Lab Rat (opening two chapters)
– The following is the opening to 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 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.
I arrived at the station and stepped off the train with my backpack gripping my shoulders. In there were my total belongings: ten kilograms worth of clothes, a couple of books, some toiletries, and an old laptop. Despite the weight I was carrying, I felt as light as a man could feel. All my belongings in one bag, a new city and a new beginning. No attachments and no responsibilities. The world was open for me and I looked at the people on the street: the pretty girls, the dutifully employed, the pram-pushing mothers. Maybe soon I would also be strolling down those pavements, a civilised member of society, complete with a job, a partner, my own place to live, and a Netflix subscription. It was a strange thought, one that I quickly brushed off as delusion, most likely caused by the excitement of moving to a new town.
I started making my way into the centre. The backpack on my shoulders had become an almost organ-like feature of my body. For the last few years, I had used it while gallivanting around the world on various backpacking trips. The act of booking a flight to some far off country and drifting around for a while had almost become commonplace. I was bum or vagrant in some people’s eyes; a hippy or free-spirit in others. From the mountains of Nepal, to the bars of Spain, to the beaches of Brazil – many countries had played host to me stumbling and staggering through life, leaving behind me a trail of chaotic adventures, short romances and empty wine bottles – the blood and bones of my experience scattered in various ditches around the world. Now here I was back for a stint in my own country to see what madness awaited me close to home – whatever the hell that was anymore. For now, it was a city by the name of Nottingham, England.
I continued making my way through the city centre while mapping out the environment of my new place of residence. It was a Saturday afternoon and the crowds filled the squares and high-streets. The shoppers with their shopping bags; the kids running around by the fountain; the students sitting outside cafes. In particular, I noticed there were more homeless people littering the streets than usual. In the space of fifteen minutes, I had to apologise four times for having no change. The thought hit me that maybe things had just collectively gotten worse in this country in the last few years. Often I looked at the homeless people as a sort of ominous warning about where you could end up if you drifted too far from conventional life. A wanderer like myself was naturally at risk. Fortunately, I had arranged to stay at a friend’s place for now while I searched for my own place to live. A small sofa awaited me and I kept on trekking towards it. A bus would have been easier, but I wasn’t in the habit of paying for things I could avoid paying for. After all, the £1500 in my bank account was the only thing separating me from those homeless people in the gutter; with no real job skills or talents, I had to make my money go as far as possible until I figured out how to adjust myself to the requirements of regular life.
After about an hour of meandering through the city streets and neighbourhoods, I arrived at my friend Jake’s place. He was a guy I knew from school – someone I hadn’t seen much over the last years due to our contrasting lifestyles. Fortunately our friendship was strong enough that we could just pick up where we left off. We did exactly that as I dropped my bags, cracked open some beers, and got speaking about the last couple of years of our lives. Eventually we got around to what my plans were now I was in Nottingham. I wasn’t too sure of the answer myself to be honest. I racked my brain for something that sounded sane and logical. “For now, just get a place, do some writing, and save up for the next adventure. I guess that means I’ll need a job of some sort.”
“What sort of work are you looking for?”
“Anything I can get really.” (At that point I remembered he worked at a bar and asked if there was any work going).
“Nothing at the minute I think pal. But I can ask around if anyone knows anything else.”
Naturally I knew that my job options would be limited; I was twenty-seven now and it had been five years since I finished university. Since then my CV was a pitiful read – a bloodied bombsite with huge gaps and short stints at low-skilled, menial jobs. Retail, bar work, factory work, farm work – the sort of work that was not classified as ‘real work’ and didn’t give you any fancy skills to list on that piece of paper. If you want to know the truth, a part of me was concerned with how out the loop I had become with the everyday man or woman. A great distance now stood between me and the majority of people my age. Indeed, I believed I was a man of intelligence, but there was a huge difference between being intelligent and being compatible with a certain system of society. Things like writing a CV, bullshitting a job interview, and just generally pretending that you cared to wake up early every morning to fight traffic and sit behind a desk doing something you had absolutely no interest in seemed to come quite hard to me. No doubt, it was that same indifference with the system which had led me to a lifestyle of bohemian travel. At the crossroads of young adult life, I decided that there was more value in getting off the road altogether and venturing off into the wilderness. After all, I had just completed two decades of institutional education and was expected to enter a new wild-goose chase – one in which getting a job in itself was a job, and when you got that job it was a perpetual slog toward the weekend while trying to move up to the next promotion, the next paycheck, the next hoop or hurdle. Then came the other goals outside of work: saving up for a house and retirement, finding a partner, settling down, spawning children. It was an uninspiring corridor towards the grave as far as I could see, and I guess my indifference with it all is what made me go off and see if I could find something else. Well, that had all been done and now here I was five years on with my tail between my feet and nothing to show for it except for some memories and maybe the fool’s wisdom on life. Still, there was something inside of me now that told me it was worth it, and I could probably see myself doing it again at some point, once I had some money in my account of course.
I spent the first few days in town just lounging about, playing on Jake’s PlayStation, drinking beer, going for walks. It was nice to be settled in one place to catch my breath. The previous five months had been a whirlwind of relentless travelling, excessive partying and just general chaos. I liked to push it to the limit, but like every person I needed that time to recuperate before it all became too much for the mind, body, and bank account. In the quest to find my own place, I went on all the local websites and scrolled through the posts. My budget was limited so I was looking for a flat or house share rather than my own place. I was used to casual ways of life; to hostels, transient visits, and staying in places without any official contracts or paperwork. But it appeared that such a style wouldn’t be so easy now. Many places demanded ‘PROFESSIONALS ONLY’, as well as three month’s of bank statements, proof of employment, and satisfactory references – none of which I was duly able to provide. It appeared slotting myself back into society wasn’t going to be such a smooth task. I persevered on though, looking for someone who might take a chance on me. I sent people messages telling them what a laid-back guy I was, that I was tidy and friendly and considerate, and anything that might make me sound like the decent and wholesome guy I undoubtedly was.
Eventually a couple of people took the bait and I was able to arrange some viewings. The first viewing was a rundown house in a rough neighbourhood. After the neighbours watched me arrive and leave with a look of contempt – as well as the bedroom window looking out at a barbed wire factory fence – I decided to give it a miss. The second viewing took me to an old Victorian house on a quiet street beside the river. The landlady lived in the property with her cats and three other male tenants – one of which was a middle-aged conspiracy theorist who lived in a shed at the bottom of the garden; another a sixty-year-old musician who had lived in a treehouse in Mexico for the last ten years; and, finally, a young guy who had recently graduated university and was working in environmental conservation (the only employed one of the household). She introduced me to them and then showed me up to the spare room in the attic conversion.
“The previous tenant lived here for eleven years,” she told me as we entered. “She was an alcoholic and didn’t leave her room much, so I’ve cleaned it and redone it completely.” At that moment I looked around the room and imagined that woman being myself – someone who had stumbled in here one day at a crossroads in her life and had then spent over a decade dwelling there while enslaved to the bottle. It was a grim thought and I looked at the bed in the corner. I looked at the old desk beside the window. The sombre atmosphere of it all made me feel a bit uneasy, but it was a room at a cheap rate and it was good enough for now. Besides, I didn’t need much; just a place to shelter myself from the world, write my stories, and maybe bring some poor female back to every now and again whenever I got lucky.
To celebrate my new place of residence, me and Jake went out on the town. It was the start of summer and the beer gardens were packed with English people doing what they do best: alleviating the existential emptiness by binge drinking booze, chain-smoking cigarettes, and bonding together over talk of football and weather. I had once had a chat with a Norwegian girl about what people in my home country did during summer. Apparently the big thing in Scandinavia was to go to the nearest lake and go swimming and have BBQs. Here there wasn’t much swimming taking place, and the national pass time on the rare occasion the sun came out was to descend on the nearest beer garden like crazed vultures. Those same cultural values hadn’t left my brain and I was eager to knock back the pints, talk shit to strangers, and momentarily forget who and what and where I was. Alcohol had been an elixir of life to help me navigate the tempestuous wilderness of adult life so far, and I sipped back those pints once again as I got drunk in my new home and wondered what awaited me next on my calamitous journey.
I set my bags down and looked around the room. My new stronghold. I had stayed in some shitty places over the years, but this was definitely one of the nicer ones. It even had its own fireplace, although it appeared to be out of use. The bed was king-size and covered with fresh Paisley sheets. Although I knew the joy of the drifting life, I also knew that every man needs his lair from time to time. For an introvert as I was, this was even more important. The world beats every man and woman down and sometimes it’s just those four walls that keeps it out long enough to hold onto your sanity; to not let that fire in your heart get snuffed out by all the relentless bullshit being thrown at you from every angle the second you walked out the front door. My kingdom of solitude was ready and I lay on the bed and looked up at the ceiling. I thought of nothing and did nothing for some minutes. I then got up, pulled my laptop out my bag and set it down on the desk in the corner. Already I liked the look of it. The window was right beside the desk and sunlight was creeping in through a small gap between the neighbouring houses. My workplace lit up like a spiritual place of worship. By workplace, I meant the place in which I would do my writing. Over the last few years of wandering the world and debating my place in it, I had decided that I was born to be a writer. Like many writers, I wasn’t compatible with much else in society, and living in my own world and writing down my thoughts was something that was not only enjoyable, but something that was necessary for my sanity and survival. There was so much going on inside my head that if I were to keep it all inside, I would implode, self-destruct, or even murder somebody. And on top of that, it seemed like writing was the only real thing worth doing. To me there was more glory in putting down a good sentence than in driving any flash car, or making a million pounds, or marrying some hot woman. Yes, the muse was the magic and I wanted to stain the blank pages of the world with the words in my heart. I wanted to shake people alive with my own passion and madness. I wanted my words to be read long after the life had slipped from my body and my bones lay gathering dust in the ground.
With that in mind, I opened up my laptop and faced down the blank page once more. For a while I tried to write but I couldn’t (the inspiration is either there or it isn’t; one cannot force it). Instead, I went online to check out the job adverts. It was something I had been dreading for a while – that moment when I’d have to go through the dehumanising and demoralising task of seeking employment. I sat there scrolling through the online search boards. I felt like a vegetarian looking for a dish in a steakhouse. Every job listing seemed so repulsive – so unattractive – that I felt my heart fill with hopelessness. The vast majority of jobs I wasn’t qualified for anyway, and the ones I was qualified for seemed abhorrent and insane. Marketing jobs, customer service jobs, sales jobs. They all involved things that made me want to vomit. Selling people shit over the phone. High-stress environments. Being a proactive ‘team-player’. Why was it so hard, I wondered, for a human just to live in a decent way. I just wanted a sane life and to not be reduced to doing mundane tasks that stole the light from the eye and the joy from the heart. I read those listings and longed for the days of hunter-gatherers roaming the wilderness and procuring their needs in a few hours before spending the rest of their day in leisure. Instead of gathering berries and materials while chilling with my tribe, I was expected to spend nine hours a day – plus commuting – doing something I had absolutely no connection to or passion for. Bossed around by people I couldn’t stand. Working for promotions I didn’t want. Earning money I couldn’t enjoy because there was no time to. If only there was another way, I wondered.
After a while of half-heartedly sending out job applications and hearing nothing back, I took myself down to the nearest employment agency. There was one just down the street, so I gave them a quick ring then headed over. Upon entry I was given a form to fill out and told to wait in the reception area. I filled in the details then sat there waiting, watching another young guy across from me fill out his form. He looked to be about eighteen and stared at this piece of paper with dejected and disinterested eyes. I kinda felt sorry for him. I guess I should have felt sorry for myself, but I was almost ten years older; at eighteen he should have been enjoying his formative years, not sitting there looking sorry for himself while trying to get some miserable, minimum-wage job.
After ten minutes, I was invited into a room by a recruitment consultant. “This way mate,” he said in a tone I instantly disliked. I entered his office and sat down as he also took a seat behind his desk. He was a young guy – about twenty-one – and had a smug look on his face. I could spot what kind of person he was instantly and within a minute I was listening to his spiel about how I could rely on him, how he loves his job, and how good he is at it. At one point he flashed his watch and told me he likes to get as many people into jobs as possible to earn the extra commission. “You see, me, I like to live well. I like to wear the best designer clothes and go to the best bars and drive a nice car – so it makes sense that I want to get as many people like you into work as possible.” I sat there with a blank look. “So tell me, what’s your situation and what are you looking for?” I began explaining my lifestyle and that I was looking for something casual (I also told him my abysmal work history). “Seems you’ve done a bit of manufacturing and industrial work,” he noted with a nod. “Well, we have quite a few positions coming through at the moment around Nottingham. Do you own a car?” I told him that I didn’t own a car. “Well, that’s okay – it might just mean you have to take the bus or something, but if you’re willing to spend some time commuting then you should be alright. Does that sound good?”
“Sure,” I lied.
“Great. Well it’s Friday afternoon now, work is done for the week, and we’re all going to be getting off soon down the pub. But don’t worry about it – like I said, there’s plenty of vacancies regularly coming in that would suit someone like you, and I’ll be in contact as soon as I can. You can count on me.” I then left and headed home, not really sure whether I was going to hear anything back at all. Or even if I wanted to.
The following Wednesday I got a call off Mr big-shot himself. He had sorted me a job in a food distribution warehouse to start the next day. The location was in a small town just outside the city, so I would need to take that bus after all. I checked the address and saw that it was quite a fair way away. According to Google it was a forty-minute bus ride, plus another five-minute walk to the warehouse. Add onto this the fifteen-minute walk from my place to the bus stop, then it was going to be at least an hour each way. That meant an eleven-hour day with commuting. I worked out the bus cost for the week and estimated it at around £25. The job was, predictably, minimum wage and this meant I was giving up fifty-five hours a week to take home about £280 after taxes and travel. Well, maybe I would like the job and make some new friends, I deluded myself with.
The next day I woke up early and began my first commute to the job. By then I had found out the place I was working in a warehouse for pet food distribution. It repackaged and reshipped pet food that appeared to have fallen off the back of a truck somewhere. I expected the place to smell and how right I was. Upon entry I was hit with a strong smell of dog biscuits that immediately ingrained itself into my clothes, skin, and soul. I looked at the people working there and already knew that they had worked there so long that they had gotten used to it. I thought that smell was bad, but it was nothing compared to waste buckets I walked past. It was a smell straight from the merciless depths of hell – the repulsive odor of rotting dog and cat food that had split open and was infested with wriggling maggots. I thought of walking out but this was it: like every man or woman I needed the money to live, and thus I was reduced to these grim duties in order to not be in those gutters with the homeless and insane.
The manager saw me standing there contemplating my existence and came over to introduce himself. He shook my hand and invited me into the office to go through formalities. He told me about the job, the schedule, what I had to do, and everything else I needed to know. He seemed like a decent guy and, as I carried on chatting with him, I began to see a sort of confused look in his eye. It was right after I worked out a mathematical equation about pay that he asked me about my education. I explained to him that I had been to university and had a degree in journalism. The confused look turned to a baffled one and I began to understand why. He explained to me – in as subtle a way as he could – that the agency usually sends people who “aren’t too bright”, so he was surprised for someone with a semi-functioning brain to come through the door. I understood his confusion; I didn’t know how I ended up at a place like that either. The current society wasn’t exactly exploding with job opportunities for graduates with mediocre degrees and absolutely no work experience in their field, but it was clear that he thought someone of reasonable intelligence shouldn’t have been shoving around smelly dog biscuits for minimum wage via an exploitative job agency. Well, life works in strange ways, I told him.
I got started with the job, my first task stacking tins of dog food onto pallets after they had been relabelled. While waiting for the cans to amass at the end of the conveyor-belt, I stood there watching some young Polish girls sit and strip the cans of their old labels. They stared out the window with emotionless expressions as they robotically picked up and sliced the labels without looking. They did one every three seconds before shoving it back onto the conveyor-belt. The girls weren’t beautiful or anything, but I couldn’t help but stare at them. Such young women with such little enthusiasm who had appeared to have done a task so much they had turned into machines themselves. They worked in silence and I wondered what they were thinking, and whether or not this was the sort of thing they had envisaged when coming to this country. Was this the better life they were hoping for? Did they have plans that stretched beyond the walls of the warehouse? Were they actually secretly fulfilled and content? As always when studying my fellow human-beings, I couldn’t be sure what was really lingering inside their skulls.
Once the newly-labelled cans made their way to the end of the conveyor-belt, I had to grab them and stack them on the pallets. It was physical work, and repetitive work, but I didn’t mind it. The speed was okay for it not to be stressful and the mindlessness of the work allowed me to daydream the hours away. Daydreaming often was a disability in life when it came to things that required focus, but when it came to situations like this, it felt like more of a superpower. I was able to pass the time away while going on some introspective adventure through the galaxies of my own mind. I thought about my travels and what other adventures I could go on in the future; I also thought of things to write about when I got home. Yes, I thought – truly the last refuge of freedom was in the mind. They had my body confined in that place for the time being, but my mind was free as always to wander wherever the hell it pleased.
After a while, my daydreaming was interrupted when another guy came to work with me. He was middle-aged, about fifty, with a bad posture, grey hair and glasses. He was friendly and started asking me about my life and how I had ended up in that warehouse. I liked him and told him everything without feeling the need to hide anything. He listened to me with interest, praising my lifestyle and encouraging me to get back on the road as soon as I could. After hearing my tale, I started to ask him a little about his own tragedy; about how he also had ended up in such a terrible job while seemingly being an intelligent person. He told me how he had worked in software development down in London for the last ten years until he was suddenly made redundant. Trying to get a new position in the industry was hard for someone his age, and for now he had been demoted from developing computer systems for big tech companies to stacking out-of-date tins of dog food. “All these companies want young graduates,” he complained to me. “They want people they can train up and have a future in the company, not some fifty-something man at the end of his working life.” The classic decay of value which awaited us all. His story was a sad one but I took solace in the fact he hadn’t given up; like many toiling away in these depressing and dead-end jobs, he had a grand plan to break free. After work everyday, he went home and devoted his leisure time to developing a computer game. He spent five hours a night working on it before getting whatever sleep he could. His plan was to upload it as an app and hope the success of it would allow him to break back into the software industry. The smell of the rotting pet food had spurred him on and there he was: another dreamer fighting for something more than he had. His story made me think of my writing and encouraged me to go home and hit those keyboard keys until the early hours of the morning, my fingertips fighting for freedom – my soul scratching and clawing for something more than what life was offering me. In my heart I felt my writing aspirations were nothing more than pure delusion, but like everyone else I was guilty of needing a little delusion to make life tolerable. Religion, love, dreams, the future – yes, delusion was the universal drug and it was just a matter of time before I wrote my masterpieces. Soon enough I would be sitting in a Rolling Stone interview telling some journalist how I crawled through the swamps of life to come out clean on the other side. I imagined the book signings, the woman knocking on my front door, the paychecks coming in for me. I imagined young writers asking me for advice and me telling them it was just a matter of following your gut and going out and living life with your heart on your sleeve. “To write it well you have to live it well,” I would say to them. “Be the centre of your own experience.” Yes, it was only a matter of time; only a matter of time before the world knew my genius. The delusional daydreams continued as I gazed out the window and suddenly began to understand the look on the faces of the young Polish girls a little better.
I carried on at the job for about four weeks until I had had enough. Getting up early and riding that one hour bus everyday; breaking my back while stacking out-of-date pet food; coming home stinking of dog biscuits. The paychecks came in and seemed pitiful for what I had sacrificed. The job itself had taken me to some new lows. At one point I had been reduced to emptying and cleaning out the waste buckets. The foul odor of that rotting pet food penetrated my lungs, almost causing me to vomit, and at that point I knew the absurdity of the job had gotten too much. I rang up the agency and told them that I had decided to quit. They didn’t seem too happy but I felt that the boss of the warehouse probably understood; he no doubt figured that an intelligent young man such as myself had moved onto something better, but no, there I was once again – a useless, unemployed graduate with little options in a recession-ravaged world. I couldn’t even work up the energy to go and search for another job; it was all simply too much for the time being. Instead I reflected on my travels and longed for some adventure. It was summer and I figured there were always places to explore around Nottingham, so I popped back to my parents to get my old bicycle. Going back to my parents was always a tedious affair and they were always keen to know how I was doing. We were a working class family and my parents only knew life as getting a steady job and settling down as soon as you were an adult. As a result, they hadn’t been encouraging of my travelling lifestyle in my twenties and were always keen to point out to me that I couldn’t be relying on them all my life. They pointed that out because a few years ago I had come back from a trip with a few thousand pounds of debt; what followed was a year at home, staring at the walls of my old childhood bedroom and feeling like they were closing in on me. I had to take my old job back at the local supermarket and suddenly my whole two-year world trip seemed like it never happened. I felt trapped, caged, suffocated. A period of depression followed in which I regularly argued with my parents. I knew that having to go back there for another stint would be too much for me, and I looked at my money dwindling down and felt a knot in my stomach. I was now in my late twenties and although there were many out there living with their parents due to the state of the economy, I knew such a thing for me would break me, as well as give my parents the gratification they wanted for seeing me fall flat on my feet again. Ultimately they wanted to see me suffer for choosing to not swallow the normal nine-to-five lifestyle like the majority of people my age were. “Why can’t you be more like your friends,” they would say. “They all have proper jobs…” “Why did you even get a degree if you’re not going to use it?” “When are you going to grow up like your brother?” Ahhh, the great questions of life.
Anyway, with my bike back in my possession, I took it out to the local countryside. I rode it around the small towns and villages, getting lost and enjoying the freedom that I had for the time being. Sometimes I would just pick a spot in a field, sit down with a 4-pack of cider, and write some poetry in a notebook. I played Bob Dylan on my phone and imagined myself in his shoes, wandering about America in the fifties meeting strange and interesting people. Aside from the cycling trips, I went to bars in town, hoping to meet some strange and interesting people myself. There was one bar in particular where all the bohemians seemed to congregate. The few times I had been in there I had met artists, musicians, travellers and homeless people. I was pretty much a bum myself at that point and I figured it was the place for me. I’d go there with Jake some nights and a few times I just went on my own. There was a smoking area at the side of the building that was packed with tables of people all crowding and conversing together. You only had to take a seat somewhere and it wasn’t long before you were chatting with some vegan anarchist about philosophy or politics. It was the perfect place for a cliché failing writer like myself and it was nice not to feel like an absolute alien for once (as I did among the socially-sane and steadily employed people that frequented the other bars).
One night I was there and got hit with the ‘what do you do?’ question. I always resented that question. Most likely because I was unemployed and didn’t have an answer to it, but also because you were expected to justify your existence with some job title as if it was the primary reason for your existence. Anyway, I got hit with the depressing question by some skin-head and just told him the truth – that I had been travelling a lot the last years and had now come home and was unemployed and aspiring to be a writer but not really being a writer. He sat there smoking his cigarette and nodding, seeming to understand the tragedy of my situation. It was then that I was informed of something which would change my life for the foreseeable future – something which seemed too good to be true in this world where people suffered to make a living.
“Have you ever considered doing one of those medical trial things?” he asked.
“Medical trials?” I said. “You mean being a human guinea-pig?”
“Yeah, clinical research studies. I’ve got a friend who does them. He normally makes around fifteen thousand pounds a year doing studies. It sounds like a pretty sweet gig too. You just go into a clinic, take some pills, have your health monitored for a bit, and then you come out with a load of money in your bank account. It’s all tax-free too.” My interest piqued with the amount of money he quoted; after tax, that was more than a full year’s wage at the pet food factory.
“Sounds good,” I said. “But isn’t it dangerous?”
“Well, he’s done loads of studies and never had any side effects. In fact, he loves going in to do them ‘cause it’s a chance to just lie around and do nothing for a bit. I’d do them myself if I could get the time off work. You need a flexible schedule to do them, but if you’re not currently working then you could look into it. There’s a clinic here in Nottingham. You’d be able to do your writing in there too.”
I sat there listening intently. The idea of testing drugs for money seemed strange at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I was willing to do it. Essentially every job required you to be locked away and sacrifice your time and health for a financial reimbursement; medical trials just seemed more direct about the whole thing. “Look you need money and we need your body, so come in and sacrifice your freedom and health for a set period of time and we reimburse you with a monetary payment into your bank account.” If anything I had to admire them for their honesty. I thanked him for the recommendation and told him I’d think about it. In reality I was already sold and I spent the rest of my evening thinking about when I could get into the clinic, take some experimental drugs, and begin my career in the human guinea-pig industry.
The smoking skin-head was right; there was a clinic here in Nottingham, in a business park beside a small village just outside the city. I went onto their website and checked them out. They were an independent company conducting a variety of studies for various diseases and conditions. The current trials paid anything from one to five thousand pounds, involving anything from three to twenty-six days in the clinic. To qualify for taking part in a trial you had to be between the age of eighteen and fifty-five, have a healthy body mass index, be a non-smoker, have no serious health issues, and have no history of drug or alcohol abuse. The history of alcohol abuse was questionable, but ultimately nothing they would be able to prove. I looked at everything they listed and realised I was good to go – finally, a role I was actually qualified for and interested in doing.
I registered and entered in my details, including my doctor who they would need to get a medical report off. Within a few days, they were on the phone and inviting me to come for an induction. I attended as soon as I could. The induction involved a medical examination, a chat with the doctor, and a tour of the facilities. Speaking to the doctor, he looked through my medical history with approving nods. On paper I was as healthy as they came: no conditions, allergies, past surgeries or major injuries. I was a natural. On the mental health side of things, I had definitely had some issues over the years, but typically I told him that I hadn’t. The way I figured it, there was no such thing as a person who had no history of mental illness; every man or woman out there had their own demons and had spent at least some time in the darkness. Ultimately there was no way for a human-being to live in this society without having their brain scrambled a little bit. After chatting for a few minutes, he began inspecting me over – shining a torch in my eyes, checking my reactions, listening to my breathing. He asked me about some scars on my body; they were all from drunken alterations, but I explained them away as bike-riding accidents. Next he lifted up my sleeve to examine the veins on my arm. For each study they would be taking multiple samples of blood, and hence you were required to have ‘good veins’ – aka veins which could be easily penetrated and drained by the nurses’ needles. Luckily, I passed with flying colours again. My whole life I had these big juicy veins that snaked down my arms. I attributed them to the cardiovascular exercises of running and cycling, as well as my general genetic make-up. In particular there was this one huge vein which protruded considerably around the underside of my elbow. This river of blood was a lucrative commodity and would be sure to get me onto a trial. This was it: my one money-making ability. Some men had marketable skills, team-player qualities, practical trades and talents. Me? I had a big vein which would secrete blood at any moment, making me an ideal candidate to test experimental drugs on.
After the medical I was given a tour of the facility which was located just across the road in a separate building. It looked more like a business headquarters from the outside than a medical facility. Walking through the reception and into the hallways, I soon saw the volunteers who were currently checked in for whatever study they were doing. They wore matching polo-shirts which identified them to their study via their colour (there were six wards in total which meant there were up to six studies taking place at any one time). Some of the volunteers were playing table tennis, some were playing pool, others were playing darts. Some sat down on beanbags and played on the Xbox; others sat in the lounge watching movies. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I watched them all relaxing and hanging out while taking home about £200 a day. Of course, they did have to be in their beds at some points for procedures, but for most of the day they were free to do as they pleased. I was even informed that there was bingo and quizzes which came with prizes. The cherry on the cake? The time spent here was completely free. You paid for nothing, all your meals were brought to you, and hell there was even a laundry service. It was like staring at the great secret I had hoped always existed when working those soul-crushing and tedious jobs. I thought of all the people out there spending money on their commutes, working for awful wages, struggling to save anything more than a few hundreds pounds a year. Fools! Here you could walk into the clinic, lay around, scratch your balls, play games, watch movies and have meals brought to you before walking out the front door a few thousands pounds better off. It was the ultimate life-hack and the big vein on my forearm was already pulsating at just the thought of it.
It was about two weeks later that I started my first study. I first attended a screening where I had my blood taken, my heart rate and blood pressure recorded, underwent a drug test, a breathalyser, a smokerlyzer, and, finally, had another brief medical with the doctor. Once again I passed with flying colours and was admitted to the clinic for the trial. The trial involved taking a medicine that treated some condition called ‘Neutropenia’ – a white blood cell disorder that was a side-effect of chemotherapy. The medicine was supposed to increase your white blood cell count – a response to the condition which typically lowered it, causing people to be more susceptible to diseases and infections due to weakened immune systems. I wasn’t totally sure what the whole thing was about if you want to know the god’s honest truth. I guess like everyone else I was blinded by the money – four and a half thousand pounds for twenty-two days in the clinic. Ha! It seemed absolutely ridiculous thinking about it – so much so that I was willing to get sick for it, even though the doctor made it clear many people had taken the drug before and the only real side effect was some ‘bone pain’. A bit of bone pain? That sure trumped the pain that came from the alternative. In particular I thought of what was required to earn four thousand pounds in that pet-food warehouse – the back pain, the stomach pain from the smell, the mental pain from the monotony. It was a good trade in my books and I was ready to get to work. I unpacked my things and prepared myself to be experimented on. It was go-time. (Oh, if you’re wondering why I was trialling a drug for a condition that I didn’t suffer from, it was because they didn’t want people who actually suffered from the condition. All the trials there were not to see if the medicine actually worked – that research had already been done – it was just to see how it was taken up by a healthy person and if there were any side effects.)
So there I was: unpacked and preparing myself for twenty-two days of lounging around, playing games, daydreaming, writing and laughing at the situation I had found myself in. I sat on my bed and got comfy. At the bottom of it I saw a piece of paper beside it. ‘Subject 55355’ – my guinea-pig identity for the next few weeks. I then looked around at my surroundings. I was staying in a shared ward with another eleven volunteers. It looked a lot like a normal hospital ward – there was no real privacy and all our beds were about two metres apart with no curtains around them. With the room being my home for the next three weeks, I was naturally curious to see what other types of people I would be living with. A cursory look revealed it was a diverse range of ages. The youngest volunteer looked about twenty and the eldest was a man in his fifties. It was mostly men, with three women who would no doubt be sick of us by the end. They all appeared surprisingly normal on the surface of things, although I believed that couldn’t be the case. The fact that they were doing these trials meant they weren’t normal by default. Not everyone with a regular job could just drop out of life and check into a clinic for twenty-two days to test some pills. The very nature of the whole thing was unconventional and consequently I was expecting to meet fellow outcasts, oddbods and outsiders. That was one of the things I had loved about my travels over the past years. When you venture out from the realm of ordinary life, you were sure to find those who were a bit weird and interesting. I thought of all the wild-eyed and undomesticated souls that I had crossed paths with on my travels – a retired army sergeant with no home who walked around Spain; a female circus-performer who hitch-hiked around the world on her own; a middle-aged engineer cycling through South America after a divorce. They were all people full of flame and fire; people with the spark of passion burning bright in their eye. Yes, if you want to find where the colour is in life, you have to head to the edges – almost always, that is where the magic is found. Throw a jar of ink at a wall and you will see that in the middle it is dense and black; however the further out you go, the more complicated and interesting the patterns become. It was the same with society and I avoided the core as much as I could. To me, it was a black hole for the soul.
Anyway, the first day came and went then we were getting dosed. Nurses wearing red tabards which read ‘DO NOT DISTURB – DOSING’ would come round our beds one by one. They would check our details and then give us the meds with a glass of water. A quick chat with the resident doctor to ensure everything was okay then you were all good to go: you’d swallow those pills down and know that whatever happened from then on, you were guaranteed to get paid four and a half thousand pounds. Ha! I had to laugh once again at the thought of it. Even if you got sick and had to be taken off the study as a precaution after two days, you’d still get the full payment. In a strange way, I kinda hoped I did get sick. I’d take a skin rash or a bit of vomiting to get out early. Maybe even a heavy fall from fainting. Perhaps a mild seizure? But no, everything went smoothly from the off and – after a morning of relentless procedures – I was able to get up and enjoy some well-earned leisure time. I watched TV, read some newspapers, and then played some pool. For the first time I interacted with some of my fellow test subjects. You were all in it together and naturally there was a sense of brotherhood between you all.
The first person I got speaking to was the eldest person on the trial. His name was Darren and he had recently quit his job as a store manager for an Ikea. He seemed reluctant to talk more about it so I spoke about my life to him – about all my adventures and odd jobs and writing aspirations. “I tell you what son, good on ya,” he said. “Do it while you can. Bricks and mortar isn’t all it’s cracked up to be you know.” It was something I had heard from a few middle-aged people before. You could always see regret in the eyes of older people whenever you spoke about things like travelling, and they were usually those who had ended up disenfranchised with the life they were living. In the case of Darren, this was true once again. Finally feeling on good terms with me, he began telling me the real reason he had quit his job. He told me how his mate had also been a store manager for Ikea and had ended up working seventy-hour weeks until it ruined his life. At first came the rapid aging due to the stress and lack of sleep. Then came the alcoholism. Then the weight gain. Then the breakdown of his marriage. Then the loss of contact to his kids. And finally? Suicide. Yes, after twenty years of being a high-earning retail manager, the poor bastard hung himself in a hotel room. He died a rich man apparently, but not in spirit. His mate had completely neglected everything else in his life aside from work and finally it drove him over the edge. Darren had seen this happen and realised he was heading the same way. He quit his Ikea job almost immediately with no real plan other than to not kill himself. A few weeks later, here he was: in a medical trial research facility playing pool with a twenty-seven-year-old traveller and failing writer. Well, it seemed like a good start to me.
The second volunteer I met was one of the girls of the group – a twenty-two-year-old recent graduate of environmental conservation. Like me, she had quickly learned that having a degree meant absolutely nothing and was enduring the post-graduation crisis which gripped hundreds of thousands of young people out there. She was currently surviving by walking other people’s dogs occasionally and living off £150 a week. With her also not having a fixed schedule, she was able to come and take part in these studies. She joked about the state of her life and I also shared with her my shambolic situation. I told her that I was unemployed and also had a useless degree which I only got because I was pressured by my school tutors to go to university. Hearing my story, she smiled and seemed to feel better about herself.
Next up was Jamie – a gym buff who had recently been made redundant from an engineering job at the age of thirty-two. He was now trying to figure out his next move while in the clinic. He had recently applied to be a fire-fighter but had just failed some online test which had swiftly put that dream to bed. Now he could be seen scrolling through some textbooks while he researched what other profession he could unsuccessfully try to break into.
To many these stories were tragedies but oh how I loved them. I loved being around people who didn’t have it together and whose lives were in a state of crisis. I guess that’s because I was one of those people too. But things just felt more alive, more vibrant. Talk of television and jobs was replaced with existential ponderings. Ultimately people only got philosophical when things weren’t going how they were supposed to; that was something I learnt over the years. When things were going how they were supposed to, you could switch off your mind and ride the cultural conveyor-belt through life until the grave. It was only when you were off it and having to figure out a new way for yourself that you stopped and questioned things. You needed to justify the fact you were a beatnik and philosophy was the natural go-to. Yes, it was a madhouse in there and I looked around at my fellow guinea-pigs realising this was where I belonged – locked up with other people pushed out to the edge and testing drugs because there was no room for them in the centre of things. There was no room for me out there either. But it was okay; I had found a new way. Test drugs, travel and write. I saw my path slowly unfolding before me. I was happy with it.