short stories

~ Living on an Edge ~

~ Living on an Edge ~

His eyes were bloodshot and demonic. His remaining hair fluffed off into wild little quiffs. Almost half of his front teeth were missing and sporadic drops of saliva shot out his mouth when he spoke. I was in New Zealand and the thought hit me whether I was actually staring at an orc of some sort. I mean presumably the Lord of the Rings movies used costumes and make-up, but this creature in front of me wasn’t too far from looking like he was spawned in the dark pits of middle earth itself. To be fair, after hearing how he and his son frequently smoked crystal meth together, it was no surprise that he looked like he did. It was understandable. What wasn’t understandable was how this man was in charge of the entire floor of a wine factory. I had been working here for over two months and every day I had to listen to this snarling beast shout and spit orders at a bunch of backpackers who were simply too tired with him to listen. Still, it was my final day and I let his words fly far away over my head. His reign of bullshit was over. His superiority complex would have to be suffered by whatever backpacker was going to walk through the door next. For me it was time to hit the road again. I toiled away until the end of the day, took one last look at the orc and then strolled out the door onward to the next adventure feeling like Bilbo Baggins himself.

The job itself had been a much needed bank top-up. It had been over six months since I arrived in New Zealand from Chile almost completely broke. I had blown all my savings travelling around South America and had consequently limped into the country on the other side of the world from home with a bank account in as worse state as the orc’s teeth. What followed was a tempestuous time of bumming around, hitch-hiking, sleeping in airports, bad diet habits, and scraping by off random agricultural jobs. It wasn’t all bad. Sure, I had been subjecting myself to a life of struggle and financial stress, but everyday I awoke with wide eyes ready to face the world before me – and being in one of the most beautiful countries out there, well, that helped too naturally. Of course, I would always lie to my parents whenever I contacted them – telling them I was fine and had no problems with money. I knew that if they knew I was living the way I was it would leave them in a state of panic and worry. Maybe I should have also been more concerned about living so precariously on the edge, but often in this life that’s exactly where the excitement and adventure was at. It was true that there was desperation and depravity out on that edge, but sometimes there was a little majesty and magic too. Sometimes the edge was a beautiful place.

I continued loitering on that edge as I hitch-hiked down the south island, stopping in a town for a week to party, before eventually heading to a job I had heard about off my Chilean friend. It was somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, among the fjordlands, and allegedly you could make good money sticking some plants in the ground. I had the plan to save up some more money to continue travelling in Asia after I was done in this country. Working consistently in one place with no distractions (mainly drink and women) would ensure that this was possible.

It was on the third day of that job, somewhere in the morning, that I decided to quit. I quickly concluded that I was never going to last the duration. The work itself was quite literally backbreaking and it turned out that I was the only backpacker working there. On top of this, the hostel I was staying at was a sort of abandoned shack without electricity, close amenities, a warm shower or even another traveller. The idea of staying there for three months made me shudder and I decided to get out of there fast. I grabbed my backpack, hit the open road once again and hitch-hiked all the way back to Queenstown – the place I had stopped in to party for a week on the way down here.

Now, aside from its spectacular scenery, New Zealand is a more or less a boring country to live. I mean, the sort of place that is best to retire, walk dogs, or work in a wine factory and become a meth addict. But Queenstown itself was the exception. Hailed as the adrenaline capital of the world, the town is a little wonderland of bars, restaurants, hostels, tour agencies and overcrowded houses that sit tightly packed together between the surrounding mountains and Lake Wakatipu – an enormous mass of sparkling blue glacial water that stretches out into the neighbouring valleys. When people weren’t skiing, bungee-jumping, skydiving, or riding speed boats, they could be found drinking in the array of bars that were stuffed into the small town centre that was no bigger than a couple of football fields. At night one could find any nationality of backpacker twisted in one of those establishments. It was the sort of place that was as far away from home as possible for most people – the sort of place where they were there ‘for a good time, not for a long time’ – and consequently this led to the chaos, debauchery and sexually-promiscuous behaviour that was rife at any given evening in any given bar. In all honesty it was probably the worst place in the world to save money and avoid the distractions of drink and women, but my will had been broken after just a couple of days of tough work out in the sticks and I needed a drink. The town was notoriously hard to find a place to stay, but luckily for me I knew a girl from my previous job in the wine factory who could get me a bed in a house a little out the centre that overlooked the lake and mountains. By New Zealand standards, I had hit the backpacker jackpot.

I arrived to that house and saw a Kiwi guy dragging a bed out the front door and attaching it to the roof rack of his car. I stood and watched him curiously. “Don’t mind me” he said. “I’ll be outta your way in a sec.” He and his friend proceeded to lift the bed onto the car, throw some straps over it, tighten it up, then get in and drive off down the road. It was an interesting sight to arrive to, and also an illegal one I quickly discovered. The Kiwi had decided to steal the bed after being kicked out of the house by the landlady. And he wasn’t the only one. The landlady was in the process of kicking most tenants out after so many had failed to pay their rent, or moved in secretly to sleep on couches, or threw wild parties and damaged the house – as was evident by the gaping holes in the walls of the hallway. Over twenty people had been living in this seven bedroom house, and now over half of them would be kicked out to be replaced with a new set of backpackers, including my good, respectable self.

After settling in, I decided it was time to go out there and look for some sort of job that would support my temporary existence in this chaotic town. As always my CV was a mediocre read which wasn’t going to help me too much. Most jobs in Queenstown were in hospitality or tour agency work – both of which I had zero experience in. With this in mind I headed straight to a labour agency that was located on the outskirts of town. As soon as I walked in they took one look at me and saw what type of person I was – another drifting backpacker with no discernible skills or trade or talent. It turned out I was in the perfect place. A new DIY store was opening soon just outside of town and they needed a bunch of helper monkeys to assist the store’s staff with setting up the interior. They gave me my work helmet and high-vis vest; I was to get started the very next day.

Settling into the job was an easy affair and I soon made friends. The labour agency picked up and shipped off a group of people to the work site everyday. There must have been over fifteen people crammed into that mini-bus every morning, most of which were hungover or asleep. When we got to work we were given an inspiring team briefing before everyone dispersed and went and found ways to keep themselves busy with some simple task that would normally end up taking an entire day. The team itself consisted entirely of backpackers, all of which were male. Speaking to them all, it was clear that most of them were like me: young guys scraping by and travelling around in whatever way they could. Naturally this had led them to this no-skills required job. I thought I had been living like a bum but after a week it was clear that I was an amateur at fringe-living compared to this team of delinquent drifters. Among the team included: a Mexican eighteen year-old who had overstayed his visa and was working illegally; an English guy who was running away from debt collectors back home; an Irish guy who was penniless and sleeping in the town park; a dutch guy living in the back of his van; another English guy who arrived drunk and smelling of booze every morning; and a couple of guys who spent most of their time using the work materials to build items of furniture for their house they were renting. To single out the English guy as an alcoholic was a little unfair I quickly realised. Most people not only in this job, but also in this town, were living lives that left their livers and bank accounts in damaged states. The allure was simply too great. Every night the town’s bright neon lights shimmered below beside the lake – the enticing glow of a bunch of people partying and enjoying the temporary buzz of being young, free and far away from the suffocating world of normality back home.

Naturally it wasn’t long before I was lured into that lifestyle myself. Most weekends quickly became a blur of hedonistic partying. Sometimes there was some hiking or camping, but that usually involved large amounts of alcohol too. Not only did I have the influence of all the guys working at the labour agency, but also I had a house of about twenty people residing at the house. Coming home from work everyday, there was usually at least a couple of people knocking back the drinks and preparing to make an assault on the town centre. There was simply no escape. Chaotic weekends soon turned into chaotic weekdays. Summer was here and I could do nothing but prepare to strap myself in for the ride. The drinks had been served – the madness had begun.

Now in this life, a man or woman lives on their edge more than you think. So many people out there in those towns and cities are limping by in ways you can’t see on the surface. What a person needed to survive in this world was food, water, shelter and normally a drink or something to take the edge off existence. If you had those things, then you could get by in some rudimentary way. Well, like many people in this town, I was getting those things and not much else. After a while I was making it to work just three or four days a week. This was usually enough to afford rent and cheap groceries, and then concentrate on the main expense of enjoying the summer festivities of this chaotic town. The whole thing quickly began to feel like I was in some sort of amusement park where I would do just enough to afford the entrance fee and ride out the rollercoaster of life. The thought hit me: wasn’t that what life was anyway? Finding a way to get by and survive while trying to find time to actually enjoy the ride? Still, often I thought I had taken it too far. I was on the other side of the world from home and I had a tooth problem I couldn’t afford to address, my remaining clothes were now tattered and frayed, my passport was considerably damaged, and the lack of sleep I was getting left my mind in a constant state of delirium. Some days I awoke and stared into morning mirrors of realisation and saw the sanity slowly fading from my eyes. At this point it had also become clear that my plan to do some travels in Asia was down the drain, and instead I was just concentrating on surviving the summer here and making it back home when my visa finally expired. My two year trip was coming to an end and I wanted to go out in style. The neighbourhoods of normality beckoned back home and I was going to exploit this brief chance of living young, wild and free in a beautiful place.

And so onwards the descent into madness continued. House parties. Work parties. Festivals. Christmas. New year. My birthday. More house parties. Camping trips. Climbing mountains. Sleep deprivation. Sleeping with strangers. Sleeping with friends. Not sleeping at all. Eventually the job at the DIY store was finished and we were all left searching and fighting for whatever form of work the agency could give us. This included traffic wardening, furniture removal, construction, and, on some weeks, nothing at all. Consequently my bank account began to slowly sink down and down towards the depths of true poverty. I was slowly falling off that edge into the abyss of being homeless, penniless and possession-less on the other side of the world from home. Naturally I felt better knowing that I wasn’t alone in such a fate. By now I had become good friends with the English alcoholic James from work. Many nights we spent together getting twisted in town or down beside the lake. Hearing the stories from his life, it was clear that he had set up camp and made ‘the edge’ his home. The last years of his life back home had consisted of travelling around the U.K with a cheffing agency, staying in hotels and drinking heavily every night. After a couple of years he had finally saved up enough money to travel. He flew one-way to Bangkok and drove around South-East Asia for eight months on a motorbike before arriving here skint in Queenstown where he was now scraping by week by week, paycheck to paycheck, living in a hostel dorm with nothing but a few items of clothing to his name. Like the orc back in the wine factory, he was another man loitering precariously on the precipice of total destruction, all the while still managing to be an integrated, working member of society. Meeting all these random characters in New Zealand, I came to realise that in a way there was a little bit of this insanity inside all of us. I could see it in the orc’s eyes. I could see it in James’ eyes. And now, facing those morning mirrors of realisation, I could gradually begin to see it in my own eyes: the anarchy of the human mind that must be suppressed so we could all fit into society and get money to survive in some elementary and socially-acceptable way.

As the time went by, mine and James’ influence on each other slowly and surely caused us both to descend deeper into those pits of madness. On one temporary job we both took turns controlling the traffic flow into the town centre during a busy festival period. One of us would stand on the road and aggregate the traffic in and out of the city centre, while the other went next door to the bar to drink red wine and chat with our friends who were working there. Under the influence, we decided to blog and post our exploits online and quickly became famous in town as ‘the traffic terminators’. Many cars drove past waving and offering us free drinks and food. Some people took pictures with us. Journalists even came and interviewed us for the local newspaper. With our new found fame, we felt like the kings of Queenstown – two drifting backpackers, somehow the momentary heroes of this famous town. Of course we always tried to keep the town oblivious to the fact we were really just messing around and taking it in turns to go next door to the bar to drink and talk crap with our friends.

It wasn’t until we worked one job that I realised we had perhaps gone a little too far. Through the agency we had been tasked to help set up and take down the stage for a gig somewhere about half an hour outside of town. The deal was that if we set up the stage and took it down after, we could each get a free ticket to the show. Like responsible employees we set to the task in the early morning and helped finish off setting up the stage. Then, like irresponsible employees, we went back to town where we spent the afternoon in the sun by the lake joining in an all-day DJ party. What followed was a day of drinking, dancing, swimming in the lake, a free concert, and then swiftly being dismissed from the job of taking the stage down the second the supervisors saw the state of us after the gig.

It was safe to say that the owners of the labour agency hated us after that fiasco and consequently assigned us the worst jobs they could, or nothing at all. Either it was a day of no work, or a day of doing menial tasks alone at some millionaires house in the middle of nowhere for the minimum wage. By this point any hope of travelling in Asia was over and I was hoping that a week stopover in Bali would suffice. I now had just a few hundred dollars of borrowed money left in my account. The entropy of the universe had worked its force and slowly ground me down. I was now a man holding on – living life to the fullest you could before death and destruction claimed you totally. Still I kept holding on as I was nearing the flight, picking up the scraps of employment, counting the pennies, living off packs of instant noodles – napping on my lunch breaks to catch up on some sleep. In the meanwhile the house had become a circus of insanity. We had created a rota in which you had to sign in when you started drinking and then sign out when you stopped. This soon created a competitive nature amongst everyone and our house quickly became some sort of perpetual party. It was a literal madhouse in moments and often I went and stood alone on the balcony staring out at that beautiful lake view, appreciating that my life was truly more absurd than ever before.

Eventually the day had come and it was time to escape Queenstown with whatever remnants of sanity, money and possessions I had left. I took one last look in that mirror and realised I had done it; I had lasted out the summer – five months of utter chaos on the other side of the world. Good friends had come and gone, the original group of the house was now being broken apart – the time in paradise now over. I said goodbye to all the friends I had made there and headed alone as always again to the airport. I was flying to Bali with basically nothing but a few tattered items of clothing, a damaged liver and mind, a faded passport, and money that most likely was not going to be enough to get me completely home to the U.K. Still, I felt more alive than ever and as the plane took off, I looked out the window at Queenstown to soak in the last glimpse of the town below. It was then that I caught my reflection in the window pane. Staring deep into my tired eyes, I could see a specific stare now seared into my soul. It was the look of my English friend James. It was the look of the orc in the wine factory. It was the look of every crazed soul who was living their life precariously close to the edge of sanity and society, trying to live their life to the fullest they could without completely destroying themselves. I smiled to myself and then stared down at my shoes – beaten and battered and bruised – little bits of material hanging off the outer section. Right then I realised that the edge was a place I had gotten to know all too well whilst out on my travels. It was a place of chaos and madness – a place of fire and destruction. It was a place where I was going to be for a long time yet.

With that thought in mind, I ordered a red wine and toasted to the next adventure.

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