– 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.
Half way into the trial and I was into the groove of things. After being hounded by the nurses all morning with the relentless procedures, I faced the mental health questions of the doctor. It was almost hard not to break out laughing when answering them. The doctor asking them was this big Czech woman with the most monotone voice I’d ever heard. There she would stand hunch-backed over the edge of my bed, reading through my test results before reciting the suicide risk assessment test. “Have you had any thoughts about killing yourself recently?” she asked, staring intensely into my eyes.
“No,” I would answer.
“Have you had any thoughts about hurting or harming yourself recently?”
“No,” I would answer.
“Have you ever had the urge to disappear or go to sleep for a very long time.”
“No,” I would answer. That one was slightly a lie. Listening to her speak while also feeling drowsy from the drug, I was ready to go to sleep until next year. After she was done ascertaining whether I still wanted to live, I was free to enjoy the day. I played some bingo and participated in some quizzes, testing ourselves against the guinea-pigs from other trials that were taking place in the clinic. I even won a few, meaning I was rewarded with a few £5 vouchers for various shops in the outside world. More free money – Finlay was loving it. I continued to chat some more with him as we played table tennis for whole afternoons in the courtyard. I learned more about his travels and his life. He was originally from the highlands and was currently spending his time back there at his parents before going to uni. He had a friend called Ciaran who lived in a van and also did trials while claiming the dole. After the trial, he was planning to do a road trip with him before commencing his studies which, as it sounded, he had no intention to finish. He was also working on some music projects, collaborating with a singer from Nashville in the states. He told me he sent her a track for her to write and sing some lyrics over. The lyrics she sent back were worse than some of the things I had heard coming from Sean’s bedroom. I told him I was a writer and so he asked me to knock something up to replace what she had written. I sat in my bed there listening to his track, thinking of what words would fit the beat. I had never written lyrics before but I was willing to give it a go. My daydreaming was as strong as ever and I imagined the possibility of us two wanderers creating chart-topping music. We could write a hit record and live off the royalties while travelling the world. It suddenly dawned on me that was what Finlay was trying to do – passive income through music production. All it took was one hit song, cheesy Christmas record, or background track to a BBC documentary. He mentioned his mate who was raking in a hundred thousand pounds or so every year after producing a few big dance tracks when he was eighteen. He now owned a big horse and just sat around all day smoking weed and playing video games. Yes, passive income was another way to avoid the tyranny of the rat race. It was something I had spoken about with others in the clinic, and many people I had met on the road. People looking to invest in crypto or stocks and shares. People looking to get into property. Everyone wanted to find the secret way to cheat the system – to never have to work again and sit on a beach in Thailand and wake up late and drink cocktails all day. Medical trials were a good start, but maybe I needed to branch out like Finlay and the others were doing. I thought back to that pet food warehouse I had suffered at for a few weeks. I thought back to the smell of rotting dog food penetrating my skin and soul. The trials were helping me to live and get by and maybe even save for a bit of travelling, but they were never guaranteed and I could have done with something else to stop me from falling back into that pit of depressing, dead-end jobs. Well maybe this song was going to be it. I sat there trying to write some catchy pop lyrics and dreaming of the royalties coming in. There I’d be drifting around India, sipping a beer in a hostel with some hot young German backpacker. “So what is it you do for work back home?” she would ask. “I’m a songwriter,” I would say. She would stare at me, suddenly with an increased attraction level. “A song writer??” she would ask again. “Yes,” I would say. “I wrote a few hit records and now live off the royalties.” After that it naturally wouldn’t be long until we ended up in bed together. Okay, perhaps the daydreaming was getting out of hand, but it had been two weeks in the clinic with another two to go. I couldn’t go far physically, so it was only natural my mind wandered to whatever far-out place it could.
After a while of debating alternative ways to make money, I came up with the idea to write a novel. Okay, not the most ground-breaking idea for a writer I know. So far I had written and published a book of thoughts and short stories, but as every writer knew, the real money was in novel writing. Most people preferred to read whole books rather than collections of prose and poetry. I had thought for a long time about what was worth writing a book on, and it suddenly occurred to me to write a book about the medical trial lifestyle. Whenever I told people I did the drug trials, they were usually fascinated and wanted to hear more on the subject. They were something that people knew existed, but had no real idea what they involved. It seemed like something that hadn’t been written about before, and yes, I would be the first to do it. I would write a semi-fictional, existential black comedy about what it was to be a lab rat, living on the edge of society, surviving by testing drugs, trying to make sense of the world while meeting strange and interesting people along the way. The writing would appeal to all the voyeuristic people out there who had considered dropping out their nine-to-five-jobs and doing something different with their life. The idea was blossoming in my mind and I started jotting down ideas from everything that had happened in my life in the last year. I was done with my blog for the time being and it was time to experiment with something new. The daydreaming was at an all time peak and I imagined my debut novel sitting in the front window of highstreet bookstores. I imagined myself giving interviews about the book to newspaper journalists. I imagined scores of people out there suddenly searching for the nearest medical trial clinic near them, wanting to get hold of some free money now the secret had been unveiled in the form of a best-selling novel. Perhaps I was ruining it for us all, but I couldn’t help myself. I fought off the drowsiness and wrote away like a madman. Sometimes I couldn’t hold off the side effects and fell asleep, but I soon came around and started striking those keys again. I was a man on a mission; writing a hit chart song and the opening to a generation-defining novel all at once.
After a while of writing, I got speaking to a nurse about what I was doing. Most nurses working in the clinic were friendly, but there was a point in which they wouldn’t let you cross to maintain their professionalism. This nurse was different. She wanted to hear all about your life and for you to hear all about hers. Her name was Eliana and she was a nineteen-year-old nurse who had been working there for about half a year. Originally from Colombia, she moved to Spain and grew up there until the age of sixteen, when she hopped on a plane all by herself to move to London. She was a wild-child, completely fascinated about life, entertaining a million ideas at once which she wasn’t shy to share with any of the volunteers in there. She did push it sometimes, spending an hour with us in the lounge and talking about travelling when she should have been working (I was later to find our she had pushed it even more after she had met Finlay on his last trial and gone on holiday with him and slept with him and was currently smuggling in chocolate for him). She had so many ideas for travelling and what she wanted to do with her life. At the age of nineteen, we were all at the peak of being crazy and confused about life, but she took it to the next level. “I don’t know what to doooo,” she moaned. “I like this job and my life here in Nottingham but I want to travel to so many places. I also want to go to university; I deferred last year and my parents think I should go this year and I kinda do want to go but when I meet people like you and Finlay, and hear your stories, all I want to do is travel. I want to go to Australia and Asia and places in Europe. I want to meet cool people and learn things that can’t be taught in a school.” She kept going on and on until I felt like I was in a therapy session. I knew what it was to be an over-thinker, but she made me feel like my mind was a relatively quiet place compared to the riot going on inside her skull. I noticed that a lot of riot was being caused by the classic fight between the heart and the head; between society and the self. It was hard to know what your own voice was when you had the echoes of other people’s dogma reverberating between the walls of your skull. As I had found out for myself, it could take years of self-discovery, sitting alone and meditating, standing on solitary shorelines, and staring into skies and sunsets, before the noise of society faded away and you were left with your own personal truth.
“Just go and travel,” I said, interrupting her rant. “That’s what I did when I was twenty-two. It was the best time to go and travel – when you’re young and energetic with an open mind and still forming your view of the world. You don’t need to go to university because your parents think you should; you’d only be going because you feel like you have to not because you want to. But you can go at any age and you’d be better off going when you’ve lived a bit and are interested in studying something in particular. It was going travelling that made me realise I wanted to be a writer, so go out there into the world and learn what it is you are here to do.” I carried on dishing out the grand advice, feeling like an old sage, and eventually realising I was basically talking to the nineteen-year-old version of myself. After my speech, she asked for my number and we carried on chatting over text messages. Reading her words, it was obvious her life was in a state of anarchy. Her plans changed day to day and it really was possible she could have been never returning every time she walked out the building. In a way, I envied her. I remembered being that age and feeling completely fascinated by the world, wanting to do a million things but not knowing where the hell to start. A good place to start was always buying a plane ticket to some far-off place – once that was in place, then the universe was sure to do most of the work for you. You’d step off that plane and begin a five-year voyage of self-discovery, meeting interesting people, doing crazy things, learning about yourself and growing as an individual. And, after a while, you’d eventually end up in a medical trial facility testing drugs for a living while trying to write a novel about it all.
We were on the home straight. Three weeks had passed and we were just clinging onto our sanity. There had been moments when people went a bit crazy. Such a moment included everyone starting to pull pranks on each other, moving their stuff around, spraying shaving foam in their beds. It got to the point where I saw my first fines being distributed by the nurses – £50 to two guys. Still, it was small change compared to the almost six grand we had just amassed during our hibernation. My body had gotten used to the side effects too and my sleeping had gone down from sixteen hours a day to twelve hours. Things were looking good and I also had gotten down a good amount of ideas and planning for my book. Not only was I putting in some solid work for my guinea-pig career, but I was now a man doing research for my main profession of writing. I knew that when I got out and was back in the conservatory and wasn’t drugged up, I’d begin properly on the book, launching fingers first into my first novel. Once again I’d be leaving Steven in the dust as he sat in his van still trying to get down the first line for his fantasy novel.
In the meantime, Eliana was still going crazy deciding what to do with her life and Finlay was still raking in extra money. He had also put down £100 on some crypto currency which had turned to £600, while making some extra pounds here and there from free bet deals on the gambling websites. Once again, I admired his sheer commitment and resourcefulness to get money by doing anything but working. All the nurses working those twelve hour shifts for £10 an hour would have hated him had they known the full extent. They were stressed and tired with bloodshot eyes. Finlay’s eyes shined like a child, enriched by his carefree lifestyle and all the adventures he had been on. It was a symbol of victory and a reminder that another way was possible; that one could live better and healthier without subjecting themselves to a job or career.
For a moment I thought of Finlay and Eliana and Steven and Lee and all the other drifters I had met on these trials. I considered myself a solitary person who would follow the heart regardless of anything else, but it was true that I often questioned my own sanity while on this strange life path. Knowing there were others out there gave you a little extra strength to keep on marching forward into the unknown. Where my life was heading, it didn’t really matter. I was alive and full of spirit like the others. Their very presence was one of power and energy and perhaps that was all that really mattered. The more people like Finlay I met, the more assured I felt in my own way of being. There were ‘others’ out there, and even if I only crossed paths with them every now and again, it was enough to keep you full of fire and running through the wilderness with courage in your heart.
I was out and I was a rich man. With the whopping inconvenience allowance now in my bank account, I now had over £7000 for the first time in five years. To my friends saving for mortgages and weddings it was a modest amount, but considering how little work I had done the last few years, and how much I knew I could do with it after my shoestring backpacking trips of the past, I felt like a self-made millionaire. I recalled the time I was sleeping in an airport in New Zealand with my bank account in the minuses and knew I had come a long way. I went straight onto the flight websites and looked at where I could catapult myself too via the explosive power of a jet engine. I flicked through the filters and destinations, experimenting with where I could go. South America? Asia? Somewhere new like the Middle East? I had been back seven months now; I hadn’t lived in one place for more than a year since I was twenty-two and naturally it was feeling like time to hurl myself off out into the world once again. But something was off; something was stopping me from nonchalantly booking that one-way flight that I had done so many times before. I sat back, thinking about what was stopping me and soon realised it was the desire to write this novel. I had the perfect writing space where I was living and the time just felt right. I knew that when I travelled, I rarely got any writing done. I was never in the right mindset and usually too busy, drunk, or distracted. All things considered, I went and did something crazy. Perhaps it was Finlay’s influence because his talk of going to university for the loan got me thinking about the same. I had recently heard the government had started a £10,000 loan for people to study a master’s course. In Nottingham there was a creative writing course being taught. Just like Finlay, I knew I didn’t need a university course to explore my passion. I had done that already, publishing my first book and selling five hundred copies and counting. I also knew I didn’t expect my writing to improve with some institution. Every great writer had gone out into life and found the words from the wilderness of experience, rather than sitting in some classroom, listening to some teacher, and reading some textbook. I thought of Hemingway driving an ambulance in Italy in world war one. I thought of Orwell scrubbing dishes while living in poverty in Paris. Kerouac drifting around America with just a backpack and a few dollars. Thompson taking a shit load of drugs and driving to Las Vegas. Indeed, such raw experience was what it was all about, but I felt I had enough life experience under my belt already. I could use this course as a base, and use the student loan and medical trials to keep funding my lifestyle as I wrote my immortal masterpiece. Being on the course, I could write the book as my year project, giving me motivation to keep at it. My other attempts at novels had fallen apart shortly after starting, but yes, this would finally be the push I needed to actually get the work done.
A bit more reflection was had while at home sipping wine and then I went and did it. I applied for the course, sent off my application, and it was just two weeks later that I was accepted for the January start-date. An unlikely turn of events had occurred and I was back to being a student. I could flash my student card and whenever that awful ‘what do you do?’ question came my way, I no longer had to say I was a lab rat. Or unemployed. Or a struggling writer. I was an academic, a scholar – an upstanding member of society with a promising future. It might even be enough to keep my parents off my back for a while. And, who knows, maybe even land me a second date.
My first interaction with my class was an introductory night at a bar. It was a chance for us all to meet, hang out, and even recite some prose or poetry on an open mic. Instantly I knew I wouldn’t stand up and share anything with my new coursemates. In a way, I didn’t trust writers who were eager to get up to a microphone and shout out their words to an audience. For me, I wrote because it was a way to get down the words which I couldn’t say. I had this block within me that prevented my tongue from adequately speaking my truth in front of people. The merciless stares of my fellow humans filled me with anxiety and it was only when I was sitting alone before a blank page that I could spit out all the madness that stirred inside of me. Consequently I steered well clear of the spotlight, watching the others get up to read out their stuff. Straight away I realised that most people on this creative writing course weren’t really writers. They were fans of literature trying to get involved in what they enjoyed, but none of them seemed like they were getting the words out because they had to. I spoke to some of them including one guy who worked in marketing writing a dystopian novel; a twenty-one-year-old trying to write a script for a football-based sitcom; an elderly woman trying to write an Elizabethan novel; and another woman trying to publish a collection of cookbooks. I hadn’t had any hopes that doing a creative writing course would put me into contact with ‘my kind of people’, and that was quickly proving to be correct. I felt just at odds with these people than I did with everyone else. Then all of a sudden one girl got up to take the mic. She was nervous and unpredictable. Her eyes were darting all around the room and she looked like some kind of wild animal that had been put in the company of human-beings for the first time. After introducing herself awkwardly, she went ahead and read out some poetry. The poetry was bizarre, flamboyant, evocative. She wrote about nature and stars and sex and insanity. I wasn’t blown away by it, but she was the only person in the room that resembled a writer – the only person in the room trying to get their pain out in the form of poetry or prose. After she was done, she let out a shy smile then went and sat back in a dark corner of the room. I wanted to go over and speak to her there and then, but I waited until a few more drinks had been consumed and the readings were over. Her name was Emily and it turned out she had just finished the masters course and was now starting a PhD in English Literature. “I’m just trying to stay in education as long as possible,” she confessed to me. “I never last in jobs and I don’t see anything else for me to do in this world other than study and write about literature. It’s all I’m good for. Hopefully I can get a lecturing position after my PhD.” I admired her honesty. It was true that there were many people out there clinging onto academia to stop themselves from facing the toils of an actual job… me and Finlay arguably being some of them too.
“I liked your poetry,” I told her. “You were the only person I found interesting on the mic… the only person trying to say something.” She looked at me with a quick change of expression; her face went from solemn to joyful in an instant. It seemed like she had never received any praise before in her life and was probably more used to the daggers being stuck in her. We carried on chatting as I told her about my book and my life and why I was doing the course. She quickly realised that I was also a fellow misfit, studying a masters with zero intention of getting a job after. Recognising this, she opened up to me and told me more about her life. She was thirty years old and had just come out of an abusive relationship with a French guy who now had a restraining order against him. There were scars all down her right leg from when he had crashed his moped while driving drunk with her on the back. The scars weren’t just on her skin, but in her soul too. She was a wounded thing, perhaps more wounded than anyone I could remember meeting. Periods of depression were frequent and she told me about all the drugs she was on and how her parents had disowned and given up on her.
“My parents don’t talk to me anymore,” she said. “I’m from a very conservative family and they resent that I’m thirty and still don’t have a career. My sister is a high-earning lawyer and they always wonder why I can’t be more like her. They don’t realise I’m nothing like her, or like them for that matter, and every time we’re together we just end up arguing, so we don’t really see or speak to each other anymore.” I listened to everything she said while reflecting on my own life, spotting the similarities with myself that I always looked for interacting with others. There was an affinity between us and naturally it wasn’t long before we ended up kissing and going back to her place. We fell into bed, had drunken sex, and then lay there entwined, staring up at the mouldy ceiling of her cheap room. It was the early hours of the morning and we talked about poetry and writers. We talked about what it was to be creative. We talked about how writing could save us from total madness altogether.
“Do you think you’ll ever be able to make a living from your writing?” she asked me.
“That’s the current delusion but probably not if I’m being honest with myself,” I told her. “That is the dream of every struggling writer, of course, but I’m not sure that’s what would be good for me if it was to ever happen.”
“Why?” she asked.
“To me, it seems the writer’s natural equilibrium is to struggle against the weight of the world. Writing is a release and it’s only when your back is up against the wall and you’re struggling to survive that your words have the most force. Maybe having a reliable income from it will kill the magic. I wouldn’t ever want to be too comfortable anyway, or for creation to feel like a job. But it would be nice to call myself an actual writer one day… I guess you can do that when you’re selling a lot of books or making enough money to live off of it.”
“But if you’re not making money from writing, then how will you make money?” At that point, I thought about telling her about the drug trials, but for some reason I couldn’t be bothered to go through the conversation for the hundredth time. Instead I told her that maybe I’d drive a cab or deliver food on a bicycle. She laughed and smiled.
“You remind me so much of me,” she said.
“Yes. You don’t really have a place in this world, but you’re still doing your best to find your way.”
“Maybe I should just do what you’ve done then,” I said. “I’ll finish this masters then try and study a PhD and cling onto academia as long as I can.” She laughed and the conversation ended as we rolled over and started to have sex again. The course had gotten off to a good start and I had a feeling that that night was going to be more valuable to my writing efforts than the classes to come.