short stories

~ A World Not Made For Lovers ~

~ A World Not Made For Lovers ~

Her hazel eyes dimmed with a sadness. There was a heaviness in them which pulled them down to the ground. There was the light of love still in there somewhere, but it had been suppressed down to the tiniest flicker in the vast darkness that enveloped every horizon of her inner universe. Like most lovers in this tortured world, she sat alone in silence and stared emptily into space, confused at the situation of existence before her. She knew deep down a sensitive soul like hers didn’t belong in this society of cruelty and trickery. She wanted affection but got rejection; she wanted passion but got apathy; she wanted to fly but was tethered down by the concrete gravity of reality. In her heart she felt betrayed that the gods had left her stranded in this environment. Her cards had been dealt and now, like a little bird in a cage, she flapped around hopelessly within her confines, aching inside to return to the place where her spirit belonged soaring free.

      We had met recently out on the road and now by circumstance I found myself with her in the Netherlands. A Spanish girl in Amsterdam, Sara, away from home, trying to get by and make her way out in foreign lands, but stuck in a struggle I knew all too well. “The people are cold here” she told me. “They are like robots. The men just fuck you and then stop speaking to you. I can’t make any friends. People put up barriers if they don’t know you already. Honestly, I have no idea what I am doing here.” She carried on spilling her pain and frustration, talking about her ex and her past failures in relationships. “I am broken but everyone is broken after a while, you just have to keep looking and find the person who is less broken than you are.” 

     Her words struck a chord with me and naturally it felt good to be around a fellow scratched and scarred soul. We continued sharing our thoughts about life as we roamed around Amsterdam, spending our time drinking in the cafes and bars, strolling down the canals and checking out the sights of the capital. At one point we walked around a museum and talked about life and travel and relationships. We looked at Van Gogh’s paintings – another lover driven to madness and isolation by the weight of the world. In his self-portraits you could sense his simultaneous love and despair for the human condition. Speaking to Sara while viewing the paintings, I stared into her eyes and saw that same tortured look. I saw that little bird inside longing to be free, to be loved and to belong to someone or something. I had seen it before in the most beautiful of souls I had come across out there on the road. It seemed that if you walked this world with an open heart, you were sure to suffer more than the average person. If you truly loved without a filter than people didn’t know what to do; often the other sex saw it as a weakness and inevitably you were left heart-broken and dejected. I thought of Van Gogh cutting off his ear giving it to a woman to show his love. Admittedly cutting off body parts was perhaps a little extreme but, like Van and Sara, whenever I fell for someone, I went in with all my heart and was inevitably left shunned. Ironically I was here with her but had recently fallen for another girl who had rejected me, and now I had only added to her misery by misleading her. I was also part of the problem. But I had my own problems too. We were both drowning in our own individual way.

     When I really thought about it, it seemed that it wasn’t just relationships where the ones who loved without a filter suffered. It was life and society in general. The more open-hearted you were, the more you were beaten and broken down by the nature of humanity. I couldn’t make sense of it. I looked out at the world around me and saw a brutal and backwards system. It was a place where the cruel and cold-hearted rose to the top. A place where sociopaths and narcissists flourished while the most caring and thoughtful were trampled underfoot. A strange game was being played and the people who were usually the winners were the ones with the fake smiles, the smooth lies and a cold, calculating nature. To be sensitive and caring was considered a weakness in this society. It wasn’t good for the economy. It wasn’t good for survival. It wasn’t good for business or strategy. The best rewards were for the merciless and uncompromising. Dog eat dog, as they said. Every man and woman and child for themselves.

    Meanwhile, those who loved with reckless abandon didn’t make it. They lingered in the solitary shadows and sidelines. The lovers. The dreamers. The idealists. The poets. The INFPs. Often this world didn’t know what to do with them. So many of them were cast out, shunned, neglected, or misunderstood. In the worst cases they were gunned down by the fear and hatred of humanity. John Lennon. Martin Luther King. Gandhi. Malcolm X. JFK. Abraham Lincoln. Aside from them you also had the sensitive and artistic souls driven to suicide or early death by the crushing weight of it all. Kurt Cobain. Hemingway. Winehouse. Kerouac. Ledger. Sylvia Path. Robin Williams. For such people to survive in this world, they needed to put up walls and toughen themselves up. But so many of them were clearly unable to do that, and consequently they were left burdened by feeling too much in an uncaring and hostile world, slowly being driven to death and destruction and alcohol and madness.

     Yeah, no matter how you looked at it, it was a world not made for lovers and I guess, like Sara, I knew opening my heart up to it would also leave me tortured, sitting alone and staring into space, confused at the situation of existence before me. But I didn’t really know what else to do. I was a man ruled mercilessly by his own heart. With child-like curiosity I explored the world around me. I tenaciously followed my passions. I lived fiercely according to my ideals. I loved without a filter. I expressed myself from my heart and soul. I thought these things would be good qualities in life but so far it had only made my life extremely difficult. People abused my kind nature. Speaking from my heart often caused people to distance themselves from me. My authenticity didn’t give me acceptance. My ideals and passions were not compatible with society. I guess I had the ability to stop being this way, but a part of me refused to let the essence of myself be diluted down by the hostile environment I had found myself in. 

     “You need to stop being so sensitive and ruled by your emotions.” 

     “Man up.”

     “Learn to play the game like everyone else.”

     I’d heard it all before just like the others had, but by now I knew I wasn’t going to change. Speaking to Sara as we strolled around Amsterdam, I was reminded how much better the world was when you had those sort of people around you. Just a day or two in her company and suddenly my faith in humanity returned. Suddenly the streets of society didn’t all seem to be doom and gloom with people like her somewhere out there. As long as you just came across a few pure-hearted people every year, it restored something in you; it relinquished the dread inside of you of your own species. Normally those lovers were the most troubled people, but in my eyes they were the most courageous, the most beautiful, the most precious. They were the ones who reminded you that there was still some hope left. The ones who reminded you that humanity wasn’t totally doomed. The ones who reminded you that there was still a chance to find some gentleness in the craziness of this world. 

    To the lovers out there fighting on in this world where so many cold-hearted creatures and demons run amok, don’t let yourself be swallowed up by the storm. Keep the flowers growing in your heart; keep the doves flying in your mind; keep the sun shining in your soul. Sara, little bird, if you are reading this, I hope you find your happiness and learn to smile a little more. Don’t let the weight of this concrete world grind you down. Don’t let yourself be broken down by those hollow-hearted and empty-eyed creatures. Keep your heart kind; keep your soul pure; keep loving fearlessly without a filter. When all is said and done, it’s the people like you that keep the soul of humanity alive.

short stories

~ The Way of the Wanderer ~

~ The Way of the Wanderer ~

It was month six of being back in the routine of normal life. I was on the south coast of England in Brighton, working in a pub down by the marina. It was a typical bar job, only it left me even more wistful-eyed than usual having to spend my spare moments gazing out the window at the ocean while dreaming of sailing off somewhere out into the great unknown. Outside that glass sat dozens of boats lined up in the harbour, bobbing side to side in the water, their sails flapping in the wind – those pieces of cloth eagerly twitching to once again feel the air of freedom and adventure they were born to catch. In between pouring drinks and half-heartedly participating in small-talk with customers and fellow workers, I cast my gaze out to those waters while feeling the allure that only the bohemian soul feels each time they see those sails flapping in the wind, or a bird take off from a ship’s mast, or even something as simple as a singular raindrop swoop and swerve its way down the window glass. This yearning for freedom was only exacerbated by having to serve the group of fisherman who did a few hours graft out on the boats every morning only to arrive in the bar midday to sit around a table and knock back ale after ale. While I toiled away, they sat around jovially conversing and joking of the morning’s exploits out at sea. To me they seemed like men who figured life out: a way to get the job done, taste the fresh air of the life and get back to conversing around the tables of life, drunk, messy-haired and wild-eyed. Perhaps I was staring into my own distant gypsy future I thought, forty years of chaos and survival down the line, living on a scraggy old boat, still bobbing side to side through life’s waters at the mercy of the current of my own restless heart. It was a nice thought to entertain myself with. Other than those guys were some weary-eyed pensioners who sat in dark corners alone silently drinking themselves to sleep. The thought hit me whether they had spent their entire lives on the grind just to afford the privilege of drinking themselves slowly and solemnly toward death. I looked side to side from alcoholic fisherman to just the standard alcoholic. As always with my extensive daily ethnography of the human race, it was hard to say exactly for sure which life was the one that had been lived well in complete certainty. 

      There was one thing I still felt certain about in my flesh and bones: a man wasn’t made to endure an entire life of relentless workplace bullshit only to descend toward death in a dark and depressing manner. Of course, not all jobs out there were like this – seemingly just the majority (which of course naturally included my low-skilled job). It had been increasing in absurdity as the last weeks had gone by and it was right about when my power-crazed supervisor was belittling me for pouring a couple milliliters over on a whiskey and coke that I decided to quit. Having someone scrunch their face and speak down to you about something so trivial in order to make herself feel important was enough to make up my mind. Often in these jobs one had to deal with such souls – bitter souls, vengeful souls, spiteful souls – and there was only so much I could endure of the professional human-being before the deluge of absurdity caused me to crave the sweet release of the wild. I had been thinking about walking the Camino de Santiago through Spain for a while, so naturally it seemed like the next trip now I had decided to pack my bags yet again. Summer had just began and my skin awaited to feel the rays of the Spanish sun while wandering freely across an entire country. It wasn’t long before the final decision was made. I handed in that old and familiar notice and left the bar and scowling supervisors alone once again in that world I was destined to never understand or belong to or even tolerate for any extended period of time.

      Two weeks later I touched down in the French Pyrenees in a town called Bayonne. From there I would travel to St Jean Pied du Port to begin the 500 mile hike across northern Spain to Santiago De Compostela. The route was traditionally an ancient christian pilgrimage where lone wanderers would slowly and surely make their way across an entire country to achieve some sort of religious salvation. Nowadays the hike was completed by all sorts of lost, nomadic souls in search for something that would alleviate the pain of what it was to exist as a human-being in a seemingly meaningless universe. That had been part of the reason the trek had appealed to me. Being back in the neighbourhoods of normality always numbed my flesh and bones with a sense of sadness. Life just lost its magic when you were surrounded by sensible people content in their own lives of structure and sanity. Predictability and order were the slaughterhouses of the soul. I felt a greater thrill when I was surrounded by the desperate and deranged, the crazed and wild – the misfits and outcasts who threw their lives into a flimsy backpack and walked solo across a country just because something deep inside possessed them to get totally lost in the mystery of the unknown. 

    I couldn’t have gotten off to a better start meeting cockney Pete straight off the plane – an eccentric, bald-headed, retired army soldier with no home or plot or next of kin. He was a person who walked the camino again and again simply because there was no other place for someone like him left in society to reside. This time was number three of the year and number thirty-one in total. The man had walked so much the blisters were permanently marked into his mind as well as his feet. Hearing him speak, it was clear to me that he was a scratched and scarred soul, and naturally my alien flesh felt a natural affinity to such a being.

      Having had him befriend me and a young Danish guy, we all walked together in the rain through the town of Bayonne toward the train station to try and catch the last train to St Jean. Pete lead the way marching through the streets while giving us a briefing on the journey that awaited us. With an erratic nature and a childlike sense of awe, he told tales of the classic pilgrimage and basically how we weren’t cut out for it and that we should just go home. 

       “Lads what you gotta understand is this isn’t your usual holiday. I hope you didn’t come here to piss around. If your heart isn’t set on it then just turn around and get back on that plane right now. I’ve walked this walk over thirty times now and I see people like you all the time starting this walk, thinking it’s a breeze, a booze-up – a walk in the park. Let me tell you right now, it’s not what you think. This journey – it’s a mental journey as well as a physical one. Be prepared for the unexpected. Out there on that trail you have a lot of time to yourself and a lot of people aren’t ready for what things they have to face and deal with in their own minds. Especially in the Mesetta part of the walk; it’s a lot of nothingness and I’ve seen people break down and quit.” He kept wiping his bald head dry with a cloth while he briefed us, still clearly thinking he was in the army. “Did you see those two other English guys who were on the plane? Tourists. Tourists the both of them. I can see it how they walk, how they dress – how they speak. Did you see that little guide book they had? They will turn around and be heading home before the end of the second week. I’ve walked this walk over thirty times now so I know what I’m talking about. Thirty times. Over thirty times I’ve walked the camino now.”

      Pete was delightfully mental. Already just off the plane the trip was well and truly off to the start I had hoped for. The scripted small-talk conversations about jobs and studies were a long way away now. I was back home in foreign lands, walking in the rain with a deranged and wild soul, on the precipice of it all: sanity and society – joy and despair. He invited us to stay in a hotel with him, but I wanted to get to St Jean so me and the Danish guy left him to it, at which point he got offended and stormed off into the rain. I knew I would see him again so I didn’t get too sad about the whole situation. Someone that crazy was only good to have around for small periods of time only, and I hadn’t quite gauged to what degree of insanity he was operating within just yet. I liked him but I didn’t really fancy waking up in a hotel room in a strange foreign town with a knife to my throat just a few hours after landing. The descent into chaos needed to be gradual at times – the breakdown piece by piece, rather than the entire engine exploding in your face as soon as you turned the ignition key.

       The next day I got started on the walk, making my way over the last batch of hills in the Pyrenees before dropping down onto the plains Spain. It was a short and rainy stop in France and now I was in the lands where I could practice the awful Spanish I had picked up on a couple of trips in South and Central America. At the end of the day I emerged from a wooded trail and arrived in my first ‘albergue’ – army-like barracks where all the wandering camino souls lined themselves up to eat, drink and try to sleep after a long day on the trail. 

      The first one I stayed in was an old converted cathedral which housed over two-hundred people. Looking at the sea of faces, it was clear that the walk attracted a diverse group of people of all shapes, sizes, religions and bizarre personalities. From young South Koreans walking to put it on their resume, to recently divorced Italians, to old married Ecuadorian couples, to adventurous young Europeans, to the usual midlife crisis crowd – it was an eclectic pick and mix of modern-day pilgrims trudging their way slowly towards the shores of some distant destiny. In the evening we all sat around tables eating ‘el menu del dia’ while talking about life and travel and anything in between. As always the randomness made me feel good; it made me feel relaxed to be sat in circles of other people also drifting aimlessly through the great wilderness of life. Listening to them all, it was clear that they were people of different forms, of different experiences – of different confusions and delusions about life.

      In the first days I walked the trail with a Croatian, an American, a Danish guy and, of course, Pete who continually appeared on the trail talking the head off some slightly concerned stranger before shifting to another. Everyone on the trail knew who he was by the end of the first few days. He was known as ‘Camino Pete’ – the man who walked the trail again and again simply because there was no other home for him other than the rugged, dusty path of the camino. I gradually began to learn that his life was even more chaotic than I imagined after recently losing the last member of his family, his brother, when he was killed by American friendly fire in Afghanistan. It made sense why the man wandered perpetually like he did. His life may have been chaotic, but it made me feel good knowing that there was someone like him out there relentlessly hunting the horizon for some sort of personal salvation and liberation. The more I spoke to him and watched him talk the head off of strangers, the more I realised this ‘something’ was probably a wife – a fellow soul to spend the rest of his days with in a more peaceful way than the absolute anarchy that had been the last years and decades of his life. Again I sympathised with Pete; often I had stared into the pretty eyes of passing women in the streets thinking they could save me from this life of chaos I had drifted towards. It is true that many a man has been driven to death and madness by the lack of a woman’s love. Camino Pete just needed his break, like we all did.

      Besides him I gradually began to learn why so many others walked this path of the pilgrim. Conversations were had with many walking besides little streams, wooded pathways, old cobbled lanes, golden fields of wheat, or sat around restaurant tables sipping wine on some street corner in a small town in the middle of nowhere. As usual with solo travelling, the social mask was off and people were more willing to speak from the heart when they were surrounded by people they may never see again far from home. This lead to moments where I was walking alone down the trail only to find myself five minutes later listening to a complete stranger’s life story like I was some sort of therapist. Like I had noticed before in my life, my receptive, introverted personality attracted people who wanted to vent the storms and thunder that raged inside their skulls. Maybe I was destined to become an actual therapist, I considered at one point. The idea of people confiding in someone like me was enough to shake my head in utter confusion and bewilderment. Didn’t they know I was on the edge like the rest of them? That I was also a chaotic mess? 

     Still I thought I’d give it go anyway, test the waters and see what desperation and madness was stirring within the skulls of my fellow pilgrims. Speaking to those first people I met on the trail, I found out that the Croatian walked because he was a Christian at a point in his life where he needed to decide where to take his career in dentistry – a decision that possibly involved him moving to my home country: the U.K. The Danish guy walked because he had just left his job and didn’t know where to go next on the road of life other than the fact his Chinese girlfriend was still studying in Denmark. The American guy walked because he could – a modern nomad who made money from renting out a couple of apartments in New York (although I suspected he too was searching for a girlfriend). Other than that some people simply walked for leisure, including myself I thought. The people asked me if I had a reason to walk, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I just simply walked to walk. There was an equilibrium about this way of life which made far more sense to me that the conventions and traditions of my society. Putting a backpack on my shoulders and and just moving through the present moment from town to town gave me a sort of monk-like contentment that could not be found in the things I considered trivial and frivolous back home. Job promotions, cultural box-ticking, mortgages, cars, material goods, the weekend, public holidays, television soaps and sitcoms – all of it just confused me to the core. Nothing about it excited me and made me feel alive in any way. More noble – more fulfilling – was this bohemian life out on the trial, speaking to people about life, living hour to hour, day to day, meal to meal. Perhaps I was fooling myself again though – something I’d been guilty of in the past. I’d go from thinking I’ve discovered the secret of life to being sat in a bar from a Belgian family feeling as hopelessly lost as ever. On one particular occasion after the first week, I sat with a Belgian family watching the world cup football while awkwardly trying to justify my nomadic lifestyle to them. The parents were both teachers and were walking with their young son and daughter during the holidays. I’d look at them and ask myself whether I wanted what they had. Did I want that life? A life of family? Of career? Of stability and security and suburban sanity? Certainly they seemed happier than I on the surface but I knew that that sort of predictable life would probably drive me to a high-story ledge eventually. As always, I felt doomed and carried on walking wide-eyed into the unknown. 

     The journey went on as the weeks and miles passed by through the plains of northern Spain. Each day I awoke after a bad night sleep in a crowded dorm, chucked my clothes into my dirty backpack, grabbed some light breakfast, rubbed my eyes and let my the soles of my shoes hit the dusty trail once again. It amused me that I didn’t even have a map for the whole operation; I was totally reliant on these little flicks of yellow paint that lay on the sides of rocks and street signs and dilapidated old buildings. Like with so much of my life, there was no set plan and I felt strangely at home in the unknown. Often I wished life was as simple and peaceful as the trail life. Just following that yellow paint road towards the end left me in a meditative state, only stopping for paella and red wine and moments gazing out at pretty landscapes. The fields and quiet little towns I passed through allowed me to drift my own little world, and I spent time sitting wistful-eyed in cafes, staring out and observing the settled lives of the residents there. After a long day’s walking I would sit back and watch swallows fly in sunset skies as I sipped my coffee in a hazy state of mind, scribbling some poetry and short stories in a notebook. Soon I forgot about my everything else outside the camino. The trek began to feel like a small lifetime, and the process and stages emotions of the walk encapsulated this. Sometimes I walked in a group; sometimes I walked alone. Sometimes I experienced joy; sometimes I experienced sadness. Sometimes I felt lost; sometimes I felt found. 

      If the camino was a little snapshot version of life itself, then it was only natural that some female came along at some point to steal your heart and leave you confused. The moment came in the middle of the day as she stood there like an apparition, a fleeting mirage in the midsummer heat. There a little further down the trail I watched her blonde hair blowing in the breeze and tanned skin shining in the sun. The path had presented me with many things so far and now it had presented me with a goddess here to destroy me. Naturally I knew I didn’t have much of a chance with such a creature. The gods had cursed me by offering me conventional good looks, but also by leaving me with a strange, unrelatable personality that left most girls running for the hills like scared deer when they saw what really lurked beneath the surface. They got lured in but the second I opened my mouth I could see them mentally packing their bags and bidding me goodbye with a confused and disappointed look in their eyes. I knew it was a hopeless task, but still I figured I’d get speaking to her anyway to see what exactly had driven her to walk the camino. 

      Sharing some red wine around a table in a court-yard in an albergue that evening, we spoke about life and travel and everything in between. Unbelievably the conversation went extremely well. It turned out she was a twenty-four year old student from Denmark, studying theology and religious studies while working in a homeless shelter. Her name was Laura and she was a lover of philosophy, astrology and anything that involved mystery and magic and a little bit of hippy madness. Despite her model good looks, she was uncorrupted and still remained a bit of gypsy spirit unafraid to pick up bits of dirty string from the road to use as bracelets, or bite her nails, or pop the blisters on the feet of other hikers. Trying and failing not to be lost in her raw beauty, I carried on sharing my mind with her while she let me in a bit deeper to hers. It appeared, like a lot of camino wanderers, she too wasn’t quite sure what she was searching for or even doing in this thing called life. 

       “Yeah I don’t really have any idea what I want to do in life” she said. “Like you I would to travel half the year and then work the other, maybe work in a non-governmental organisation – a charity abroad or something. I don’t think I want a settled life, but I’m not sure. I don’t know.”

     I emphasized with her lack of certainty about her direction. Like me she was in her mid-twenties which meant her mind was feeling the effects of over two decades cultural conditioning. The expectations to conform to the expectations and traditions of the older generations were at their peak in the twenties, especially as the end of education beckoned and ‘the real world’ awaited in all its stern-faced, cross-armed seriousness. The heavy hands of society, parents and teachers would fall on the quaking shoulders of young people standing at the crossroads of life, wondering what the hell they should do for the rest of their lives. I felt that after the age of thirty most of the pressure and tension was gone; if you weren’t part of the cultural machine by that point, people simply gave up and labelled you an outcast, hippy or simply crazy. Being the tender age of twenty-four and at her most vulnerable, her mind was no doubt full of noise about such choices in life. Still, she needn’t have worried too much I thought – a girl who looked like that was never going to have too much of a tough existence in this world. At least I imagined so anyway. 

      The next days we wandered together along the path talking relentlessly about anything and everything that lingered in the recesses of our skulls. There was a closeness between us that was altogether rare to experience in someone you had just met. By the end of the second day we had told each other so many private things about ourselves that we never thought we’d share with another. I had even shared with her some of my writing which I had never done with anyone directly before. In between this we shared music with each other, sat and rested under the shade of trees, and enjoyed good coffee and ‘tortilla de patata’ in cafes – little bits of cake mashed together with potato, egg and cheese. Throughout all of this I felt a strange sense of happiness and joy I had yet to experience amid the grand journey of life. The thought hit me that it’s strange when you feel something that you haven’t felt before; especially in the third decade of your life. By then you imagine by then your brain has felt it all: the pain, the pleasure, the thrill, the desperation, the fear, the humiliation, the ecstasy, the anger – the crippling sense of loneliness that comes creeping up on you out of nowhere on a busy street corner. What could be left to feel? To taste? But it was true: there on that path with that girl I felt the world shine clear in a new colour alien to my eyes; I felt my flesh burn with a tingling sensation that made me feel strong enough to march against a thousand armies and brave the deadliest storm. The simple sight of her smile was enough to make me feel like I had arrived at the end of my camino – that there was nothing left to strive for, to search for, to wander for.

      But wander we did, on and on, over the hills, to every new town and every new sunset. New friends came and went as each horizon disappeared only to be replaced by another beckoning me further forward into my hazy future. Soon enough the inevitable happened and I awoke one day to find Laura’s bed empty. I had been up late drinking and by the time I awoke the whole albergue was silent and deserted. Hungover and bleary-eyed, I grabbed by bag and started walking alone out on the trail. By then the crowds from the early stages of the walk had dispersed and it was sometimes an hour or two before I saw another soul on the trail. That day I walked alone expecting Laura to eventually come back into sight. Somewhere down on the trail she would appear again, her tanned skin shining in the sun and blonde hair blowing in the summer breeze like it had that day when she had first appeared. But the miles and days drifted on and on, and it soon became clear she had left my world as quickly as she entered. I was not to see her again on this trip. The peace and contentment of sharing my path with a fellow soul I had searched for so long was gone. I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. I knew she was a rare find. She was a person I had searched for back home in the eyes of strangers of streets, the eyes of strangers of trains – the eyes of strangers in bars and clubs and restaurants. Finally I had found her out somewhere in Spain but now she was gone in a camino instant. 

      And so back to wandering alone through Spain I went, spending the days drifting alone down the path, listening to some music and philosophy lectures on my phone, reading in hammocks, staring up into the sky and smiling at the immensity of it all. It was just me and my own madness as it had always been in my life, heading toward the horizon of the unknown, lost in the dream of life while marvelling at the sights along the way. I missed Laura of course but I soon realised this was how it was no doubt meant to be for someone like me. It was all I ever knew: the state of wandering alone; of moving through new lands; of observing and watching the world from behind the looking glass of my own eyes. In many ways this camino business was probably the most natural thing I had done in my life. 

     Eventually I met some other pilgrims along the way and was back to my therapist ways. This included one of the more interesting characters I had met – Marti – a young eighteen year-old from the U.K out on his first travel adventure. At first he didn’t seem like someone I would have too much in common with, but I soon got close to him and learnt about his world. Coming from a rough neighbourhood, he had gotten involved with gangs back home until he eventually made the decision himself to remove himself from that scene and begin broadening his horizons. He had done this by moving to France where he was working as a floor tiler, and now by taking time off from work to come and walk across Spain. The more I learned about him, the more clear it was he had a tough time in the past – including the fact that he had never really known his parents and was raised instead by his uncle (and to a large degree himself). I could see the fire in his eyes begin to blaze when he spoke about such things. I knew he needn’t worry about his troubled past; the fact he was where he was now, doing what he was doing at such a young age, told me his fight was going to be a victorious one. His quest out in his wild had begun, at a much younger age than my personal quest, and I knew he’d be alright in the end.

      Other than Marti came Monica. Monica was a twenty-eight year nomad from the states, one of the ones somewhere down south in the desert. She was small in stature, but titanic in personality. One of the most extreme travellers I had ever met, her adventures had taken her to every continent across the world, to over three-thousand different rides from hitch-hiking, to fighting off Mexican truck drivers with a knife, to being a fire breather in the circus for three years – all the way to meeting a German guy in Guatemala and spontaneously hitchhiking to Vegas to get married. Her way of wandering was more like being blown around in a violent storm and it was clear that the thunder and lightning had left its mark in her crazed eyes. She was the most extroverted creature I had ever met, and although it was fun listening to her story, I eventually found myself trying to get away from her at moments just so my introverted mind could catch its breath. By just running her mouth she had a habit of pulling you into her own madness. I already had the mess of myself to deal with, and someone as wild as her was simply too exhausting to tolerate for any extended period of time. Still, I liked her, and eventually I learned that she was walking the camino to come to terms with the fact that the guy she spontaneously married in Vegas had ended up moving back to Germany where he suddenly fell ill and passed away, effectively leaving her as a twenty-eight year old widow. She said she was walking just to walk, but I could see and hear in her voice that this was the real reason. Her way was a redemption; it was an understanding and coming to terms with the situation that had just befallen her. There she walked: wide-eyed and wild, another wandering soul out in foreign fields, marching her way through the tempestuous wilderness of life. Eventually we parted ways and I carried on walking alone on the trail.

      As I reached the green hills of Galicia and approached the end of the great pilgrim’s walk through Spain, I thought some more about all these weird and wonderful people I had met along the way and why in the hell I was also out here drifting from town to town with no plans or ticket to even return home. Yes, it was true that I liked to walk just to walk, that it was own personal nirvana to be wandering freely through a country in the summer sun with just a backpack and the clothes on my back. But perhaps like some of the others I was fooling myself and there was something I was subconsciously searching for. Perhaps there was something gnawing at me inside after all. I kept expecting to have some epiphany as I walked along the trail, or while I was sat in another cafe staring into the sky, or when I was swimming in a river after the end of another day. But sure enough nothing came or arrived in my mind. The days went on and on and eventually I found myself stumbling into Santiago towards the finishing line. I had walked the five hundred miles across Spain, completed the ancient pilgrimage – another travel experience seared into my soul – and all I could do was stand underwhelmed in the cathedral square of Santiago and watch the other pilgrims congregate together and celebrate their personal journeys. Some cried, some posed for photos, some hugged, some sat alone and soaked in the atmosphere. I guess I was one of the latter, and I sat and stared expecting some great revelation to sweep over me but nothing did. I was still another wanderer on his journey into through the wilderness of life. I hadn’t found anything or been found myself. Despite the fleeting feeling of arrival I had felt with Laura, I was still just whipping around in the unrelenting winds of existence as ever – a relentless wanderer of life, sitting on steps and staring up into skies overcome by the wonder of it all. No finish. No end. No arrival. The road carried onward..

       In the days and weeks that followed the camino, I carried on travelling in Europe. For once I didn’t have such a burning desire to keep on living nomadically, but I also had no desire to go home and work at some job I had no interest in either. I had enough money to keep on travelling and I decided to use it by travelling down the coast of Portugal with an American guy I had met on the camino. We headed first to Porto and then onward to Lisbon. After this I flew to Budapest to party for a week. It was a strange time in my life and for the very first time, I felt tired and bored with the act of travelling. Uneasy with this feeling, I decided it was because I was now off the trail and travelling around conventionally with buses while staying busy city hostels. With this thought in mind, I took a bus down to Slovenia to start a three week hike there that would return me to the style of travel I had become accustomed to back in Spain.

     Walking the first days on that hike, I soon came to realise and accept that I was still not feeling quite right. The hike itself was beautiful, but it was extremely isolated and all the mountain huts were closed. I had a little shelter with me I had picked up from a camping store which was far too small for my six-foot plus frame. At times I was cold, wet and miles away from another soul. I quickly began to see what I was doing was a bad idea. Still I kept on moving until one night when the sun had set and left me enveloped in the darkness of the forest. My head-torch had failed and I used the last remaining battery on my phone to help me put up the shelter I had. With little room on the mountain side to place it, I settled for a damp patch of mossy turf. I erected the small nylon structure and then crawled inside like an insect trying to shelter from the night. 

      As I lay there gazing up at the starry sky, unable to sleep in the cold howling wind, I thought about my shambolic situation. Truly I was no longer where I was supposed to be – shivering in the night, tired and alone in a foreign country, fighting off the spiders from crawling into my tent, hoping no wild animals would come across my momentary lair in the absolute middle of nowhere. Feeling hopelessly lost, I started playing over the whole camino trip in my head. I thought of the places and faces along the road. I thought of all the little exchanges with other people. I thought of Pete, Laura, Marti, Monica and all those wandering souls out there in the world making their way through life. Thinking about it all, suddenly, I had the urge to write more than ever before. I remembered something Laura had said to me – “why don’t you write a book about your experiences and share how you feel.” I had been feeling it gradually within me for a long time now. My phone notes were littered with notes of things I wanted to write down when I was reunited with my laptop that was waiting for me back home. More than ever before, I had a strong existential desire to express the contents of my soul, to share my own story from the past few years of bohemian madness. A few weeks after finishing the camino, that epiphany had finally arrived and suddenly all I wanted to do was to be home and write and write and write. It played over in my head through a sleepless night and the next morning I accepted I had wandered too far through the wilderness. I was no longer fighting the good fight. I was no longer on the path where I belonged. In the realisation of this, I got up, picked up my backpack and marched back along the trail to the last town I had come across. Once I was there I went and caught a bus to Croatia. Once I was there I booked and took a flight back home to England and prepared to write my first ever book. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      You know, when people ask why I travel I still find it a hard question to answer. It is true that I was never able to find what I wanted from regular life. The jobs. The education system. The consumerism. The conventions. The expectations and traditions. Like others I met on the trail, I was a born explorer and found myself stuck in a system which seemed to sedate me into a passive existence. So I guess I did what I felt was necessary and started to explore my outer worlds without any compromise. I ventured as far out into the world as possible. I climbed the mountains. I worked the terrible jobs. I got lost in the eyes of strangers. I travelled far and wide until the journey eventually led me inward into the kingdom of myself. And truthfully it was there where the real gold lay; it was there where I found my passion and purpose. From England to Australia, from menial jobs to medical trials, from being down in the dumps to being high in the mountains – it has been a crazy journey through the wilderness, and no matter where I’ve been out there, it appears the only home I have ever found is right here at this keyboard expressing myself. I have travelled the world and found the greatest adventure at the end of my own fingertips. With each word I type, my soul is racing to the horizon with wide eyes and arms open. It is the greatest act of exploration I have known, a journey into the soul where there are far greater treasures than one can possess physically. It is an act where I am finally able to express myself in a world that left me feeling misunderstood and voiceless. It is an act where I am able to share my experience and the experience of all those other wanderers out there roaming the world. It is an act where I am able to create a place I could finally call home.

    When I got home from that period of walking the camino and travelling in Europe, I found myself glued to the keyboard for months after. I got a seasonal job working alongside my dad at a courier company, and every day after work I just sat alone before my keyboard, writing down the thoughts and tales of my journey onto a blank page. For the first time in my life nothing else mattered. I had no external desires other than where I was and what I was doing. Everything else faded from sight and I knew that finally I had found what I was subconsciously looking for all those years out on the road. I no longer cared about the adventures or the girls or what was over the next horizon. I no longer cared about that long, meandering trail. I no longer cared about the backpacks or hostels or foreign countries. Like the other pilgrims in the square of Santiago, finally my journey was over. Finally, my camino had finished.

As the words poured out onto the page, for once in my chaotic life, finally:

I had arrived.

short stories

~ The Medicine of a Mountain Wilderness ~

~ The Medicine of a Mountain Wilderness ~

“Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion…I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present moment…my vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.”Anatoli Boukreev

In this life there are moments when we have that eureka moment when we discover a love or passion of something for the first time. When Hendrix picked up that first guitar; when Shakespeare wrote his first sonnet; when Pele kicked his first football; when Cook sailed his first boat. You start to do it, you feel some sort of existential thing click inside of you, and from then on you know it’s an essential medicine your soul needs to survive and sustain itself in this crazy and chaotic world. 

     I guess mine came somewhere on that mountain in Bolivia, face down in the snow at six thousand metres, gasping for breath after just throwing my guts up for the third time that morning. I lifted my gremlin face up toward the horizon and saw the sun rising over the backdrop of the Andes, gradually illuminating the winter wonderland around me. Even with a bit of sick dripping off my chin, the moment wasn’t ruined. I was out on the precipice of it all, living life on the edge, feeling more alive than I had ever felt before. Perhaps partying heavily the two nights before my ascent in the neighbouring city of La Paz wasn’t the smartest mountaineering tactic, but at this point I was lost in the thrill of my trip in South America that all rational and logic was lying in a roadside ditch somewhere a few hundred miles back. 

    Picking myself up, I carried on trudging up the mountain in pain. We were soon nearing the top as we ascended steep ridges with big drops and crevasses lying precariously on either side of the path. It was an arduous struggle and each vertical metre left me gasping ever more heavily for air. I had never been at this altitude before and it was safe to say that I was suffering. Each step forward felt like being stabbed in the thigh; flashes of silver went off in the corners of my eyes; the freezing wind whipped against my skin as the madness howled in my mind. Occasionally, the mountain guide would enquire if I was okay. The simple answer of course was no, but at this point I couldn’t bring myself to turn back. I was possessed by a strangely intense need to trudge further on into the wilderness before me. It is that deep, existential feeling of experiencing life at its fullest which drives men into the mountains, which drives sailors into the seas and skydivers to the skies. Sometimes it consumes a human-being altogether, leaving them flat-out dead in a ditch somewhere or drowning in a stormy sea. 

    Admittedly, the feeling of finding fulfilment through extreme adventure can occasionally be fatal, but in this instance it was worth it. Reaching the summit of Huayna Potosi, I cast my gaze outward at the otherworldly scenery around me. My bloodshot eyes beheld a wonderland of mountain peaks stretching out toward the horizon, with the sprawling city of La Paz nestled in the valley below – the sight of a hundred thousand people beginning another day of existence in this wild landscape. I smiled to myself and sat down to catch my breath, remembering how just a few weeks ago I was stacking shelves in a supermarket in England. With the mountain conquered, I then stumbled back down to the city itself where I remained bed-bound with a cold in a hostel dormitory for two days – the relentless joys of the backpacking life.

     Despite the pain and sickness, the feeling of living life on the edge on that mountain stuck with me and it was roughly about six months later that I found myself stranded on a mountain in New Zealand in the middle of winter with a friend. Having been diverted off the trail, we managed to get ourselves stuck in a ravine with daylight fading and no way to continue down to the bottom. There we remained stuck in the dark on a rockface above a waterfall, both with damp clothes, holding on tightly to each other in the sub-zero temperatures to stop ourselves from slipping into hypothermia. It wasn’t all bad however. We had somehow managed to get ourselves stranded in somewhat of a magical spot. The lights of the town in the valley below twinkled like a starry night; shooting stars soared across the clear night sky; the sound of the nearby waterfalls put my mind in a meditative state. It was a surprisingly pleasant experience and eventually, after about seven hours of lying there, we were rescued by some cheery local volunteers who made us tea and posed for photos with us. I guess it was at that point I had the idea that maybe I should start taking the whole hiking thing a little more seriously if I wanted to stay alive and keep enjoying it.

     That I did the next year when I decided to devote my travels specifically to hiking. This time I invested in some actual hiking equipment including boots, thermals, gloves, a head-torch, purification tablets and even an actual map or two at some point. Suddenly I felt like a seasoned professional, ready to tackle Mount Everest itself. Maybe that was a little extreme I conceded, so I resided myself to travelling to Nepal with a friend to hike to the base camp of the world’s highest mountain instead.

     We spent two months in that country, first walking the long route into Everest base camp before resting and then carrying on to go tackle the most popular hike in the country – the Annapurna Circuit. Again came the struggles, the sweat, the strain, the pain – the battling feeling of ascending up a hill as some ineffable force inside of you drives you forward to that summit. Amongst this, I beheld sights I could only once have dreamt of. I saw waterfalls cascading down from steep Himalayan peaks; smoky clouds sweeping in through snowy valleys; buddhist stupas perched dramatically on the side of cliffs. I saw the jagged peaks of the biggest mountains in the world piercing the sky as they rose up magnificently towards the ether. The beauty of the landscape was also reflected in the wholesome spirit of the people. The environment of a mountain wilderness had something that made you more laid-back and relaxed than the erratic city dwellers I knew from back home. Of course, the people were poor and generally had more difficult lives than a typical westerner, but their state of being was one that seemed much more harmonious with nature and relaxed at their core. Travelling through towns and villages, I often beheld the smiling faces of women and children as they went about their peaceful and simple existence. We also met sherpas who had ascended the world’s highest mountains and now spent their days hosting hikers in their guesthouses. In particular I remember marvelling at one elderly man who sat in silence spinning his Buddhist prayer wheel with a look of contentment and inner peace I had never set my eyes upon. It was only after speaking to him that I found out he was a retired sherpa who had summited Everest over ten times. Needless to say, I was bewitched by these people of the mountains; I was bewitched by their lifestyle and their environment. The mountains, the peaks, the waterfalls, the teahouses – the greeting of ‘namaste’ every time you passed someone along the trail – truly I was hopelessly in love with it all. 

     Naturally then I continued exploring my growing passion/obsession. After that trip I went on to trek in the Alps, the Pyrenees and finally in Iceland where I wandered alone through a solitary landscape, crossing a volcano and walking over newly- formed landmass from a recent eruption. At the end of that day I set up camp alone on top of a cliff, perched on some distorted volcanic rock, watching the midsummer sun set on the horizon before it came creeping back up just a couple of hours later. There wasn’t another soul for miles and it was probably the most blissful I had ever felt in my entire life. I soon had the realisation why this specific environment was so soothing and therapeutic to me. It was true that trying to find my place in society had often left me violently bent out of shape. Since a young age, I never felt like I could properly fit myself in anywhere. Society essentially was a rigid and mechanical world of straight lines, borders, boxes, bureaucracy, paperwork, suits, rules, contracts, cubicles, offices and job titles. But in that world of smooth lines and edges, I was bent shaped, awkward – a jagged piece of the jigsaw, misprinted, badly-designed or perhaps from the wrong box. It was no surprise that I felt more content and relaxed in an untamed mountain wilderness. It was more fitting to who I was and as I walked along those trails, I felt a feeling of belonging I had never known. The rugged hills, the meandering streams, the jagged peaks, the rocky paths – everything was a big mess and finally I fit right in.

     A couple of years then passed following those trips, mostly with me staying at home and saving money. However the desire to get back among the peaks and ridges didn’t subside. The more I interacted with society, the more my flesh and bones craved that mountain medicine. Staring out of windows at work, I longed for that feeling of freedom in that almighty arena of adventure where the only boss was nature itself – where the only timetable to follow was that of the sun. It wasn’t long before I caved in and let my hiking odyssey take me back to Nepal, the country that had already captured my heart. I was now twenty-seven, supposedly at the height of my youth and strength, and I felt it was time to take it to the next level. I planned to do three big hikes when I was there: Annapurna Base Camp, the notoriously challenging Three Passes and finally a climb of the 6500m mountain Mera Peak – higher than any mountain in Europe, Africa or North America. I felt as if I had climbed the hiking ranks over the previous years and it was time to prove myself as a competent hiker, capable of solo trekking tough hikes in the highest mountain range in the world. Admittedly it was a far cry from being sick in Bolivia and getting hopelessly lost in New Zealand on a one day hike. I made sure that I was prepared more so than ever before, even going as far as purchasing a compass.

      I arrived in Nepal again and got started straight away with the Annapurna base camp trek. Despite some unnervingly close calls with avalanches, I managed to reach the base camp and get back without being turned into a snowman. A good start. I then went on to complete The Three Passes, being one of the first people of the year to make it all over all three passes despite the unseasonal amount of snowfall. With me now feeling like one of the greatest mountaineers of all time, I rested a little before heading on to my biggest challenge yet: Mera Peak. The mountain was in the same area as The Three Passes and it took me another few days of strenuous solo hiking (and also reluctantly climbing over another mountain pass), but I eventually arrived to the base camp of the mountain where I had arranged to meet my sherpa guide who would lead me to the summit.

     Meeting him I was immediately envious of his lifestyle. Here was a man who had climbed the biggest mountains in the world as a job. Here was a man who lived every day as an adventure in the mountains – whose office was the almighty roof of planet earth. I curiously listened to the tales from his impressive life as we started trekking up the mountain, first strapping on some crampons and slowly making our way up a massive glacier. I was never a religious man, but as me and my sherpa guide trudged up that mountain in the morning sun, I felt more connected to a higher energy source than ever before. I breathed in the air, watched the sunlight glint off the ice and marvelled at the eagles flying majestically overhead. Yes, I thought to myself – truly this was where it was at. This was life at its best. Forget the drugs and the clubs. Forget the big houses and the fancy cars. Forget those advertisements and billboards telling you pleasure could be bought with some gadgets and gizmos. It was all a con – a fix – a lie. The good life was out in nature. It was right here on this mountain. It was right here with the snow and the pain and the bone-chilling wind that sent shivers down your spine. 

     After a sleepless night at high camp at almost 6000m, we got up early the next morning to finish the ascent. We cooked some soup, had some tea and then got going as the first embers of daylight crept over the horizon. It took two hours of pain with my guide deciding to take me ‘the shortcut’ (the steepest, most direct way), but finally we reached the final ridge, stomping it to the top to become the first people that day to summit the mountain. Success! The highest I had ever been outside of Glastonbury music festival. I stood there at the top for a glorious few minutes looking out at a totally clear view of five of the six biggest mountains in the world, all standing beautifully before me like the gods themselves shining in the morning sun. Yeah, I guess you could say it was a special moment for me. I was at the peak of the mountain, at the peak of my passion – at the peak of my random and chaotic life. If only those guys who rescued me from that small mountain in New Zealand could have seen me now.

     Having successfully summited the mountain, I figured the hardest part of the expedition was over. Now was the victory lap back to the town of Lukla where I could take the plane back to Kathmandu to finish this trip of a lifetime. Unfortunately, I was unaware that the greatest test of my hiking odyssey, perhaps my life, was yet to begin. I had been sticking tightly to a budget the last ten days as I had underestimated how much I would need when withdrawing money in the last big town. I could just about make it back with food and accommodation with the amount of crinkled notes I had stuffed in my pocket, but I would have to be fast about it. Unfortunately this plan hit a slight snag on the return when I trekked up towards the mountain pass back into the valley where Lukla was, only to find that a large amount of snowfall had made the return impassible. A stubborn trudging through the deep snow left me almost slipping down a few hundred metres to my solitary death in the valley below. Conceding defeat, I then returned all the way down to the bottom, lamenting the absurdity of the situation before me, thinking of what to do next with my limited supplies and money and strength.

     What to do? Where to go? How to approach this? The situation had all of a sudden gotten threatening and I needed a plan of some sort. It was a five day walk the long way around back to Lukla and I barely had funds for two days food and accommodation. Well, if it came to it I could sleep outside somewhere, but hiking for over ten hours a day would naturally leave me in need of some serious sustenance. I had never learnt to hunt so that option was out of the window. I could try to explain my situation to teahouse owners who spoke limited English and hope for a bit of generosity. I could also try to arrange a $5000 helicopter ride back if I was truly desperate. None of those sounded like a reasonable or affordable idea, so I took a deep breath and decided that I was going to try and storm it all the way back to Lukla in two to three days. Even though I was perhaps the fittest I had ever been, this surely was going to be a tremendous and painful struggle. The reality of the situation hit me as I stood totally alone with the snow coming down heavily. My legs also ached from the failed attempt at the pass. To round off the misery, my soggy map tore apart in my hands as I tried to read it. Yeah, my delusions of being a great mountaineer had passed and suddenly I wasn’t feeling so great in the environment I had gotten to love so much. Suddenly I was worried. Suddenly, I craved the comfort of human civilisation.

     I smashed down a pack of biscuits like a madman and got started immediately on the alternative route. About twenty minutes in I came to see the grimness of the situation I had suddenly found myself in. I was tired, low on energy and had such a long way to go it wasn’t worth thinking about. On top of this, I had somehow misplaced my waterproof backpack cover – admittedly not the greatest move in this weather. The snow continued to pour down and it wasn’t long before me and all my belongings were getting soaked. To make matters worse, I came to realise that the path I was on was seemingly the trekking trail from hell. It snaked its way along the valley side, occasionally dropping down a few hundred metres only to go straight back up – sort of like a rollercoaster ride in an amusement park. In this instance however there wasn’t too much amusing about it. It was taking me an hour to do what should have been a fifteen minute straight walk. Consequently, my strength and sanity were fading quickly, along with my treasured supply of biscuits.

     Nonetheless I continued onwards, fighting through the snow-storm, occasionally scoffing down those biscuits to try and regain some precious energy. The trail continued to go agonisingly up and down – up and down – up and down. At one point I lost it, threw my backpack on the ground and started cursing like a maniac at the trail itself. My mad voice echoed out through the valley like the howl of a demonic wolf. At this point I was completely drenched and freezing, so I decided to take shelter in a small cave. From inside the cave I could see the slopes of Mera Peak across the valley through some gaps in the clouds. Just two days ago I had been up there on top of the world and now I was a shivering wretch, a gremlin in a cave, exhausted and alone with a long and painful task ahead of me. I had gone from one of the best days of my life to one of the worst in just a couple of days. All my love for the mountains had faded and I now longed for a warm bed, home comforts, conveniences and amenities. I longed for restaurant meals and human interaction. Yes, the mountains had broken me and I needed the medicine of civilisation. 

     Eventually I summoned some strength and carried on moving along the rollercoaster trail. After a while the altitude dropped and this meant I was now hiking in the rain instead of snow. This nicely ensured that every last one of my belongings was now thoroughly soaked throughout. On top of this, I also had managed to form an enormous blister on the back of my right foot. This left me with a throbbing pain every time I took a step. The situation was almost comically pitiful and the grimness went on for about six more hours until I made it to the next village where I decided to call it a day. I had been hiking at pace for over eleven hours at this point and I was ready to collapse. However, first I got my wet clothes out of my backpack and spend precious resting time hanging them out to dry. After that I ordered rice and lentils with some of the last of my money and scoffed down as much as humanly possible, preparing myself for another long and painful day on the trail. At dinner I told my story to a couple of German hikers and their guides who were heading the other way back to Mera. They looked at me like the deluded madman I was and questioned what the hell I was doing all alone out here in the Himalayan wilderness. It was a reasonable question to be fair. Apparently no westerner went to this mountain without a guide of some sort, especially in bad weather. One of them took pity on me and gave me a bandage for my blister and a couple of breakfast bars. Then I went to bed, setting my alarm for dawn to continue the solitary fight early the next day. Drifting off to sleep, I couldn’t help but lament the stupidity of my situation. A great mountaineer, I was not. I had sobered up from my mental delusions and was back to being that unprepared, hungover kid being sick on the mountain in Bolivia.

     The battle continued the next morning and went on for two more days, hiking great distances in solitude, ascending and descending hundreds of metres with limited energy and an injured foot. At some point I had almost descended entirely into the realms of madness. I’d start talking to myself or the birds beside me on the trail. I’d fall over laughing to myself about some old memory from my childhood. I’d start singing and do a little dance to try and liven myself up. Eventually all my snacks were gone and I used the last of my money on some boiled eggs and rice to try and get through to the finish line. The fuel from that kept me slowly trudging forwards on the final day. Each step was exasperating but finally, after another ten hours of soul-sucking pain, I limped into Lukla exhausted, penniless, starving and slightly insane. I was a broken man, but I had done it; I had made it out of the mountains of madness in one piece. Feeling victorious, I withdrew some money from the cashpoint and collapsed at the nearest guesthouse I could find. By now I was sick and shaking, and also slightly malnourished. Cold shivers went through my body continually as every ounce of me ached and throbbed. With my body in this state, I continued my gremlin ways and spent two days in bed gorging on snacks and staring at the bedroom walls, trying to find the energy to get up and make my way out to face the daylight of the outside world. Eventually I just about managed to summon the strength to get out of bed and take a flight back to Kathmandu where I continued to rest, recover and regain weight. I then spent another couple of days lying in bed thinking about the gruelling trip I had just undertaken, trying to digest and make sense of all the madness, feeling thankful that I had made it out safely out of the wilderness. I was done with the mountains for a while, I conceded. The trip had well and truly broken and beaten me.

     A few days later I was in the lakeside city of Pokhara, still resting and recovering from my ordeal. I was in a bar beside the lake doing some writing, drinking a beer, and enjoying the comfort and conveniences of city life. It was then that I got I speaking to a guy beside me. He was a man in late thirties from Libya who was about to walk the Great Himalayan Trail – a four month hiking trail that traversed its way across the entire country of Nepal. I quickly found out that such an adventure was not something new for this man as he told me the tales of his life. He told me of how he had no home or family, and how he had basically spent his entire adult life walking around the world, crossing countries, mountain ranges and entire continents. Exchanging stories, I started telling him my story of running out of supplies and money, being alone on the trail in a storm, how much pain I had been through, and how I was now happy to just relax and stay away from the mountains for a while. He looked down at the ground with a contemplative look, nodding his head slowly, looking a bit like a Yoda or Buddha figure.

     “I know my friend” he said. “I know sometimes you can question why you do it. But out there in those mountains, it’s the struggle that makes it all worthwhile. For what is the journey about without the trials and troubles? How can you experience the greatest heights of life without also experiencing the lows? How can you know ecstasy without desolation? Pleasure without pain?” He put his drink down on my table and looked up towards the mountains across the lake. “I have been in such situations myself. I have been injured, alone and starving. I have been lost and scared. But no matter what happens, always I return to those mountains my friend. You know why? There is a life out there that cannot be experienced in a comfort zone of routine and security and predictability. There is a life out there which gives us something which cannot be purchased or store. It is a haven for the wild spirit, and I, like you will do, will return to those mountains always and remember I fell in love with them in the first place. It is who we are. It is what we do. It is why we walk.”

     Listening to this philosophical musings of this eccentric wandering guru, I thought back to almost freezing to death on that mountain in New Zealand, and throwing my guts up on Huayna Potosi, and being bed-bound for days after in a busy hostel dormitory. It was true: despite the grimness and pain and danger, always I came back with wide eyes and arms, ready to hurl myself into that rugged wilderness once again. The thought hit me that no doubt this latest saga would just be another one of those stories I would think about on my next hike. 

     Sure enough it was a few days later when I was with some new friends, listening to them talk about their upcoming hike in the Annapurna region, that I felt that mountain madness stir inside me once again. Now I was rested and recovered, I could feel my flesh and bones itch to join them and get back out there. Hearing their plans, my eyes lifted once more to those mountainous horizons, feeling that existential pull back into the place where I felt most alive – where I felt most free. Sure, I knew that such pain and discomfort was out there waiting for me; I knew that even death lingered somewhere on those high mountain paths. The record number of trekkers dying that year in Nepal went to show how death and destruction was sometimes just right around the corner. But yet we went out there and did it anyway. Like the Libyan wanderer had said: it was necessary to feel alive – to be alive. It is what drives men and women to the mountains. It’s what drives those sailors to the seas and those skydivers to the skies. A connection. An existential belonging. A way to spar head-first with the majesty and glory of life itself. 

     I guess at my core I was another one of those mountain madmen, destined to forever be searching for something to keep me feeling alive in a world that too often seemed to sedate you into a passive existence. Like the Libyan man, there was always only so much I could endure of the scripted and straight-lined reality of society before I needed that medicine again. Like so many things in my life – from travelling to mountaineering to writing – I guess did it in my own crazy way because I felt it was essential to keep that life flowing through my veins. To me it was a medicine for the soul – a fire for the spirit that warmed me from within. And that is why some of us choose to abandon ourselves to things that make us feel alive. To throw ourselves into that wilderness. It is the direct way to experience life at its rawest and purest; to shake off the shackles of monotony and banality. And yes, though at times its painful and scary and isolating, it will always keep you crawling back. Because once your soul has felt it, you will long to return to those lands where you feel totally alive. You will long to return to those lands where you feel totally free. You will long to be out there living and not merely existing, hunting horizons with eyes full of fire, marching on through the wilderness, keeping the flag of adventure raised in your heart, perpetually exploring your inner and outer worlds – ascending your mountains and fighting your best fight until the day you die.

Cheers to that, Anatoli.

short stories

~ Moving Forth ~

~ Moving Forth ~

A dreadful silence filled the room. The surrounding walls looked at me with suffocating stares. I lay flat and still on my bed as the weight of the entire world pulled me down into the mattress. The dream had abruptly ended and I was back in my old bedroom, living at home with my parents after travelling around the world for one and a half years. From Brazil to New Zealand, the grand adventures had come and gone – all those soul-stirring experiences lost in the mist of mind and memory, and now I was back to where I grew up: penniless, alone and depressed, with no one close by who truly understood or cared how I felt.

On top of this I had returned back to my old job in the local supermarket. It was not something I had planned to do but having been reckless enough to come home with no money and a considerable amount of debt, I immediately returned to a place I could walk into work straight away. This created some sort of time warp in my brain, as if the last one and a half years had all been nothing but some sort of surreal dream. As I walked down those aisles and stacked those shelves, I felt my heart being crushed slowly and surely by the old familiarity of it all. It really was true that absolutely nothing had changed. The same customers came in at the same times; the same scripted conversations were endured; the same items were stacked in the same places. As I worked, I stared emptily into space and let my mind wander. How could so much have changed within me while everything here remained exactly the same? How could I live this other lifetime while people had stayed set in the same mode of existence? How could I go around the world and now feel so lost in my hometown?

Inevitably, I felt as if everything I had done was for nothing; I felt that all the life I had gained had been stolen off me. A total pointless waste of time. What a foolish dreamer I was, thinking that my big, post-graduation journey actually meant something. It all suddenly felt meaningless. And not just for me, but those close to me. Besides the obligatory ‘how was it?’ question, no one really had an interest in what I had done.

“So, I guess it’s time you joined ‘the real world’ now hey.”

     “Welcome back to reality.”

     “Time to get a proper job.”

These were the comments people shared with me about my trip. Misunderstood and alienated, my heart soon raged against everything around me. Reverse culture shock set in and I began to feel more foreign than I had while on my trip. This just about peaked on a bank holiday Sunday evening where I stood in a pub listening to everyone talk about jobs, football and television shows. Suddenly, standing in silence at the bar, I was mocked for wearing casual clothing and working in a supermarket. It was right there and then that I realised I had become a stranger in my own town. This was supposed to be home, but now it was clear the bohemian madness had finally claimed me: I now had no home. I was an exiled alien, lost somewhere in the great cosmic ocean of existence, devoid of a place of any real human belonging.

As I experienced this conflicting state of affairs, I thought of my companions I had shared my adventure with. Where were they now and what were they doing? Were they also back home, beset by the same doom and gloom as me? I racked my brain and remembered the moments of getting drunk on Copacabana beach on New Year’s Eve with Ana. I remembered partying on a balcony overlooking a beautiful lake in New Zealand with my twenty housemates. Hiking to Machu Picchu with new friends. Climbing mountains in Bolivia. Cycling around wineries in Argentina. Yes, yes! All of those things! All those beautiful things swept away by the merciless waves of transience which eventually enveloped us all. The tides had turned, the fleeting friendships over and I now stood alone in what might as well have been another world altogether. Thinking about it all, I felt a strange feeling start to stir in my stomach. It was going to be a tough time, I knew.

The weeks and months continued to go by in tremendous solitude. I soon avoided going out as I couldn’t face the others. Consequently, those bedroom walls gradually suffocated me more and more. It wasn’t long until felt like a prisoner of some sort. In times of desperation, I let society’s influence set in; I went online and applied for those career jobs that I wasn’t interested in. This was the script I had told myself – that this big solo trip around the world after graduating university was my final blowout before retreating back to the world of normality to begin a steady career. It wasn’t until I went to an interview that I realised my delusion. As I sat there lying and pretending to be someone I wasn’t, I felt tremendous inner conflict burn inside my blood. Within me a great fire roared and raged against it all. I quickly began to realise I was facing the music – that I was finally acknowledging that I wasn’t going to walk the straight path society wanted me to. I had been avoiding it for a long time it had seemed. From an early age I knew in my gut that I didn’t belong to the world of careers and contracts – to sensibility and suburban sanity. I had suppressed the fact that I was incompatible with that world for many years and now it was time to accept that things in life weren’t going to be so straightforward for me. Acknowledging this, a personal crisis ensued. The dark clouds gathered inside my head and the rain poured down.

In the midst of this storm, I found myself visiting the nearby farm fields in the countryside daily. I guess it acted as a little bit of an escape from society. The allure of nature occasionally allowed some of the pain to momentarily reside, as if there was some whispering voice of wisdom in the wind and in the streams, trying to tell me something that would alleviate my suffering. Although it helped at times, it wasn’t enough to stop the terrible storm inside my head. As the weeks and months went by, the thunderous noise increased in tune with my own despair and desolation. I gradually began to realise that these feelings were nothing new. It was true that I had felt out of place all of my life at home. From a young age I knew deep down something inside of me was vastly different from the rest. Perhaps that was the source of past bouts of anxiety and depression, I considered. I had always known I didn’t fit into the world I grew up in, and it seemed I had subconsciously blocked out this fact to spare myself the pain of facing my isolation as the black sheep I undoubtedly was. But finally, at the age of twenty-four, the realisation had caught up with me. There was no denying it any longer: I was an abnormal outcast, a wretch not belonging to my place of birth.

Eventually one day I was walking in those fields and the weight of it all became too much. I couldn’t go on the way I was any longer. I stopped and stood alone in the middle of a field. I then looked up to the sky with tears of pain and rage, before collapsing down onto the ground. For a long time I just lay there motionless in the grass, feeling the wind whip against my skin and the pain and madness howl in my mind. I felt myself sinking down deep into the earth beneath me, swallowed up whole by this world. It was true: I had been broken – the lowest I had ever sunk in my life. I was a destroyed man, shackled down by my demons, lying helpless and alone in the torture chamber, feeling myself disappearing into a state of non-existence.

Then something strange happened.

Somewhere deep inside of me, something changed. Something was destroyed. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but at my lowest point I felt it implode on itself and dissipate into nothingness. In the wake of this, I then started to feel the pain gradually start to reside. I sat up and breathed in, wondering what the hell had just happened. Perhaps it was the sudden death of a demon within me that had been causing me all this pain. Perhaps it was the shackles of my mind which had finally split under the weight of all the pressure. Whatever it was, I felt its sudden destruction within me, followed by a feeling that was like coming up to the surface for a life-saving gasp of air. It was then that I realised a critical point had been reached; a peak of pain overcome. Feeling some strength start to return, I picked myself up from the hard ground. I then limped on home, knowing that something inside of me had changed forever.

In the months and years that followed that troubled time, I have still been limping on home. I wasn’t completely cured from my problems altogether. Something like that which brings you to the edge of destruction doesn’t just fade totally. But it was a moment that was pivotal for me – perhaps the most pivotal in my entire life. In that field that day was the moment I finally let go of a whole lifetime of suppressing my true self. In that field that day I allowed a persona I had been burdened with by society to be killed and faced the fact of who I really was. Since that turning point, I have gained mental clarity and been able to overcome my inner conflicts and struggles; I have been able to summon the courage to become the person I was born to be, and not the one society tried to mould me into. With a new profound faith in my own inner being, I have continued my adventures all over the world, I have summited the mountains, I have trekked the countries, I have wrote the words – I have stopped caring what other people think of me and come to terms with the fact that I am a born outsider. With myself adjusted to this new state of being, I have found my true calling and followed it fiercely with all my heart and might and passion. The tides have turned once again, and I now stare into those morning mirrors, proud to see my authentic self gazing on back at me, ready for whatever’s next upon the great journey of life.

You know, it is true that many times in this life an individual suffers tremendously with coming to terms with who they really are. Human society and the cultures we exist in are enough to send any man or woman into isolated states of despair and depression and desolation. With everyone around you trying to mould and shape you from a young age, it’s easy to get confused and lose yourself in the madness of it all. It truly is a fight to be yourself in this world, especially if you are driven by a deep inner desire that leads you away from the herd. But if anything is worth fighting for, then it is the essence of yourself, and no good warrior ever won a great battle without having to go through some struggles. On the quest to your own destiny you will undoubtedly face isolation. You will face discomfort and doubt. You will face the situation of being misunderstood by those around you. But please, if you feel that fire within you then have a little faith in your inner voice, don’t keel over to something which insults your soul, and don’t give up on yourself just because sometimes you may have to walk alone through haunted places. No, stand up tall and walk wide-eyed into the wilderness. Descend into the depths of yourself and meet your demons face to face. Fearlessly explore every ounce of your own being. After a certain amount of time exploring your inner self, you will go back out into the world as a warrior of the wild, and from that position on you will be stronger and more resilient than ever before. Your eyes will blaze with brightness. Your heart will ache with passion. Your gut will rumble with thunder. With a ferocious tenacity for life, you will live the life that sets your soul on fire – the life that your very heart screams out for. Your path will be thrilling and magical, and when you reach the end of your road, you will have no regrets about the life you lived. You will have a victory of personal authenticity. You will have a victory of individual courage. As you become the person you were born to be, you will have the greatest victory of all:

you will have the victory of yourself.

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short stories

~ The Mask Of Normality ~

~ The Mask of Normality ~

“So Bryan, what is it that you do?”

I looked at my fellow wanderer across the dinner table from me. He was a man of the backpacking world. He was a man who had done many jobs, who had travelled many places – a man who, like me, struggled to categorise his entire existence in the universe within a specific labelled box of employment. Still, after swallowing the food he was chewing on, he began to try to justify his bohemian lifestyle to the family. I sat back and watched curiously, knowing that it was normally me on the receiving end this question, flapping and flailing around like a fish out of water, unable to give them the solid answer they sought. 

     After a couple of minutes of explaining how he worked and travelled, how he didn’t have a home, and how he had recently spent a year living in a hostel, an awkward silence fell over us. I looked at the mother and father across the table. If they had been culturally-programmed robots then you could almost see the sparks flying from their eyes. You could see the circuits crashing and the sound of  ‘malfunction – malfunction – malfunction’. It was a sight I knew too well; when people couldn’t categorise you easily within a culturally and economically-defined box, then they often stalled and didn’t know what to say. Their silence was deafening but thankfully Bryan found some humorous words:

Well, it looks like my mask of normality just fell off.

     I let out a laugh and thought about the absurdity of the scenario. Here we were once again, justifying our bizarre and unconventional lives to a family we were visiting. Often we had joked about the looks of bewilderment that were cast our ways whenever we talked about our lives. I guess you don’t really think about it until you’re out of education. When you were still studying you could say you were in education to get people off your back. But the second you were out and didn’t have your identity assigned by a job role, the looks of bewilderment and judgement were thrown your way by the bucket load. It seemed that in society a man or woman’s destiny was to become a particular thing, a labelled component of the cultural machine, and this was reflected in the fact that one of the first questions people asked each other when meeting was ‘what do you do?’

      No matter where you went in life, the question was always there. Meeting a girl in a bar – ‘what do you do?’ Meeting a stranger on your travels – ‘what do you do back home?’ Meeting some relatives – ‘what are you doing now?’ Even turning on the television and watching a game show – one of the first questions was always ‘what do you do?’ Often I observed my species take part in this behaviour when interacting with each other. If you could toss out a label of economic-based existence and explain it with a couple of sentences, then the process would be very swiftly done. Out your label would come, the other person would then categorise and judge you on what sort of person you were, and then the conversation would move on. The problem for Bryan as well as me was that I just didn’t have an answer that would satisfy them. Once somebody asked me the question I had to go on a long winded explanation telling them of all the different jobs I had done, my partition in medical trials, my backpacking trips, my writing and the general concoction of chaos and anarchy that was my life. Like Bryan had noted, it was usually at this point the mask of normality was blown off and I was exposed for the abnormal creature I really was. From the top of my head, I could remember at least ten times this had happened and I had been automatically cast as the outsider of the group.

     I guess I should have just accepted it and replied that I was effectively a drifter. I mean, I was a drifter, there was no way around it any more. But I guess I was a little uncomfortable with that label due to the connotations it had. It’s not that I was completely destitute or homeless, but it was true that I roamed around from one place to the other with not too much of a long-term plan. Of course there was a romantic side to the image of being a drifter, but mostly it just scared people away, and made them think of you as a loser, loner or outcast. Yes, all things considered, the mask of normality was well and truly off if you gave yourself that label.

     One day I decided I would just make up a role whilst out on my travels. Meeting people you were never going to see again made it possible to experiment with alternative identities, sort of like a mild schizophrenic I guess. I went ahead with this idea and started to say I was a journalist. This masked identity had a level of credibility because I had actually obtained a degree in journalism early in my adult life. I could talk about the industry and use its terms and even reference a business magazine I had done unpaid work in the past. What’s more, it was a respected profession so this allowed the person I was speaking to to have some level of respect for me. This answer allowed the mask of normality to stay placed on my alien face. With a nod of the other person’s head and a smile on their face, I was an accepted member of the human race.

      To raise the stakes one time out of the interest of an experiment, I thought I would go all out and give myself the label that was revered as ‘successful’ and the epitome of a respected profession. I decided to say I was a lawyer. I had taken a few law modules in my journalism degree and even sat in on court hearings while writing and reporting. Because of this, I again knew some of the terms and areas of law I could talk about. After hearing their profession first to make sure they weren’t actually a lawyer, I explained away my made-up role as a solicitor. As I did I looked at their looks of approval on their faces. My mask of normality and acceptability was fixed on my face stronger than ever. People in bars gravitated toward me. Girls even desired me more. It truly was amazing to see the difference what a single word could do. With this mask I was more than just an accepted member of human civilisation; I was in actual fact a respected member of human civilisation.

      The schizophrenic madness went on and eventually I got to a point in my life where I had self-published a book and received a total of two hundred and something sales. I had been writing all my adult life but now I actually had something published which was available to buy online. This meant I could give myself the labelled identity of ‘writer’. I mean, ultimately in reality I was a largely unknown writer with a very small following, but to some other outcasts and outsiders who read my writing, I was indeed a ‘writer’. I got started with using this answer whenever I was hit with the ‘what do you do?’ question. As I did, I noticed that people responded the most to this out of any of the labels of existence I had fed them. The interesting one with this is that the mask of normality fell off your face if you said this anyway, especially if they went on to ask what sort of stuff you wrote. My stuff consisted of stories and thoughts of an outsider, all full of existential and alienated angst. If they were to actually read what I had written then that was an automatic exposure as the misfit I was. Often, to my horror, some of them even bought my book – at which point my mask of normality was destroyed beyond repair and they naturally distanced themselves from me cautiously.

      Eventually I faced the facts and realised I didn’t really have the right to say I was a ‘writer’ either when asked what I did. The ‘do’ question was more referencing what you did in order to get money. I hadn’t made more than a few dozen pounds with my writing; in fact I had lost money with the online adverts I occasionally did. So I retreated back to being an undefined being with no real label. It was time to just try and avoid the question and stop lying that I actually was a regular human-being with some sort of normal identity. I couldn’t keep my face straight and live in my world of lies anymore.

     As life went on this way, I resigned myself to the awkward pauses and stares whenever the Do question was thrown my way. Consequently, there were great moments when imposter syndrome struck severely. Talking to girls in bars or attempting to apply for jobs, I never truly felt comfortable that I was one of them. At all times I was just a couple of questions from being exposed as the abnormal creature I was. Soon I gradually began to feel a million miles away from the world of normal people that continuously pounded the pavements next to me. They were all around me and often it got exhausting interacting with relatives and new people you’d meet. I had rarely come across someone who even understood completely what I was attempting to do with my life – that I was more interested in exploring, adventuring and seeking to create art over anything. What I ‘did’ wasn’t possible to define within one word. I was a misunderstood individual and I got more and more tired with humanity more with every superficial interaction and tongue flicker of that awful question.

      Sometimes, when the social alienation and anxiety got too much, I would rack my brain into what mask of normality I could try and give myself to get people off my back. Maybe I could just reside myself to a normal job. Maybe if I could get one more book on Amazon and then be the author of two books, maybe that was enough to label myself as a ‘writer’. Maybe one day I could even get a job in copywriting or something off the back of my creative writing. Maybe one day I could be a regular person, shepherded and confined within a labelled box of economic employment like the rest of the human race. I got lost in these thoughts gradually but eventually sobered up from my mental musings. The truth was the truth and, in all honesty, I guess I was just an alien like my friend Bryan. An interstellar mutant of some kind, destined to wander on and on from place to place and job to job until the end of my days. The mask of normality had no place on my face. I was too awkward, too incompatible – too insane to fit into a socially-approved box of existence. In a world of accepted citizens who had found their place in human society, I limped on through like some out-of-place extraterrestrial, somehow finding a way to get by and survive. ‘Too weird to live; too rare to die’ as Hunter had said. That is what I did. That is what I do. And that, as I sit alone again in this dark room pouring the mess in my mind onto the page, is what I will always do.

short stories

~ Living on an Edge ~

~ Living on an Edge ~

His eyes were bloodshot and demonic. His remaining hair fluffed off into wild little quiffs. Almost half of his front teeth were missing and sporadic drops of saliva shot out his mouth when he spoke. I was in New Zealand and the thought hit me whether I was actually staring at an orc of some sort. I mean presumably the Lord of the Rings movies used costumes and make-up, but this creature in front of me wasn’t too far from looking like he was spawned in the dark pits of middle earth itself. To be fair, after hearing how he and his son frequently smoked crystal meth together, it was no surprise that he looked like he did. It was understandable. What wasn’t understandable was how this man was in charge of the entire floor of a wine factory. I had been working here for over two months and every day I had to listen to this snarling beast shout and spit orders at a bunch of backpackers who were simply too tired with him to listen. Still, it was my final day and I let his words fly far away over my head. His reign of bullshit was over. His superiority complex would have to be suffered by whatever backpacker was going to walk through the door next. For me it was time to hit the road again. I toiled away until the end of the day, took one last look at the orc and then strolled out the door onward to the next adventure feeling like Bilbo Baggins himself.

The job itself had been a much needed bank top-up. It had been over six months since I arrived in New Zealand from Chile almost completely broke. I had blown all my savings travelling around South America and had consequently limped into the country on the other side of the world from home with a bank account in as worse state as the orc’s teeth. What followed was a tempestuous time of bumming around, hitch-hiking, sleeping in airports, bad diet habits, and scraping by off random agricultural jobs. It wasn’t all bad. Sure, I had been subjecting myself to a life of struggle and financial stress, but everyday I awoke with wide eyes ready to face the world before me – and being in one of the most beautiful countries out there, well, that helped too naturally. Of course, I would always lie to my parents whenever I contacted them – telling them I was fine and had no problems with money. I knew that if they knew I was living the way I was it would leave them in a state of panic and worry. Maybe I should have also been more concerned about living so precariously on the edge, but often in this life that’s exactly where the excitement and adventure was at. It was true that there was desperation and depravity out on that edge, but sometimes there was a little majesty and magic too. Sometimes the edge was a beautiful place.

I continued loitering on that edge as I hitch-hiked down the south island, stopping in a town for a week to party, before eventually heading to a job I had heard about off my Chilean friend. It was somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, among the fjordlands, and allegedly you could make good money sticking some plants in the ground. I had the plan to save up some more money to continue travelling in Asia after I was done in this country. Working consistently in one place with no distractions (mainly drink and women) would ensure that this was possible.

It was on the third day of that job, somewhere in the morning, that I decided to quit. I quickly concluded that I was never going to last the duration. The work itself was quite literally backbreaking and it turned out that I was the only backpacker working there. On top of this, the hostel I was staying at was a sort of abandoned shack without electricity, close amenities, a warm shower or even another traveller. The idea of staying there for three months made me shudder and I decided to get out of there fast. I grabbed my backpack, hit the open road once again and hitch-hiked all the way back to Queenstown – the place I had stopped in to party for a week on the way down here.

Now, aside from its spectacular scenery, New Zealand is a more or less a boring country to live. I mean, the sort of place that is best to retire, walk dogs, or work in a wine factory and become a meth addict. But Queenstown itself was the exception. Hailed as the adrenaline capital of the world, the town is a little wonderland of bars, restaurants, hostels, tour agencies and overcrowded houses that sit tightly packed together between the surrounding mountains and Lake Wakatipu – an enormous mass of sparkling blue glacial water that stretches out into the neighbouring valleys. When people weren’t skiing, bungee-jumping, skydiving, or riding speed boats, they could be found drinking in the array of bars that were stuffed into the small town centre that was no bigger than a couple of football fields. At night one could find any nationality of backpacker twisted in one of those establishments. It was the sort of place that was as far away from home as possible for most people – the sort of place where they were there ‘for a good time, not for a long time’ – and consequently this led to the chaos, debauchery and sexually-promiscuous behaviour that was rife at any given evening in any given bar. In all honesty it was probably the worst place in the world to save money and avoid the distractions of drink and women, but my will had been broken after just a couple of days of tough work out in the sticks and I needed a drink. The town was notoriously hard to find a place to stay, but luckily for me I knew a girl from my previous job in the wine factory who could get me a bed in a house a little out the centre that overlooked the lake and mountains. By New Zealand standards, I had hit the backpacker jackpot.

I arrived to that house and saw a Kiwi guy dragging a bed out the front door and attaching it to the roof rack of his car. I stood and watched him curiously. “Don’t mind me” he said. “I’ll be outta your way in a sec.” He and his friend proceeded to lift the bed onto the car, throw some straps over it, tighten it up, then get in and drive off down the road. It was an interesting sight to arrive to, and also an illegal one I quickly discovered. The Kiwi had decided to steal the bed after being kicked out of the house by the landlady. And he wasn’t the only one. The landlady was in the process of kicking most tenants out after so many had failed to pay their rent, or moved in secretly to sleep on couches, or threw wild parties and damaged the house – as was evident by the gaping holes in the walls of the hallway. Over twenty people had been living in this seven bedroom house, and now over half of them would be kicked out to be replaced with a new set of backpackers, including my good, respectable self.

After settling in, I decided it was time to go out there and look for some sort of job that would support my temporary existence in this chaotic town. As always my CV was a mediocre read which wasn’t going to help me too much. Most jobs in Queenstown were in hospitality or tour agency work – both of which I had zero experience in. With this in mind I headed straight to a labour agency that was located on the outskirts of town. As soon as I walked in they took one look at me and saw what type of person I was – another drifting backpacker with no discernible skills or trade or talent. It turned out I was in the perfect place. A new DIY store was opening soon just outside of town and they needed a bunch of helper monkeys to assist the store’s staff with setting up the interior. They gave me my work helmet and high-vis vest; I was to get started the very next day.

Settling into the job was an easy affair and I soon made friends. The labour agency picked up and shipped off a group of people to the work site everyday. There must have been over fifteen people crammed into that mini-bus every morning, most of which were hungover or asleep. When we got to work we were given an inspiring team briefing before everyone dispersed and went and found ways to keep themselves busy with some simple task that would normally end up taking an entire day. The team itself consisted entirely of backpackers, all of which were male. Speaking to them all, it was clear that most of them were like me: young guys scraping by and travelling around in whatever way they could. Naturally this had led them to this no-skills required job. I thought I had been living like a bum but after a week it was clear that I was an amateur at fringe-living compared to this team of delinquent drifters. Among the team included: a Mexican eighteen year-old who had overstayed his visa and was working illegally; an English guy who was running away from debt collectors back home; an Irish guy who was penniless and sleeping in the town park; a dutch guy living in the back of his van; another English guy who arrived drunk and smelling of booze every morning; and a couple of guys who spent most of their time using the work materials to build items of furniture for their house they were renting. To single out the English guy as an alcoholic was a little unfair I quickly realised. Most people not only in this job, but also in this town, were living lives that left their livers and bank accounts in damaged states. The allure was simply too great. Every night the town’s bright neon lights shimmered below beside the lake – the enticing glow of a bunch of people partying and enjoying the temporary buzz of being young, free and far away from the suffocating world of normality back home.

Naturally it wasn’t long before I was lured into that lifestyle myself. Most weekends quickly became a blur of hedonistic partying. Sometimes there was some hiking or camping, but that usually involved large amounts of alcohol too. Not only did I have the influence of all the guys working at the labour agency, but also I had a house of about twenty people residing at the house. Coming home from work everyday, there was usually at least a couple of people knocking back the drinks and preparing to make an assault on the town centre. There was simply no escape. Chaotic weekends soon turned into chaotic weekdays. Summer was here and I could do nothing but prepare to strap myself in for the ride. The drinks had been served – the madness had begun.

Now in this life, a man or woman lives on their edge more than you think. So many people out there in those towns and cities are limping by in ways you can’t see on the surface. What a person needed to survive in this world was food, water, shelter and normally a drink or something to take the edge off existence. If you had those things, then you could get by in some rudimentary way. Well, like many people in this town, I was getting those things and not much else. After a while I was making it to work just three or four days a week. This was usually enough to afford rent and cheap groceries, and then concentrate on the main expense of enjoying the summer festivities of this chaotic town. The whole thing quickly began to feel like I was in some sort of amusement park where I would do just enough to afford the entrance fee and ride out the rollercoaster of life. The thought hit me: wasn’t that what life was anyway? Finding a way to get by and survive while trying to find time to actually enjoy the ride? Still, often I thought I had taken it too far. I was on the other side of the world from home and I had a tooth problem I couldn’t afford to address, my remaining clothes were now tattered and frayed, my passport was considerably damaged, and the lack of sleep I was getting left my mind in a constant state of delirium. Some days I awoke and stared into morning mirrors of realisation and saw the sanity slowly fading from my eyes. At this point it had also become clear that my plan to do some travels in Asia was down the drain, and instead I was just concentrating on surviving the summer here and making it back home when my visa finally expired. My two year trip was coming to an end and I wanted to go out in style. The neighbourhoods of normality beckoned back home and I was going to exploit this brief chance of living young, wild and free in a beautiful place.

And so onwards the descent into madness continued. House parties. Work parties. Festivals. Christmas. New year. My birthday. More house parties. Camping trips. Climbing mountains. Sleep deprivation. Sleeping with strangers. Sleeping with friends. Not sleeping at all. Eventually the job at the DIY store was finished and we were all left searching and fighting for whatever form of work the agency could give us. This included traffic wardening, furniture removal, construction, and, on some weeks, nothing at all. Consequently my bank account began to slowly sink down and down towards the depths of true poverty. I was slowly falling off that edge into the abyss of being homeless, penniless and possession-less on the other side of the world from home. Naturally I felt better knowing that I wasn’t alone in such a fate. By now I had become good friends with the English alcoholic James from work. Many nights we spent together getting twisted in town or down beside the lake. Hearing the stories from his life, it was clear that he had set up camp and made ‘the edge’ his home. The last years of his life back home had consisted of travelling around the U.K with a cheffing agency, staying in hotels and drinking heavily every night. After a couple of years he had finally saved up enough money to travel. He flew one-way to Bangkok and drove around South-East Asia for eight months on a motorbike before arriving here skint in Queenstown where he was now scraping by week by week, paycheck to paycheck, living in a hostel dorm with nothing but a few items of clothing to his name. Like the orc back in the wine factory, he was another man loitering precariously on the precipice of total destruction, all the while still managing to be an integrated, working member of society. Meeting all these random characters in New Zealand, I came to realise that in a way there was a little bit of this insanity inside all of us. I could see it in the orc’s eyes. I could see it in James’ eyes. And now, facing those morning mirrors of realisation, I could gradually begin to see it in my own eyes: the anarchy of the human mind that must be suppressed so we could all fit into society and get money to survive in some elementary and socially-acceptable way.

As the time went by, mine and James’ influence on each other slowly and surely caused us both to descend deeper into those pits of madness. On one temporary job we both took turns controlling the traffic flow into the town centre during a busy festival period. One of us would stand on the road and aggregate the traffic in and out of the city centre, while the other went next door to the bar to drink red wine and chat with our friends who were working there. Under the influence, we decided to blog and post our exploits online and quickly became famous in town as ‘the traffic terminators’. Many cars drove past waving and offering us free drinks and food. Some people took pictures with us. Journalists even came and interviewed us for the local newspaper. With our new found fame, we felt like the kings of Queenstown – two drifting backpackers, somehow the momentary heroes of this famous town. Of course we always tried to keep the town oblivious to the fact we were really just messing around and taking it in turns to go next door to the bar to drink and talk crap with our friends.

It wasn’t until we worked one job that I realised we had perhaps gone a little too far. Through the agency we had been tasked to help set up and take down the stage for a gig somewhere about half an hour outside of town. The deal was that if we set up the stage and took it down after, we could each get a free ticket to the show. Like responsible employees we set to the task in the early morning and helped finish off setting up the stage. Then, like irresponsible employees, we went back to town where we spent the afternoon in the sun by the lake joining in an all-day DJ party. What followed was a day of drinking, dancing, swimming in the lake, a free concert, and then swiftly being dismissed from the job of taking the stage down the second the supervisors saw the state of us after the gig.

It was safe to say that the owners of the labour agency hated us after that fiasco and consequently assigned us the worst jobs they could, or nothing at all. Either it was a day of no work, or a day of doing menial tasks alone at some millionaires house in the middle of nowhere for the minimum wage. By this point any hope of travelling in Asia was over and I was hoping that a week stopover in Bali would suffice. I now had just a few hundred dollars of borrowed money left in my account. The entropy of the universe had worked its force and slowly ground me down. I was now a man holding on – living life to the fullest you could before death and destruction claimed you totally. Still I kept holding on as I was nearing the flight, picking up the scraps of employment, counting the pennies, living off packs of instant noodles – napping on my lunch breaks to catch up on some sleep. In the meanwhile the house had become a circus of insanity. We had created a rota in which you had to sign in when you started drinking and then sign out when you stopped. This soon created a competitive nature amongst everyone and our house quickly became some sort of perpetual party. It was a literal madhouse in moments and often I went and stood alone on the balcony staring out at that beautiful lake view, appreciating that my life was truly more absurd than ever before.

Eventually the day had come and it was time to escape Queenstown with whatever remnants of sanity, money and possessions I had left. I took one last look in that mirror and realised I had done it; I had lasted out the summer – five months of utter chaos on the other side of the world. Good friends had come and gone, the original group of the house was now being broken apart – the time in paradise now over. I said goodbye to all the friends I had made there and headed alone as always again to the airport. I was flying to Bali with basically nothing but a few tattered items of clothing, a damaged liver and mind, a faded passport, and money that most likely was not going to be enough to get me completely home to the U.K. Still, I felt more alive than ever and as the plane took off, I looked out the window at Queenstown to soak in the last glimpse of the town below. It was then that I caught my reflection in the window pane. Staring deep into my tired eyes, I could see a specific stare now seared into my soul. It was the look of my English friend James. It was the look of the orc in the wine factory. It was the look of every crazed soul who was living their life precariously close to the edge of sanity and society, trying to live their life to the fullest they could without completely destroying themselves. I smiled to myself and then stared down at my shoes – beaten and battered and bruised – little bits of material hanging off the outer section. Right then I realised that the edge was a place I had gotten to know all too well whilst out on my travels. It was a place of chaos and madness – a place of fire and destruction. It was a place where I was going to be for a long time yet.

With that thought in mind, I ordered a red wine and toasted to the next adventure.

short stories

~ Misdelivery ~

~ Misdelivery ~

     The decision to quit was made somewhere around the end of the third week of the course. I watched with sad eyes as the man opposite me sat reading out his writing while everyone in the class sat around like a bunch of vultures waiting to pick away at the flesh of his work. That everyone did as a bunch of people, all of different backgrounds and lifestyles and perspectives, weighed in with their suggestions for changes to the man’s story. To my horror I watched as the man nodded in agreement with everyone and butchered his piece apart to please everyone in the room. Any chance of there being any fire in his work was thrown out the window as he reduced everything in it to appeal to the lowest common denominator of a diverse crowd. Like so many people concerned about their reception with the masses, he had abandoned his authenticity and courage at the judgement of the crowd. This was supposed to be creative writing course, but I had quickly remembered that creation was an act best done alone in the pits of solitude. From Van Gogh to Bukowski, any art worth its salt was usually forged in the shadows from an individual who created out of necessity instead of desire, and who went out and experienced the world, rather than sat in classrooms with notebooks trying to please people and make academic sense of something which belonged to the realm of mystery and magic. 

     Since the start of this course it had become clear to me that I had no doubt started it as sort of a last ditch attempt to cling on to the ledge of normality. Doing a master’s course at a university was almost enough to convince people you had your life together – and no doubt a part of me wanted to delude myself with that idea too. But it was true: I was fooling myself I realised there and then. Despite my connection to the act of writing, I didn’t belong here either. It was time to let go of the ledge of normality and free-fall into the abyss of the unknown – to throw myself off that cultural conveyor-belt. I was better off being beaten up by life in some other way that would allow me to pour out the pain onto the page without the guidance of any teacher or textbook or institution.  

       Leaving the university for the last time, I headed home back to that familiar dark room to sit and try and make sense of it all. In that space of isolation I sat and thought about the circumstance that had befallen me. Oh dear god, I cursed myself. I had moved to this city specifically for this course, and now I had made the decision to quit, I had to figure out what it was I was going to do next in the absurd game of life. As always there were no easy answers and I thought about changing my mind and sticking with the course. Of course I knew that this was the cowards way out; I knew I would just still be clinging to that ledge of normality a little longer just to trick myself and others into thinking that I actually had my life together in some basic way. So many people did this their entire lives, letting themselves empty out on the inside just so others would think they had their lives together. Such a fate seemed like a nightmare. The absolute intensity of the feeling of indifference I experienced in that class felt like the entire universe telling me to get the hell out before it was too late. Yes, I was definitely through with the course I concluded. I wouldn’t bother to notify my tutor; I was too annoyed at her and the course to even write a basic e-mail. And my parents, well, they had just about given up on me, and this would be the final nail in the coffin for sure. But hey, at this point maybe that was for the best anyway. 

      After a while of sitting there in the dark and staring up at the ceiling, I decided that some fresh air would do me good. I removed myself from my lair and went out to face the world. Out there in that concrete jungle I roamed at leisure with no particular place to go to. As I roamed, I looked around at the faces. I looked around at the houses and the front gardens. I looked around at the job advertisements and the shopping malls and the newspapers and the billboards. Once again I didn’t understand any of it. Sometimes I was certain the gods had made a mistake. Perhaps there was a mix-up in the cosmic warehouse? Surely my intended destination was another planet somewhere a few galaxies back in the other direction. Where was the manifest? Who had screwed up the works? Who was I supposed to be angry at? Looking out at the foreign world before me I wanted explanations and answers.

     I kept looking around at the faces of the people on the street. I saw businessmen and pram-pushers. I saw sub-cultural groups like hipsters or rockers. I saw many types of people but I couldn’t see anyone I truly felt at home with. Often in this world I felt like some sort of diseased alien, and I couldn’t help but stare into the eyes of those humans and desperately want to make them understand who I really was. I guess it was true that at times I felt anger and resentment toward the human race. Often all I wanted to do was to vomit my pain onto their pressed and polished realities. I wanted to drag them into the woods of madness and steal from the sanity from them. I guess I just wanted at least one other soul to step into my mind and see and understand how I felt with the reality and society that had been presented to me. But as always it was useless and all I could do was wonder whether it was all some kind of joke the gods had played on me. If so the humour was lost on me. Yes, oh yes: the humour was lost on me.

      Soon enough the shitshow of reality was too much and I decided I’d try to add some excitement in my life by doing what so many did in times of desperation. Alcohol. I went to the nearest store and bought a four pack of beers. For a small price hopefully I could trick my brain into thinking something exciting was happening. I went in, purchased the liquor off a young female clerk and exited back onto the now rain-sodden street. I stood still on the sidewalk and began to drink the first can. After a few sips I started walking down the road. I finished my first beer and started drinking a second. By the time I finished that I was feeling pretty good – so good in fact that I decided to befriend a homeless guy with a dog sitting in the gutter of the sidewalk of a busy intersection.

        “Alright lad, got any spare change?” he asked as I walked over.

        “Yeah don’t worry” I said. “I’m going to give you some change, but first would it be okay if I joined you for a drink?” He looked at me with a confused and hesitant look. After a few seconds of scanning me up and down he accepted me. 

        “Well sure, take a seat lad.”

        “Thanks.” 

        I sat down and nestled myself into his cardboard which was soggy from the rain. I put my back up against the wall, stared out at the street, sipped my beer and offered my final can to my new best friend. He looked down at it, scrunched his brow and shook his head.

        “No thanks lad, I stay away from that stuff these days; that’s what caused me to end up like this. It’s the devil’s blood that stuff. You ought to be careful with it too.”

        “It’s helping to keep me sane right now” I told him.

        “That’s how it starts” he said. “But if you’re not careful soon it’s not you consuming the drink, it’s the drink consuming you.”
        “That’s kinda poetic” I said. “You ever thought about being a writer?”

        “A writer? Does it look like I’m interested in that kid? A roof over my head and some warm food in my stomach would be nice.”

       “Sorry. That’s true. I just thought you expressed yourself nicely and all.”

       I carried on sipping my beer, feeling the alcohol flow through my body. I could feel myself getting comfy. Eventually we got chatting about his life and he started telling me about all his travels in Asia and South America. Having travelled in those areas myself, I was naturally curious about his ventures out there in the world. I began asking him about his trips. Typically his travelling stories were full of chaos and bohemian madness. As he spoke about his nomadic life, I couldn’t help but identify with it and wonder whether or not I was staring into my own future. It seemed that the man had led a similar existence in his twenties to the one I had been living. It was full of wandering wide-eyed through the world – of drifting wildly out on the fringes of society. I couldn’t help but let myself wonder. Perhaps the life I was living was also going to lead me to be sleeping in the gutter one day? I mean, the possibility was viable for everybody out there, but in particular anyone who dared to drift away from the cultural conveyor-belt like I had done. The automatic life on the cultural conveyor-belt may have been boring and predictable, but it protected you from those rain-soaked gutters – it protected you from the madhouses and the cemeteries. Riding it like a good citizen of the state you were transported through education into a steady job, into a mortgage, into the shops on the high-street, into parenthood, and finally into retirement where a grave and wooden box awaited to package you into eternity. Sure, it may have sounded dull and tedious to the adventurous individual, but hey, at least you didn’t freeze to death alone on some cold winter street.

      After fifteen minutes of talking about his life, my beer can was empty and I decided to leave my new friend alone to himself – something I suspected he wanted. I gave him some spare change, said goodbye and headed off down the street. I then thought about what to do next. I was now pretty drunk and didn’t want to go home, so I thought I would head further into the city centre and try and find a party of some sort. After one month of studying here I still had no friends to drink with, and so I decided to go and find a hostel. From my travels I knew that in a hostel you could often find some other souls who were also out of sync with the human race too. And this was Brighton: the end of the line – the place literally and culturally on the fringe of the country – the place where the hippies, minorities, artists and madmen gathered together. Surely there was some life somewhere out there among those streets.

      After walking around for a while, I eventually found a hostel down by the seafront, just across the road from the pier. From the outside it looked dirty and unmaintained. Stain-covered curtains blew out the cracked windows as dirty towels hung out to dry. It seemed like the perfect place. I purchased some more beers from a shop and walked over to a group of people outside the front drinking and smoking. The group was made up of a diverse crowd including dread-locked hippies, Australian backpackers and some stoners sitting around on the floor eating pizza. They didn’t bat an eyelid to me joining in their group, and within a few minutes I was chatting to a Polish guy and a Kenyan guy over a beer. It turned out that both of them had recently emigrated to the country and were now working in Brighton while living in this cheap hostel, trying to get by in any way they could. I told them my story of just quitting my course to which they laughed and toasted drinks and offered me a joint. The good times were flowing and after one hour they made the decision to go do cocaine off a bin in an alleyway. Following this they then offered me to come with them to some rave in a “dark and dirty but decent club”. It had been a strange day so far, so naturally I made the decision to keep curiously crawling down the rabbit hole. I finished my drinks and joined them to the club.

       It was sometime around eight the following morning that I found myself standing with a bottle of wine on the edge of the roof of a house on the seafront, thoughtfully advising some stranger walking on the street below “not to take life so seriously”. A night of anarchy had ensued and by this point I was completely ruined; it had over twelve hours of drinking and partying with no sleep or rest. I had left the flat alone and now was at some random person’s place with the last remnants of a group of ravers strewn out across floors and sofas and beds around the house. The Polish guy was still there after having decided to miss his shift at work, but the Kenyan had disappeared somewhere into the night after dropping a tab of acid. Most people were asleep or unconscious by this point, but I stayed up chatting with some young English guy who had run away from home and had plans to live on a boat and sail around the south coast. As he told me with wild eyes about his little plan, I realised that the night had given me the medicine I needed: finding and talking to some others who were also existing on the fringes of society – whose lives were also in a state of chaos and permanent disorder. Finally, the situation of letting go from that ledge of normality and quitting my education didn’t feel so bad. I napped on the couch for a few hours and then stumbled back to my apartment.

       In the following days I had no urge to find a job or plan my next move, so I spent time just living quietly and simply, going for runs down by the coast, meditating and writing away in that dark apartment room of mine. I also spent a long amount of time simply roaming the streets of the city itself. As I did I kept looking more and more for the people who were living on the fringes of society or who had fallen off the conveyor belt altogether. Like a man on safari for a rare species, I looked for the freaks, the misfits and the weirdos. I looked for the outcasts and outsiders – for the aliens and the eccentrics. I searched for them out on those grey streets and when running down by the seafront. One area a little out the city besides the water was a good territory to spot them. Roaming there, I often saw some outsiders and misfits living in vans, fishing in the ocean, and smoking out on the rocks. I always wanted to go up to them and ask how their life was, but I figured they wanted to be left alone. 

       Eventually one such creature came up and approached me as I was walking back to my apartment one afternoon. I was listening to some music through my headphones, but could still hear his drunken staggering and slurred words creeping up from behind me. I took my headphones out and turned around to face him. He was a bald-headed, middle-aged man in cargo trousers and a long grey coat. He was holding a bottle of cheap cider in his hands and had a wild glaze in his eyes.

       “I said, lad, I asked you how’re you doing – didn’t you hear me? Don’t people in this town ever speak to each other anymore?” I studied him curiously for a moment, trying to deduct if we was a harmless drunk or something to be afraid of.

       “I couldn’t hear you” I told him. “I had my headphones in. But I’m good thanks. How are you?” He looked at me silently for a second and then grinned maniacally. 

       “That’s okay my son!” he shouted. “That’s okay. It’s all good! I’m all good! Do you want some cider lad?” He held out the bottle of white lightning cider in front of my face. I declined politely to which he carried on chugging away. After a few seconds of watching him drink I continued to walk down the street. He decided to join me. We then walked together for a while as he told me about his life in Brighton, and how he had been a DJ for over twenty years, and how the rest of the time how he liked to climb buildings, presumably blind drunk.

       “You see that block of flats over there lad? I climbed that just last week. And the week before that I managed to make it all the way on top of the hospital. The police came and arrested me as soon as I got down of course, but they’re used to me by now! A little slap on the wrists, nothing else! All the coppers in this town have been arresting me for climbing for over ten years now. I’ve just about climbed all there is to climb. I’ve had a few little falls and injuries, but I’m still going. You can’t stop me! Oh no, oh no. You can’t stop me!” 

       As I listened to his tales, I wondered how this man was still alive. It was only four in the afternoon and already this man was so drunk he could barely walk straight. Climbing any sort of building or scaffolding in his current state surely would result in severe injury or death. Yet he must have done it dozens of times. I never even thought to ask him why he actually had this obsession with climbing things. But I felt like I didn’t need to after a while. The passion and delight in his drunken voice said it all. He was a child in a middle-aged man’s body. He was just simply having fun and enjoying his life in any way he could. Such a wild, free-spirited person again made me feel good. As Bukowski had once said: “The free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it. Basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.” And it was true: just hearing his stories alleviated me of some sort of pain inside me. It made me feel relaxed. Most people his age were climbing career ladders, yet this man was out DJ-ing and climbing the city buildings for no reason other than simply having fun.

      In the next few days I continued seeing him walking along those street pavements with the same brand of cheap cider always in hand. His energy never changed. Always energetic and friendly. Always smiling and chatting the head off some stranger. Whenever I saw him he updated me about his climbs and exploits, and in return I told him my story about quitting my course and how I was just drifting around for a moment, figuring out my next move in life. One or two times he invited me to drink and climb with him, but I decided against it. My life already had enough madness in it for the time being.

      Eventually a few weeks went by and I stopped seeing him in the neighbourhood. I was always out there on the streets roaming and expected him to come into sight, staggering around a corner with a bottle of cider in hand, but he never did. At first I assumed he had packed up and moved to another town, but then I remembered that he had lived in the city all his life and loved it to the bone. It didn’t seem likely for him to hit the road so suddenly. I kept an eye out for him constantly. It wasn’t long until I overheard some guys at a construction sight. They were talking about someone falling from some scaffolding. I stopped and listened curiously. They spoke about a man who had fallen to his death in the city somewhere a week or so before. My stomach sank suddenly. Immediately I rushed home and went on the internet. I started searching for the news story. I typed some keywords into Google – ‘man’, ‘dies’, ‘death’, ‘falling from building’, ‘Brighton’. I pressed enter. A load of results then appeared, including one which immediately caught my eye – a news story from six days before from the local newspaper. I clicked on it hesitantly. I started reading. I scanned through the story and, sure enough, it was what I had feared. It was the man I had spoken to. It was the man with the big smile and drunken swagger. It was the man who had been climbing buildings in the city for ten years. He had died after falling from the top of a new block of flats still in construction. Finally, the gravity of existence had claimed him.

     Hearing the news of the death, I had a sudden urge to get out of Brighton as soon as I could. I was spooked. It was true that I saw something of myself in that wild-eyed man. In those pupils I saw the alien madness and the child spirit struggling to survive. I saw the pain of existing in this concrete society. This world was always at odds with those types of people. It had swallowed him up and surely those streets and this society were going to swallow me up to. Under the weight of this thought, I went and made a drastic decision. I went online and booked a flight to Mexico with the student loan money that had just come into my account for the course I had quit. The government had paid me a student loan to last the full year, but having already left the course in October, I now had some finances to play around with. I had wanted to travel in Central America for a while and now these tempestuous circumstances called for the adventure to come into play. I arranged the trip for the upcoming weekend and then went and poured myself a glass of red wine to toast my next voyage.

       After finishing the bottle of wine, I sat there drunk for a while staring at my bedroom wall. I was feeling lonely and had a sudden idea to go and see if my homeless friend was there on the street again. I headed out, bought some beer from the shop and walked down the street. Sure enough it was raining again and there he was in his usual spot: sitting there on his soggy cardboard, back against the wall, stroking his dog playfully. I went over and said hello. I then sat down beside him, soaking in the gutter, feeling the rain fall down from the heavens above. I opened a can and offered him one. This time he accepted. 

      As I drank and chatted with the homeless man, I thought of the chaos of the last few weeks; I thought of my life and this man’s life and the life of the boy who had run away from home and the life of the alcoholic climber who had fallen to his death. It really was true. Some people had just simply been misdelivered to the wrong planet. They found themselves stranded on a rock apart of a species they just didn’t understand. There was no room for them in human society and, like this man, my place was seemingly on the sidelines. It was in the solitary shadows – in those rain-soaked sewers and gutters. Since the playgrounds of youth, I had always felt separate and isolated from my species, and here, twenty years on, nothing had changed despite my attempts to fit in. This little attempt to cling onto the ledge of normality by doing a masters course had quickly failed and now I was free-falling back into the abyss of the unknown. I was heading back out into the wilderness of planet earth. I was as lost as a man could be and, as the rain started coming down more heavily, I cast my gaze up into the dark night sky, dreaming of something distant and far-off – a home somewhere out there in the galaxies of the cosmos. I didn’t expect to find one however. I didn’t expect to ever find one here on this planet. It was doomed and destined way of the wanderer. It was the way of the outcasts and outsiders – of the misfits and aliens. And by now it was clear that I was one of them too. By now it was clear I was destined never to belong. By now it was clear that no matter how far through life I travelled, or where I travelled, I would always return to those spaces of separation, sitting alone in the shadows, drinking beer, staring up into skies – waiting and looking for something – anything – to come and take me home.