– The following is an extract from a semi-fictional novel I’m working on. It is based on my experience of taking part in medical trials as a lifestyle and tells the tale of a disenfranchised young man living on the edge of society and finding his place in the world while meeting fellow drifters along the way. It is still a work in progress and one that will keep being developed as I continue living this way and collecting more material for the book, but for now I will post extracts on here. Previous instalments can be found here.
I had lasted six weeks on the course until I was back to being unemployed and out of education. Reflecting on my latest dropout, it quickly became apparent how foolish it was of me to go back to university. I considered that perhaps there was a part of me still clinging onto some form of normality; maybe the fact I was back in institutional education would take pressure off the fact I was essentially a drug-testing bum. But now that final finger had slipped from the ledge and I was freefalling back into the abyss of the unknown. I was feeling a bit confused about everything, to be honest, and when my friend said there was a job going at the call centre where he worked, I did something out-of-character and took it up. That job lasted a whole two weeks, all of which was the training for the role. I spent that time learning how to take calls and the information I would need to adequately answer them. By the time the first day on the actual job came around, I got ready, walked to the office, then felt some overwhelming force inside of me preventing me from entering the building. It was something far beyond my control, and that force instead pushed me to a park full of deer where I chilled all day while ignoring the calls from work trying to find out what had happened to me. Like my tutor, I couldn’t be bothered to give them an explanation for my erratic behaviour, so I just kept ignoring them while hanging out with the deer and wishing I could become one of them. What a simple life it would be. Roam around, eat grass, and fuck. Yes, oh yes. That was the life for me.
After a while of wishing I was a deer and getting drunk and failing to get much down on my novel, it was time to get back into that clinic again. With the student loan and the payment for the last trial (and even the two weeks of actual work payment), I was richer than I had ever been. With another trial under the belt I would be able to disappear for a prolonged period of time. Truly, after ten months, I was done with being back ‘home’. It was time for one last cash grab then to resume the travelling life with my newfound riches.
This time the trial was a short one – ten days of testing some medicine for Parkinson’s disease. By now it was business as usual. I was an intermediate guinea-pig, and it was one of the few things that now made sense to me in this world – as well as one of the few things I was actually good at. I passed all the usual tests on screening, lied about my alcohol intake, then a week later I strolled back into the facility to recommence my life as Subject 55355. Unpacking my stuff in the ward, I felt a strange joy inside. It now actually felt good to be locked up away from society. In a way, I felt like I endured more tests and trials just trying to exist in everyday life than I did in the clinic. The life of a lab rat was almost as easy as a deer’s and at that point I probably would have traded six months of the year in the clinic for six months of freedom. That was a sweeter deal than most got. No doubt my life expectancy would keep dropping with all the experimental drugs going into my body, but after my latest episode, there was only so much more of life’s bullshit I could endure anyway.
Anyway, I lay there back in the clinic bed, having procedures, dreaming of what I could do with all the money I’d have after the trial. The trial group was a quiet one and for once I wasn’t really feeling like chatting and getting to know my fellow guinea-pigs. It was more of the same anyway: one girl back from Australia trying to get some money for her next trip; a guy who taught English in Thailand and came back in between terms to do a trial; some other guy who had his own business converting vans into living spaces for other people. They seemed interesting, as always, but I was in a reclusive and reflective mood. I just worked on my book and emailed Christina and dreamt of what life had in store for me while on this next adventure in the states. Somewhere inside, I knew it wasn’t going to go to plan. Speaking to my girl in America, it was evident she was just like me: manic, unpredictable, erratic – unable to live in this world for a certain period of time without having a breakdown or going completely off-the-rails. No doubt us travelling together would be a chaotic experience. I envisaged us having an explosive argument two weeks after our trip and going separate ways on a rainy night somewhere in North Dakota. Still, I was ready to roll the dice and see what madness was in store for me this time on the road.
Another person I was speaking to while on the trial was my French friend Tim. I had met him on my last trip to Nepal in a bar in a lakeside town. “I knew that you are one of my people when I saw you sitting there,” he had told me. “You are a thoughtful person who reflects deep on life. We are from different country, and speak different language, but we are similar souls.” He was now back living with his parents on the south coast of France, just outside of Cannes. I had been messaging him occasionally the last two years, but during the trial we started speaking a lot more. I attributed this to the fact he was clearly feeling nostalgic about our trip. This no doubt came from the depression of being jobless and living back home with his parents. The things he said reminded me of myself when I had lived at home after my two year round-the-world trip. I understood how he was feeling, and when he invited me to stay with him for a few days, I knew what I was going to do. After the trial was finished, I’d come out, leave my place, then travel to Cannes for a week before flying to the states to meet Christina. The wheels were in motion and I went onto the flight websites to book those one-way flights once again. I entered my card details and used my medical trial millions to pay for the tickets. It was always a joy to do. Something in you just awakened when you hit that enter button. The confirmation of booking email told you that you were leaving it all behind again: the monotony, the bullshit, the routine. Life’s doors were flung wide open for adventure, exploration, and everything else that made life worth living. I sat on my guinea-pig bed and looked around the ward at the nurses and my fellow test subjects. For once in my life everything felt in the right place. The drugs were flowing in my bloodstream, the money was going into my account, and a plane would soon be taking me away from my home country once again. Life was good.
I was out the clinic and the world was my oyster. I was feeling pretty great, although I wasn’t looking it. A side effect from the medicine was acne and my face looked like it did when I was a puberty-ravaged thirteen-year-old. Still, I had nowhere to be for the next few days and I was hoping some rest would help make me look normal again (I didn’t want to meet Christina for the first time looking like something from a horror movie). I was also feeling pretty wealthy. I now had over ten grand in my account despite working only a month in the last year. I sat back and thought about the reality of my financial situation. There was no way around it: I had cheated the system. I had made money for nothing and I walked smugly down the streets while watching the people in the morning commutes on their way to work. No doubt many of them would have despised me if they knew how much money I had while living a slacker lifestyle. Sometimes I felt like running up to the cars at traffic jams. I would spot the most stressed looking person and bang onto their window shouting “There’s another way! There’s another way!” Of course, I never did. The secret life of the lab rats had to be protected, only to be exposed in my great novel. And besides, I had just come out of being locked up in one facility; I didn’t need to be locked up in another straight away.
I spent the next few days preparing my trip, restocking my supplies again for when I lived my life out of a flimsy backpack once again. I told the landlady I was leaving and arranged the end of my tenancy. “Off on the road again,” she said. “Good on you. Do it while you’re young.”
I was a little sad to be leaving in all honesty. The house had been a comfortable nest for the last year. But too much comfort was bad for the soul and I knew inside it was time to leave. I hadn’t ended up dwelling there for ten years like the alcoholic woman who previously lived in my room. I was moving onward to another place, no doubt with some alcoholism involved anyway. I stroked the cats one last time, drank a last glass of wine with Thea, and then got up to leave my latest residence behind. Rahul looked at me as I left through the front door: he had seen me living there for a year while unemployed, and now I was about to jet off around the world for a prolonged period of time. At first, I thought he saw me as a degenerate loser, but now I had a feeling he thought I was some sort of strange genius. I knew he wanted to travel too and I had hoped I had planted a seed in his mind. Who knew, maybe soon it would blossom and he would be quitting his corporate job and joining me in the lab rat lifestyle. There I would come across him, somewhere on a beach in Mexico, lying in a hammock with a hot latina and sipping a Cuba Libre cocktail. “What was I thinking?” he would say to me.
“What were you thinking?” I would say to him.
I landed in France. After one year of being home, I was back out in the world in a foreign country. Tim was coming to pick me up from the airport and I stood outside the arrival lounge waiting for him. I waited for twenty minutes until suddenly his car pulled up with a skid. It was an old car full of smoke and random junk on the backseat. He got out to greet me with a kiss on the cheek, then I got into his car as we drove around Cannes. It was the place where the famous film festival was and we found some bars along the beach-front to catch-up properly and toast my arrival. We sat down and straight away he ordered two pints of strong beer. “Are you able to drink and drive?” I asked him.
“Sure, no problem,” he said confidently. “I always do this. My parents’ house is far away from town, in the mountain, and taxi here is very expensive.” He then proceeded to knock back the drinks in a steady fashion. It was quickly obvious to me that he was going through a bit of an episode. That had become clear through our recent messages, but now I could see it before me with my own eyes: the excessive smoking, the drink-driving, the bloodshot eyes, the non-stop talk about his ex-girlfriend. “Fuck, I am still in love with my ex,” he kept saying. “I am missing her. I need to go to Russia to see her. I make a mistake. I make a big mistake.” Tim was three years younger than me and probably just as screwed up as I had been at twenty-six. Although most of my life had been a crisis of some sort, that crisis had never really been caused by a woman. Tim seemed to be experiencing the usual existential pain that came with being a disenfranchised man in your 20s, but with some heartache thrown on top. All in all, it was a potent combination: being unemployed, living at home, still in love with his ex-girlfriend. It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out he was depressed as hell. Still, my presence seemed to be cheering him up, and the talk of travelling again put a spark in his eye which otherwise seemed dimmed by his current life circumstances.
Pretty soon after the fifth beer, he drove us back to his house, whizzing around corners at a quick speed as I tried to tell him to slow down. My words had little effect upon him and he kept that pedal pressed down. After holding on for my life, we arrived at his luxurious maison. It was at the top of a mountain, overlooking Cannes and the Mediterranean sea. It had its own swimming pool and was generally a bit of a small paradise. “You live in a place like this?” I said to him.
“Me? No. My parents live in a place like this. I stay here like a prisoner. I am twenty-six-year-old; I should be living in my own place, not staying here with my parents like a child.”
“Still, if my parents lived in a place like this, I think I’d be quite happy to live with them for a while.” How impressed I was with the house meant nothing to him. He had grown up here, and like any person, if you live in one place for so long, you just get used to it, no matter how nice it is. I saw it as a paradise; he saw it as a cage in which he was trapped – the same way I had seen my parents home after I had come back from my big trip a few years previously.
He showed me around the house and then we poured some drinks. We sat and drank them in the garden, overlooking that beautiful vista. I was enjoying it, but Tim clearly was still blind to the world around him. Like most, his vision had been blurred by the relentless thoughts inside his head. “Fuck, I am so lost man. What am I doing with my life?” He drank his beer and stared out at the surrounding hills. “No money, no girlfriend, living at home with my parents. I don’t know where to go next.” It was self-pitying talk – the talk of a person who sat around staring at contented members of society while wondering how he’d ever be one of them. It didn’t help that all around us were the fancy homes of accepted members of society who had ‘made it’. We looked at those finely groomed houses and lawns as he kept venting about his issues. I wanted to help him but naturally I didn’t want to offer any solutions to problems I suffered from myself. Fire could not put out fire, after all.
“And you?” he suddenly asked me. “How you feel about your life? Testing drugs and travelling – is this okay for you? Are you happy?” I sat there thinking of what to say; he probably thought I was just as hopelessly lost as him. I knew he was cynical about the drug trials already, thinking I was selling my body and soul to ‘the man’.
“I guess so,” I said. “Like I said, I just want to explore and write about my life. Medical trials help me to do this. To write my books I need to travel and see the world and experience life. And even if I don’t write anything, I still enjoy travelling more than any career or having a family.” He looked at me incredulously.
“And your books. You can make a lot of money with this, you think?”
“Probably not,” I told him.
“Then why do you do it?”
“I have to.”
“You have to? What you mean you ‘have to’?”
“It’s hard to explain, but I just have to. I don’t have a choice.”
“Okay, but for me, if I invest so much energy and time into one thing, I would want to make money from it. You always tell me you’re writing and working on a book, but how many books you sell?”
“At the moment, about six hundred. But I’ve only just started writing properly recently. It’s slow and steady right now. Besides, it’s not about the money like I said.”
“Then what it’s about?”
“You can have a lot of money and still be miserable. To me, it’s important just to do what makes you feel alive. I could be working as a lawyer, making a six-figure salary, but be miserable because my job does nothing for me. To me, I’d rather do what fulfils me and earn little. There’s where true happiness lies…. I think.” He continued sitting back and looking at me in a studious way.
“You are a philosopher man, but for me, stuck here in this prison, I just want money. As much money as possible for travel and women and beer and to live alone. To be free and to be happy! The good life!” I listened to his spiel while reflecting on our differences. We were quite similar in many ways, but it was clear he was more business-minded than me. He had even told me he was once a member of the freemasons for a short while. He told me some more about it before moving onto his business ideas. Since we had been speaking, he must have mentioned over five different business ventures, none of which he had made a start on. He was another confused young man, full of ideas and struggling to get to terms with the practical nature of making any of those ideas in his head a reality. At one point he was going to move to London to start a modelling agency; the next he was going to Paris to start a consultancy; the next Dubai to be a personal trainer.
“And what about the virus?” he suddenly asked, switching the attention back to me. “Many countries are now locking down because of the virus. Do you think you will still be able to travel with the lockdowns?” The issue was something I had been trying to ignore on the news. I tried to ignore most of the news anyway for the general sake of my mental health, but the recent virus outbreak in Asia was now hard to avoid. It was dominating the world news and social conversation. I had heard it all before: swine flu, bird flu, ebola, and the rest. I just figured it was another media panic over a virus which would quickly subside. But it had carried on growing and a recent outbreak in Italy had seen the north of their country go into a full military-style lockdown. Some were predicting it wouldn’t be long before the rest of Europe and even the whole world followed suit.
“I’ve tried to ignore it,” I told him. “If it keeps growing and I get locked down in the USA, then at least I will be in another country with a hot girl. It will be an experience. Surely it will only last a couple of months or something anyway.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It could last a long time. It could last a very long time.”
“So be it,” I said. “At least something interesting will be happening for once.”