short stories

~ Misdelivery ~

~ Misdelivery ~

     The decision to quit was made somewhere around the end of the third week of the course. I watched with sad eyes as the man opposite me sat reading out his writing while everyone in the class sat around like a bunch of vultures waiting to pick away at the flesh of his work. That everyone did as a bunch of people, all of different backgrounds and lifestyles and perspectives, weighed in with their suggestions for changes to the man’s story. To my horror I watched as the man nodded in agreement with everyone and butchered his piece apart to please everyone in the room. Any chance of there being any fire in his work was thrown out the window as he reduced everything in it to appeal to the lowest common denominator of a diverse crowd. Like so many people concerned about their reception with the masses, he had abandoned his authenticity and courage at the judgement of the crowd. This was supposed to be creative writing course, but I had quickly remembered that creation was an act best done alone in the pits of solitude. From Van Gogh to Bukowski, any art worth its salt was usually forged in the shadows from an individual who created out of necessity instead of desire, and who went out and experienced the world, rather than sat in classrooms with notebooks trying to please people and make academic sense of something which belonged to the realm of mystery and magic. 

     Since the start of this course it had become clear to me that I had no doubt started it as sort of a last ditch attempt to cling on to the ledge of normality. Doing a master’s course at a university was almost enough to convince people you had your life together – and no doubt a part of me wanted to delude myself with that idea too. But it was true: I was fooling myself I realised there and then. Despite my connection to the act of writing, I didn’t belong here either. It was time to let go of the ledge of normality and free-fall into the abyss of the unknown – to throw myself off that cultural conveyor-belt. I was better off being beaten up by life in some other way that would allow me to pour out the pain onto the page without the guidance of any teacher or textbook or institution.  

       Leaving the university for the last time, I headed home back to that familiar dark room to sit and try and make sense of it all. In that space of isolation I sat and thought about the circumstance that had befallen me. Oh dear god, I cursed myself. I had moved to this city specifically for this course, and now I had made the decision to quit, I had to figure out what it was I was going to do next in the absurd game of life. As always there were no easy answers and I thought about changing my mind and sticking with the course. Of course I knew that this was the cowards way out; I knew I would just still be clinging to that ledge of normality a little longer just to trick myself and others into thinking that I actually had my life together in some basic way. So many people did this their entire lives, letting themselves empty out on the inside just so others would think they had their lives together. Such a fate seemed like a nightmare. The absolute intensity of the feeling of indifference I experienced in that class felt like the entire universe telling me to get the hell out before it was too late. Yes, I was definitely through with the course I concluded. I wouldn’t bother to notify my tutor; I was too annoyed at her and the course to even write a basic e-mail. And my parents, well, they had just about given up on me, and this would be the final nail in the coffin for sure. But hey, at this point maybe that was for the best anyway. 

      After a while of sitting there in the dark and staring up at the ceiling, I decided that some fresh air would do me good. I removed myself from my lair and went out to face the world. Out there in that concrete jungle I roamed at leisure with no particular place to go to. As I roamed, I looked around at the faces. I looked around at the houses and the front gardens. I looked around at the job advertisements and the shopping malls and the newspapers and the billboards. Once again I didn’t understand any of it. Sometimes I was certain the gods had made a mistake. Perhaps there was a mix-up in the cosmic warehouse? Surely my intended destination was another planet somewhere a few galaxies back in the other direction. Where was the manifest? Who had screwed up the works? Who was I supposed to be angry at? Looking out at the foreign world before me I wanted explanations and answers.

     I kept looking around at the faces of the people on the street. I saw businessmen and pram-pushers. I saw sub-cultural groups like hipsters or rockers. I saw many types of people but I couldn’t see anyone I truly felt at home with. Often in this world I felt like some sort of diseased alien, and I couldn’t help but stare into the eyes of those humans and desperately want to make them understand who I really was. I guess it was true that at times I felt anger and resentment toward the human race. Often all I wanted to do was to vomit my pain onto their pressed and polished realities. I wanted to drag them into the woods of madness and steal from the sanity from them. I guess I just wanted at least one other soul to step into my mind and see and understand how I felt with the reality and society that had been presented to me. But as always it was useless and all I could do was wonder whether it was all some kind of joke the gods had played on me. If so the humour was lost on me. Yes, oh yes: the humour was lost on me.

      Soon enough the shitshow of reality was too much and I decided I’d try to add some excitement in my life by doing what so many did in times of desperation. Alcohol. I went to the nearest store and bought a four pack of beers. For a small price hopefully I could trick my brain into thinking something exciting was happening. I went in, purchased the liquor off a young female clerk and exited back onto the now rain-sodden street. I stood still on the sidewalk and began to drink the first can. After a few sips I started walking down the road. I finished my first beer and started drinking a second. By the time I finished that I was feeling pretty good – so good in fact that I decided to befriend a homeless guy with a dog sitting in the gutter of the sidewalk of a busy intersection.

        “Alright lad, got any spare change?” he asked as I walked over.

        “Yeah don’t worry” I said. “I’m going to give you some change, but first would it be okay if I joined you for a drink?” He looked at me with a confused and hesitant look. After a few seconds of scanning me up and down he accepted me. 

        “Well sure, take a seat lad.”

        “Thanks.” 

        I sat down and nestled myself into his cardboard which was soggy from the rain. I put my back up against the wall, stared out at the street, sipped my beer and offered my final can to my new best friend. He looked down at it, scrunched his brow and shook his head.

        “No thanks lad, I stay away from that stuff these days; that’s what caused me to end up like this. It’s the devil’s blood that stuff. You ought to be careful with it too.”

        “It’s helping to keep me sane right now” I told him.

        “That’s how it starts” he said. “But if you’re not careful soon it’s not you consuming the drink, it’s the drink consuming you.”
        “That’s kinda poetic” I said. “You ever thought about being a writer?”

        “A writer? Does it look like I’m interested in that kid? A roof over my head and some warm food in my stomach would be nice.”

       “Sorry. That’s true. I just thought you expressed yourself nicely and all.”

       I carried on sipping my beer, feeling the alcohol flow through my body. I could feel myself getting comfy. Eventually we got chatting about his life and he started telling me about all his travels in Asia and South America. Having travelled in those areas myself, I was naturally curious about his ventures out there in the world. I began asking him about his trips. Typically his travelling stories were full of chaos and bohemian madness. As he spoke about his nomadic life, I couldn’t help but identify with it and wonder whether or not I was staring into my own future. It seemed that the man had led a similar existence in his twenties to the one I had been living. It was full of wandering wide-eyed through the world – of drifting wildly out on the fringes of society. I couldn’t help but let myself wonder. Perhaps the life I was living was also going to lead me to be sleeping in the gutter one day? I mean, the possibility was viable for everybody out there, but in particular anyone who dared to drift away from the cultural conveyor-belt like I had done. The automatic life on the cultural conveyor-belt may have been boring and predictable, but it protected you from those rain-soaked gutters – it protected you from the madhouses and the cemeteries. Riding it like a good citizen of the state you were transported through education into a steady job, into a mortgage, into the shops on the high-street, into parenthood, and finally into retirement where a grave and wooden box awaited to package you into eternity. Sure, it may have sounded dull and tedious to the adventurous individual, but hey, at least you didn’t freeze to death alone on some cold winter street.

      After fifteen minutes of talking about his life, my beer can was empty and I decided to leave my new friend alone to himself – something I suspected he wanted. I gave him some spare change, said goodbye and headed off down the street. I then thought about what to do next. I was now pretty drunk and didn’t want to go home, so I thought I would head further into the city centre and try and find a party of some sort. After one month of studying here I still had no friends to drink with, and so I decided to go and find a hostel. From my travels I knew that in a hostel you could often find some other souls who were also out of sync with the human race too. And this was Brighton: the end of the line – the place literally and culturally on the fringe of the country – the place where the hippies, minorities, artists and madmen gathered together. Surely there was some life somewhere out there among those streets.

      After walking around for a while, I eventually found a hostel down by the seafront, just across the road from the pier. From the outside it looked dirty and unmaintained. Stain-covered curtains blew out the cracked windows as dirty towels hung out to dry. It seemed like the perfect place. I purchased some more beers from a shop and walked over to a group of people outside the front drinking and smoking. The group was made up of a diverse crowd including dread-locked hippies, Australian backpackers and some stoners sitting around on the floor eating pizza. They didn’t bat an eyelid to me joining in their group, and within a few minutes I was chatting to a Polish guy and a Kenyan guy over a beer. It turned out that both of them had recently emigrated to the country and were now working in Brighton while living in this cheap hostel, trying to get by in any way they could. I told them my story of just quitting my course to which they laughed and toasted drinks and offered me a joint. The good times were flowing and after one hour they made the decision to go do cocaine off a bin in an alleyway. Following this they then offered me to come with them to some rave in a “dark and dirty but decent club”. It had been a strange day so far, so naturally I made the decision to keep curiously crawling down the rabbit hole. I finished my drinks and joined them to the club.

       It was sometime around eight the following morning that I found myself standing with a bottle of wine on the edge of the roof of a house on the seafront, thoughtfully advising some stranger walking on the street below “not to take life so seriously”. A night of anarchy had ensued and by this point I was completely ruined; it had over twelve hours of drinking and partying with no sleep or rest. I had left the flat alone and now was at some random person’s place with the last remnants of a group of ravers strewn out across floors and sofas and beds around the house. The Polish guy was still there after having decided to miss his shift at work, but the Kenyan had disappeared somewhere into the night after dropping a tab of acid. Most people were asleep or unconscious by this point, but I stayed up chatting with some young English guy who had run away from home and had plans to live on a boat and sail around the south coast. As he told me with wild eyes about his little plan, I realised that the night had given me the medicine I needed: finding and talking to some others who were also existing on the fringes of society – whose lives were also in a state of chaos and permanent disorder. Finally, the situation of letting go from that ledge of normality and quitting my education didn’t feel so bad. I napped on the couch for a few hours and then stumbled back to my apartment.

       In the following days I had no urge to find a job or plan my next move, so I spent time just living quietly and simply, going for runs down by the coast, meditating and writing away in that dark apartment room of mine. I also spent a long amount of time simply roaming the streets of the city itself. As I did I kept looking more and more for the people who were living on the fringes of society or who had fallen off the conveyor belt altogether. Like a man on safari for a rare species, I looked for the freaks, the misfits and the weirdos. I looked for the outcasts and outsiders – for the aliens and the eccentrics. I searched for them out on those grey streets and when running down by the seafront. One area a little out the city besides the water was a good territory to spot them. Roaming there, I often saw some outsiders and misfits living in vans, fishing in the ocean, and smoking out on the rocks. I always wanted to go up to them and ask how their life was, but I figured they wanted to be left alone. 

       Eventually one such creature came up and approached me as I was walking back to my apartment one afternoon. I was listening to some music through my headphones, but could still hear his drunken staggering and slurred words creeping up from behind me. I took my headphones out and turned around to face him. He was a bald-headed, middle-aged man in cargo trousers and a long grey coat. He was holding a bottle of cheap cider in his hands and had a wild glaze in his eyes.

       “I said, lad, I asked you how’re you doing – didn’t you hear me? Don’t people in this town ever speak to each other anymore?” I studied him curiously for a moment, trying to deduct if we was a harmless drunk or something to be afraid of.

       “I couldn’t hear you” I told him. “I had my headphones in. But I’m good thanks. How are you?” He looked at me silently for a second and then grinned maniacally. 

       “That’s okay my son!” he shouted. “That’s okay. It’s all good! I’m all good! Do you want some cider lad?” He held out the bottle of white lightning cider in front of my face. I declined politely to which he carried on chugging away. After a few seconds of watching him drink I continued to walk down the street. He decided to join me. We then walked together for a while as he told me about his life in Brighton, and how he had been a DJ for over twenty years, and how the rest of the time how he liked to climb buildings, presumably blind drunk.

       “You see that block of flats over there lad? I climbed that just last week. And the week before that I managed to make it all the way on top of the hospital. The police came and arrested me as soon as I got down of course, but they’re used to me by now! A little slap on the wrists, nothing else! All the coppers in this town have been arresting me for climbing for over ten years now. I’ve just about climbed all there is to climb. I’ve had a few little falls and injuries, but I’m still going. You can’t stop me! Oh no, oh no. You can’t stop me!” 

       As I listened to his tales, I wondered how this man was still alive. It was only four in the afternoon and already this man was so drunk he could barely walk straight. Climbing any sort of building or scaffolding in his current state surely would result in severe injury or death. Yet he must have done it dozens of times. I never even thought to ask him why he actually had this obsession with climbing things. But I felt like I didn’t need to after a while. The passion and delight in his drunken voice said it all. He was a child in a middle-aged man’s body. He was just simply having fun and enjoying his life in any way he could. Such a wild, free-spirited person again made me feel good. As Bukowski had once said: “The free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it. Basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.” And it was true: just hearing his stories alleviated me of some sort of pain inside me. It made me feel relaxed. Most people his age were climbing career ladders, yet this man was out DJ-ing and climbing the city buildings for no reason other than simply having fun.

      In the next few days I continued seeing him walking along those street pavements with the same brand of cheap cider always in hand. His energy never changed. Always energetic and friendly. Always smiling and chatting the head off some stranger. Whenever I saw him he updated me about his climbs and exploits, and in return I told him my story about quitting my course and how I was just drifting around for a moment, figuring out my next move in life. One or two times he invited me to drink and climb with him, but I decided against it. My life already had enough madness in it for the time being.

      Eventually a few weeks went by and I stopped seeing him in the neighbourhood. I was always out there on the streets roaming and expected him to come into sight, staggering around a corner with a bottle of cider in hand, but he never did. At first I assumed he had packed up and moved to another town, but then I remembered that he had lived in the city all his life and loved it to the bone. It didn’t seem likely for him to hit the road so suddenly. I kept an eye out for him constantly. It wasn’t long until I overheard some guys at a construction sight. They were talking about someone falling from some scaffolding. I stopped and listened curiously. They spoke about a man who had fallen to his death in the city somewhere a week or so before. My stomach sank suddenly. Immediately I rushed home and went on the internet. I started searching for the news story. I typed some keywords into Google – ‘man’, ‘dies’, ‘death’, ‘falling from building’, ‘Brighton’. I pressed enter. A load of results then appeared, including one which immediately caught my eye – a news story from six days before from the local newspaper. I clicked on it hesitantly. I started reading. I scanned through the story and, sure enough, it was what I had feared. It was the man I had spoken to. It was the man with the big smile and drunken swagger. It was the man who had been climbing buildings in the city for ten years. He had died after falling from the top of a new block of flats still in construction. Finally, the gravity of existence had claimed him.

     Hearing the news of the death, I had a sudden urge to get out of Brighton as soon as I could. I was spooked. It was true that I saw something of myself in that wild-eyed man. In those pupils I saw the alien madness and the child spirit struggling to survive. I saw the pain of existing in this concrete society. This world was always at odds with those types of people. It had swallowed him up and surely those streets and this society were going to swallow me up to. Under the weight of this thought, I went and made a drastic decision. I went online and booked a flight to Mexico with the student loan money that had just come into my account for the course I had quit. The government had paid me a student loan to last the full year, but having already left the course in October, I now had some finances to play around with. I had wanted to travel in Central America for a while and now these tempestuous circumstances called for the adventure to come into play. I arranged the trip for the upcoming weekend and then went and poured myself a glass of red wine to toast my next voyage.

       After finishing the bottle of wine, I sat there drunk for a while staring at my bedroom wall. I was feeling lonely and had a sudden idea to go and see if my homeless friend was there on the street again. I headed out, bought some beer from the shop and walked down the street. Sure enough it was raining again and there he was in his usual spot: sitting there on his soggy cardboard, back against the wall, stroking his dog playfully. I went over and said hello. I then sat down beside him, soaking in the gutter, feeling the rain fall down from the heavens above. I opened a can and offered him one. This time he accepted. 

      As I drank and chatted with the homeless man, I thought of the chaos of the last few weeks; I thought of my life and this man’s life and the life of the boy who had run away from home and the life of the alcoholic climber who had fallen to his death. It really was true. Some people had just simply been misdelivered to the wrong planet. They found themselves stranded on a rock apart of a species they just didn’t understand. There was no room for them in human society and, like this man, my place was seemingly on the sidelines. It was in the solitary shadows – in those rain-soaked sewers and gutters. Since the playgrounds of youth, I had always felt separate and isolated from my species, and here, twenty years on, nothing had changed despite my attempts to fit in. This little attempt to cling onto the ledge of normality by doing a masters course had quickly failed and now I was free-falling back into the abyss of the unknown. I was heading back out into the wilderness of planet earth. I was as lost as a man could be and, as the rain started coming down more heavily, I cast my gaze up into the dark night sky, dreaming of something distant and far-off – a home somewhere out there in the galaxies of the cosmos. I didn’t expect to find one however. I didn’t expect to ever find one here on this planet. It was doomed and destined way of the wanderer. It was the way of the outcasts and outsiders – of the misfits and aliens. And by now it was clear that I was one of them too. By now it was clear I was destined never to belong. By now it was clear that no matter how far through life I travelled, or where I travelled, I would always return to those spaces of separation, sitting alone in the shadows, drinking beer, staring up into skies – waiting and looking for something – anything – to come and take me home.

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