short stories

~ Why ~

solitude

~ Why? ~

The dream faded from sight as my eyes opened to the reality of my room. I didn’t bother to check the time, but the light penetrating the small gap in between my curtains made it clear once again: another day of existence had begun. 

I lay flat and limp on my bed, casting my eyes outward toward the window. Suddenly I felt a shudder surge through my body. I knew that out there beyond that glass the human race was preparing for another day of battle. Right now alarm clocks were bleeping, ties were being tightened, ignitions being turned and traffic jams forming. Soon the workstations would be manned, fake smiles would be cast, hands shook, lies told, deals made – economic and political doctrines successfully enforced and followed. On the streets the pedestrians would be marching along those grey sidewalks pulled along by some vague meaning and purpose for life. Their hands would be clutching and clinging onto briefcases, or shopping bags, or lottery tickets, or holy books, or beer bottles, or prescription medicines, something – anything. Throughout the course of their day advertisements would be consumed, newspapers read and lies believed. Meanwhile the politicians and businessmen would be sat in offices plotting and conspiring the latest activities of corruption and self-interest. 

Such ferocious absurdity was not just taking place in this city, or this country, or this continent, but across the entire goddamn planet. The thought of what was out there was enough to turn my face into my pillow and retreat into my own dark cave of isolation. Humanity and its strange ways were as relentless as the English rain, and burying my head in the sand often seemed like a good alternative to going out there and joining in with the madness. Unfortunately my existence on planet earth was subject to the concept of money. My temporary peace and solitude was afforded by the few remaining pounds I had in my bank account which had been continually dwindling down and down to the last three digits. A gradual realisation had been dawning on me and I knew that there was no avoiding it any longer. It was time. My name had been called; my letter of conscription typed. I knew it was time to go out there and join the war, to face the firing squad – to let myself be beaten and bludgeoned by the companies and bosses and executives.

I got out of bed, got dressed and headed into the kitchen of my flat. There my roommate was cooking breakfast. He glanced at me with a judgmental look.  “So what are you going to do today?” he said. “Have you started looking for a job yet? You know that our rent is due tomorrow right?” 

     “I started looking a few days ago” I lied. “I should have something sorted out for the end of the week.” 

     “That’s great, but you have the money for rent right?”

     “Yes.”

    “And also for the bills – the internet and electricity?”

     “Yes.” 

He nodded in satisfaction and carried on moving erratically around the cooker. I grabbed my cereal from a cupboard and began pouring a bowl, trying to avoid further conversation with him. I didn’t really have anything against him, it’s just that frankly talking to him was a strained affair for all parties involved. To be honest I often wondered how I had ended up cooped up with this creature in a small flat. He was a strange one. For one he happened to be the only gay person I knew who opposed the gay marriage (on account of his Christian faith). When I moved in he had claimed he was a people person but that started to seem dubious when he came home every day angry and sour-faced from his bus driving job telling me how much he hated everyone in this town. “Those fucking people!” he would curse as he recalled his day to me. “I want to kill those fucking people!” He once devised a grand plan to escape to Austria to live a quiet life in the mountains, but that had failed and had left him come crawling back to England with sad and bewildered eyes. I kinda felt sorry for the damn guy to be honest. Here he was: unhappily single, balding, thirty-five, and had already spent his entire youth stressing and butchering away his best years. It was obvious he was lost, but that was okay – everybody was secretly lost in some way, it’s just that some people hid it a little better than others.

I finished making my cereal and retreated to the lounge to eat alone at the table. I sat down with my laptop beside me. After a few minutes of mindlessly staring into the vacuum of space and time, a thought entered my brain. I decided that I better search the latest job adverts; I did need a job after all. I started searching and for a moment I was quite optimistic; I imagined that maybe there would be something out there that interested me. Perhaps working in the local national parks outside the city, or doing something somewhere in solitude. Precious solitude – yes, yes, that would be enough! But predictably the search returned nothing of the kind. The majority of jobs were commission-based sales jobs which were designed for charismatic extroverts who could bark their way to scamming some senile elderly person out of their retirement savings. I could imagine some goblin-eyed boss putting his hand on my shoulder and telling me “good job kiddo” after conning some eighty-year-old out of her rainy day fund. Besides the sales jobs there were also some retail vacancies, which of course meant interacting with hordes of humans throughout the day. In the end, I gave up and decided I’d just go to the employment agency to see what grool they had on their own menu. I closed my laptop, slumped back into my chair and stared out of the window. 

As I looked out into the skies above the surrounding apartment blocks and houses, I suddenly started to feel a bit down about everything. The whole thought of going out there and joining in with the human race filled me with dread and despair. Why couldn’t life just be a fun adventure, I wondered once more. It was a thought that went through my mind at least one hundred and twenty-seven times a day. Often I’d find myself getting philosophical about everything and lamenting the banality of everyday life. I mean, you couldn’t get away from it. Every day the average human-being was awakened by an alarm clock to again face the absurdity of citizen-based existence. Here you were: an intelligent being that floated through space on a twirling, organic spaceship in a universe filled with black-holes, shooting stars and infinite horizons. And yet you were subjected by gravity and government to live in a world of monotony and mediocrity. Instead of sailing through the cosmos, you’d stutter through traffic jams; instead of exploring the earth, you’d explore supermarket aisles; instead of writing poetry, you’d write up tax-returns. Why was it like this, I wondered over a bowl of sugar-free, low-fat cornflakes.

articles · short stories

~ The Comfortable Life ~

the comfortable life

~ The Comfortable Life ~

I stood at the top of the hill above the city, looking out at the sprawling concrete jungle before me. It was a world our hunter-gatherer ancestors could not have imagined in their wildest dreams. A whole society living indoors, buying processed and packaged meat from supermarkets, getting everything delivered to their front door and communicating with each other via satellite signals. Lives lived behind desks staring at screens rather than sunsets, chasing promotions rather than prey, climbing career ladders rather than mountains. Lives of sedentary comfort but existential pain; lives of technological development but spiritual emptiness. A life – ultimately – not for me.

It had been just two weeks working an office job and sitting behind a desk all day only to come home to my apartment and sit and stare at another screen. Already I was beginning to see how I was slowly being moulded and melded down into a life of systematic routine. Each morning I awoke at the same time to the alarm clock. I then walked to work and watched the same cars stutter through the traffic jams. The day, on the whole, played out exactly the same as the last one without any real surprise or novelty. This is how it was for masses of people out there: each day sitting behind a desk and staring at a screen before you came home and sank into a sofa to watch yet another screen. Gradually you sank so far into that sofa that your dreams and desires disappeared down the sides. The curtains were drawn along with your creativity and curiosity. From society’s point of view, you were an accepted member of civilisation who had found your groove in the grand scheme of things. You fitted neatly into the system and your life became some sort of well-polished pair of shoes, shiny car or well-groomed lawn outside a suburban home. Things were pretty on the face of things, yet beneath that superficial surface, the spirit began to wane. Too much comfort killed a person. Murdered them. Left them with a tamed spirit and an idle mind. Left them unable to think for themselves.

It was the way of modern society that was now accepted as ‘the real world’. Personally I felt it was a hollow existence but what was the alternative? Running off into the wilderness often seemed like a good option. Sure, I knew that the wilderness was full of things that wanted to kill you. Storms could drown you. Mountains could freeze your toes. Rocks could break your bones. Animals could poison you and tear your flesh apart. It wasn’t quite the easy everyday existence of modern life no doubt, but it seemed a sacrifice that was worth making sometimes. I thought back to my hiking trips in the Himalayas. There were times where my adventures had led me to the precipice of death and destruction; there were times where the feet blistered and my brain ached with apprehension and doubt. But, in those times, there was something that stirred my soul and made the blood flow through full-speed through my veins. That something was a something that was extremely difficult to find in the everyday life of the citizen in modern Western society – a something that just didn’t seem compatible with the life expected of you by your peers and parents.

Of course, the consumer capitalists argue that anyone who thinks differently should go back to the prehistoric ages and live in a cave and hunt boar with a spear or something. They’d argue you’d live twice as long now as you did back then when we didn’t have our comfortable lives, cubicles, smartphones and our takeaway delivery systems. It was a reasonable argument I guess, but I could see people who have made it to eighty yet not lived at all. People stuck in lives that led to obesity, heart disease and vitamin depletion from being stuck inside all day. Then came the mental health problems that this society caused. The anxiety, stress, depression and quiet desperation that haunted the hearts of so many people out there. Seemingly there is a price to pay for all our industrial development; there is something that is twisting and tearing us up because deep down we know that we were not meant to live this way. Our evolution has taken us to a weird place where we now don’t have to worry about dying of disease at thirty-five, but instead we work jobs we don’t like and use that money to pay for therapy and drown our sorrows at the weekend.

As always, I kept my eyes open and looked to find a way to liberate myself from the entrapments of the system. I was from the U.K and there wasn’t much wilderness around apart from the odd country park. So my plan was just to keep saving up some money to afford myself some far-off adventure every now and again to remind myself that it was to be truly alive. That was the trick I had been doing so far, and it seemed to work, always reinvigorating my soul with a sense of life that was sorely missed in the monotony of the work routine. That spell of chaotic adventure every year was truly valuable, and I knew it would be the thing to reach for whenever I felt my spirit slowly being sucked and swallowed up by that sofa of submission.

That sofa of submission was always waiting for you and the thought of it made me recall an elderly guy I used to serve in the supermarket I used to work at. Like me, his life and happiness were dependent on a bit of adventure. He had kept himself in great shape all his life due to regularly going mountaineering, running and on long cross-country bike rides. One day he was up in Scotland when he had a bike accident which permanently damaged his right hip and leg. Consequently, at the age of seventy, his days of venturing out into the wilderness had come to an abrupt end. He was now left to embrace the comfortable life. We spoke often about life in the store while I told him about the latest adventure I had planned and he told me about his new state of being. He wasn’t suicidal or something, but I could sense a sadness in his voice. Confined to his small bungalow, his life was now dependent on television, reading and the same old walk around the neighbourhood. Consequently, I could see that once blazing light in his eyes slowly begin to fade. He was now one of the many comfortable souls out there and the special energy he had had before the accident quickly began to fade. 

Still, at least he had tasted the thrill of an adventure for the majority of his life, which was not something said for many people out there. So many will never know the beauty of jumping the fence of security and allowing themselves to become a little scratched and scarred by the rugged wilderness. So many will never taste the joy of not knowing what is around the next corner or where you will sleep that night. Such a way of life is becoming increasingly alien and the comfortable, sedentary life will only get worse from here. Soon the sex robotos will be here and people will no longer even leave their houses. Soon the food will come through pipes in the ground like water and gas. Soon the Amazon drones will deliver your latest gadgets and gizmos through your window and we will all lie on sofas working from our computers. The wilderness will disappear from the earth’s surface as well as in the majority of people’s hearts. Our souls will be paved and tarmacked over. Our minds will be connected to the internet and there will be no unique or original thought anywhere. Life will become easy and safe and predictable and boring beyond words.

It’s a way of life increasingly hard to avoid but I guess I’ll just keep resisting the system and letting myself get lost in the wild every now and again. I know, I know. Those rocks can break your bones, storms can drown you, mountains freeze your toes and animals poison you and tear your flesh apart. If I die early on some mountain-path, please know I died content with the thought I at least knew what it was to taste the thrill of adventure. That I had explored the unknown and not let myself be spiritually murdered by the mundane. This is the way life that will keep me alive to the end; a way of life that will see me happy to bid it farewell when my time is done. Not a slow and safe march to the grave down a grey highway of routine, television and weekend drinking, but a thrilling run through the wilderness that leaves you screaming for more.

“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine – it’s lethal.” – Paulo Coehlo

short stories

~ Beaten ~

beaten

~ Beaten ~

Eyes full of sickness and sadness, I stared at the dancefloor with a feeling of resentment. There they all were: those happy people with their happy faces. They moved effortlessly across the floor like they moved effortlessly through life. No doubt they all lived sane and orderly lives of structure and stability. They didn’t know my pain, my madness. They didn’t know what it was like to linger always on the sidelines and stare in from the outside. I stood there doing exactly that, leaning on the bar while watching them as they moved and grooved. I downed a double whiskey coke while continuing my ethnographic observation. I drank another one then realised my friend had left with a girl. I looked around for any possible chance with a female before conceding defeat and heading for the door.

Exiting the bar and stumbling down the street, my eyes beheld a jungle of kebab shops and neon lights leading me through the city centre. I watched as drunken revellers shouted, scoffed food and clambered into taxis. The human race was a wild species that had been tamed by its own creation of civilisation, but there was still a certain level of anarchy we allowed to unfold. This was best witnessed at 4am on highstreets full of broken bottles and broken minds; on highstreets where couples stood screaming at each other; on highstreets bearing piles of puke that were symbolic of the inner sickness of society. The sight of it all made me sad and it was at this point I remembered that it was my first time in Sheffield and I was supposed to be staying with my mate who had disappeared with a girl. I had no battery on my phone to contact him and suddenly found myself in the situation of having nowhere to sleep. Not an ideal situation admittedly, but by that point I was too drunk to care. Lost in the blur, I carried on staggering down the sidewalk until three men started speaking to me. I must have done or said something slightly disagreeable because the next thing I know I was getting the shit kicked out of me on the floor. Kicks and punches rained down upon me. My body grinded against the pavement. Venomous words of hate filled my ears. The beating continued for a good thirty seconds until the blurry figures ran off and disappeared out of sight. I picked myself up and assessed the damage. Blood dripped from above my left eye as my ribs ached and hip throbbed with a friction burn from the concrete. I knew immediately that my body was going to have more scars – more symbols of the destruction of my life etched permanently into my skin and flesh. 

Still not knowing what to do or where to go, I wandered around the early morning streets of Sheffield city centre while looking like someone from a horror movie. I didn’t have anywhere really to go and just kept stumbling around in a drunken daze. Eventually a police woman picked me up after some bystander spotted me in my gory state. I told her what had happened as she drove me around town in her car. I guess I was expecting to get taken to a hospital, or perhaps to the police station to file a report, but in the end she just cleared up my wound and dropped me outside a closed train station. I got out of the car and stood there alone in the cold winter night wearing just a t-shirt. Cuts to the public services in Britain had resulted in this – underfunded and overstretched, they looked for any way to avoid you utilising them. Consequently I stood there shivering and staring into the empty station, waiting for the damn thing to open. My ticket wasn’t until noon, but I was just going to board any train I could. If only there was a train off this planet, I pondered. 

Finally the station opened and I went inside and sat down watching the smartly-dressed business people get ready for another day at work. I watched the mothers quickly glance at me and look away in horror. I watched the little kids snicker and gossip about the wounds on my face. Those looks followed me onto the train where I tried to sleep but was woken up by a ticket inspector who told me my ticket was invalid for the current service I was on. I got out my card and paid for a new one as the conductor kept his distance. Thirty minutes later, I arrived in Derby where I was meant to switch trains to Nottingham. Looking at the board, I could see it would be another fifty minute wait in the cold until I could catch the connecting train. Suddenly it was all too much and I left the station and paid for a £40 taxi back home.

I think it was about 3pm in the afternoon when I awoke finally sober. Being too tired to clean myself first, I had collapsed onto the bed and left bloodstains all over the sheets. I grabbed them and threw them in the laundry. I then went into the bathroom and stared at my beaten face in the mirror. Back in a normal state of mind, I could finally see the severity of the beating I took. There were deep cuts, bruising and bumps around the left eye, as well as a few scratches on the right. It was a sorry sight to behold and I suddenly remembered that I was supposed to be going on a date with a girl later that evening. Maybe it could be rearranged, I thought. I then spoke to a friend on the phone who convinced me to head to the hospital to check for a concussion. I walked there for an hour as people continued to look at me like some sort of circus freak. I reached the hospital and stood looking up at that sad building with its rows and rows of windows. Windows in which the dying lay dying – windows in which those old hearts beat their last beats, those lungs gasped their last breaths and those eyes soaked in their last bit of light. I guess that’s where we all end up, maybe with a few relatives and flowers beside us if we are lucky. I headed in where the doctor inspected me and told me that I didn’t have a concussion but that I needed to be careful. I asked if there was anything I could do to stop the scarring around my eye. No solid advice was given. 

All things considered, I sat back and knew it had truly been a night of disaster. Perhaps the most disastrous of any night out I had, and there had been a few dramas along the way. I thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, but apparently the gods had a few more tricks up their sleeves. When I returned home I checked my jean pockets and realised I had lost my passport at some point during the night. I also remembered that I was supposed to be starting a new job in a few days, and that I would have to turn up on my first day with my face looking like I had just ten rounds with Mike Tyson. That’s not to mention what the girl would think of me when I showed up to the date. It was a sorry state of affairs and all of a sudden a strange feeling fell over me. I touched the wounds on my face and felt like crying. It was the realisation of the horror and futility of it all. The world was relentless pain and agony, and no matter how good things got, you were always just a short way away from being stamped down by the boots and fists of life. I was only one week into the new year and already it was looking to be another one of misery and destruction. It was a depressing thought and I went into the bathroom to once again stare at my gory reflection in the mirror. I was beaten – scratched and scarred and stained with a dirt of which I’d never be clean. It was a sight I had beheld many times in my life – physical and mental wounds that gathered over the years – wounds that told the story of what each human faced on their path through life.

I continued wallowing in my self-pity until something strange happened. Out of nowhere, I burst out laughing. I looked in the mirror and laughed and laughed until my stomach hurt. I walked back into my bedroom and laughed some more. I even did a little dance in front of my wardrobe mirror while marvelling at the absurdity of my appearance. The misery subsided and I felt a strange determination within me. It was something that always appeared in moments where I was truly in the swamp of despair. The more this world tried to stamp me down, the more I just wanted to rise up against it and bare the blows. Maybe I was losing my mind completely, but I was going to make sure that life would be lived before death had its dirty way with me. With that thought in mind, I cleaned my cuts up some more, showered, drank a beer and got dressed for my date. 

It was going to be another magical evening.

short stories

~ The Barriers ~

pexels-photo-764880

~ The Barriers ~

It was date number seven and she sat across the table as I prepared to finally reveal who I really was. We had been dating for a couple of weeks and on each date I had put on a mask and played up to the image of a regular guy. She was a girl who wanted the normal life; whose principles were founded on what was established and trusted by the majority. Because of this, on previous dates I had hidden my true face. I had pretended that I was a straightforward guy, a follower of mainstream culture who wanted the quiet suburban life complete with the steady career, nice car and a few miniature humans running around on a rug in the front room. In reality I was none of those things, but I had come up with a plan to get close to her and see if I could be accepted by slowly revealing my true nature. So far it had worked well; in just a couple of weeks, we had already formed a close bond. Beds and kisses had been shared, hands had been held and eyes stared into. Now, finally feeling free enough to reveal who I was, I let go and spoke from the heart about how I really felt about life. I spoke about my desire to create art and live a life that was true to my own values and not those of society’s. As my mask lay on the table and my truth poured out of me, I could see a look in her eyes which I had not seen previously. It was not a positive one. It was a look of disappointment; a striking look of sudden distance. In those eyes, I watched her mentally pack her bags and sprint off over the horizon like some sort of scared deer. Clearly the truth of me was enough to make her distance herself immediately and leave me alone with my heart in my hands. It didn’t matter about the bond we had made in the previous meetings. It didn’t matter about the kisses and the laughs and the tender moments of connection. I was not compatible with her reality and everything from our previous meetings had suddenly been thrown out the window. Everything had changed in an instant.

Following that conversation, we got up and left the bar. We kissed and said goodbye and I said I’d see her soon, but we both knew there and then that something had changed beyond repair. I watched her turn to leave and head home up the road as I stood alone in the winter night. I then walked home in that chilling cold, my breath in front of me, the flickering street lights illuminating the vapour of my lungs – the twisted tree branches hanging above like the sinister hands of madness snaking their way down to finally snatch me away for good. By the time I was back in my room, I knew for certain that it was all over. There was no way I’d see her again. Her ship had set sail and I lay there on the bed sinking into the depths of the earth. My heart ached and I stared up at the ceiling thinking about all those other souls out there lying on beds alone, losing their minds and aching in their bones for some basic form of human connection, but never being able to find it because of who they really were on the inside. The pain I felt was strong but not completely foreign. From a young age all I had wanted to feel some basic human connection, but never once had I been able to find it completely. Yes, I knew I was a little odd and perhaps even a little crazy, but I thought if I could try to be one of them for a while, make a connection with someone and then slowly reveal who I really was from beneath their radar, that there just might be a chance that there would be a home for me inside the heart of another. This crazy little experiment of mine had predictably proved that wrong. I was back in my room of isolation facing those walls yet again. Those walls that closed in year by year. Those walls that would eventually be my tomb.

The next day the text arrived in my inbox. “I’m sorry; I think you’re great. I’ve had a really good time together, but I don’t think we should see each other any more.” It came as no surprise at that point. I had seen the rejection in her eyes the night before at the bar; the text just told me in words what that look had already shown me. It was a depressing thought but when I really thought about it, it wasn’t just the rejection of her that killed me inside; it was the rejection of myself from humanity in general. This wasn’t the first time I had been cast out after taking off my social mask. Every time I had opened up and tried to connect to another person from the level of who I really was, I had been looked at strangely and kept at a distance like some sort of diseased animal. There was a criteria that most people seemed to stick to when selecting who would enter their lives – a criteria I simply did not fit. Those cold looks of dismissal always left me feeling like I would always be walking those cold streets alone, returning to those dark rooms of isolation and staring up at ceilings until I eventually lost my mind completely. 

The most painful thing was that in her eyes that night in the bar I could see a level of understanding. Like she recognised and understood where I was coming from, perhaps even an element of respect for choosing to walk my own path, but she could not let someone like that be a part of her life. In her eyes I saw the barriers that kept the outsiders at bay. I knew that there were others out there who felt that a life of following a set path was a suppressed form of existence; that life was meant to be lived and not to driftly through following safe and established cultural patterns. I think everyone knows it deep somewhere inside. Our hearts all scream out for true freedom from the system at some point. But for the safety of their own social sanity and acceptance of the crowd, people raise the barrier and don’t let anyone different from the tribe in. The social validation was simply too gratifying; the place among the crowd too comfortable. It was the same in the books I had written. People said they understood my pain and where I was coming from. They told me how it made them feel free and good inside to hear a voice scream out from the wild. Yet, no one ever thought to do the same and stand apart from the crowd and follow their own path. There was something in the way that stopped people from coming to my side of the fence. Everybody wished to be themselves and posted Instagram quotes of it, but so very few were truly willing to walk the walk.

As always I didn’t understand the complexities of human nature and for the next few days I walked the streets again scanning for someone or something. A part of me had resided myself to a life of isolation but the loneliness soon made me search for a look in the eye of someone who might have a place for me in their own story. I couldn’t find anyone I could bring myself to talk to so I ventured back to the dating apps, scrolling, swiping and searching for someone that might understand. Eventually I got speaking to one girl who shared some mutual interests. We started dating and again everything was going well for a while. It was about one month in and again I opened up and started to show her a bit of my real character. I expressed myself from the soul and shared my truth with her. I thought this was it; someone who would let me in and unite under the same banner of freedom. But slowly her eyes dimmed out of interest and attraction. I only saw the same look in her eyes that I had seen from the other girl that night in the bar. It was a look that would haunt me until the day I died. A look that showed the barriers that would make my life one of loneliness and isolation. The barriers that people raised to keep the outsiders in the darkness. The barriers that kept the wilderness at bay. 

The barriers that would just not let me in.

short stories

~ Finding the Others ~

finding the others

~ Finding the Others ~

It was another riveting day of sitting at home, staring at the walls and longing for some basic form of human connection. I looked around my room and saw the type of mess only created by a single man living alone. It had been another shameless period of solitude filled with writing, drinking, masturbation and late-night ventures through the virtual wilderness of the internet. For the last two weeks, my only interactions with humanity had been done via satellite signals and electronic devices. I had vented to some strangers on Reddit, argued with people on Youtube and Facebook messaged old travel friends who I was probably never going to see again. It was the modern type of isolation and I thought about my scenario and laughed at the sheer absurdity of it. I now lived in a world where I was able to speak to someone in South America, but not in the same building I was living in. No doubt that apartment block was full of lonely souls all around me: dozens of people living together under one roof, but all separated by some shoddy walls. Like society in general, everyone was so close and so far at the same time. It was a strange state of affairs and in a moment of restless frustration, I removed myself from my lair to hit those grey streets in search of someone or something.

I exited the building and started heading towards the city centre. As I did, I looked around at the people passing me on the streets. I saw the businessmen on their way home from work. I saw mothers pushing prams, students carrying beer back to their halls, well-dressed couples holding hands on their way to dates. I saw many types of people, but very few I could be sure I’d be able to connect with. So often I stared into the eyes of the human race wondering where my fellow misfits were hiding. I guess I did need to see one or two of them every now and again. After all, a part of what it is to be human is to find your tribe; to find your people who make you feel like you aren’t alone in your own state of being. It’s why the hippies wear flowers and dread their hair. It’s why the pill-poppers go to raves. It’s why Trump supporters go to country music festivals. We all crave social validation and to be with people who share our perspectives and give us a sense of belonging. We had been doing it since we were tribes roaming the plains of Africa and nothing had changed in the environment of the modern world. Even though I was well-experienced with the act of being alone, I too felt the need to stare into the eyes of someone who also felt like they had been accidentally dropped off on the wrong planet.

A philosopher I listened to called Terence Mckenna had once told me how important in life it was to ‘find the others’. I guess that was what I had been doing in some way while out on my backpacking adventures. Over the years of bumbling around the world, I had naturally come across a few of my extraterrestrial clan along the way. I had met them in the random sort of places people like myself would inevitably end up. Budget hostels. Rundown bars. Long-distance bus rides. Minimum wage, low-skilled jobs.

One situation that came to mind was when I was working in New Zealand. I had arrived in the country with just a few hundred pounds and had been getting by off any type of work I could find. After doing a few agricultural jobs, I had ended up working for a crooked labour agency in some small town. The bosses knew how desperate their staff were for work and consequently assigned you terrible jobs that paid nor more than the minimum wage. It was the type of agency where people who didn’t have much of a clue what they were doing in life ended up, so it was only natural that I had found my way to the front door. Hell, it even appeared that a couple of the others had ended up there too. First was a guy from England who claimed he had never written a CV or been to a job interview in his life. He had spent the last four years working for a cheffing agency before blowing all his savings in Asia and limping into New Zealand with just a few dollars in the bank. The other was a Dutch guy living out of his van – a fellow introverted writer who was out on a soul-searching voyage around the world. We ended up working together on the same tasks and quickly discovered we shared similar eccentric views and perspectives on the world. I was able to talk freely with them about certain philosophies or ideas without being met by the usual looks of consternation and horror. It was a rare and refreshing moment of belonging, and we continued to converse regularly online after we went our separate ways.

Another one of the others I recalled was a depressed French guy I had met in Nepal. We had connected over a few remarks during a group dinner and within days we were chilling together on the roof of his hotel while drinking beer and discussing the meaning of life. He was a wanderer like myself – a person whose plans changed by the day and who had so many ideas that he was perpetually unsure with what direction to take in life. One moment he was moving to Australia, the next to Iran, the next to Russia. As the week went on, we continued to meet up and share the contents of our minds. Conversations were had regarding literature, women, conspiracies, cults and society before we eventually scurried back off into the wilderness to continue our own existential journey through life. Again, we kept in contact after we parted ways.

Besides those guys, I also had met a few more of the others somewhere in the world. Sometimes it was for a minute, sometimes it was for a day – sometimes a few weeks or months. Those wanderers were now sporadically dotted around the world – my comrades of isolation holed up in dark rooms while also engaging in the same everyday struggles that I knew. Of course, it was slightly easier to find a few of my tribe on those bohemian adventures, but for now I was living in a new city back in the U.K and I knew they would be slightly harder to locate. Still, I was determined they were out there somewhere and I kept roaming those streets like a man on safari, hunting for a rare species. I stared into the eyes of those people standing in supermarket queues. I watched the body language of people in crowds that formed at traffic lights. I eavesdropped on conversations in bars, hoping for a certain type of conversation: people with awkward demeanours talking about art or existence or philosophy – any reference to any esoteric thing which might indicate they were also hopelessly out of sync with their surrounding society.

Naturally you had to be careful about the sort of places you frequented while searching for your tribe; in particular your drinking holes. There was one place I knew that usually had a wide range of eccentric characters in there, and consequently it seemed like the best territory to focus my hunt. I proceeded to go and drink there often in an outside smoking area while observing the creatures around me. I listened to their conversations. I stared into their eyes. I watched the nature of their hand movements as they picked up their drinks. It was after a few visits that I eventually met one girl called Christina from Italy. I had overheard her conversation on the table beside me and straight away sensed she was also uncomfortable in her own skin. I got talking to her and found out she was a hiker who preferred to be in nature rather than the confines of the crowd. Like myself, she had also walked ‘El Camino de Santiago’ – a classic pilgrimage for wanderers on some sort of soul-searching journey. The shared experience allowed us to connect on a deeper level and find out more about each other’s lives. It was the start of a friendship that went on for many months as we united under the same banner of being starry-eyed dreamers who just wanted to hike in nature, rather than engage in the social requirements of human society. It had taken a few weeks of hunting but, finally, I had found the first of my tribe.

The second of my tribe was a guy who sat on the desk next to me when I started a temporary office job. At first we didn’t connect or speak much at all, but as the days and weeks went on, I gradually identified some giveaway signs that he was a man of a similar disposition to the world as I was. Sometimes I spotted him staring into space with a wistful look in his eyes; another time I saw him scribbling some fantasy sketches in his notebook while half-heartedly talking on the phone. I got speaking with him with a bit of formulaic work colleague small-talk and, after a few clumsy moments and references, we began to notice that we were the same type of awkward personality. I knew of a personality test which assigned people into sixteen different personality types; I was sure he was the same as me so I made a reference to it which he immediately responded too. As predicted, he was a guy who shared the same personality type with me: an INFP personality – the type ruled totally by the heart and intuition, rather than any sort of logic and judgment. It was only natural this type suffered in this mechanical society (as evidenced by the fact this type was the most likely to commit suicide or earn the least amount of money). Male INFPs made up just 1.5% of the population and this rare bridge of connection allowed us to converse on a deep level whenever we got a moment to escape from the suffocating reality of the office environment. It was soon clear that I had located another one of the others as I experienced that rare moment of being totally understood by another person.

The months went on as I started to locate more and more of the others. With my hunter skills improving all the time, I was gradually getting better at detecting and distinguishing my fellow misfits among the crowd. Of course, I needed to remember to make sure I was also putting out my own signals in case there were others out there looking for me. I thought of how many of the great artists had found each other by others putting themselves out there. Like stranded castaways, the weirdos had put themselves out there in SOS signals for others of their kind to come and find them. As an internet meme once told me: ‘You’ve gotta shine your weirdo light bright so the other weirdos know where to find you’. I did exactly that by spewing out my thoughts and writings on internet blogs. Consequently, a few people came into my life, including one English Italian woman living in Switzerland who had messaged me through my Facebook blog. We started speaking casually until we eventually ended up talking almost daily, even going on to create a sort of ‘madness diary’ in which we confessed our latest episodes of madness like we were each other’s online therapist. Another was an Indian girl into Henna tattoos who had read my books; we also spoke online for a while and ended up meeting in a street food restaurant as we discussed why trees were the greatest works of art and how the universe was essentially one giant brain, much to the confusion of the people around us who looked at us like we had just escaped from the nearest mental asylum. 

All things considered, it was safe to say I was gradually becoming quite skilled at finding the others. I was slowly mastering the art of testing the waters with certain conversations, probing and poking others to see if underneath the social mask there was another one of my tribe trying their best to remain undercover in human society. It was a skill I knew I was going to use throughout the rest of my life as I continued stumbling along on my solitary path. I guess it was true that I was a man who thrived on wandering alone, but it seems I couldn’t escape the human need to stare into the eyes of someone who understood me for who I actually was. Life is a lonely march for many of us, especially the ones who frequently feel a bit alienated and misunderstood, but just a moment of connection with another of your tribe was sometimes enough to keep you going on your path for another few months. That was exactly what I did as I ended up going travelling again before returning and settling down again in a new city. Life soon returned back to normal as I went about life on my own, drifting through the days and returning to my lair of solitude for more shameless spells of drinking, writing, masturbating and late-night ventures through the virtual wilderness through the internet. Sometimes it all became a little too much, but the idea that there was more like me out there was comforting enough to convince myself that I wasn’t totally crazy or doomed or destined for that nearest mental asylum. 

And hey, I guess we all needed that reassurance every now and again.

 

 

short stories

~ Off The Rails ~

nice beach

~ Off the Rails ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

short stories

~ A Nightmare on the High Street ~

entrapment

~ A Nightmare on the High Street ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

short stories

~ Clinging on ~

pexels-photo-220444

~ Clinging on ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

short stories

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries

self isolation

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

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

Day 1

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

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

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

Days 2 and 3

pexels-photo-143580

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

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

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

Days 4 and 5

solitude

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

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

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

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

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

 

short stories

~ Waiting For My Friends To Have A Midlife Crisis ~

dice

~ Waiting For My Friends To Have A Midlife Crisis ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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