At times I knew I was falling too far into the pits of depravity and insanity. My drinking became heavier and my behaviour more outrageous. I wanted to come back to some sort of peace and tranquillity. I always thought it was there, like a bridge I could cross whenever I got tired, but one day I considered that maybe that bridge had collapsed and I wouldn’t be able to easily return to that steady state I was once in. I was stuck in the lands of madness, where the crooked tree branches surrounded me, where wild-eyed vultures picked at carcasses, and dark spaces held hidden terrors. There was no clear way of going back so onward I kept walking into the dense foliage toward whatever fate awaited me.
On that path I thought of all the others who had gone crazy and lost themselves completely on similar journeys. I didn’t want to be like them and I knew I still had the light inside of me – the light that could lead me to the lands of peace once more. But at that moment a great doubt settled in my head and I couldn’t help but wonder whether destruction and disaster was my inevitable destination. My drinking continued to become heavier as I felt more and more distant from the people who stood in front of me. I was losing touch with reality at times, drifting away in a room of crowded people, fading out from my surroundings, losing my mind while wandering in the darkness.
I wouldn’t be the first in my family to have wandered down such a path. I thought of my uncle who died alone in a room of sadness and alcoholism. They found him amid the empty bottles, unresponsive and not even fifty years old. He had been living in that apartment for some years, separated from his ex, rarely seeing his son and drinking heavily. I remember my father first telling me about his problem. “You have to understand that he can’t stop himself when drinking. Most people can have a few and then stop themselves, but he can’t. When he drinks just one, he carries on drinking until he passes out. That’s why he can’t drink any alcohol at all.”
At his funeral I looked around at the forlorn faces of my relatives. Funerals were always sad occasions, but when they were for someone who had passed before their time, then there was an extra bleakness in the air. My other uncle got up and told stories of his life before breaking down in tears. Listening to his words, I reflected on the last times I had seen him, usually in passing in the city centre while he was on his way to his job serving meat on a deli counter in the market. As a teenager, I had failed to spot the pain in his eyes, but now I was older and the sadness of the world had made itself home in my heart too, I looked back at those occasions and understood things a bit more clearly. I think about the situation he was in, barely surviving off a cash-in-hand job at the local market, living alone in a small flat, failed relationships and rarely seeing his only child. Like many hurting people, he turned to the bottle to numb the pain of his reality. And now I see his face in my memory; the bloated face, the red cheeks, the lost look in those eyes. The reality was always there in front of me if only I had the awareness to see it.
As a child, I didn’t understand how someone couldn’t stop themselves from drinking. But now I have reached a time in my life where I start to see the darkness in which my uncle lost himself within. The demons lure you in, and it becomes so easy to spiral off into a storm of self-destruction. There had been too many times that I had gone on reckless benders, drinking myself into oblivion, sedating and medicating through the bottle. When your world feels a bit empty, it’s a quick fix to migrate to a different land – a hazy land that may feel like heaven in moments, but is really hell. You make a trade to distort and suppress your senses, but life loses its shine until the darkness is all you know. Slowly you become comfortable in it as it surrounds and engulfs you. You don’t even struggle against it; you like the feeling of seeing yourself slip away in the distortion. That blur of new faces, the hedonistic excess, the reckless and wild behaviour – the brutal hangovers only cured by picking up the bottle again. It’s madness. Pure madness. And you get sucked into the vortex ever more rapidly until that chaos is all you know and understand.
Despite currently drinking heavily and being out of control, a part of me believed that I was able to put the bottle down if I absolutely had to. I had a period every year where I stopped drinking for two or three months in the autumn. I also knew the happiest I’ve ever been were those stages at the age of 26 and 28 when I went sober for a few months. I exercised often, ate reasonably okay, slept well, meditated and didn’t go near the bottle. Even just staring at a drink made me feel nothing at that point. There was zero attraction. I knew it was poison to the state of consciousness I’d acheived – that all the gains of happiness I’d made would be dragged back and taken away from me. But despite those periods, I still find myself here I am a few years on drinking more heavily than ever before. There are reasons for this I suppose. The loss of time and frustration that came from the covid lockdowns; the fact I’ve just turned 30 and want to make the most of this very last bit of my youth. I’d had fun in some ways, I suppose, but these latest benders fill me with almost a fear that perhaps I really have lost my mind; that I have lost control; that I will never return from these woods of madness and find my way back to the lands of peaceful light. It fills me with a fear that I will not be able to stop and they’ll find me one day in that room of isolation, unresponsive on some beer-stained sofa, amid the bottles and beer caps – another soul taken by the need to try and find some shelter and escape from life’s unrelenting storm.
I entered the airport at dawn in a zombie-like state. It had been another sleepless night and it was time to return home after what was perhaps my most reckless trip yet. Leaving Portugal, I found myself depleted in more ways than one. My belongings now amounted to just three kilograms in my carry-on backpack. I was light, lighter in everything – bodyweight, money, clothes, sanity. I was travelling on an emergency passport after having lost my normal one along with other things. Those other things included my electric razor – my lack of razor made evident by the big, bushy beard now covering my face. What had happened to everything I wasn’t entirely sure about. The trip had been a total blur, fueled by heavy amounts of alcohol and a lack of sleep which was now commonplace whenever I travelled. That insomnia had left my brain in a beaten and battered state. My body too was a similar way – skinny and sunburnt and in need of some serious rest after a chaotic few weeks in the Portuguese sunshine.
In such a weary state, I naturally got reflective about things. I realised that at that point I’d been living on the run for almost ten years. A whole decade ago I went out on the road of discovery and adventure, seeing what awaited me out there in this wilderness that has maddened my mind and scarred my skin. I went out into the world with wide eyes seeking something that seemed not available in my immediate surroundings. I stuffed those backpacks with my few belongings; I stuffed my eyes with beautiful sights; I stuffed myself with soul-stirring experiences. I was living for myself and soaking in as much life as I could during my youth. But after all of that, I’m finally at the point where I start to wonder how sustainable this lifestyle is. On this trip I had once again experienced enriching moments and connections with others, but more than any other trip, I had also experienced some very dark moments, including a couple of days that I would reckon as the worst of my entire life. That time began with me being kicked out of a hostel for passing out on the floor of a room that wasn’t my own. The memory of the night before was non-existent and in my ashamed state, I decided to carry on drinking at a nearby bar in the morning on my own. The last thing I remembered was smoking a joint with a retired guy from California before waking the next day with a large number of belongings missing including my passport. I had a bus booked up north to start a five-day hike along the coast that I really didn’t want to take. Confused, stressed and with the worst comedown of my life, I stumbled onto that bus feeling like some sort of gremlin – my lack of identification now confirming I was out of place officially as well as mentally.
That feeling of defeat was also there in that airport that morning as I continued drifting around in a zombie-like state, wondering just how much longer I could keep living life on the edge like this. Just two days I was partying ’til 6am on the streets of Lisbon before going to the British embassy to pick up my emergency passport. A stern-looking guard with a machine gun searched me and escorted me through the building while my comedown and lack of sleep filled me with nerve-shredding anxiety. That moment was just another point of chaos and madness in what was now a strong back-catalogue. My mind thought back to getting arrested in Australia for trespassing and having to hitch-hike to my court case. It thought back to almost being hit in the head by a falling rock on a precarious mountain path; to narrowly missing an avalanche by thirty minutes in a Himalayan valley. It was true that there was only so much chaos one man could endure before he was pushed to the brink of total madness (or worse, death), and now – at thirty years old – I feel the voice of sanity call out to me through this mist, telling me to calm down and stop this freefall into the abyss of anarchy. “Come in and relax,” it says. “You’ve experienced enough of this hedonistic life. Take a breath. Step back. Take some time to enjoy a quiet life.”
Meanwhile, I think of a man I know in his eighties. He is a beat poet who seems to have been also living on the run all of his adult life and continues to do so in whatever way he can. I read his stories about drifting around Europe while busking and living on pennies. I also think of my friend Bryan, three years older than me who had been living even more on the edge than myself during the last few years in Australia. He’s just about to commence a one-month hike through the Alps with his girlfriend. Maybe there is a way to live like this without going totally insane. But am I like those other guys? I wasn’t sure. They certainly didn’t seem to end up in the situations I got myself into. They knew how to look after themselves and not spiral off into complete oblivion like I too often did. My self-destructive side was seemingly getting worse with each trip I went on and maybe I just had to accept that I wasn’t cut out for this high-flying lifestyle anymore. Maybe I really was crazier than the rest.
With my mind in a pensive and delirious state, I made my way through security. I wandered through the duty-free shops before finding a little cafe to sit down. I then ate some breakfast while watching others walk around the departure lounge, all of them looking so much fresher than myself.
I guess it was strange as someone who was a travel addict, but sometimes airports could make me feel alone more than any other place. I think it was the sight of the families, the loved-up couples, the rowdy groups of friends. It seemed that were very few others like myself in those crowds – solo travellers making their way to or back from another tiring adventure. As usual, when looking at regular people, thoughts of sanity and stability entered my brain. I thought of finally getting my own place and settling down in one place. I thought of women – of the French girl I had recently met in Mexico. She was on a two-week holiday there and was now back in her stable life with a good-paying job and about to buy an apartment. Maybe I’d learn French and move over there to live a nice quiet life with her. Maybe I’d finally learn to drive, get a pension and stop this calamitous journey through the wilderness. But almost as quickly as these thoughts entered my mind, they were pushed aside by the other ones – the thoughts of wandering ecstasy, of partying with new friends in foreign lands, of standing on sunset shorelines and hiking through mountainous valleys. I thought of the love of anarchy and adventure, my soul sailing further out into that intoxicating sea of the unknown – that same sea which had currently left me in a disheveled state with no passport and few belongings, with insomnia and sunburnt skin, but also with a spirit that was set on fire and a mind that was blown wide open.
Oh, what is a man to do once he has tasted such a life? This thrilling run out beyond the fences, this glorious dance in the lands of chaos – how does he return from that to a life of sensibility and suburban sanity? How does he trade the mystery and magic for the predictable and comfortable? For the safe and steady? I still had things I wanted to do, after all. I still wanted to fulfill my dream of cycling from the UK to Asia. Of hiking the great Himalayan route. Of finally travelling around Colombia. My list was still incomplete, but continuing in such a way of being didn’t bode well on the current basis of things – at least when I thought of similar others to myself. I thought Jack Kerouac – the great beat writer – drinking himself to death in his forties. I thought of Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson – their brains blown to the wall with self-inflicted shotgun wounds. I thought of that guy from Into The Wild starving to death alone in Alaska. It was true that living at full speed on the edge for so long usually made you more likely to end up in a graveyard or institution. Still, a part of me yearned to keep on living this way, putting the pedal down to the metal, soaring down that open road of life as the wind raises the hairs on my head. On the other hand, I also know it’s time to recognise that I’m slowly falling apart too. The wheels are buckling, the engine is failing, and the screws are coming loose.
The smart and sensible thing to do is to accept I’ve experienced more adventure than most people ever will, and finally begin to take my foot off the gas. But the thought of leaving this life behind fills me with tremendous sadness. It causes me to distract myself by reading through the messages on my phone. One Argentinian girl asks me when I’ll be coming back to Mexico. A dutch girl asks if we are ever doing that hike in Italy. Once again, my mind wanders and starts to dream of the next adventure, the next horizon, the next great run through this bewitching wilderness that has claimed each and every part of me.
This strange feeling of conflict is there as I sit there with my sleep-deprived mind, with my skinny body, with my half-empty backpack, with my emergency passport, with the cuts on my arm of which I’m not sure of the origin. The people around me seem to notice I’m not entirely with it as my hand shakes while drinking my coffee. A couple of coins fall out of my pocket and I reach down to pick them up off the floor. I then look at my jeans and notice that they are starting to tear apart at the seams. It almost seems symbolic and I think about getting them stitched up once again by my mother or landlady. I also think back to that nice Puerto Rican girl in Mexico mending my frayed backpack in Mexico earlier in the year. It was funny: all these women stitching me back together, mending me, repairing me. But maybe this time I’m realising that some things just can’t be stitched back together. There is no thread strong enough anymore to stop me from ripping open as I dream of the next adventure with my tired and maddened mind. And even if there was, I’m not sure I would even want that at this point.
I wake up and stare into that mirror. The same thing we all do every morning. Every time you see the same, yet slightly worse version of yourself. You’re one day older and you’re more tired, more weathered, more disillusioned with the world around you. You’re another day closer to death and your dreams have even less chance of becoming a reality than yesterday. It was never a pleasant sight but today that reflection was worse than usual. Today was the death of my youth. Yes, the years had fallen by and I was now thirty years old. No longer was I classified as a young person; I was now a fully-grown adult – the sort of thing kids looked up to – and there were no excuses for how much in disarray my life was. By this age you were supposed to have it all figured out: partner, marriage, career, mortgage, life purpose, and all of that keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ stuff. The truth is that I still felt like a clueless teenager, wandering aimlessly around, masturbating too much while struggling to come to terms with my own transient existence. Although mentally I may not have felt like I was thirty, physically it showed. Looking at my reflection, I could see the rings around my eyes, the crow’s feet starting to break through, the grey hairs which were not too numerous to pull out. The light in my eye was a little dimmer, the skin a little paler. I was becoming what old people had always seemed to me – walking examples of the inevitable descent towards death and darkness which eventually enveloped us all.
After a while of grimacing at that mirror, I got dressed and headed out onto the streets. I walked through that urban wasteland while staring at the passing people. The young, the old, the rich, the poor. Most of them, like me, didn’t stand a chance. The world spat on their dreams, took the joy from their heart, forced them to abandon their individuality to survive. Spiritually unfulfilled, they turned to vices to numb the inner pain: alcohol, drugs, porn, television, social media. Yes, the average person in the street was demented and insane – and no doubt I appeared that way to them too.
I carry on walking around the city centre with no purpose or destination. My 30th birthday, did anyone really care? Did I care? I eventually text one of my friends to ask if he wants to go for a drink. I knew he was off the rails at the moment and thus likely to say yes. It seemed to me that was what friends were for when you reached a certain age. You would never arrange to do anything together like play football or go to movies, but when you needed to go out and drink yourself into oblivion, they would be on hand to help you fulfil that need. It was a mutual transaction; many times I had responded to the call when he was in his hour of self-destructive need, and now he was reciprocating the favour as I drowned my sorrows and rued the fact I was now no longer young.
I met him in the main square in the city centre. A quick hello then we were soon sipping pints while updating each other on the tragedy of our lives. He told me about how he was still living paycheck to paycheck, no savings to afford a holiday or the driving lessons he needed. But it was all okay, he told me; he had devised a grand plan. “I’m gonna find myself a cougar and become a house husband.” I looked at him curiously. “There are so many lonely middle-aged women out there nowadays who want a younger guy. I’ll just stay at home all day, cooking dinner for when she gets home. The easy life.” I listened and knew this was the fantastical daydream of a desperate man. Looking at him in his current appearance, his odds of finding any woman seemed slim. He had once been considered cute, but was now balding and overweight with evidently not much to bring to the table. He had a degree in marketing which had been rendered useless by ten years of disuse as he worked the same job in a drab pub. He knew he didn’t have a shot at anything, and now his focus was on sponging off a middle-aged woman who had some financial capital. I didn’t blame him, and I started considering the same possibility myself. Perhaps he was onto something? Perhaps my destiny was to housekeep while waiting for my older wife to come home and fuck me? Having known each other since secondary school, we then got to talking about old times and old friends. Most of them now lived in London working graduate jobs, pursuing careers, working hard to become real people. Career professionals. Respected members of society. Everything that we weren’t.
“I don’t speak to them anymore,” he tells me. “I feel like they look down on me.”
“Probably,” I said.
“Yeah, I mean they’re all back there earning big money at graduate jobs their parents managed to get them after university, and I’m still here, almost thirty and broke. It’s all who you know and what you know. I got my degree but every job asks for two years of experience and how the fuck am I supposed to get that? You have to do internships, but I’ve been working fifty-hour weeks since I finished university just to get by. I don’t have the time or the means. The system is fucked man.” I sat there listening to his anguish and dissatisfaction. His comments may have seemed like excuses to most, but there was a lot of truth to it. Following university, I had also experienced the brick wall of not being able to get a job due to lack of experience. It was a catch 22 – needing experience for a job, but not being able to get experience without a job. Fortunately for me I had quickly decided not to even bother getting on the treadmill of a career. Living life based on what made your CV look good seemed absurd to me, and there was a freedom in not caring if you took six months off to go travelling, become an alcoholic, or just do nothing at all. I guess the downside to this was that only the low-paying jobs were available to you. But I didn’t care; less pay usually meant less responsibility, and less responsibility meant less stress, and less stress meant you didn’t go slowly demented over the years. In my head I was a modern-day Buddha, an enlightened being – a heroic rebel to the consumer-capitalist culture that was rotting people’s hearts and minds and souls. Of course, I knew this was my personal spin and in most people’s eyes I was just unsuccessful or an underachiever. Perspective was a fine thing and ultimately a person had to shape theirs in whatever way justified the way they were currently living their life.
We carry on drinking and I notice Jake started to slur his words and get hostile. I was used to it. He had a lot of inner demons and they usually came out around the fifth drink. I knew it wouldn’t be long until he started getting aggressive and arguing with people around him. After that he would declare he was going home after one more drink. This time there wasn’t even one more drink and off he went suddenly marching out the pub, telling me he was going to pick up a kebab and go home. I watch him stumble across the bar, disappearing out the door into the night, another wounded soul seeking shelter from the world. Then, sitting alone on my 30th birthday, I decide to continue drinking. Around me I hear the whirring noise of excited people – people in groups, people with friends, people who weren’t drinking alone on their 30th birthday. I knew I didn’t have the charisma or confidence to go up and speak directly to strangers, so I ordered a couple of double rum and cokes to at least make myself think that I could. About forty-five minutes later, I’ve reached the required level for social interaction, and suddenly I’m on a table with two younger guys. I think they could see I was on my own and pitied me. I graciously accepted their pity and reimbursed them with some self-deprecating jokes and a round of tequila shots.
After that, things got blurry and I’m in that hazy, soft, comfortable place of alcoholic sedation. I let myself drift through that haze until I eventually end up in a taxi on the way home with a twenty-one-year-old girl. Well, not too bad for an old-timer. The sex carries on into the morning – another meaningless fuck that I had now lost count of. Of course, I didn’t finish as usual. I very rarely finished during sex, and almost never after I had been drinking. Lying there on my bed, I can see she’s sad that I haven’t given her my seed; it was a look I had seen off many girls doubting their own attractiveness as they lay unsoiled on my mattress. This was the one thing that was required to be a man – to continue the human race – and it seemed I was also naturally incompetent at that. I attributed it to too much masturbation growing up. My genitalia only knew how to reach orgasm via my own touch. A vagina was simply no match for the highly-tuned movements of my right hand. I wondered how many other men were like me out there. We were the porn generation after all – the first people in history to watch whatever fucked up fantasy we wanted via a half-decent internet connection. Perhaps it was more common than I realised, and soon the highly-advanced sex robots would come, and no longer would any human be able to reach orgasm via traditional penetration. Perhaps this was the end of humanity; not with a bang, but with a whimper – everybody fucking silicone robots in dark rooms alone as humanity petered out to its pitiful and pathetic end. Feeling the way I was during that hangover, I welcomed it.
I carried on drinking for another couple of days; maybe it was three, I wasn’t sure. The debauchery looked to be getting out of hand but finally I sobered up and tried to make sense of the events. In particular, scrolling through my online bank statement after going on a bender was always a tragic affair. The needless drinks at 3am; the excessive fast food orders; the money withdrawn from the cash machine that your empty pockets tell you is totally spent. My bank account had taken a beating, which was forgivable considering I was having my 30th birthday crisis, but also slightly concerning considering the fact I was unemployed with no money coming in.
Funds were getting tight and consequently I started searching for a job. I loaded up the job search websites and scrolled through the muck of lowly-paid, menial positions. “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now.” Morrissey’s lyric always stuck in my head when I had to surrender myself to the system and beg up some kind of employment. How people managed to stay in one job for most of their life, or even years of their life, baffled me thoroughly. By week three or four, I was violently itching to liberate myself with a letter of resignation. Those letters had been written, and sometimes they hadn’t – sometimes I just didn’t show up because the thought of getting up in the morning to go to a place which shit on my soul was too much. By the time I was applying for a job, I was already imagining how and when I was going to quit it. I had to think to myself: getting to thirty years old without holding a job for more than a year was quite an achievement. I thought about listing it on my CV, then realised it was already there for the prospective employers to see anyway in my work history. This spotty work history naturally made it harder for me to even get a job in the first place. This became apparent again when I saw a job advert for the Royal Mail. I looked at it with interest. For some reason I always fancied myself as a bit of a postman; getting paid to walk around in the fresh air, working on your own, no boss over your shoulder or office politics to deal with – as far as jobs went, it wasn’t actually too terrible. But the Royal Mail wanted me to explain each and every gap in my work history. There were at least ten gaping holes on my bloody bombsite of a CV. I felt depressed that I had to explain why I wasn’t devoting myself to some job, as if each time you weren’t stuck on the grind, you had to justify your momentary freedom from the machine. The whole thing made me want to go and play with traffic to be honest, but I went along with their game and paved over some of those gaps by stretching my employment dates (like everyone else, I knew that bending the truth was an essential part of surviving in the modern world).
I guess my attitude towards work was kinda lousy to many people – especially towards my parents, who constantly reminded me that I needed to get a career, and that I was wasting my university degree (which was a worthless media studies degree anyway). Even my sister was consistently on my case.
“You’re intelligent,” she would tell me. “You have something to offer the world. Don’t waste your life in bitterness and jadedness. There’s a job out there for you somewhere, you just have to find what it is.” Thoroughly inspirational words, I’m sure you’d agree. I disregarded them as I did with everyone else.
After an hour of applying for jobs, the hopelessness of it all got to me. I stopped what I was doing, went to the kitchen, pulled a beer from the fridge, and returned to my bedroom desk. I then closed the job website and loaded up my sci-fi novel I had been working on. Important work awaited. The book was currently 18,000 words long and based around the theory that the universe was a computer simulation. It was just an eccentric theory, albeit one that some physicists and scientists took seriously. Anyway, I imagined what would happen if we somehow all conclusively proved we were living in a computer simulation. I imagined the existential crisis of everyone, the collapse of religion and society, the anarchy that was sure to follow. My theory is that society would destroy itself as everyone saw no meaning to anything anymore. The book would follow a protagonist who goes on a soul-searching quest through the wasteland of civilisation to discover if life is worth living anymore. He would meet people who felt relieved that life wasn’t real, and others that were driven to suicide and madness because their egotistical illusions had been shattered. Eventually he would end up happy in some peaceful commune, content in the knowledge that life is just a game and there’s nothing fundamentally to worry about. (Yes, of course there was some edgy philosophical point to it all.)
I guess it was just an idea I found interesting, and like all deluded people who thought of themselves as writers, I daydreamed about it one day becoming a best-seller. I imagined my book sitting on bookshelves and me signing copies at some launch event. It was at least a more exciting prospect of climbing a career ladder, spawning some children, or buying my own property and filling it full of furniture. No doubt my writings would never be read by anyone – my manuscript gathering dust in some dark forgotten corner – but it at least gave me something to do and daydream about while stuck on this earth. This was it, essentially, the bargain of human existence. Every man or woman had to find something, no matter how trivial, to give their life some basic meaning. Kids, careers, gardening, football teams…. hell, even something as ridiculous as taking pictures of trains. The important thing was finding something to do to help pass the months and years. At the end of the day, we were all killing time while waiting to die.
Savings from my inheritance were getting low and the rent needed to be paid, so it really was time to cast aside my future nobel-prize-winning writing and get a job. So far my applications had predictably proved fruitless, but fortunately I had a friend who could help me out. I figured over half of all jobs were being worked by people who had got the position through someone they knew (‘It’s who you know and what you know’ – as my dejected friend had lamented). Anyway, the guy I knew worked at this call centre for an energy company. I loathed the idea but I needed money quickly, so I begrudgingly sent them my application. I was immediately invited to an interview – an interview I was sure to pass according to my friend. Even though I had the advantage of being close with someone who already worked there, I felt I was sure I was going to screw it up anyway. Interviews were my natural enemy. I loathed absolutely everything about them: dressing up smartly, pretending you wanted the job, pretending you were qualified for the job, and just generally chatting Grade-A bullshit while ‘selling yourself’. How humanity had come from being hunter-gatherers to this was a mystery to anyone. The whole thing was a horrorshow, and just mustering up the energy to even pretend I cared for ten minutes was hard enough work, but my head needed a roof over it and my stomach needed food, so I put on my only shirt/pair of trousers and marched solemnly toward the interview.
Outside the building, I stopped and stared at it. There it was: another office building in a business park with a bunch of human-beings inside, all of them hunched over desks, toiling away their hours and days in stuffy cubicles. I looked through the window at them all locked into their work stations like batteries in some sort of machine. Outside the car park was completely full; nice cars sat neatly parked while the owners sat inside working all day to pay for them. A quick scan showed the spaces for the big dogs, their signs above them: ‘Senior Director’; ‘Assistant Director’. Maybe if I worked away for ten years I could also get in the position of having my own parking space. Maybe that would please my family.
After a minute or so after observing this strange environment, I entered the building. I checked in at reception then was taken upstairs to wait for my interview. I sat outside in a hallway preparing my answers for the merciless interrogation that was about to come my way. My mate had filled me in on what they would ask and they were, of course, the usual collection of mundane interview questions.
“What about this position interests you?”
“What skills do you have that you feel will suit this role?”
“Can you name one time you provided excellent customer service?”
It was a tedious process and, god, how I just wanted to spit out the dirty truth into their faces.
“I’m here because I’ve always been really passionate about not starving to death.”
“I’m here because sleeping on the streets isn’t too comfortable.”
“I’m here because I have to be here.”
It was a tempting prospect but, of course, I knew such mental musings were never meant to be uttered, only to be kept locked deep inside the vaults of the brain. Ultimately the truth was a creature of the darkness; it preferred to stay hidden in the shadows, fearing how people would react to it if it showed its face to the world. It was vulnerable, sensitive, and the times it came out into the daylight usually led to people stamping violently on its face until it was dead or you were dead.
Remembering this, I made sure my truth was locked safely away and that my mask of social normality was fitted tightly to my face. It was then that a woman came out with a big friendly smile, spectacles on, paperwork in hand. “Are you Bryan?” she asked. I told her yes. “If you just want to follow me inside…”
I entered tentatively. The room was a bland, soulless office space, with absolutely nothing in it besides the desk and chairs in the centre of the room. To my unpleasant surprise, there was a second woman already sitting at the desk, also wearing a big smile.
“Hello,” I said, shaking her hand. I sat down and faced her and the other woman. Two of them were there staring at me, middle-aged women who had no doubt been here ten times longer than I had been at any other job; middle-aged women who may as well have lived on a different planet to me. They shuffled their papers about and pulled out some pens. Suddenly the room grew smaller as my anxiety increased. I could see they had a copy of my CV, complete with all its fraudulent dates on. I did wonder then if you could actually face any real legal trouble from lying on your CV. The thought went out of my head when I remembered that the majority of the population would be in the shit if that was the case. At that point the discourse began and I was caught; like a fly in a spider’s web, I was well and truly in the worst place a creature like myself could have been.
“So obviously you’ve seen the job description online, but we’ll just go through the details of the role here and what will be expected of you.” I forced a smile and a nod. I then sat awkwardly, not knowing what to do with my hands while she ran through the dreary list and what the company was all about. I hoped she would just keep on speaking, but I knew soon I would be expected to tell them why I wanted to spend eight hours of my day sat inside this building doing something I had zero interest in. There was no use dwelling on the absurdity of it however, so I quickly got into character as the questions started.
They were all the questions I anticipated, so I rattled off my formulaic answers. I talked about my past positions in customer service, about how great I was at dealing with a variety of people, and how committed I was to doing a job well. I gave overblown examples from my past jobs showing just what an upstanding employee I was. I was blagging it so well that even I almost started to believe the bullshit coming out of my mouth. They sat there nodding and smiling like idiots; it seemed the bullshit process was going nice and smoothly. It was then that a question came that wasn’t in the script I hadn’t thought through.
“Can you name one time when a problem arose during work, and what you did to overcome it?”
I hadn’t mentally gone through this one and I sat there frozen. Although I was good at coming up with bullshit with a little preparation, I was never actually too great at bullshitting on the spot. I delved down into the sewers of my mind, searching for some stinky bullshit to feed them. But at that moment nothing was coming to me. “Take your time to think about it; there’s no rush to answer.” Seconds of awkwardness felt like minutes and I kept on searching for something to say. Eventually my flashlight lit up a dark corner of my mind’s sewer. There it was: some stinky bullshit. I pulled it out and presented it to them. I told them a story about a time I was working with my dad as a delivery driver. We were short on time to deliver all these items to a business park so I got him to drop me off with all the parcels to deliver on foot, while he went to a different location and delivered there. The details were inconsistent and it was poorly told, but I had at least given them some sort of answer. I think they could tell it was bullshit but thankfully they ate it up as the nods returned and the pens started ticking those pieces of paper again. The bullshit process was once again going nice and smoothly.
After fifteen minutes of interrogation, the ordeal was over and I was free to exit. I thanked them for their time, walked out the building, and shook my head free of all the utter nonsense I had just spouted. I then loosened the tie on my neck, feeling like I was taken off some sort of noose. As always, engaging in the farcical world of work was a traumatic affair, so I walked briskly home to rest, masturbate, and drink a much-needed beer.
The place I was renting was conveniently close to where the office was. It was a small apartment in a secluded court, with three bedrooms but only two people living there. The other person I was living with was the landlord. I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be living alone with the landlord to be honest, but fortunately for me he was rarely there. He was a peculiar guy, around the same age as me and also firmly unemployed. For him though his job status was no problem seeing as he was comfortably living off my rent money and the rent money of the people who lived in two more properties he owned. How a guy just thirty years of age owned three properties was initially a mystery, but one that I solved after learning he had inherited the properties off of his dead dad. Although he didn’t have to worry about making money through work, like all human-beings he was plagued by purpose, so of course he needed to do something to manufacture some meaning into his life. This included a few businesses he had set up, all of which had failed. He also told me how he had appeared on various reality TV shows over the years, managing to make some cash from them. I suspected whether he was genuine, but searching his name on the internet it appeared he was telling the truth.
As I said, he wasn’t around much, but we did occasionally cross paths in the kitchen. When there we would shoot small-talk. He hadn’t asked me much about my life, but sometimes he did ask about work. I presumed this was because he wanted to know I was reliable to pay his wage – aka the rent. It wasn’t an easy thing to give him an answer on. I mean, how does one really tell someone that they’re a bum? That you worked whatever temporary, menial job you could get? That you were currently surviving off your last remaining inheritance money? After all, people needed to understand you through your set position in society; it was the only way many people could make sense of the world after twenty years of institutional education where the goal was to become ‘something’ at the end. As tedious as I found this, I couldn’t blame people for it; it was all they knew and so, to make it easier for myself, I just lied and said I was a content writer. This sort of job could now be done online, so if you weren’t going to an office every day it didn’t necessarily mean you weren’t working. Also, I had even done a bit during my worthless media studies degree, so if anyone asked questions I could at least sound like I knew what I was talking about. I told people I wrote for business magazines mostly if questioned further, as my landlord Martin occasionally did.
“How’s work today?” he asks as I’m cooking some noodles in the kitchen.
“Not too bad,” I tell him. “Just putting together some press releases for a PR company that gives exposure to start-up businesses in Colombia.”
“That sounds interesting…”
“Not really but it pays the bills you know…”
He had never questioned me further on my lies, and maybe that was because he presumed it was bullshit, but as long as he got my rent money every four weeks, he didn’t care. He could go back to applying for reality TV shows and planning his next failed business and whatever else it was he got up to in the days he spent away from the apartment.
Well, a few days passed and it seemed I wouldn’t have to lie to Martin about my employment anymore. I got a call from the energy company to tell me that they were pleased to tell me that I would be starting training for my new role the following Monday. It seemed that after a month, I was back to being employed. I was once again a functioning member of society; an accepted tax-paying citizen with my own role and cubicle. Realising this, I went and got myself a beer from the fridge, not knowing whether I was drinking in celebration or despair. After I ended up drinking seven more, I realised it was despair.
So there I was: first day on the job, sitting in the training office with my own computer, surrounded by seven other new starters who were eager to learn and progress in the company. I looked around at them: it was a mixture of ages and ethnicities, although they all appeared to share one thing in common – they had all worked at call centres before, often for years, and they no doubt knew what they were doing much better than me. It was true that I had done customer service work before, but that was dealing with mums in supermarkets shouting at me because we had started charging five pence for a plastic bag. Dealing with people on the phone was slightly different, and one that was a bit of a nightmare for someone like myself. I couldn’t stand talking on the phone and I made a point of avoiding phone calls with friends whenever I could, choosing instead to stay safe and distanced through the medium of messaging. There was just something about communicating this way that I found unnatural and awkward. Well, that was a shame, because now it appeared I would be doing it for hours every day.
Speaking to friends on the phone was one thing, but dealing with customers was another. I would like to say that I have had many interactions in customer service that were tolerable, even pleasant on occasion, but mostly it is a form of torture that causes you to wish for nuclear apocolypse. Dealing with people in a customer service position you suddenly see them become demons from the deepest pits of hell. Knowing they are the priority and that the customer is always right, they feel they can get away with talking to you anyway they like. For example when I worked the evening shift in the supermarket, I would get many people come in on their way home for work. Many of these people were suffering from another day of working a job they hate, and maybe they were going home to something worse. As a result, they saw dealing with someone at the supermarket as an opportunity to vent their inner existential frustration.
I feared on the phone it would be even worse, knowing that they were safely distanced would allow them to really use me as a verbal punching bag. It was like when you saw people driving; if someone cut them off, you would see them shouting and swearing to the other person in the opposite car. But if you saw someone bump into someone in the street, they would both politely apologise and be on their way. Ultimately human-beings needed to feel safe and distanced before they vented the pain in their souls, and talking with someone in customer service on the phone was a perfect opportunity to do this. This was made even worse by knowing I was working for an energy company. In past years the energy companies hiked their prices at every opportunity; with it being a private market and having no one to answer to, they all collectively raised their fees each winter in unison. People were getting financially fucked left, right and centre; and now I would be having to hear about for hours every day.
Luckily for me, I had three weeks of training until I would actually have to face the wrath of angry consumers throughout the country. This training would involve learning the sort of queries I would have to deal with, and how to navigate the website and computer system. I wished the training would go on forever, and I made sure to sit back and make the most of the stress-free days while I could.
I didn’t really care for getting to know any of my co-workers, but one day I ended up befriending an older guy who was sitting next to me. He was in his late forties, softly spoken and seemingly shy. Sitting there, I often looked over and saw him scribbling down some doodles on a piece of paper. When I looked closely, I could see they were actually pretty good – artistic sketches of fantasy things like dragons and castles. It was clear that he was a similar soul to me, an escapist daydreamer, probably wondering why he also had to subject himself to such absurdity when all he wanted to do was create art. Noticing these things I struck up a conversation with him. There was an instant connection and he told me how he was a buddhist who lived in a buddhist commune in the centre of town. He meditated two hours every day and you could sense that in his calm demeanour. I guess that was another thing people did while waiting to die, seeking nirvana. If all else fails, I can always become a monk, I thought to myself. I’ll retreat to the mountains of Himalaya and meditate myself into oblivion. I’ll live off the land and seek enlightenment until the end of my days, far away from all of this nonsense.
The training went on and I eventually accepted the fact I was falling behind. My interest had gone by week two, so I joined my buddhist brother in doodling. My doodles weren’t sketches however, but sentences for my fantasy novel. For some reason I felt even more creative when in this stifling environment and I sought to make the most of it. I looked around at my colleagues, all of them unaware that the greatest novel of the 21st century was being written right under their noses. They trained to answer some phone calls while I put down immortal words that would be read and analysed in classrooms for centuries to come. Maybe one day in my autobiography I would mention how I wrote some of it while working at a call centre, and they would read it and realise just how lucky they were to be in the presence of a true genius. Well, of course that wouldn’t happen but it was a nice thing to daydream about. I continued doing that, staring out the window at the sun coming through the trees, appreciating the carefree days while jotting down some words here and there. Hell, I was even getting £11 an hour for my time- the biggest wage I had ever had in my twelve years of working. Finally I was getting paid for my writing like I should have been. Of course, I was going to be severely underprepared when the training had finished, but I told myself that I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
Well, I crossed that bridge and entered the warzone. My peaceful, stress-free days came to a sudden end as the bloody battle of customer service began. On my first day I had them all: the angry, the patronising, the annoying, the crazy and the confused. So many people who felt they had been overcharged; who were threatening to switch energy provider; who told me how horrid I was for capitalising on old people just trying to stay warm in their houses. Bang, bang, bang. The verbal abuse came at me from all angles. I was on the frontline, getting gunned down for all the things the people who actually ran the company did. I was the expendable young soldier being bombarded while the generals sat comfortably in some safe building far away from the bloodshed.
In particular I had one woman who told me to get a proper job. I questioned whether it was one of my parents on the other line. Once again the temptation to actually speak the truth was enormous; it was on the tip of my tongue, me telling her how I don’t want to do this job but I’m forced to so that I can pay my bills just like her. I thought about agreeing with her that the prices are disgusting and we were all victims of an exploitative, dehumanising capitalist system that is destroying human minds and the planet we live on. Oh yes, oh yes – the truth sat on the end of my tongue, looking out at the daylight, but once again I remembered that the truth was a creature of the darkness, so I locked it quickly back up inside my brain and recited the formulaic customer service script.
On that occasion I kept it together, but I had to admit that it was continually difficult to maintain calmness among the conversations I was having. I looked over to Gandhi beside me for some inspiration. He seemed to always be calm and collective. His years of meditation had allowed his brain to live in zen-like state, detached from the tedious conversations he was having to have throughout the day. I was inspired by him and I took some moments to try and be mindful between calls; to mentally detach myself from the absurdity of the task at hand. It was something that clearly aided him in this war and I figured it was good practice for the outside world as well.
The battle continued, and even with me trying to be in a detached zen state, I was struggling with my customer service duty. It got to the point where I was sitting in the canteen on lunch break, struggling to lift myself up out of the chair to return to my desk. I was shell-shocked. And when the phone rang I stared at it fearfully. The horror of humanity was on the other line and I sat there struggling to lift my arm to answer it.
I knew I wasn’t going to last and I think it was on day four of doing the actual job that I quit. For once, I didn’t even really think it all out. There was no notice of resignation or plan to not attend work. I was just walking to work one morning when, without thinking, I suddenly stopped outside the office. I stared at the building in front of me. I stared at the cubicles inside and the parked cars and the smokers having their first cigarettes of the day as they mentally prepared for another day on the frontline. Out of nowhere a universal force overcame my body and made it impossible for me to put one foot in front of the other. The only thing I could do was turn around and just walk somewhere else. That somewhere else was the local park. It was a nice, sunny morning and I spent some time sitting by the pond and watching the ducks. I then went and got myself a coffee and a sandwich before walking around a little more through a wooded area. There were many squirrels there, and they weren’t shy; they came up to me as I fed them bread. They were nice squirrels. Anyway it wasn’t long before my phone started ringing. It would be work, of course, wanting to know why I was feeding animals and not locked up inside my cubicle taking abuse from some stranger down the phone. I thought about answering but I figured I’d have absolutely no explanation for my strange behaviour. In the end, I just turned off my phone and carried on strolling around in nature. I then went to a bookstore, then an art gallery, and finally a pub for a couple of pints. At one point I completely forgot about work altogether. It was a nice day, and eventually I went home to try and process the end of another transient piece of employment.
Well, there was no way I was ever going to communicate with them again, at least not on the dreaded telephone. I’d send them an email that the job was giving me extreme anxiety. Anxiety was the go-to excuse of the modern age, even overtaking stress, and I had even used it recently to get out of being best man at a friend’s wedding. Almost everyone had social anxiety these days and you only had to mention it to get people to back off and leave you alone. I even went a little further, stating that I had experienced a panic attack on my way to work. I wrote the e-mail and sent it off, not planning to look at the reply for at least another few days.
I also told my sister about my latest job quitting. As always, she was keen to offer me some words of wisdom. “It was obvious a call centre job wasn’t for you. You should look for something more suitable to you. You need to find something that you have a connection to and a passion for. You should do this personality test; I did it and it helped tell me a lot about myself and what sort of jobs would be good for me. I think it’s really insightful.” She sent me a link to a website called 16personalities. Apparently this was it; my problem all along was that I needed to understand myself better. It at least piqued my curiosity, so I loaded it up and read through it.
It was a list of questions about all sorts of preferences and situations in life, designed to get an insight into the psychology of your mind. From the answers you gave, you were determined to be one of sixteen personality types based on things like introversion/extroversion and whether you acted with your heart or your head. Initially, I was kinda fearful to see what they made of the mess of my mind, but intrigued too.
After filling them out, the website determined I was an INFP – which is basically the deformed, death and blind midget of the personality types. Reading up some more on it, it appeared INFP personality types were the most likely to feel misunderstood, the most likely to earn the least money, and even the most likely to kill themselves. Essentially it was life on difficult mode and finally I had something to point to while people wondered why I was the total disaster I was. “It’s my personality type,” I would tell them. “I’m an INFP. It’s basically like living life with a mental disability.” Of course, I knew I was justifying my uselessness as a person under the banner of a psychology test. I would be just as terrible as the women who justified their behaviour based on their star sign or a full moon.
The website also listed the job roles that suit INFP personalities. Writer was the main one along with artist – pretty much things you couldn’t do for a stable living, hence why this type made the least money by a good distance. Apparently people like Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath were INFP personality types though. Lucky me, I thought – I had a good chance of mutilating my own body or sticking my head in an oven like a roast turkey.
My sister had told me it would help me understand myself better and what sort of things I would be good at, but it only confirmed the reality of what I thought about myself. I was a jagged piece of the jigsaw, with no place to smoothly slot into society. My place was not in the suburbs of sanity, but on the sidelines with the starving artists and madmen, searching for the light of existence while trying to fight off the wolves of depression and insanity. Well, it wasn’t all bad news. At least I was in the right category for wanting to become a writer anyway. I didn’t have much chance of finding a job I liked, but it appeared my delusion about becoming a best-selling writer one day at least had a faint hope of possibility. INFPs apparently included Shakespeare, Tolkien, and George Orwell. I was in good company, and with this new source of morale, I returned to my novel to strike out a few more sentences. I was nearing 25,000 words and a third of the way through the greatest novel of the 21st century. I was a man in pursuit of his own destiny. I was a man aligning his passion and purpose. I was a man killing time while waiting to die.
I eventually checked the reply to my email after three days. I was cringing at what they would say to me but it wasn’t too terrible. They said they understood but also wished I had discussed it with them – and that it was still a possibility if I wanted to. But if not, they said they were sad to lose me and that I could expect my pay in my account next Friday. Well, it wasn’t too bad; I had four weeks of decent pay at least. That would tide me over for another month or two of living the way I did – basic groceries, cheap beer, walking or cycling everywhere, and just spending a lot of time in my bedroom on my computer. I was back to being a bum; back to lying to my landlord about what it was that I was doing with my life. At least he had my precious rent guaranteed for another couple of months. His hard work of inheriting a place from his dead dad had guaranteed him another £780 of my money.
The days of unemployment recommenced. I awoke late, masturbated regularly, and sat staring at my laptop screen for hours each day. At that point writer’s block struck and I wasn’t feeling inspired to work on my novel. Now I really had nothing to do and time needed to be wasted in vast amounts. I was still inspired by the buddhist at the office, so I downloaded some guided meditations and spent hours each day sitting on my bed like Buddha himself. After a week or so had been murdered this way, I began to notice a change in my consciousness. I was more content and relaxed. I had a wider awareness of everything around me. Feeling a deep connection with the universe, I went back to the woods and marvelled at nature while feeding those squirrels. Life was easy, stress-free, blissful even!
This state of being lasted about five days until the usual desires came creeping back up on me. In particular, the need to get drunk and chase women and generally act like an idiot. It appeared no amount of meditation could take that side from me. Once again, I contacted Jake so he could assist me in another night of hedonistic escapism.
We met in the pub he worked at after he had finished a shift. He was busy chatting with his regulars when I arrived, but eventually came over to join me for a drink. Sitting there, I told him about my latest stint in the world of employment. He almost seemed annoyed that I had landed a steady job that paid more than the minimum wage and that I had given it up so swiftly. “Man, what a waste that was. You should have got your friend to get me that job.”
“Trust me, you didn’t want it.”
“I’ve been working in bars since I was sixteen. All I’ve ever known is working unsociable hours. I’d love to have a steady 9-5, Monday to Friday job.”
“Everyone says that until they actually have one. The reality of it is different. The tedious routine of sitting behind the same desk everyday. You wait all week for the weekend and then it flies by. Suddenly you’re staring down the barrel of Monday morning again with another long slog in front of you. The whole thing sucks your soul dry after a while.”
“This place is sucking my soul dry!”
“I’ve worked in a bar before,” I said. “It took about six months there until I started going crazy. In this place I was crazy after just a few weeks.”
“You’re crazy no matter what you do.”
There was a pause in the conversation as we sipped our pints to acknowledge that truth. He then went out for another cigarette and to chat to his community of alcoholics that frequented his pub. He worked in a Wetherspoons pub – the budget establishment of the UK where unemployed people such as myself could get drunk off a tenner. It wasn’t just the unemployed, but the poor in general, the depressed, the men escaping their wives, and the old people drinking alone in dark corners. Those pensioners in particular were a sad sight to behold. There they came everyday: retired people who had nothing better to do but sit and drink and stare into space. Often they would arrive in the early morning and spend the entire day there alone in solemn silence, reading a shitty newspaper while awaiting the inevitable. It was like looking into God’s waiting room and Jake told me how a regular passed away every few weeks. You always knew when you hadn’t seen their face in more than a few days. The poor bastards. This is what they got after a lifetime of work and saving for retirement: festering alone in a dank pub as the last of their days ran dry. Watching them sit there, you could actually watch them emptying slowly out until all that was left of them was the froth at the bottom, before it eventually evaporated and disappeared right before your eyes.
It was a sad sight as it always was and it once again reinforced the feeling I had inside of wanting to escape this mortal prison before the years had really taken their toll. I poured those pints down my throat hoping they would contribute to some liver illness that would help me check out around the age of sixty. The way I saw it, that was the age we were meant to live to anyway. It was only recently we had started living into our 80s and beyond. Technological and medicinal development had screwed us over; we should have been dying around fifty somewhere at the hands of some lion or hideous disease. But instead we now reached almost double that age, sitting in carehomes and shitting ourselves and forgetting our children’s faces and becoming so decrepit and frail that we couldn’t even eat without assistance. We watched the world change into a thing we didn’t recognise, where every new generation was a sad reminder of what a foreign thing you were – a relic of a bygone age which had no time or place for you anymore. All that was left to do was drink alone in pubs while waiting to die.
I sat there getting depressed, remembering I was now thirty and that the glory of my youth had fallen away. Okay, I wasn’t old like them, but I was past the point of my physical peak and now all that awaited was the long descent to join those old people drinking themselves to death, subconsciously speeding up the process because they knew the sadness of their existence on this earth was too much to bear, that they would never be those young and beautiful people they once were, that their mediocre story was nearly written and the last sorry sentences were being put down – each uneventful day a nail in the coffin of another meaningless existence; more lives that didn’t amount to anything; more dreams disappearing into dust, the only memory of your one existence being a piece of grey stone protruding from the earth in a field somewhere, getting shit on by the birds and rained on by the sky – death, as in life, seeing this world pissing on you from high above as the earth pulled you down, down, down to the ground.
Okay, perhaps my nihilism was getting a little out of hand. I was supposed to be forcing myself to have a good time, so I went over to join Jake and his crew of regulars – the degenerates to which I belonged. I introduced myself and soon the drinks were sailing back as we chatted general shit about current affairs and football. I barely knew anything about football, but when talking with drunk people you only had to give a few ‘yeah’s and ‘right’s to make it seem like you were an expert on the subject. Mostly drunk people just wanted to hear themselves speak and have someone nod their head in agreement with them. One of the guys then offered me a cigarette; I didn’t smoke but took it anyway. About twenty minutes later I’m doing cocaine in the toilet with the same guy. This is what needed to be done sometimes; you had to trick your brain into thinking that something exciting was happening with a chemical substance. I did a couple of lines with my new friend and emerged like a gremlin from the cave of a toilet cubicle. At that point I couldn’t see Jake anymore amid the crowd. I was back in that haze, drifting through the night, sailing on through the mist. That mist had become a friend over the years, sheltering me from the piercing light of reality that at times was too much to bear. This time I needed it a lot, and I let myself be consumed by it as everything blurred around me once again. More drinks went down until I remembered that I was supposed to be watching my money, so I started picking up leftover drinks on the side of the bar, not caring what was in them.
After a while, the mist had taken me into the city centre. I wasn’t even too sure how I got there when I stopped to think about it. My memory was terrible when drunk and dementia was sure to hit me in that dreaded old age. Oh well, for now I didn’t care. I was outside in the smoking area of some pub having another cigarette off some stranger. We stood there smoking and naturally I felt the need to make conversation. I asked him about his day and immediately hated myself. Small-talk was something that physically pained me and yet there I was instigating it. He told me about his day then asked me what it was that I did. I thought about lying as usual and saying I was a writer but I didn’t have the energy. I told him I had just quit a call centre job and was unemployed.
“Good on you for quitting!” he said. “Not everyone has the guts to quit a job they hate.”
“Trust me, I’m well experienced in it.”
“I get you. That office life is sickening. All those people spending their lives doing some mundane task, chasing promotions and climbing ladders to nowhere. They age terribly and are all secretly unhappy inside. And they feel good when they get that paycheck, but ultimately it goes to things that don’t make them happy and only trap themselves further in the system of sedentary slavery.” I was suddenly warming to this guy. “No fuck that shit,” he continued. “I’m glad I got out of that lifestyle when I could. Nowadays I just do online trading and deliver food for a few hours each day. You’ll never see me working a job like that again!” Out of nowhere it appeared I had found a fellow misfit. Naturally I was curious about his lifestyle and asked him more about it. He told me how he had worked a 9-5 ‘proper job’ for five years then took all the money he had saved and put it into crypto currency. He was now making regular profits and this, alongside four hours a day delivering food on a bike, was enough money to live comfortably off. The idea of a man escaping the sewer was always enough to get the blood pumping, and there and then I decided I was going to give it a go as well. Well, I had absolutely no spare money to put into trading, but I at least had a bike.
He finished his cigarette and took off into the night. Before he left, he took my number and told me he’d text me sometime. Of course, I knew he never would. The amount of random numbers I had in my phone from brief encounters on nights out was comical. I carried on through the night staggering around in the mist, trying and failing to attract a mating partner for the night. The mist got thicker and eventually the possibility of attracting anything other than trouble was long gone. Pretty soon I blacked out completely, waking up the next morning in my bed with a horrific hangover and few grazes on my body that I had no idea about.
I sat on that street corner, sipping my beer, staring emptily into space. A strange feeling overcame me. I had felt it for some time but it was then that I knew for sure that a war was being waged on my soul. I knew the light wasn’t shining as it once had, my mouth didn’t dispense my truth like before, my feet didn’t touch the ground like they once did. Something was wrong inside of me. I had wandered into some murky realm where I could feel myself disappearing in a darkness. My candle was fading and I stared into the eyes of people passing me in the street and wondered if my struggle was unique or ubiquitous. How many were watching the flames of their being slowly fade out? How many out there were losing themselves day by day? And ultimately what was a man or woman to do about it?
At one point in my life it seemed so easy. When the fire burns bright, it feels like there is no force in this universe strong enough to quell your inner flame. Your eyes burst with light and your heart thunders. Your spirit ignites the world around you. Your pen pours out poetry with ease. But life can sometimes take you down some bewildering paths. You unknowingly start to lose yourself and suddenly you’re left facing a stranger in the mirror, speaking words that are not your own, sitting nowhere, being nowhere. Reflecting back on the past, I knew I had saved my soul before, but could I do it again? I didn’t even know where to begin this time. For once there were no direction signs – no intuition, no guiding stars, and even my deepest passions were now uninteresting to me. I was now thirty years old and didn’t have any other desire other than to get drunk and drift around a foreign country. The idea of being an author had slipped from my mind after my books had sold so few copies. The notion of starting a career or family was just as alien as ever. And even the act of travelling itself had lost much of its magic. My world was a grey place so I just sat on that street corner, sedating myself with alcohol, watching people walk by and wondering where there would ever be peace on earth for those who dreamed a little too much.
Finally I pay my bill using my bad Spanish and then get up to carry on wandering the city streets. They were the streets of Mexico City – one of the biggest cities in the world – and I drift across a busy square and into a church where I see an old lady kneel before the altar. Her hands are tightly grasped in prayer as she stares up with pleading eyes. I can’t help but wonder what she is asking, but in the end I stopped, knowing her pain was private like it was for all. I walk out back into the square and see a queue of men waiting to be cleansed with some smoking plant as it’s rubbed over them. They close their eyes and look deep in thought as the smoke shrouds them in the midday sun. I then see a ranting alcoholic staggering through an intimidated crowd. Elsewhere I see other weary souls like myself sitting on street corners and staring into space. No matter where you looked, the burden of the human condition was evident. Truly it was a hard fight for us all, and at times it became clear just how sprawled out on the canvas we all were.
I continue walking along and see posters of missing women on walls. I see a scruffy stray dog come around a corner and stop in front of me. Its eyes stare into my eyes and there seems to be an unspoken recognition between us – a momentary feeling of union before he carries on along the way. I do the same and then see a man with a missing arm and leg sitting on the sidewalk. He holds a cup out for change and I throw some coins in. I guess it can always be worse, I say to myself. Although can it? A man can lose his mind – he can lose his arms and his legs – but once his soul is gone then what is left for him on this earth but a barren existence of emptiness.
Suddenly I felt a tiredness that was beyond anything I had experienced before. At that moment a part of me wanted to rest – and to rest in the permanent way. The toil of this soul-searching fight had worn me down over the years, and it was clear that for every victory you made, life was always there waiting to break you down once again. But another part of me was ready to respond to the war being waged on my soul. I would grab whatever I had left, stab my flag into the ground, and be ready to turn those dwindling flames into a great fire once more. As always, I was a walking contradiction. Some kind of mistake.
For now I decide a temporary rest at the hotel will suffice. I get some food and head back. Being a little older now, I tried to avoid hostels; I needed a good night’s sleep and was past having sex in a dormitory room. Of course, this meant it was harder to meet other travellers. On this occasion, it was surprisingly easy. I enter my room and open the door onto the balcony. It was a shared balcony with the other two rooms beside me. I walk out, put my arms on the bannister, and hear a voice to the right of me.
“What up bro!?” I turn my head and see a topless guy sitting there drinking a large bottle of beer. He was skinny with long blonde hair, shades, and a big grin plastered across his face. Before even asking, I could see he was drunk in the middle of the afternoon. His energy was good, however, so I walked over and engaged him in conversation.
“It’s not going amazing, to be honest,” I tell him. “How about you?”
“Dude, tell me about it,” he says. “I had a wild night last night; it’s a miracle I even made it home. I left my phone here so I was wandering the streets until six in the morning trying to find the hotel. At one point I honestly thought about sleeping on the street. Then things got worse as the police shook me down for drugs. After that I fell down a ditch somewhere.” He then proceeded to show me the cuts on his elbows and legs. In turn, I showed him the grazes on my face from a recent drunken accident. At least he knew how his wounds were caused; mine were still unknown to me after a week. “Anyway,” he continues. “All that shit happened but here I am drunk once again at three in the afternoon. Ahaha, viva la vida bro!” He then took another large swig of his beer before his face returned to that big grin.
I could tell straight away he was another classic wandering madman, scratched and scarred on both the inside and out. He was the sort of person I had met many times throughout my travels – the sort that I always seemed destined to stumble across no matter where I went in the world. At that moment I was happy to meet him, and we continued to talk about our trips and whatever the hell it was we were doing here. It turned out he was a forty-three-year-old Canadian who was recently out of work. He decided to deal with this by flying to Mexico and drifting around the country while drunk. Although there were thirteen years between us, I recognised the stage he was at in his life. An affinity was felt and it wasn’t long before I was joining him on the large bottles of beer as we discussed life on that balcony until the sun began to sink beneath the surrounding buildings.
“This is my midlife crisis trip,” he tells me. “Out of work, no woman, I got nothing really going on back home. And with the pandemic, it’s been a rough ride living alone the last two years. The only thing that seems right is to come to Mexico and live like a rockstar for a while off of my savings. I guess it’s not a bad way to spend a midlife crisis.”
“I hear you man,” I said. “But to me, it’s all a crisis.”
“What is?” he asks.
“Life. I mean, here you are: trapped in a slowly-decaying body of flesh and bone, stuck on a rock floating around a big ball of fire for no apparent reason. On top of this, you have around eighty or so years here, and during that time you have to deal with things like money and love and sex and purpose and politics. Yeah, there’s no beginning, middle or end to me. It’s all a crisis. To be human in this world is to be in a crisis.” He looked at me with a smile, nodding his head in agreement and toasting his beer. Our beers clinked and our connection was strengthened on the realisation we were both stray souls wandering the tempestuous wilderness of human existence.
“You know, I’ve had a good life,” he then tells me in a pensive moment of realisation. “I’ve experienced enough of this merry-go-round. You say we have eighty years here, but screw living that long. I think if I checked out in the next ten years that would be enough for me.”
“You really feel that way, or it’s the beer talking?”
“Straight up bro. At this stage in life, I feel like I’ve done it all. I’ve travelled around, slept with a lot of women, had a lot of great parties and adventures. I’ve been in love and worked in what I’m passionate about. I’m happy with what I’ve done and don’t want to get much older than what I am now. Life has been a wild ride, but I’m not sure if I can handle another thirty or forty years of it.”
I could hear in his voice that he was being genuine. It might have sounded an extreme statement to some – even a suicidal one – but I understood completely where he was coming from. It was something that was recently on my mind after turning thirty – that I didn’t want to experience the second half of life in old age. Besides a spiritual crisis, I guess I was also having a bit of an age crisis after departing my twenties. Of course, I was still relatively young, but not as young as I would have liked to have been. Inside there was a part of me that resented getting older, and looking at him I could see my future too – still wandering the outside spaces, drinking ever more heavily and going further over the edge of destitution and insanity. To keep on living this way past forty, well I figured that’s when a person really was a stray for life. Most had packed away their backpacks and began to settle down in some suburb of safety and sanity. For me that life was a death sentence already. And the idea of losing my youth – losing my strength and looks and curiosity – horrified me. I already saw the lines forming on my face, the grey hairs sprinkled into my beard, the bitterness in my personality that wasn’t there before. In my head this trip was one last celebration of youth before the downhill truly started.
We carried on drinking and then went out to hit the bars of Mexico City. We spoke bad Spanish to Mexican women, drank with other travellers, danced like idiots, and got lost in a hazy blur of intoxication. The bender had started and we spent the next week or so travelling together until we made it down to the pacific coast, specifically to a little town called Puerto Escondido. The nights of revelry continued there until he eventually headed off on a night bus to another part of Mexico. I bid him farewell and watched him drift out of my life to continue his midlife crisis somewhere else. “Catch you on the flip side,” he said, stumbling onto the bus with a small backpack full of beers.
I was back to my natural state of being alone, and I spent days at the beach soaking in the sunlight and watching the sunset on the ocean. It was a town I felt at home with, and it seemed I wasn’t the only one. Puerto was famous for being a ‘digital nomad’ hotspot. The place was filled with westerners escaping their homelands while they worked on their laptops and sat at the beach and tattooed their skin and prided themselves on escaping the rat race. I knew of these people already, but since the pandemic had made many jobs able to be done remotely from a laptop, it seemed they were now everywhere. Web designers. Graphic designers. Code writers. Even therapists. There they sat on their laptops working four or five hours a day before hitting the beach and sipping beers in the sun.
I thought about what I could do to join them in their little world of escapism from the system. After thirty years, I still truly saw no job or career I had an interest in. The only time I had felt purpose was when I was writing creatively, and by creatively I meant stories or poems – not news articles or anything people actually paid for. And even that passion was now fading. Like everything though, the grass was always greener on the other side, and while the idea of being a digital nomad was a romantic one, the reality of it was a little different. It came with its own struggles and own sadness. An American guy told me about this in a cafe by the beach one day.
“I know it sounds great being a digital nomad – and it is for a while – but in the long term I’m not sure how much someone can do it. It’s a lonely existence. At least for me I’ve never really found anywhere that feels like home. I guess it’s because it’s hard to form a community when everyone eventually moves on. And on top of this, you’re constantly surrounded by travellers who are going out and doing cool things, while you have to stay at home and work.” It was something I had thought about before while reflecting on that lifestyle, and it seemed those who had escaped the rat race had their own problems to deal with. There was no magical way to ‘live the good life’ forever, despite what the travel bloggers would have you believe. No matter what you did or where you went, you were destined to struggle in some form or some way. It was the only way – the human way.
Still, I kept thinking about it; about my options in life now my main passions were beginning to lose their spark. Where was there really to go in this life for someone like me? Would I ever return to the time when I felt truly alive? What chance was there? The war on my soul continued to rage as I struggled to see the clearing ahead to somewhere that made sense to me. I was so sure all I wanted to do was to travel the world and write, but now those things had lost their thrill, I saw no glory in anything else. Nothing appealed to me at that moment in time – only the next beer, the next woman, the next night of revelry and intoxication. I thought I was bad, but I continued to meet people that were wandering further out in the soul-searching wilderness than I was.
In a town in the mountains, I met a fellow English guy who was ‘escaping his problems back home’. I eventually discerned this was trouble with gangs and the law. Never had I seen someone so wounded, on both the inside and outside. He was only twenty-two but already had scars all over his body from various stab wounds. He couldn’t even use his left hand after he had been slashed on the wrist during a drug deal. His wounds weren’t just from home; even here he had managed to sprain his ankle here during an escape from a fight. He had also been banned from various hostels and bars after just two weeks in the town. I eventually realised this was down to his addiction to Xanax – an addiction that saw him taking five tablets at once and turning himself into a zombie. The last I saw of him, he was being taken into the back of a police van after having a bust-up with restaurant staff for not paying his bill. It was his first time travelling and I knew he wasn’t going to last long in this way of life, or any way of life for that matter.
Elsewhere I stumbled into an American guy I had met four years previously in Spain. While he was there in Spain, he was constantly chasing women. He stressed and depressed himself over finding a long-term partner, and it seemed four years on that nothing had changed. His desperation to find a woman screamed out of him, and naturally this led them to reject his advances. I even found out he had come to Mexico to meet a girl he had met the previous summer in the states. That relation had broken down after just two days of being here, and so on he went, another stray soul in search of some shelter from the storm.
Although I knew most men found a spiritual home for themselves in the company of a spouse, to me that had rarely seemed the case. There was something inside of me that needed more than a partner, and that was more clear to me than ever having just left my girlfriend just before this trip. We had been dating for a year, even living together, and it was the first time in my life I had been seeing someone regularly for a long period of time. But again, whereas many men only sought to find a nice woman and settle down, I was ready to abandon mine at the sudden booking of a flight to some faraway country. Like careers and everything else, a wife and children were other things beyond me. I needed my soul to be set on fire by something. And while they could give me joy, they just couldn’t give me that spark that was so essential for my spiritual survival.
Still, I had my romances when travelling. Most were one-night stands, but when I got to a place called Oaxaca City, I started seeing a woman continuously. She was a Mexican woman from another part of the country. We hit it off straight away and she invited me to stay with her in her apartment. She lived alone with her dog – a stray dog she had taken in and given a home to. I had to look at the dog and once again see a connection in its eyes, a feeling of union of being taken in by a woman while wandering the streets. It was nice there and I stayed with her for a week or so. We went to bars and restaurants; we went to watch Mexican wrestling; we spent lazy mornings in bed making love. For a moment I almost began to feel like I belonged there. I thought about getting a job teaching English or really having a go at trying to be an online content writer. There we’d live together – my new life in Mexico – but again there was something missing, and one day I decided to book my bus out of there. The horizon called me again and on I went to board that bus to somewhere else. To a place that helped return the fire to my soul. To a place that would fill my heart with thunder again.
The wandering went on and two weeks later I was on a Caribbean island, back to sitting on a beach and staring out at the sunset. My heart was heavy and I thought of all the people I had met along the road. I thought of the path that had led me to here and the path that awaited me ahead. The strange sadness was still there inside, and my eyes were still searching the skies for some kind of salvation. It was then that the stray dogs of the island came out onto the beach, playing around in the sand. I watched them leap about before they suddenly stopped and sat beside me. I stroked one and looked at the sunset and let a smile make its way on my face. Suddenly I felt at peace with where I was; I felt the fire inside begin to flame, and for some truth to make its way into my heart again. Yes to wander, to not belong, to constantly be in a phase of soul-searching – it wasn’t such a bad way to be. And if you kept your eyes open, so many of us were this way. Perhaps secretly we all were. In a way, what else was it to exist than to be another stray on a soul-searching quest, wandering the wilderness in search of some fire. Another stray dog in search of survival. Another stray dog in search of home.
It was a random weekend and I had come back to visit the parents in my hometown of Coventry. I was unemployed and waiting to do a medical trial in a couple of weeks’ time, so I thought I’d pop home to be bored there instead of where I was currently living (Nottingham). It was still national lockdown from the coronavirus and there wasn’t much to do, so I arranged to meet a friend and walk around the local park while venting our frustration at the situation. We were both approaching our 30th birthday as the closing years of our twenties were wasted by a hysterical overreaction of a virus outbreak. Both of us should have been out travelling the world, having romances, living life, but instead we were wandering around the drab suburbs of our childhood town, unable to even go to a bar or do anything of any real excitement. After a while he told me his younger brother had just bought a house and was having a house-warming gathering. Well, what the hell; it was something else to do other than wander around aimlessly, so we bought some drinks from a cornershop then headed over.
We made our way inside the house where his brother and a friend were setting up a TV on the wall. We helped them assemble some chairs and then got started with the drinking. His brother and his friend were 21-years old; they had crates of beer, wide eyes, high spirits and were ready for another Saturday on the booze. Soon enough another couple of his brother’s friends arrived to join the party. We were a good age distance apart from everyone there and it wasn’t long until the obvious subject of our age came up. “How old are you?” one of them asked. “29″ I said. “29?” he said. “That’s old man. I thought I’d be having kids and stuff at 29. Don’t you want to have kids?” I shrugged my shoulders and told him no. I then cracked open another beer before moving on to the drinking games. At first it was drink whenever someone with your name scored in a football game, then it was beer pong, then a load of other games as shots and drinks were consumed every few minutes. Vodka, Rum, Bucksfast – it all went down as my memory began to black out as it had so many times over the years.
The next day I awoke in my bedroom covered in cuts and scratches. There were bloodstains on the sheets and unhappy parents downstairs. It took me a while to figure out the ins and outs of the situation, but apparently I had been kicked out of the house-gathering by my friend’s younger brother. Having skipped dinner and downed copious amounts of alcohol, I had become intoxicated to the point I was spilling my drinks everywhere and falling over into thorn bushes. I had also lost my jacket and smashed a bottle of liquor I had bought my mum for mother’s day. Oh – and just to round things off – I had left the key in the front door along with blood on the handle (something my parents found slightly disconcerting). The thought hit me that I was about to leave my youth behind and I was still doing the same stupid shit I had always done. In fact, I was even worse than those 21-year-olds. It was a sobering realisation and I tried to avoid the judgment of my parents by hiding in my room all day. In that lair I dwelled in my hungover state until boredom and horniness caused me to get out my phone to go on Tinder. It was after a few minutes of mindless swiping that I came across the profile of a girl I used to see when I was twenty-two. Seven years had passed but I thought I’d start speaking to her again anyway. Suddenly I was feeling super nostalgic; probably I just wanted to feel like I was younger again, but I asked her to go for a walk over the local farmland near where we lived. She agreed.
We met on a street corner and started catching up. It had been a strange year since the pandemic began, but this was perhaps the strangest moment of all. We hadn’t spoken in five years yet somehow it felt like no time had passed at all. Tales of the past and present were discussed as we wandered around the farm fields under a grey and gloomy sky.
“So what are you doing with your life now?” she asked. “It must be weird now the pandemic caused you to be a stable UK citizen.”
“It has been weird,” I said. “I was about to jet off to South America when the pandemic hit but instead I found myself moving back in with my parents and getting a job at Amazon. Then I quit and enjoyed the summer before moving back to Nottingham. But yeah, to be honest, I don’t really know what I’m doing right now. I always wanted to just travel throughout my twenties, but now that has been taken away from me by this pandemic. Right now I’m just living month to month, working here and there, doing medical trials and trying to get by. You know how it is…”
“I can imagine it’s been strange for you not being able to take some trips…” There was a pause. “So do you think you can finally see yourself settling down or are you planning to get away again after the crisis is over?“ I knew why she was asking this of course – it was to see if I was finally someone worth imagining a future with. That was what she wanted in the past and what I had disappointed her with once already. When I came back from an eighteen-month trip five years ago, she had hopes that I was finished with the life of being a wandering nomad. We saw each other a couple of times again but I quickly realised it was the wrong thing to do. She only ever wanted a normal life and back then even after that trip I knew there was no way I could give her what she wanted. Well, here I was five years on still feeling the exact same way. Time had changed nothing; I was still just a drifting bum with no direction or desire to join her in a settled existence. Well, if I wanted to get laid I’d have to give her hope, so I continued talking about how I was open to whatever life brought my way now travel wasn’t possible.
It must have worked as the next day she invited me around to her place for the evening. I walked over to hers from my parents, a fifty-minute walk through the streets of a sleepy suburb, filled with big houses and nice cars on the drives outside. I got to her house, knocked on the front door and entered. Inside I was jumped upon by her puppy – an eight-month-old cocker-spaniel. She had bought him during lockdown, presumably to have some company while living alone. I then made my way into the living room and sat down with her on the sofa. As we chatted about life, I looked around at the interior of the house. It was clean and well-decorated, but something about it saddened me. It was a new-build house and you could see it was a formulaic design – a computer-generated building on a computer-generated street where everything looked the same (almost like it was taken from The Sims). I looked at all the Ikea furniture tidily laid out; I looked out at the garden which was a blank square of grass with a small shed at the bottom. Everything was neat, clean, featureless. Of course, I couldn’t knock her for buying her own home at the tender age of twenty-five, but to me it seemed that there was just no soul there at all. In that soulless house we sat discussing old times as I imagined the possibility of finally forming a relationship with this girl. I could live here with her in suburbia, come home to this sofa, walk the dog in the local park, make love with her at night. I could get my old job back at the Amazon warehouse that was right off her street. It was all there within my reach: a civilized and normal life. A chance to come in from the wilderness. A chance to ‘grow up’, as my parents kept pressuring me to do. No more getting drunk and hurting myself. No more floating idly with the breeze. Just a steady, sensible, neat, ordinary existence.
Eventually we started making out and I ended up staying the night. The next morning we made love again before I headed to leave her so she could get started with her job. Of course, I didn’t have such responsibility and I walked out into the rain to begin the long walk back to my parents place. “Do you want a lift?” she asked as I headed out the door. I remembered how she always gave me a lift home in the past from her old place. I still hadn’t got my driving license after all these years, but this time I couldn’t allow her to drop me home. “No, don’t worry about it, “ I said. I then left her with a kiss before walking off into the rain (without my rain jacket, of course, which had been lost at the house-warming party).
When I got back to my parents, I packed my bags and began the journey back to Nottingham. It had been a strange old weekend and I just wanted to be back far away from my hometown. The train journey would be two hours and I spent that time staring out the window, my old pastime, wondering what was next for me in this purgatory state of living I had been experiencing. It had now been one year of living in this existential blur. No direction, no desire, no possibility to do what I wanted to do anymore. All the years were coming and going. I saw the younger kids buying houses and settling down. I saw past love flames still living a stable existence. Elsewhere friends were getting married or engaged, climbing career ladders, having babies. All those things which I still had no desire to do. My way of life was dead for the time being and I saw myself as just plodding along, acting as stupid and reckless as I had always done. Getting drunk and hurting myself; losing my belongings and breaking things; leading girls on I had no intention of forming a relationship with. Not much had changed over the last decade. I was a man trapped in time, repeating the same reckless behaviours I had always done. A couple of lines across the forehead showed the passage of time aging me, but other than that just the same old fool I had always been. Where to go from here? Who the hell knew. The lockdown of the world had left my brain in a frozen state and all I could do was stare into space and wait for something to appear to me in the greyness.
Locked away alone in my bedroom, in the middle of winter, with the wind and rain howling outside the window. I sat staring at the screen waiting for words to come. Nothing did. It had been this way for a while now – racking my brain and having nothing new to put down onto the page. It was frustrating, but what can a writer really do when their creative well-spring has run dry? You feel incomplete, almost sick in a way, but ultimately you know there simply is no way to force inspiration or emotion; it has to flow out of you naturally, like blood coming out from a wound. And the reason nothing was coming out was because everything had been drained dry. I had written down all my experience up until now, and I now needed to go out and experience life some more. However, the lockdowns of the country over the last year had made that somewhat difficult. I was now in a strange state of being: stuck in one place, unable to take a trip anywhere, unable to do anything of any real excitement. On the flip side to this, I had recently discovered something novel to me; a strange sort of peace and harmony. I was living undisturbed, eating and exercising well, as healthy as I’d ever been, but the confronting truth – as I had come to realise – was that deep down I needed the chaos and the adventure. I needed to go get lost, to struggle and to suffer, to elevate and overcome. I needed new pains and pleasures to be felt in my heart. Such existential turbulence was what I was born for, and the fact that my words ran dry when I hadn’t done it for a while was confirmation to me of that. Listening to the rain outside, I began to imagine myself back out on a new adventure, living life on some precarious edge. I imagined getting my heart broken again and new truths being discovered. I imagined pouring all those new emotions into new stories and poems – the wisdom of the wilderness being further explored as I resumed my chaotic journey through life. But there was nothing I could do. I was powerless. Locked down. Blocked. Simply existing and no longer living…
I wasn’t alone in this feeling, of course, and I thought of everyone else out there in the storm, also just existing and waiting for the world to go back to how it was before so we could all carry on with our lives. Maybe the conspiracy theorists were right; this was the end of normality as we knew it and it was all a part of some grand plan to control us all under a new globalist agenda. Maybe the government was right and things would be back to normal by the summer once people had been vaccinated. In reality, it was hard to know what to believe; getting to the complete truth of things with your own short-sighted perspective of such a complicated, global issue was an almost impossible task, and a part of me had mentally withdrawn myself from the whole mess altogether. I didn’t follow the news anymore; I didn’t debate about it with friends and family. I simply waited and waited, practicing contentment, meditating on my bed as the last years of my twenties drifted by in static silence.
I took solace in the fact that I had taken advantage of the preceding years when a man could go online and book a flight to almost any country in the world for the next day. Such a lifestyle seemed like it was a relic of a bygone age, even though it hadn’t even been a year since the first lockdown started. Now the feeling is almost becoming normal, and that’s what worries me the most. To live a life that is constantly on hold, blocked, and you become accepting of and adjusted to this new reality. But how many people like this lived their whole lives this way? Waiting constantly for life to begin? Fuck, maybe I was just getting sucked into it like the others. Maybe I should have taken the gaps in lockdown to move to another country, or take up a new hobby, or at least try something. Maybe I’m just on the downward slope to having this spark inside my soul snuffed out, and I’ll attribute it to old age or the lockdown, but really I’ll just be another person made complacent and incompetent by the world, wasting out his one existence on the shores of security, rather than going out and braving that storm. No creativity or imagination left. Rotting away. Blocked forever. Spiritually locked down forever.
Well at least I had some ideas about how I would get out living again, and some money in the bank to put those ideas into realisation once the travel bans were finally lifted. I was in contact with my French friend who had taken a risk to book a flight to Indonesia for April. He too was like me, itching to get out and do something, although he was being sent slightly more insane by the lockdowns than I was – drinking often, and losing his mind from being sex-starved. “Life is shit,” he said. “I need to go pub and to fuck some girl.” It was the type of pent-up sexual frustration that only a single man in a global pandemic could resonate with. He was urging me to book a flight too. It was tempting, although I felt April was most certainly too soon to escape this prison. I was also in communication with my Dutch friend who had gotten lucky to be in Australia during the pandemic, where things were currently running normally in most parts. He had been moving around the island of Tasmania, going on hikes, drinking in bars, meeting new people. The pictures arrived in my inbox. The other side of the world, in the summer sun, free to roam as he pleased as I stayed locked away in this small room with the winter winds howling against the window.
It’s a shit situation and there’s not a whole lot to do but write these words and carry on waiting for life to begin again. A part of me knows I’m gonna get back out there doing what I was born to do eventually, but I can’t for now; I am blocked, both physically and mentally. I’m just a man in a waiting room and seemingly out of words to say. But as the wind keeps howling outside, I can at least still feel that wilderness inside of me fighting to break out – out of this room, out of this winter, out of this insane situation society finds itself in. It will take me onto that first plane, travelling to some distant land, sharing drinks with strangers, embracing, hugging, kissing, dancing. It’s all out there beyond the rain clouds, beyond this crisis, and it’s going to come back to me, and I will soak in all those experiences and all those new truths and all those new words, and I will come back to you and share some stories and poems with you. Until then, I’ll be here, staring at these four walls, trapped, blocked, waiting for life to return. A prisoner of circumstance.
Breaking into Heaven: Another Glastonbury Break-In Story
I sat staring out the window of the train, watching the sun go down over the fields of Somerset. It was late June and it had been another beautiful summer day. The picturesque sight was also enjoyed by the other people in the carriage, all drinking cans of cider and excitedly discussing the prospect of the next few days. We were all on our way to Glastonbury music festival – the greatest festival in the world – and the atmosphere was something similar to being on Hogwart’s Express. I watched wide-eyed groups of friends talk about all the magical things they were going to do once they set up camp. Shangri-La. Arcadia. Getting high at Stone Circle. Sniffing ket on their mate’s forehead. As I listened to the excited revellers prepare for another tumble down the Glasto rabbit-hole, I couldn’t help but feel slightly sick in my stomach. Those people were making their way to the festival guaranteed of a great time, whereas I wasn’t. Not because I didn’t trust myself to have another epic Glastonbury experience, but for the slightly inconvenient fact that I didn’t have a ticket.
I didn’t have a ticket and I was heading to the festival anyway – on my own too (at least for now anyway). I was due to liaise with my partner in crime at Castle Cary train station, who was currently making his way there from the separate direction of London. Already we had taken a risk spending £70 on train tickets to get us to a place where we officially had no reason to be, but my friend had filled me with confidence over the previous week telling me how amazing it would be and that we could definitely pull it off – the great Glastonbury break-in.
Normally, of course, we would have tickets for the big event, but it was not to be this year and we couldn’t face the idea of not being there, especially when fifteen or so of our friends would be. We had been on the phone every evening discussing our break-in strategy and whether or not it was even possible at all. As seasoned Glasto-goers who had worked as stewards before, we naturally knew the task at hand was a substantial one. Since the introduction of the super fence, breaking into Glastonbury was a mission that was not out of place in a Metal Gear Solid game. There was a 14ft fence to scale, perimeter patrols, lookout towers, guard dogs, the most security out of any music festival in the world, and – as we were soon to find out – hostile farm animals. But we were men of faith and believed it could be done; the festival had found a special place in our hearts over the last years, and we knew the Glastonbury gods would shine their light on us and guide us safely into our spiritual home.
Our research over the last week had provided us with two leads. The first was a campsite supervisor – our man on the inside. He had been at the festival since the start of the week and had proven himself to be a reliable source of intel (he had even just sent us a video highlighting a specific weak spot in the fence where it was possible to break in). The second was a friend who was working on a festival stall and believed he had a way of sneaking us with the old pass-out/wristband trick, although this would be somewhat difficult now since they had added personalised codes to the pass-out cards. Aside from that we had received word of a drain tunnel that led into the south-east corner of the festival, and we also knew it could be possible to pay someone to sneak you into the festival in the back of a van. Failing all else, being two young guys in decent shape, we would simply make a run for it at the gates, although this was the mark of true desperation and I hoped it didn’t come to that (not that I fancied our odds against an army of radio-equipped security guards anyway).
Finally arriving at Castle Cary station, I got off the train to go meet my comrade who was waiting in the car park. We greeted each other, made sure both of us were mentally ready for the task ahead, and then headed to the bus stop. The festival was providing a free shuttle-bus to transport punters to the festival site and we – admittedly rather audaciously – were going to take advantage of it. We nervously got in line with everyone else carrying their tents, crates of beer and large backpacks, while we stood suspiciously empty-handed (our friends inside had some stuff for us, but for the sake of speed and agility, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to take much – in my small daypack were a few changes of underwear, two t-shirts, a pair of shorts, toiletries, a bottle of vodka, and a multi-pack of Twix chocolate bars – inspired from a previous Glastonbury break-in story which had served as a good source of inspiration).
We got on the bus and went and sat down at the back. At this point the first rushes of adrenaline started to surge through my body. We were now undercover and I looked around at everyone excitedly chatting about what they were going to do when they were inside the festival. The thought hit me how absolutely painful it would be to go through all of this and then not get in. For now, I brushed that thought aside as me and my comrade spoke in hushed tones about our strategy for when we arrived at the site, while also downing some vodka (Dutch courage was going to be a necessary aid throughout the night). At one point a steward got on the bus to brief everyone on what to do when they arrived, and we sat there praying to the Glastonbury gods that she would not come and ask to see our totally non-existent tickets.
The gods did their first work of the night and twenty minutes later we pulled into the bus and coach station outside Pedestrian Gate A. Exiting the bus, our eyes beheld the holy sight of Glastonbury festival. We saw the spotlights shoot up into the sky, the Glasto sign all lit up on the hill, the blasts of fire from Arcadia. We felt the bass reverberate through the ground and heard the roar of 175,000 people having the time of their lives. Yes, there it was in all its glory once again: the greatest party on the planet. Heaven on earth separated from us by a big fence and a bunch of burly security guards.
We had decided to get dropped at this part of the festival perimeter due to the strategy we’d devised. Our first point of attack was going to be the weak spot in the fence we had been tipped off about. This was on the outside of Bushy Ground and Rivermead camping. There was a small river that ran through the festival, and this provided a slight gap in the steel fence which was replaced by a scalable wooden fence. Our man on the inside had informed us that some people had successfully infiltrated the site this way the night before. Another reason was that there was a campervan campsite on this side and we had hypothesised that there would be less security on the gates around that end, although that was much just a hunch than anything. Well, we were men of faith after all.
We got away from the crowd queuing to enter and walked off down a path that would lead us to the nearby car park. This would be a good place to assess our strategy, and it was also next to the stream which led to the weak point in the super fence. Walking down the path, we could already see the regular patrols of security jeeps driving along the tracked road that ran alongside the fence perimetre. Aside from the patrol cars, there were also lone security guards walking around the outside of the car park. This was inconvenient for us as they were regularly walking along the spot where we would attempt our first attack on the fence. For now, we found a quiet spot in between some cars, ate some snacks, drank some more vodka, and prepared to switch into ninja mode. We also put on some wristbands that my friend had purchased off of eBay. Of course, they had nothing to do with Glastonbury 2019 (they were in fact from some random guy’s 40th birthday party entitled ‘FORTY-FEST’), but just having a wristband with similar colours to the current year’s one could potentially divert suspicious eyes away from us. On top of this, I also put on my old lanyard from when I had last worked at the festival, just to look a bit more official and, admittedly, give myself a false sense of security.
After we had scoped out the area and mentally switched into ninja mode, we got down on our knees and started creeping closer to the stream. By now the cover of darkness was upon us, allowing us to stay hidden in the shadows. Fortunately for us the weather had been great the week before the festival, so the ground was dry which was definitely going to be in our favour, especially if we had to run from the security guards (something that was almost certain to happen). We crawled on that hard ground, stealthily edging our way closer to the corner of the car park where we could slip into the treeline beside the stream. After fifteen or so minutes, we were in prime position. The super fence was in sight and we were near the exact point our man on the inside had marked on the map, although there was no sign of the scalable fence he had spoken of. We realised at this point that extra security had been assigned to the area following the break-ins the previous night, and we nervously watched security guards walk along the bridge over the stream with their torches. Already it was looking like mission impossible. There was no way to edge closer to the gap in the fence in plain sight, so our only option was to get down into the stream itself and hope the guards on the bridge didn’t look down and see us creeping through the water.
My friend went first, carefully climbing down the bank of the stream while holding onto some tree branches. It was at this point the foliage started working against us. Although it provided us with a degree of shelter, it also made us make more noise than any true ninja would hope to make. The sound of snapping twigs and rustling leaves could be heard, and it wasn’t long until one of the guards on the bridge above the stream was alerted by our movements.
“Did you hear that mate?” The sound of that sentence made us freeze. “I think there’s someone down there you know.” Right then me and my comrade threw ourselves to the ground, hiding in the bushes. Soon the torches were shining down on the stream of water, systematically scanning the area to search for the origin of the noise. We waited tentatively for a few minutes until the lights had gone. It was a close call and we realised we would have to actually get in the stream if we wanted to continue. My friend went to get into it, but slipped and splashed his foot in the water. This time the guards knew for certain something was up. Calls to go and check it out could be heard as a torchlight darted across the area like the eye of Sauron. Somehow they still hadn’t seen us, although it was clear they knew we were definitely there. It was at this point I looked behind me at the path through the treeline. I could envisage an angry security guard coming from behind me at any second. We would be cornered, captured, potentially beaten up, and then evicted twenty miles off site. Our mission would be in tatters after barely getting started. The tension began to build. The adrenaline shot through my body. It was fight or flight and I made the sudden decision to retreat. I told my comrade to abandon the mission as we scrambled up the bank and ran back to the car park to take shelter in between the cars. We sat there in the shadows once again, sheltering in the merciful darkness, safe from the security hunting us with their torchlights.
After catching our breath, we decided that our first point of attack on the fence was not going to work; there was simply too much security in the area to even get close to the infiltration point. We then got out the map and reassessed our strategy, along with drinking more vodka to calm the nerves. In the meanwhile we text our friends inside the festival who were out enjoying the Thursday night in Shangri-La. I looked up at those spotlights in the sky and dreamed what it would be like to be inside with them. I imagined chatting shit with total strangers around a fire in Stone Circle. I imagined wandering through the crowds of Block 9. I imagined the joy, the delight, the ecstasy, the magic. For now, we were two rats locked outside in the darkness, but we had hope in our hearts that we would soon scurry our way into heaven.
As mentioned, we had studied the map and decided that it might be easier to break in via the entrance of Campervans West. If we could get into the vehicle campsite itself, it was sure to have less security than any of the main pedestrian gates. The area we were heading towards was on the South West side of the festival, and although it didn’t look far from our current point on the map, it would prove to be a tempestuous journey navigating the succession of hedgerows, farm fields, country lanes, security patrols, and even a random glamping campsite that wasn’t on the map. We headed southward along the path before making our way into another car park. Back in ninja mode, we started weaving our way through the fields whilst on high alert for any security. By now the effect of the vodka could be felt and this – along with the high levels of adrenaline and the surrealness of the situation – made it feel like we really were in some sort of espionage movie. We would have to be careful with how much we consumed though, as we needed our senses to still be in good working order for the mission ahead. It was a delicate balance of Dutch courage and being concentrated/focused enough to make rational decisions.
After fumbling around some more through fields and hedges, we reached the outside of Pedestrian Gate D. We stopped to check the map, assess our progress, and check out all the scratches that were gradually accumulating on our legs. I thought we were relatively safe among the groups of people making their way into the festival, but it was at this point that our entire mission was suddenly thrown back into jeopardy. As my friend looked down at his phone to study the map, I saw a security guard approaching us with a dog. Immediately the adrenaline surged through my body once again. The enemy was present. My heart was beating fast as he arrived at our feet, shining his torch on our faces while his huge German Alsation sniffed us.
“Alright lads. Is it okay if I see your tickets or wristbands please?” It was in this moment that everything really was in the hands of the Glastonbury gods. There was nothing we could do. No place to run or darkness to retreat to. A suspicious security guard and his sniffer dog stood between us and Glastonbury 2019. Me and my friend looked at each other with a look of horror. “Sure mate,” we said, before slowly holding out our completely irrelevant wristbands. We stood still as he leaned over and shone the torch onto them. He looked at them for what felt like an eternity and at one point I had mentally resigned myself to being caught and captured. Our cover was blown; our mission had failed. But no. Wait a moment. He pulled back his torch and took a step back. “Cheers lads. You can never be too careful you know, when you see a couple of young lads just loitering about near the entrance.” We nervously laughed. “No worries mate, it’s fine. Have a good night!” We then walked off in a state of shock. Somehow the decoy wristband had worked. Some random stranger’s birthday party had saved us from capture. It was the closest of all calls, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether he actually realised they weren’t fake wristbands. Maybe he just couldn’t be bothered with the aggro of evicting us. It was hard to say what had happened exactly, but by this point we were sure the Glastonbury gods were well and truly on our side. We regained our composure, had some more vodka, then kept marching southward to Campervans West. The sounds of Glastonbury continued to roar out into the valley and there was still some hope yet.
After making our way past Pedestrian Gate D, we found ourselves besides a glamping campsite. It was closed off by a mesh steel fence, but we quickly managed to scale it and make our way inside. It was a nice relief from creeping through the darkness, and we spent some time there to use the luxury toilet facilities and regain energy with a few snacks, including a Twix – the essential fuel for any great Glasto break-in. We then followed the campsite around to the furthest southward point where we hopped another fence to get back out into the farmland. We were now creeping across a field, watching those spotlights and lasers of Glastonbury shoot up into the night sky. We could hear the DJ sets from Arcadia, the fireworks of stone circle, and the continual roar of those 175,000 people having the time of their lives. It was a beautiful and painful sound that made so many great Glasto memories come flooding back. My wistful daydreaming was interrupted when a few horses – who obviously weren’t used to strange men creeping across their field in the middle of the night – came and challenged us. They walked intimidatingly towards us, warning us away with aggressive neighing noises. There was a house nearby and we feared the horses would alert the owners, so me and my comrade quickly made our way over the field to get back onto the road that led to Campervans West.
Out on that road we were now walking in a place that no punter had any reason to be. We were far from any pedestrian gates and the only way to deal with this situation was to walk with confidence and purpose like we were working there. I made sure my outdated lanyard was visible as we headed closer to the campervan field. Soon we reached the fence of the campsite which, thankfully, was a lot more scalable than the super fence. We got off the road to slip behind a treeline that ran beside the fence, edging our way along the perimeter to see if we could find somewhere to climb over. We eventually found a spot where a support beam could help us get up. It was silent around us and we figured no one was around, but just to be sure my comrade quietly hopped onto the beam to survey the area. He poked his head over and then quietly climbed back down with a concerned look. He whispered to me that there was a security guard right on the other side of the fence. This point was a no-go and we would have to move on carefully to find another spot. I agreed. My comrade then hopped a steel gate back out onto the road and it was at that moment all hell broke loose. There was a parked car on the other side of the road which appeared to have no-one in it. How wrong we were. Just as my friend stumbled out onto the road, the doors swung open and an angry voice shouted out. “Oi you! What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Shit. We had been spotted. Two security guards jumped out the car as my friend fled into a nearby field. I watched him run off into the darkness as the angry guards followed in hot pursuit. I wasn’t sure if they had seen me so I ran quickly back along the treeline to find another spot to get back out onto the road. At this point there was nothing I could do to help my friend and I stood there on the road, catching my breath, unsure of what to do next. Suddenly I heard footsteps rapidly approaching from the road ahead. I was about to run when my friend came bolting out of darkness. He had managed to somehow circle the guards. “Run!” he told me. And off we sprinted down the road like a couple of madmen. A few seconds later I heard bangs on the road behind me. Foolishly, I had forgotten to fully zip-up my bag after my last drink, and my few items for the festival had fallen out. My vodka: gone. My t-shirts: gone. My Twixes: gone. My inventory was now severely depleted and I considered going back to collect them, but no. It was too risky. They were casualties of war beyond saving and we carried on running until we felt safe. It was then that another threat came our way. Two stewards were heading our way on the road ahead. It was time to go back undercover and I held my head up high, made sure my outdated lanyard was visible, and then gave them a friendly hello as we passed by undetected. It was another close call and at this point the adrenaline was surging rapidly through the veins. Thankfully we found a dark field we could get onto to relax and regain our composure. The field led up to the fence of the Campervans West and also along the mighty super fence itself. It was sheltered too, far from the road and any security checkpoints. It was probably the most advantageous spot we had reached yet, although how we were going to get in was still a mystery only the Glastonbury gods could help us with. But still, they had looked after us so far and we had faith that a divine intervention was soon to come…
We moved across the field, encroaching closer to the festival site. We stayed to the side partly to avoid the herd of cows in the centre of the field, and also to avoid any torchlights from the security on the nearby road who would now be searching for us. Those security patrols could soon be seen in the distance, searching the treeline beside the road. They were looking in the wrong place and I felt a sense of relief that we were now somewhere they were unlikely to find us. The super fence and the Campervans West fence were in sight with very seemingly little between us.
After crossing the first field and avoiding any more encounters with aggressive farm animals, we emerged onto a second field of wheat. This field ran all the way up to the super fence itself. The downside was that a distant floodlight was illuminating the whole field, and there was also a manned guard tower beside it. We would have to keep low so that our shadows couldn’t be seen by the watchman. We got back down on our knees and started crawling up the field, hiding ourselves among the wheat. The ground was rock hard and jagged bits of mud made our journey a painful one. By this point my legs were covered with cuts and tiredness was creeping in; I had also lost all my alcohol and I soon faced the daunting prospect of facing the grueling mission sober. Still, we were in too deep now and there was no turning back. At this point we could practically feel the heat of the fire from Arcadia and taste that first Brother’s cider.
We reached the top of the field where another hedgerow separated us from the fence of Campervans West. It was still our plan to climb into there, but first we thought we would sneak up to the super fence itself to see if there was a more direct way into the festival site. We followed the hedge-line up the field, which gave us shelter from the floodlight and the guard tower. The tracked road that ran all along the super fence was still there though, and every five minutes a security jeep drove past casting their torchlights into the bushes. Extreme caution was needed. We carried on and reached the bushes just before the super fence. It was probably the closest to the actual festival we had been in of the night; right on the other side of that fence was Bailey’s campground. Just twenty or so metres separated us from all the fucked-up revellers making their way back to their tents after a hard night of partying. Every now and then, we could even make out the drunken voices and the faint sound of laughing gas canisters. Still, the super fence stood in the way of such heavenly delights and we looked up to it as if it was Mount Everest. We had considered purchasing and bringing a telescopic ladder with us, but decided against it. Almost certainly we wouldn’t have made it far carting such a conspicuous piece of equipment around (no doubt it would have been slightly difficult to explain that one to the suspicious guard and his sniffer dog).
Seeing no way to scale the super fence, we decided to head back along the hedgerow to find a gap where we could get through and climb into Campervans West instead. We reached a treeline at the end of the hedge that ran down in a ditch and crawled down into it. The area was shrouded in darkness but we managed to get through the bushes, accumulating a few more scratches along the way. We could see a gap out of the foliage where we would be able to make another attempt at climbing into the vehicle campsite. But then we saw something that stopped us in our tracks. It was a dark, ominous figure beside the fence. It was hard to tell completely – and we weren’t sure if our tired minds were playing tricks on us – but it looked almost like the silhouette of a guard sat in a chair. We kept staring at it, looking for some movement, trying to ascertain whether or not it was a person. But the visibility was too bad. We had joked about bringing night vision goggles and at this point they were exactly what we needed. It was then that we could hear the sound of voices. Multiple voices could be heard coming towards us from the fence. We feared the worst. Then, to our horror, we started to hear noises from behind us too! Shit. We had been compromised. And we were cornered. Two parties approached us from both directions as we lay trapped in the ditch. The end of our mission was once again on the horizon, and a part of ourselves had resigned ourselves to our fate of finally being captured. The Glasto gods had been good to us through the night, but there was no way out of this one. The gig was finally up.
It was then that something strange happened. We heard a bang on the fence in the front of us. Then we watched in disbelief as a few figures scrambled over it and started creeping towards the bushes where we were hiding. The sound of scouse accents could be heard whispering and we watched as they started climbing down into the ditch beside us. By now it was apparent that they weren’t guards, but fellow ninjas. We breathed a huge sigh of relief and greeted our new comrades. We warned them that we also heard noises behind us, and we made our way back cautiously to the field to find a random guy standing there. “Alright lads,” he said, again in a scouse accent. It was another ninja trying to break in. Somehow, after seeing no one else trying to break in all night, we had ended up in the middle of two groups of scousers attempting the same mission. We stopped to share intel and information. The guys who had climbed over the Campervan West fence informed us that it was too difficult to break in that way – hence why they had climbed back out – but the other guy gave us some much more promising news…
“Me and my mates found a piece of scaffolding beside the super fence. It’s too heavy for us to lift it, but if you boys fancy giving us a hand, I reckon we can do it.” Suddenly our prayers had been answered. In the space of a few minutes we had gone from being down in a dark ditch with our mission on the brink of complete failure, to now having a band of brothers and a direct way to storm the super fence together. Hope had been rekindled; our mission now stood a chance of success. Glastonbury 2019 was back on. We headed back down the field towards the super fence where suddenly three or four more scousers popped up out of the wheat, ready for action. Me and my friend had to laugh. Before the night, he had made a Microsoft Word document detailing possible ways to break in. Right at the bottom of that list of bullet-points was the word: ‘scousers….?’. My friend had foreseen this happening, and with our new Liverpudlian friends, there were now ten of us in total. We had strength in numbers and it was time to make an assault on the super fence. It was time to break into heaven.
It had been a long night and by now the first light of dawn was upon us. With daylight extinguishing the darkness, our presence was much more obvious to any patrolling security guards. Fortunately, the guard patrols had slowed down, and it had been a good ten minutes before the last jeep had driven past on the tracked road beside the super fence. The guy who had told us about the scaffolding led us over to it while telling stories of how he had broken into the festival multiple times. It filled us with hope to know we were with a seasoned veteran who had successfully completed this daring operation before. We then reached the spot where the steel scaffolding was lying on the grass, just a few metres from the super fence. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly, but it appeared to be the underside of a stage, or a piece of farming equipment. Whatever it was, there was no way that five, six, even seven strong guys could lift it. But now, by some miracle, there were ten of us; with just enough strength and manpower to prop it up against the fence. How three separate groups of people had met in this exact spot with this exact piece of equipment just lying there was clearly the divine intervention we had asked the Glastonbury gods for. Our faith had been rewarded and at this point it seemed there was no way we could fail.
Of course, lifting such a bulky piece of equipment and placing it against the steel fence was going to cause a lot of noise, and we estimated we only had a minute or so to get over before the guards were all over us. There were stewards about seventy metres down the fence that would radio it in straight away. This would mean that security would be pursuing us from both inside and outside the super fence. There was no room for hesitation and we would have to act as swiftly as possible. We mentally prepared ourselves then each went to grab a part of the steel frame. We took a deep breath and then lifted it. Even with ten of us it was a struggle, and we scraped it noisily across the tracked road outside the fence. There was no time to look if anyone had responded to the noise; we just kept dragging and heaving it with all our might. “Go, go, go!” someone shouted. “Come on lads!” shouted another. “Okay now lift it up from this end and lean it against the fence!” We turned it around, grabbed the short side of the frame and pushed it up vertically against the 14ft super fence. A huge bang of steel on steel rang out. Thirty seconds had passed and by now security would have surely been alerted. The adrenaline was now at cardiac arrest levels as everyone started scrambling frantically up the steel frame. I was one of the last ones to get onto it and I watched as my comrades at the top jumped over. I couldn’t quite believe what was actually happening. I then reached the top myself and took my first look over the mighty fence. It was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. There it was: a sea of multi-coloured tents running to the horizon. The pyramid stage in the distance. Glastonbury festival sprawled out before me. It was really there, heaven on earth, right within my reach.
I threw my body over the fence, found a support beam to slide down onto, then jumped down onto the grass. I was then faced with a smaller mesh steel fence to scale. I quickly scrambled over it and I was in! The site had been infiltrated. I stood beside a bunch of tents with some shocked campers staring at us in utter disbelief at the chaotic scene they were witnessing (one even looked like he thought he was having a bad trip). By now the guards in the towers on the inside would have seen ten guys climbing the fence, and there would be security hot on pursuit. Fortunately for us, there was a sea of tents to disperse into and we all shot off into the campsite in separate directions. I ran like there was no tomorrow, jumping over the tent poles with enough adrenaline to run across the whole site. Half-way into the field, I bumped into my friend and another one of the scousers. We carried on running until we were on the pathway of Bailey’s campsite where we started walking at a relaxed pace to blend in with the crowd. We kept walking further into the festival while looking nervously over our shoulders. But no. No one was chasing us. No one at all. And then it hit us. We had done it. We had only gone and actually done it. After a whole night of pain and stress and feeling like hunted rats, we had broken into Glastonbury festival.
My comrade phoned our friends to inform them of our success, and the other scouse guy did the same. He was a young guy, around eighteen at his first Glastonbury. We wished him a good festival as he wandered off wide-eyed into the magical wonderland of Glasto. Me and my friend then gave each other a hug and congratulated each other on the successful completion of our mission. We were completely wired at this point, on top of the world, in absolute heaven. Unfortunately it had now gone 4am and all our friends had just gone to sleep. We would have to wait a few more hours until the real partying could begin. So we headed over to our friend’s campsite, got down into the porch of a tent, completely unable to sleep with adrenaline overload, but happy to be back once again in our spiritual home for another magical Glastonbury weekend. And after everything we had just been through, what a weekend it was going to be…
I sat alone in the darkness drinking rum. A power cut was a good enough excuse to finish off the emergency bottle I had stashed away. The remaining battery on my laptop was offering a little light for my room, and I stared at the shadow of my desk against the wall, listening to the winter wind howl against the window. A storm had been battering the country for a couple of days now, and this – alongside the national lockdown of the coronavirus – had left me feeling like I was living in some post-apocalyptic nightmare. Right now was perhaps the moment when the absurdity of the situation had peaked. I should have been somewhere else, living my one life, making the most of the last year of my twenties; instead I was imprisoned in a room of darkness, watching my youth disappear with absolutely nothing else to do but get drunk and stare into space. I couldn’t go around a friend’s house. I couldn’t go to the local pub. I couldn’t even go for a walk along the nearby river as it had recently flooded from the non-stop rain. It was a moment in time when life had just gotten so ridiculous I didn’t even know what to think or do anymore, so I just carried on sitting there in silence, drinking rum straight from the bottle, completely paralysed by the reality of the situation.
Like many people, I was frustrated and suspicious about what was actually going on with the pandemic, but at this point trying to have an informed viewpoint on the whole thing was a tiring affair. It had been almost a year since the initial outbreak, and it was hard to know what to think anymore when there was so much conflicting information out there, the media constantly creating hysteria, and everyone shouting their own viewpoint as if you were in some sort of football match. On one side you had the ‘sheep’ – the people who devoutly followed what the government said, lived in fear of the virus, and saw nothing suspicious about the whole thing. On the other side you had the ‘conspiracy theorists’ – those who questioned the rationale of the lockdown, pointed out that the statistics were being manipulated, and that there were hidden agendas at play. I researched and contemplated what I could, but it eventually got to the point where I started to question my own sanity and morality, so I had decided to just mentally detach myself from the whole thing. Maybe that was what they wanted.
Not having a job during the lockdown left me with nothing but free time, and I spent my days in a zombie-like state, daydreaming and mindlessly browsing the internet. Normally I would have used the situation at hand to get some writing done, but very little writing had been done over the last couple of months. Like the house, the power was just not there within me. That creative force that had once surged through me was dwindling, and I listened to the raindrops outside as if they were the sound of my soul being slowly bled dry. Perhaps a part of me was actually dying, I considered. This lockdown had me in some sort of spiritual prison, and looking into the mirror my eyes seemed a little dimmer than usual. Something was definitely missing inside of me, reflected by my writer’s block, and I knew I needed to do something soon to stop it from disappearing for good. But what could I do? Where could I go? How could I keep my inner flame burning in a world of rain and darkness and nothingness?
Of course, it wasn’t just me struggling in some way with the situation. I had one friend, a bar manager, who hadn’t been into work for months and was surviving off what would be half of his usual paycheck. He stayed at home all day smoking weed, playing computer games, putting on all the weight he had worked hard to shift in the time before the pandemic. Down in London I had another friend who had just been made redundant, stuck in a house-share with people he no longer liked, spending his savings on simply surviving while also struggling from a variety of health issues. Back in my hometown was a guy who had saved up to go on a big world travel trip before he turned 30; with that trip not looking like it was going to happen anytime soon, he sat at home every evening drinking heavily, complaining that his hair was going grey and that his trip was never going to happen. All in all it was a total shitshow, and one couldn’t help but wonder when everyone was going to crack and start rioting, like they had started doing on the streets of France and The Netherlands.
I didn’t expect that to be any time soon; us British were too polite for things like that. We bottled up our frustration and instead sat in rooms of darkness, drinking our pain away, complaining about the world but never actually doing anything about it. I was no different and, in a sense of helplessness, I got out my phone and downloaded the dating apps to try and force some excitement into my life. In a time where excitement was practically illegal, you had to do whatever you could to get some, and the idea that you might meet up and have sex with some stranger on the internet was about as thrilling as things got.
Scrolling and swiping through the sea of faces, it was always good to know that there were women out there looking for companionship; looking for someone perhaps like you. Of course, the majority of matches didn’t result in conversation, and even the ones which did usually died out after a few messages. Most talk was about lockdown, about how shit life currently was, and how you were only on the app out of sheer boredom. Naturally you tried to push the idea of meeting up for a bit of fun, but most girls weren’t into that. They wanted socially-distanced walks in the park and constant messaging to eventually see where things went after lockdown was over. It was a tedious affair, and I was quickly reminded why I had downloaded and deleted the app so many times already. I put it away and carried on drinking my bottle of rum, which was now down to the final quarter, reflected by me starting to feel my head spin.
It was then that an almighty bit of luck came my way. Like a holy bolt of lightning had struck, I got a message off a girl I knew. She was a twenty-year-old Spanish nurse who had been living back in Spain, but had just arrived back in the U.K for her studies. We had hooked up the previous summer and she was now inviting me around her new place to “watch a movie and chill”. Of course, by doing that I would be breaking the rules, but as a single man who hadn’t been laid in five months, I had no choice but to answer nature’s call. I finished off the bottle before heading down to the garage and grab my bike. Finally, some action was on the horizon.
I took to the road and started pedaling like a madman through the storm. Her place was on the other side of town, so I cycled as fast as I could, weaving my way through the deserted streets and alleyways, battling the wind and rain which almost seemed to be trying to stop me from reaching my destination. My willpower prevailed and after twenty minutes I arrived at her place soaked and exhausted. Unfortunately I couldn’t just knock on the door; there were two other students living in the building unaware of me coming over, so she would have to stealthily sneak me in. I locked my bike up against a streetlamp and used the last of my phone battery to announce my arrival.
She came to the door and immediately dragged me toward her room. “You have to be quiet,” she said, leading the way. “There is a girl in the room above us. I’ve told her I’m video-calling people, but if she hears your voice she might get suspicious.” I entered her bedroom, took off my rain jacket, and used a towel to dry myself. We then sat on the bed and started catching up about our lives over the last few miserable months. We were talking in hushed tones for about ten minutes until there was a sudden knock on the door. “Hey Eliana, are you there?” It was the girl from upstairs. My friend then quickly dragged me into the walk-in wardrobe and told me to be silent. I stood there in the dark listening to her and her housemate chat away, feeling like I was taking part in an act of infidelity. It was already the most excitement I had experienced in months.
After she had gotten rid of her, I came back out quietly laughing at how ridiculous life was at that moment. My friend then got out the alcohol: a bottle of red wine and another bottle of rum. We poured ourselves some drinks, chose a movie to watch, and got cosy in bed. Lying there it felt strange to be so close to another person; to lay entwined limb to limb, almost as if things were normal again – almost as if human interaction was actually legal.
“How are you dealing with the lockdown she asked?”
“Oh you know, same as everyone else I guess. Doing whatever I can to not go completely insane. It didn’t help that my house had a power-cut today.”
“Yeah, I can imagine. Well, I was thinking we could at least do something fun tonight…” My excitement level suddenly increased. “I’ve got some pills of 2C-B that my old housemate left me, and I thought we could maybe take it together. It’s like a mix of ecstasy and acid, but the psychedelic effects aren’t too strong, and the high only lasts a couple of hours.” I sipped my drink and thought about it. Well, I had never taken any psychedelic drugs before, and it had been on my to-do list for a few years now. And distorting my consciousness with Class-A drugs would be a nice change from the current depressing reality of life.
“Sure,” I said.
Next thing I know, she has her little bag of drugs out on the desk, measuring out a couple of pills of 2C-B. There were also a couple of tabs of acid which we decided not to use.
“There you go,” she said, handing me half a pink pill with a batman logo on it. “I think this is a good enough amount to take for your first time, and if you don’t feel high enough, there’s another pill we can crush up and snort later.” I looked down at the pill then grabbed my glass of wine to gulp it down. She did the same, and then we went back to watching the movie while waiting for the effects to kick in.
It was about an hour or so later when my peripheral vision started to become wavy. The curtains of the bedroom looked like strands of wheat blowing in the wind, and a little crack in the ceiling looked like the whole reality of the space-time continuum being ripped open. “Can you feel it yet?” she asked. I told her what I was experiencing as we started laughing, pouring more drinks, talking absolute rubbish; no longer in hushed tones. I then went to the toilet where I sat down and looked at a bag full of clothes in the corner of the room. On top of the clothes was a grey fleece which had assumed the shape of a baby elephant all cuddled up in the womb of the bag. I could see its face, its eyes, its trunk, its legs. It stared at me for a while and then suddenly blinked. It was at this point I decided that I was hallucinating for the very first time. At least I hoped so, anyway.
I returned to the room to find Eliana dancing to some Latin music. It was clear by then the movie wasn’t going to be finished. She kept telling me how much energy she had that she needed to use in some way. I was going to suggest that she used it through the act of sexual intercourse, but before I could utter my thoughtful suggestion she was putting on her shoes and telling me that we needed to take a walk around the neighbourhood. I wasn’t too keen to go back outside but obliged her request.
Out on the streets, the storm had quietened down and there were even a few stars visible in the night sky. The temperature was now well below freezing though, and the ground was covered in a thick, glittering frost. The glints of ice on the grass and bushes looked like a starry universe itself, and we walked around like children marvelling at the world around us. The streets were eerily silent and we talked about what it would be like when things went back to normal; if they would ever go back to normal. For that moment, it didn’t really matter though as I felt the high in my veins and saw the world through a magical new lens. In a way it felt weird to feel some form of fun being experienced again, almost as if my body had almost forgotten what it was.
We eventually returned to the room to finish the rest of our drinks and climb into bed. It took about ten minutes of cuddling until we started having sex. I’m not sure how long we went for, but it felt like hours, and god how I needed it after all that time locked up alone in my room. It did make me wonder how actual prisoners in jail fared on their life sentences. Suddenly the soap in the shower scenarios began to make sense.
The next morning we had some more sex before I grabbed my stuff and quietly left. I had barely slept and was in a strange state of mind from the tiredness and the comedown. By now it was snowing instead of raining, and I brushed my bike seat clear of snow to begin my battle back home. Cycling through the white stuff beside the flooded river, I had to think how much life felt like some sort of disaster movie. Truly, it had been one of the worst winters on record with the grim weather reflecting the mood of society. Storms, floods, snow, the sun barely making an appearance through the constant dark clouds. It really felt like the end of days. But at least I had had some sort of life last night, which helped my spirit as I tried to keep my eyes open while cycling through the slippery roads.
Back alone again in my room, I sat down on my bed and tried to warm my hands up. They were shaking from the cold and I lay paralysed under the sheets, waiting for life to return to them again. I was also completely exhausted, yet somehow unable to sleep. There were some leftover Christmas chocolates on the table and I smashed them down, trying to get some energy back into my body. By now at least the power in the house had been sorted and I was able to charge my phone again.
I turned it on and started mindlessly scrolling through social media once more. It was then that I got another message off Eliana. “So I still have those tabs of acid left….” Jesus, for such an innocent-looking person, this girl was really wild. I looked around my room and thought about how to reply. It would be another day of staring at walls, existing like some sort of house plant, waiting for the world to go back to normal while another day of my youth died and disappeared forever. Well, maybe I was a bad guy for breaking all the rules, but at this point I didn’t care. I texted back and told her I would be back over in the evening. I then tried to sleep and I couldn’t. I then tried to write and I couldn’t. There was nothing left to do: no job to work, no project to work on, no life to live. There was no choice but to go back to hers, take some more drugs and hope that whatever life in me would still be there when this winter had subsided, and the light of spring had returned.
It was a world of hurting people. No doubt about it. Forget the fairytales and the happy-ever-after stuff they tell you when you’re a kid – this life broke so many people down and left them struggling to go on. Out there I’ve seen people without hope; without any desire to live in their eyes. I’ve seen people who have had all the light and love kicked out of them. Sometimes that person was the one in the mirror’s reflection, sometimes it was a friend, sometimes a stranger on the street. When you have been down at the very bottom, you feel as if you have this sixth sense that can detect whenever another is dwelling in that darkness. You don’t know what it is specifically, but it’s just there in a person’s aura. And as my friend sat there talking to me that evening, I could sense it again. He had been acting irregularly for a long time now. And avoiding friends, a sunken look in his eye, weight gain and drinking heavily. It was evident to me: that same state of being that had consumed me in the past. I wanted to ask him if he was okay, but I couldn’t find it within me to just ask straight to the point. Instead, I asked how he was doing – some casual conversation to try and make him open up. He answered in an ordinary manner. God, maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was fine after all? But I thought of the girl I had spoken to just a few weeks before her suicide the previous year. Others that had seemed fine and had suffered in silence before meeting their ends. Why was the world like this? Why was it so hard to open ourselves up? And why did I constantly feel it within me to try and help people, when often it was me who needed help myself?
A girl I was speaking to told me I was a healer of some kind. Maybe she was right. It seemed that I was always looking to help a wounded soul. I stood ready with words of encouragement and enough enthusiasm to drag them through hell myself. It was an innate urge that I just couldn’t suppress. I was riddled with problems of my own, but the thought of helping a broken soul immediately spurred me into action. And there were so many out there in the world to help: the depressed, the lonely, the anxious, the broken, the lost. I guess in a way it did make sense why I felt the desire to alleviate other’s pain. When you know what it’s like to feel a certain way, the thought that there are others out there feeling that same way is troubling, so naturally you look to just make their existence a little easier. I think this is ultimately what led me to writing. There was a time when the words of others helped me to go on living when everything seemed hopeless, and I knew the life-affirming power a few sentences could yield. A part of me wanted to give people what those writers had given to me, and I guess that was one of the reasons that led me to sharing my heart with others. I wrote my words down and sent them out into the world to see if they had any value to people out there. To my surprise, it seemed that they did, and over time I received messages from others saying how it had given them strength and reminded them that they weren’t alone or crazy. Reading those messages was like spiritual heroin to me, and it made me feel like I was doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do. An existential desire had been fulfilled and it was the start of a continual need to keep offering pieces of my heart to the world.
Over time I came to meet similar people to me: people who had made it through some dark times, and now possessed a specific knowledge of the human soul, as well as an innate desire to help cure others. It soon became clear to me that certain people in this world exist as healers, and most of the time they don’t even know it. Not all healers are doctors or nurses. Sometimes it’s that friend with the reassuring comment; it’s that person making you feel safe enough to share your secrets. It’s the musician you listen to, the writer you read, the postman smiling to you as he delivers your mail. In a world of secretly hurting people, naturally it happens that a few of those people exist to lift people’s spirits and illuminate the darkness in which so many dwell. Without those types of people filtered, humanity would suffer from a great sickness which would spiral out of control. But in an ironic fashion, it just so happens that these healers happen to be in desperate need of healing themselves. A classic example was the comedy actor Robin Williams – the lovable star of family movies that had persevered all his life to put smiles on people’s faces. He eventually committed suicide after a life-long battle with depression to which most people were unaware. Such a fate was a shining example of how people in the darkness try to stop others from sharing that darkness with them. It reminded me of a joke the comic book Watchmen: “Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. And says, “But doctor…I am Pagliacci…”
Indeed it’s a strange situation that the healers of this world are usually some of the most hurt individuals themselves. All those artists losing their minds while giving so many people the fuel they needed to go on. All those everyday people doing charity work and helping friends out even though they suffer from anxiety and depression. It seems that some people have a deep desire to sacrifice themselves for the aid of others. And I think I feel it inside too: this unwavering desire to lead others through the storm; to keep sharing my heart with the world no matter how much it takes out of me. Although this gives me a deep fulfilment, I guess I should try to pay more attention to myself sometimes. But ultimately this desire is paramount to my own health and happiness. Maybe it will cost me in the end, but in a world of hurting people, it seems throwing pieces of myself onto the fire to help illuminate the darkness makes more sense than anything else I ever knew.
“The day had come and gone, and there we sat at the end of the jetty, facing out into the sunset lake. We had only met just a few hours ago and now she was telling me things she had probably never told anyone. She told me deepest secrets, her fears, her hopes, her pains, her joys, her struggles. All of this to me: a random stranger from the bar. Back home people had their defences up; we were all standing upon society’s stage and playing whatever role it was we were supposed to play to be accepted. But there was a certain magic when you crossed paths with a stranger out on the road. Having just met and safe in the knowledge that you were probably never going to see each other again, there was no pretence or image to keep up. The masks were off and everything could be laid bare.
As the sun set below the horizon and the secrets spilled out upon the water, it made me think about how different the world would be if we all just shared what was really going on beneath the surface. So many people have undoubtedly carried the contents of their souls into the abyss without letting them ever see the light of life. One could despair for all the things that were never done and said because we were too afraid to deviate from the social script and say what we really felt. All the adventures that were never pursued, all the works of art that were never realised, all the friendships and loves that never blossomed – all because of the fear of exposing our true selves to the world. Even for the people closest to you, it would often take years and decades to unlock the vault of the soul; but get a random stranger alone for a few isolated moments in a foreign country and suddenly the secret combination is found.
As we both carried on talking about life into the night, I realised that there was something incredibly valuable about these brief and bittersweet encounters on the road. Most of us have treasure inside our chests that we want to show the world, it’s only when we feel free that the locks slip loose and the gold inside shimmers bright and brilliant under the stars.”
(Taken from my book The Thoughts from The Wild – available worldwide via Amazon)