short stories

~ Finding A Mating Partner In The Modern World ~

(an extract from my upcoming book ‘Alien Nation: The Notes of An Outsider‘)

internet dating

~ Finding A Mating Partner In The Modern World ~

I lay alone on my bed, scrolling on my phone. It was a simple flick of the finger left or right. After all the centuries, this was what human evolution had brought us to. The mating process was no longer done out on the plains of life, impressing the opposite sex with a dance or song – now it was a simple matter of carefully selecting and uploading some edited, filtered photos of yourself and hoping some fellow bored person in the local area would swipe right on their smartphone. It was a process I found absurd and downright detestable, but the boredom and monotony of everyday life had ground me down too, so there I was: scrolling, scanning and searching for something I knew wasn’t there, but curiously allowing myself to engage in the motions of modern-day dating for some sort of cheap giddy thrill. I guess a part of me did enjoy the simplicity of it; I had gotten tired of all the standing around on dark nightclub dancefloors hoping some girl would come drunkenly stumbling into my life through a hazy blur of neon lights and insufferable pop music. I no longer felt the attraction to drink myself into oblivion before staggering home alone and waking up with nothing but a hangover and looming sense of existential dread that filled every crack, corner and crevice of my lonely lair of residence.

Instead, I now lay there in that room of isolation and continued swiping on my phone. I looked at the profile of each girl that arrived onto my screen. There was a general mass of girls – all with those office job titles, nice makeup, dresses and bios saying they loved Chinese takeaways, Netflix, G&Ts and ‘a bit of banter’ – the sort of girl that would have one conversation with me and dismiss me as a madman. I had once heard a friend refer to the generic type of guy as a ‘Fifa default 1’ (a reference to a virtually-generated and standardised person on a computer game) and I couldn’t help but feel the same when sifting through the girls that arrived on my screen. Tens of thousands of women around me in close proximity, yet the vast majority were like clones of some type produced by the effects of modern media and advertising. Two decades of reality TV shows had turned a high proportion of British women into clones with strenuous pouts, excessive make-up and desires for men straight out of an episode of ‘Love Island’. Where were the women out there for me? The women with some eccentricity and individuality? The women who hadn’t been corrupted by their looks or how many likes they got on Instagram? No doubt many of them would never go near these apps, but still, I thought I’d swipe right and hurl myself into the mess and madness of modern-day dating. A man had to try his luck, right?

The mindless swiping carried on until I eventually started to get some matches. Some matches didn’t result in a conversation. Some conversations kicked off and ended quite suddenly. Sometimes it was ten or twenty minutes of small-talk before the other person found someone else to talk to. After a while I got chatting to one girl about hiking after she had seen one of my profile pictures of me in the Himalayas. Naturally I got excited by our mutual interest and let myself type away frantically. I entered a verbose wall of text about my hiking trips before asking her what hikes she had done and which ones she wanted to do in the future. Suddenly seeing how overly keen I was to chat with her, I was swiftly dismissed. No more replies came my way. Turns out she wasn’t too interested in hiking after all. 

I dusted myself off and persevered onward through the virtual wilderness of filtered photos, generic bios and forced conversations. I tried to work out the general script you were supposed to work through when initiating a mating request, but the rules of the modern dating game were confusing and complex. Human interaction could have been so simple, yet there were all these random hurdles and hoops to jump through to arrive at having a chance to connect with another member of the opposite sex. Just to even have a shot you had to fit all the categories of being attractive, funny, charming, keen (but not too keen), as well as having the usual social checklist items of a career, a car, a place of your own and a whole load of other things which I naturally didn’t have. Beyond that there was another set of unspoken rules which I didn’t totally understand. Altogether it was a massive drain of time and I started to wish that I could take myself to the vet and get the snip. Having this ingrained desire within you to find a mating partner seemingly only caused you a life of pain, heartache and confusion. The sheer amount of effort required just to get laid was obscene. The thought hit me that perhaps I could use my energy and time in a more productive way. Volunteer at a charity? Learn to play an instrument? Build a spaceship and escape this forsaken planet once and for all? It was a nice thought but in the end the reproductive urges ingrained in me from millions of years of evolution were too strong. I picked up my phone and carried on flicking through the profiles…

After a few more matches that went nowhere, I gave up on Tinder and migrated to the app of Bumble. Bumble was different in the fact that it was the woman who always had to send a message first to get the conversation started. Naturally this helped a little knowing that the girl was interested enough to go as far as put her pride aside and contact you first. Suddenly the hunted had become the hunter. Besides that, the demographic was different in that it was filled with girls who were a bit more serious about finding an actual partner, rather than the ego boost of Tinder which was full of girls who didn’t really want to talk, but just scroll through the long list of men that wanted to bang them. 

The swiping continued and eventually I got speaking with some girl called Rosie. She was undoubtedly pretty and seemed like a genuinely nice person. Observing more of her profile and speaking to her, it quickly became apparent she was a regular accepted member of the human race with a steady career, a house and – unfortunately (from my perspective) – a child. She said she wanted to see if there was any ‘chemistry’ between us. I was now twenty-seven years through my life and the human-beings I had met that I had any real chemistry with I could count on one hand. The odds were thin I realised, but I arranged the date anyway. I knew she was an extrovert and no doubt more confident about meeting than I was (given that she had been in the dating world for some time), so I dealt with this fact by swiftly necking a bottle of red wine before going to meet her. She said she liked ‘confident men’. I wasn’t too shy by this stage in my life, but a bottle of wine always broke my introvert shell to help me appear to be gregarious, charismatic and have the confidence of a regular human-being capable of love and acceptance. The wine flowed down my throat as my extroverted alter ego awoke to engage in its latest spell of schizophrenic madness.

I turned up at the bar early so I could be a gentleman and get the drinks in for when she arrived. I walked in and got chatting to some French guys to try and switch me into a talkative mode. After a quick chat about why British girls wore high skirts in the middle of winter, I sat down at the table with our drinks ready to face the music. A couple of minutes later she walked into the room and sat down beside me. There she was: the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. The thing to save me from a life of lonely madness. The thing that completed me as a member of the male sex. Predictably, I was in love at first sight. Naturally I had to put that aside and play it cool as one was supposed to in the first date scenario. We got to it and started shooting the small-talk back and forth. We sipped our drinks and spoke about our lives and interests. We pretended we were both totally perfect with no flaws or failures or possible ‘red flags’ that would compromise us as a potential partner. Just like I had anticipated, I felt as if I was in some sort of job interview. I thought I was passing with flying colours, but she apparently saw straight through my mask of alcohol-distorted confidence… 

“You’re really nervous aren’t you?” she said probingly.

“Well, we’re not all experienced internet daters like you.”

My quick retort caused her to let out a little laugh followed by a smile. Perhaps it wasn’t hopeless after all. At that point I was feeling brave and confessed it was the first-ever internet date I’d ever been on; this sparked some jokes about the nature of dating, along with some stories of the car crash dates she had been on in the past. All of a sudden the conversation was flowing freely along with the drinks. Feeling that drunk confidence begin to surge forth after the third drink, I pulled her towards me and started kissing her. The kissing carried on through the night I carried on reeling off the well-recited script of the standard first date – making jokes, acting like a gentleman – pretending I was James Bond or something like that. Remarkably she seemed to eat it all up. This was it, I thought to myself: internet date number one and I had successfully struck gold. What were the odds? Who knew mindlessly swiping on an app on your phone could get actual results?

The next couple of weeks we spoke every day and went on to see each other numerous times. We drank and ate out together. We watched TV around her house. Hell, we even went as far to sleep together a couple of times. Things were going quite well until it slowly became apparent that we were very different at our cores. She was authoritarian and wanted a life of following established traditions. She said she wanted her child to be a learner of cultural codes and conventions, rather than have the values of being creative and unique. On top of this, she was career-focused and said her greatest motivations were what people thought of her and how much money she earned. All things considered, it was safe to say that our values were somewhat slightly different. Up until that point, I had tried to hide who I really was in order for her to accept me, but there was only so long I could hold in my alien nature before it drunkenly spewed out all over the place. That moment happened one night following my fifth glass of wine in the closing time hour of a Wetherspoons pub. Engaging in our latest spell of dating small-talk, I was no longer fully able to pretend that I was a normal human-being compatible with mainstream society. I threw my mask of normality aside and let my unconventional views blurt out of my mouth. I spoke of why I had spent so much of my twenties travelling rather than forming a career. I spoke of wanting to live a life true to my own values and not those of society’s. This first declaration of my true character was met with an awkward silence followed by a clear moment where I could see her mentally packing her bags and sprinting far away over the horizon like some sort of scared deer. The conversation then stuttered on until we finished our drinks and got up to leave. We kissed and said we’d speak soon, but I knew it was over there and then. The next day I received the ‘I don’t think we should see each other any more’ text. As anticipated, I was back alone in the wilderness of life and love. 

I was dejected but not defeated. There were plenty more fish in the internet ocean and I picked up that phone and started swiping away like a madman once again. Again I faced the intimidating masses of women out there looking for a potential mating partner. There were women who were single mothers, women who were self-proclaimed princesses – women who clearly bitter about men but were there on the dating apps anyway. It truly was a battlefield of potential mines waiting to tear you apart one way or another. Sometimes the horror of it all almost caused me to chuck the phone aside and declare a vow of abstinence for life. I had heard about these dating apps for a while, but now having finally used them, I could with my own eyes see the sadness and madness of it all. All these hurt, lonely and complicated people trying to connect to someone or something in the virtual wilderness. You could see in their pictures and bios who were the wounded ones, the desperate ones – the ones who were just there to stroke their egos and fill some sort of internal void by being lusted after by men they would never dream of meeting. God only knows how bad the male side of it was. Observing it all, it was clear to me that human interaction had become some sort of terrible joke and that I was now truly a part of it. But for whatever reason, this was now what had to be done for our survival as a species – this twisted comedy was what was necessary to continue the horrorshow of the human race.

The comedy continued and eventually Tinder came good with a girl called Sophie. She was the classic ‘hot girl’ – long blonde hair, pretty, big lips, tall and a great figure sculpted carefully by yoga and PT sessions at the gym. Somehow she was into poetry and philosophy and all the weird stuff I was into. A female lover of Alan Watts and Rumi – something I had only imagined meeting in my most outlandish daydreams. It almost seemed too good to be true and I approached her cautiously wondering where exactly she had set her traps. There was no way a girl that attractive would not have some way to tear you to shreds completely. I thought of the way the female praying mantis killed and ate the male after he was done mating with her. I wished myself some luck as I moved in closer.

It took a few cancelled meetings but we finally met up in a bar while we were both out drinking on the same night. The conversation went well initially, but after a while she kept walking off to speak to other guys. She only half seemed interested in talking to me, and the other half in looking around and making sure other men were paying attention to her. She never really asked anything about my life – the same as she did when we texted over the phone – and I started to wonder if she really was the girl she said she was. For a lover of poetry and philosophy, I expected her to be discussing the meaning of life rather than cracking jokes about what I was wearing. Well, I knew it seemed too good to be true and after half an hour of her showing no interest in me, I finished my drink and retreated back home alone to my lonely lair of residence. The texting predictably faded out over the next couple of days until she stopped replying altogether. I eventually found out a previous ex had reached out and asked to meet up with her again. Well, that was the end of that disaster before it had even gotten started. Probably for the best. At least she hadn’t eaten me.

My morale was dropping fast but I carried on my little dating experiment with a few more car crash dates as I tried to find some basic human connection. It was soon becoming a massive consumption of time and money, but I was determined to see that there were people out there you could connect to without having to pretend to be someone else or have the body of a Greek god or something. 

Finally, I had one good date with a girl from Birmingham who was a fervent traveller like myself. All things considered, the date went the best out of any I’d ever been on. We both shared the love of travel and had visited many of the same places. With this fuelling our connection, we drank cocktails and kissed all night; we held hands as we walked from bar to bar; we even agreed “there would definitely be a second date” as I walked her home. Needless to say, I found it quite strange when I never received another message from her after that night. By this point I didn’t even have the energy to ask her what had happened or gone wrong. My emotional energy was drained and I tossed my phone aside and gave up on the whole internet dating thing a rest. Humanity and its strange ways was simply too much to bear at times and there was only so much one could take before losing their mind completely.

In the meanwhile, I went about my life and considered how people actually made the whole mating partner thing work. I observed the couples walking down the street. I saw their kisses and their hugs. I watched their hands connect as they walked side by side. All I could do was wonder how in the hell they ever got to that stage. What was the secret formula? What was it that I was missing? Finding a mating partner in the modern world was like running the gauntlet through the nine levels of hell. How did people make it through with themselves still intact? How did people make it work? Like I did so often when I was confused by human behaviour, I studied the animal kingdom to see what they could teach me. I watched birds sing to each other on tree branches; the squirrels chase each other’s tails; the dogs sniff each other’s arses. Again, it was simple and direct without all the tedious trivia us humans had managed to create. I had to wonder how we had taken the whole thing so far into the realms of madness? Surely the gods would never forgive us for the absurdity of internet dating and all those thousands of ridiculous profiles, scripted conversations and shallow interactions. All the dates that went nowhere; all the dates that led to more dates that went nowhere. The hopelessness, the desperation – the mindless swiping right or left as you slowly went more and more insane. It made sense why the average human heart was a total battleground by the latter half of one’s life.

Feeling disillusioned with the dating scene, I retreated back to the old tradition of standing on dark nightclub dancefloors hoping some girl would drunkenly stumble into my life through that hazy blur of neon lights and insufferable pop music. I stood on those sticky floors and watched the human race interact with each other. I watched the males initiate the mating process as they tactically stumbled closer to the nearest female. I watched the quick glances between females to express whether or not they were interested. This was it: we were back to basics – operating as brash and animalistic as the animal kingdom. I could almost imagine David Attenborough himself narrating the scene in that husky old voice of his. All these creatures flailing their limbs, trying to bond and connect with another. All these creatures trying to fulfil their primal needs and desires. And I was one of them, prowling around, looking for some sort of victim to take home. I continued my hunt until I eventually got lucky. I picked up a girl near the bar and lured her to the smoking area for a drink and chat. After twenty minutes of small-talk, we decided to get a taxi back to mine. The night went well. We sealed the deal and she stayed until the morning. It was then lying in the haze of a Sunday morning hangover when we got to chatting about our lives. After a few minutes, she found out I was 28 and living in a flatshare. She also found out that I didn’t have a stable career and owned about six t-shirts. Such traumatising revelations caused her to get out of bed, quickly pack up her things and shoot outta there without exchanging numbers. A forced goodbye kiss on her way out and she disappeared back into the barren wilderness of life and love never to be seen again. I wished her some luck on her way.     

And so one month after starting my dating experiment, there I was once again: back alone on my bed, locked away in my lonely lair, done with women and general human interaction until the end of eternity. The desire to find a mating partner in the modern world had subsided after all the chaos of the last few weeks. Better to be a loner, suppress those urges and save yourself from all the mess and madness that was waiting for you out there. The horrors of trying to connect with another human-being were simply too great in this day and age. I was going to leave them all to it and embrace the quiet life of some sort of celibate monk. Running. Reading. Writing. Meditation. Yes, that would be the trick to keep me healthy and happy. The decision was made and I let out an exasperated gasp of breath and felt myself sink into my mattress. I then stared at the walls. I stared at the ceiling. I twiddled my thumbs. Suddenly the loneliness struck me once again and I looked over at that phone: that portal to a possible connection with another human somewhere in the hostile wilderness of life and love. Tinder, Bumble, Hinge – they were all waiting to try and connect me with another person close by. Sure, maybe I had experienced some bad luck so far, but perhaps things were about to change. Perhaps this emptiness in my heart could be filled. Perhaps there was a chance to connect with someone or something or anything….

I reached over, picked up my phone and started swiping one more time.

short stories

~ Medical Trial Madness ~

~ Medical Trial Madness ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “You’re only thinking about the money.”

     “Don’t you care about health?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “You need a proper trade or qualification.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

short stories

~ What Am I Doing? ~

72545311_10212486707123064_6712229947374567424_o.jpg

~ What am I doing? ~

I was the only ‘gringo’ on the bus – gringo essentially being the South American term for a ‘white western person’. I was heading out of Bolivia into the north of Argentina. I had just spent a couple of weeks with new friends and was hitting the road again on my own. One friend had headed up to the Amazon and the other had travelled to another place in Argentina. And so there I was: back to riding solo down the highway of life, staring out of those bus windows and wondering what chaos and madness was over the next horizon of space and time. However, I wasn’t totally alone. A little old lady had been sat next to me for the sixteen-hour bus ride. She had been quiet the whole way, but as we pulled into a police checkpoint at the border, she started to shift around in an erratic manner. I kept one eye on her while leaning my head against the window. Outside I could see a group of police officers with machine guns leading people into a room to be searched. The old lady continued to shift around nervously and eventually started tugging on my shirt to get my attention. I turned to face her. My Spanish was still pretty bad despite being in South America for about two months already, but naturally I could understand what ‘co-cai-na’ meant. She said it repeatedly before opening her bag and pulling out what looked like a kilogram of Colombia’s finest in a see-through plastic bag. Slightly taken aback by the situation that was unfolding, I stared at her blankly without knowing quite what to say. She then proceeded to grab my backpack and try to put the cocaine inside of it. Not wanting to end up banged up in a South American jail for the next few years, I politely declined the old lady’s advances. I then grabbed my backpack to get off the bus and join the queue of people who were now being led through the police checkpoint.

While in the queue to get searched, I watched the old lady stand in line on her own. This poor woman, I thought. What was she doing? What was she thinking? She must have been almost seventy and it looked like she was on her remaining years in some hellhole Bolivian prison. There was no way the officers were not going to find her stash in that small handbag of hers. Not a chance in hell. I felt bad for her but there was nothing I could do at this point. Her reckless gamble had failed and her doomed fate was sealed.

The queue continued to go down and eventually the old lady reached the table to be searched. The officers patted her down then took her bag and placed it on the table. Another one then went to open it. This was it, I thought. I was about to witness an old lady have the cuffs slapped on her and get escorted off to jail. I stood there and watched the officer unzip her bag, pull out for the bag of class A drugs, inspect it under the lighting and then toss it aside. Then, to my confusion, I watched as the old lady grabbed her handbag back and passed through freely. There she walked: no cuffs, no arrest, no drama. Off she strolled to get back on the bus.

It was only when I reached the table to be searched that I saw the large stash of cocaine behind the officers. There must have been a dozen bags of drugs all piled on top of each other. It appeared that almost half the people on the bus I was on were trying to smuggle bags of cocaine across the Argentine border. The passengers consisted of elderly people, parents and their kids, but clearly that was just business as normal in this part of the world. In a state of surreal shock, I reached the police officers myself where they took one look at my passport, saw that I was a ‘gringo’ and then ushered me through without even bothering to search my bag. It suddenly hit me why the little old lady was so keen to put the drugs in my backpack. She could have got them through after all. Perhaps we could have formed a partnership and split the profits? Perhaps It could have been the start of a bright new career in the narcotics industry? I dismissed the thought and got back on the bus where me and the old lady both sat in awkward silence. I then pressed my head against the window once more, stared out at the passing countryside of those foreign lands and wondered what the hell it was exactly that I was doing with my life…

Fast forward a few hours later and I’m dropped off in a strange town in the middle of nowhere. It was the place where I was supposed to be catching my connecting bus to Buenos Aires. However, with my original bus arriving two hours late, the departure had been missed and I was now standing alone in the dark of night in a shady bus station. I tried to communicate my problem with a bus driver but naturally my gringo Spanish was of insufficient use. Suddenly I was stranded and in a spot of bother. With a gang of men eyeing me across the street, I quickly decided that the best thing to do was to get on any bus to anywhere. Luckily there was one final bus about to depart before the station closed. I booked myself a ticket to a town called Salta. I got on and arrived about an hour and a half later where I booked myself into a random hostel and proceeded to drink shots of whiskey until the early morning with some Irish guy who was drowning his sorrows after his girlfriend had just broken up with him. As those shots flew back, I stared drunkenly into space and heard that same question once again reverberate around the walls of my skull: what the hell am I doing with my life?

‘What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my life? What the hell am I doing with my life?’

It was a question that went through my head probably more than any other. I was an introspective and reflective guy anyway, but when you got yourself into as many random scenarios as I did, then it was a question that was frequently at the forefront of all mental musings. On this travelling adventure I had already ended up in so many random situations that left me contemplating my own existence. I had just finished university and my parents had wanted me to use my degree and go out and get a ‘real job’. Yet instead of sitting behind a desk and forming a career of some sort, I’d be in some ridiculous situation thousands of miles from home. Evidently South America was particularly bad for this, hopping from one bizarre scenario to the next. At one point I stopped and lived in Rio de Janeiro for a couple of months with a Brazilian girl I had met on the road. We stayed with her family in an isolated suburb on the outskirts of the city where no one including her family spoke a word of English. She had arrived home from her trip but had decided to stay in holiday mindset; this meant we’d spend the days at the beach before going out to get drunk at random parties, sleep in her car, crash at the apartments of some tourists, or sneak up to the rooftop pool of one of the most expensive hotels in Copacabana. At one point we had an argument and she went off with some other guys to her holiday home somewhere down the coast. In my own dismay, I found myself getting drunk at the beach on my own, staring out at the Atlantic Ocean and thinking about the alternative reality on the other side of that water back in the U.K. That alternative reality where I could have been all suited and booted up like a regular member of the human race – where I would be finishing another hard day at the office before going to have a few pints down the pub with work colleagues. My drunken mind imagined it all. The alarm clocks. The traffic jams. The work desks. The shirts and ties. The small talk. The routine lifestyle. The television screens. The suburban lawns. The high street shopping queues. It all went through my head as I knocked back the beers and passed out on a Brazilian beach.

Such existential thoughts carried on as I left South America and arrived in New Zealand almost one thousand pounds into my overdraft. Arriving to a country on the other side of the world with no money was pretty outrageous, even for my standards, but by this point I was totally lost in the wilderness of life, accepting that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but just trusting myself to the winds of fate and circumstance. That wind picked up and within a few weeks I was working in a kiwi fruit packhouse, living in a town of a couple of hundred people and renting a house with an eclectic mix of humans which included two guys from Chile, my English friend I had met in Australia a couple of years before, and my sister who was coincidentally travelling in New Zealand at the same time. Days were spent packing boxes of kiwis at a frantic rate as they poured like a tsunami from the conveyor belt, before heading home and sharing a bed with my sister in a freezing cold house in the middle of winter. It was a strange scenario to say the least, and naturally I still had no answer to that pressing question that lingered in my mind.

As that two-year backpacking trip finished and my life went on, there were times where I felt that I was beginning to realise what I was doing with my life – what was happening; where it was going; what it was leading to. Those times included coming home and thinking I was going to stop the travelling and settle down. It included times where I went back to university to study – where I eyed up career options as a journalist or copywriter and began to plot some sort of routine that would lead me safely and smoothly into old age. I should have known such things to be nothing more than mere mental musings. I’d go from having a plan to be writing poetry in the Himalayas. To hitch-hiking around Iceland. To raving beside an erupting volcano in Guatemala. To sleeping on a park bench in Slovenia. To walking across Spain in the midsummer heat (the most defining ‘what the hell am I doing?’ moment definitely being when me and four other hikers spontaneously decided to hike through the night, getting drunk off bottles of red wine before passing out in a farmer’s field). By this point I had learnt to go with the flow of whatever it was that was enfolding and even enjoy the comedy of my own chaotic existence. Hell, I even started to revel in it, smiling and smirking to myself in the most random of scenarios, stopping for a second and soaking it all in while the mess and madness unfolded around me. To some degree, I had managed to rewire my brain to living totally in the sheer anarchy of the moment.

I guess my most recent ‘what am I doing with my life’ moments came travelling in Europe. I had just flown back from Asia to meet my Dutch friend Bryan and head to Corsica to do a two-week trek through the island. However, our timetable wasn’t quite right and we had about three weeks until the snowy conditions made it possible to hike. Consequently, we arranged to travel through Switzerland and Italy in the meanwhile. Taking cheap buses in between destinations, we stopped and stayed with random friends we had each met travelling; we bummed around in cities, getting drunk in bars and parks; we stumbled around famous historic sites such as the Colosseum or the Vatican while cracking inappropriate jokes about history and culture. Bryan was like me in that he also regularly questioned the bizarre situations and scenarios the path of his life had led him to. We had been through a similar journey in life and were both highly philosophical about our own unconventional existence. This sometimes caused us to ask that question simultaneously as we walked down the streets of Rome or Florence, or when we drank beer on a random street corner and observed the human race like we were on safari. It was a very existential time of my life, even more so than usual, and ultimately we came to the conclusion that it was probably best that two manic minds like ours didn’t share paths for too long. Seemingly we were both a bad influence on each other’s lives. When I first met Bryan, he was a clean-cut guy, only having a couple of pints of beer each time we went to a bar; but now – partly due to the influence of myself and partly due to the crushing weight of the world – he was now an even more keen drinker than I was. I thought this would be a good development, but both of us being keen drinkers was a recipe for disaster. I was suffering from insomnia at the time and there was a moment every night where we would both think about being sensible and getting a good night’s rest. Then one of us would hint about going out for a drink to which the other would then utter the trip catchphrase: ‘why not? we’re on holiday…’ Next thing we’d be stumbling out again into the wilderness of the night, getting messed up and sneaking into VIP areas in clubs, before waking up the next day, staring at the hostel room ceiling and wondering that same old life-defining question…

What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my life? What the hell am I doing with my life?’

I thought about it all those times on the road and I think about it now while I am writing these words, living alone in a new city, getting by off medical trials and agency work, not knowing what I’ll be doing in a few months’ time – whether I’ll be back out on that road or trying to write another book. It is a thought that has made itself at home in my head over the last years, but it is also a thought I think I see in the eyes of everyone around me too. I see it in the look of a businessman waiting in his car at the traffic lights. I see it at the look of a woman pushing a pram up the hill. I see it in the look of an elderly person drinking alone at a bar; in the look of a cashier in a store when they have a second to think to themselves. Sometimes I think I see it in my parent’s eyes too – in my father’s eyes as he’s doing the dishes or my mother’s eyes as she waters the plants. I have this suspicion I can’t shake that it’s all a big conspiracy and no one really knows what the hell they are doing. We all just try to follow and fake it – to go with what is expected of us by others and society – but deep down in every man or woman’s heart there are those moments of staring into skies, mirrors and spaces that are often as empty as the existential space they feel inside themselves. Perhaps that is a space that will never be filled no matter what we do or where we go. Sometimes I think I know what I’m doing, but that delusion quickly passes and I return to that bus window or solitary shoreline knowing that I am hopelessly lost in the dream of life as ever. Lost in the cosmic ocean of space and time. Lost in the woods of human existence. And accepting that, I find a sort of faith to keep walking wide-eyed through the wilderness and accept whatever it is that life brings my way. Deep down, no one really knows what the hell is going on, and the ones who do are normally just a divorce or redundancy or midlife crisis away from having their illusions totally blown to pieces. Life at its core is just pure mystery and madness, so why not just accept that? Why not go with the flow? Why not just sit back and enjoy the ride? Hell, go one further. Put the pedal down, wind down the windows, stick your head out into the wind and enjoy this random and chaotic trip of a lifetime.

God knows, somebody has to.

 

 

 

 

 

short stories

~ Coming out as a Weirdo ~

alone-beanie-boy-569169

~ Coming out as a Weirdo ~

‘You march to a different beat. You know it. You’ve always known it. You hear the things they don’t hear; see the things they don’t see. You feel something different when you stare into those skies and walk down those busy streets. And it’s that moment when you stand and face out into the great unknown, and you feel it calling you away into the wild. The adventures. The wonders. The dreams. The magic and mystery. Don’t shy away from it any longer. It’s time to stop hiding who you really are. It’s time to stop dwelling in a life which doesn’t fulfil your soul. Accept you are destined for something more than another standardised existence. Break free from that crowd. Emerge into the light of your truest life. Move fearlessly forward towards the shores of your own destiny. Ruthlessly pursue your unique passions and gifts. Be bold. Be different. Be beautiful.’  – Ryan Millward.

In this life there are few experiences more initially terrifying than exposing yourself to the crowd. Than showing them all that you are not one of them. That you are different, abnormal, odd – a little bit strange. Since we were hunter-gatherers on the plains of Africa, human beings have thrived off social acceptance and fitting in with the tribe, so doing something different from the rest is the sort of thing that can instil great anxiety into people. It’s the sort of thing that causes people to put on a mask and hide their true face. It’s the sort of thing that can cause some people to spend their entire lives going through the motions just to please others and fit in, and not be judged for being different. For not being regular in the sense of tradition and expectation. For not being ‘normal’.

Since as long as I can remember, I never really considered myself a normal person. Yes, I know we all have our own individual quirks, but beyond that, I knew something was dangerously different inside of me from a young age. At school I found myself a chronic daydreamer, escaping into alternative realities in my head that were more pleasing to me than the bland scenes that surrounded me. While the other kids played and chatted, often I stared out of those classroom windows envisaging myself becoming some sort of bird or animal. When I was five, I went around my neighbourhood collecting the wrappers of a specific chocolate bar after some older kid had told me they could buy a ticket to Australia if only I had enough. At one point I used to pretend I was a stuntman for Hollywood and went climbing dangerous things with those imaginary cameras shooting. And that’s not to forget my little phase as an undercover spy, which, admittedly, is best forgotten for legal reasons.

I guess these sorts of mental musings were typical of childhood, and something I thought maybe my eccentric mind would grow out of, but in secondary school I found that my weirdness stayed with me. Again, I didn’t really understand a lot of things the others did and preferred getting lost in the wilderness of my mind. Because of this, I wasn’t good at finding my place in the social ladder. Whatever group I was a part of, I was still the outsider of that group – an awkward tag alone. Still, I guessed I wanted to have some friends so I suppressed my madness and eccentricity to a degree, although occasionally it bubbled out in the form of me becoming a MC rapper, or declaring that I was going to take a vow of chastity all of my life to see how people reacted (definitely not the smartest decision to make in an all boy’s school, admittedly).

As an adult, my weirdness only increased. At this point you were supposed to be preparing yourself to become a normal civilised member of the human race, working 8-5, interested in things like careers, mortgages, marriage, furniture, television, cars, credit ratings and talking about the football over a few pints down the pub. Still, all I truly cared about was doing creative things and going on insane adventures. I wanted to climb trees and talk about the universe. I wanted to share ideas about existence and create works of art. While people were more interested in starting careers, I only had eyes on travelling in foreign lands. Naturally this led to me still being known as the black sheep anyway due to me never going on holiday with any of the others, but always choosing to instead fly alone to some random country like Ghana or Peru. By this point, I did actually have a core group of friends at home, but I was still known as the eccentric traveller. The outsider. The misfit.

Looking back, I guess that internal pull to get out into the world and do something different was my subconscious calling me toward some sort of personal purpose. While on these adventures and talking to fellow misfits, I gradually began to realise that I was never really destined for the regular life of the socially accepted citizen like my friends from back home. But naturally that was a scary thought, so whenever I was home, I hid my true alien nature and tried to suppress who I was. I bit my tongue. I pretended that I was going to pack it all in eventually and return to normal life, starting a career and doing all those super official adult things like driving a car and getting a credit card and pension fund. Surrounded by people who I was on a different path from, I started to feel social anxiety for the first time in my life. I put on a mask and, even though people considered me weird anyway, they really had no idea how deep my madness went.

My friend Ryan was one of my good friends from secondary school and probably the closest person I could relate to in the pain of wearing a mask and hiding your authentic self. He had suppressed his sexuality since his teenage years as many gay people in their youth did. I guess it didn’t help that we went to an all boy’s school too. Most people naturally suspected he was gay, due to his camp nature and the fact he fitted in so well with groups of girls. Even though we all suspected it, he never came out as gay. We lived in an age where it was more acceptable than ever to come out, but still, for many years he hid his true nature out of not wanting to face the daunting spotlight of the crowd. I didn’t know the extent of this until we were at a restaurant over dinner with friends in London and he reminded me of our hike up a mountain in New Zealand. It had been over four years since the hike, but he reflected about it as we drank together at the table. The hike was just a couple of weeks before he finally came out via a video on social media. I was totally oblivious at the time to the storm that was raging inside his head as he prepared to expose himself for being different than the rest. But he told me that it was on the hike with me where he decided he couldn’t hide who he was any longer; that he decided he was going to come out and reveal who he really was. Seemingly, it took him to go to the other side of the world, up the top of a bloody mountain, to finally feel free enough to take off the mask to the crowd.

While he told me about the struggle of wearing a mask and hiding his true nature, I reflected on myself and my own alien ways. He said holding it in was like holding your breath and I resonated a lot with that in terms of my own identity. As everyone around me walked down the aisles of conventional life, I had to hold my real nature in. I had to nod my head and smile and pretend I was interested in a standard existence when really I knew I was in conflict with society at my core. I didn’t care for what I was supposed to care for. I didn’t see any personal value in my expectations and cultural traditions. Even very basic attempts to fit in left me anxious and depressed. The act of writing a CV and applying for jobs I had no interest in only my heart rage and rebel against it all. As life went on normally around me, I often felt hopelessly alienated and misunderstood. People with good intentions assured me I’d find my place in the mould of society, but I guess I knew in my heart of hearts that I was an alien, an outsider – a weirdo.

The thing that kept me sane while experiencing this alienation was expressing myself via an artistic form. Over the years I had discovered that writing was my main talent in life. I could express myself with writing words better than I ever could when I opened my mouth. It was like there was a whole ocean of thoughts in my head, and when I spoke it was like trying to drain that ocean through a bath plughole. It was a hopeless task, but when my fingers touched those keyboard keys, suddenly I had the ability to pour everything out; suddenly I could send tsunamis of thoughts out onto the page. Yes, writing was my ‘thing’ so to speak, and I knew that I had a lot of poetry and prose in me that I wanted to share. The problem initially was that whenever I wrote things to share with my name attached to it, it was often a restrained and frustrating affair. Burdened by the thought of other people’s opinions, I wrote from the ego and not from the heart, obsessing over what my peers, parents and friends would think of the mess that filled my mind. Still, I knew I had to express myself and eventually it got to the point where, like my friend Ryan, I could no longer hold it all in. At one point I decided I was finally going to write from my heart about how I felt about life, myself and society.

At first, I used the anonymity of a social media blog to hide my face; to not have my name attached to what I was writing. I created a concept ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ where I posted pictures of random strangers walking in nature with some sort of internal, introspective reflection about life or society. I made it look like the quotes were from different characters, when in reality they were all the thoughts and words that I had stored away inside myself for many years. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of what I was writing, it was just that, like my friend Ryan, I wasn’t ready to expose myself as the misfit I was to the stern-eyed crowds of culture and convention.

Nonetheless, the relief of not having my name attached to it worked and allowed me to finally write out everything I had locked away deep in my heart. Out it all came in a prolonged burst over a year or so. Declarations of my weird, alien nature such as:

“One day in this life you realise you are infected with the condition of being an outsider. The symptoms are revealed to you gradually. As you walk the neighbourhoods of normality you realise your heart yearns for something else. Stability and security only give you a feeling of sadness. You have no interest in the contract of life offered to you. As you stare at the rows of houses and green lawns and shiny cars, as you look up uninterested at career ladders before you, as you stare wistfully into space in the supermarket queue, you gradually begin to realise that something isn’t quite right about it all. Every ounce of your being rejects the things you were told to desire. What gives you fulfilment simply isn’t available in their stores or on their menus. You have no interest in material riches or status. Their television shows and newspapers are toxic poison to your mind. You are allergic to their conventions and expectations. The suits and ties don’t fit you. What is important to them, to you seems meaningless and trivial. In your world adventure and exploration and art rank above all else. Yes, accept it: you have the alien madness – the condition of being an outsider. You are infected…”

And:

“Yes, the more I stood there on that hill and thought about it, the more it seemed this was the destiny of someone like myself. The cards had been dealt and I knew deep down in my flesh and bones that it was my fate to sail alone, to get lost in the mazes of my own mind, to dwell in solitude among those mountains of madness. This was how it was; for some reason I would never fully understand, this is how it was. I guess by now it was just a matter of acceptance: a matter of accepting that I was a lone wanderer – a matter of accepting that I didn’t belong. I guess by now it was a matter of accepting the fact that no matter where I went in this world, I would always return to those hills above the cities, standing alone, staring up into the skies, looking for something – anything – to come and take me home.”

Oh, and let’s not forget the delightfully cheerful:

“In a world of steely-faced executives and agents, I felt like a castaway soul stranded in the dirt, chained down by gravity and government – trapped in a cage of slowly decaying flesh and bone. Since I was born, I often felt homesick for a place I’d never known; homesick for a place I’d never been. In the worst moments I gazed up into skies above thinking that maybe my species was somewhere out there beyond the neighbouring solar-systems and stars. After all, there was an endless ocean of galaxies and worlds out there, but somehow I had ended up in one full of things I just didn’t understand. The situation was strange, but what else could I do? Where else could I turn? Where else could I go?”

Sharing my writings with the internet world, I immediately felt relieved and rewarded. I discovered that my words could actually influence and even change people’s lives. I soon started to build up followers, shares and reactions to my posts. I received messages of gratitude and great emotion. Hearing that intense feedback, I felt gratified for sharing the chaotic contents of my mind. I always knew what I wrote was real and needed to be shared, and the response to my writings went and validated that.

Eventually I had the idea to attach my name to it by compiling all the thoughts I had written on the blog and putting them into a book. This would be the point where I would proudly own up, take off the mask and show that it was me – Ryan Millward – that was the writer behind the pseudonym ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’. This was the sort of thing that instilled great anxiety into me. What allowed me to write so purely was having this alter ego and attaching my name to it only caused stress and strain in my mind. People would finally be able to see on printed paper my name along with the deepest, darkest, most private thoughts of my mind. It was initially hard to do, but my desire to publish my stuff was too strong and I soon found myself creating the book, putting my name on the cover and sharing it with friends, peers, relatives and anyone else who asked a little about my chaotic life.

After the book was finally published, I had effectively ‘come out as a weirdo’ in my mind. Something that terrified me for years, was soon shown to me to not be so bad after all. Some people naturally distanced themselves from me, but many others bought my book, congratulated me and even told me they resonated with a lot of things I had said. Now that many people knew I was on a different path, I felt a lot more relief and freedom in what I could do with my life. Some people even gravitated towards me in my new state of being. It seemed that many normal people liked to have weirdos around to make them feel relaxed. If they were surrounded by ultra-serious, conventional people all the time than life became a drag. Hell, I even made new friends from my book. On one occasion I was travelling in Switzerland and ended up meeting up with a woman who had come across my blog online. She invited me and my friend around for dinner before going out for drinks. While listening to someone living in a different country tell me that my words actually mattered, I felt a strong gratification for sharing the contents of my heart. Like my friend Ryan, my life improved dramatically the second I took off my mask and revealed my true nature to the crowd.

As my life went on and I prepared to write my second book, I found I could write and express myself easier than ever. I didn’t even need a pseudonym any more to write down and share my most private thoughts. Like my friend Ryan had said, it was like finally being able to stop holding your breath for so many years. The sense of relief and freedom was enormous. Coming out as a weirdo had worked for me and I would now walk the streets and wonder how many other closet weirdos were out there hiding their real nature. How many adventures were denied because people were too afraid to walk away from those crowds of conformity? How many great works of art were not made public because people were too scared to share the contents of their souls with this society? The thought of it stayed with me and I stared at the faces of those in the crowd wondering what weirdness and madness lay hidden behind their masks and makeup. I thought of all the great writers, poets, painters and adventurers and explorers that went to the grave without ever coming out as being different from the rest. I thought of the strange ones out there hiding their secrets, suppressing their voices, feeling the things that I had felt before I took the leap. That leap wasn’t being taken because ultimately the part of the brain that craves social acceptance of the species had overpowered the gentle, pure nature of the heart and soul. The thought of it made me sad and inspired me to keep on writing away – to shake some feathers and stoke some fire in the hearts of the wild ones out there. To stop people going to the grave without ever having the courage to be their genuine selves. To stop people from missing out. To stop people from never truly experiencing the unparalleled joy of living a life of authenticity and spiritual freedom.

As humans we will always crave social acceptance; it is hard-wired into our brains as a survival mechanism. But a life of hiding your true authentic nature is nothing short of torture and is arguably a life not lived at all. Everyone has their place in this crazy world, even if it is on the sidelines being considered ‘strange’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘odd’ or ‘eccentric’. Coming out as a weirdo was the best thing I ever did, so if any fellow misfits are reading this and are still trying to find the courage to be their authentic selves, then my advice (and I’m sure the advice of my good friend Ryan) is to go forth and take the leap of faith. A new adventure awaits. So throw away the mask. Shine your light. Wear your colours. Write your words. Scream a little with whatever sets your soul on fire. Walk fearlessly forward to the lands of your own destiny. Emerge into the light of your truest life. Ruthlessly pursue your unique gifts and passions. Be bold. Be different. Be weird. Be beautiful.

 

 

short stories

~ Toward the Keyboard ~

~ Toward the Keyboard ~

It was true. Oh god, oh god: it was true.

The opening years of adulthood had passed and my conclusion had been drawn: I was an alien – an outsider – an outcast. I had tried to a reasonable degree to slot myself into the paradigm of human society, but I gradually realised that there was just no place for me amongst those stern-eyed creatures of culture and convention. Each attempt to fit myself in had led to the usual bout of alien anxiety and staring up existentially into skies above. I stood still on those concrete sidewalks of life with my hands in my pockets knowing that I just simply wasn’t compatible with any of it: the jobs, the paperwork, the contracts, the football teams, the small talk, dating, mortgages, Ikea – Ant and Dec. Even simple everyday things like supermarket shopping somehow made me sad. Those aisles had a still emptiness which made my heart ache for something which couldn’t be purchased in any store, or made in any factory, or stored in any house.

People with good intentions encouraged me to mix myself in but I was hopelessly allergic to it all. A life of comfort and security was okay for a few months at the most, but after that my restless eyes lifted once again to that horizon of adventure and chaos. That possibly explained why I had spent three of the last five years on some sort of travelling expedition out somewhere in the world. Expedition makes it sound like I was climbing Mount Everest, although I did trek to the base camp twice, but too often I was bumming around, getting drunk in hostels and attempting to seem like a normal, functioning member of the human race so I could hook up with some young German girl who was about to become a lawyer and begin the peaceful middle-class existence in the suburbs.

People back home said that there was something wrong with me: that I was immature, that I was out of my mind – that I was running away from life and or something like that. Maybe they were right, but in my head, I wasn’t running away from life, but rather running toward it with wide arms, a heavy heart and a weathered backpack full of old clothes and a couple of books on esoteric philosophy to boot. It was just a different perspective and all that, you know? Truthfully, I guess I just saw no thrill in a life of bill-paying routine, in a steady career, in promotions, parking spaces, weddings, television sitcoms, shiny cars or that same old holiday once a year to somewhere in Spain. All I could do was wonder was that really what human existence was all about? Was that my destiny as a sentient organism in an infinite universe? Was that to be my fate whilst briefly incarnate in this transient cage of slowly decaying flesh and bone?

It was an interesting situation to say the least. I truly and genuinely wanted to understand their way of life, so I did the usual things. I watched TED talks. I listened to Jordan Peterson lectures. I spoke to career counselors, parents and work colleagues. I argued with strangers on the internet in YouTube comment sections. I tried and tried and tried, but in the end, I just didn’t understand how the vast majority could do it so easily. What they called ‘growing up’ and ‘the real world’ to me seemed like some weird bubble of unnatural behavior. After all, what was natural about sitting in an office in artificial light all day, only to drive home in a gas-guzzling car and eat processed foods while watching a blinking box life until you went to sleep? That wasn’t what the real world was. To me the real world was out there among the fields and trees – the rivers, the streams, the sunset beaches and mountain wildernesses. That’s where the life and adventure was at! Even better was what was out there in the cosmos with its shooting stars and endless galaxies. It felt so cruel to be able to see that infinite universe on a clear night above me. I wanted to go out and explore it all, but I had been subjected by gravity and government to instead exist in a world of monotony and mediocrity. Instead of sailing through the cosmos, we’d stutter through traffic jams; instead of exploring solar systems, we’d explore supermarket aisles. Why was it like this? Which cruel god had created this circus? This pantomime?

Okay, so I guess I was a little bit bitter of the others being content with what they had – at actually managing to make the journey from the maternity ward to the crematorium in some sort of steady and sane fashion. I envied their contentment about neatly fitting into system without any friction. They peacefully rode the cultural conveyor-belt through the education system, the jobs, the mortgages, the family life, the bank holidays and retirement before arriving safely into a wooden box to be duly buried six feet under the ground. It was a simple and smooth procedure. But me? I was a chaotic mess waiting to move perpetually on to the next adventure. I just couldn’t stay still in one spot. I had an itch that couldn’t be scratched; a madness that couldn’t be cured. I was just so excited to even exist at all that the 9-5 routine seemed impossible to do for more than a year at the very most. I needed frequent adventure but travelling all the time was tiring and most notably: expensive. It was true that I needed to find something else to help me fill the time in between the maternity ward and the crematorium like the others had done. There must have been something that fulfilled me other than travelling? Something that I could do while living in one place? Something? Anything?

There was: writing. Switching on some ambient music and letting myself lose my mind at a keyboard was a very fulfilling thing indeed. It reminded me of being a young kid again, picking and piecing those Lego bricks together, building structures and creating things, only with words and ideas instead of plastic bricks. It was an act of joyous play which never felt like a chore or a job. Hell, even the essays in school were somewhat enjoyable as long as there was some sort of agency and creativity involved. In a society of rigid rules, the act of writing allowed me to be the archetype of whatever alternative reality I wanted to momentarily migrate to. That pen was a portal and quite simply it took me to a different place. A separate place. A better place.

Yes, it was clear to me that being a writer would have been something to solve my existential problem. So naturally I looked at the realistic and sensible options available and decided to start studying journalism at university. I guess I thought that the role of a journalist would provide a way to make money while joyfully strumming away on those keyboard keys. However, about midway through that three-year course, I realised that sitting in an office and typing up a news story I had no interest in didn’t really interest me either. What I wanted to do was to WRITE – creatively and expressively that is. In a world where I was slowly suffocated by sanity and sensibility, creative writing was my opportunity to go insane – to explore the spaces down the rabbit hole and create my own wonderland of words and bizarre ideas.

So, after finishing my journalism course with gritted teeth and a damaged liver, I went on to study creative writing at master’s level. The thought of the situation made my heart pump with excitement. This was my chance to explore my passion with like-minded creatures. Finally, my tribe! My place with people who wanted to create with words, who wanted to explore their imagination – who were also driven to write out of their total and profound incompatibility with absolutely everything else in human society.

I was certain I had found my place of belonging but soon after starting I realised I was out of luck once again. I sat in a room of middle-aged marketing executives having a mid-life crisis, trying to write the next War and Peace or Wuthering Heights. One guy read out some story and I watched as about five different people from different demographics weighed in with their conflicting opinions, to which he then butchered the essence of his piece apart to make it sit in the middle of the road and please everyone. For some reason it made me sad and I decided there and then to quit. Maybe I wasn’t a writer, but these people weren’t definitely weren’t, so off I went again, quitting the course, flying one way to Mexico, travelling around, staring out into sunset skies – getting drunk and hitting on German girls who were about to qualify as lawyers and begin the peaceful middle-class existence in the suburbs. The usual.

The more I travelled the world, the more I started to appreciate and gravitate toward the wilderness of planet earth. The party and the girls and the foreign cultures: those sorts of things were definitely fun while travelling, but the best parts were always getting out of the cities and hostels. It was those little camping trips or hikes into the wild. The mountains, the forests, the fields – the sunset beaches and rugged plains devoid of any substantial human civilisation. From the volcanoes of Central America to the untouched, empty wilderness of Iceland, to the isolated Buddhist temples of the Himalayas – it was all a magical wonderland to me. Like writing, it was a beautiful escape from the world of clocks and calendars and concrete and contracts; a place where you could exist peacefully without being disturbed by a traffic jam or deadline or some boss belittling you over something meaningless and trivial.

Recalling being a little kid, I remembered that I always found a great joy in the time I spent in nature. Even if it was just a field or something, there was a sense of adventure in a simple stretch of grass which had more life than any buzzing city could ever hope to achieve. The average field mouse had more adventure in one day than many humans had in their entire lives. And it’s not just that the animals’ lives were more thrilling, it often seemed like they were smarter than us too. Take the birds for example: instead of bulldozing entire rainforests down so that they could use the materials for cosmetics and tabloid newspapers, they instead picked up and recycled fallen branches and used them to build homes integrated with the world around them. The animals understood that they were interconnected with nature and that, rather than trying to rape and destroy it, it was better to work with it. Dogs too. They didn’t chase the stick because they saw an advert on the television for it, or because they thought they would get some sort of promotion. They just did it for kicks. They knew existence was playful not political, and they knew not to stress and strain their lives away working for trivial things or the opinions of other dogs. And cats, well, they knew what life was about to the absolute core. Just look at them sitting there doing nothing. Total Zen masters. Godlike geniuses and gurus – every goddamn last one of them.

Okay, so I guess maybe I was a bit jealous and bitter again when it came to the animals. I felt sad that I was spawned on this planet as a human-being and not a squirrel or something. Since childhood I had often felt that I was born into the wrong species. I stared out into the eyes of the humans thinking that perhaps there had been a mix up back at the soul distribution warehouse. Perhaps mine had been wrongly delivered to the human department instead of the cats or dogs or birds? Probably that was it: some incompetent god not doing his job properly in the depot centre. For a while I tried to be like a cat – a total Zen master, meditating and sleeping and eating and staring into space with no excitement, just total acceptance of the here and now. But after a while I realised I was still actually human and needed things like money and companionship and hobbies and purpose. As usual I was out of luck: I was a human-being and nothing was going to change that. Sex changes had just about hit the market, but species’ changes must have been a few centuries away at the least.

And so, with a heavy heart and a broken bank account, I retreated back into human society. I flew home, got a job in a bar and tried to get back into writing. By now I had realised it was the one and only thing I enjoyed at home, so naturally I had to pursue it ferociously and uncompromisingly in an attempt to stay sane. I had been writing for a while, but I had never really had anything read by anyone else. I wanted to find my audience and so I started considering the possibilities. It was the 21st century I had realised, so maybe online was the way to go? Okay. Online I went into the virtual wilderness – to the lands of trolls, porn, junk mail and depressed people trying to make it look like they lived happy and exciting lives to strangers on the internet.

Firstly, I went onto Instagram to check out the hotshot authors: the ones with thousands of likes on every post; the ones who somehow managed to actually make some money off pounding some keys on a keyboard. As I read, I realised that there was some sort of mass trickery taking place. Everyone on Instagram seemed to post bland comments about life or love and then dress them up in pretty fonts and filters to try and make their words look more meaningful. Even worse was the way people had to like and spam comments on each other’s posts in an attempt to get more followers and views on their own pages. It was a strange situation; it was like watching those suited marketing executives in the city network with each other in swanky bars after work. Confused as ever, I decided to carry on my way.

Stumbling further through the virtual wilderness of the internet, I came across Facebook. At least on Facebook you could post lengthy pieces of texts, I thought. I logged in and started a blog called ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ where I posted images of people walking in nature with some sort of internal dialogue about travel or life or society. It was a simple concept and it worked! My blog took off within a few weeks and people, real people, somewhere out there across the world were reading and interacting with my writings for the first time ever. I felt like Shakespeare or Hemingway back from the dead, armed with a grubby laptop, hopelessly and poetically alone with everybody on the internet. The pen had moved on and there I was: hiding my face behind a pseudonym online while being read and digested by a few hundred people sporadically scattered somewhere around the globe.

As I carried on sharing my words and thoughts, a quiet flame of joy began to flicker in my heart. I wasn’t even adventuring, yet I was still finding some fulfilment by just bleeding my brain dry at a keyboard. What a joy it was just to have your stuff read by others somewhere out there! One woman even messaged me saying she had quit a job and was about to drive around Australia because of something I had written. Another young painter told me something similar – that I had given her the courage to pursue her ambition to become an artist.

That feedback was like a class A drug to me and I sat back delusional at that keyboard like a man of importance, like a man of purpose. I was content knowing that I was helping to spread some colour and madness into this grey world. I looked out at the window with a smug sort of grin. Soon those streets outside would have mad men and women crawling down the sidewalks, eyes full of fire and saliva dripping from their mouth as they quit their desk jobs and chased their passions with a demonic sort of possession. The revolution was coming over the horizon, I knew it. I just needed to keep writing away and helping the side of the crazy and disturbed and demented.

Of course, I still needed money while I was toiling away in this heroic endeavour, so naturally I worked the monotonous jobs in the meanwhile. Jobs like bartending, factory work and customer service came and went in short bursts. They were always the easiest to get for an inexperienced and introverted creature like myself. Some were bad and some were awful, but they all helped pay the bills I guess, and I could even find inspiration for things to write about while daydreaming the hours away as I stared wistfully into time and space.

This state of existence went on for a while. It would be a day of menial work followed by an evening of losing my mind at the keyboard. Somewhere in there I would find time to eat a basic no-thrills meal, and maybe even treat myself to a bottle of red wine. Occasionally I would go out and walk the streets while listening to some Zen philosopher’s podcast through my headphones. With the sound of existential philosophy in my ears, I looked out and observed the human race like I was on some kind of safari. I wandered aimlessly through the city neighbourhoods and watched the way they all walked and talked while taking mental notes for my writings. Situations like standing in the crowd that momentarily formed at the traffic lights or waiting in the supermarket queue would turn out to be schools of ethnographic observation. Maybe it was a little strange I guess, but such an undertaking added to whatever it was I was striving for in a way I couldn’t totally explain to myself let alone others. There was some burning desire deep inside me that told me I needed to observe, to learn and understand the absurdity of the human condition. To what end? That wasn’t clear, but I just I needed to know what made them tick.

After doing this for a while, I realised I had substantially segregated and closed myself off from the rest of my species. As the months drifted by, I realised I was living dangerously in a world of extreme isolation and bad diet habits. I was somewhat used to keeping myself away from the masses out there on the streets. I liked it that way mostly, the situation of being content with your own company, but my hermit-levels had slowly reached castaway proportions. Every day I went to work and avoided any significant interaction with my co-workers before going home to sit in darkness and empty my brain at that keyboard to random strangers on the internet. It was an extreme situation and carrying on at this rate would almost certainly pave the road toward the madhouse. ‘Venture down the rabbit-hole just enough to find the magic; hold on to normality just enough to avoid the madhouse’ – something I had scribbled once into my diary. With that in mind, I decided that I would go out and have a drink with a friend.

By now my circle of friends and acquaintances had shrunk considerably, but luckily I had come across a few other misfits out on the road during my travels. I remembered one who also lived in my city and got speaking to her online. Her name was Emily – an anxious girl who didn’t have much of an idea how to fit herself into this society either. I recalled her telling me how she also listened to ambient music and painted abstract art to escape normal life. She seemed like the ideal person to befriend. We spoke for a while online and then arranged to meet up for a drink down the pub.

“So, your life sounds interesting,” she said, sipping a glass of wine across the table. “I do worry about you though.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Humans weren’t meant to exist in solitude all the time. Too much time alone sends you crazy. That’s what happened to my ex.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’ve got it all figured out. I am just gonna write my books and start the revolution this world needs.” She looked at me like the madman I was.

“I’m glad you are enjoying writing now and not feeling like you have to run off to a foreign country every month. But what are you planning to do for work in the long term? Do you have any plans for the future? A career? It’s hard to make money from writing these days. Everybody with a laptop and internet connection wants to be a writer you know.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just want to write and maybe have a few more adventures here and there. I guess I’ll work whatever job I have to along the way. I’m not sure. I stopped planning too much.”

“Come on. You know I love that about you, your adventurous attitude, but realistically you can’t just continue living like this forever. You need to spend some more time with people and learn to live with others. That’s what I did. Sure, I have to bite my tongue from time to time, but it beats being lonely and isolated and depressed. That’s what being alone all the time did to me.”

“I’m sorry Emily, but I like it this way. Maybe you do, but I just don’t understand this species. I am just here to observe and write about these creatures of conformity and convention before I return back to whatever place it was that I came from.” She rolled her eyes.

“Oh, please just stop. I hate when you speak like this. You say all these things, but I know you don’t mean them. I saw you were happy with those people when we were travelling. You do like people and you are human – just accept it! You have to face up to it and learn how to be happy in this society. You can’t just hide away on your own forever.”

“I can try.”

“No! No you can’t! You need some security, a way to make money – a place to call home! You need friends and you need family. We are all social creatures and you’ll go insane if you just keep secluding yourself in that apartment of yours. I know you are working hard on your writing but why don’t you go out and see some more of your friends some time? The ones from school you told me about?”

I sat back in thoughtful silence, pondering her words. Some of the things she had said did ring true. I couldn’t deny she was right in many regards. Human beings were social creatures and often the suicides and mental asylum patients were the people who had been subjected to years of isolation. Like I said, it was true that I felt pretty good in my own company, but maybe she was right with there being a limit to it all? Maybe I did need to regularly spend time with other people? Try and see things from their perspective? Enjoy the camaraderie and gregarious nature of my fellow man?

In the end I decided her fiery words were right. I had gone too far, been too audacious in my behaviour. I had wandered too long over the fences of normality and it was time to return to the farm of social sanity to rub shoulders with some more of the others.

The next week I decided to go to a birthday celebration night out of one of my friends from school. It had been an arranged date on the social calendar for a while. A large group of people were going and naturally I had planned to avoid it at all costs. A lot of people consequently meant a lot of small talk – a lot of small talk meant a lot of explanation about what you were actually doing with your life. Such a situation wasn’t really appealing but with gritted teeth and a determination to cling on the ledge of sanity a little longer, I booked my bus ticket to London and went and met everyone in a pub somewhere deep within the concrete jungle.

I arrived late into the bar where all my friends were sat around a table already on their second and third pints. The jolly laughs and banter-filled conversations were flowing in full steam already. That camaraderie of my fellow man on display right in front of me. I breathed in, composed myself and headed over to join the circus. As I approached, they looked up at me with their big eyes and smiles. “Here he is,” one of them said enthusiastically. “The stranger! He’s still alive then.”

I forced a polite smile and sat down among them. I got comfy and began getting through the formalities, reciting the socially approved script of small talk and making sure everyone felt I was happy to be there and see them. After a few shaky minutes, I went up to the bar and ordered myself a beer, along with a sneaky double whiskey coke to steady my nerves. I returned to the table and carried on mixing in with the crowd. The conversation flowed away and soon came the inevitable questions I so feared: the questions the normal people used to categorise everyone and everything; the questions that determined whether or not you were an accepted member of the human race.

“So, what are you doing now mate?” one of them said. “We haven’t heard from you in a while. Last I heard you started a master’s course in creative writing. You still doing that?” I sipped my beer slowly, mentally preparing my answer inside my skull.

“Nah I didn’t like the course, so I quit that after three weeks and flew one-way to Mexico to do some more travelling.” He looked at me with curious eyes.

“Fair enough… I guess it’s better to do that than to pay thousands of pounds on something you don’t enjoy. How was Mexico?”

“Great,” I said. “It’s a great country to travel.”

“That’s cool. I’d like to go there sometime.”

“Yeah you should.”

An awkward silence briefly lingered; I still hadn’t answered the original question.

“So, what is it that you’re up to now?”

The justification of my madness had begun. I sipped my beer slowly again before beginning to explain away. In all honesty I wasn’t even sure how to answer that question by this point. Often, I felt that I was simply too insane to justify myself anymore. My life was like being stuck in a car on fire speeding toward a cliff that dropped into the abyss of the unknown. It was seriously difficult to explain to myself let alone others, but I began bumbling away anyway, talking about my job, about my blog – about adventure and some vague writing goals for the future. I of course knew that vague goals for the future were a key thing when justifying what you were doing with your life; if you didn’t have some sort of plan and long-term targets, then the looks of concern were thrown your way in the bucket load.

Fortunately, this round of small talk went better than expected. I explained away my job and writing, and as I got more comfortable, I began opening up and speaking a bit more from the heart. I began talking about the things that actually interested me: about the universe and art and consciousness and philosophy. But I soon felt them dissecting me with their eyes. I was pushing the limit of social acceptability and naturally the conversation began to stall. I could see the sparks flying in their eyes; the buffering taking place in their heads. I realised I had gone too far and panicked. They were onto me. It wouldn’t be long until they figured out that I wasn’t one of them. That I was an imposter. That I was an intruder.

Naturally I responded to this problem by drinking faster and faster. Over the last few years I had discovered that alcohol could act as a temporary bubble of warmth in which to nestle oneself whenever human society was swarming too loud around you. This blur of drinking went on until the world faded away and I descended into the black void of nothingness I knew all too well. The next morning, I awoke in a friend’s living room before dragging myself back home on a two-hour bus with a hangover great enough to make the devil weep. I was still alive though and looking forward to returning to my lair of solitude where I belonged locked up alone with my own terrible madness.

After that occasion, I realised that there simply was just no way back to that farm of social normality. I had jumped the fence and got lost in the woods of madness with no chance of ever returning back. I was no longer one of the regular humans capable of being considered an upstanding, accepted member of society. With this in mind, I sat in silent solitude and decided that the only thing left to do was to abandon myself recklessly to the one thing that set my soul on fire: writing. Writing, writing, writing. If human society was the army of zombies closing in on me, then writing was my way of fighting them all off – my way of blasting away the darkness and keeping that flame of joy flickering bright in my heart. I opened up my laptop and stared at that familiar blank page. I lifted my hands and rode into war once more with words as weapons to fight my battles. My fingertips fought for freedom. For life. For sanity. For my own alien spirit.

In the meanwhile, life went on as it normally did. I worked those low-paying, menial jobs while staring into space and daydreaming about things to write down whenever I got home. As soon as I finished work each day, I marched through those concrete streets toward the keyboard to pour my thoughts onto the page. It had all become some sort of private religion of madness. Writing was the only thing I truly understood in my heart – it was the only time I felt at home when my fingertips hovered over those grubby keyboard keys. As human society buzzed on outside my window, I just sat alone in my room and wrote and wrote my way into oblivion. Other than that, I didn’t know where the hell I was going or what I was doing. I was at the point where I didn’t even care anymore. I was out of the farm of sanity, over the fences of normality, running with the wild horses barefoot and bewitched into the woods of madness. As planet earth continued rotating its way through an infinite universe, I just sat alone in my apartment incessantly hitting those keyboard keys, listening to ambient music, dreaming of exploring distant star systems, chained down to the earth by gravity and government – writing words and smiling to myself in the dark while sitting back and knowing that life was absurd.

Life was totally and beautifully: absurd.

the fighter

 

short stories

~ Natural Decay ~

~ Natural Decay ~

I was back home in England, it was a spring morning and I awoke with a rare sense of optimism for the day ahead. The sun was shining through the window, the flowers and trees were in bloom, and the sound of playing children could be heard from the street below. I went out to my apartment balcony and breathed in that air of new life. Ah yes, what a glorious day it was to be alive, I noted to myself. I then went to the toilet to take a piss. As I went about my business, I stood there and stared into the mirror. A little baggage under the eyes, but all in all not too bad. It was after a second or two that I saw it. I leaned it a little closer to make sure it wasn’t a trick of the lighting or something. But no – there it was. No way of avoiding it. In all its horror and terror and consternation: my first ever grey hair

    I took a sharp step back and began to process the situation. I then retreated to my room where I sat on my bed and stared into space, thinking about the gravity of it all. Twenty six – twenty bloody six and already past my best. I thought I was at the height of my youth and strength, but clearly I was already over the hill, on the downward descent into the abyss of death and darkness which eventually enveloped us all. The cosmic tides had turned and suddenly, in a matter of mere minutes, a light spring morning had given way to a dark winter night.

     While I contemplated my own mortality, I looked around at my room. I looked around at the walls and the clothes and the furniture. There was just simply no avoiding it. No matter what it was, eventually it all began to decay and degrade and die. The stitching on your clothes. The wallpaper on the walls. The hairs on your head. The flesh on your bones. The paintwork on your car. The paperwork in your portfolio. It seemed we all walked through life trying to create and build and own things, but eventually it all was destroyed by the entropy of the universe which swept everything back into the state of nonexistence, leaving it as cosmic dust floating through the galaxies of the universe. Nothing escaped. The diamonds turned to dust. The skyscrapers turned to dust. Buckingham palace turned to dust. The Queen. Chuck Norris. Kim Jong Un. All of it but transient waves in the great cosmic ocean of eternity.

    In the wake of this conflicting realisation, I gradually began to feel some sort of existential crisis sweep over me. Twenty bloody six, I repeated to myself. Twenty six and already starting to visibly decay. What next? Aching joints? Dementia? A hernia? A sudden liking for the sport of golf? 

     The horror of vividly facing my own mortality for the first time followed me everywhere. Everywhere I looked, I couldn’t help but witness the slow withering away of life before me. I was working in a bar at the time and it was one of those cheap dives where you could get drunk off a tenner. Because of this it attracted pensioners who had nothing better to do but to sit alone in silence, read the newspaper and drink themselves slowly and solemnly toward death. I watched as some men staggered up to the bar, hunch-back and frail, still fighting their fight to have just one more drink before they finally hit the canvas for good. A few of the guys who worked there called it ‘god’s waiting room’. And what a depressing waiting room it was. Full of weary-eyed souls who had worked hard and toiled away all their adult lives; now they were finally retired and able to enjoy their free time, but what good was that when you were too decrypted to go anywhere or do anything? What good was that when your beer belly left you slumped into a seat of submission? As I worked, I couldn’t help but let myself stare at them and think of my own future. Was that to be my fate in old age? Was that what awaited me after working all my life? If so, I should have been making the most of my life now! After all, I was just coming past the prime of my youth and yet, what was I currently doing in my life? Waving goodbye to my prime years while living alone in a dingy apartment, no friends or lover, and serving pints to people drinking themselves to death while daydreaming my life away as I stared emptily into time and space.

     Okay, maybe I was being a little dramatic on my part. All in all, my life wasn’t a total disaster, I suppose. By most people’s standards, I had had a lot of adventure for my years. I had travelled in many countries, climbed mountains, watched volcanoes erupt, had romances with exotic girls, got drunk on beautiful beaches under the light of the stars and full moon. I had even been the first person in my family to go to university (not that my degree had done me any good on the job front, evidently). Still, all of that just wasn’t enough for my restless soul. Though I had done those things, I hadn’t written any of my books; I hadn’t created something that would make me remembered for the next generations; I hadn’t even truly experienced a proper relationship. I had somehow gotten to this age without ever having an actual girlfriend. Clearly I still had so much left to do and see and explore, and time was ticking relentlessly on and on, making me the oldest I’d ever been every single day as I slowly lost my looks and strength and sanity and breath.

      Eventually the horror of it all became too much and I started looking into different philosophies to see if any of them could quell my existential dread. Doctrines like Zen Buddhism, Hinduism and Pantheism seemed to all have some good stuff, suggesting things like the universe being a playing of one great energy, a single divinity where we were all the godhead playing with itself in many different shapes and forms over and over again. We never died, for this energy was eternal, and it could never be destroyed but only change shape into something else. Only our ‘ego’ died, but this was just a hallucination of the mind anyway. Overall it was a nice theory which quelled my dread for a while as I retreated into monk mode, meditating hours each day, gradually feeling detached from everything as an expression of universal energy that was eternal and infinite as the cosmos itself.

      This worked well but after a while the sirens in my mind started wailing out again. Facing those morning mirrors of realisation, I saw the sinister hand of death leaving further marks and blemishes upon me. One day I discovered a couple more grey hairs on my head. On top of this, the wrinkles on my skin seemed to become more visible week by week. Even going out to bars, I realised I was now older than the majority of people around me. To round it all off, my hangovers now lasted two days instead of one. Yes, there was just no way around it. All of a sudden I had gotten old, just like the psychedelic philosophers Pink Floyd had warned me:

“Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain.

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking

Racing around to come up behind you again.

The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,

Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

     Roger Waters had written it correct. Time just passed us by with every year feeling shorter than the last, until whole years and decades seemed to have disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving you sitting on sofas in suburban homes and staring idly into space, wondering where the hell the time all went. Thinking about that while looking out at those weary-eyed pensioners at work, I decided I still had so much to do. I wanted to see the world more than ever, to climb the mountains and spar face to face with the rugged face of life itself. I wanted to have great love affairs. I wanted to write the greatest poetry of my generation. I wanted it all and I wanted it now! 

     Yes, it was safe to say that I couldn’t ignore that restless desire to live my life to the full, so in the end I abandoned any doctrines or philosophies that gave me peace and decided to rage against the dying of the light, just as the poet Dylan Thomas had once pleaded to his dying father. To me it seemed the only way to deal with getting old. How else did a man or woman realistically face their own mortality? How else did we face the fact that eventually everything we ever felt and did would be lost forever in space and time? I guess for many people that was the beauty of life – its transient nature. Like footprints in wet sand, our lives were so fleeting and fragile – temporary cosmic patterns which eventually succumbed to the tides of transience as they were swept back into the ocean of eternity. And that’s what made it all so beautiful for some people. Just like with my travelling adventures, it was bittersweet and pretty because everything that happened on the road eventually disappeared into the hazy mists of the past as you stood reminiscing about your adventures while pouring pints in a grotty bar back in your home country.

      Reflecting further back on my travels while pouring those pints and contemplating my own mortality, I recalled my time in Rio de Janeiro. In particular, I remembered two middle-aged men I had met there, both of them of different stances about their individual descent towards death and darkness. One was a forty five year old Greek guy. I had met him in my hostel on Christmas day while drinking Caipirinhas in the reception. We ended up heading down to the beach together to drink some beers and soak in the sun. As we sat and stared out at the blue Atlantic ocean, I listened to the tales of his life. He spoke about how we shouldn’t be burdened by our age, of how it was never too old to travel and try something new. He had just about done it all it seemed: the travelling, the marriage, the divorce, the jobs, the alcoholism. And now, after just leaving everything behind, he was here looking to open a hostel and start a new life in Brazil. 

     “Age is just a number. Of course, it’s a cliche, but it’s true. Don’t worry my friend, you can keep travelling and living the life you want to live no matter what your age. Look at me, I’m proof of that. I was travelling at your age, went home and settled down for some years, and now I’m picking up the backpack again and venturing back out into the world. There is enough time for all of us. Don’t pay so much attention to a simple number.”

      “That’s a nice way to look at it,” I said. “But is there any part of you that regrets you didn’t carry on travelling and living this life while you were still young? You know it’s a different experience at my age, isn’t it?”

      “Not at all,” he said. “There is so much to experience in life and it can all be enjoyed at any age. Take your time. Don’t rush. Whatever is coming to you, will come. Don’t think because you are young you have to do all the adventurous stuff now. Hell, I have met people who went travelling for the first time in their 50s and 60s. Just do what feels right in your heart and don’t worry about doing certain things at certain ages.” 

     I respected his confidence and laid back attitude to age and life. I also respected that he hadn’t let the fact of getting old give up on his dream of opening a hostel. Like he said, there was enough time for all of us, so why rush? Why force things? We could still keep our youthful nature and hunger as the years passed us by. Age was just a number after all, even the grey hairs and wrinkles tried to convince you otherwise.

     It was just two days later I came across a Swedish guy who made me think a little differently. He was more or less the same age as the Greek guy. He seemed like a normal traveller at first, a little shy if anything, but after chatting about life over a few beers at the hostel bar, he started spilling his pain and fear and frustration at his aging flesh and bones.

      “Yeah you know, you are young,” he told me in a bitter tone. “Only twenty-two. You have lots of time to travel and see the world, but when you get to my age it’s not so easy. This is my last trip. I can feel my body wants to have children before it is too late. I want to be settled. I need to find a woman. It is time for me to have children. I can’t resist this urge. I need to find myself a woman.”

     I found his directness about his reproductive desires a little strange to say the least, especially considering that I had only just met him, but I got into the swing of it and entertained his madness. As he drank more beer, his despair and desperation poured out of him to the point where it was awkward for everyone else in the group of backpackers that were also drinking at the bar. No matter what the conversation was about, he somehow turned it back to his age and his broodiness. It made me sad and got me thinking about how I didn’t want to end up like that man, being sent insane by my age as the clock ticked relentlessly on before your eyes. If you really wanted to do something in life, then you needed to get it done before that time ran out and left you in a constant state of panic and anxiety and inner conflict.

     Being forty and having regrets was one thing, but at the extreme end of the scale were the elderly people who were now no longer even physically capable of doing anything about their regrets. In particular I thought of my seventy-year old uncle who I had bumped into walking down a street in my hometown the Christmas before. After saying hello, we started catching up and chatting about life. Eventually I told him all about my travels out in the world from the last years. As I did, I could see a look of bewitched curiosity in his eye, but also one of slight sadness. He went on to tell me how he wished he could do all of that stuff now, and how he should have done it when he was young, but now he was too old and living in an old people’s village which he didn’t sound particularly fond about. “Good on you kid,” he told me. “Go out and do it while you’re young. Retirement is not all it’s cracked up to be, you know. I wish I could do what you’re doing instead.” He patted me on the shoulder, gave a smile and then stumbled off down the street back to his retirement village, leaving me feeling a bit sad about the whole thing to be honest.

     That encounter stuck with me and made me think about how many souls were out there drifting through life, passively letting the years slip them by while idly just doing what was safe and expected of them by peers and parents and colleagues. You heard it all the time: people on their deathbed wishing they had done more, been a little braver, not worked so much, not tried to please everyone else but to follow their heart and trust their own voice through the wilderness of life. Remembering that conversation with my uncle, and the broody Swedish man, I felt that my mind was made up even more than ever that I was going to put the pedal down a little further and experience life at full velocity. Working at that depressing bar in the meanwhile, I made sure to retreat home and get to work on my books as much as possible. I made sure to keep planning my next adventures, to go running in the rain and tell people the things I felt in my heart. I made sure to walk out onto the shores of life and experience its storm full force so that I could soak in every last moment of what it was to exist as a sentient organism, riding a rotating rock of jungles, mountains, rivers and oceans through an infinite universe.

    Ultimately, I guess this insatiable desire to experience life to the max was one of the main reasons I lived my life like I did. At my core, I couldn’t accept the snail’s pace existence of everyday civilian life. I couldn’t accept the monotonous routine, the television culture, the shopping malls, the small-talk, repetitive tasks, and mundane expectations that took the light from your eye and the fire from your spirit. It all seemed like some sort of big joke to me. You didn’t exist for eternity, and yet here you were: a quick flash of existence before disappearing again forever, yet some people used this to plod along through life, burying their inner desires, working all their lives at a job they didn’t like just to come home and sit in front of a virtual reproduction of life until they went to sleep. Then they would use the money they gave their time up for to buy stuff they really didn’t need. To top it off, some people’s greatest dream was to become the head of their work department and boss around a few bored people in a dusty office room. Sometimes it all seemed like a great big comedy act, as outrageous and absurd to me as human existence itself.

     Well personally I tip my philosopher’s cap and say: fuck it to all of it. Life is not a rehearsal or a warm up act. It is not some show on television that can be replayed and re-watched at a later date. No, this is it: the real thing, here and now – the cinematic experience of your precious one life in vivid colour. You don’t let this weird and wonderful gift slip you by as you slowly decay away, but you go out and you make your stand. You walk wide-eyed into the wilderness. You let the adventures become scratched into your skin and the sunsets seared into your soul. You let yourself explore your inner and outer worlds to the full. You let yourself be free. You let yourself be alive!

     Yes, feeling that angst for existence in my bones, I thought of that grey hair on my head, of the men drinking themselves to death in dank bars, of my uncle in the old people’s home, of the man in Rio terrified at the of his own ageing flesh and bones. Every last cell of me wanted to rage and rebel against it all. And in the end, that’s exactly what I did. This is why I’m writing this book, I guess. Maybe these words will live on after I die, and I’ll have found a way to somehow keep myself alive in the hearts of others. But most likely these words will be read by a tiny amount of people, and then forgotten. Just like me. Just like you. Just like everyone else eventually.

     Oh well, what else can a man do to escape his own fleeting mediocre existence? Where else can he turn to to stop himself being consumed by the ravages of time and decay? Reckless rebellion, that’s what! Well this is me sticking a middle finger up to death and darkness and the inevitable descent into old age that awaits us all. Time may break me down, the hairs on my head may grey, and the skin may wrinkle, but I will keep on hunting those horizons. I will keep on writing these books, climbing those mountains, travelling the world with eyes full of fire and a mind full of madness. I will keep on fighting the good fight with all my heart and might and blood and guts. The grey hairs can get wither away and die slowly, but this fire inside will keep blazing as the darkness approaches. I guess at my core I’m just too stubborn to go into that good night without a little resistance. Without a little fight. 

Without a little rage against the dying of the light.

man walking toward sun.jpeg

short stories

~ A World Not Made For Lovers ~

~ A World Not Made For Lovers ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Man up.”

     “Learn to play the game like everyone else.”

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

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