– 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.
A few weeks into the course and my suspicions about the course being a complete waste of time were proving to be correct. Despite the course costing almost £7000, we were only in for about ten hours a week. The majority of time was independent self-study, and I was lacking the motivation to get most of that done. Some of the classes we did have were outright bizarre. In one class we did some spontaneous dance exercises which were supposed to ‘open up the doors of creativity’. I looked around at a room of badly-dancing, middle-aged people and imagined the great writers howling in laughter at the stupidity and foolishness of it all. On one course we had a best-selling author of a child abuse book come in and share her story with us. She was someone who had sold over a million books – an actual writer who had done the impossible and made a living from putting down some words on paper. Her book had just been turned into a Hollywood movie and she was no doubt loving telling us about her success. After that we had a poet come in to lecture us on how to write poetry as ‘publishable’ as his. I couldn’t listen to such self-congratulatory nonsense and I instead sat there daydreaming while looking out the window. I wanted the student loan and support to do my book, but there was only so much I could tolerate.
Things got worse in the seminars. We would all sit in a circle and read out our writing to the class. Then everyone from the class would interject with their opinion and the person reading would ‘take it on board’. I listened to the middle-aged marketer read out some of his dystopian novel, to which the group – all of a differing demographic and perspective – gave him feedback. He then adjusted what he had written to please and pander to the crowd (a sure fire way to middle-of-the-road mediocrity). The whole thing made me feel a bit sick. No writer worth his salt needed validation for what he was doing. He knew it was good enough and would never allow some strangers to distort his own voice – a voice which was strictly his after a lifetime of walking his own unique path. Once again I realised there were no writers on this writing course and I refused to read out anything or even offer any feedback to anyone else. I just attended the classes and then went home to sit in the conservatory and work on my novel in the company of the cats – creatures I considered better writing companions than any of my coursemates.
One good thing that came was, of course, the student loan. The first installment came in: £3500. £2300 of that went to the first semester tuition, but I had another grand in my account to play with. With some more free money in my account, I started treating myself to expensive food and drink, sitting around eating steak and drinking whiskey while working away on my book. In the process of writing it, I also got speaking to this girl from the U.S. She popped up in the comments section of my blog one day and before I knew it we were exchanging lengthy pen-pal emails. We talked in detail about life and existence and all the strange things inside our heads. She was also a writer with her own blog, writing mostly about spirituality and philosophy. Reading through her posts and emails, it seemed we had the same thoughts and perspective on nearly everything in life. Things got even stranger when we found out we shared the same birthday. I did, of course, consider that she was actually an overweight, middle-aged man from Turkey trolling me, but a quick video call showed she was the real deal. Her name was Christina and she was a beautiful little thing from Rhode Island. She lived by the ocean and spent her days wandering the beach, collecting rocks, and working part-time at a little café. She also had no interest in anything sane or normal and wanted to travel indefinitely (although at that point she had never even left her own country). Separated by an ocean, I felt closer to her than any person who stood physically before me, and I considered our emails to be better literature than the stuff being shared in those seminars. After speaking for a couple of weeks, I was ready to jump on a plane and meet her like the hopeless romantic I was, but for now I was tied into a university course I had quickly discovered I had no real interest in. At that point I began to sense the desire for chaotic adventure was going to eventually make me cave in on my attempt to do something socially respectable. The masters certification and graduation ceremony was already looking ominous at best. The unknown was enticing me away from anything stable once again, luring me back out into it with its seductive stare – a seduction I had succumbed to many times before, and no doubt would succumb to many times again.
After a while, the inevitable happened and I stopped going to the classes. They were making me hate writing and I needed something else to keep my fingertips firing on my novel. I sat again in the conservatory with the cats, sipping wine and writing away. I also exchanged emails with Christina and rudimentary plans for a road trip across the states had been drawn up. We were both pro daydreamers, so whether or not it would actually happen was questionable, but the idea of it was so exciting that I couldn’t help but let my mind run away with my latest escapist fantasy. Maybe we’d end up living in a cabin in the Rockies together. Maybe such an adventure would provide me with material for another book – the greatest American travel novel since On The Road. The delusional thoughts of it all filled my heart with joy, and I could sense that my stint of being back home was coming to an end. It had been ten months now – the longest I had stayed in one place for seven years, and like all hopeless wanderers, my feet were itching for the touch of foreign fields.
Besides imagining my new life in America with some girl I’d never met, I had also still been meeting up with Emily. However she had recently just gone AWOL on her latest episode and disappeared to see other part of the country. Would I ever see her again? I couldn’t say for sure, but I kind of had the feeling I wouldn’t. One girl I would see again was the young nurse Eliana from the clinic. We lived in the same city and I was still speaking to her since the last medical trial. One night she messaged me saying she was out in a bar in town with some friends and that I should join them. I was feeling spontaneous, so I downed some of my expensive whiskey and then went to meet her.
I entered the bar where she was with her student housemates, all fresh-faced and full of the sort of wide-eyed excitement that came with being around the age of nineteen. I introduced myself, sat down with them, and immediately felt like the crazy old guy I had encountered many times before in hostels. Her friends were talking about their studies and what job they wanted to get into after university. They were at the age where they still believed that twenty-five was when you were supposed to ‘have your shit together’. And thirty years old – something I was now one year off from – was when everything was totally completed and you settled down with kids and a spouse and a pension. Listening to me talk about my medical trials and my plans to run off to America to meet some girl I had met online, I wondered what they thought of me. Typically they said things like “oh that’s so cool,” and “that sounds exciting,”, but I couldn’t help but wonder what they really thought outside of those social soundbites. Eliana clearly loved it though, getting excited at the very mention of the word travelling, asking me more while looking like she wanted to pack her backpack and jump on the next plane with me.
“So have you decided what you’re going to do yet?” I asked her.
“Nooooo,” she said. “Well, I can start studying this September for a nursing degree. I have friends here now. But I would also like to travel until then, although right now that isn’t possible. I need some money first. I wish I could do medical trials like you but working there I am not allowed to. I don’t know. I just don’t know what I’m going to do.” It had been two months since I first heard her saying the exact same things on the trial. I don’t know how she coped with such a scattered mind, but it did occur to me that my mind was not too dissimilar from hers; the only difference is that she spoke out her relentless introspective dialogues, whereas I kept mine locked inside my head, only occasionally putting some of it down in the written word.
“Do you think this next trip is your last big trip then?” she then suddenly asked me.
“Ermmm I’m not sure. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you’re thirty next year aren’t you? I thought maybe you would chill out a bit soon with all the constant travelling.”
“I hadn’t thought about it really,” I lied. “I think I’ll always travel in some way. Maybe it will slow down at some point in regards to the length of trips, but I’ll always be seeking to live an adventurous lifestyle. Maybe I’ll buy a campervan at some point, or become a firefighter or something.”
“Okay, I hadn’t asked you before but are you not interested in starting a family? I always thought by the age of thirty, I’d be looking to settle down and have kids.”
“Definitely not,” I told her. “Besides, if I’m doing medical trials all the time, then I’m not allowed to get a woman pregnant, remember?” She laughed as she remembered the requirements of the medical trials – to be using two forms of contraception for ninety days after the last dosing of the drugs. It was a surprise to be answering the tiresome question once again; the settling down conversation was one I was now having regularly in my late twenties, but it wasn’t one I expected to be having with her. But it seemed even someone who loved travelling like her thought I was getting to the age where I would consider calming down a bit. Well, at least now she knew the reality.
We moved on from the depressing subject and carried on knocking back the drinks. Soon she and her friends wanted to go to a nightclub. It was a student club and I knew I’d be the oldest in there by a few years if I was to go. I thought I was unbothered by these things, but I started to get depressed about my age and how quickly my youth had fallen by while in the company of these kids. Still, at that point I was drunk and I went to the club with them anyway. Upon entry I bought a couple of drinks then headed to the dancefloor. I watched Eliana and the others run off into the crowd as I stood there on the side. Leaning against the wall, I looked around at all the eighteen to twenty-two year olds dancing and making out with each other. There were some in fancy dress and some looking like they just came out of secondary school. It was like looking into the past – a past that had become a past much too quickly. Those days were now visibly behind me; recently I had found a few grey hairs and even a couple of wrinkles had formed on my forehead. Facing your own mortality for the first time in the mirror was a striking experience, and it was tragic how fleeting and fragile a person’s youth was. Time was a tyrant and it spared nobody. I couldn’t take it much longer and I told Eliana I was going to the bar to get a drink and then made a dash for the exit. I no longer belonged in such environments and I started thinking what it would be like when I was back in the backpacking world again as a thirty-year-old man. There were certain hostels where anyone over the age of thirty was seen as a bit odd or out-of-place. Naturally, your crowd thinned out in such environments as the years went by. It was easy to live alternatively when you were young; doing it in your middle ages took something a little extra. Suddenly I felt really depressed about getting older and wondered how long it would be until the hairline receded, the posture went bad, and I started to vote conservative. It made me sad and I went into the nearest shop to buy an extra-strong beer. I opened it and started drinking it in the street while standing in front of a shop window. It was then, looking at myself in the reflection, that I saw myself getting truly old for the first time. My eyes looked tired and their shine was dimmed. This was the brutal reality of aging. In the eyes of children you see it all: everything good. The light, the love, the life. The joy and wonder of existence. As we get older all that stuff slowly fades away. Our souls get full of anger, anxiousness, bitterness. We become burdened with trivial things and made unsure of ourselves. Life clogs us down with its absurdity until our souls are stuffed and blocked. It only makes sense that we slowly decay and fade away. By the time we’re elderly life longs to be redone so something new comes along to replace us. Children and babies were necessary to see life through a new lens. Age was the corrosion of the self and in the end we all deserved to die.
It had been almost three weeks since I had subjected myself to going to class. I finally decided to make an appearance after the tutor had emailed me three times warning me about my attendance. I went in to attend a lecture and then went to sit in one of those intolerable seminars. I sat through some of the reading from the woman writing her Elizabethan play. Something in me snapped and I decided to read out some of my from my novel I was working on. I told them about the medical trials to give a little context and then loaded an extract on my laptop. Before I started reading, she asked me what sort of writers I was reading for inspiration and I named people like Celine, Kerouac, Camus, and Bukowski. I could see from the look in her eyes that she disliked such writers and was probably thinking “here we go again: another angst-ridden young man who has read too much outsider fiction.” I began anyway. My hand was shaking and my voice trembling as I read. I felt like reading out my writing to people was the equivalent of coming out as gay or something. I was exposing myself for being a social minority – for being something that would cause people to see me in a different light forever. After I was done, I put my writing away and looked down at the floor, wanting to be anywhere but that room. The marketer guy who was having a midlife crisis and writing a dystopian novel seemed to enjoy it, but the tutor was far from impressed.
“I wanted to hear more about the people you mention,” she said. “You seem to be rushing through it. I actually didn’t like any of it.” She then went on to tell me how much she disliked all the other writers I had named. It was uncomfortable but ultimately her opinion wasn’t important to me; I had read some of her work online and knew that our view of good writing was different. It did suddenly occur to me the absurdity of taking a writing course led by someone whose writing you didn’t even like. Even for the free money, I knew it was no longer worth it. I waited for the seminar to finish then left the university for what I knew would be the last time. I wasn’t going to bother to tell them I wasn’t coming back.