how to kill time while waiting to die · short stories

How to Kill Time While Waiting to Die

I wake up and stare into that mirror. The same thing we all do every morning. Every time you see the same, yet slightly worse version of yourself. You’re one day older and you’re more tired, more weathered, more disillusioned with the world around you. You’re another day closer to death and your dreams have even less chance of becoming a reality than yesterday. It was never a pleasant sight but today that reflection was worse than usual. Today was the death of my youth. Yes, the years had fallen by and I was now thirty years old. No longer was I classified as a young person; I was now a fully-grown adult – the sort of thing kids looked up to – and there were no excuses for how much in disarray my life was. By this age you were supposed to have it all figured out: partner, marriage, career, mortgage, life purpose, and all of that keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ stuff. The truth is that I still felt like a clueless teenager, wandering aimlessly around, masturbating too much while struggling to come to terms with my own transient existence. Although mentally I may not have felt like I was thirty, physically it showed. Looking at my reflection, I could see the rings around my eyes, the crow’s feet starting to break through, the grey hairs which were not too numerous to pull out. The light in my eye was a little dimmer, the skin a little paler. I was becoming what old people had always seemed to me – walking examples of the inevitable descent towards death and darkness which eventually enveloped us all.

After a while of grimacing at that mirror, I got dressed and headed out onto the streets. I walked through that urban wasteland while staring at the passing people. The young, the old, the rich, the poor. Most of them, like me, didn’t stand a chance. The world spat on their dreams, took the joy from their heart, forced them to abandon their individuality to survive. Spiritually unfulfilled, they turned to vices to numb the inner pain: alcohol, drugs, porn, television, social media. Yes, the average person in the street was demented and insane – and no doubt I appeared that way to them too.

I carry on walking around the city centre with no purpose or destination. My 30th birthday, did anyone really care? Did I care? I eventually text one of my friends to ask if he wants to go for a drink. I knew he was off the rails at the moment and thus likely to say yes. It seemed to me that was what friends were for when you reached a certain age. You would never arrange to do anything together like play football or go to movies, but when you needed to go out and drink yourself into oblivion, they would be on hand to help you fulfil that need. It was a mutual transaction; many times I had responded to the call when he was in his hour of self-destructive need, and now he was reciprocating the favour as I drowned my sorrows and rued the fact I was now no longer young.

I met him in the main square in the city centre. A quick hello then we were soon sipping pints while updating each other on the tragedy of our lives. He told me about how he was still living paycheck to paycheck, no savings to afford a holiday or the driving lessons he needed. But it was all okay, he told me; he had devised a grand plan. “I’m gonna find myself a cougar and become a house husband.” I looked at him curiously. “There are so many lonely middle-aged women out there nowadays who want a younger guy. I’ll just stay at home all day, cooking dinner for when she gets home. The easy life.” I listened and knew this was the fantastical daydream of a desperate man. Looking at him in his current appearance, his odds of finding any woman seemed slim. He had once been considered cute, but was now balding and overweight with evidently not much to bring to the table. He had a degree in marketing which had been rendered useless by ten years of disuse as he worked the same job in a drab pub. He knew he didn’t have a shot at anything, and now his focus was on sponging off a middle-aged woman who had some financial capital. I didn’t blame him, and I started considering the same possibility myself. Perhaps he was onto something? Perhaps my destiny was to housekeep while waiting for my older wife to come home and fuck me? Having known each other since secondary school, we then got to talking about old times and old friends. Most of them now lived in London working graduate jobs, pursuing careers, working hard to become real people. Career professionals. Respected members of society. Everything that we weren’t.

“I don’t speak to them anymore,” he tells me. “I feel like they look down on me.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Yeah, I mean they’re all back there earning big money at graduate jobs their parents managed to get them after university, and I’m still here, almost thirty and broke. It’s all who you know and what you know. I got my degree but every job asks for two years of experience and how the fuck am I supposed to get that? You have to do internships, but I’ve been working fifty-hour weeks since I finished university just to get by. I don’t have the time or the means. The system is fucked man.” I sat there listening to his anguish and dissatisfaction. His comments may have seemed like excuses to most, but there was a lot of truth to it. Following university, I had also experienced the brick wall of not being able to get a job due to lack of experience. It was a catch 22 – needing experience for a job, but not being able to get experience without a job. Fortunately for me I had quickly decided not to even bother getting on the treadmill of a career. Living life based on what made your CV look good seemed absurd to me, and there was a freedom in not caring if you took six months off to go travelling, become an alcoholic, or just do nothing at all. I guess the downside to this was that only the low-paying jobs were available to you. But I didn’t care; less pay usually meant less responsibility, and less responsibility meant less stress, and less stress meant you didn’t go slowly demented over the years. In my head I was a modern-day Buddha, an enlightened being – a heroic rebel to the consumer-capitalist culture that was rotting people’s hearts and minds and souls. Of course, I knew this was my personal spin and in most people’s eyes I was just unsuccessful or an underachiever. Perspective was a fine thing and ultimately a person had to shape theirs in whatever way justified the way they were currently living their life.

We carry on drinking and I notice Jake started to slur his words and get hostile. I was used to it. He had a lot of inner demons and they usually came out around the fifth drink. I knew it wouldn’t be long until he started getting aggressive and arguing with people around him. After that he would declare he was going home after one more drink. This time there wasn’t even one more drink and off he went suddenly marching out the pub, telling me he was going to pick up a kebab and go home. I watch him stumble across the bar, disappearing out the door into the night, another wounded soul seeking shelter from the world. Then, sitting alone on my 30th birthday, I decide to continue drinking. Around me I hear the whirring noise of excited people – people in groups, people with friends, people who weren’t drinking alone on their 30th birthday. I knew I didn’t have the charisma or confidence to go up and speak directly to strangers, so I ordered a couple of double rum and cokes to at least make myself think that I could. About forty-five minutes later, I’ve reached the required level for social interaction, and suddenly I’m on a table with two younger guys. I think they could see I was on my own and pitied me. I graciously accepted their pity and reimbursed them with some self-deprecating jokes and a round of tequila shots.

After that, things got blurry and I’m in that hazy, soft, comfortable place of alcoholic sedation. I let myself drift through that haze until I eventually end up in a taxi on the way home with a twenty-one-year-old girl. Well, not too bad for an old-timer. The sex carries on into the morning – another meaningless fuck that I had now lost count of. Of course, I didn’t finish as usual. I very rarely finished during sex, and almost never after I had been drinking. Lying there on my bed, I can see she’s sad that I haven’t given her my seed; it was a look I had seen off many girls doubting their own attractiveness as they lay unsoiled on my mattress. This was the one thing that was required to be a man – to continue the human race – and it seemed I was also naturally incompetent at that. I attributed it to too much masturbation growing up. My genitalia only knew how to reach orgasm via my own touch. A vagina was simply no match for the highly-tuned movements of my right hand. I wondered how many other men were like me out there. We were the porn generation after all – the first people in history to watch whatever fucked up fantasy we wanted via a half-decent internet connection. Perhaps it was more common than I realised, and soon the highly-advanced sex robots would come, and no longer would any human be able to reach orgasm via traditional penetration. Perhaps this was the end of humanity; not with a bang, but with a whimper – everybody fucking silicone robots in dark rooms alone as humanity petered out to its pitiful and pathetic end. Feeling the way I was during that hangover, I welcomed it.

2

I carried on drinking for another couple of days; maybe it was three, I wasn’t sure. The debauchery looked to be getting out of hand but finally I sobered up and tried to make sense of the events. In particular, scrolling through my online bank statement after going on a bender was always a tragic affair. The needless drinks at 3am; the excessive fast food orders; the money withdrawn from the cash machine that your empty pockets tell you is totally spent. My bank account had taken a beating, which was forgivable considering I was having my 30th birthday crisis, but also slightly concerning considering the fact I was unemployed with no money coming in. 

Funds were getting tight and consequently I started searching for a job. I loaded up the job search websites and scrolled through the muck of lowly-paid, menial positions. “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now.” Morrissey’s lyric always stuck in my head when I had to surrender myself to the system and beg up some kind of employment. How people managed to stay in one job for most of their life, or even years of their life, baffled me thoroughly. By week three or four, I was violently itching to liberate myself with a letter of resignation. Those letters had been written, and sometimes they hadn’t – sometimes I just didn’t show up because the thought of getting up in the morning to go to a place which shit on my soul was too much. By the time I was applying for a job, I was already imagining how and when I was going to quit it. I had to think to myself: getting to thirty years old without holding a job for more than a year was quite an achievement. I thought about listing it on my CV, then realised it was already there for the prospective employers to see anyway in my work history. This spotty work history naturally made it harder for me to even get a job in the first place. This became apparent again when I saw a job advert for the Royal Mail. I looked at it with interest. For some reason I always fancied myself as a bit of a postman; getting paid to walk around in the fresh air, working on your own, no boss over your shoulder or office politics to deal with – as far as jobs went, it wasn’t actually too terrible. But the Royal Mail wanted me to explain each and every gap in my work history. There were at least ten gaping holes on my bloody bombsite of a CV. I felt depressed that I had to explain why I wasn’t devoting myself to some job, as if each time you weren’t stuck on the grind, you had to justify your momentary freedom from the machine. The whole thing made me want to go and play with traffic to be honest, but I went along with their game and paved over some of those gaps by stretching my employment dates (like everyone else, I knew that bending the truth was an essential part of surviving in the modern world).

I guess my attitude towards work was kinda lousy to many people – especially towards my parents, who constantly reminded me that I needed to get a career, and that I was wasting my university degree (which was a worthless media studies degree anyway). Even my sister was consistently on my case.

“You’re intelligent,” she would tell me. “You have something to offer the world. Don’t waste your life in bitterness and jadedness. There’s a job out there for you somewhere, you just have to find what it is.” Thoroughly inspirational words, I’m sure you’d agree. I disregarded them as I did with everyone else.

After an hour of applying for jobs, the hopelessness of it all got to me. I stopped what I was doing, went to the kitchen, pulled a beer from the fridge, and returned to my bedroom desk. I then closed the job website and loaded up my sci-fi novel I had been working on. Important work awaited. The book was currently 18,000 words long and based around the theory that the universe was a computer simulation. It was just an eccentric theory, albeit one that some physicists and scientists took seriously. Anyway, I imagined what would happen if we somehow all conclusively proved we were living in a computer simulation. I imagined the existential crisis of everyone, the collapse of religion and society, the anarchy that was sure to follow. My theory is that society would destroy itself as everyone saw no meaning to anything anymore. The book would follow a protagonist who goes on a soul-searching quest through the wasteland of civilisation to discover if life is worth living anymore. He would meet people who felt relieved that life wasn’t real, and others that were driven to suicide and madness because their egotistical illusions had been shattered. Eventually he would end up happy in some peaceful commune, content in the knowledge that life is just a game and there’s nothing fundamentally to worry about. (Yes, of course there was some edgy philosophical point to it all.)

I guess it was just an idea I found interesting, and like all deluded people who thought of themselves as writers, I daydreamed about it one day becoming a best-seller. I imagined my book sitting on bookshelves and me signing copies at some launch event. It was at least a more exciting prospect of climbing a career ladder, spawning some children, or buying my own property and filling it full of furniture. No doubt my writings would never be read by anyone – my manuscript gathering dust in some dark forgotten corner – but it at least gave me something to do and daydream about while stuck on this earth. This was it, essentially, the bargain of human existence. Every man or woman had to find something, no matter how trivial, to give their life some basic meaning. Kids, careers, gardening, football teams…. hell, even something as ridiculous as taking pictures of trains. The important thing was finding something to do to help pass the months and years. At the end of the day, we were all killing time while waiting to die.

3

Savings from my inheritance were getting low and the rent needed to be paid, so it really was time to cast aside my future nobel-prize-winning writing and get a job. So far my applications had predictably proved fruitless, but fortunately I had a friend who could help me out. I figured over half of all jobs were being worked by people who had got the position through someone they knew (‘It’s who you know and what you know’ – as my dejected friend had lamented). Anyway, the guy I knew worked at this call centre for an energy company. I loathed the idea but I needed money quickly, so I begrudgingly sent them my application. I was immediately invited to an interview – an interview I was sure to pass according to my friend. Even though I had the advantage of being close with someone who already worked there, I felt I was sure I was going to screw it up anyway. Interviews were my natural enemy. I loathed absolutely everything about them: dressing up smartly, pretending you wanted the job, pretending you were qualified for the job, and just generally chatting Grade-A bullshit while ‘selling yourself’. How humanity had come from being hunter-gatherers to this was a mystery to anyone. The whole thing was a horrorshow, and just mustering up the energy to even pretend I cared for ten minutes was hard enough work, but my head needed a roof over it and my stomach needed food, so I put on my only shirt/pair of trousers and marched solemnly toward the interview.

Outside the building, I stopped and stared at it. There it was: another office building in a business park with a bunch of human-beings inside, all of them hunched over desks, toiling away their hours and days in stuffy cubicles. I looked through the window at them all locked into their work stations like batteries in some sort of machine. Outside the car park was completely full; nice cars sat neatly parked while the owners sat inside working all day to pay for them. A quick scan showed the spaces for the big dogs, their signs above them: ‘Senior Director’; ‘Assistant Director’. Maybe if I worked away for ten years I could also get in the position of having my own parking space. Maybe that would please my family.

After a minute or so after observing this strange environment, I entered the building. I checked in at reception then was taken upstairs to wait for my interview. I sat outside in a hallway preparing my answers for the merciless interrogation that was about to come my way. My mate had filled me in on what they would ask and they were, of course, the usual collection of mundane interview questions. 

“What about this position interests you?” 

“What skills do you have that you feel will suit this role?” 

“Can you name one time you provided excellent customer service?” 

     It was a tedious process and, god, how I just wanted to spit out the dirty truth into their faces.

I’m here because I’ve always been really passionate about not starving to death.”

“I’m here because sleeping on the streets isn’t too comfortable.”

I’m here because I have to be here.” 

It was a tempting prospect but, of course, I knew such mental musings were never meant to be uttered, only to be kept locked deep inside the vaults of the brain. Ultimately the truth was a creature of the darkness; it preferred to stay hidden in the shadows, fearing how people would react to it if it showed its face to the world. It was vulnerable, sensitive, and the times it came out into the daylight usually led to people stamping violently on its face until it was dead or you were dead.

Remembering this, I made sure my truth was locked safely away and that my mask of social normality was fitted tightly to my face. It was then that a woman came out with a big friendly smile, spectacles on, paperwork in hand. “Are you Bryan?” she asked. I told her yes. “If you just want to follow me inside…”

I entered tentatively. The room was a bland, soulless office space, with absolutely nothing in it besides the desk and chairs in the centre of the room. To my unpleasant surprise, there was a second woman already sitting at the desk, also wearing a big smile. 

“Hello,” I said, shaking her hand. I sat down and faced her and the other woman. Two of them were there staring at me, middle-aged women who had no doubt been here ten times longer than I had been at any other job; middle-aged women who may as well have lived on a different planet to me. They shuffled their papers about and pulled out some pens. Suddenly the room grew smaller as my anxiety increased. I could see they had a copy of my CV, complete with all its fraudulent dates on. I did wonder then if you could actually face any real legal trouble from lying on your CV. The thought went out of my head when I remembered that the majority of the population would be in the shit if that was the case. At that point the discourse began and I was caught; like a fly in a spider’s web, I was well and truly in the worst place a creature like myself could have been.

“So obviously you’ve seen the job description online, but we’ll just go through the details of the role here and what will be expected of you.” I forced a smile and a nod. I then sat awkwardly, not knowing what to do with my hands while she ran through the dreary list and what the company was all about. I hoped she would just keep on speaking, but I knew soon I would be expected to tell them why I wanted to spend eight hours of my day sat inside this building doing something I had zero interest in. There was no use dwelling on the absurdity of it however, so I quickly got into character as the questions started. 

They were all the questions I anticipated, so I rattled off my formulaic answers. I talked about my past positions in customer service, about how great I was at dealing with a variety of people, and how committed I was to doing a job well. I gave overblown examples from my past jobs showing just what an upstanding employee I was. I was blagging it so well that even I almost started to believe the bullshit coming out of my mouth. They sat there nodding and smiling like idiots; it seemed the bullshit process was going nice and smoothly. It was then that a question came that wasn’t in the script I hadn’t thought through. 

“Can you name one time when a problem arose during work, and what you did to overcome it?”

I hadn’t mentally gone through this one and I sat there frozen. Although I was good at coming up with bullshit with a little preparation, I was never actually too great at bullshitting on the spot. I delved down into the sewers of my mind, searching for some stinky bullshit to feed them. But at that moment nothing was coming to me. “Take your time to think about it; there’s no rush to answer.” Seconds of awkwardness felt like minutes and I kept on searching for something to say. Eventually my flashlight lit up a dark corner of my mind’s sewer. There it was: some stinky bullshit. I pulled it out and presented it to them. I told them a story about a time I was working with my dad as a delivery driver. We were short on time to deliver all these items to a business park so I got him to drop me off with all the parcels to deliver on foot, while he went to a different location and delivered there. The details were inconsistent and it was poorly told, but I had at least given them some sort of answer. I think they could tell it was bullshit but thankfully they ate it up as the nods returned and the pens started ticking those pieces of paper again. The bullshit process was once again going nice and smoothly.

After fifteen minutes of interrogation, the ordeal was over and I was free to exit. I thanked them for their time, walked out the building, and shook my head free of all the utter nonsense I had just spouted. I then loosened the tie on my neck, feeling like I was taken off some sort of noose. As always, engaging in the farcical world of work was a traumatic affair, so I walked briskly home to rest, masturbate, and drink a much-needed beer. 

4

The place I was renting was conveniently close to where the office was. It was a small apartment in a secluded court, with three bedrooms but only two people living there. The other person I was living with was the landlord. I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be living alone with the landlord to be honest, but fortunately for me he was rarely there. He was a peculiar guy, around the same age as me and also firmly unemployed. For him though his job status was no problem seeing as he was comfortably living off my rent money and the rent money of the people who lived in two more properties he owned. How a guy just thirty years of age owned three properties was initially a mystery, but one that I solved after learning he had inherited the properties off of his dead dad. Although he didn’t have to worry about making money through work, like all human-beings he was plagued by purpose, so of course he needed to do something to manufacture some meaning into his life. This included a few businesses he had set up, all of which had failed. He also told me how he had appeared on various reality TV shows over the years, managing to make some cash from them. I suspected whether he was genuine, but searching his name on the internet it appeared he was telling the truth. 

As I said, he wasn’t around much, but we did occasionally cross paths in the kitchen. When there we would shoot small-talk. He hadn’t asked me much about my life, but sometimes he did ask about work. I presumed this was because he wanted to know I was reliable to pay his wage – aka the rent. It wasn’t an easy thing to give him an answer on. I mean, how does one really tell someone that they’re a bum? That you worked whatever temporary, menial job you could get? That you were currently surviving off your last remaining inheritance money? After all, people needed to understand you through your set position in society; it was the only way many people could make sense of the world after twenty years of institutional education where the goal was to become ‘something’ at the end. As tedious as I found this, I couldn’t blame people for it; it was all they knew and so, to make it easier for myself, I just lied and said I was a content writer. This sort of job could now be done online, so if you weren’t going to an office every day it didn’t necessarily mean you weren’t working. Also, I had even done a bit during my worthless media studies degree, so if anyone asked questions I could at least sound like I knew what I was talking about. I told people I wrote for business magazines mostly if questioned further, as my landlord Martin occasionally did.

     “How’s work today?” he asks as I’m cooking some noodles in the kitchen. 

     “Not too bad,” I tell him. “Just putting together some press releases for a PR company that gives exposure to start-up businesses in Colombia.”

     “That sounds interesting…”

     “Not really but it pays the bills you know…”

     “Yeah yeah….”

He had never questioned me further on my lies, and maybe that was because he presumed it was bullshit, but as long as he got my rent money every four weeks, he didn’t care. He could go back to applying for reality TV shows and planning his next failed business and whatever else it was he got up to in the days he spent away from the apartment.

Well, a few days passed and it seemed I wouldn’t have to lie to Martin about my employment anymore. I got a call from the energy company to tell me that they were pleased to tell me that I would be starting training for my new role the following Monday. It seemed that after a month, I was back to being employed. I was once again a functioning member of society; an accepted tax-paying citizen with my own role and cubicle. Realising this, I went and got myself a beer from the fridge, not knowing whether I was drinking in celebration or despair. After I ended up drinking seven more, I realised it was despair.

5

So there I was: first day on the job, sitting in the training office with my own computer, surrounded by seven other new starters who were eager to learn and progress in the company. I looked around at them: it was a mixture of ages and ethnicities, although they all appeared to share one thing in common – they had all worked at call centres before, often for years, and they no doubt knew what they were doing much better than me. It was true that I had done customer service work before, but that was dealing with mums in supermarkets shouting at me because we had started charging five pence for a plastic bag. Dealing with people on the phone was slightly different, and one that was a bit of a nightmare for someone like myself. I couldn’t stand talking on the phone and I made a point of avoiding phone calls with friends whenever I could, choosing instead to stay safe and distanced through the medium of messaging. There was just something about communicating this way that I found unnatural and awkward. Well, that was a shame, because now it appeared I would be doing it for hours every day. 

Speaking to friends on the phone was one thing, but dealing with customers was another. I would like to say that I have had many interactions in customer service that were tolerable, even pleasant on occasion, but mostly it is a form of torture that causes you to wish for nuclear apocolypse. Dealing with people in a customer service position you suddenly see them become demons from the deepest pits of hell. Knowing they are the priority and that the customer is always right, they feel they can get away with talking to you anyway they like. For example when I worked the evening shift in the supermarket, I would get many people come in on their way home for work. Many of these people were suffering from another day of working a job they hate, and maybe they were going home to something worse. As a result, they saw dealing with someone at the supermarket as an opportunity to vent their inner existential frustration. 

I feared on the phone it would be even worse, knowing that they were safely distanced would allow them to really use me as a verbal punching bag. It was like when you saw people driving; if someone cut them off, you would see them shouting and swearing to the other person in the opposite car. But if you saw someone bump into someone in the street, they would both politely apologise and be on their way. Ultimately human-beings needed to feel safe and distanced before they vented the pain in their souls, and talking with someone in customer service on the phone was a perfect opportunity to do this. This was made even worse by knowing I was working for an energy company. In past years the energy companies hiked their prices at every opportunity; with it being a private market and having no one to answer to, they all collectively raised their fees each winter in unison. People were getting financially fucked left, right and centre; and now I would be having to hear about for hours every day.

Luckily for me, I had three weeks of training until I would actually have to face the wrath of angry consumers throughout the country. This training would involve learning the sort of queries I would have to deal with, and how to navigate the website and computer system. I wished the training would go on forever, and I made sure to sit back and make the most of the stress-free days while I could. 

I didn’t really care for getting to know any of my co-workers, but one day I ended up befriending an older guy who was sitting next to me. He was in his late forties, softly spoken and seemingly shy. Sitting there, I often looked over and saw him scribbling down some doodles on a piece of paper. When I looked closely, I could see they were actually pretty good – artistic sketches of fantasy things like dragons and castles. It was clear that he was a similar soul to me, an escapist daydreamer, probably wondering why he also had to subject himself to such absurdity when all he wanted to do was create art. Noticing these things I struck up a conversation with him. There was an instant connection and he told me how he was a buddhist who lived in a buddhist commune in the centre of town. He meditated two hours every day and you could sense that in his calm demeanour. I guess that was another thing people did while waiting to die, seeking nirvana. If all else fails, I can always become a monk, I thought to myself. I’ll retreat to the mountains of Himalaya and meditate myself into oblivion. I’ll live off the land and seek enlightenment until the end of my days, far away from all of this nonsense.

The training went on and I eventually accepted the fact I was falling behind. My interest had gone by week two, so I joined my buddhist brother in doodling. My doodles weren’t sketches however, but sentences for my fantasy novel. For some reason I felt even more creative when in this stifling environment and I sought to make the most of it. I looked around at my colleagues, all of them unaware that the greatest novel of the 21st century was being written right under their noses. They trained to answer some phone calls while I put down immortal words that would be read and analysed in classrooms for centuries to come. Maybe one day in my autobiography I would mention how I wrote some of it while working at a call centre, and they would read it and realise just how lucky they were to be in the presence of a true genius. Well, of course that wouldn’t happen but it was a nice thing to daydream about. I continued doing that, staring out the window at the sun coming through the trees, appreciating the carefree days while jotting down some words here and there. Hell, I was even getting £11 an hour for my time- the biggest wage I had ever had in my twelve years of working. Finally I was getting paid for my writing like I should have been. Of course, I was going to be severely underprepared when the training had finished, but I told myself that I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

6

Well, I crossed that bridge and entered the warzone. My peaceful, stress-free days came to a sudden end as the bloody battle of customer service began. On my first day I had them all: the angry, the patronising, the annoying, the crazy and the confused. So many people who felt they had been overcharged; who were threatening to switch energy provider; who told me how horrid I was for capitalising on old people just trying to stay warm in their houses. Bang, bang, bang. The verbal abuse came at me from all angles. I was on the frontline, getting gunned down for all the things the people who actually ran the company did. I was the expendable young soldier being bombarded while the generals sat comfortably in some safe building far away from the bloodshed.

In particular I had one woman who told me to get a proper job. I questioned whether it was one of my parents on the other line. Once again the temptation to actually speak the truth was enormous; it was on the tip of my tongue, me telling her how I don’t want to do this job but I’m forced to so that I can pay my bills just like her. I thought about agreeing with her that the prices are disgusting and we were all victims of an exploitative, dehumanising capitalist system that is destroying human minds and the planet we live on. Oh yes, oh yes – the truth sat on the end of my tongue, looking out at the daylight, but once again I remembered that the truth was a creature of the darkness, so I locked it quickly back up inside my brain and recited the formulaic customer service script. 

On that occasion I kept it together, but I had to admit that it was continually difficult to maintain calmness among the conversations I was having. I looked over to Gandhi beside me for some inspiration. He seemed to always be calm and collective. His years of meditation had allowed his brain to live in zen-like state, detached from the tedious conversations he was having to have throughout the day. I was inspired by him and I took some moments to try and be mindful between calls; to mentally detach myself from the absurdity of the task at hand. It was something that clearly aided him in this war and I figured it was good practice for the outside world as well. 

The battle continued, and even with me trying to be in a detached zen state, I was struggling with my customer service duty. It got to the point where I was sitting in the canteen on lunch break, struggling to lift myself up out of the chair to return to my desk. I was shell-shocked. And when the phone rang I stared at it fearfully. The horror of humanity was on the other line and I sat there struggling to lift my arm to answer it.

I knew I wasn’t going to last and I think it was on day four of doing the actual job that I quit. For once, I didn’t even really think it all out. There was no notice of resignation or plan to not attend work. I was just walking to work one morning when, without thinking, I suddenly stopped outside the office. I stared at the building in front of me. I stared at the cubicles inside and the parked cars and the smokers having their first cigarettes of the day as they mentally prepared for another day on the frontline. Out of nowhere a universal force overcame my body and made it impossible for me to put one foot in front of the other. The only thing I could do was turn around and just walk somewhere else. That somewhere else was the local park. It was a nice, sunny morning and I spent some time sitting by the pond and watching the ducks. I then went and got myself a coffee and a sandwich before walking around a little more through a wooded area. There were many squirrels there, and they weren’t shy; they came up to me as I fed them bread. They were nice squirrels. Anyway it wasn’t long before my phone started ringing. It would be work, of course, wanting to know why I was feeding animals and not locked up inside my cubicle taking abuse from some stranger down the phone. I thought about answering but I figured I’d have absolutely no explanation for my strange behaviour. In the end, I just turned off my phone and carried on strolling around in nature. I then went to a bookstore, then an art gallery, and finally a pub for a couple of pints. At one point I completely forgot about work altogether. It was a nice day, and eventually I went home to try and process the end of another transient piece of employment.

Well, there was no way I was ever going to communicate with them again, at least not on the dreaded telephone. I’d send them an email that the job was giving me extreme anxiety. Anxiety was the go-to excuse of the modern age, even overtaking stress, and I had even used it recently to get out of being best man at a friend’s wedding. Almost everyone had social anxiety these days and you only had to mention it to get people to back off and leave you alone. I even went a little further, stating that I had experienced a panic attack on my way to work. I wrote the e-mail and sent it off, not planning to look at the reply for at least another few days.

I also told my sister about my latest job quitting. As always, she was keen to offer me some words of wisdom. “It was obvious a call centre job wasn’t for you. You should look for something more suitable to you. You need to find something that you have a connection to and a passion for. You should do this personality test; I did it and it helped tell me a lot about myself and what sort of jobs would be good for me. I think it’s really insightful.” She sent me a link to a website called 16personalities. Apparently this was it; my problem all along was that I needed to understand myself better. It at least piqued my curiosity, so I loaded it up and read through it. 

It was a list of questions about all sorts of preferences and situations in life, designed to get an insight into the psychology of your mind. From the answers you gave, you were determined to be one of sixteen personality types based on things like introversion/extroversion and whether you acted with your heart or your head. Initially, I was kinda fearful to see what they made of the mess of my mind, but intrigued too.

After filling them out, the website determined I was an INFP – which is basically the deformed, death and blind midget of the personality types. Reading up some more on it, it appeared INFP personality types were the most likely to feel misunderstood, the most likely to earn the least money, and even the most likely to kill themselves. Essentially it was life on difficult mode and finally I had something to point to while people wondered why I was the total disaster I was. “It’s my personality type,” I would tell them. “I’m an INFP. It’s basically like living life with a mental disability.” Of course, I knew I was justifying my uselessness as a person under the banner of a psychology test. I would be just as terrible as the women who justified their behaviour based on their star sign or a full moon.

The website also listed the job roles that suit INFP personalities. Writer was the main one along with artist – pretty much things you couldn’t do for a stable living, hence why this type made the least money by a good distance. Apparently people like Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath were INFP personality types though. Lucky me, I thought – I had a good chance of mutilating my own body or sticking my head in an oven like a roast turkey.

My sister had told me it would help me understand myself better and what sort of things I would be good at, but it only confirmed the reality of what I thought about myself. I was a jagged piece of the jigsaw, with no place to smoothly slot into society. My place was not in the suburbs of sanity, but on the sidelines with the starving artists and madmen, searching for the light of existence while trying to fight off the wolves of depression and insanity. Well, it wasn’t all bad news. At least I was in the right category for wanting to become a writer anyway. I didn’t have much chance of finding a job I liked, but it appeared my delusion about becoming a best-selling writer one day at least had a faint hope of possibility. INFPs apparently included Shakespeare, Tolkien, and George Orwell. I was in good company, and with this new source of morale, I returned to my novel to strike out a few more sentences. I was nearing 25,000 words and a third of the way through the greatest novel of the 21st century. I was a man in pursuit of his own destiny. I was a man aligning his passion and purpose. I was a man killing time while waiting to die.

7

I eventually checked the reply to my email after three days. I was cringing at what they would say to me but it wasn’t too terrible. They said they understood but also wished I had discussed it with them – and that it was still a possibility if I wanted to. But if not, they said they were sad to lose me and that I could expect my pay in my account next Friday. Well, it wasn’t too bad; I had four weeks of decent pay at least. That would tide me over for another month or two of living the way I did – basic groceries, cheap beer, walking or cycling everywhere, and just spending a lot of time in my bedroom on my computer. I was back to being a bum; back to lying to my landlord about what it was that I was doing with my life. At least he had my precious rent guaranteed for another couple of months. His hard work of inheriting a place from his dead dad had guaranteed him another £780 of my money.

The days of unemployment recommenced. I awoke late, masturbated regularly, and sat staring at my laptop screen for hours each day. At that point writer’s block struck and I wasn’t feeling inspired to work on my novel. Now I really had nothing to do and time needed to be wasted in vast amounts. I was still inspired by the buddhist at the office, so I downloaded some guided meditations and spent hours each day sitting on my bed like Buddha himself. After a week or so had been murdered this way, I began to notice a change in my consciousness. I was more content and relaxed. I had a wider awareness of everything around me. Feeling a deep connection with the universe, I went back to the woods and marvelled at nature while feeding those squirrels. Life was easy, stress-free, blissful even!

     This state of being lasted about five days until the usual desires came creeping back up on me. In particular, the need to get drunk and chase women and generally act like an idiot. It appeared no amount of meditation could take that side from me. Once again, I contacted Jake so he could assist me in another night of hedonistic escapism.

We met in the pub he worked at after he had finished a shift. He was busy chatting with his regulars when I arrived, but eventually came over to join me for a drink. Sitting there, I told him about my latest stint in the world of employment. He almost seemed annoyed that I had landed a steady job that paid more than the minimum wage and that I had given it up so swiftly. “Man, what a waste that was. You should have got your friend to get me that job.”

“Trust me, you didn’t want it.”

“I’ve been working in bars since I was sixteen. All I’ve ever known is working unsociable hours. I’d love to have a steady 9-5, Monday to Friday job.”

“Everyone says that until they actually have one. The reality of it is different. The tedious routine of sitting behind the same desk everyday. You wait all week for the weekend and then it flies by. Suddenly you’re staring down the barrel of Monday morning again with another long slog in front of you. The whole thing sucks your soul dry after a while.”

“This place is sucking my soul dry!”

“I’ve worked in a bar before,” I said. “It took about six months there until I started going crazy. In this place I was crazy after just a few weeks.”

“You’re crazy no matter what you do.”

“True.”

There was a pause in the conversation as we sipped our pints to acknowledge that truth. He then went out for another cigarette and to chat to his community of alcoholics that frequented his pub. He worked in a Wetherspoons pub – the budget establishment of the UK where unemployed people such as myself could get drunk off a tenner. It wasn’t just the unemployed, but the poor in general, the depressed, the men escaping their wives, and the old people drinking alone in dark corners. Those pensioners in particular were a sad sight to behold. There they came everyday: retired people who had nothing better to do but sit and drink and stare into space. Often they would arrive in the early morning and spend the entire day there alone in solemn silence, reading a shitty newspaper while awaiting the inevitable. It was like looking into God’s waiting room and Jake told me how a regular passed away every few weeks. You always knew when you hadn’t seen their face in more than a few days. The poor bastards. This is what they got after a lifetime of work and saving for retirement: festering alone in a dank pub as the last of their days ran dry. Watching them sit there, you could actually watch them emptying slowly out until all that was left of them was the froth at the bottom, before it eventually evaporated and disappeared right before your eyes. 

It was a sad sight as it always was and it once again reinforced the feeling I had inside of wanting to escape this mortal prison before the years had really taken their toll. I poured those pints down my throat hoping they would contribute to some liver illness that would help me check out around the age of sixty. The way I saw it, that was the age we were meant to live to anyway. It was only recently we had started living into our 80s and beyond. Technological and medicinal development had screwed us over; we should have been dying around fifty somewhere at the hands of some lion or hideous disease. But instead we now reached almost double that age, sitting in carehomes and shitting ourselves and forgetting our children’s faces and becoming so decrepit and frail that we couldn’t even eat without assistance. We watched the world change into a thing we didn’t recognise, where every new generation was a sad reminder of what a foreign thing you were – a relic of a bygone age which had no time or place for you anymore. All that was left to do was drink alone in pubs while waiting to die.

I sat there getting depressed, remembering I was now thirty and that the glory of my youth had fallen away. Okay, I wasn’t old like them, but I was past the point of my physical peak and now all that awaited was the long descent to join those old people drinking themselves to death, subconsciously speeding up the process because they knew the sadness of their existence on this earth was too much to bear, that they would never be those young and beautiful people they once were, that their mediocre story was nearly written and the last sorry sentences were being put down – each uneventful day a nail in the coffin of another meaningless existence; more lives that didn’t amount to anything; more dreams disappearing into dust, the only memory of your one existence being a piece of grey stone protruding from the earth in a field somewhere, getting shit on by the birds and rained on by the sky – death, as in life, seeing this world pissing on you from high above as the earth pulled you down, down, down to the ground.

Okay, perhaps my nihilism was getting a little out of hand. I was supposed to be forcing myself to have a good time, so I went over to join Jake and his crew of regulars – the degenerates to which I belonged. I introduced myself and soon the drinks were sailing back as we chatted general shit about current affairs and football. I barely knew anything about football, but when talking with drunk people you only had to give a few ‘yeah’s and ‘right’s to make it seem like you were an expert on the subject. Mostly drunk people just wanted to hear themselves speak and have someone nod their head in agreement with them. One of the guys then offered me a cigarette; I didn’t smoke but took it anyway. About twenty minutes later I’m doing cocaine in the toilet with the same guy. This is what needed to be done sometimes; you had to trick your brain into thinking that something exciting was happening with a chemical substance. I did a couple of lines with my new friend and emerged like a gremlin from the cave of a toilet cubicle. At that point I couldn’t see Jake anymore amid the crowd. I was back in that haze, drifting through the night, sailing on through the mist. That mist had become a friend over the years, sheltering me from the piercing light of reality that at times was too much to bear. This time I needed it a lot, and I let myself be consumed by it as everything blurred around me once again. More drinks went down until I remembered that I was supposed to be watching my money, so I started picking up leftover drinks on the side of the bar, not caring what was in them.

After a while, the mist had taken me into the city centre. I wasn’t even too sure how I got there when I stopped to think about it. My memory was terrible when drunk and dementia was sure to hit me in that dreaded old age. Oh well, for now I didn’t care. I was outside in the smoking area of some pub having another cigarette off some stranger. We stood there smoking and naturally I felt the need to make conversation. I asked him about his day and immediately hated myself. Small-talk was something that physically pained me and yet there I was instigating it. He told me about his day then asked me what it was that I did. I thought about lying as usual and saying I was a writer but I didn’t have the energy. I told him I had just quit a call centre job and was unemployed.    

“Good on you for quitting!” he said. “Not everyone has the guts to quit a job they hate.”

“Trust me, I’m well experienced in it.”

“I get you. That office life is sickening. All those people spending their lives doing some mundane task, chasing promotions and climbing ladders to nowhere. They age terribly and are all secretly unhappy inside. And they feel good when they get that paycheck, but ultimately it goes to things that don’t make them happy and only trap themselves further in the system of sedentary slavery.” I was suddenly warming to this guy. “No fuck that shit,” he continued. “I’m glad I got out of that lifestyle when I could. Nowadays I just do online trading and deliver food for a few hours each day. You’ll never see me working a job like that again!” Out of nowhere it appeared I had found a fellow misfit. Naturally I was curious about his lifestyle and asked him more about it. He told me how he had worked a 9-5 ‘proper job’ for five years then took all the money he had saved and put it into crypto currency. He was now making regular profits and this, alongside four hours a day delivering food on a bike, was enough money to live comfortably off. The idea of a man escaping the sewer was always enough to get the blood pumping, and there and then I decided I was going to give it a go as well. Well, I had absolutely no spare money to put into trading, but I at least had a bike.       

He finished his cigarette and took off into the night. Before he left, he took my number and told me he’d text me sometime. Of course, I knew he never would. The amount of random numbers I had in my phone from brief encounters on nights out was comical. I carried on through the night staggering around in the mist, trying and failing to attract a mating partner for the night. The mist got thicker and eventually the possibility of attracting anything other than trouble was long gone. Pretty soon I blacked out completely, waking up the next morning in my bed with a horrific hangover and few grazes on my body that I had no idea about. 

how to kill time while waiting to die

How To Kill Time While Waiting to Die – Chapter One

alone man room smoking

(The following is taken from a new novel I am working on)

I wake up and stare into that mirror. The same thing we all do every morning. Every time you see the same, yet slightly worse version of yourself. You’re one day older and you’re more tired, more weathered, more disillusioned with the world around you. You’re another day closer to death and your dreams have even less chance of becoming a reality than yesterday. It was never a pleasant sight but today that reflection was worse than usual. Today was the death of my youth. Yes, the years had fallen by and I was now thirty years old. No longer was I classified as a young person; I was now a fully-grown adult – the sort of thing kids looked up to – and there were no excuses for how much in disarray my life was. By this age you were supposed to have it all figured out: partner, marriage, career, mortgage, life purpose, and all of that keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ stuff. The truth is that I still felt like a clueless teenager, wandering aimlessly around, masturbating too much while struggling to come to terms with my own existence. Although mentally I may not have felt like I was thirty, physically it showed. Looking at my reflection, I could see the rings around my eyes, the crow’s feet starting to break through, the grey hairs which were not too numerous to pull out. The light in my eye was a little dimmer, the skin a little paler. I was becoming what old people had always seemed to me – walking examples of the inevitable descent towards death and darkness which eventually enveloped us all.

After a while of grimacing at that mirror, I got dressed and headed out onto the streets. I walked through that urban wasteland while staring at the passing people. The young, the old, the rich, the poor. Most of them, like me, didn’t stand a chance. The world spat on their dreams, took the joy from their heart, forced them to abandon their individuality to survive. Spiritually unfulfilled, they turned to vices to numb the inner pain: alcohol, drugs, television, social media. Yes, the average person in the street was demented and insane – something I had come to learn through my current job as a taxi driver.

As a person with a natural hatred of the workplace, the job of driving people about seemed like one of the least insufferable roles. My dad had been a delivery driver since as long as I remember. I once worked with him as a teenager, helping him deliver stuff in the Christmas rush. It seemed like an okay gig; working on your own, listening to your own music, no office politics to deal with. Man didn’t get much of a break in this life – especially when it came to the world of work – but a gig like that seemed a million times better than being confined in one of those cubicle farms with some sour-faced boss standing over your shoulder. And I was a natural observer of the human race – a pastime my job allowed me to constantly partake in. I looked at those creatures through my rear-view mirror like I was peering into a zoo enclosure. It helped remove me from the reality of it all, and I even imagined David Attenborough narrating it as if I was in some BBC documentary. I recalled my most recent interaction with one particular creature.

“How’s your night been mate?” he asks to kill the awkward silence.

“The same as every other night I guess,” I tell him. “You?”

“Not too good if I’m honest with you. I’ve just broken up with my girlfriend.”

“Oh”

“Yeah I found out she’d been having it away with another guy.”

“Sorry to hear that”

“It’s okay she was a bitch anyway”

“Aren’t they all, mate…”  My throwaway comment had given him the invitation to vent, and on he went verbally sending her to hell. He then went on telling me how he was glad and it was for the best and single life was the way forward. We both knew he was deluding himself and that his urge to get involved in another eventual heartbreak was still there. I dropped him off at a bar where he will try to fulfil that urge, to numb the pain, to escape his current state of consciousness like everyone else in there self-medicating on booze. Later on that night, I pick him up. He’s alone and holding a tray of donner meat with a battered sausage in the middle. He falls into the car and within minutes is pouring his broken heart out; telling me how he wants her back, how he’s made a mistake, how he drove her away and it was his fault she cheated on him. I watch him exit the taxi and spill his food on the floor. He stumbles off into the darkness to sleep alone, the only thing greeting him the morning after being a gnawing hangover and a sense of existential dread.

Yes, the job is a window into the human condition. I look in that rear-view mirror and listen to the conversations, and accept there is a sadness in this world that will never be quelled, at least not for longer than a short while. Everyone is chasing happiness while caught up in the conundrum of their own lives: jobs, relationships, dreams, material goods. No one ever really felt lasting joy. In reality, we were all just killing time while waiting to die.

I carry on walking around the city centre with no purpose or destination. My 30th birthday, did anyone really care? Did I care? I eventually text one of my friends to ask if he wants to go for a drink. I knew he was off the rails at the moment and thus likely to say yes. It seemed to me that was what friends were for when you reached a certain age. You would never arrange to do anything together like play football or go to movies, but when you needed to go out and drink yourself into oblivion, they would be on hand to help you fulfil that need. It was a mutual transaction; many times I had responded to the call when he was in his hour of self-destructive need, – and now he was reciprocating the favour as I drowned my sorrows and rued the fact I was now no longer young.

I met him in the main square in the city centre. A quick hello then we were soon sipping pints while updating each other on the tragedy of our lives. He told me about how he was still living paycheck to paycheck, no savings to afford a holiday or the driving lessons he needed. But it was all okay, he told me; he had devised a grand plan. “I’m gonna find myself a cougar and become a house husband.” I looked at him curiously. “There are so many lonely middle-aged women out there nowadays who want a younger guy. I’ll just stay at home all day, cooking dinner for when she gets home. The easy life.” I listened and knew this was the fantastical daydream of a desperate man. Looking at him in his current appearance, his odds of finding any woman seemed slim. He had once been considered cute, but was now balding and overweight with evidently not much to bring to the table. He had a degree in marketing which had been rendered useless by ten years of disuse as he worked the same job in a drab pub. He knew he didn’t have a shot at anything, and now his focus was on sponging off a middle-aged woman who had some financial capital. I didn’t blame him and I started considering the same possibility myself. Perhaps he was onto something; perhaps my destiny was to housekeep while waiting for my older wife to come home and fuck me? Having known each other since secondary school, we then got to talking about old times and old friends. Most of them now lived in London working graduate jobs, pursuing careers, working hard to become real people. Career professionals. Respected members of society. Everything that we weren’t.

“I don’t speak to them anymore,” he tells me. “I feel like they look down on me.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Yeah, I mean they’re all back there earning big money at graduate jobs their parents managed to get them after university, and I’m still here, almost thirty and broke. It’s all who you know and what you know. I got my degree but every job asks for two years of experience and how the fuck am I supposed to get that? You have to do internships, but I’ve been working fifty-hour weeks since I finished university just to get by. I don’t have the time or the means. The system is fucked.” I sat there listening to his anguish and dissatisfaction. His comments may have seemed like excuses to most, but there was a lot of truth to it. Following university, I had also experienced the brick wall of not being able to get a job due to lack of experience. It was a catch 22 – needing experience for a job, but not being able to get experience without a job. Fortunately,  I had quickly decided not to even bother getting on the treadmill of a career. Living life based around what made your resume look good seemed absurd to me, and there was a freedom in not caring if you took six months off to go travelling, become an alcoholic, or just do nothing at all. I guess the downside to this was that only the low-paying jobs were available to you. But I didn’t care; less pay usually meant less responsibility, and less responsibility meant less stress, and less stress meant you didn’t go slowly demented over the years. In my head I was a modern-day Buddha, an enlightened being – a heroic rebel to the consumer-capitalist culture that was rotting people’s hearts and minds and souls. Of course, I knew this was my personal spin and in most people’s eyes I was just unsuccessful or an underachiever. Perspective was a fine thing, and ultimately a person had to shape theirs in whatever way justified the way they were currently living their life.

We carry on drinking and I notice Jake started to slur his words and get hostile. I was used to it. He had a lot of inner demons and they usually came out around the fifth drink. I knew it wouldn’t be long until he started getting aggressive and arguing with people around him. After that he would declare he was going home after one more drink. This time there wasn’t even one more drink and off he went suddenly marching out the pub, telling me he was going to pick up a Burger King and go home. I watch him stumble across the bar, disappearing out the door into the night, another wounded soul seeking shelter from the world. Then, sitting alone on my 30th birthday, I decide to continue drinking. Around me I hear the whirring noise of excited people – people in groups, people with friends, people who weren’t drinking alone on their 30th birthday. I knew I didn’t have the charisma or confidence to go up and speak directly to strangers, so I ordered a couple of double rum and cokes to at least make myself think that I could. About forty-five minutes later, I’ve reached the required level for social interaction, and suddenly I’m on a table with two other guys around my age. I think they could see I was on my own and pitied me. I graciously accepted their pity and reimbursed them with some self-deprecating jokes and a round of tequila shots.

After that, things got blurry and I’m in that hazy, soft, comfortable place of alcoholic sedation. I let myself drift through that haze until I eventually end up in a taxi on the way home with a twenty-two-year-old girl. Well, not too bad for an old-timer. The sex carries on into the morning – another meaningless fuck that I had now lost count of. Of course, I didn’t finish as usual. I very rarely finished during sex, and almost never after I had been drinking. I can see she’s sad that I haven’t given her my seed; it was a look I had seen off many girls doubting their own attractiveness as they lay unsoiled on my mattress. This was the one thing that was required to be a man – to continue the human race – and it seemed I was also naturally incompetent at that. I attributed it to too much masturbation growing up. My genitalia only knew how to reach orgasm via my own touch. A vagina was simply no match for the highly-tuned and calculated movements of my right hand. I wondered how many other men were like me out there. We were the porn generation after all – the first people in history to watch whatever fucked up fantasy we wanted via a half-decent internet connection. Perhaps it was more common than I realised, and soon the highly-advanced sex robots would come, and no longer would any human be able to reach orgasm via traditional penetration. Perhaps this was the end of humanity; not with a bang, but with a whimper – everybody fucking silicone robots in dark rooms alone as humanity petered out to its pitiful and pathetic end. Feeling the way I was during that hangover, I welcomed it.