuming Tom Foolery

After the Sutcliffe fight, everything changed for Duflinkë. Gone was the extreme achiever inside of him – that thing that had got him into the fight to begin with – and replaced by a laissez-faire let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may attitude that he applied to everything.

Everything except badminton.

He no longer spent his free time studying so that his classmates would ridicule him for being a brown nose, instead he would spend his free time playing badminton with players from the upper school, some of whom were good players and of course bigger. Duflinkë returned to the security of doing drills on the court hour after hour during his free time so that his coordination was polished and his game improved. He had made the cricket team in the spring for third term but his effort in the team was just enough to make him a good team player but not stand out, like the others who could bowl and hit. He learned to enjoy the sport for what it was, and for the opportunity to visit fellow boarding schools such as Appleby, Lakefield and Ridley. He joined the kayaking club and enjoyed the kayaking they did on Sundays after sports day on Saturday, but he wasn’t one of those guys who took it too seriously like he had before. He returned to being a twin – a master of sporting mischief – and renewed his passion for getting into trouble, finding others to do his mischief with him and be his partner in crime. And it was here that he developed a lot of respect from his classmates.

It was from his prowess in mischief he garnered the respect of his classmates, not from doing well in class or in sports.

Badminton was a secondary sport that never attracted attention like soccer or hockey or cricket, so he could fly under the radar, yet he knew the awesome challenge of the game and the inherent intelligence required to become an excellent player. He knew it was more like a chess game the more one became fluent with its demands and skills, which could only be accomplished through hard work and perseverance.

By having one hand on the badminton court and the other taking part in non-stop silliness at an array of different sports and past times, he was able to strike a new balance that suited him. For the last few months at boarding school he flourished at the school, earning himself a scholarship to return the following year. But just before he was awarded the scholarship by the headmaster, who called his mother on the telephone after the final sports day of the term, he had returned for Easter to Toronto and spent a night partying with a friend of his from the other dormitory above them in B dorm. Bobby Allan was a great wingman who had taken a keen interest in Duflinkë’s shenanigans who had invited him over when his parents had left the house for the night. They drank beer – not a lot of beer but enough – for them both to get drunk. It was his first time drinking and he had enjoyed it. Sure, he had made his buddy Bobby Allan laugh by cracking jokes and being funny, but it was the insights he had when he was drunk that caught his interest.

Especially after they had rolled a joint and smoked it.

For the first time he was able to think differently, and he began to see his world from a new perspective. Things that had been interesting to him before ceased to be of interest to him any longer while stoned, but other things that had not been interesting to him while sober suddenly took on a new gleam. And one of those things was badminton.

While lying in bed back home, his mind was spinning from the alcohol and THC. He saw for the first time the infinite possibilities in a game like badminton: a square box whereby the player could hit one of roughly six shots to his opponent that would garner a reply. From these possible return shots, he could muster another number of replies, further complicating the game into a matrix of what ifs.

The flash of insight thrilled him, but it was soon forgotten because getting drunk and stoned when one was in grade eight was not a regular thing. Besides, he had plans to enter the local high school after his formative year at Trinity College, which followed with his newfound strategy of doing things in the idle middle ground for the enjoyment of doing them, as well as the extra space he had to truly learn.

No longer was he going to burden himself with winning everything he entered.

And he was going to go to high school with girls.

Once he returned from boarding school to his new home without his father, it was a new world for him and his twin brother Wren and his sister. There was non-stop laughter in the house for the first time in their family lives. They laughed and joked around after having spent their entire lives walking on eggshells. It was an excellent change, and Duflinkë’s personality really developed during the first year of high school. It was a loving and supportive environment now that lent itself well for him to get back on the badminton courts. He was happy to return to his old coach at the Granite Club, where he had played badminton before going to boarding school in Port Hope.

His coach, Raphi, had been a world champion when he played for Thailand in the fifties. Raphi had moved to Toronto where he landed a high-paying job as a badminton pro at the Granite Club that prided itself on beating the other private clubs throughout Toronto. For the first time he received good instruction on strategy, and was given a training schedule that would help his speed on the court and at the same time polish his strokes into killer weapons. He was taught how the world’s best train, from drills for the drop shot, slice drops, half-smashes, and the smash, to all the various kinds of net play, leaving the drills for reflexes ‘til the last, and always ending with a match against your drill partner.

The routine never changed. And for Duflinkë it gave him comfort – having something constant in his unsettled life. If he could strengthen the fundamentals, he could then spend his time on mastering the mental game of the sport – the real diamond of the game. Raphi taught him that one cannot win without the mental game. And Raphi showed him how that worked by playing singles against some the club’s top players. He was in his sixties and riddled with arthritis and bad eyes, but he would beat the country’s best with his mind – the shots he played and the combinations that would set up a short birdie four or five shots down the rally.

Raphi was a master. And he had taken Duflinkë under his wing.

What started as a plan to go to high school with girls and go to parties and play on the sports teams and become a well-rounded young chap, instead became an exercise in extremism. Duflinkë took his badminton very seriously and chose not to take part in the social activities that many of his classmates did. He never wanted to waste any time because he had fellow players to beat in his under-16 category. His skills were good but still not at the right level to truly be competitive, especially with players like Jamie McKee: current senior Canadian singles’ player and the fastest man he had ever seen on the court. He still had a long way to go but he knew in his heart he could beat him in a few years if he stuck with it.

He started to go to tournaments with the other players from his club, entering into a whole different world. He liked being a guest at other badminton clubs, abiding by their rules, and respecting the protocols of the club. Seeding was different every tournament but rarely did the top seed lose their place, so every tournament the same players won. That was how it was in the juniors, most were still learning the game and only a few had cracked the enigma of badminton and understood enough to defeat their opponent. But Duflinkë kept drilling and making the time after school to get his two or three hours of training in, and still have the time and inclination to get his homework done. He competed in the circuit, taking part in a dozen tournaments every season and getting to know what it took to win.

Being the early eighties, the Saturday night dances put on by the host club became an early introduction into drinking before the dance started, trying to get in the dancing mood and trying your best not to be a wallflower. He learned from the best – players who could drink a mickey and then take over the dance floor and then go out the next day and win the doubles title. Gold necklaces and a well-stocked snack bar and the feint sound of nearby bowling lanes and unruly kids, were the norm. Being a racquet’s player in the wake of disco when the Dating Game was still a big TV show, it was a unique era. There was no Internet or mobile phones, so there were more parties.

Way more parties.

Partying was almost a way of life for some who chose to go to the parties and were good at it.

Duflinkë’s ranking went up throughout the season so that once the year-end tournaments were played, he could see himself as top seed when the top player moved ahead to Under-19. And it was at the final tournament of the season when he was told about a summer camp in Calgary for top junior players. It was also where the national team trained, coached by his old coach from his early days at the Boulevard Club.

The camp took place during the summer of 1982.

Chapter Four

The Summer of ‘82

It was the music that summer that left an impression on a young, impressionable Duflinkë. The radio played a vibe of music that embodied infinite hope and optimism: the beginning of the Reagan years, prosperity and high disposable income. The weather was hot and dry with winds sweeping down from the Rockies from the west. The Calgary Winter Club sat at the top of the hill on the outskirts of Calgary where one could see the young cityscape emerging from the sandy horizon where the foothills begin and merge into the vast prairie flatlands to the east. Duflinkë billeted with Ron Anderson’s family close to the club. He slept on a cot in the basement. At night the pinch of mountain air seeped into his room, and he could feel it in the hair on his legs when he removed his sweatpants and started training.

Ron was the top seed in Alberta under-19 singles, and was favoured to win the Canadian Championships in the coming year. Everything about him was determination and muscle, his legs the size of tree trunks. His skin was taught around his frame and everything he did was to better himself to win. Meals were healthy and balanced, and he went to bed early, waking up only to prepare for more training. He was like a machine when he trained, but when Duflinkë watched him play at the end of the day after drills, he noticed a lack of imagination in his play, a certain rote and mechanical aspect to his movement and shot selection. Creativity on the court could never be taught. He knew Ron would never blossom into a world-calls player. There were guys who had done a tenth of the amount of training on the court and yet could beat Ron nine times out of ten through sheer shot intelligence and guile.

Duflinkë played and drilled with the juniors that had come from all over Canada, and then spent his relaxing time after the workout watching the senior national team train, each with their own unique set of drills, some working on their short game while others worked on their power game, doing lots of jumping around and smashing. His days were filled with high quality badminton, which was just what he needed. He watched and soaked in the brilliance he witnessed on the badminton court. He saw the best of them who had recently competed in the All-England Championships in London. The Canadians, like the Danish and the English, fared strong in the results, but the results were dominated by the Chinese and Indonesians. Only the Great Dane Fleming Delphs prevailed against the Chinese number one and took the All-England men’s singles title that year.

Fleming Delphs was a phenomenon. Duflinkë could never get enough of watching him hit his backhand smash – from the back of the court!

Awesome.

And as Duflinkë immersed himself deeper into what it was that made a champion badminton player, he realized that most of the juniors training were never going to compete in the international circuit because of a lack of instinct as to where to hit a shot. And when to hit the rally-ending shot during the rally. Most didn’t have the guile, head fakes, slices and jump smashes to conquer their opponent. This was the great thing about badminton: there were an infinite number of shots one could make at every instance during a rally, and it was how shots were engineered that could produce an ineffective return from your opponent.

Duflinkë learned more from watching the seniors play singles than he could have doing hundreds of reps of drills. Indeed, his physical strength and footwork were perfected those three weeks in August, by rote and sheer volume of repetition over time. And once he could rely on his footwork and shot mechanics, he could then choose from a wider array of shots at every given instance during the rally. And with a wider choice and better-timed strikes, his selection of where to take the bird became more and more creative. By the end of the second week, he could beat almost everyone at the camp except a few of the under-19s who had the physical strength and experience to beat him. But his wins fostered a newfound confidence that he took with him by asking for matches with the senior national players. When a senior player showed up early for their practice at night, Duflinkë would help them with their drills until just before the practice was to begin, when he would ask for a quick game.

Almost always the senior player would say yes for fear of thinking he was afraid to play some 15-year-old from Ontario.

And so he played against them, being toyed with at the beginning but more and more having his way with them. With a head-fake cross-court drop shot from the back of the court, or a quick flat clear deep to the backhand side, he was proving that creative shot selection yielded him more and more points. And then near the end of the three-week camp he played one of the top doubles players for the Canadian team and pushed him into extra points in the third game. The whole team stopped to watch before starting their session. And with all the eyes on him, Duflinkë felt a new thrill that enlivened his muscles and stirred his badminton wit as he began to toy with the double’s player having picked off his weaknesses so he could prey on him.

The team watched him dismantle their double’s number one like a butcher with sharp blade. Duflinkë was finding his groove.

Duflinkë didn’t want the match to end. He wanted to toy more with his opponent’s arrogant swagger in front of his teammates to show them he had something original that could beat them all. There was no Mr. Nice Guy in any of his shots. Only the cruel cold, ruthlessness of a badminton killer who preferred maximum pain in retribution for all the hours he had spent playing the sport.

Someone had to pay.

And it didn’t matter who it was.

Duflinkë left Calgary inspired and ready for the upcoming season. When he returned to the courts at the Granite Club, his coach Raphi could immediately see the improvement the camp had brought to his game. His legs had become thick and quick on the court, able to negotiate the trickier aspects of footwork that the game demanded.

Upstairs at on the couches of the badminton lounge, Raphi and Duflinkë sat together watching some of the players finish their matches for the day.

“They trained you good in Calgary.”

“They did. Lots of drills.”

“Did you see the national team play there?”

“That was one of the coolest parts of it – watching the best players do their routines. A lot of the same drills we do here but they play more reflex drills and smashing drills. A lot of their game was about overpowering their opponent.”

“Yes. Yes. Players now emphasize power. Not many have the soft touch around the net.” Raphi waved his hand back and forth. “So many smashes.”

Raphi’s game was all about the soft touch around the net and then the quick flick smash when the bird popped-up high over the net cord. He was a master net deception and finesse, taking the game to new heights during his three years as the world’s best doubles player during his prime in the sixties. He still had all the skills, but he didn’t always use his best tools in his toolbox. He would take delight in faking out his opponents through deception and guile and quick wrists, but most of all, daring.

He had the ironic guile to fool his foes with inventive short play.

That’s why he was so good at doubles.

“I played some of them near the end of the camp and found a good drop shot was better than my hardest smash.”

Yes.” Raphi’s slick-back thinning hair fell into his eyes for a moment before he quickly brushed it away.

“But what I learned the most was the importance of striking the birdie sooner, just a fraction sooner than normal, goes a long way to catch them off guard or flat-footed. Especially around the net. There was this one guy, John Goss, who was the first to practice and the last to leave every day, so I watched him do his drills over and over. And the shot he practiced most was his clear. High and deep every time. Such power.”

Yes!” he said, excited at what he heard. “That’s where the real power is. Keep him deep at the back of the court and it’s hard to lose. But the clear has to be deep.”

“Puts the opponent on the back foot, which is a good thing.”

“Yes, a good thing.” They laughed. “But now you have to do that this season. You will be the top seed. Be smart and you will win. Be hurried and sloppy, and you will lose. Keep a calm head first, then use you wit. Learn from every match. Get better after every tournament and you might win the nationals this year in Winnipeg.” Duflinkë took a deep breath. His season had finally arrived. This could be the year he could win his first singles tournaments. So much to gain but so much to lose. He was already feeling the pressure.

Chapter Five

Pressures of Winning

Grade ten had started at the high school and Duflinkë and Wren had their hands full with friends, doing sports after school and going to parties on the weekends, and most importantly: trying to meet girls. It seemed like every weekend someone’s parents left their kids alone for the weekend, which was an excuse to throw a big party, the house inevitably getting trashed and soaked with spilled beer. Duflinkë could never understand why any sane kid would open their big house to hundreds of strangers for a weekend blowout when every time there was left broken glass or a broken window and the lingering smell of cigarettes and a beer-soaked carpet. Yet without fail every weekend during the fall there was another house to go to and drink. The few times Duflinkë had expressed any notion of not going because of badminton, Wren and his friends wouldn’t hear of it and insisted he dropped by the party with them.

And every weekend there was something that happened that wasn’t planned.

With his twin brother, Duflinkë was finally able to unleash an entire childhood’s worth of repression, now that he was able to drink beer without any chaperones or parents breathing down his neck. And the zeitgeist nurtured partying. This was before any form of home entertainment, including the VCR. Any films you wanted to see you had to go out to the movie theatre to see it with others in the crowd. Mobile phones were still a decade or so away. Partying was what they did in 1982. But Duflinkë didn’t have any experience drinking. From his limited use, he seemed to enjoy it. But he had learn about consumption rates. One night he was out with a few friends at this restaurant and had smuggled in a 26-ounce bottle of vodka. He drank along with his buddies, but as they drank every beer, he drank a glass of vodka just as full as their beer. Within a very short time he blacked out but still was able to party with his friends, ending up at their high school dance where instead of dancing on the dance floor with pretty girls, he spent his night talking to the janitor in the basement, long enough for his friends to leave him there.

He had no idea how he got home.

It was the next day when one of his friends called him and told him about the long talk with the janitor.

“You shouldn’t drink so much Duflinkë. Not good for you. Besides, something could happen to you.  You didn’t have any control. You were like a ragdoll. We had to leave you.”

“You left me there in that state.” He wasn’t sure how he felt about it all.

“We thought Wrennie would stick by you but I think he followed Paul back to his so they could smoke a joint or two.”

“Woulda thought he woulda taken care of me, eh?”

The reality of it stung him but why did he put himself in that position of danger – or needing someone to take care of him? He decided he would take some time off alcohol and focus on winning tournaments because this season was his last year in Under-16. It was his chance to win some trophies.

And that’s what he did. He won the big start-of-the-season Oakville Open at the Oakville Club, winning easily over Gordon O’Reilly in the finals. And when he won and was handed the trophy, it was the emptiest feeling he had ever experienced. Instead of a warm fuzzy feeling, he felt the chilled court air and the echoed silence behind the muffled applause from the glass-in lounge above the court. When he accepted the trophy, it almost felt as he were stealing it because it had been such an easy win. And he even felt some guilt. He couldn’t understand why winning was such a hollow experience.

And other wins followed. He won the Granite Club and the Boulevard Club singles titles and became part of the history at each club, finally triumphing at the end-of-season provincial championships. Now the only thing left to do was to win the Under-16 Canadian title. And the tournament happened to be hosted by the Winnipeg Winter Club, where for Duflinkë it had all begun when he was a child.

Throughout the dead of winter, Duflinkë had endured the freezing cold waiting for the bus to get to the club to train almost every day after school, but particularly every Tuesday and Thursday. His sister usually joined him in his training after school, the Granite Club team consisting of players from all categories, from Under-12 to Under-19. They all helped each train, and the matches were mixed up to make sure each player was exposed to a different style of player.

And Raphi oversaw everything. He would give lessons during the day to old ladies and run the adult badminton ladder every Wednesday night when the juniors wouldn’t have access to the courts for hours. He was always there, taking notice of the improvements of each of his players no matter what level they played at. And the feedback he gave to Duflinkë became a crucial ingredient for him to continually evolve his game. There had come a point when it had become more difficult for him to self-diagnose his game and ways to improve his weaknesses, so he relied on Raphi for his insights. And it showed. He excelled near the end of the season and despite being seeded second behind the local Alberta number one David Hulme, he was favoured by many of his fellow players who had been beaten by his wily racquet.

Raphi trained him to match Hulme’s speed on the court, and his quick smash so they did drills, just the two of them – for hours designed to quicken his reflexes to return the smash, and to get to the bird by jumping when backing into one of the two back corners. That was when he mastered the scissor kick.

He had seen it done by the top players in the country and from the footage of the finals at the All-England Championships that they had played at the Calgary camp. Once he started using the scissor kick, his quickness intensified because he was able to meet the birdie higher in its downward trajectory thus getting better angles on his slice drop shots, which he soon perfected from so high up in the air. This shot became his primary weapon, his opponents unable to get their strings on the bird before it hit the floor.

When they flew to Winnipeg and began the final tournament of the year, his matches were done with precision. He conserved his energy for the tougher latter stages of the draw, overcoming a tough opponent in the Quarter-final. In the semi-finals he played O’Reilly once again and because he knew his game Duflinkë played to his weaknesses. He had made it to the final. And when he did, he gave his coach Raphi a big hug, as if it making the finals was triumph enough for him. It was a happy and proud moment for both of them but one that was perhaps portent to what unfolded the next day in the singles final. Clearly to the onlookers, they were fairly evenly matched but for Duflinkë his body language was all wrong. When it went into extra points in the second game he carried on his rallies as if he didn’t care to push it to a third game, almost nonchalantly letting Hulme get a few quick points on easy errors at the net. It ended quickly at 17-15 in the second, Duflinkë surprised at how a few silly errors could change the match so quickly.

Careless was the word he kept repeating in his mind. Throughout the summer of the off season, the word hovered over him like an annoying squeak.

Chapter Six

New Vistas

Duflinkë had put in the time and training required to beat the national number one, but he had lost the final due to his whimsy. It was if he didn’t care enough. He thought he cared but his flippant play showed he didn’t. It was a bitter pill to swallow but one that still made him proud to have had the experience to let all the watching eyes witness his on-court brilliance and ingenuity. It was a brief moment in his life, and it gave him food for thought during the off-season and his first year of Under-19 life. Strangely, after having to carry the expectations of winning every tournament over the course of an entire season in 1982 and 1983, he felt the stress of it all fall off his back in 1984. He was wary about burning out, so he became involved in more activities at school and spent more time with his friends and going to parties. He still kept his badminton training up, but just not at the same intensity.

Over the next few years high school moved quickly. With his brother and sister also enmeshed in high school life, including its sports and dances, there was a stir in their house, especially in the years after their father had left. More and more friends visited them, and thus more they encountered opportunities to visit their friends at their cottages or ski chalets that inevitably led to unsupervised partying. Duflinkë was also being exposed to different treats. One of them was marijuana. Duflinkë had smoked it before but for some reason it affected him differently than his other friends. It elevated his mind to new peaks of creativity and showed him a new way to view the world – a perspective and feeling that was unquestionably better than boring old sobriety ever was.

This dangerous realization gave rise to more and more use with his friends, which soon morphed into Duflinkë smoking his own joints on his own in his own way, which usually led him to ride his mountain bike or write in his journal. Or if it was cold, going out on a long walk. He soon found private little corners of his neighbourhood that gave him shelter from prying eyes where he could comfortably engage in smoking his joint. So it was only a question of time before his smoking came face-to-face with badminton. He never had had difficulty separating his badminton life from his party life so when they did first meet, he didn’t like how it went.

It happened when he was playing for the varsity badminton team at university during his first year. He lived with roommates who liked to smoke a joint at night or after their classes, so he was first caught up with the house doobies just before he was due to go to badminton practice in the gym. At first playing badminton high was a new experience for him but what he didn’t like was his glassy eyes being mixed into a sport that demanded such respect. He felt he was disrespecting the game by showing up high, so he redoubled his efforts to hold off his partying until after practice.

This worked but it only highlighted how little interest he had in varsity badminton.

He missed the world-class badminton courts of the Granite Club. He resented playing in a gym with so many lines on the floor with impatient basketball players waiting for the badminton players to hurry up and finish their practice. There was something missing in the game at university. So he coasted on all the training he had done before and won every tournament he competed in until an old nemesis chose to compete for the University of Toronto team thereby rendering his career as a exceptional badminton player into doubt. He just couldn’t beat this guy no matter how hard he tried. The guy’s game was chalk full of sly flat shots that required him to abandon his finesse game to engage in a brutal power game.

He told himself that the guy was a hack, but the truth was that he was burnt out with badminton and was more interested in going out with his friends to a football game or a fraternity party where they could do pretty much anything they wanted. There were not CCTV cameras or repressive laws yet passed on campus in those years from 1986 to 1990 – a golden age for students during the Reagan era. The music was good and the drunk driving laws were still loose. There were a lot of house parties and cottage parties with boats and weed with unlimited amounts of cold beer.

It was the eighties and there was something magical in the air he couldn’t ignore.

Badminton for Duflinkë had an off-note requiring too much of his time and strength.

And the eighties zeitgeist suited the university campus life perfectly. Everyone was caught up with the magic of being free at one of the best academic institutions in the country, free to engineer their days according to their own demands and goals. For Duflinkë he wanted to experience it all, to record his adventures as evidence that he had lived hard and right and had squeezed as much toothpaste out of the tube of life as he could. It soon became an obsession: a goal for his energies that diverted his zealous focus on sport. In no time he had tapped into his polished boyhood skills of Tom Foolery, and when mixed with a healthy amount of beer, led him to reaching new heights of craziness.

Caught up in the mania of orientation week, he and a friend had their heads shaved into a Mohawk and had let themselves be painted purple as per the school’s deep Scottish traditions. They let their expensive school leather jackets be kicked around in the mud and dragged across the road to work them in so soon they were weathered and beaten up and covered in purple like the older students who led the partying down the main street. Students were drinking Purple Jesus through wineskins that hung around their necks, not bothering to hide them because there never were any guards or police around. It was truly a spirit of recklessness that encouraged all to let off steam and party hard.

So that’s precisely what Duflinkë and his new university friends did.

But by choosing a life of full living, and leaving the disciplined sports life behind, he opened himself up to all sorts of harsh criticism from his classmates. His clothes were all old sweatshirts and racquets shoes with their trendy on-court stripes and designs that contrasted against the emerging hippie look of the late eighties from Dead Heads and the grunge Seattle rock scene. Social norms that should have been learned during his high school years, but that had been missed due to his commitments on the court, had to be learned in a rough manner during his years living on campus. He was thrown in a snake pit without warning where he had to learn to swim, or he would drown. And he did this with the help of his new friends, copying them and their styles to eventually come up with his own look.

And to overcome his innate shyness, he relied heavily on having a few beers whenever he could.

There was always time for having a few beers.

In the midst of all this he decided that during his third year he would play varsity badminton and write for the school newspaper, focusing on the results of the school badminton team. This was when he had his first taste of writing.

He had changed his major during his first year of university from economics to philosophy because studying economics was so bland. And there was something very satisfying when he read philosophy, as if for the first time in his life he was reading something that addressed the things he thought of rather than the endless books of fiction he had been required to read for English class during high school. For Duflinkë, it had been a breath of fresh air so changing his major to fit his interests matched his new emerging philosophy to get the most out of his time at university. He didn’t want to spend four years and end up knowing about economic principles that were fairly self-explanatory anyway. He preferred to end up studying the greatest minds that ever lived.

It was definitely a more attractive proposition to him.

So Duflinkë became the guy who sat in the back of his philosophy classes eagerly taking notes wearing his hacked-up school leather jacket who was usually nursing a hangover. His hair was always disheveled, and he was almost always behind in his readings. But what he did excel in was reading other philosophers that were part of the subject but who had not been assigned reading. He only read primary sources. Why would he read what other’s thought about those authors who wrote something of worth – worthy enough to study?

Even his readings were self-directed.

And so it went, night after night, Duflinkë spending long hours buried in the basement of the campus library reading philosophers that tickled his interest. At the beginning it was mainly about moral philosophy. And the more he became familiar with the big names within philosophy, the more he found books about their lives – learning about how these thinkers had lived their lives rather than just preaching a way to live.

He soon learned the importance of living an original life – one that was unique unto the individual. It was the individual who had the last say in how they lived their lives. He had always thought that but had never read others outlining the rationality for it. It was liberating in the extreme and Duflinkë carried around his new insights in his growing philosophical arsenal everywhere he went.

This new way of living his life led to him to discover one of the loves of his life: writing. The sheer number of hours he spent reading directly caused him to seek an outlet for all his thoughts, so he kept a journal. Religiously. Day after day and night after night, he filled his journals with writings of his newfound thoughts, sometimes copying long passages from Hume or Nietzsche or Plato in an act of reverence for their insights. Each passage he copied down was part of his new foundation from where he would launch himself into the world, leaving the cloistered hard-disciplined world of badminton and high marks behind. For Duflinkë, the world took on a new hue as if now it was a playground for his whims where he could exercise his freedom and do the things he wanted to do, whether they adhered to his middle-class morality or not.

He learned that his was a higher destiny than the others who bypassed reading these great minds.

He spent more and more time with new people, those who also thought for themselves and who had dreams that fell outside of landing in downtown Toronto and selling stocks and bonds. But he knew his path was harder – much harder – than those around him so he realized quickly that he was carving out a life that would lead him away from the comfort of his friends and the security of a lofty bank account. But in that danger was the thrill of the chase and the challenge to create a life that no one else had lived – or would ever live. And that was enough of a reward for him because he only had one life to live.

And no one was going to body check him off his true path.

But the dangers of following his own path soon became evident when he started to go to parties despite having an exam or term paper due the next day. A common saying he followed during those days was never to let school get in the way of his education. And he didn’t. If there was something to be learned by going to see a live band at a bar the night before an exam, he would simply wake up early to study for it.

And this was his strategy for his later years of university – indeed where his university studies had led him.

Along with this new passion for his take-as-much-out-of-life-as-you-can philosophy, was his drastic increase in smoking weed. His roommates contributed to his habit but soon he found himself buying his own stash that he chose not to share with his friends, preferring to smoke it alone because he could go further – much further – with his thoughts and new ideas than if encumbered by the limiting social norms of others. Soon he had developed the habit of hopping in his mountain bike and riding out to the trails behind old Fort Henry across the river where he would find a secluded spot along the trail and roll himself a doobie. He would smoke it and end up writing in his journal for hours, sometimes until the sun set so he would be forced to return to campus in the dark. But still his appetite for the THC led him to seclude himself further in his books where he would set himself apart by hiding somewhere in the four floors of the massive university library basement. Hours would fly by, and he would be lost in thought and possibility: the drug being the catalyst for him to create a new vision full of ideas and dreams where he could manifest them one day after graduating.

He would write until his hand cramped. And he would fill journals one after the other until they began to stack up on his desk. Never afraid for others to read them, he would leave them out unprotected from his roommates but whenever one would choose to read them, they would soon close them uninterested in the hefty and lofty thoughts of a wannabe philosopher, bumbling with his wording but earnest in his energies.

It wasn’t long until he had really started to come across as eccentric to his old friends. The way he dressed was the first sign of his new thinking, his stained jeans having replaced his khaki pleated pants of his youth. And then he bought his first pair of Birkenstock sandals. He quickly refused not to wear his Birkenstocks regardless of the weather was, which put him firmly in the ‘artsy’ crowd. Plays and student films and bands were the normal fare replacing sports and cafeteria chatting that he had never really enjoyed anyway.

Only badminton remained from his old life.

The coach of the varsity team had asked him to play but with his newfound obsession with his readings, he seldom showed up and often would choose to skip tournaments despite being able to win them. He had had enough of the rigors of the sporting life and craved the new world of the arts.

There was however a part of him that had developed a new appreciation for the complexities of badminton and what he could do to evolve the sport within his own realm of control. His mind had undoubtedly grown, and he wanted to apply it to the game of badminton just as a chess player could apply their own evolved imagination and logic to their game. So he decided to pursue his job as a sports writer covering the badminton beat for the university newspaper with a vengeance. This meant he would compete at the tournaments at the other universities. Other than attending his class, which he never missed, he always left room for badminton practice. With winter having descended upon the campus, he no longer had the outlet to mountain bike the forest trails behind the fort, so he chose to fill his need of physical excellence on the badminton court albeit with a new matrix of thought. None of his fellow players could give him a good game so he chose to work on more complex drills, and in that endeavour, he was fortunate to have a player who would run them with him.

Stan. He was a good player but lacked the vital ingredient of imagination. This was why he was never able to win a tournament. He didn’t have the mental game required to win. But this was precisely the trait he saw in Duflinkë and why he chose to help him as much as he could in his training. Duflinkë was confident he could win the university title but what interested him more was returning to the Granite Club and playing the senior players, some of whom were nationally ranked. His focus was on Jamie McKee, the club’s top player and the top singles player in Canada.

The club tournament was in March so he gave himself a schedule to follow so he would have the speed needed to usurp McKee from his throne. It was all so simple but for Duflinkë, things didn’t follow his plan. Not even close. He was no longer a junior so he had to play all ages of player, but this didn’t bother him because he couldn’t see many of them with the imagination to beat him. What he needed to do was polish his quickness to outstroke his opponents. But with everything going on around him, it was all becoming a little overcrowded.

“Jesus Duflinkë, where do you find the time? Seriously.” His housemate Ray never beat around the bush. He sat on the couch watching TV eating his chicken dinner.

“What do you mean?”

“You never eat here with us you know.”

“Well, I usually have practice.”

“That’s what I mean. You have too much going on. You’re missing out on dinner here and then Rachel’s birthday last Sunday. People are noticing.”

“Well, let them notice.”

“What I mean is, you’re going to burn out. It’s not humanly possible to do all the things you’re doing. I’m surprised you’re not dead somewhere from a biking accident. I mean we are all watching you ride your bike during storms when any sane person would be bundled up watching TV.”

Duflinkë sighed.

“I’ve never been one to watch TV. Too many commercials for me.”

“Commercials are part of it.”

“They don’t have to be. For me they’re an insulting waste of time – telling me I need something when I don’t.” Ray looked surprised at what he was hearing. “They make me angry, so I don’t watch TV. I can get more out of my time reading philosophy than watching 18 minutes’ worth of sitcoms in a half an hour slot. Pretty simple to me. A no-brainer as it were.”

After leaving his house for the library basement, Duflinkë didn’t watch anymore TV for the rest of the term. To him it was a time stealer. In fact, it was the last time he ever watched TV for the rest of his life.

Chapter Seven

Overburdened

His new system was working at a high-octane pace and things were working themselves out nicely until he met Meredith. He had no idea how one person could affect his perfected routine so profoundly until Meredith smiled at him after one of his philosophy classes and he walked her home. He could tell she was interested immediately because she walked at a noticeably slower pace like he did. Meredith was tall with long brown hair and had unusually straight posture but she was very slim. Her eye shadow gave her a pale look as her skin was fair and her eyes serious. But right off the bat he knew how to make her laugh. He was nervous as hell but he felt brave in her presence, as if he and only he knew the secret to her sense of humor.

After walking her home after class, she was the only thing he could think of. She was to him the only other person in the world who was on his plane of thought; the only one who read the same writers as him and the only one who had the vocabulary he used. Soon he walked her home after their philosophy class twice a week.

“Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is so full of errors it’s crazy that that work is still studied,” she said, using her long-fingered hand to make her point by waving it in the air. The snow melted all around them under the spring sun.

“Well, it’s the time in history that made it something to study,” he replied, pointing out the obvious, not to diminish her point but to encourage her to talk.

“True, but in today’s studies of the philosophy of mind the things he takes for granted are rationally disputed. How can he think God has anything to do with the mind and the spirit?”

It hadn’t taken Duflinkë long to learn that Meredith was non-religious, or perhaps violently anti-religious. Atheist. He had grown up with God on the background but hadn’t given God much thought. He didn’t really have a passionate opinion about it one way or the other, something that Meredith would take issue with in due course.

“But his Hegelian Dialectic is the backbone of the piece. It works, and that’s why his book is worthy of study.”

She reluctantly conceded to his point about the dialectic and noticed how he promptly backed away from any mention of God.

The two of them began to hang out at the library and then soon at his house where they would spend hours in his room talking about philosophers. For her she was getting to see if Duflinkë had the grey matter to keep up with her and become a partner she could rely on, both physically and intellectually. But what Duflinkë discovered was that she didn’t have any interests outside of philosophy and that she was much more academic than he was, preferring to learn a philosopher’s thoughts in terms of strengths and weaknesses so she could praise and attack in her essays. This was why she scored so high in her papers, unlike him who consistently scored in the middle because he could only praise the strengths of the theories he studied. For Duflinkë, it was the beauty of the idea that mattered most, not to be critical of it. To be critical of something so beautiful was something akin to bad manners. To create a force that aimed to destroy the beauty in the work was to leave the reader with nothing at the end.

By getting to know Meredith this difference between them soon grew exponentially so that he became aware that his pattern of thinking was more like a poet and artist than to a hard-core academic. Meredith for him was a living example of a trained mind destined to spend her life in classrooms at a respectable university, able to explain any idea but at the same time able to take down the idea with a few pointed words. She took delight in destroying what the writer thought as something magical.

She relished in the wake of destruction and carnage that was left after her critique, just as a poet might relish the images and emotions evoked by a poem.

At first this difference worked because it meant for Duflinkë that they weren’t competing directly with each other; that they were both in the same program but that they were both after different things. And with no competition between them things grew naturally into a full relationship, where they both came to rely on each other as a sounding board, to get to where they wanted to with each day of new readings. Hour after hour and week after week they talked and hung out whenever they could, neither of them afraid to cease other aspects of their lives in order to be together.

And for Duflinkë this meant badminton.

He soon started missing practice, and then his articles in the school newspaper began to disappear in the sports section just as he was gaining some notoriety as a sportswriter. And this happened just as he was about to win the university singles title. But none of it mattered to him. He grew more by spending time with Meredith, and together they were their own Hegelian Dialectic spurring each other to new heights and insights.

More and more his time was filled by being with his girlfriend so that he eventually became consumed by a dreadful lack of sleep. But when he did have the undisturbed opportunity to sleep through the night in his bed, he found his dreams had become restless and frantic, as if time sped up in his REM sleep. This was when he had the nightmare of his mother’s suicide attempt.

And then in the morning having the awful realization that the nightmare was true.

He had repressed the time his mother had taken sleeping pills and had been taken to the hospital. He and Wren had come home from school and found his aunt there on the stairs, her face stern and angry.

“Your mother is in the hospital. She tried to kill herself.” Her eyes pierced theirs. “You kids are to blame for this. You never listen to your mother. Shame on you!” At first Duflinkë was confused at what had transpired. Neither of them had been in the house so how could it have been their fault. It was true that their parents were fighting recently but trying to kill herself simply didn’t fit into his understanding.

And then there was the time he had returned from the Granite Club and found her passed out on the floor of the living room with vomit all over her shirt. This too had entailed her going to the hospital. It wasn’t talked about in the family but there had been talk about how this was another attempt to end her life.

Again, he had blocked it out from his memory, instead devoting himself to badminton.

Being with Meredith had stirred something within him and reawakened this memory from his past. And it unsettled him. It introduced an element of doubt into his entire new way of life and the ripple effect went on and on without him being able to quell the rippling. Soon his swagger became tentative and the confidence in his voice had become shaky. To Meredith this was regarded as weakness, which she had no compassion for. Duflinkë reckoned he could work through it by immersing himself deeper into his readings, but this didn’t help. It was just more words competing for the central platform within him that had been thrown into doubt.

There was a crack in his new foundation, and it all threatened to come tumbling down.

He was aware that he had never worked through these events before so there resurfacing was inevitable. But what he didn’t understand was why they were affecting him so much.

And this was when he met his crazy friend Pep, who introduced him to a world of bohemian art where there was no right or wrong. Only fun and not fun. Pep recognized in him a neophyte who was looking for something in his studies, the same thing that had brought him to study philosophy, but unlike Duflinkë, he had landed on a truth that suited him and had become the core of his new outlook on how to live the good life.

Pep’ answer was literature. And adventure.

He read all day, seldom ever going to class or ever reading the philosophers who were the subject of his essay, but he would manage to get an A on his papers by staying up all night and writing each essay out handwritten instead of typed. Duflinkë would see Pep’s grades when he leafed through the piles of essays in the philosophy department office every few weeks. So when their paths finally crossed, Duflinkë saw it as an opportunity to learn something from this eccentric dude.

Pep had also gone to boarding school at one of the other old schools in Ontario where he was head boy and captain of the cricket and squash team. He always had a novel in his hand and was found to have a stacks of books all over his room. He wore Birkenstocks and army shorts well into November after the first snow had fallen, determined not change out of his sandals. He wore wool socks to protect his feet from the below-zero temperatures and in doing so created his own trend at the school. Soon others could be seen copying him. But Duflinkë had also started his own trend. Having become an avid coffee drinker he hated how coffee was sold in Styrofoam cups at the cafeteria so that he was throwing out five or six cups every day. So he had bought a plastic mug with a screw-on top that he used to fill up with coffee, and when done simply attach to his knapsack. Wherever he went there was his plastic coffee cup dangling from his knapsack.

At first he didn’t think much of it and it didn’t bother him because it solved the issue of the Styrofoam cups but he did take notice when he began to see more and more other students copy his lead, so that come the following year there was a noticeable segment of the university population that had adopted this practical approach.

The two of them were similar in many ways.

So when Pep suggested he read Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse, he didn’t hesitate to read it, at the cost of his philosophy readings. Duflinkë had never really liked reading fiction but this fiction was unlike anything he had ever read before. Similar to his initial reaction reading philosophy during his freshman year, his first reaction to Hesse’s words were astounding because they immediately opened up a whole new world where he could see in his mind’s eye and follow the spiritual growth of his characters. And he could identify with both of the main characters, so much so that he was enthralled and on the edge of his seat throughout the entire reading of it, putting him into tears for the last ten pages.

Never had Duflinkë had such a reaction to any piece of art.

He stayed in his room for three days after he finished the book, only leaving to smoke a doobie and ride his mountain bike behind old Fort Henry. The story had indelibly left its mark on him, showing him what was possible and what could lie before him if he chose such a life as Goldmund: the adventurous artist who traveled the world and mastered the art of sculpture, having an outlet for his artistic passion but using his own life as inspiration. And his life contrasted so poignantly against the ascetic life his best friend Narcissus, who had chosen as a life of a monk. Both were noble and both had left their mark in history, but both were opposite to one another, illustrating the profound mirrored difference between each boys’ nature.

Each had been loyal to their own unique nature and had chosen a life to reflect that nature, unlike what so many people in reality actually do. It made him see how tragic life was for the vast majority of people who chose a career that didn’t magnify their own unique gifts. It was an insight that never left him. His journals became filled with explorations of both the logical and mathematical with the artistic world of creativity and the imagination. This dynamic became the axis of how he measured the world and how people fit in to it. Soon Duflinkë was able to pick out those who valued creativity more than authority and rules. He discovered he gravitated towards the creative life because he always knew where he would end up if he chose to follow binary logic and unbending rules.

But with a person with imagination, he never knew where he would be taken.

And so with Pep and Meredith both competing for his time, his dream of playing in the Granite Club end-of-winter tournament didn’t work out as planned. His head was so far away from where it needed to be that even making the effort to excise himself from campus to return to Toronto for the weekend was almost unsurmountable. But once he had hopped on the train and returned to his mother’s house in Toronto, he soon adjusted to the tournament and was happy to get back to business on the badminton court.

In the badminton lounge the draw showed him sixth seed on the bottom half of the draw. He saw familiar names of the players he had grown up with, who were mainly weekend players with no sense of urgency on the court. McKee – the one he was after – was top seed and not in his way to make the final. His first couple of matches were rote events that were more like a good chance for a warm-up for his later matches, but he also knew the fatal mistake of thinking about the next match. Too many times his play would falter with his thoughts jumping ahead to his next opponent all the while his current opponent netting point after point the result of his careless play. He knew the only way to keep his mind in the game was the make it interesting.

And so that’s what he did. With his first opponent first round he played a long game, keeping them pinned at the back of the court, his clears high and deep. He witnessed his seasoned opponent welter from the pressure of making a good shot from so far back on the court that time after time he made unforced errors, drop shots into the net and smashes that had slowed down so much Duflinkë could hit a winner with his smash return. His second round match he played a short game, curling the birdie with spin over the net tight, forcing his opponent to either pop it up high at the net for an easy put away, or to lift it to the back of the court only to pop it up short so he had an easy smash to put it away down the line. His third opponent he knew had a bad knee so he couldn’t help himself but run him around the court mercilessly, more when people began to watch him dismantle the loudmouth across the net from him. Up and back and side to side, he pushed him so that by the beginning of the second game he had lost a half step and let the birdies fall on the court, preferring to concede the point rather than risk injury.

By the time he played his semi-final against the club brat Roscoe Clark, he was sure he could crack him.

For the semi-finals Raphi appeared in the badminton lounge. He had retired recently but had chosen to hang around the courts now and again for the benefit of his old students. Seeing him for the first time in years Duflinkë was struck by the affection in his eyes.

“Hello Ernest. How are you? I hear things about you at your university that you are playing on the team and winning.”

“Well, I’m not training as much as I should I suppose, but I am staying busy with other things.”

“Yes, I understand. And that’s good. Good.”

“I have a girlfriend,” he said, trying to convey to his old coach that life had begun to impose itself on his sheltered badminton life.

“Where is she?”

“She’s in Kingston.”

“She didn’t want to come here to watch you?”

“No. I don’t think badminton is her thing.”

Raphi’s eyes were sad at hearing this. “Oh,” was all he said.

By all accounts there was no rational reason why Duflinkë would beat Roscoe. They were opposites in their approach to the game. Clark was training at the club five days a week, working hours on the court on his trick shots and conditioning. He even had a killer instinct that won his matches. Duflinkë on the other hand was hardly ever on the badminton courts these days, and never practiced his trick shots. They were simply created in the moment, spontaneously.

Letting his gift of the game have fun for the fans.

But there was one thing they both shared: a love of playing to the crowd. Each player could use the energy and attention from the eyes watching them to their advantage by taking the opportunity to wow them. Trickery was a deadly tool to have in one’s arsenal and Raphi was the master of that. And that’s how both Duflinkë and Roscoe had the trickery and the guile to show it off for the fans watching above the court.

And that was what they got: a crowd standing in the badminton lounge who had congregated after dinner to watch the last match of the day.

The match started rough for Duflinkë, Roscoe showing that he had a pre-arranged strategy to play to his weak spots, such as his backhand. Point after point Duflinkë fell behind from Clark’s insistence to push it deep on his backhand every chance he had. And he was too quick for him. Duflinkë’s feet felt sluggish in his shoes, his legs rubbery after three previous matches already that day. The first game was over before Duflinkë had figured out how to beat him. But when he had cracked it, the match changed momentum. Roscoe was a master at the short game and his reflexes were topnotch, but he was a small man who sometimes lost his focus on a slow dropping birdie at the back of the court. His drop shot was too fluffy to hurt Duflinkë and he could see his drop shot coming a mile away, so it was only a question of playing the odds. Rally after rally he sent a deep clear into one of the back corners only to watch Clark try to do too much with it and soon make unforced errors. And he started to yell at himself, letting his temper out, which ensured Duflinkë’s victory.

It wasn’t even close in the third game.

Raphi took him aside after the match.

“You don’t play at school?”

“I’m too busy, you know.”

“But you play smart.”

He nodded.

“You use your head now.” Raphi poked his head with his finger. “It’s good.”

“I still think about the game a lot, you know, when I’m studying at the library, or…” he paused for a moment. “Or when I go out mountain biking. I think about getting better at the game but I’m just kinda tired of all the drills. Same drills all the time.”

“Yes, I know. So you use your head. That’s how you train now. Use your mind.” He poked his own head with his pointer finger just as he had Duflinkë. The smile filled his face, unmistakably proud of his prodigy.

Tomorrow’s final against the club champ and internationally ranked Jamie McKee scared him because McKee had the experience and speed and guile to beat him easily, and he could prey on his fitness to his advantage. He feared there was a chance he could be toyed with by the wily old veteran.

Chapter Eight

The Blues

What Raphi had said to him made all the sense in the world. And it fit in with his new world view of what badminton was at its best. This chess match of strokes was open to anyone who dared to play out this shuttlecock warfare against the guile of even the best opponents. Outwitting the other player was the order of the day after reaching a level of physical mastery over court coverage and footwork. Granted the time it takes for a player to reach this level of physical mastery, it is attainable, and once this level is attained, by definition it became a mental game. It was why he had chosen to focus on badminton when he was a child. And had not chosen hockey or tennis. Badminton offered the potential of infinite possibilities with every rally. Tennis he had found tedious and cumbersome, and unable to use finesse with spinning feathered shuttlecocks dropping sharply over the net, and the crisp sound of a slice drop shot that catches your opponent off guard. Squash too had the same cumbersome aspect to it, plus it had a very real element of danger such that simply over time the chances of injury became a real possibility. A wide swing or a mishit ball could cause a serious injury. Besides the court was too claustrophobic.

At least with badminton you had your own side.

It comforted him to hear Raphi point this out in his own game and marked a milestone in his development as a player. And Duflinkë could not help but notice that it also culminated with his first match ever against a player who had a world ranking. He wasn’t sure how high up in the international rankings McKee was at the moment, but he was sure he was in the top twenty a few years ago.

His thoughts were peppered with glee as he returned to his mother’s home and faced an empty house, his mother out at a party. He called up one of his old friends who was attending the University of Toronto and arranged to meet for some beers downtown. A practical person would have had a hot bath and gone to bed early, but Duflinkë looked at it as he had some time to kill, and he never wanted to waste any time. So, he met up with his buddy down near the U of T campus and watched a band at one of the student bars.

His head was full of badminton and after he had consumed a few glasses of draft beer he recollected moments of brilliance he had executed on the court that day, sometimes listening to his friend and sometimes not. His friend Freddie didn’t have much to say of interest to him but what they did share was a thirst for weed and beer. And so they imbibed, faster and faster as they both began to be affected by an increasing thirst caused from their rapid consumption of beer. Duflinkë still had not rehydrated what he had sweated out from his day on the courts. He stared at the band and thought of the words his old coach had said to him, how he had finally been acknowledged to have graduated from the lower levels of badminton to the upper echelons where matches were won and lost with the quickness and guile of the mind. But soon the paralyzing effect of the beer outweighed the subtleties he had enjoyed mulling over his day in his mind when the harsh brutality of the rock music blasting out of the amplifiers on stage had started vibrating the hairs on his legs and arms.

“Did you know that guitarist is Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy?” asked Freddie. Duflinkë looked closely at the guitar player.

“No, I didn’t.” Faintly he thought he should know who that was but rock and blues musicians were not one of the things he followed.

“You do know who he is, don’t you?” Duflinkë seldom bothered commenting on rhetorical questions. If the asker asked a rhetorical question they sure as hell wanted to answer their own question.

“He’s the guitarist for The Blues Brothers.”

“No!” It was one of the many things he and Freddie shared: a love for film. And if you were living in the late eighties and were in any way hip you had been affected by the film The Blues Brothers. When it had come out in 1980 it was a huge hit and the soundtrack and the outlaw personas of both Jake and Elwood Blues while pursuing a holy mission, had come to define a whole generation of young people.

The music was so loud by that point chatting with Freddie was not possible, so he just focused on Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy and the magic of his hands. He let the restrictive world of badminton and training behind and allowed himself to dip deeply into the arts and culture of the bar scene.

He also was not afraid to continue to quench his growing thirst with more pitchers of beer.

Then suddenly the guitarist started to walk away from the stage while he played a guitar solo, his connecting cable still plugged into his amplifier. Just as he had done in the movie, he used his head to groove to the beat of the song and slowly walked back and forth in front of the stage, the audience going mad. Then he casually walked to the stairs and descended to the main floor still playing his guitar. Duflinkë loved it and jumped up and followed Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy down the stairs to the main floor, but as he did this the bouncer from the front door thought Duflinkë was about to be belligerent and impede the guitarist when all he was doing was dancing. The bouncer approached him aggressively, Duflinkë not really paying attention to him and then boom! The bouncer pushed him in the brick wall, his shoulder hitting the wall at an awkward angle and causing him instant pain. He grabbed his arm and bent over as the bouncer yelled at him, but all he could do was hold his arm as it dangled loosely from his shoulder.

The pain was nothing like he had ever experienced before. He tried to shake it off, but the pain prevented him from doing anything except run outside for some fresh air. In front of the bar was a taxi so he hopped in and went home where he tried to fall asleep, very worried about his single’s final the next day. But as hard as he tried, he couldn’t shake the pain, so he woke up his mother and when she looked at the pain he was in, she knew he had to go to the hospital. It didn’t take them long at the hospital to tell him his shoulder was dislocated. They put him face down on a gurney and told him to let his arm dangle from the edge, which he did despite the pain. The doctor grabbed his arm and gently moved it back and forth causing him even more pain, but just as he was about to insist the doctor stop, the doctor pulled his arm just a little bit and his arm popped back into the socket. The pain disappeared immediately.

The pain had gone from a ten to a one in a second.

Suddenly he was fine and ready to leave the hospital but not without being put into a sling and told to keep it on for six weeks. The beer and THC was still a hold of his mind, so he shrugged off the injury as nothing too serious, taking brief inventory of yet another party injury. Duflinkë felt anger towards the bouncer who had done this to him completely unprovoked.

It was only when he returned home and began sobering up that the full impact of the injury began to dawn on him. First, he would have to withdraw from the final at the Granite Club and disappoint all the members of his withdrawal, especially when they came to learn how he had got the injury. He didn’t so much mind not playing against McKee because he might have prevented a humiliation from the wily veteran. But what pained him the most was disappointing Raphi, the one man who had witnessed his growth on the court and who no doubt was waiting to see his protégé beat the man who had dominated the tournament for nearly a decade.

And to confound the entire thing he was terribly hungover and was tentative in his voice, likely too hungover to have really posed a threat for the title.

“Sorry Raphi,” he said to his coach at the club the next day. “I didn’t expect this to happen. I didn’t do anything wrong. Really. The bouncer just thought I was up to mischief.”

Raphi’s eyes were heavy and sad, knowing he had missed a golden opportunity to jump ahead in the national seedings and perhaps even kick-start Duflinkë into returning to training for the All-England Championships the following year.

“I’m sorry too Ernest. You’re too crazy you know?” He shook his head. “Too crazy!” His coaches’ laugh had pain in it as he stepped away from him, leaving him alone in the badminton lounge crushed. The other matches took place before the awards ceremony, so he disappeared into the President’s Lounge and found refuge in a few cold beers. But as he sat there and stared out at the ravine below Bayview Avenue and followed the birds from branch to branch as they returned from there winter down south, new possibilities overwhelmed him. He was finished with club badminton and the pitiful excuse of varsity badminton in their ridiculous gyms and their sub-par dressing rooms. Instead, his long-dreamed new life of possibilities took over his thoughts so that he could see himself out in the world finally doing the things he wanted to do. He wanted to swim on the beaches in Thailand and backpack around the world, and kayak in the waters of Oceania like Paul Theroux. He wanted to explore the deep recesses of ancient kingdoms where lost civilizations were yet to be discovered and blaze a path of originality on his way to meeting the woman of his dreams.

Yes, Raphi was right. He was crazy. And it was his job to let the craziness free.

PART TWO

Chapter Nine

A New World

With his right arm in a sling, he had the perfect excuse to stop his involvement with the varsity team and stop his writing for the school newspaper, both of which were reaching the end of the season. But instead of returning to his philosophy books, Duflinkë chose to read novels. Lots of novels, each recommended by his friend Pep. As if chosen specifically for him to extract a long dormant personality that had been lurking in the shadows and who only came out after some alcohol, hour after hour Duflinkë sequestered himself away from the raucous and he read novels. So carried away he became that he neglected his essays and his exams. In fact, the end of term came and went so quickly he almost didn’t notice it. Nothing Meredith did could affect his new obsession with reading fiction. He tried his best not to miss his classes but even that became a monumental struggle for him. Peeling himself away from the stuff he was reading, particularly Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, was too difficult.

It was as if there was some aspect of his character, some bottomless capacity for empathy, that identified with the characters in these stories and personally altered the way he was. These characters leapt off the page and spoke to this emerging personality – for too long too shy to step out of the shadows of his disciplined and obedient old self. He wrote for hours in his journals trying to figure out the conflicts that stirred within him as he traveled far in his imagination with his nose buried in the pages of a paperback. Throughout high school he had never enjoyed Charles Dickens novels they had been required to read for English class. He had, like his other classmates, read the Cole’s Notes to understand the story or watch the film. He had bypassed the requirement for him to read these great novels of the past, usually to spend time training for the next tournament.

But now, with his arm in a sling, he had discovered a passion for reading and for the first time saw the value in these pieces of literature. Each was a journey of the self, super-imposed into a past setting and epoch where challenges brought out the best and worst in the main character – the reader able to witness firsthand how they went about overcoming the obstacles. He read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and could completely relate to the protagonist Howard Roark the architect. It was a philosophical novel that combined the first principles of moral philosophy with the application of the real world. But disaster soon surrounded him. Meredith spent more and more time away from him, taking care of her essays for fear of losing her chances of getting into a master’s program in the States. He experienced cold stares by his professors who noticed his absence from their classes. He never spoke in class, but he was always there. One of his professors, Professor Dell, called him in to his office one day near the end of term and asked him about his sling.

“Dislocating your shoulder is one of the most painful injuries they say.” Professor Dell’s tweed vest and jacket fit his slender shoulders as if tailor made.

“It was painful, yes. That’s for sure. But as soon as they popped it back in the pain disappeared, just like that.”

“Are you still in pain?” The question caught him off guard, and he suspected there was a deeper meaning behind just the shoulder.

“Nah, the pain is gone. It’s just a little stiff, that’s all.”

“You’ve missed some classes recently, that’s why I ask.”

He blushed. He didn’t know what to say.

“I’ve been busy.”

“Oh, with what might I ask? Not sports.”

“No, can’t play any more badminton for a while.”

An awkward silence for a moment he could feel in his professor’s office.

“Then what?”

“Well I’ve been reading. Lots of reading.”

“Of what?”

“Novels.”

“What novels?”

The question struck a subconscious nerve of some kind, and it opened a floodgates.

“I just finished The Fountainhead by-“

“Ayn Rand.”

“Yes. That’s the one. It was so… so much different than anything I read while I was in high school.”

“It is a different book, indeed.” Professor Dell scanned the bookshelves that covered both the office walls entirely.

“I couldn’t put it down. That’s the problem. I can’t stop reading these novels, and so I am missing some classes.”

“And not doing the readings.”

“No.”

“Do you know what an empath is?”

“Never heard of that before.”

“It’s someone who has a tremendous empathy for others, whether they be people or animals or other things that experience emotions.”

“Oh.”

“Some empaths find a profound delight in reading stories.”

“Okay, but what does that have to do with me?” Duflinkë stood up to leave. He could here other students at outside the professor’s door and didn’t want to take up his valuable time.

“It might explain your passion for reading. Just be careful to hand in the term paper. Without it you won’t get the credit. You can still read but try to take some time and write something. Okay?”

Yes, he thought, he could do that. He shook his hand and left the professor there, letting the waiting students come into his office for discussions about their end-of-term essays. But before he left Professor Dell found a hardcover book from his bookshelves and handed it to Duflinkë.

“Here. If you liked The Fountainhead then you might enjoy this one. Give it a try and let me know.”

“Will do.”

“And Ernest, remember it’s a good thing to read.” Duflinkë laughed, unsure of his meaning, and left the office for the crisp air. As he walked across the quadrangle of Watson Hall, he pulled out the book and read its title: Lust for Life by Irving Stone. On the cover was a painting of the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh. He decided to skip his next class and go to the main study hall and read, but it was too distracting for him because students talked, so he picked up and went to his favourite basement corner of the library, where he opened the first pages of his new book and began to read.

The life and character of the Dutch painter transported Duflinkë into a new world. Written as a biographical novel, the author had created scenes and dialogue to evoke the artist’s life as he lived, based on real events throughout his life. It brought to life this man of passion who didn’t even start painting until well into his twenties. First, he had become a minister preaching to the downtrodden miners in the countryside where his compassion for their hardship had stirred him so deeply that he had literally given the clothes off his own back. He slept on a bed of hay in the barn to provide some on his congregation to have food on the table. His preaching and genial manner were so extreme and unorthodox that he was soon relieved of his religious duties, so he found himself without a calling.

That was when he chose to become a painter.

His family had been involved in the art world for generations, but he wanted to paint the canvas rather than sell the canvas. His devotion to his art was startling and affected Duflinkë by showing him the meaning of dedication. So many spouted out loud of being an artist ended up just being hot air, but this man immersed himself in the marrow of life to get a fuller understanding of pain so he could express that with colour and brush. It belittled all those posers.

Van Gogh stood alone as a real example of a true artist.

When Duflinkë had read for four or five hours, he didn’t have any more room in his mind for any more words that day, so he found himself going out to the local pub in town alone, something new and a habit that would grow throughout his life. He saw himself as a Van Gogh groupie – one who wanted to taste the marrow in life’s bones, and to feel the different degrees of heat to truly know, and not to be a fake. He met new people and polished the art of using alcohol to unleash his rusty social skills and let the newly emerging voice be heard, no one around from his old life to pull him down. The deeper he became in the story of Vincent Van Gogh the more he risked at night, going to new bars farther away from campus. He ditched his sling a little early because it made him stand out in the new bars he went to, soon learning the art of finesse and etiquette in the taverns that had been in operation for generations.

The end of April came and went. Term papers were written but not well, and exams were taken without sufficient study. Some credits weren’t had but oddly it didn’t affect Duflinkë because his head was far away – in his new world that was about to unfold around him. And for him to launch himself into this world waiting for him, he had decided to go tree-planting up north with some of his buddies to save enough money to travel. It was different from his past summer jobs, but it was what he craved. He knew he had the discipline for it, but he didn’t know if he had the hardness. It was a test that had the potential financial windfall for a ticket so he could leave Canada behind.

He thirsted to taste the real world.

Little did Duflinkë know his first love from high school had also chosen to work up north and plant trees for a summer. He thought it would be great to see her and romance her back from their past, but he had no idea of the forces that would come into play that summer of 1989.

Chapter Ten

Love Lost Regained

Somehow he scrounged up enough money to buy the equipment he needed to survive three months in the forests in Canada’s northern Ontario. His notions of what it would be like turned out to only be a portion of what it was really like. He enjoyed roughing it and sleeping in a tent, but he wasn’t prepared for the rain and cold during the evenings and the intense dry heat of the day. His shoulder had healed enough not to be a problem for him so physically he had the tools to get the job done but the terrain was so rocky and uneven that his feet, cumbersome but protected in his work boots, blistered from all the scraping required to plant each seedling. Screef Toe became his nemesis after the first few weeks, but he eventually learned to use his shovel instead of his feet to clear the land before digging a hole in the soil for the tree.

It was the swarms of black flies that he could never have predicted. They buzzed around his ears and face and flew into his nose by numbers so dense that they formed shadows. During midday they would disappear to avoid the sun, but in the early mornings and late afternoons they made planting trees a real challenge. He appreciated that it was like a Canadian rite of passage that was the closest thing to going to war that his generation would ever have. Duflinkë concocted a face mask made of meshing he cut and sewed on to the open neck of a t-shirt he wrapped around his head. It protected his ears and face from being bitten but since the mesh pressed against the tip of his nose and cheekbones, he would end up with blood on his face after each day planting. The black flies lasted the entire month of May but then they were replaced by the equally aggressive horse flies and deer flies. These babies would dart around and land on any open skin and take a chunk of skin from you. These ones really used their weight to leave you with an open bleeding wound.

But somehow all of this was overcome somewhat nonchalantly because he saw his first love Marie each day in the mess tent and at night when the crew would gather around the campfire. Duflinkë relished drinking hot chocolate with her talking about what they were going to do after tree-planting was over once they had money in the bank.

Marie had filled out in her shoulders and neck and looked strong in the night, more of a woman than when they went out together during the last year of high school. Her brown hair was longer and her blue eyes more experienced, her eyes lined with emerging wrinkles that he loved. He would try to make her laugh just to see those wrinkles come to life. She was one of those people whose lines on her face magnified her inner character, and since humor was such a large part of her life, her smile lines only served to highlight her inner beauty. He knew that it was one of the only opportunities he would ever have to live so close to her, but he wasn’t expecting to rekindle their relationship because he had one leg out the door and was set to travel come the end of summer.

But it was precisely this nonchalance towards their possible rekindling that caught Marie’s eye and moved her closer towards him. The old flame began to rekindle.

It didn’t matter that they both had dirt on their faces and were covered with insect bites throughout the week; they both laughed their way through the toughest land and the most difficult contracts, each polishing their craft and improving their tree-planting technique. Come the weekend they traveled with the crew into Thunder Bay for a weekend of hot showers and drinking beer, partying like they never had before. Wherever they went in Thunder Bay, Duflinkë, Marie and their fellow tree-planters left their mark with expensive beer tabs, always elevating the party spirit in every tavern they visited. They were letting off steam as if returning from battle. The farther they traveled north the more likely they ended up in small towns like Sioux Lookout, where the only bar in town was called The Best Honky Tonk in Northwestern Ontario.

That night the tree-planters overwhelmed the band on stage.

They had both grown to become more daring and truly laissez-faire in the way they partied. Each was able to discover more joy to be had in their partying so that they had become the natural light of the party. People gravitated towards them both because of the potent love between them. Duflinkë always made sure he was with her wherever they went that summer up north. And whether they were willing to admit it to themselves, they were feeding off each other, seeing how their actions made the other laugh, fueling more and more silly exploits that accumulated week after week.

But Duflinkë was not without other suiters. There were many who made themselves available to her gaze, but she was careful to never show her hand. But the owner on the tree-planting company made his play halfway through the season, stepping on any competitor like a tyrant, and ignoring the subtle points of etiquette when pushing competing suitors away from his courtship. He had the looks and the family money to make him a serious threat, but Duflinkë had faith in Marie to choose the best mate. As much as he tried not to be brought down by such thoughts, he couldn’t help himself. He had fallen in love with Marie again.

She agreed with him that she too wanted to travel and see the world but that she had some commitments to her family first before she could afford the time to travel.

“I have this course I’m enrolled in come September that my parents have already paid for so I can’t skip it. Besides I’m still not ready to see the world. Maybe next year or the year after. I need some money first.”

“Yes, money. But that’s what tree-planting is for. We can make a whole year’s worth of money in 12 weeks. That’s the tough part: saving the money. By planting we get all that money at once so we can buy the ticket to the other side of the world and begin to explore.”

“When you say ‘other side of the world,’ you mean where exactly?” Marie crinkled her nose as she smiled coyly.

“Not sure but I have some family in Australia I wouldn’t mind seeing.” Duflinkë hadn’t worked it out exactly.

“That’s certainly the other side of the world.”

“Do some traveling in Asia before flying to Sydney maybe. I want to go to Southeast Asia.”

“Not Europe?”

“Not right now.”

“Why?”

He had thought about this before.

“Probably because of badminton.”

“Oh, how so?”

“Well because the best badminton players in the world come from Asia, except maybe Denmark. So I suppose I have always looked at world travel as more going to China rather than France.” Marie had come to know quite a bit about his badminton career during their time together but had most likely not thought about its ripple effect on his adult life.

“Will you play over there?”

He had thought about that too. It had long been a dream of his to play in foreign countries as he traveled.

“If the opportunity arises, yes I suppose.”

“What about a racquet?”

“Oh, most good players carry with them three or four backup racquets in case of breaking a string,” he replied, waving his hand in the air. “It’s having the right shoes that is the key piece of equipment.”

That weekend at the spa in Thunder Bay they kissed by the indoor pool after having several beers. They came together in a moment of perfection that would be Duflinkë’s ideal for many years to come – all the key factors falling into place. It was all in sync, and they had waited until nearly the end of the tree-planting season in late July. But the season’s end was closer than they expected when their tree-planting company found itself in the middle of a contract dispute. The crew was hustled off government land they had intended to plant. Instead they found themselves with a week off in Thunder Bay, waiting for word of their new contract. And it was during that week that the company head honcho made his move on Marie. Possessive and impulsive, and without any sense of self-censorship, Duflinkë had overreacted to their closeness one night. His drunken jealously caused a dark cloud to appear over their otherwise perfect relationship, untainted and full of possibility, now sullied by a usurper. And it was that night that led directly to Duflinkë and a few of his friends choosing to leave the tree-planting season a week early to return to Toronto where they could get on with their lives and stop spending their money waiting for more work in the bush. It was a hasty decision that bespoke of Duflinkë’s impatience and profound distaste for wasting time – a decision that would have a long-lasting effect on both their lives.

But Duflinkë couldn’t wait any longer. Indeed, he felt he had spent his entire life waiting. He had spent all his 22 years at school and had never once been fully on his own. And it was time. He knew it. And he felt it. And with a head full of life philosophy to apply to life, and his heart stirred by the passion of a Dutch painter, he had to move forward with purchasing an airline ticket to Asia. It was time. And nothing was going to stop him from his plan.

Chapter Eleven

The Application of Philosophy

When he bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok, nothing could stop the chapter that was about to unfold in front of him. He felt the thrill every moment of the flight flying over the Pacific Ocean from his stop off in Vancouver, his screen in front of him showing the trajectory of the airplane across the globe. He was free at last! He had paid his dues and despite not yet graduating from university, he had earned the freedom to live his life just as he wanted. It was now finally time to apply all the philosophy that he had spent countless hours studying in the school library.

His mother had insisted he stopover in Hong Kong to visit his uncle, who was a professor at the local polytechnic in Kowloon, so he had agreed. It wouldn’t cost him too much extra since he could stay with his aunt and uncle and explore Hong Kong. The moment he landed on Hong Kong Island at the airport so close to the city centre, it was the moist warmth and smell in the air that grabbed him by something inside and did not let him go. The air was perfumed with the scent of flowers.

Only later did he learn that the smell was jasmine.

When he walked out of the baggage area and first saw his tall, lanky uncle standing in the waiting area outside under a canopy, he knew he had made his first, all-too-important connection of his grand adventure. The prospect of spending two weeks hanging out with his aunt and uncle in their teacher’s compound made him restless but he had the will to be creative with his time. He didn’t exactly know what he would do in Hong Kong for the two weeks, but it was made easier by a suggestion his uncle made over dinner his first night visiting.

“Why don’t you go to China for a few weeks?” Duflinkë thought he was joking, but his stern face did not bely any humor in his suggestion.

“Um, because I thought it was communist.”

“It is communist.”

“But isn’t it closed to travelers?”

“Well, there you are lucky because they have just opened their borders to travelers, probably because of the Tiananmen Square Massacre nine months ago.”

The massacre had been front page news all over the world.

“Well then I don’t know, why don’t I?” He knew that his uncle was testing him to see what kind of stuff he was made of – to see if his sister had raised a pussy. But Duflinkë had made a decision before he had left Canada that he would not play the meek, shy nephew during his visit with his aunt and uncle. He would treat them both as he would treat his twin brother. As an equal.

And without fear.

So he went to the Chinese embassy downtown the next day and bought himself a tourist visa that was good for one month of travel. He booked a train ticket to travel from Hong Kong to Beijing in a hard sleeper. It was all still British. The handover wouldn’t happen for another seven years.

He liked the fact that he was doing something unplanned and so he spent the day with his uncle talking to him man to man. They shared a beer at the water’s edge in Victoria Harbour and watched the ferries go from Hong Kong Island to the mainland of Kowloon, as well as all the fishing vessels. He enjoyed it. And he discovered that his uncle was pretty cool.

And his uncle was likely relieved to learn that his nephew had some sac.

They walked the streets of colonial Hong Kong, his uncle careful to point out that barber shops with yellow signs were code for an upstairs brothel, in case he wanted to know. Once alone Duflinkë decided to go out to the pubs in Long Kwai Fong and check out the nightlife. Little did he know he would test his uncle’s theory and visit a barber shop with a yellow sign later that night. And it was true: it was code for a brothel. When he returned to his uncle’s flat early the following morning, Duflinkë removed his shoes and walked past his uncle at the breakfast table sipping his morning coffee before class.

“Hmm, you’re missing a sock,” was all he said.

It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with his uncle.

His trip to China in April of 1990 was not what he expected. Never did he predict that once out of Beijing and the Great Wall tourist areas people would crowd around him and point at the fair-haired foreigner. He, for many Chinese, was the first foreigner they had ever seen. Most of the men were dressed in navy blue Mao outfits covered in dirt from working the fields. The towns were ancient and street vendors made pasta on makeshift tables where the long strings of pasta would be placed in big bowls full of weird things, like small shrimp and mystery meat. He learned quickly to avoid the street food and stick with canned sodas and beer.

It was a trip back in time. He hadn’t expected to be transported back into another century, but he was. His arms and legs were packed with muscle and his cheeks rosy with good health that contrasted with the men’s tiny arms and sunken cheeks and cigarette-caused wrinkles. Kids wore thick cotton diapers with an opening in the crotch so they would just squat wherever they were to relieve themselves. The sidewalks were riddled with infant piddle. Mothers grabbed their children and clenched them to their bosom when he walked past them, a danger and something to fear. Memories of the Boxer Rebellion were still fresh in their minds and the Chinese Communist Party was sure to exploit every ounce of propaganda from these events, labelling any westerner an imperialist and a ‘blue-eyed devil.’ But the politics and history didn’t register with Duflinkë. Instead, he saw an adventure unfolding in the tradition of the great travel writers of the past, like Ryder Haggard and Somerset Maugham.

Colonial Britain was still real in Asia, and he was now part of its living history.

He met a girl from London on the train to Beijing and they decided to join forces to go to check out old caves of the Buddha in Dalian. But the caves were simple, dark caverns that smelled of urine. So he decided to head farther into the heart of old China to Xian: the ancient walled city and the finishing point of the old Silk Road. She returned to the safety of Beijing.

If he thought Beijing was a step back in time, Xian catapulted him into the previous millennium. The old city was still constrained by the old city walls of stone that had stood since before the age of Christ. The lack of streetlights or electricity in the stores made it seem like there was no electricity at all in the city. Wooden carts were pulled by oxen and the people worked to the bone, their hands filthy and their hair unwashed. But he drank coffee in the cafés and tried to find food he liked. The hostel where he stayed was practically empty. It offered a simple small room and cot with a thermos of hot water. In fact wherever he went he could find a thermos of hot water for tea. Everyone carried a large mug and lid for their green tea, which they drank all day. The leaves floated on top of the water in their cups until the steam soaked them and dropped them into the bottom of the mug, thus the need for the lid.

And of course to keep it hot.

Duflinkë was quick to surmise that the whole population of China nursed a tea buzz all day. And this created a buzz for him too. He tuned in to their tea groove and could feel and understand how they harnessed the tea to work so hard. Large families still lived in small hutongs where the grandmother was the undisputed matriarch in charge of the family. Such basic living humbled him and taught him the virtue of being ascetic.

This was to remain with him for the rest of his life.

He experienced many different things while living in Xian for the week, but the most biting experience of them all was being held at knifepoint. He had gone to see the archaeological site of what would be called the Terra Cotta Warriors and had returned late from the excursion. Because there was hardly any light in the city after it had become dark, everybody went to bed and the city became very quiet right after sunset. He was able to catch one of the last buses of the night to return to his hostel, but the doors were closed, and the lights were off. He was sure the owners were not going to open the gated doors. There was a couple who had disembarked from the bus at the same stop as Duflinkë who saw he was locked out, so they invited him to stay over in their flat – a small one-room concrete square that was beside many others of the same design, all interconnected by soggy wooden walkways. They chatted for a few hours using Duflinkë’s English-Mandarin dictionary but soon tired and went to sleep. The problem was they insisted he sleep on the massive king-size bed that dominated the room. There was no other furniture in the room – just the bed and a bedside table. Only clothes and some wooden tools were piled on a long table against the wall. Halfway through the night the girl began stroking his leg and trying to kiss him, which was when her boyfriend woke up. He was sleeping with his head at their feet but had woken up anyway.

And he freaked out.

He screamed at Duflinkë and his girlfriend, frantically waving his arms. He began hitting his girlfriend in the legs and then hit Duflinkë. He grabbed his hand and shouted at him to stop. The boyfriend stood up and went over to the door and locked it. He picked up a meat cleaver and then grabbed Duflinkë’s hand and made a motion he was going to slice off his fingers. Protesting his innocence and acting offended, Duflinkë yelled at him loud enough to take some of the steam out of his sails. The boyfriend white face filled with rage has some colour back after a few moments. He insisted Duflinkë pay him money but he refused. He stood at the door until he unlocked the door. Duflinkë exited, just as the sun was rising. He walked quickly away as the man followed him with the meat cleaver in his hand, but soon after a few blocks he was free and safe. But Duflinkë had learned a valuable lesson: when the rules of the hostel give a curfew time as to when the doors are closed, they matter. There was no safety net he could fall back on. The buck stopped with him. He had to be careful not to find himself locked in a concrete bunker at the mercy of a white-faced maniac.

During his four weeks of exploring old mainland China, he had tried to find a telephone to call his uncle but wasn’t ever able to find one. The technology simply wasn’t yet there. He didn’t find one phone booth. So when Duflinkë finally returned to Hong Kong and bumped into his uncle at the gate of his compound as he was on his way to teach a class, he was pissed.

“One more day and I was going to call the police. Do you realize what that would mean?”

“Sorry uncle. I just couldn’t find a phone.”

Bullshit. There is always a telephone you could have used at a hotel.”

That had never occurred to him. But if he forced to admit it to himself, he didn’t feel like he had to call him. It was his trip, his adventure, and he wasn’t beholden to anyone. He wasn’t a kid anymore.

“Your mother is worried sick.”

Duflinkë was completely unmoved by this.

“I am teaching a class right now, so you go inside and call her immediately. You’re damn lucky you came home today. That’s all I’ll say.”

His uncle was cold to him for the remaining few days he stayed with him before his flight took him to Thailand.

Chapter Twelve

Motorcycling

Thailand for most people was an oasis of beaches and parties, but for Duflinkë it was the home of his badminton coach Raphi. He had heard that Raphi was regarded as a sporting hero of the country, like Wayne Gretzky was in Canada. When he found himself walking down one of the main roads in the Koh San Road area of Bangkok, he stopped to ask a man waiting for the bus: “Excuse me. Do you know Raphi Kanchanaraphi?”

The man’s eyes lit up.

“Raphi, yes. Badminton. Yes, yes. Very famous here.”

And so there it was, the legend was real.

Badminton was a big deal in Asia and he wanted to find a place to play but his shoulder was still stiff and he was surprised to realize that his heart wasn’t into it. He wanted to check out the beaches, which he did. The famous nightlife of Bangkok with its sex shows and sin didn’t much interest him. He observed the shenanigans but wasn’t drawn to that world. Instead for two weeks he sat on the beach and swam and snorkeled and ate seafood and slept in a hut and mingled with other travelers, but he soon grew bored of it. He saw that all the time he had spent wanting to flake out and be a beach bum in Thailand was an empty myth. It was an empty dream. It was all colour and no substance. So after two weeks and several novels read, he left the beach for Chiang Mai in the north where he discovered a new passion that would one day come to define his life.

Motorcycling.

Duflinkë found a motorcycle rental store that rented out Honda CR125 off-road motorbikes that were perfect for the bumpy and rain-washed roads and dirt paths in the north. He gladly handed over his passport and left with the motorbike and a compass and a map and left for the Golden Triangle – where Thailand met Laos and Burma in the northern tip of the country. The roads were incredible as he weaved his way through treed mountains and valleys that led to the opium capital of the world. But Duflinkë was lost in a new fervor – a thrill of true freedom having a vehicle that would take him to wherever he wanted. And it was dangerous. The roads were designed to angle away from the mountainsides to allow for the heavy rain to run off the road, but this made taking the corners on a motorcycle an exercise of extreme finesse and coordination.

He learned this quickly when he crashed his CR125 and crashed into the guardrail that saved his bike from tumbling a mile down into the waters below.

“Take it easy, will you?” At the hostel he had found a guy from Tasmania to rent motorbikes with. “I have a motorcycle in Tasmania, so I know how to ride, okay. So don’t follow me at my speed. Go slower.”

Sheepishly Duflinkë agreed. But fifteen minutes later, on another sharp 100-degree turn, he crashed his motorcycle again, exactly the same as before. And he scraped his knee in exactly the same spot, tearing open his jeans at the knee. This time however the Tasmanian was mad.

“Didn’t I tell you to cool it? You’re going to kill yourself if you do that again. And I can’t have that so you’re on your own. Don’t follow me.” And so the Tasmanian left him there to fend for himself. They were so remote in the north that there was only very intermittent traffic along the road so it was up to him to bend the brakes back into the place and fix the clutch lever, but in that moment at the side of that mountain all alone he tasted his first real breath of traveling. He could do anything. Go anywhere. And not have to answer to anyone. There were no more training practices he was beholden to nor any essays he had to write for impatient teachers who demanded you see the theory their way. He didn’t have any debts or anything pressing, no stuff left out to be stolen. He was a fully self-contained entity at the mercy of his will and imagination. He had only read about this type of life. Now he was living it.

But this life never goes the way one thinks it’s going to.

Taking a corner down the road he saw another motorcycle rider down on the side of the road in a heap of dust. A fresh wipeout, so he stopped.

“You okay?” Duflinkë asked.

The rider had two friends there with him, both staring at him impatiently on their shiny new dirt bikes.

“Yes. Okay. Okay.” He climbed back on his bike looking embarrassed in front of his two riding buddies.

“You want to ride?” He motioned with his hands for Duflinkë to join them.

“Um, north?” When he pointed north the Thai motorcyclists nodded.

“Yes, yes. Come.” And so he followed them, happy to be part of a roaming tribe of motorcyclists.

And they were excellent riders. They soon turned off the road and rode along a dirt path that followed the top of an escarpment that kept going north through the thick jungle. They passed through remote villages of wooden huts and chickens and roosters roaming the dirt path that was the only transportation route to the village. Splashing across streams and riding through the thick foliage, the path was for oxen and traders as ancient as the Silk Road. Just the four of them rode fast along the mountainous terrain, sweating but with a pungent inner glee of all riders who found themselves in their element, with not a care in the world. Hour after hour they pressed on, Duflinkë following these riding experts through a maze of droopy trees and cobwebs, having no idea where he was going. They stopped once. Duflinkë took the opportunity to take a photo of all four of them for posterity.

Later that night, when he was in his room at a hostel in the town of Tonpheung, he saw on his map that they had to have weaved in and out of the border with Burma.

When he had set out for the Golden Triangle, he had been told that it was the world epicentre for opium. The question of whether he would try to find an opium den to sample the Asian soma was still open when he arrived, but having expended so much energy  to ride-off road through the mountains with his Thai riding friends, he was too exhausted to put in the effort. He left the next day from the border region along the Mekong River, never taking the opportunity to sample the drug empires had gone to war to secure. Never in his life would he ever have a chance to have the experience.

Until Cambodia.

Chapter Thirteen

Back to the Unchanging Axis

Duflinkë’s time in Thailand was a timely experience of real traveling. The beaches and the people he met would leave a lasting impression on him in the years to come, but he also had his backpacker budget to consider – and his money was running out. His immediate financial needs had to be respected. He could milk it and fill as much empirical data into his time in the field as he could, but he did need to land in Australia where he had a work visa valid for a year. Being from a fellow Commonwealth country, Duflinkë was allowed to get a work visa because he was younger than the cut off age of 26. Being only 22 he qualified for the visa. He would take any job as long as it meant he could continue with his travels around the world.

So Duflinkë took the old rickety colonial train from Bangkok to Penang where he boarded a boat and sailed to Singapore. The stark difference between dusty Bangkok and clean and leafy Singapore brought about a change in Duflinkë’s thinking. He had just delved deep into the far reaches of the jungles of Thailand and had swum deeply in her waters, but now he was back to civilization and strangely the urge to return to the badminton court returned. The crisp curbs along the streets and the well-maintained buildings along the waterfront all bespoke of well-oiled systems at work, which brought him back from the jumbled chaos of jungle dirt-biking to the cleanliness of logic and protocols of urban life. And in this cultured milieu his mind sauntered back to the matrix of badminton. He had two weeks until his flight left for Sydney, so he had time to play at one of the clubs in town. He asked around at his very clean and organized hostel and found a popular racquets club where top juniors played. Likely due to inertia, Duflinkë still had his toe in the badminton world no matter how far he strayed from it. The perpetual mystery and challenge of mastering the game still piqued something in him that demanded attention. When Duflinkë thought about it, he figured that the more he fed into his mind the infinite colours of adventures and exploits of life experience, the more he could come up with new imaginative ways to conquer his opponents on court. To him and his philosophical mind, it made sense: the more he invested in developing his creativity by living life, the more he could bring to the game.

It was an experiment he believed in, so he would see it through.

His non-badminton left shoulder had fully recovered, and the old pair of badminton shoes he was wearing were still good enough for the court despite their weathered white. (The gummy sole still had grip). He bought a pair of light-coloured shorts he could wear with one of his white t-shirts that would be acceptable at the club. Clothing etiquette was still a ‘thing’ at the private clubs within the badminton world, and he knew Singapore has some serious badminton pedigree. As an old bastion of the British, the badminton clubs were from a certain colonial tradition that had been born in the British Isles yet the players were primarily Singaporean, which made the mixture distinctly Singaporean. Duflinkë liked it immediately. There was a luster on the wooden surfaces of the courts, well made and well used and well cared for, that gave off an ambiance of history and class.

He sensed great matches had been fought on these courts and world champions had been trained here.

Duflinkë had found out when the junior players practiced and had shown up hoping to play one of them. Once he introduced himself to the coach named Kang and some of the players, and they were happy to let him hit with them. Being the only westerner on the court full of Asians, he felt the eyes on him that had the inevitable effect of raising his game. Every shot he hit he used a shade extra wrist, the crisp sound of the snap of the feathers of the shuttlecock plain for all to hear. He eased through the drills, being fair with the other players with the amount of time they each spent on the drill, splitting it cleanly at 50-50. As the drills grew more grueling, some of the other players stopped to watch the tall foreigner cover the court with his thick left leg kicking out when he went into the back corners, showing the expertise of his well-honed scissor kick. Again, he felt the flood of energy overtake him as he showed off his skills, and in doing so attracted the top junior.

When the drills were done, the top junior challenged him to a match.

Duflinkë was soaking wet from sweat, the heat making its way into the courts through windows above the courts covered with mosquito netting. There were no air-conditioners – only a cross breeze, which was not forthcoming. The on-court chill he had grown up with in Canada was the opposite: a stagnant soup of moist tropical heat. But the sweat that rolled off his forehead only served to remind him of where he was and what he was doing, so he gladly welcomed the game against the strong 18-year old Singaporean champion, and proceeded to employ his best shots. He became keenly aware that he was now representing the much-overlooked country of Canada in the international arena. He knew these players were the next generation of world-class players that would carry their impressions of Canadian badminton players along with them when they competed at the World Championships and the All-England Championships.

He raised his Carbonex 8 racquet (that he had borrowed from one of the players)  and showed the champ named Cheung the ‘Yonex’ and the ‘YY’ on either side of the grip.

“YY,” Cheung chose. Duflinkë spun his racquet and then let the racquet fall flat on the court. He picked it up and read the result.

“Yonex,” he said. “I serve.”

“Okay.”

A crowd of juniors and members now appeared around the first court and the lounge, watching the top junior play this young man with the dirty court shoes.

Duflinkë noticed right from the first rally that the boy’s clears were not high enough to get him to the back of the court, which enabled him to have that extra little bit of time to strike the birdie, giving him a wider range of shot selection. It also gave him the opportunity to toy with Cheung. At first, he was respectful of the boy, playing the rallies longer than they had to be to show off the junior’s strongest features, but with the high and deep shots to the back of the court, the Singaporean soon wilted. The young man was lost so far back of the court from Duflinkë’s deep clears that he fell under the strain of hitting a powerful clear back.

And Cheung paid the price.

Duflinkë was able to hit his cross-court slice to marvelous effect whenever he faced a shallow clear from the Singaporean. Cheung tried to change the game to the net but Duflinkë simply used the chance to show off his own prowess at the net, spinning and curling tight dropping birdies just over the tape. He endured a barrage of short serves designed to force him into making errors, but he was not afraid of delaying the attack for a calm drop at the net or another quick cross-court lob into the back of the court to his backhand. And despite his lack of practice time, his strokes were free and easy, and he was hitting just inside the lines. Numerous times the young Singaporean let the birdie drop on the line.

Each time there was an audible guffaw from the crowd.

The second game went by quickly when the younger man lost heart, which so often happens when playing another who had superior skills. Duflinkë was just too evolved on court for Cheung, and that was what showed. After they had shaken hands, the coach shook Duflinkë’s hand and invited him back on the weekend where there would be senior players to train with. As per badminton etiquette as well as by reflex, he replied that he would be happy to return to play the adult members of the club, but something in the back of his mind told him this would be the last time he would ever play on these courts.

The day came and passed and Duflinkë did not show up to the courts to play. Instead, he joined some British nationals at the local Irish pub to watch Liverpool play Manchester United. For the entire day there were football matches playing on the big screen. Pub goers came and went, each watching their team and cheering them on. Soon the day gave way to night and the girls appeared, dressed to stay cool in the heat of the Singaporean climate. Duflinkë only thought of badminton once and only briefly because he was loving each minute in the old pub that had been frequented by sailors from all over the world for centuries. It was there, in the Irish pub on the old waterfront near Raffles Hotel, that he knew deep down there was no other place he would rather be. Duflinkë met people from all over the world that day, laughing and drinking and half-watching the soccer. He spent the last of his money that he knew he needed to get set up in Sydney to find himself a job and pay for his lodging. But he didn’t care. Days like this were what he had craved when immersed in one of the many novels he had read while at university.

He learned more about life from that one day at the pub that he could’ve learned on the badminton court.

Duflinkë also learned quickly never to take a side in one of these football/soccer matches unless you were willing to take a punch from a rival fan. He had made some off-hand comment about a Liverpool player when suddenly a redheaded chap came right up to him in his face and started taunting him with his fists. At first, he thought it had to be a joke of some kind, but soon he realized that the Liverpool fan was dead serious and that his inappropriate laugh at the folly of his Liverpool player was a deadly faux pas that could only be met with a show of force. He apologized profusely. The Liverpool fan approached him just after the match had ended and said he thought Duflinkë was a Manchester United fan that needed to be ‘punched around.’ He could hear Duflinkë’s Canadian accent and relaxed his aggressive stance.

The guy even bought him a pint.

When he landed in Sydney he was in a quandary because his work visa stipulated that Duflinkë needed to have a minimum of $1000 in his bank account or he would not be allowed in the country. But there he was at customs with only $50 in his pocket. The bug burly Australian at the customs table was intimidating when he spoke.

“Do you have anything to declare?”

“Pardon?” His accent was so thick he couldn’t understand any of the words he had spoken.

“Do you have anything to declare, sir?” The man had enunciated clearer and slower.

“Declare? No. Nothing to declare.”

“You have a visa?”

“Pardon?”

“You have a work visa I see.”

“Yes.”

“What work do you plan on getting here in Australia?”

“I’m not sure. Something like bartending or something. Just for a year. I’m here to see the country.”

“Let me see your bag.”

“Pardon?” The accent was still too strong to decipher the words.

“Listen son, why do you keep saying that?”

“Because of your accent,” he replied.

Accent? I don’t have an accent. You’re the one with the accent.”

“Oh, yeah. I never thought of that.”

And then the man said: “Pardon?” They both had a laugh.

Duflinkë landed in one of the many hostels in King’s Cross, where he found lots of bars and restaurants and fellow travelers sharing information and partying. It was a little corner of the world where he felt instantly at home. There were people from all over the world there using King’s Cross in Sydney as their home base before traveling the country or flying off somewhere else. Travel agents lined the main street interspersed with bars and cafés playing AC/DC. There was a palpable magic in the air in King’s Cross that summer of 1991 as if everyone who was there shared a secret that the world didn’t know: that they were safe and huddled on the far shores of the world where they had their own space where they could plot the overthrow of the world. The beaches were close by, and the beer was cheap, and the Sydney opera house was walking distance through several parks. And Sydney Harbour was within striking distance for someone not afraid to walk at a pace. The old pubs that had been frequented in the 18th century such as The Mercantile were still serving booze, a place that still had its chain gang tunnel reaching the ships in the harbour for the unsuspecting souls who had been hoodwinked out to sea for months and years at a time, in the old British tradition.

Part of colonial Britain could still be felt here in these parts, despite the British Empire being a thing of the past.

With financial pressures so severe (he didn’t have any money to pay for his room), he found a job quickly as a bartender at the Royal Automobile Club of Australia where they set Duflinkë up with a tuxedo. He worked the private lounge where old war vets commented on his accent. If the club had had badminton courts, he would have likely played but they didn’t so he focused his free time on swimming. He was still focused on physio for his damaged shoulder. Sydney had a 100-metre saltwater pool in Luna Park on the north side of the bridge where he could swim after work when hardly anyone was there. The Aussies were wicked swimmers and if you swam too slowly, they would pass you in the narrow lane and elbow you as they swam past you. It was a point of etiquette he soon learned but this didn’t diminish Duflinkë’s motivation. He knew he had to strengthen his shoulder, so he applied himself to swim laps for an hour a few times each week. During those first three months in Sydney his upper body solidified into something like a rugby player’s build. The vets at the club began asking him what rugby team he played for.

By the end of his time in Sydney he could swim for an hour without stopping. He was in great shape.

But one of the stipulations in his work visa was that he couldn’t work for more than three months in one place, so upon hearing about how beautiful it was up north of Byron Bay and then north of Brisbane and the Gold Coast, he set his effort to find a ride to take him up the coast. He found a job on Hamilton Island where he again bartended, living in an apartment full of chefs. He saved his money and spent most of his time swimming and partying, developing a real appetite for Australian beer. He did some SCUBA diving on the Great Barrier Reef so that he became certified, but diving wasn’t his thing. Soon he had to leave the job after the three months was up and he moved back down to Sydney where he could save more money before traveling farther west to India and then to the Middle East. He wanted to travel right around the world and hit the main cultural spots on the way, but when he landed in Sydney and had found a great job working in an old flour mill on the shores of Sydney Harbour, disaster struck. One night he bumped into an old friend from Toronto he used to ride his mountain bike with from high school, and they proceeded to drink with extra gusto on the patio of the Oz Rock Café in the centre of King’s Cross. He soon blacked out but not before finding a prostitute and a room. He woke up the next morning with a raging hangover and no way of contacting his old friend. A week later he began to feel like every time he peed, he was peeing rusty nails. He went to see a doctor and was told he had the clap.

Nothing a dose of antibiotics couldn’t fix!

But from the gonorrhea his immune system began to attack his joints, and he was soon crippled with Reiter’s Syndrome. He had the dreaded HLA-B27 gene that caused auto-immune disease. They drained three large syringes of watery pus from his right knee before putting him on an aggressive array of medications to reduce the swelling in his knees and ankles and toes. In a span of two weeks he couldn’t walk without crutches. Being hardly able to walk, he lost his job and flew back to Canada, arriving in a wheelchair. His trip had ground to a halt. He dreams had been thwarted. He was to spend the next 18 months using crutches.

Go to Duflinkë the Dubious Shuttlecock – Part 2

8 thoughts on “Duflinkë the Dubious Shuttlecock

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