– The following is an extract from a semi-fictional novel I’m working on. It is based on my experience of taking part in medical trials as a lifestyle and tells the tale of a disenfranchised young man living on the edge of society and finding his place in the world while meeting fellow drifters along the way. It is still a work in progress and one that will keep being developed as I continue living this way and collecting more material for the book, but for now I will post extracts on here. Previous instalments can be found here.
I was out. My first stint of being a guinea-pig was over. I had helped advance the world of medicinal research and now was ‘the washout-period’ – a period of three months in which I wasn’t able to test any more drugs for safety reasons. This meant no more trials until the Autumn, but that was okay; the payment from the trial would sustain me plentifully until my next drug-testing assignment. I had to wait a week or so for the payment but there it came: a singular payment of £4580 into my bank account. I’d never seen such a large payment go into my account and I sat there staring at it, touching the screen, wondering if it was real. It seemed surreal to acquire that sort of money in such a short space of time – especially for basically having a relaxing retreat from society. In a way I felt like I had cheated the system, and I kept refreshing the page to see if it was still there. It was and naturally I started wondering how I could spend it. I could have just jumped on a plane straight away, but I had my contract with the room and, if I was honest, I wasn’t feeling like going away again so soon after getting back from a big trip. I could have invested it, but that was essentially gambling in my eyes, and my luck hadn’t been in since around birth. In the end, I figured I’d just take it easy and enjoy the rest of the summer doing my bike trips, drinking and writing.
For a few days I just did nothing. I walked into town with no real mission or quest. I felt like a Buddhist monk while roaming those streets. Sometimes I got a coffee at a café; sometimes I got some beers to sit in the park and sunbathe. It wasn’t long until I had a tan which made people wonder where I’d been on holiday (I’d explain to them that it wasn’t a holiday tan, but an unemployment one). I’d also go to the main square in the city centre and just sit on a wall people-watching. Observing the human race was one of my favourite pastimes and Nottingham city centre was a good place for it. Often I felt like I was on safari in public places – merely an observer in an environment to which I was a visitor. I think it was the comedian George Carlin who said: “When you’re born on this planet, you get a ticket to the freak show; when you’re born in America, you get a front-row seat.” Okay so I wasn’t state-side watching some shotgun-wielding hillbilly tell me god hates fags, but I felt like I had a pretty good view from where I was as I sat in that square. I saw all the crazy people – cursing alcoholics sitting and drinking their bottles of wine at midday; preachers telling us that we were all going to hell; a washed-up hippy hitting some bongo drums while singing to the pigeons; a man who rode around on his bike with an amp blasting nineties’ dance music. Occasionally a fight would erupt and the police would turn up to calm things down. It was a solid show with riveting performances all round. Aside from all the madness, I watched all the regular people go about their day: the shoppers, the teenagers, the mums, the people going to and from work. With those people I saw the faces of society: some scrunched up and worn down from life, some still looking great as they strode proudly with purpose and passion. They were the faces of the winners and the faces of the losers. The faces of those who were top of the pile and the faces of those who were being trampled underfoot. It was all a big game and I wondered how my face was going to look in twenty years time. I figured if I kept on doing medical trials, I’d be able to live this stress-free lifestyle, get plenty of sleep, and have time to exercise. Maybe I wouldn’t grow old with a twisted face full of tiredness and despair. Maybe the light would still be there inside my eyes. Maybe there was a chance.
Meanwhile at my house I was still living with an odd collection of people. At first, it did feel strange to live with the landlady, but it turned out she was quite a bohemian character, very gregarious and laid-back. Her name was Thea and she was a retired nurse spending her retirement baking cakes, hosting folk music lessons, drinking wine and just generally living the good life. Her house was her castle and it was a big one with a sprawling garden, brimming with different types of plants and trees. A pond full of frogs. A greenhouse where she grew tomatoes and potatoes. There was a conservatory with a load of instruments in and a big kitchen where she baked a new cake every day. She was in the final chapter of her life, watching the sun set of her one existence, sipping that wine as she soaked in the final years of the human experience. I had always assumed the best years of your life were when you were young and full of fire, but seeing her living that way made me rethink things. I had to even admit I was a little jealous of her, but I knew that such a decadent life was far out of reach. She had bought the house in 1973 for £10,000 and now its value was over half a million pounds. Even with inflation, the value of the house was many multiple times worth what she paid for it. Owning a place like that was simply impossible now with renting prices, low-paying jobs, and the general cost of a house these days. We were the first generation to be poorer than our parents and affording a home was simply a pipe dream for most. I had to think of the girl from the trial currently living off £150 a week while walking dogs. Or Jamie struggling to get another job after just getting made redundant. No, there was no point even imagining such a life. Even the idea of retirement for most was unrealistic. Our generation would be working until we were dead. Personally, I didn’t expect to live until my retirement age anyway, whatever that was going to be, so I didn’t worry too much about it. I figured I’d go out in a blaze of glory on one of my trips, or maybe overdosing in Vegas on my 60th birthday. Maybe even on a medical trial. Who knew. For me I wanted death to embrace me before I was some senile old man having my ass wiped clean by a carer. To die with dignity was a rare thing.
Anyway I was enjoying living there and I spent time there relaxing in the garden, working out, reading, sunbathing, relaxing, drinking. In a weird way I was living the retired life with the landlady. The employed one of the household, Rahul, would occasionally watch us with a contemplative look. He was twenty-six years old, at a similar stage of life than me, and was working hard in his graduate job. He regularly worked fifty-hour weeks. He was growing into his career, climbing the ladder, working hard to become a real person. In the meanwhile he watched me sitting around stroking cats and sipping wine. It was hard to know whether he was thinking I was a degenerate loser, or whether he had it all wrong and that I was some sort of genius. I wasn’t too sure of the answer myself to be honest and I guess I was interested to know his thoughts on the whole thing.
I wasn’t the only slacker of the household. There was the sixty-year-old Sean who spent his days in his room playing his guitar and singing the same awful songs again and again. Having just spent ten years living in a treehouse in Mexico, he had come home for some surgery and gotten stuck here. He didn’t seem to have much money and he was looking for work. Occasionally he even found some, but it never lasted long. A week or two after starting he’d be back in his room strumming on that guitar once again. I couldn’t help but look at him and wonder if that was what awaited me in old age. I tried not to think about it really; it was an uneasy thought. I knew my path was far more likely to end his way than Thea’s. Apart from him there was Simon – the fifty-year-old conspiracy theorist who lived in a shed at the bottom of the garden. Now Simon did have a job as a sound engineer at a bar in town, but work was so sparse that he was rarely in. He had some other odd jobs that he worked here and there, but if no work could be found then he’d be in his shed smoking weed and watching YouTube conspiracy theory videos. At times I had to think, what was more of a madhouse – the clinic or the house. It was a close call and it did make me pause and reflect that I always seemed to end up in such environments. No doubt I was just another inmate in the madhouse too.