short stories

~ Holding On ~

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~ Holding On ~

A new chapter had arrived and I was living in Nottingham – a new city for me to make my mark and perhaps finally integrate myself into human society. The quest hadn’t gotten off to a good start. I was hungover, pissing blood, unemployed – lying on my bed trying to summon the strength to get up and face the world. I reached over and grabbed my CV from the bedside desk. It was a bigger mess than ever. Twenty-seven-years-old and I had never worked a full-time job. Most of my peers had an employment history of structure and sanity and sensibility; what was on mine was scraps of part-time employment intermixed with huge gaps where I had been bumming around the world or living off medical trials. From an employer’s point of view, it was nothing but mess and madness. I put it back down on the desk and looked down at my body: skinnier than usual since my recent decision to become a vegetarian. A scar on my left knee reminded me of the time when I had drunkenly fallen into a basement in Spain. Another one reminded me of getting beat up by a group of guys after kissing someone’s girlfriend. 

The scratches and scars weren’t just on my skin, but etched into my heart and soul too. I could feel a throbbing pain within me slowly succumbing to the inevitable; the entropy of the universe slowly wearing me down little by little, piece by piece. It was true that holding it together was harder year by year. Half-way through my twenties and I had let myself drift far away from a normal, healthy life. I was now out on the fringes of sanity and society; of self-destruction and madness. I felt alone in my grim fate but I couldn’t help but walk the streets and wonder how many others were also out there trying to hold on to that ledge too. How many people had faced those morning mirrors while trying to summon the strength to face another day? How many people also felt disconnected from the world around them? How many people were also holding on to whatever it was that was momentarily saving them from drowning in the abyss?

Indeed, some days the sadness of those streets was too much. You could see it in the passing faces. The struggle of everyday life. The dreams and desires that had been suppressed. The people mindlessly drifting down the sidewalks of life, following someone else’s path and not their own. Maybe I was just an angsty young man projecting my own problems onto others, but a part of me could feel the weight of this society tearing everyone apart from the inside out. Our modern civilisation had left so many of us gutted and debauched. It seemed that very few of those humans were doing well to me. Most were ‘getting by’ or ‘making ends meet’. Some were pretending that everything was great with fake smiles and social media posts, but in reality, most were living lives of quiet desperation and spiritual emptiness. Other than them you had the madmen and maniacs who made no secret about their wretched fate. You only had to go to the town centre to see them wandering aimlessly down those streets, shouting and swearing at skies above in an attempt to vent their inner pain. Looking at those dejected creatures, I sometimes felt a sort of affinity toward them: a part of me suspected that their fate was my fate. My manic mind just couldn’t be reprogrammed to the type that could put up with the trivia of everyday life. Once you had lived a certain way and saw society from a certain angle, there was just no way to make your way back to the safe farm of social sanity. No way to accept the small-talk and watch the televisions and cast the fake smiles and bullshit the job interviews. 

I thought I had let go of that life forever but I met a man one day while coming home from the pub who made me realise I had to try and hold onto it a little more. There he was lying there beside his own vomit, sipping a two-litre bottle of cider, asking me for change. I gave him some then sat down beside him. We started speaking and he told me how he was a student just a few years ago before deciding to abandon his studies and start bumming around the world. Specifically, he told me about his travels in Asia and how he had come back home and fallen into hard times with no friends or family to support him. His tale caused a strange and uneasy feeling in my stomach. The more I listened to his story, the more I realised that his path had been the same as my path. The travelling, the isolation – the abandonment of education and indifference with society. The similarities made me wonder if that was where I was also heading. The spaces of the down and out? The vomit-stained gutters? The idea of it scared me so much that I ran back home and got to work on finding some sort of employment. 

Back in my apartment room, I opened up that laptop and loaded my CV. I stared at that page and tried to think how I could possibly stitch together the chaos of the last years of bohemian madness. I quickly came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to fabricate this document which acted as a passport to a healthy life of employment and social acceptance amongst peers and parents. I extended some dates and started applying for as many jobs as possible. All types of jobs. Office jobs. Bar jobs. Even journalism jobs from my degree I hadn’t used in the last five years. I flung my application out into the professional wilderness hoping some human resource manager would bite. The rejections and non-replies predictably came in thick and fast. Even with all the adjustments, my work history was a total disaster and I was now a ‘red flag’ for most employers – understandably I guess. 

Eventually, I decided to head to an industrial work agency and let myself get a menial job of some kind. Specifically it was a job in a metal fabrication factory. Almost anyone could do this sort of work; you merely did a repetitive task that a machine would eventually do once the technology had developed. There was no intellect required and the minimum wage pay reflected this. That was okay. It was something at least and I didn’t need much money; just enough to get by and give myself some time alone to work on my writing when I got home. I got started on the job, working eight to five, Monday to Friday. My time there involved standing on a factory line and helping to grind down pieces that came out the machine. Little bits of metal protruded from the corners and I simply had to grind the roughness down to something smooth. I admired the irony of my role and wondered if I could perhaps turn the machine on myself. 

It was a long day of mind-numbing work and by the time I got home, I only had just a few hours to myself to try and wake myself up to do something. My plan, of course, was to write myself into stardom, but often I was too tired and just slumped on my bed and stared at the ceiling. It was my space of solitude and the silence of the room allowed many thoughts to run through my head. A part of just still couldn’t understand how so many people submitted themselves to this routine all their lives. The relentless work five days a week for a weekend that flew by. And, of course, few people did anything with their weekend other than try to cheer themselves up with highstreet shopping or drinking. In the blink of an eye, it was Monday morning again and you were back there in the workplace staring into space and facing another long week of mindless work.

That mindless work continued in the metal fabrication factory until they suddenly ran dry. I collected my last paycheck and went back to the agency to see what gruel they had on their menu. After sitting in front of a smug young recruitment agent talking about his new watch, I was given the assignment of helping out at an old pet food factory. I knew I wasn’t qualified for much in this world, but this was a new low even by my standards. Consider the fact that the factory was a one hour commute away too, and that ten per cent of my wage would be eaten up by the bus fare, it was safe to say I wasn’t feeling too great with the situation at hand.

Still, I needed to get some money to avoid joining the homeless man on the vomit-stained sidewalks, so I sucked it up and got to work. Walking into the factory for the first time, I was greeted immediately with the overpowering smell of pet food. It was a stench that quickly ingrained itself into your clothes, skin and soul. I was told that I would get used to it. Lucky me. On the way to see the manager, I walked past a ‘waste bucket’ where damaged or out-of-date packets of cat food had been chucked in. Maybe some smells you could get used to, but not that one. That was the smell of death and maggots and madness. That was the smell straight from the depths of hell.

After a quick conversation with the manager, I was put on a conveyor-belt line where I was to load up cans of dog food that would be stripped and relabelled. It was about the same level of skill involved as the last job – i.e. none at all. While I worked, I would look around at everyone in the factory. Some had worked with the machines so long they had become mechanical themselves. Their cogs in their brain moved the same robotic way, their conversations were mechanised, their behaviour automatic. You could tell who were the ones who had been there the longest due to how little light came from their eyes. This was it: the murdering machine of the mundane. People who had worked and existed in menial jobs so long that the feeling of life had all but left their veins. And it wasn’t just the dead-end jobs where this happened. It also happened in graduate jobs. In the office jobs. Even the high-paying, high-rise jobs. The people in those often became so absorbed in bureaucracy and systems that they soon lost their souls. You could see it in the faces of most CEOs and politicians; very little humanity remained in their eyes. They had been converted to some sort of thinking, calculating machines of the system.

But where else to turn to? I wondered again. The homeless laid on those sidewalks and those bills needed to be paid. I, of course, had the classic writer’s dream that one day some big hotshot editor would stumble across my work and I’d be selling millions worldwide. There in Rolling Stone magazine interviews I would sit and tell my story about how I crawled out of the drudgery and darkness to emerge clean on the other side of my dream. It was total delusion of course, but we all needed a little bit of delusion to make life bearable I guess. It’s when we gave up on our dreams altogether that the murdering machine took the fatal blow. You emptied out and rotted away like those out-of-date cans of dog food. Holding onto a dream was what kept some sort of spirit for life, and the importance of it was something I was continually reminded of while speaking to the only friend I had in the pet food factory. He was a forty-seven-year-old man who had been through a lot of jobs after being made redundant from his software developing job in London. He had gone from a high-paying job to now earning the minimum wage in that factory of doom. It was a situation he naturally wasn’t too happy with and every day he told me about how he was developing his own computer game in his spare time to try and get himself back into working in his passion. The smell of rotting pet food had spurred him on not to give up on and there he was: another man fighting to hold on and not let himself be murdered by that mundane machine that stole the light from so many eyes and the fight from so many hearts. 

That man stirred something in me and motivated me to go home and also toil away at my dream. To not let myself empty out slowly through a life of incessant and trivial routine. To write my way into some sort of glory and escape. I was trying to hold on the best I could but sometimes the horror of my situation led me back to the bottle. I’d go on weekend benders blowing all my money before staring into mirrors and seeing the sanity slowly slipping from my eyes. It soon spiralled out of control to the point where I drank myself to sleep most nights, trying to forget about the horror of my circumstance. Some nights my loneliness hit me and I’d go out to a club alone to find a girl which naturally was notably harder to do when you told them you worked in a pet food factory.

One day a new drama came my way: my laptop started refusing to charge. It would only plugin and provide power, but not actually charge the computer. Consequently, the battery started to drop down slowly and slowly by one percent a day on average. That laptop was my portal to another place and soon I would no longer even be able to write away my immortal stories – the one thing that was keeping me from losing my mind altogether. The universe had spoken and that battery was running down its course to complete destruction. I had to laugh at the symbolic nature of it all. Like me, it was becoming more and more depleted as I fought to keep my soul alive in a society which relentlessly looked to stomp it into submission. It is a reality that faces most of us out there and – as the fingers bleed in the factories, as the stressed workers tightly grip the steering wheels in the morning commute, as the fifty-year-old man works on his computer game till late at night; as the pills are swallowed and the powder snorted; as the bills arrive through the post and the prayers are not answered – so many of us are holding on in some way or another to stop ourselves from emptying out. Clutching onto beer bottles, or pills, or bags of powder. Clinging onto delusions and dreams. Clinging onto the hope in our hearts as we face the darkness of the Monday morning at work once again. 

Clinging onto the words of a short story that nobody will probably ever read. Well, I guess I’m not letting go just yet.

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