– 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.
One day out of nowhere Steven turned up at the madhouse. He had texted me to let me know he was in the area then all of a sudden his big army-green van was making its way down the small close where I lived. It squeezed in between the parked cars and finally made its way onto the drive of the house, where it would be situated for the next few days, being stared at by the posh curtain-twitchers of my middle-class street.
“How you doing mate?” he asked, climbing out of his van. We chatted for a minute and then he showed me around his living headquarters for the first time. I got in the front passenger seat then made my way through a small door into the back. It felt like crawling into a cave, or perhaps the wardrobe to Narnia. In that space was the lair in which he had lived for the last four years. It was the size of a small bedroom and had everything a human-being really needed to survive. Shelter, a bed, a kitchen with a gas stove, a generator, a toilet, a fridge, a sofa, a collection of drawers and, of course, some speakers – which proceeded to play The Rolling Stones as we kicked back in his van with a glass of whiskey. The obvious absence was that of a shower, although I never asked what he did regarding such a basic necessity. I knew he had friends and family to visit where he could do that every few days, and there was always the option of wet-wipes. There was also no window as he liked to keep his living space as clandestine as he could when parked in city streets (people had been known to slash the tyres of van-dwellers for parking on their streets; ultimately most people were petty at heart and couldn’t bear to see someone living more freely than them).
“All that trial money went to my ex,” he told me, catching up over the last weeks since he trial finished. “She put a lot of money into the van and I was the one who kept it, so I’ve been paying her back. Money is pretty low, so I’ve been doing some odd bits of work here and there. I was stopping at the place of a friend called Nigel, helping him out with property. He’s a single old man and likes to go to the pub every night after work, so I’ve been hitting the sauce a bit too. I’ve also just sold a load of stuff on eBay so I’m waiting on the money from that to come in.” He continued to tell me about the events of his random life as we drank. He had a small bar in the kitchen space, filled with a wide range of spirits. “People love it when you’ve got a van at festivals and things like that. You can always invite people into it for a bit of an after-party.” A bit of a party it seemed to be as he told me about the diverse assortment of drugs he also had in the van. Everything from weed and MDMA to ketamine and DMT. Suddenly I felt like I was with Hunter Thompson myself, and I imagined undertaking a wild road trip fuelled by all the narcotics he had with him. That Steven was into his mind-altering substances came as no surprise; it was clear he had done a lot of psychedelics over the years – something that was noticeably common with those who led alternative lifestyles. Usually psychedelics seemed to unlock a different way of seeing the world; or those who had unlocked a different way of seeing the world were drawn to psychedelics. Either or. Not many people were smoking DMT or tripping on acid while living the corporate lifestyle, that was for sure. Instead they were doing medical trials and living in a van and trying to write fantasy novels.
Sitting there in that van and sipping that whiskey, I wondered if I could ever hack the life Steven was living. I had fantasized about it for sure, but I didn’t believe it was the great life many thought it was. Ultimately it came down to how much comfort and convenience a person was willing to give up to collect some more freedom. Was the discomfort of not having a shower, shitting in a bucket, and having to worry about people slashing your tyres worth the freedom that came with having a mobile home? In a way, I felt like it was. The idea of just moving your home to somewhere else at the flick of an ignition key was an alluring one. No annoying neighbours which you couldn’t escape from. Ever-changing environments. No council tax or rent to pay. Unlike Steven, I was throwing rent money away to an already rich woman who would die in the next decade or two, and then that money would go to a young grandson who had never worked a day in his life (the silver spoon of society in action). For now, that was how it was. I didn’t even have a driving license and the cost of buying/converting a van was a large one. Consequently, I figured it would be a few years until I would consider such an extreme endeavour.
After a while we headed into my place to carry on drinking. It wasn’t long before he had met my housemates, including Sean who proceeded to quiz him on his adventures before getting out some old photos of when he was a young man hitch-hiking around Mexico. “So where have you travelled my amigo?” he asked in his typically socially-awkward way. Steven proceeded to tell him about his road trips across Europe before Sean interjected to talk some more about Mexico, most specifically about the treehouse he lived in. I noticed that whenever Sean told the treehouse story, some of the details were different. After that he bid us farewell to return to his room and play the guitar.
“I expected you to be living with a bunch of young people in some student place,” Steven said. “Not like this. Everyone is old. But I like it. It’s different.”
“It’s like living in a very strange hostel,” I said.
“Seems that way.”
“It’s also a good environment to do my writing.” I showed him the area in the conservatory where I chilled with the cats and wrote my literary masterpieces. We then poured some more drinks, put some rock music on, and continued to chat about life – all the things we couldn’t speak to openly about in a ward full of people. Naturally it wasn’t long before the subject of sex came up. Becoming recently single after ten years, Steven was wanting to make up for lost time – hence why he was signed up to all the dating apps and chatting to a range of girls. I couldn’t blame him. Ten years of being in a relationship – especially when he had been travelling – meant he had missed out on a lot of promiscuous fun in his prime years. Although it seemed he had definitely had some fun before that as he told me about the sex clubs he frequented as a young man in London. It seemed quite a contrast to go from regularly banging strangers in depraved orgies to being shacked up with one girl for an entire decade. Typically, I couldn’t imagine what such a reality must have been like. I was just about to turn twenty-nine without ever having been in a relationship. I didn’t know what excuse to come up with first whenever people asked why I had been single all my life – the fact I had been so nomadic, the fact I was never really looking for a girlfriend, or the fact I was just a bit odd. Most women saw it as a massive red flag when they saw a guy near the age of thirty who had never been in a relationship. They obviously figured there was some terrible characteristic you possessed that had led to that solitary fate. But when I sat back and thought about it, the reason I hadn’t been in a relationship was purely out of circumstance – the circumstance being that I had always been on such a wild path of self-discovery throughout my adult life. I was a man breaking out of some prison, driving a fast car towards the horizon without a map or plan. I simply didn’t have any time or room for anyone to be in the passenger seat with me. I didn’t want or need it; other things were calling me and they still were as I continued speeding off into the unknown fuelled by some inner fire blasting out the exhaust pipes.
Okay, okay, don’t get it wrong – it’s not like I was celibate or something. Far from it. In some ways, I felt ashamed of the amount of women I’d slept with. I didn’t know the exact amount, but it was a lot. Women from all around the world. Women I’d met for one night in a hostel bar or a nightclub. Sometimes even on a bus (it was dark). The truth is that I couldn’t get enough of women, especially when travelling. Women of different cultures and different accents and ethnicities. The world was a treasure chest of feminine beauty and perhaps that was one of the reasons I was never interested in just being cooped up with just one. I was now at the age where people were looking for ‘the one’ though, and typically – as I was with everything else in life to my peers – I was at odds with how things were supposed to be. Beautiful women passed me in the street and I wanted to fall in love with them all. Steven was the same – a clear lover of the female kind – and it occurred to me how in all aspects of life we were both hopeless romantics chasing after whatever got our heart pumping. In a way, I was surprised he had stayed in a faithful relationship for so long. Whatever had kept him in it, it was now over. He was now a man looking to make up for lost time and naturally it wasn’t long until we headed out on the town to see if we could meet anyone.
Our first stop on our failure of a tour was a new cocktail bar. I got a drink from the bar and looked around at the women. It was the usual Nottingham crowd of beautiful women with fancy dresses, impeccable makeup, and well-styled hair. Women drinking expensive cocktails while Instagramming their drinks. Women that worked as solicitors and marketing executives. Women who watched reality TV and went to the races occasionally. We both knew in their eyes we would be seen as degenerates, but we didn’t care. We chatted to them anyway. Steven knew he couldn’t hide the fact he lived in a van, so he owned it. He didn’t look like a hobo or anything; he was relatively well-dressed and groomed – a handsome man – although still had his rough-around-the-edges look. Maybe it was a thing for some girls. He told a couple of girls we were chatting with about his unconventional living arrangements. They were interested but you could tell they saw us as spectacles – something to merely observe and study from a distance. I had noticed over the years that people living alternative lives were treated like showpieces at some circus event. People would stand back and marvel at them. They would be interested to hear the story. Sometimes they would even admire and respect them. But ultimately that was where it ended. There was still a fence between them that they were not willing to cross. We were wild animals of some kind, and there was no way they would come out to the dangerous space in which we roamed. That was exactly what happened as we reached the point of brick-wall conversation. After that, we headed to the next bar where the same thing happened again. After that, we headed to the bohemian bar where we figured we might have some more luck. It was the place where the skin-head had told me about medical trials – the place where you could sit down and be chatting to some vegan anarchist within a minute or two about politics and philosophy.
We sat down at a table with some rum and cokes. All around us were tables of hyper people, shouting, laughing, downing drinks. For the first time it hit me how young everyone was. Normally it was a diverse range of ages in there, but it appeared me and Steven were clearly the older ones in the vicinity. Well, maybe it was student night. Indeed, it only seemed like a couple of years ago I was at university studying a degree for the sake of it. The time had flown past in a blur of drinking, travelling, and general existential chaos. I was not far off thirty and in a way I felt a bit cheated with how quickly time had passed me by. I guess it was the same feeling everyone had and I wondered how Steven felt at thirty-three. It did seem like the age thing was noticeable after all. One girl sat down and started chatting to us, immediately asking how old we were. “How old do we look?” I asked.
“You look about twenty-six, and he looks… I’m going to say a bit older. Thirty-one?” It was a couple of years off for both of us, but it seemed it was the accepted rule to knock a year or two off when guessing someone’s age (this was to politely spare them the horrors of realising how much closer towards death they were getting). I told her my age to which she replied “oh that’s my brother’s age.” It turned out I was now at the age where attractive young women thought of their older brothers when weighing up whether or not they wanted to sleep with you. Well, at least she was maybe thinking about it. “Do you guys not want to have kids or anything?” she then asked.
“Not right now,” I said. “I mean a man can have kids until he’s sixty or something, right?”
“I guess,” she said. “I just always imagined I’d be getting married and having kids by the time I was around your guys’ age.”
“Well, it’s a brave new world,” I said. She carried on chatting with us until her mates left and she had to go with them. Next we got speaking to the table next to us – another bunch of students enjoying the temporary shelter from the working world that was university. We carried on drinking with them and talking about our lives until they invited us back to a house party. It was then, getting up to leave, that one of the girls of the group suddenly decided I wasn’t invited. Steven was, but not me. I hadn’t even said anything to her, and I was relatively sober. “He can come,” she said, pointing to Steven. “But him? No.” Her friends asked her why, to which she pulled them aside and whispered something in their ear. I had no idea what was said, but after they were all set on me not coming to the party. I had to laugh; this wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened. It appeared there was something about my presence that some people just didn’t trust. I told myself that ‘I had one of those faces’, but it did hit me that maybe there were people out there who saw me for the foreign creature I was. They knew I wasn’t one of them; they could smell it from my scent or see it in my eyes. I didn’t argue but resigned myself to the situation – I wanted to go home anyway at that point. Steven was curious though and kept asking them why I wasn’t invited and what I had done wrong. “You’re welcome; he’s not,” she kept saying. It was all she said. “You’re welcome; he’s not.”
After that we headed to get a kebab and walk home, musing at the situation. “Maybe it’s because she knew she would have no chance with you,” Steven said. It was a nice thought that I could possibly delude myself with, but no – I probably would have gone home with her if she didn’t hate my guts. “Maybe she mistook you for someone else?” It was another nice thought, but one that again seemed unlikely. I had decided in my head that it was just the way it was. I was just a black sheep – more of a black sheep than the guy who lived in a van apparently. Some could sense I didn’t belong and they wanted me out of their sight as quickly as possible.
It started to get me down but then we got back to his van and my feelings of sadness were quickly pushed aside as we reached into his drug drawer. He elected for some MDMA and some ketamine. We were very close to smoking some DMT as well, but perhaps fortunately there was no pipe around at the time. We turned the music back on, got the whiskey back out, then started hitting the substances. It was two in the morning and it would be another eight hours until we hit the hay. And it would be another five days until the partying stopped. Steven had turned up out of the blue and suddenly I had been thrown into a multi-day bender of excess and madness and female rejection. Well, at least the drugs we were taking were the sort of drugs that would be out of our systems fairly quickly. By the time the next medical trial came round we would be easily in the clear. Once again, ‘healthy volunteers’ who didn’t smoke, do recreational drugs, or drink more than twenty units of alcohol per week. Upstanding members of the guinea-pig society. Medical research heroes. Thoroughly decent guys.