short stories

~ Off The Rails ~

nice beach

~ Off the Rails ~

Off the rails. We all go there at some point. At least many of us do. We have seen our parents go off the rails, our politicians, our celebrities. We have seen our friends and our teachers. It’s a time when a man or woman just can’t hold on anymore to whatever it was that was giving their lives some structure and stability. The absurdity of life strikes hard and we can’t keep it together as we pretend to know what we are doing and what path we are following. Our behaviour thus becomes volatile as we drink the beer, consume the drugs and venture into the general realms of self-destructive madness. 

My mind was particularly turbulent at the best of times, so it was only naturally the rails had fallen out of reach many times in my life. I had been there broke on the other side of the world while drinking myself to sleep every night. I had been there when my heart was broken for the first time. I had been there when I quit a university course and flew one-way to Mexico. I had been there many times and now I was there on the South coast of France visiting a friend I had met in Nepal. Like me his life was total mess and madness. Another young guy in his twenties staring out at contented members of society strolling down sidewalks and wondering how the hell he would ever be one of them. He had recently broken up with his girlfriend, was working a temporary contract job, had little savings, was living at home with his parents, and just generally didn’t know where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do with his life. Naturally this had led him to self-destructive behaviour such as excessive partying and driving while under the influence.

The reason this trip was doomed was because I was also reaching the peak of my latest spell of being off-the-rails. It had been four months of heavy drinking, sleeping around, starting and quitting a job, and just generally being hurled around by the anarchy of my own restless heart. Us together was a recipe for disaster and that disaster unfolded nicely as the beers went back while we sat in his garden in the hills above Cannes.

“Fuck, I am so lost man. What am I doing with my life?” He drank his beer and stared out at the hills. “No money, no girlfriend, living at home with my parents. I don’t know where the hell to go next.” It didn’t help that all around us were the fancy homes of accepted members of society who had ‘made it’. We looked at those finely groomed houses as he kept venting about his issues. I wanted to help him but naturally I didn’t want to offer any solutions to problems I suffered from myself. Fire could not put out fire and within days we were drinking till 8am in the morning, searching for girls to meet on Tinder and driving around town heavily intoxicated while blasting 90s rap music. It was another episode of madness for me and I thought of many of my friends currently out there also doing the same in some shape or form. I knew one guy drinking five bottles of wine a day in an apartment outside of Milan. I knew one woman who had quit her career job and moved to Switzerland to be a starving artist. I knew another who had just arrived back into the U.K penniless after blowing all his money on cocaine in South America.

Over the years I had noticed that I seemed to attract a certain type of person in my life. Some might call them beatniks, bohemians or bums. It was the type of person who went from one storm to another and whose life was in a constant state of disorder. They were the ones perpetually off the rails, spiralling out of control and constantly circling the drain of defeat. I guess I was one of them myself. My life was currently as turbulent as it had ever been and the global outbreak of the coronavirus sealed the fate. My year fell apart in a matter of days as my travel plans were cancelled and I suddenly found myself jobless and facing the prospect of moving back with my parents. For now in France they had announced a curfew on the streets and for all international visitors to head home as soon as they could. Naturally I responded to this by getting drunk and arranging to meet a girl off Tinder. My life now had no hope or direction for the foreseeable future, so meeting a girl and watching the sun set as we got smashed off a bottle of rum seemed like a good option. After that we drove around town drunk until my friend found us a hotel. The three of us checked in and carried on drinking in the room. Suggestions of a three-way were made but my friend decided to leave as he was too depressed about his ex. So there it was just me and the girl who was totally off the rails too. Listening to her story, I found out she had snuck out of her parent’s house and hitch-hiked to meet me from a small village. I also found out she had had a miscarriage a couple of years back which no doubt explained why her arms were covered with a succession of self-harm scars. She was clearly still haunted by some demons and naturally it felt good to be with a fellow scratched and scarred soul who was also no stranger to the storm.

The next morning we were getting kicked out of the hotel as it had decided to close due to the outbreak. We left the room covered in beer bottles and wine stains and headed back out onto the streets. Back in the burning daylight of reality, I looked around at the eerily empty neighbourhoods and wondered what the hell I was now going to do with my life. My phone had no charge and we wandered around in a dreamlike state for an hour or two. She had to get home as soon as she could; her parents were worried about her and wanted her to come home to quarantine like the rest of the world. My parents didn’t even know I was in France. I guess it would be time to tell them soon. For now I decided to take the train to Nice where my flight was due to head off the next day. We headed to the train station where we bumped into a German man smoking weed and also not knowing what the hell he was doing. He had been travelling around Europe with no money for the last two months, carrying only a small backpack and a bible. The oncoming lockdown was sure to leave him in a sticky situation for the foreseeable future. I wished him some luck as we carried on our way. 

I almost convinced the girl to let me stay with her at her family’s house in her village but I eventually ended up alone on the streets of Nice, wandering around aimlessly, considering what the hell I could do until the next morning when my flight left. By now the curfew was in full effect and police were patrolling the streets to interrogate people on why they were outside. If they were to ask me, what the hell would I say? I didn’t know what I was doing with my life at the best of times and this wasn’t the best of times. I was just kind of stumbling around in a hungover daze while waiting to go home the next day (that was if my flight hadn’t been cancelled like the majority of flights had). My situation was bad but not as bad as my friend. After finally finding a place to buy a phone charger, I managed to contact him and find out that he had got arrested for drink-driving the night before. The police had pulled him over just a short while after he had left us at the hotel. He had tested four times the limit and had been stripped of his license for at least six months. His life was already off the rails but this was the thing that would surely cause him to sink even further into the depths of self-destructive madness.

His spell off-the-rails was taking a new nosedive and I was sure that mine was too. As the world turned to anarchy with the outbreak of the coronavirus, I just headed to a shop to get some more beers and drink at the beach somewhere out of sight of the police. I sat there alone on the shores of France, my back turned to the madness of the world as I thought about what I was now going to do with my trainwreck of a life. I had left my job to travel but now that looked unlikely for the rest of the year. It would also be difficult to find another job with the country going on lockdown for weeks or possibly months. Money was going to be an issue, especially with the horrific damage I had done to my bank account in a matter of days in France. I downed my beer and knew my life was spiralling out of control to a degree I hadn’t seen before. I had no direction, no chance, no hope. I couldn’t even be bothered to fake an answer when people would ask me what I was doing with my life. Truth is, I didn’t have a clue anymore. I had never really had a clue, and out of all the peaks of not having a clue, perhaps this was the highest. Like my French friend and the girl from Tinder, I was totally off the rails, circling the drain and waiting to be sucked permanently into that sewer of defeat. It was a state that I was to always return back to no matter how many periods of stability and sanity came my way. Deep down I knew I couldn’t be cured from this reckless behaviour and a part of me didn’t even want to. The world was falling to pieces anyway and I wanted to fall apart with it.

With that decision made, I gazed out into the Mediterrean sea, cracked open another beer and toasted my descent further into the abyss of self-destructive madness.

short stories

~ A Nightmare on the High Street ~

entrapment

~ A Nightmare on the High Street ~

I woke up in my room with a hangover from hell. A storm raged in my head and my tongue felt as dry as sandpaper. I had no recollection of getting home and a quick search in my pockets gave no clues to the tragedy of the night’s story. I sat up and looked around at my lair. Beer cans lay toppled on my bedside draw, my clothes were strewn across the floor and a general sense of dread seeped into every corner of the room. A spot of tidying up was necessary, but first my stomach was screaming out for sustenance of some kind. I dragged myself out of bed, got dressed and went out in pursuit of something to alleviate the hunger and the pain.

It was normally a ten-minute walk to the city centre but I made it there in fifteen. It was a journey which soon turned into a sinister one, and not just because of the rain clouds gathering. Walking down the busy Saturday high-street, I looked at the faces of the people around me and felt like I had entered some sort of nightmare. Perhaps it was the paranoia of the hangover, but this time they looked even more abhorrent than normal. Their expressions were hideous, their laughs were hideous, their movements were hideous. A sinister aura filled the air like I was in some sort of horror movie. Humanity was a strange foreign species and sometimes when my mind was in the right place, I could see them for the terrifying creatures they were. It was the way they clutched those shopping bags; the way they stuffed McDonald’s burgers down their throats; the way the red-faced mothers pushed those prams with the screaming kids along. In their red faces you could see the strain and the pain to heave humanity relentlessly forwards to its doomed future – towards a future of greyness becoming constructed by the cranes that loomed over us.

Suddenly I felt the paranoia and alienation stronger than ever. I felt that they were going to spot that I wasn’t one of them and lynch me up for the unwelcome guest I was. They were going to burn me on a stake, stone me to death – chop me to pieces and feed me to their dogs. A panic attack was brewing and I knew I had to get out of there fast. I looked around. I spotted a run-down old bar just off of the side streets and headed there to take shelter.

After entering I looked around cautiously to observe my surroundings. It was a dark room with a musty smell in the air and a decor that was in desperate need of refurbishment. Old men were dotted around on tables alone and an awkward silence filled the air. I ordered a pint of Guinness from the bar and sat down in the corner. Across the room an old man with beer down him sat on his stool leering at me. He took a large sip of his beer and then placed it down firmly on the bar.  “We got ourselves a newbie here,” he said. “What’s your name kid?” I told him my name then looked away to sip my beer, hoping he would leave me in peace. It was no luck; he kept talking at me and by this point there were three other elderly men glaring at me with frightening looks. I thought the darkness of the bar would save me from the terror of the streets, but it appeared I had stumbled into a haunted house of some sort. I could see the horror and consternation in their disturbed faces. Faces of sadness and defeat; faces ravaged by time and life; faces of tired old men drinking alone at tables while waiting to live and waiting to die. I then spotted some obese woman plastered in cheap make-up eyeing me up while trying to stir her drink with a straw seductively. There was only so much I could take before I took my leave and headed back out onto the streets.

Outside I turned and almost tripped over a homeless person sitting there in the rain. “Got any change kid?” he asked. Naturally I didn’t; no one had physical cash any more. I apologised and left him there wondering if one day I would face the same fate of the gutter. The next corner I turned around there was a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses standing and preaching their gospel to anyone who would listen. They claimed to be people of faith, but looking into their eyes I could only see fear. It was the way they stared and the way they spoke. It was the way they clung onto those signs and ideologies because they were as lost and frightened as we all were. And so they should have been. Looking at the scenes around me, it was clear the apocalypse was coming and that no god was coming to save them.

I continued making my way across the main square while trying to avoid the manic crowd. They now seemed to be coming in the hundreds of thousands like an angry swarm of locusts. The noise was deafening. My panic started brewing once again so I sat down for a second to try and calm down. I breathed in and out deeply to catch my breath while observing my surroundings. Looking around the square, I saw an old man feeding the pigeons a little down from me. He had a look of sadness in his eyes; it was subtle but it was there. Some little kids pointed and poked fun at him. One of their parents spotted them but said nothing, instead turning away to look at their phone. The old man noticed the kids and continued to feed the pigeons. I thought I could see a tear in his eye, but perhaps it was just the rain – I couldn’t be sure.

After a couple of minutes I carried on looking for somewhere to eat. I turned a corner and saw some flowers left outside a shop where some kid had been stabbed to death on a night out a couple of weeks before. It was a place I had walked past many times drunk and the thought hit me how easily it could have been me who bled out alone in the cold winter night. Twenty years old and slain on the sidewalk in a drunken moment of madness. The flowers lay soaked in the rain and some had already begun to wilt. One card bore the message “May you rest with the angels.” Another read “I pray that you are now in a better place.” I hoped they were right.

 Suddenly the crowds on the street started getting bigger and bigger; the noise louder and louder. My head started spinning and the panic struck hard again. I needed to get out of there. I started jogging. I carried on until I reached a food joint I liked. I headed in, ordered some food and sat down alone in a corner. Five minutes of solitude passed until a family came and sat down next to me. It wasn’t long before the mother started shouting at one of the children for throwing a chip at his sister. A stern telling off resulted in the kid to start screaming and crying. The mother carried on shouting until the point she was almost screaming too. At that moment it felt as if the whole world was screaming and crying. The people, the buildings, the walls, the weather. All that noise that pierced me to the bone; all those shrieks and cries that I just couldn’t escape.

I couldn’t take anymore and headed back out onto the street. At this point the rain was coming down more heavily and a sense of total desolation washed over me. I stood frozen in time and space like some sort of statue. I could hear the sirens wailing in the distance, the chavs cursing, the drunks shouting, the cars beeping. I could see the plastered makeup faces and mindless marching crowds. Suddenly I had this feeling I was stranded in a strange world far, far away from whatever place I was supposed to be. I had crash-landed into a place where I didn’t belong. My flesh and bones knew the terror of my environment and asked me to retreat from it all. My apartment room called to me and I started running home at a quick pace. I weaved in and out the crowds. I darted across the traffic. I passed the houses, the parks, the buildings. I kept running and eventually made it to my apartment and ran inside. I slammed the door shut and walked over to collapse onto my bed. 

Back in my lair, I stared around me and suddenly felt an overwhelming gratitude for my solitude. I looked at those four walls like the great guardians they were. They were the walls that kept the world at bay – the walls that sheltered me from the horrors of humanity. It was all out there: the mindless people, the empty eyes, the broken hearts, the starving homeless, the stabbing victims, the lonely souls, the screaming children, the old alcoholics waiting to die in dank bars. Maybe my fate wasn’t great, but to be alone in this room was a relief from the terror that lay waiting for me outside. I was trapped in a world to which I didn’t belong, and sometimes when my mind was in the right place, I could see the true horror of my circumstance all around. I closed my eyes and laid down on my bed, not fearing the darkness of sleep. Sometimes the greatest nightmares were right in front of you, if only you dared to open your eyes.

short stories

~ Clinging on ~

pexels-photo-220444

~ Clinging on ~

I stood on the ledge of the building. I looked down at the concrete below. It would be instant if I made sure to land head first. Ten stories was enough to take me away on a final one-way ticket out of this place. Overdosing on pills would have been easier, but I was feeling a dramatic exit would be the right way to end this thing once and for all. I wanted the blood and guts of me staining those streets that had slowly pushed me to the brink over the years; I wanted my inner pain running into the gutters and sewers where it belonged. I shuffled my feet closer until the toes were over the edge. I had been totally ready for a few months now, and yes – I still felt ready. I shuffled closer. And closer. I stood on the precipice and looked straight ahead. My life did not flash before my eyes. There was no great symphony playing in my head. No angel came down to talk me out of it. There was no sound at all but the usual distant wailing of a siren and the sound of some seagulls squawking.

No, it was just me and the thoughts in my head like it had always been as I stood there reflecting on the inevitability of the moment. I thought of all the things that had led me to that ledge. The loneliness and separation that had sent me insane all my life. The homesickness for a place I’d never known. The relentless lack of connection to absolutely anybody else. It was true that the only people I related to were those who had either died by their own hand or drank themselves to death. Van Gogh, Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, Alan Watts, Kobain, Kerouac…  Charles Bukowski somehow made it through the fire with a rare victory to die relatively normally, although he had dodged death and darkness a few times too. It was clear to me that some people were born foreign strangers in this world – and a combination of being misunderstood, alienated and highly incompatible with society – is ultimately what made them blow their brains out with shotguns and drink themselves to death. Those warriors of the word had evidently written themselves into history, but I thought of what would happen in my case. A few flowers here and there. Some people on social media making me out to be an angel of some sort. Sure enough a few weeks later the flowers would wilt and die, and people would move on – my name only occasionally mentioned in circles of close friends. “Terrible what happened.” “He seemed so happy.” “I don’t know what happened.” “We never saw it coming.” The thought of it only got worse as I imagined the funeral with the black clothes and the reading of dogmatic religious texts – the final spit-in-the-face insult reserved for you before being buried six feet in the ground.

It sounds absurd but the thing that caused me to turn away from that ledge was the fact I hadn’t left anything behind yet. Those heroes of mine who had died by their own hand, they had shared their truth and had provided some fuel for others looking to continue on through the wilderness. There was a tremendous victory in that and a part of me also refused to let my truth fade into the abyss of nothingness. I too wanted whatever was going on inside of me to be felt by another soul out there looking for some salvation. Feeling something inside me begin to twitch, I took myself home where I sat once again before a keyboard with my fingertips fighting for survival – fighting to hold onto the ledge with whatever words and fight I could summon from inside myself.

Like so many others out there, my fight was a solitary one hidden from the view of the people who laid their eyes on me. No one truly knew the extent of my madness but me. For some reason this is how it worked: these internal battles are often the greatest battles of all, and they are not fought in plain sight in boxing rings or battlefields, but instead inside the hearts of people trying to carry on in a world they didn’t understand. They are the battles never read about in history books or commemorated in museums, but instead only known inside the minds of the people fighting them. They are the hidden wars and I can’t help but stare into the eyes of strangers on the street and wonder how many people out there are also fighting their way through the darkness? Who are lingering on the precipice of suicide and madness? Who are trying to find a reason to continue on in a world they just don’t understand? 

No doubt there are so many more than people would like to think – people who may appear very normal and content with their lives. I know many would find it shocking to know that their friends and family members have once stared into the abyss wishing to hurl themselves in – that they didn’t want to continue in the same world they lived in and were a part of. But it was undeniable they were out there in the hundreds of thousands, and that the majority of the time they were almost impossible to spot. This was the secret of the suicidal. True desolation was invisible. A look of sadness in someone’s eye meant there was still some fight and hope left. But when the light truly fades from all around you, one does not feel despair or agony. You simply stop feeling. There is an emptiness which can’t be explained and nonexistence is not something that even feels like a big deal. It feels welcoming. All the reason and fight leaves your veins as you stumble sinisterly towards that precipice of death and darkness. In the meanwhile fake smiles are easily cast and the sentence ‘fine thanks, you?’ is uttered confidently to unsuspecting loved ones. I knew this because I had felt it myself, and also because I had stared into the eyes of suicide cases a couple of times in my life. Both times it was just a few weeks before they finally went through with it. And yes, I did not see it coming. I did not see the desire for death in their eyes. Their pain was masked; their secrets hidden deep within themselves like so many out there who dwell silently in the depths of the greatest darknesses.

I do not know the cure to all this pain and madness that fills so many struggling souls out there. All throughout the world tonight as I write these words there will be people overdosing on pills, putting the blade against the wrist, drinking themselves to death or hurling themselves in front of trains just to escape this world. Some may save themselves from the abyss and others may succumb. I don’t know if I have any advice to offer them; I think maybe I’ve just gotten lucky to have this stubborn streak inside of me that pulls me back from the ledges and nooses. I guess I know I’ll always be a bit of a misunderstood loner, an isolated maniac writing words that no one will ever read, but embracing that and writing all this shit down keeps me from losing it totally. This is my personal cure and if someone ever asks me why I was so compelled to write, I told them it was out of desperation. Desperation to survive. To leave something behind. To make sure my story is heard and understood by others who never understood what was really inside me. It is an act of redemption and when these fingertips touch these keys, I am clinging onto a ledge with words that – if they stayed inside of me – would cement my fate with so many out there who were slowly consumed from within. They are the words of someone hanging on to it all. The words of someone living on the edge. The words of another man who refused to let himself be murdered by the world without a fight.

short stories

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries

self isolation

I was on holiday in France when I realised that shit had well and truly hit the fan. Up until then, the coronavirus was something that only appeared in the media; another SARs or Swine flu that you would read about in the news but never actually see any effect from within your own life. But now the unthinkable had happened and I was being kicked out of a pub in Cannes due to a forced closure of all bars, cafes and restaurants across the country. Being deprived of purchasing a beer was a sure way to know that we were facing one of the great epidemics of our times. A couple of days later things got more serious as the curfew came into effect – an act that meant people were only allowed out on the street for an essential reason. To enforce this the police were roaming the streets and by asking anyone for a reason why they were out of their house. If they didn’t have a valid reason they would receive a 135 euro fine or even face the prospect of being arrested. All things considered, it probably wasn’t the best place for a holiday any more. I bit my tongue and accepted it was time to head home before the borders closed and I was left stranded for months in a foreign country living off baguettes and sleeping rough in parks.

I arrived back in the U.K via an almost empty airport and headed home on a nervy bus. The next day I went to the shops and saw the supermarket shelves that had been cleared clean by panic buyers thinking we were facing the apocalypse. Maybe they were right. Looking around, it really was like one of those end-of-the-world movies: the sight of people wearing masks, empty town centres, skies without planes, shops without food, police patrolling the streets – they were the sort of things you only saw on a movie screen, but now you were witnessing them through your own eyes. It was a surreal sight and at some point you were expecting to suddenly wake up back to reality. But of course this was just the beginning of the nightmare. It was the biggest epidemic in one hundred years and like many people my year had been totally ruined. Glastonbury festival had been cancelled, my travel plans were out the window and with no job opportunities, I was looking like I was going to have to move back in with my parents for the foreseeable future. It was safe to say that my life was an even bigger mess than usual. Still, it was nothing compared to those out there who would actually die from the disease, lose their businesses and slowly be sent insane by being kept indoors with people they couldn’t stand for months on end. Altogether it was a crisis of biblical proportions which was cemented by Britain also doing the unthinkable and announcing it would close its pubs. Shit had just gotten real. The biggest change to our lives in peacetime. Self-isolation and social distancing was the new way of life. Toilet paper the new gold. Pornhub the new mecca. Quarantine had begun…

Day 1

So the point of the quarantine was to keep the public socially distanced from one another so that the disease couldn’t spread exponentially. With everyone locked away inside their homes, the rates of infection would slowly begin to fade out. Being an introverted writer who could happily spend weeks alone at my keyboard, self-isolation and social distancing was no big deal for me. Finding out that a large part of your life was called ‘quarantine’ was an amusing thought and I felt a strange sense of satisfaction that distancing yourself from your own species was now considered the ethical thing to do. Finally, the world understood the introvert and it was time to get shamelessly cosy in my lair of solitude. I sat back in that lair and looked at the walls around me like the great guardians they were. They were the guardians that kept the world at bay; the guardians that kept humanity and its diseases out. This time the isolation would be a little more extreme of course, not being able to go out anywhere without a reason. Trips to the shop would be the only public interaction you would have. Still, I was ready to cocoon myself. First I was due to self-isolate for two weeks having just come back into the country from abroad. I lay down on my bed and stared at the ceiling, thinking of what to do in my new kingdom of isolation. A few ideas ran through my head:

  • Write a new book of some sort
  • Get super fit with a workout of press-ups and sit-ups
  • Finally get Netflix and watch all the series I had heard about for years
  • Become a Buddha and meditate for hours every day
  • Go on Tinder and try to find a quarantine partner
  • Order an instrument and unsuccessfully learn to play it 
  • Stare into space and try to figure out the meaning of life

In the end I decided to start a new writing project; the very thing you’re reading now. I had read that Shakespeare had written King Lear and Isaac Newton had come up with the theory of gravity while in quarantine from the plague. I didn’t expect my project to quite reach those heights, but I was hoping I could maybe come somewhere a little close. Perhaps a minor cult classic? We all needed to find something to do to pass the time and this was mine. Couples would no doubt be contributing to a baby-boom in nine months and extroverts would no doubt be frantically video-calling just about anyone they could. The thought of it all brought a smile to my face. All across the world, there would be men and women trying their best to fight off the boredom and solitary madness. I expected it to be a rough deal for a lot of people out there. After all, we were a society that was addicted to keeping ourselves busy. Work, entertainment, gym, cinema, restaurant meals, apps and television shows. Some of them could of course still be done in self-isolation, but for people who needed frequent social interaction, the next few weeks and months would be a traumatising event. I imagined people going crazy and talking to blood-stained footballs like Tom Hanks in Castaway. For me personally, it was writing time. I opened up my laptop and stared at the blank page. This was it. The walls stood tall. My laptop stood ready. The curtains flapped by the window like a flag over my solitary kingdom. Day one of quarantine was underway.

Days 2 and 3

pexels-photo-143580

The next day I woke up about 11am, able to not feel guilty about lying in bed until near midday. Being a bum was now the socially responsible thing to do after all. Day one had been a day of writing before giving up and watching disaster movies to get me into the mood of the apocalypse. Some recommendations for getting yourself revved up for the potential end of humanity: Outbreak, Contagion, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and The Omega Man. The latter three were zombie apocalypse movies; things hadn’t quite got that exciting yet, but one couldn’t be sure the rate things were spiralling out of control. One thing I realised at this point is that I had no food in the fridge at all. I had yet to face the hordes of humanity stripping the supermarket shelves dry and I was now due to get my first taste of the madness. I ventured down to LIDL at the bottom of the road and wandered around unsuccessfully looking for supplies. I was too late; the human race had already stashed months’ worth of food in their pantries, fridges and cellars. In the end I walked away with some super noodles, broccoli stilton soup, a cheese and tomato pizza, and the very last box of LIDL-value bran flakes. The apocalypse was seeming more and more real every day. 

Back home in my kingdom of isolation, I engaged in some reading and meditation before spending a solid hour staring into space. Having a wandering mind was a godsend in times like this and I was certain to go on many introspective adventures over the next few weeks. Today my mind was reflecting on what this disaster meant for us as a species. Reading the news it was clear we were facing a huge change to our lifestyles and perhaps a period of reflection for where we were as a race. One news report said that due to the lockdown, countries such as China and Italy were seeing a massive drop in CO2 and pollution levels. With no planes in the sky, fewer cars on the road and many factories temporary closing down, the planet was finally catching its breath from the relentless battering we were giving it. The thought hit me that perhaps this was nature’s way of striking back against humanity. Effectively, we had been told off and sent to our rooms to self-isolate while mother nature tried to heal itself for a short while. The virus itself had even come from an animal like all the major disease outbreaks over the last twenty years – Sars, Swine Flu, Ebola and now Covid-19. Perhaps all these diseases were the antibodies of mother nature? Perhaps this was the planet fighting back against the very thing killing it?

It was a depressing thought to think of yourself as a biological virus so I reached for a bottle of red wine resting faithfully on my bedside drawer. I couldn’t drink with anyone else of course, so now it was socially acceptable to get totally drunk at home alone. It was a long-awaited day and I shamelessly poured myself an extra-large glass of wine, went on a Youtube session and got chatting to some of my comrades who were also self-isolating around the world. I had comrades self-isolating in countries such as Norway, Germany, Australia and France. I also had a good friend holed up in Northern Italy – the epicentre of the European outbreak which had been on lockdown for four weeks now. After almost one month of remaining indoors, he was now polishing off four wine bottles a day as well as a wide range of other exotic substances he had ordered off the dark-web. I hadn’t descended that far into the depths of self-isolated madness just yet, but it would be interesting to see what debauchery awaited me over the next weeks. We were a social species after all and even the most introverted people needed to interact with others occasionally. Too much time alone and it was only a matter of time before those walls turned on you and tipped you over the edge. For now however everything was all good and sane. I kept sipping my wine as the walls stood strong and I remained uninfected. The music roared from the speakers and the drinking went on for two days…

Days 4 and 5

solitude

Day four without any real human interaction. I still felt good, refreshed, pure, uncorrupted. Messages had been shared on the usual channels of communication: Facebook, Whatsapp and Tinder (things were desperate after all). We were a generation prepared for this; the majority of our chat nowadays was done via electronic devices and satellite signals. It wasn’t much different to how you lived your life anyway and it occured to me that we were by far the most spoiled generation in history to cope with being stuck indoors for a long period of time. At your very fingertips you had a wealth of entertainment and communication mediums waiting to stimulate your mind as the solitary weeks went on. I thought of how much more difficult it would have been to self-isolate during a historic pandemic such as the plague. Of course that virus was much more deadly on a mass scale which naturally made it more desirable to stay cooped up inside. Going out into the town to trade and buy goods could see you contracting a flesh-eating disease that killed the vast majority of the people it infected. Even though they had less to keep themselves entertained, it made sense for the people to be motivated to stay indoors as much as they physically could. During this new outbreak you were still allowed outdoors to exercise, buy food, commute to work and walk the dog. Some freedom was permitted and naturally it was tempting to venture outside to taste the fresh spring air. But where exactly did one draw the line morally during a pandemic? By going out into the world, you could potentially contract or pass on the virus to others. Those people walking down the street were as potentially infected as you were. Two metres distance at all times would be necessary. Coughs avoided. Hands washed at all opportunities. Faces left untouched. Greetings verbal, not physical.

One thing people had to do to survive was go shopping for food. This was a time when the social atmosphere was at its strangest. A crowded supermarket was surely one of the worst places to be in terms of contracting the virus and consequently the stores were filled with a quietness that spoke a thousand words. Glares were cast at you should you invade someone’s space or cough without covering your mouth. Just picking up and putting down the basket was an intimidating process, as well as using the touch screen or opening the fridge door. Looking at the efficiency the virus spread, it was hard to contemplate the gravity of what a simple handshake or cash exchange could result in. It had been proven that the virus could live on surfaces for many hours, so naturally you were obsessively mindful about whatever it was you touched with your hands. Maybe that loaf of bread you put back down was going to spread the virus to someone else? Maybe that receipt the cashier gave you was going to put you in hospital on a ventilator? It was a surreal thought which again made you feel like you were in a movie of some sort. At the worst moments, the paranoia crept in and an uneasy tension filled the air around you. And rightly so; it was in no way an exaggeration to say that death potentially lingered all around you.

Right now the actual death tally of the virus was relatively low compared to historic pandemics, but it was now starting to shoot up across the world, going past 10,000 and climbing quickly through the teens. Italy was seeing the highest rates of infections and deaths. The European outbreak had started there a few weeks back and now at its peak, we were seeing between 500 and 800 deaths a day. The statistics were growing faster all the time and you would find yourself fervently checking the latest news reports every few hours. It was all a little morbid I guess, but it showed just how much the virus had already been circulating through society. Ultimately the measures of social isolation had been put in too late. It was usually a week or two after contracting the virus that people ended up fighting for their lives on breathing support. By the time full lockdown was in place, the virus had already spread throughout society far more than the confirmed cases suggested.

With cases gradually getting out of control in the U.K, it was only a matter of time before they followed suit and put the country under a full-scale lockdown. That moment came on the 24th of March after Boris Johnson had addressed the British public with a dramatic speech in which he shamelessly channelled the ghost of Winston Churchill. It was a bad day for me because I had flouted my isolation the night before and decided to go meet a girl at her place. I went over and stayed the night at her house, waking up to find the country on a strict lockdown, only being allowed out the house for essential things (i.e. not going somewhere to get laid). I walked home on the deserted streets and immediately I felt guilty about my actions. Every one of us could potentially infect others and by keeling over to my sexual needs, I could have put people in danger. I grimaced at the thought and immediately messaged the girl to make sure she self-isolated (something that was of course now obligatory anyway). It was a wake-up call which caused me to reflect deeply on my personal behaviour as one ultimately had to in a time of a global pandemic. With the sheer craziness of what is happening, it was easy to feel like you were in some sort of dream, but at some point it suddenly struck how real it all was and just how important it was to be mindful of your own interactions with the world.

Now going outside would only be done for essential food and the occasional run in the park. Luckily my flatmate had moved out recently which meant I could access the balcony outside her room. Balconies and rooftops were a godsend in this situation. They were like cheat codes that allowed you to be outside while technically staying at home. Videos had already been circulated on social media of Italians singing and DJ-ing from their balconies as they threw quarantine-style block parties. My surrounding neighbourhood wasn’t quite as exciting, but I could still use it to sit outside and watch the riveting environment of my apartment block car park. Typically the sun had finally decided to make its first appearance of the year. The last two months had seen some of the heaviest rainfall on record, but the day our public interaction had been restricted, suddenly there wasn’t a cloud to be seen in the sky. Frustratingly I looked out at a colourful world that was currently closed down to humanity. Birds could be heard singing and blossom could be seen sprouting from the trees. That glorious white blossom shining in the sun reminded me that life was perennial. No matter how much the human race had endured, we had always bounced back and carried on once more. It got me thinking about what it would be like after the end of the virus when it was all over and the pubs and parks were full of people. I imagined Glastonbury festival 2021, the football stadiums full of supporters, the kids embracing with their grandparents. I imagined the Queen strolling around and greeting people with that pompous little handshake she always did. Humanity had faced world wars, the black death, genocides, but always there was light on the other side. Always there was a new dawn. Always the light was there waiting to bring the world back into life.

 

short stories

~ Waiting For My Friends To Have A Midlife Crisis ~

dice

~ Waiting For My Friends To Have A Midlife Crisis ~

Often when my life was at its craziest and my writing its most existential, I got accused of having some sort of crisis. It was true. They were quite right. I was well and truly experiencing a crisis, although I didn’t believe my crisis was a temporary one like that of everyone else’s. In truth, my whole life was a crisis. From a young age I had wandered the world with wide eyes trying to figure out what the hell it was exactly that was going on. I mean, when you really stopped and thought about the situation of human existence, how was it not possible to have some sort of crisis? Here you found yourself incarnate in a transient vessel of flesh and bone, riding a spinning rock through an infinite universe with no apparent reason other than to make money, pay taxes and spawn some others into the same situation you found yourself in. Every day to me was some sort of crisis and I made no distinct definition of a quarter-life one or midlife one. Beginning, middle and end: it was a constant crisis, a storm, a maelstrom – a disaster akin to something straight out of a plot of a Hollywood movie.

      There was one thing I enjoyed about my life being a constant crisis: it made things interesting. Not constrained by the shackles of mental stability, every week was an adventure of not knowing where the turbulent road of human existence would take me. I had no set path – no long term plans or cultural script that I had to follow or abide by. This meant that I could well and truly be doing anything in any place within a few months. Perhaps I’d be teaching English in Spain? Washing dishes in a cafe in Paris? Locked up in some hellhole prison in South America? The possibilities were truly endless and I gradually became welcoming of the fact that my life was going to be in a constant state of disorder until the day I died. In fact, I was even excited by the prospect. At least my life was going to be an adventurous and thrilling one, rather than a very safe and stable journey to the grave down a grey highway of work, television and weekend-drinking.

     Of course, some of my friends did suggest that there was something mentally wrong with me, but I tried to explain to them that I was just ahead of the curve. I told them that everybody would have an existential crisis eventually, and that it usually came when you had gone a few decades through your life. It seemed to me that a good old-fashioned midlife crisis typically took place in the 30s and 40s when the individual awoke to the fact they had gone halfway through their life and usually done nothing more than study, work and maybe pump out a couple more children into the world. This is how it worked all across the world: at a young and influential age, you’d listen to your teachers and parents and spend the first half of your life fitting in and conforming to the traditions that were handed down to you from previous generations. But eventually after doing all that stuff for the first part of adulthood, you would wake up one day to find yourself feeling the same way you’d always felt – your life half gone – your death drawing ever closer and closer. And what did you have to show for it? A well-polished CV? A half-paid mortgage? A wardrobe full of designer clothes? In most cases, you ultimately had just passively walked through life and not paid any deeper thought to making the most of your one fleeting existence. And by that point the years had fallen by and you stared into morning mirrors seeing the hairs grey and skin wrinkle as your deepest dreams and desires lay gathering dust in the dark, forgotten corners of your ageing heart.

     Okay, a little harsh maybe, but the general point is true that most people generally had a period in their life where they begrudged what they had done with their life and how their youth had passed them by so quickly. Personally, I kept such thoughts at the forefront of my mind when I woke up every day. No doubt this ultimately explained why my path was such a wildly different one to those around me. Treating life as a continual crisis was working out to be an interesting and fulfilling path for me, but sometimes I wished that some people could join me in the adventure. The people I had met travelling were usually there walking alongside me on the crisis highway – usually the older men and women who had been divorced, abandoned careers and homes to start again doing something they truly loved. But back home in the realm of everyday life, everybody was usually very serious about their lives, and consequently I often felt a need to stir some madness in the minds of the socially sane around me.

     The closest people around me at home were my friends from school. While I had mostly been a travelling bum for the first chapter of adulthood, they had all followed the traditional path of studying and going straight into a steady line of work. We were now in our late twenties and most of them had been working in graduate settings for over five years. I knew some of them would be getting to the stage in their lives where they would begin to start questioning the reality of the rat race. Consequently, I stared at them with sinister eyes waiting ever so patiently for the first cracks to begin to form – for them to quit their jobs and come join me on an adventure out somewhere in the world. From my experience I knew it didn’t take much for a functioning member of society to slip into the pits of existentialism and start questioning everything around them. Sometimes it was a spell of depression. Sometimes it was a relationship split. Sometimes it was something as simple as staring into space while sitting on the tube after another day of being pushed around by your boss. All it took was just one moment for the seed to be planted and your reality to begin to shift to something drastically different.

     With that thought in my mind, I considered which one of my friends would be first to break and weighed up their odds. First was James – a journalism graduate who had moved to London to start working in sales. I knew he had been nursing a desire to get out and do something different for a while. He had often asked me about my travels and listened to my views on life with an interested look in his eyes. I knew he had recently broken up with his girlfriend and that he was also dissatisfied with his stressful sales job. On the other hand, he was one of the most methodical people I knew who didn’t do anything without long periods of introspective reflection and preparation. His odds of having a crisis any time soon: 10/1.

      Next up was Chris – a relatively stable guy, although he had his manic side as I had known from our booze-filled adventures in the early stages of adulthood. Since then he had become relatively settled living in London while building his career in graphic design. There was once a period where he told me he needed a change of equilibrium and that he was going to cycle across America. But time had moved on and he was now settled in a job he loved as well as a healthy and stable relationship. The odds of him having a crisis any time soon: 20/1.

      Next up came Richard. He was a guy who had planned his whole life out from his childhood. Coming from a conservative family where deviating from tradition was considered a crime similar to murder, he was the most socially sane of them all. He had once taken a gap year and used it to stay at home working to save money for his university fees. Very rarely did the madness and anarchy enter his eyes. On top of this, he was now in a high-paying job, a long-term relationship and had recently put down a deposit on a house. The odds of him having an existential crisis any time soon: 100/1.

     I continued looking at the people around me and weighing up their possibilities. There were some who might be pushed to the brink given the right combination of circumstances, but all in all it seemed that very few of them would be joining me in the wilderness very soon. Ultimately everyone was too settled, too organised, too sane. Their conversations about life were normally geared towards middle-aged things as they discussed promotions, who would be the first to get married and saving up for a house deposit. The horror of it all caused me to try and tempt them away from it all by jokingly asking them which one was going to drop out of the rat race first. Such comments however were quickly laughed off as I was left alone as the eccentric outlier they had classified me as.

      One day a moment of hope came from an unlikely source. His name was Matthew – one of the most calculated and sensible people I had ever met. He was the sort of person who did his homework the day he got it, planned out his year with a Microsoft Excel chart and would organise to meet at a place at 7.53pm. He was the most rigid-minded of them all – that was right up until his girlfriend left him. It was the end of his first-ever relationship and never had I seen a change in someone so drastic. Out drinking and chasing girls every weekend; wildly more confident and spontaneous; weekend trips to anywhere and everywhere. Finally life had worn him down to the point he was talking to me about quitting his job and travelling the world. This was it, I thought to myself – this was the proof that there was only so much sanity and sensibility a civilised man could take before he eventually abandoned it all. I thought this was going to be the start of an unconventional new lifestyle, but his organised approach to life soon came through as he started meticulously plotting and planning his year out and putting money aside for a house deposit for when he returned. Like everything else in his life, his crisis was organised down the last detail – an event that would maybe last a year or so at the most before he returned to the neighbourhoods of normality to settle comfortably back down into the realm of conventionality. Well, at least it was something anyway.

      Besides my friends from school, there were a few people I knew older than me who were in the peak midlife crisis age. Naturally their odds were much higher as this was the time when many realised that money couldn’t buy happiness, that stress was a cancer, marriage was often a trap and that suppressing your true self for so long in order to fit in only caused you misery and spiritual emptiness. Naturally some of them had been struck by these realisations including a teacher who had switched to part-time hours so he could start a business in which he rented out an inflatable pub. Another was someone who had quit her career in marketing and to work on her writing, but who was now looking at getting back into her career. Another was a banker who had purchased a Volkswagen Campervan to take on weekend trips to try and reconnect with his hippy side.

      It seemed that, like with Sean, there were some who mixed things up slightly, but never anyone who completely walked off away from normal life for good. This is how it seemed to work: the midlife crisis and quarter-life crisis was an event for most people that usually lasted a year or two at the most. Some might buy campervans and become weekend hippies. Some might grow moustaches and wear eccentric clothing. Some might leave their jobs for a year to travel and then return back home to settle down. There might have been some small deviations away from the realm of regular life, but all in all the cultural script would be followed to the grave. They’d be no becoming a mountaineer or running away with the circus. They’d be no starving to death as a tortured artist in Paris. People had a brief crisis and then went back to their normal lives with maybe a new suntan, tattoo or moustache – effectively leaving me to wander alone with my relentless existential madness until the day I died.

The thought of it all was enough to give me some sort of crisis.

short stories

~ The Search For Meaning ~

the fighter

~ The Search For Meaning ~

“So why do you do it if you don’t make much money from it? It’s a lot of time to devote to something isn’t it for a small return? What’s the end goal here?”

I looked into his eyes. Those eyes of normality. I cleared my throat. I went ahead and explained how I wrote my books not for fame or fortune, but instead of a strong need to fulfil myself from deep within. To do something that stirred my soul. To create some meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. Okay, maybe I left that last part out, but I could see from his blank expression how he thought it was strange that I devoted so much of myself to something which wasn’t rewarded by money or women or a firm pat on the back from your boss. Mostly my writing was only read by a small amount of people, but still I typed away at that keyboard like a madman anyway. It was something I was driven to do with all my heart and blood and guts. In the world, I looked around at things I was supposed to desire. I saw jobs that gave you money, prestige – hell, sometimes even your own parking space – but nothing that really was going to make me content and fulfilled at my core. Some of those jobs really gave you quite a lot of money after a while, but what could I really do with it that actually fulfilled me? Buy some new clothes? Drink some higher quality beer? Gamble it all away at the races for a cheap thrill? 

Looking around at my surrounding society, I essentially saw myself stuck in a soul-sucking system where people were forced to consumerism, alcoholism, gambling and whatever else it was which helped fill that inner existential void which inevitably widened every year. Many had children and this kept them busy with a purpose for a couple of decades, but I wasn’t too attracted to that prospect either. After all, if you had children just because you couldn’t find any meaning in your own life, it seemed selfish to bring more people into the world who would have to face the same recurring existential dilemma. It seemed that it wasn’t just me who was uninterested in creating a little miniature version of myself; I was now part of a generation where people were spawning fewer human-beings into the world than ever before. Consequently, we now lived in a dystopian world where there were a growing amount of people trying to find something to get out of bed for, or to keep them busy with – or to simply just do anything that stopped them staring into space thinking about the monotony and banality of it all. The life of tedious and trivial repetition. The life of watching other people’s lives on soap operas. The life where many people’s greatest aspiration was bossing around a bunch of bored people in a dusty office room.

I guess it was that desire to transcend the monotony of the ordinary which led me to writing – to strumming away on this grubby keyboard right now. Travelling on backpacking trips had kept me busy for a few years of my young adult life, and it really was true that travelling and exploring other countries and cultures had kept me fulfilled to a degree, but eventually the novelty of it had dried up and I needed something else to stoke the fire within. Modern society seemingly had nothing to offer me, and so I now tried to create some meaning by locking myself away in an isolated room as I obsessively tried to create the next literary masterpiece. 

It was fair to say the attempts to make our lives meaningful were often extreme and I figured many of us would have been better off in the hunter-gatherers times where you spent your time gathering food and supplies while enjoying the leisure that came alongside that. It seemed to me that so many people out there had been spiritually murdered or left unfulfilled by the sedentary and relatively easy lifestyle of modern life that gave you comfort in abundance, but left you feeling like you were some sort of robotic cog in a machine. There it all was lined up all nicely for you. The animals slaughtered out of sight and packaged neatly on supermarket shelves. The clothes and furniture delivered right to your front door. The partners available at the flick of a finger on internet dating apps. Comfortable office jobs that you had absolutely no connection to. There was no real fight to be had; no great battle to be won. Some still chose to join the army and be thrown into some sort of oil-war out in the middle east, but that was a desperate measure at best. 

A life without real meaning was torture to some people and consequently the search for it often came out in violent and ugly ways. One only had to go to a football match and see the twisted, cursing faces of people in the crowd screaming out their inner frustration at a referee simply trying to do his job. Their lack of meaning and inner fulfilment led them not only to venting at sporting events, but to the bottle – the pill – the powder. It, of course, led them to political things too. When Brexit happened in the U.K, many people suddenly saw something arbitrary to fight for. With newspaper headlines rallying you to fight for your country like there was an actual war going on, so many people jumped on board to give themselves a sense of identity and purpose that they had been missing for a long time. In their shouting faces, I saw the pain and lack of meaning in their everyday lives which had drawn them to this ‘war’. Ultimately this is what happens when a man or woman has no true calling or belonging in their everyday life – they latch onto whatever the hell it is that makes them feel their lives have something worth fighting for.

Our quest to give our lives purpose was like a thorn in our sides and often I wished I could live a life as purposeless as a cat, just sitting around and being content with sleeping and the occasional meal here and there. Naturally this desire led me to an interest in Buddhism which celebrated the notion of the purposeless life. I researched a lot about Buddhism, reading books and watching youtube videos. I soon found myself meditating often and feeling the benefits of the Eastern philosophy. Western society was all about achieving success and status and chasing promotions and whatever the hell it was that was supposed to make you happy. But with Buddhism, you went the opposite way – you eliminated desire and then had everything you ever needed right on your front door. With this in mind, I went through a period of embracing the purposeless life. I meditated twice a day and went for long, slow walks in the parks. I stopped stressing and straining at work. I quit being anxious about the future and things out of my control. The lifestyle was a welcome change but after a while, the desire to find some purpose came creeping back like an incurable disease. Couple that with people constantly asking you what ‘your plans’ were, then it was only natural that my need to create some specific goal or point to my life came back.

So I went back out into the world and looked at what I could do to make my life meaningful. Of course, by that point, I already knew without question the direction I would take. The feeling I got when I read those messages that came in about my writing was like spiritual heroin. Via my blog and self-published books, I had already inspired people to change their lives, quit jobs and pursue their deepest dreams and desires. That feedback was something that stirred my soul beyond anything else I had experienced in this life; it gave me a pleasure which couldn’t come from any drink, drug or woman. I needed more of it so I sat back and planned to write another book, and then another one – and even if my writing only had an effect on just a handful of people – then that was the existential purpose of my life. To write, write, write. To share the contents of my heart and soul. To bleed my brain dry. To pour everything onto the page and hope that it had an effect on someone out there in the world. 

It’s been a long and slippery road but this is my third book of writing and I now feel like I have manufactured more meaning in my life than ever before. There is now a contentment in my heart when I wake up every day – a fire in my eyes which I can’t be sure I see too often out on those grey streets. Hell, I’ll even go as far to say that I now feel qualified to give some advice. Well, here it goes if you’ll forgive me. Are you also staring into those skies and spaces and feeling existentially empty? Are you also yearning to feel like you’re living and not merely existing? Well, if I may put forward yet another tiring opinion from the growing amount of keyboard philosophers out there: not much makes me feel alive in our modern society, and maybe I don’t have all the answers, but I know that strumming these keyboard keys right now is a better fight than stressfully chasing some promotion or saving up for something I don’t actually need. I guess if I had any advice it would be not to mindlessly grab at what’s in front of you. Don’t try and fill an internal void with external things. Don’t try and obtain happiness through material goods or whatever the hell it is your peers and parents tell you will make you satisfied. Spend some time alone and get to know yourself. Find what makes your heart and fingers twitch a little faster. Find what makes you forget about everything else. The world around you may have got you confused, but deep down inside yourself you already know what you need to be complete and fulfilled. Let it be revealed to you slowly and surely in solitude and silence. Let it be unlocked in the heart. It’s there – your true calling – waiting for you to stand up. Waiting for you to take it. Waiting for you to make sure you are living a life, and not just existing in one.

short stories

~ Medical Trial Madness ~

~ Medical Trial Madness ~

The first time I heard about it was while travelling around Australia. I had just been working an overnight job in Adelaide in which me and my friend had spent a few hours pulling down some plastic sheets that covered the clothing racks of a department store during a smoke test. Following this highly skilled work, we were sat in a McDonald’s joint at dawn watching the streets begin to stir with life over a morning coffee and breakfast bagel. As we discussed the different ways to make money while backpacking in Australia, a fellow worker on the table beside us interrupted with some friendly advice.

“Why don’t you guys do one of those human guinea-pig things?” he said, chomping away on a sausage and egg McMuffin.

“One of those human guinea-pig things?” asked my friend.

“Yeah, you know, one of those medical trial experiments? You just go into a clinic, take some new medicine, and then you stay in there while you have your health monitored. When it’s finished, you come out with a few thousand dollars in the bank. Easy as bro.”

Immediately we both stopped eating and turned to face him like he was some sort of holy prophet. The sound of ‘a few thousand dollars’ to broke backpackers was like the sound of heroin to a smack addict. Being as desperate for money as we were, we naturally disregarded anything to do with the safety of testing unknown drugs.

“And how do you sign up for one?” I asked, salivating at the prospect.

“Just go onto their website and register bro. Their clinic is in town. I’ve got a surfer friend whose been doing them for years now. He just knocks out three or four trials then goes and surfs and gets drunk in Bali for six months or something. Pretty cruisy ‘ey?”

“Unreal,” said my friend. “And anyone can do it?”

“Pretty much bro. As long as you can pass a drug test and don’t mind getting stabbed with a needle a few times a day.”

Me and my friend turned to each other with a look of curiosity. After a few seconds of silent contemplation, it was decided. Right there and then in that McDonald’s joint, I realised that a glorious new career beckoned upon the horizon of my future. So far in Australia, I had been a factory line operative, a party-hire event worker, a fruit picker and a bartender – but now I was to venture into the pharmaceutical industry where I would nobly donate my body and time in the pursuit of trying to rid the world of the many illnesses that plagued humanity. Oh, and also to afford another month or so of travelling around Australia while getting drunk on cheap wine.

It was just a couple of weeks later when I walked triumphantly out of my first medical trial. I had just tested some new medicine to treat Asthma while staying in the clinic for five nights. I walked back out onto the sidewalks of society joyfully breathing in the fresh summer air, skipping down the street, feeling the sun’s rays bouncing off my skin. I was like a man in possession of a great secret; I had just spent the best part of a week lying around, being cared for, being fed, playing ping pong and pool while getting paid over a thousand dollars for all of it. Instead of forking out on pricey hostels, I had found a way to get all-inclusive free accommodation plus a large sum of money. I stood there on that street and looked up at skies above knowing that I had found my true calling at last. Some were born to be doctors, some teachers, others – presidents. Me? I was born to be a human guinea-pig. It was a pivotal day in my life and to celebrate my new profession, I went online to book myself a trip to go and cage dive with some great white sharks with the money I had just made in the clinic.

Over the next few years, I continued venturing in and out of the human guinea-pig industry. Returning home to the U.K, I found I could only take part in a drug trial every three months, so I had to be calculative about when and which assignment I wanted to take part in. I was still travelling on and off somewhere out in the world, so all the trials acted as a convenient way to top up the bank account in between adventures. My equilibrium of life became some sort of comical cartoon where one moment I’d be hiking in the Himalayas and the next I’d be confined in a clinic having some nurse monitor my urine whilst being pumped full of drugs.

I thought maybe it would just be my way of life for a short while, but I soon realised that this lifestyle was somewhat sustainable. Due to the entropy of the universe, there was always a wealth of work to be had. My many assignments in the guinea-pig industry included testing drugs to treat diseases and illnesses such as pulmonary arterial hypertension, neutropenia, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s and that old notorious bad guy: cancer. Each one varied from three to eighteen days in clinic and helped contribute to whatever adventure I was planning next.

As the needles pierced my skin and the blood was drained from my body, my financial health and travel prospects flourished. I made money to go hike in the Himalayas; I made money to go party in Central America; I made money to go walk across Spain while drinking red wine every day of the summer. It was a simple transaction and, truthfully, the whole damn thing seemed too good to be true. The money was great and even the trials themselves were a pleasant experience. Inside those clinics I found fellow wanderers like myself living out on the fringes of society. Inside those clinics I found a way I could sit around playing on an Xbox all day while not feeling guilty about wasting the day away. You didn’t have to spend a single penny while you were in there, so essentially everything you earned was total profit and savings. Hell, it was even tax-free as the money was classed as an ‘inconvenience allowance’ and not a payment. Yes, for once in my chaotic life everything fit neatly into place, but naturally such an unconventional line of work brought about the naysayers.

“You don’t know what they are giving you.”

     “You’re only thinking about the money.”

     “Don’t you care about health?”

     “Sort your life out and get a proper job you hobo…”

Maybe those naysayers were right, but I couldn’t help but dedicate myself to the profession anyway. No doubt I was blinded by the money, but it seemed that being a human guinea-pig was my true calling. I had tried and failed hopelessly at almost every other profession the human species had offered to me. I had no common sense or dexterity to do any of the trades; I was too open and honest to deal with the bullshit and bureaucracy of the business world; and I had even become disenfranchised with my degree profession of journalism. It seemed that nothing in this society suited me except lying in a bed and being fed some drugs while having my blood sucked dry by a pharmaceutical company that saw me as a mere subject number in a scientific study. It was a funny situation, I guess. My friends all had job titles that included: ‘marketing manager’, ‘graphic designer’, ‘business consultant’, and ‘systems engineer’. I suppose ‘human guinea-pig’ didn’t seem to fit in quite as well with those on the surface of things, but the more I took part in those drug trials, the more I realised that such a line of work drew many parallels with those other conventional professions.

I remember lying in bed on one of the studies and getting talking to a middle-aged man on the bed next to mine. We both began speaking about our lives and why we were doing the trial, and how many we had done, and what we were planning to do after the trial. Naturally with him being a middle-aged human who had successfully reproduced, I presumed he was a functioning member of society with a career and confident knowledge of what he was actually doing in life. However, after talking for ten minutes, it turned out that miraculously I somehow had a better grip on life than he did. He was spontaneously doing the two-week medical trial after just quitting his job as a store manager for IKEA. He explained to me how the long hours and time away from home had gradually ruined his marriage and social life and left him empty on the inside. He went on to say how he finally decided to quit after his friend had killed himself after also working as a boss for IKEA for twenty years. The death left a profound impact on him. It turned out he was doing the trial to give himself some time alone to think about his next move in life so he didn’t end up as another suicide case driven to the ledge by the cold, mechanical world of business.

Right there and then I realised that the job of a human guinea-pig was no different than many jobs and professions out there. In the process of trying to obtain money, I went and stayed in a set place for a certain amount of time where I gradually had my blood sucked dry by some company that saw me primarily as a number on a screen. Maybe it was a bit more nonchalant and ‘to-the-point’, but it didn’t seem to be so different from the IKEA job that man had told me about. At least with medical trials, it was a lot clearer how it worked: “Look you need money, and we need your body, so come in and sacrifice your freedom and health for a set period of time, and we will reimburse you with a financial payment into your bank account.”

If anything, I had to applaud them for their honesty. Many faceless companies out there tried to confuse you with sneaky slogans like ‘career progression’, ‘success’ and ‘bettering yourself’. Many companies out there tried to make you feel good, when really you were just spending the best years of your life confined in some small space doing some menial task as your health was damaged by the stress and the inevitable lack of exercise that came with being too tired to do anything after work. Maybe medical trials were no different in regard to how they used you, but I respected the fact that at least they were a lot more transparent about proceedings.

As I carried on my career in the guinea-pig industry, I realised that the IKEA guy wasn’t a one-off. Often I came across people who had dropped out of the rat race and started doing trials in an attempt to afford extra time off during the year, or a way to supplement an adventurous lifestyle like the one I was attempting to live. Mostly they were on the other side of forty. I figured that this was because it was usually at that age many people awoke to the fact that they had squandered their youth working at a job they had no interest in for a company that had no interest in them. Finally realising this unfortunate set of circumstances, they set about simplifying their life and finding a way to afford to actually spend time doing what they cared about – whether that was travel, art, sports or even something as simple as gardening. It was a sudden sidestep to say the least, but mostly it was a good score: the trials themselves were a nice retreat from society and allowed a person to sit inside all day and maybe learn a new language, play the ukulele or – in my case – work on some existential memoirs they had been wanting to jot down for a while. Of course, there was the obvious possibility that something could go wrong and you’d get elephantiasis or something, but overall it was a risk I was happy taking.

And take I did. The years went on and on and so did those trials and adventures. Sometimes it was taking a pill to stop nicotine addiction, sometimes it was an injection to treat irritable bowel syndrome. Eventually I managed to get into the routine of doing three trials a year. With this money supplementing my chaotic lifestyle of bohemian travel, I usually only had to work an actual job for no more a few months a year. The situation was strange, but a good kind of strange – although I did think maybe I had gone a little too far when I was sat in a toilet holding a container under myself as I went about my business. I had ended up on a trial which required us to give a feacal sample at least once every day. I specifically remember the awkwardness of walking through the clinic ward while holding my container to go and place it on a tray alongside all the other guinea-pig’s cluttered pots of feaces. I thought of how my friends would be handing in coursework, or important projects of some sort they had completed at work. Me? I was quite literally handing in a piece of shit.

Eventually, after trial number twelve or thirteen, friends and relatives started raising eyebrows that I was still continuing my career in the guinea-pig industry at a relentless pace.

“This is getting ridiculous – you can’t do it forever.”

     “You need to think about getting something solid behind you.”

     “You need a proper trade or qualification.”

It was the standard script that parents, teachers and professional human-beings could recite at any given moment on any given day. Even my sister, usually generally on my side with most things, had her eyebrows raised along with the others.

“Have you not thought about what job you actually want to do?” she said, sitting across from me on the sofa. “You’re twenty-six now after all. You need some security. You can’t rely on testing medicines all the time.” I was disappointed by my sister’s reaction, but I understood her position. By now my sister was twenty-eight, studying a physiotherapy degree and preparing to finally fit herself into the paradigm of society after a decade of floating around. The psychology elements of her degree made her feel like she could understand the chaos of my mind, and she sat back into the groove of the sofa and studied me like she was a therapist and I was her patient. I got into the swing of it and went ahead explaining that by doing a medical trial, working three months and then doing another one, I could afford to travel over half the year for the rest of my life while working on my writing projects. There was no nod of agreement; just a look of bewilderment, of concern – of outright fear. It was a look I would have to learn to become immune from if I didn’t want to be caged by the judgemental nature of the human-race which was always ready to cast those glares and scowls upon you in the millions.

I thought inside the clinic was safe from such judgement, but I began to see a lot of people in there were also insecure about whether this line of work was an acceptable way of surviving in this world. The middle-aged people were usually comfortable with them as they did them in combination with some other line of work. But the fellow guinea-pigs my age were often chatting away about other plans or studies or ventures to show that medical trials weren’t their final destination in life. In particular, I met one guy called Daniel, a couple years older than me in his late twenties, who had been out travelling the world the last few years and had now returned home to face the screeching music of ‘the real world’ – an experience I knew all too well.

I saw him scribbling fastidiously in his notebook. “What are you writing?” I asked.

“Ahh, just trying to get some plans down.” I looked down at the page where bullet-points and ideas were littered everywhere across the page. There was a long list of possible job roles and courses, all as varied as a kid’s pick n mix candy selection.

“Wow, you’ve got a lot of plans,” I said.

“Yeah, well, you know how it is. After travelling for so long you’ve got to get yourself in shape and figure out what you want to do with your life. You can’t rely on doing these trials all the time really, can you?” Immediately I started to recall the conversation we had a few days before in the ward. He had told me all about his travels and how much money he was making as a club rep in Sydney, and how he had planned to go back out there, then later go to Canada, and how he hoped to do all these wild and exciting and adventurous things.

“But what about all the other things you planned to do?” I asked. “I thought you were thinking of doing another couple of medical trials and then heading back out to Oz?”

“Yeah, that’s true,” he said. “But I’ve been thinking about it. I’m twenty-seven now, and I’ve got no relevant experience in my field of study since I graduated. Looking at jobs while in here has made me realise that I’m a bit out of the loop, you know? All my friends here have stable careers. Having to rely on medical trials to get by isn’t what I want to be doing in my thirties. Maybe the travels can wait a bit for now.”

Naturally, I was surprised by this reaction. I wanted to question him on his sudden U-turn of thought but decided against it. It already seemed like he had enough going on inside his mind. Hearing it off someone like me how he changed his mind so drastically probably wasn’t going to help. But it was true: he had waltzed into the study excitedly talking about all his travels and his plans to continue his adventures after Christmas, but now, in less than a week, the pressure of society’s expectations and the fact he was getting money from medical trials had started to wear down his idealism of travelling the world. It made me slightly sad and I avoided talking to him any more about those plans he was constantly scribbling down in his notebook of anxiety. It was clear to me he could easily get some quick money together doing this then head back out to Australia in the new year to continue the life he had proclaimed to love so much. But the situation of coming home and having no ‘real job’ and testing drugs for money had left him spooked. His stance had changed, and he had retreated back to the world of social normality. His fleeting guinea-pig career was over just as it was getting started.

After that encounter, I kept thinking more about my emerging occupation as a human guinea-pig. I thought of Daniel, my sister and all the concerned others. Maybe it was true that an individual couldn’t rely on testing drugs forever, but all in all, I was happy with the line of work I had chosen for the time being. Maybe it would cause me health problems in the future, and even knock a few years off my life, but overall I was content with the fact that it at least it afforded me months of freedom where I could venture out into the world and live a life of exploration and adventure. I was content that I was at least living the life that allowed me to explore my interests and passions to the full. We were all slowly decaying and dying anyway, so why not do something that at least allowed you to have fun in the small time we had available here? Why not try something a little different? As a great philosopher once said: “better to have a short life full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.”

Well, here’s to you Alan Watts – writing this while temporarily enclosed in a medical trial clinic so I can get some money to go out hiking in the mountains again. Here’s to a glittering career of testing new medicines and blowing the cash on adventure. Here’s to helping cure humanity’s ills while sitting around playing on an Xbox. Here’s to social alienation and awkward pauses whenever someone asks me ‘what I do’ for work. Now, if only I can get rid of these purple spots on my skin…