The next day I decided my great escape was imminent. All things considered, there was simply no way I could no longer subject myself to my parent’s reign and those four walls. I tried to fix up my old bike as best I could and then attached a tent and pannier bags to the back of it. I left the house when they were both at work and headed toward the city outskirts. I watched my neighbourhood disappear into the background as my feet hit the pedals round and round. Soon my city was out of sight and I was in the open countryside. Summer was now here and I cycled freely alongside the fields of crops without even bothering to check a map. Obviously it was true that I never really had a plan or clue about where exactly I was heading in life, but now I realised I was in a situation that encompassed that completely. I just kept rolling on down the road towards whatever awaited me beyond the horizon. Cars went past me and I thought about where they were heading and why. What purpose powered their engines? What meaning pushed down on those pedals? For me there wasn’t one other than heading roughly southward, and for now that was good enough to keep me going. I even liked the simplicity of it in that otherwise confusing moment. It seemed more sane and worthwhile just to keep those pedals turning than what I was doing in my job at Amazon. Just keep on going, further and further into the distance, drifting out of sight of whatever I passed – the same thing I had been doing all my life.
This was what life was to me – a one-way journey to the grave; there was no going back or stopping, one could only head towards their eventual end while occasionally breaking down and getting drunk along the way. But still, I kept looking at the people in the cars passing me and wondering about them. I saw families maybe heading on holiday; couples heading home; people heading to work. I looked at their faces and their eyes and their expressions. Their lives seemingly had structure and stability; some sort of semblance of order in contrast to the total chaos of mine. It was all delusion, I felt – on my part and theirs. Like me, they were just heading nowhere, only ever-forward towards the setting of the sun and the darkness of their death while finding things to keep themselves busy with along the way. For some reason that thought comforted me and, for one of the few times in my life, my brain began to go quiet. I simply kept pedalling without any thought or concern for anything else in the universe. I had become like squirrels, just doing my thing automatically and existing without some grand plan or purpose. I had become like the crashing waves on a shoreline, or the clouds drifting in the sky above, or the leaves being blown away in the wind. I was something just happening for no real reason other than just to happen.
I kept pedalling and feeling like some sort of monk until the daylight started to fade. It was at this point that I realised I was now technically homeless and needed to find a way to shelter myself. I found a secluded spot in some woodland just away from the road and setup my tent. I then walked to the nearest shop, bought a load of food and beers, and then returned to my tent. I lay in it stuffing my face with cheap sandwiches and cakes, replenishing the many calories I had burned that day, before smashing the cans of beers down. Naturally, I couldn’t help but realise that the last time I was in a tent was in a nice place with a pretty girl, drinking wine and having sex while daring to daydream of some sort of home or companionship with another. Fate had worked its almighty magic once again and here I was a couple of weeks later: back to my solitary state, homeless, jobless, slightly cold – lying alone in the dark with my only companion being the use of my right hand.
After the second day of cycling, I was down in the Somerset town of Bath. By now, the lockdown had been eased and people were allowed to go to pubs again while being socially distanced. I locked my bike up in the town centre and walked around the town in the sunshine before finding a pub that was a prime place to people-watch. Table service was all that was allowed due to the ‘social distancing’ rules – that was fine with me; I sat back and ordered away while letting the afternoon drift by lazily. I sipped those ciders and watched the happy couples, the well-dressed revellers, the shoppers with their shopping bags. I watched the bike couriers going back and forth, remembering another one of my short stints of money-making. I was back on safari again, observing the human race in all its strange mystery, wondering how people did what they did without going insane or off-the-rails like me.
Soon I got bored of such ethnographic observation and left. I carried on walking through the high-streets and eventually came by a busker. Most buskers drew small crowds and pittance change, but I noticed this man had amassed a crowd of maybe forty people. His guitar case was full of money and he had a stack of CDs available to purchase. Slightly intrigued and having nothing else to do, I stood and watched him play. His playing was wild and fast and flamboyant. He held his guitar flat on his lap and finger-picked the strings in a way I had never seen before. I stood there impressed, watching a man totally transfixed and absorbed in what he was doing. In between songs, he told everyone how he was from Australia, and how he had quit his job to travel the world in a van while busking along the way. Not many people inspired or even interested me in this life, but looking at this man I couldn’t help but be a little captivated. In him I could see a better version of myself. Here he was: living off his passion, travelling the world, seemingly content and even having his own home in the form of a van. I thought about the fact I hadn’t ever made a penny off my writing and that I never had entertained a crowd and that my current home was a crappy tent that couldn’t stand a slightly strong breeze. The contrast between my life and another’s was, once again, stark and depressing.
I decided I’d stick around til after he finished and do something I rarely did sober: approach and speak to a stranger. I wanted to know more about this man and see if he was the real deal. Was it possible for a man to survive while living life completely on his own terms? Did he experience any doubt or anxiety about the way he was living? Was it all a front and really he was just as lost and insane as me? Such questions swirled around my mind as I approached him once he had finished performing. He immediately stopped what he was doing to look me straight in the eye with a bright smile. He thanked me for watching the performance and asked my name. We then exchanged details before he invited me to smoke a joint with him back at his van once he was done packing up his equipment.
I bought us a couple of beers from the nearest shop and went to meet him at his van. He lit up a joint and invited me to sit on the floor of his van which was overlooking a park. People were sprawled across the grass having picnics as we sat there drinking and smoking. I looked inside his van at his living arrangements. On the outside was a tapestry of graffiti artworks, the sort of cosmic shit you’d expect from someone of the gypsy lifestyle, and on the inside was his humble abode – a bed, a mini kitchen and tabletop. The whole vehicle to me stood as a big fuck you to normal life which naturally made me feel welcome sitting there.
The beers went down as he continued to me a little more about all his travels and what inspired him to live the life he was living. “I remember telling all my work colleagues that I was going to quit my job. They all laughed at me, mocked me, told me I was crazy and all of that. I have autism so I always felt like I didn’t fit in there anyway.”
“I can relate to that,” I said, before telling him my own tragic story, cycling down south randomly after just quitting my job where I also felt disconnected from my work colleagues. I also told him about my novel writing, the succession of meaningless jobs I had subjected myself to, and my general disenfranchisement with anything this world presented to me. He didn’t look at me with pity like most people did when I told them my life story, but instead his eyes had a look of deep understanding and even relatability. It was the ultra-rare look of a human-being’s eyes who actually saw where I was coming from. It was like looking into an alien’s eyes; the sort of look I unsuccessfully scanned for on the faces of passersby on streets. A strange feeling of comfort fell over me.
“Come inside my van man. I wanna show you something.” I put down my beer and entered inside, for some reason wondering if he was going to slam the door and suddenly kidnap me or something. The funny thing was I think I wouldn’t have even bothered to resist being taken away at that point. I needed not worry though; he invited me to sit down on his bed and pulled out a little book. He then proceeded to show me a collection of his photos from his travels, as well as little things he had collected along the way.
“This is me travelling through Europe.” He showed me photos of him performing on the streets of Rome and Paris, as well as pictures of him in his van in the Alps. “And this is me back in Australia.” He then showed me photos of him in his life back home. He looked like a different person: much paler, slightly overweight, with tired eyes and a classic forced smile. “I know right,” he said, knowing that I was struggling to even recognise him in the photos. “The photos only show how my outside appearance has changed as much as my inside. It only reflects the state I was living in then, compared to the state I live in now.”
“I guess becoming homeless was good for you then.”
“Ha,” he laughed. “Becoming a travel bum was necessary for me. If I hadn’t had taken the leap, I’d hate to think of the dark place I’d be in now. I know it’s easy to fall into despair and give up on this world. I mean, society fucking sucks I know, and the worst thing is watching everyone just accept that their lives are nothing more than pointless jobs and television and getting drunk on the weekend and never questioning anything because ‘that’s what’s normal’. The western world in particular is facing a spiritual crisis. Everyone I know back home was depressed or anxious or an addict of some kind. But you don’t need to be a victim of the culture you were born in man. You can choose to unplug and play your own game at any point. You are the maker of your own destiny and, with the right outlook and plan, you can create the life you love. But first you start by summoning something from your soul; it’s there if you search hard enough. The light in the darkness; the fire that can set a whole forest on fire. Find whatever it is and let it burn, burn, burn. That’s what I let happen to me. I was so jaded and depressed and nihilistic at my own job in Sydney. I could see myself falling into a dark place and resenting life. I knew this would make me another victim of this culture, so that’s when I knew I had to quit my job, sell everything I owned, gather all my savings, buy a van and hit the open road with my guitar. Here I am two years on and I can honestly say I’m so much happier and content with my life. I wake up excited every day about what the day will bring, and when I’m out there playing for those people – and people like yourself come up and speak to me – I feel like everything in the universe is in the right place. I’m exactly where I need to be. And ultimately, that is the greatest feeling in life man – a feeling I don’t plan to stop chasing for the rest of my life. So yeah, just keep going man and following that feeling. You’ll find your way man, I’m sure of it.”
Maybe it was the weed or the tiredness from the cycling and sitting in the sun all day, but right there and then that man was making more sense to me than any teacher, parent, politician or preacher that I had come across on my meandering path through life. I didn’t really know what to say back to him after he had been regaling me with his words. In the end, I just thanked him for the words of advice. We then finished the beers before going back to get my bike and cycling out of town while stoned to find my latest spot to pitch my tent alone again for the night.
The next day the inspiring words of the gypsy musician were quickly knocked out my head as I carried on heading south through a thunderstorm. Rain poured down for almost two hours as I cycled along lonely country lanes watching the lightning bolts flash in the surrounding sky. Cars passed me and I could feel the gaze of the people inside, looking upon me in my drenched glory, determining I was a madman. I guess I was at that point. I knew all my stuff in my pannier bags would be getting wet seeing as the bags were barely waterproof. I eventually took shelter in a cafe the town of Glastonbury until the storm had passed. I then carried on through the lighter rain which continued throughout the afternoon.
By the time I arrived into the town of Exeter, I decided there would be no camping that night. With wet clothes and it still raining, I decided to treat myself check into a badly-rated, £10-a-night hostel. I stood outside and rang the doorbell. Nobody answered. I saw that there was a number on a noticeboard on the door. I called it. A few minutes later, a stoned Spanish man shows up to let me in.
I brought my bike in and dropped my stuff down in the reception area, still dripping from the torrential rain I had been enduring all day. The Spanish guy kept looking at me while he loaded up the computer to check me in. “You’ve been cycling in this weather all day?”
“You’re crazy man. And where you are heading?”
“I’m not sure – somewhere in Cornwall probably. As far as I can go away from home.” He looked at me and smiled before shaking his head.
“You’re crazy man,” he said again. “Crazy.”
I kept waiting while he took my ID and entered my details. For some reason I always got nervous when people checked my perfectly official ID – imposter syndrome came in many forms.
“Okay Bryan. That will be £12 please.” I thought about pointing out the room was advertised at £10, but at that point I didn’t have the energy to get into a debate; I simply needed a shower, some dry clothes, and a strong drink of some kind. He then proceeded to tell me the social distancing rules of the hostel. Obviously it was impossible to socially distance in a hostel, but I knew it was merely something being said because it had to be said.
Once I was not looking like a drenched rat, I lay down on my dirty bed and checked my phone. There was still no word off my parents. My mother didn’t own a phone, thankfully, and my dad held some belief that only the kids should contact the parents rather than the other way around. I was quite happy with this. Such a strange belief allowed me to continue in my madness undisturbed. I even went a step further and deleted all forms of social media and my dating apps. I wanted to be off the grid, an unknown wanderer, uncontactable by anyone and everyone from home. I was now one of nomads, like the few people that were staying in the hostel. A quick scan of it showed me a mix of strange characters staying there. Not the sort of people I expected in a hostel. Most were elderly, some overweight, and some even slightly threatening-looking. I soon found out that this was because the hostel worked with the government to give shelter to people waiting to be accommodated in council housing. Like me, they were homeless, just waiting and existing, living off super noodles while sitting there smoking weed and browsing ther phones because they had no job or money or anything else to do.
I could feel myself staring at one particularly rough-looking guy while questioning where my path was leading me. This insight into the future was too much to take, so I headed out into the town to find a pub. Maybe I’d meet a nice girl? Make some friends? Have a wild night out in a new place? In the end I sat alone at a pub table socially-distanced drinking five beers while speaking to absolutely noone. There was even no interaction with the bartender due to having to order my drink from my phone. I then got a kebab and went back to the hostel where I found the Spanish guy who had now switched from stoned to drunk. He came over to me laughing and asking me to tell my story to his other mate who was sitting at the table drinking. I told another person the story of my random adventure, inspired by total disillusion with my job and living with my parents.
“You’re funny man,” he said. “So your parents don’t even know where you are? Such a random guy ha ha!”
“Hey listen,” he suddenly said. “If you have no set place to be anytime soon, and you want to stay here in the hostel with us a little longer, you could volunteer. We need another person to split the shifts with on the reception. All you’d have to do is check people in, clean the kitchen at the end of the day, and make a few beds. I mean, you said yourself you have nowhere to be and nothing to do. So why not? You’d have a place to stay and get a food allowance too.” I stood there slightly confused. I had just escaped a job and this was the last place I expected the offer of another to come to me. I looked around at the old, slightly dilapidated hostel. I looked at the other looking drifters sitting around under bad lighting either drunk or stoned or depressed. The whole place was sort of symbolic of myself. Maybe this was where I was supposed to be? Maybe such a flophouse was where I belonged? The thought of cycling again in the rain over the hills of Devonshire was enough to make up my mind.
The days of waking up and doing as I pleased continued on. As an unemployed person, you were supposed to feel down about your lack of contribution and participation in society, but there were often moments when you thought otherwise. I lived nearby a river and on a sunny day, I’d walk there to go sunbathe and watch the rowers go by. On the way there – just on the street off beside the river – there was a big office building for some sort of German bank. Often I’d stare into it and see them all through the windows: rows and rows of people sat at computers, boxed into cubicles, working under artificial lighting. I’d look in at them and suddenly feel better about my situation. Sure, I was without much money or security, but in that moment I was at least able to live my life how I saw fit without any controls or confines. I didn’t have to watch any clock or chase any deadline. And there was no boss or supervisor to answer to.
It’s common for unemployed people to feel down or pitied by other people, but at times I looked in those windows and saw some of them sat there looking out at myself without any pity at all. I walked by so often that I was sure that a few of them recognised me and probably wondered how I was always out there strolling freely in the middle of the day. Maybe I was deluding myself, but it was not pity that I saw in their eyes, but envy – envy mixed with a wistful look of boredom. I’d then carry on walking, find a nice spot on the grass beside the river and park myself down. I watched the ducks also living freely, the seagulls flying above. I’d then watch the rowers go by and the sunlight glint off the water’s surface. I’d pour back a drink and appreciate my temporary wealth, just allowing myself to simply exist in peace like the birds around me, living in a way that felt way more natural than the once prescribed to me by my country and culture. Living in a way that had been lost post-agricultural and industrial revolution. Living in a way that at least felt like living.
Truly, time was more valuable than anything; the problem with the 9-5 work system is that you exchanged the vast majority of your days for being at work, going to work, getting ready for work, and everything that came with it. To me, it didn’t matter how much money you had when you couldn’t buy the time to use it. And often that money went on things you couldn’t even enjoy. I’m talking about the house that remains empty cause you’re at work all day, or the furniture you fill that house, or the car and fuel you need to get you to work. Sure, a person had retirement, but the retirement age was now approaching seventy – and we all knew that our best days to be free were far before that time when the energy goes and the health problems come. No, I had a couple thousand pounds in the bank still, and I was gonna make it last the rest of the summer at least. This was my time for freedom; to be alive and enjoy what was left of my youth. Sure, I knew I’d be back at work at some point, trying to spin together some money once again. I knew I’d start other jobs and spend a lot of time at other jobs. But I also knew I’d quit other jobs and never stop trying to get the most out of life without it all passing me by. I just didn’t want to stop dreaming of freedom, or becoming the person who looks out at windows all their life, dreaming, waiting, wondering, and finally fading into a job position. I wanted to smash the glass whenever I could, to come out onto the sunny street, to sit by the rivers and watch the birds and the bees and the sun shining in the sky. I don’t propose there’s any great philosophy or strength to this thought, or to propose I am some sort of countercultural hero. I’m here only to announce that I am aware that this life is about freedom, and I intend to grab as much of it as I can.
By the time the two weeks of sick pay were up, I had decided I wasn’t going back to work. Freedom had tasted too sweet and I now had over £4000 in my account which would support me for a while. For the third time in twelve months, I informed my workplace that I would no longer be returning through their front door. Amazon of course didn’t care; I was merely another number to cross off their list and quickly replace with another person desperate for minimum wage. Back once more to my default state of unemployment, I carried on writing my novel and sunbathing in the garden. I also fished out my old bike from my parent’s garage; it was in a beaten state but it was okay enough to at least get out into the countryside from some much-needed escapist ventures away from my parent’s house. Naturally, my mum and dad weren’t happy that I had given up my job and were consistently on my case. I shrugged off their comments and told them I had enough savings to last me until the pandemic was over. I told them I could pay their board and stay out of their hair until I was able to up and move somewhere else.
I tried that reclusive approach as much as I could but it was still a lockdown after all and inevitably I had to spend some time around them in the house. And naturally, they weren’t going to let me live an easy life under their noses without any pushback. They had endured a hard life and, like all people who had endured a hard life, they were not going to let those close to them laze around and smell the flowers. Suddenly I had a range of chores to do, frivolous things like clearing out the attic and whatever it was they could think of to get me to do some work. One day they asked me to mow the lawn even though it had recently been done and the dry weather had meant it had barely grown. I couldn’t help but comment on how pointless the task was. As soon as I did this, I realised my error. This was the comment they were waiting for; this was the comment that allowed them to get into character and give one of their inspiring working-class-hero speeches.
“I didn’t raise you to just sit around like a leech or bum,” my dad said. “You’ve got to learn some work ethic. What kind of person gives up a steady job at a time like this? You might not be able to get another soon. And how are you going to explain all these gaps on your CV to other employers? No one is going to want to hire you if you can’t hold down a job for more than a couple of months.”
“Sorry that I refuse to be enslaved by a piece of paper with some bullet-points.”
“You need to think about what you’re doing seriously. You’re going to end up homeless or living on benefits on some council estate full of drug dealers. I had to do that for a while and we want better than that for you.”
“Stop trying to install fear into me. Just because fear of the future controlled all the decisions you made in your life.”
“It’s called growing up, being responsible and thinking ahead. Everyone else does it. It’s not that hard. For you it’s just taking a bit longer than normal…” At that point I could feel a pool of fiery passion bubbling up within me. There was only so much a person could take of not being understood before they were pushed to breaking point. Most people’s eyes looked upon me and didn’t really see me, but there was something about having the people who created you having zero idea about who you were that pushed me over the edge. At that moment, I snapped and let the internal monologue inside my head make a rare appearance out into the world.
“Look, you brought me into this world,” I started. “I didn’t ask to come here and exist in this stupid society. Let’s be honest, you only had children because it was ‘the next thing’ to do in your life. You didn’t have an interest in doing anything else in life so once you were locked into the 9-5 routine so, like most people, you had kids to give yourself some sort of basic purpose. It’s the same reason nearly everyone has kids. To give their lives some meaning and to keep themselves busy with something because they have no idea what else they can do with their life outside of their job. It helps stop them having too much time to think to themselves. Because, the truth is, if most people did have time to think to themselves, they’d realise how utterly pointlesss and ridiculous their lives are. This is why you, like everyone else, keep yourself busy by working and watching TV and having kids and doing absolutely anything to avoid looking in the mirror and really reflecting on your life. And have you ever thought about how selfish it is to bring kids into this world just to give yourself something to do? And even worse, you bring kids into this world and then make them miserable by trying to make them do things they don’t want to do. You want me to have a stupid career so you can feel good about yourself and brag about what great parents you are – but I’m telling you now that that sort of life will drive me to suicide and make me even crazier than I already am. But still, you don’t care about how I feel. Okay, maybe you’re like other parents and you want me to ‘be safe’ and have ‘some security’ for the future. Well, did you ever think about safe and secure I was when I didn’t exist? There was no risk of anything at all before I entered this earth. What’s the point of bringing vulnerable human-beings into a violent and dangerous world and then trying to wrap them in cotton wool at the expense of everything else? At the expense of their own sanity and happiness? Maybe you do mean well, but have you ever stopped and thought about how insane your behaviour actually is? Have you ever stopped and thought about how insane life is in general?”
At this point my parents just stared at the television shaking their heads. A terrible silence filled the room as I realised I had for once actually spoken the true contents of my manic mind. I knew that the truth was a creature of the darkness that didn’t belong out in the open world, and now it was out it was like the whole universe had crashed for a few moments in that living room. People’s brains couldn’t handle the truth; it caused them to crash and to stall. Time went slow as we all just sat and stared into space. Seconds felt like minutes. My mum eventually picked up her coffee and started to read the newspaper. Then my dad decided to break the silence.
“Honestly, you need to get your head sorted out first. You’ve been reading too many of those weird writers you’re into. You’ve been brainwashed.” At that point, I got up and stormed up to my room like an angry teenager. I lay in bed and let my head spin with thoughts for hours on end, rehearsing things to say to them, imagining how the rest of the argument would pan out if I carried on the conversation. Eventually I could hear my parents come upstairs and go to bed. Once again, I had to listen to them try and fail to have sex quietly. I reached for my headphones and started playing some music at full volume, drowning out the disturbing sounds of the very heinous act that had spawned me into this existence. I lay there staring at the ceiling, feeling like I was paralysed. Truly it was all too much what life could do to a man at times.
Things got even worse the next days when speaking to Eloise. I noticed that her chat with me had suddenly slowed down since our last meeting. Instead of taking minutes to reply, it was hours. And the sentences were shorter. And her general attitude more distant. One night I couldn’t avoid speaking about it any longer. Clearly something had changed between us and I was going to find out what it was. I rang her but she didn’t answer. So I sent a message asking what was up. Two hours later I got a reply. It was a reply telling me about the new situation between us. Apparently she wasn’t really single, but on a break with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend had been experiencing mental issues, and she wasn’t going to be with him until he recovered. Apparently his condition was improving though, as she was now out of bounds. She said we could still be friends but of course I knew that was just the standard meaningless statement. It appeared our chats were to be no more. Our camping trips were to be no more. And my delusions were to be no more. There would be no peaceful life with this woman. There would be no life without my usual war and wandering. I knew I was a fool to even let such thoughts enter my mind, and my cracked shell and exterior suddenly seized up again. I cemented those cracks harder than ever. I doubled down and withdrew once from the world other people lived in. I looked again at joy and peace and love as things like smoke; which could only be seen and not held or kept. I lay there on my childhood bed and life was more grey than ever – just a meaningless, cruel joke which one had to trudge through. Once again, I was detached, dejected, indifferent. Once again, I was a man killing time while waiting to die.
A few weeks later and I was still alive and healthy. It had been almost two months in the warehouse of doom, and I was craving some respite from the long ten-hour days. Fortunately for me, Amazon started operating this VTO scheme (voluntary time off). It appeared the company branch had hired too many people and now they were overstaffed when there wasn’t enough work coming it. As a result, VTO was offered to you in which you could go home of your accord without pay. Naturally, I would snap their hand off as soon as they offered it me. “VTO?” a man with a notepad and a piece of paper would ask me. I looked at him like some sort of angel. He’d take down my details and return fifteen minutes later to confirm it. Once relieved of my burdensome duty, I’d happily marched out of the warehouse into the spring sunshine with a smile on my face. I’d then slowly walk home through the countryside, stopping again to watch some squirrels live out their lives simply in the woods. Ahh yes, once again I’d get a tinge of jealousy with my furry friends. I watched them burying their nuts and appreciating there was more purpose in that than what I was doing at Amazon. Soon after, I’d get home and see my mother standing in the kitchen. “How come you’re home?” she would ask me.
“No work again today mum’.
“That’s a shame, you must be losing a lot of money with all this time off.”
“Yeah.. yeah… terrible isn’t it.”
After that, I’d then sit in the garden with a pack of beer sunbathing and listening to music all day. I actually had quite a bit of money behind me due to my low living costs and not being able to blow my money on benders down the pub, so I’d treat myself to some top-quality Belgian beers from the local shop. Sometimes I’d also order takeaway, maybe even treat myself to a cigar. All of this tasted extra sweeter knowing that I had dodged another day of employment with my corporate overlord. Occasionally I could feel the glare of my mother from the kitchen window, watching her one son living like a retired person at the age of thirty. Yes, accept it mother. Accept me how I am. This is the life for me. I didn’t ask to be brought into this world; you forced me into this painful and perplexing existence, let me at least try and get through it in a way that is slightly tolerable.
While sitting there smoking my cigars and sipping my Belgian beers, I’d get reflective about the chaos that was happening in the world. Of course, by this point it was becoming clear that the government response to the outbreak was a hysterical overreaction that was going to eventually cause more harm than it prevented, but right now hysteria was king and I could see that this way of life was the norm for the foreseeable future. I guess I was okay with it. As an introvert the lockdown was no huge shock or blow to me; avoiding people and crowds had been a pastime of mine for many years now, and the whole thing was somewhat surreal and interesting to a degree. Still, everyone had their limit and mine mainly came in not being able to go out and try to pull women in bars. While lockdown may have caused most couples to be screwing more often than usual, single people were more alone than ever – unable to stumble around dancefloors trying to attract mating partners through drunken chatter and bad dance moves. There was now only one way to get potentially laid – and that meant resorting back to the dating apps and websites.
I remade my profile and went online to check out the hoards of other horny, lonely, locked-down people like myself. Of course, many bios of people on the dating apps were now full of the line ‘lockdown brought me here.’ I guess it was true; it was a period in time when people had to find new ways to kill time in their lives, and these apps served that function well. The journey between the maternity ward and the crematorium was going slower than ever, but thankfully smartphones could keep us hypnotised for a good proportion of it.
I didn’t really have much going for me before the pandemic started, but at least I had my own place. Now I was back to living with my parents – which just about rounded me off as the quintessential, stereotypical thirty-year-old loser. I was without a career, without a car, without my own place, and generally without much of a clue about anything at all. I guess I at least had a job. I could even say I was ‘an essential worker’ – as the government had labelled me. Right now, about half the population were sitting at home not working at all while still receiving 80% of their pay. This section of people was basically the middle class – the people who worked white-collar jobs on computers or in offices. The working-class were still out there keeping society running by stacking shelves, delivering parcels, nursing patients, and working on factory assembly lines. Yes, like my other working-class comrades, I was a modern-day hero – a hero who stood at a conveyor-belt line all day helping people get their orders of luxury anal lube. I tried that angle when girls asked what it was that I did but it appeared for some reason many weren’t too impressed by my heroics. Still, I didn’t care – I had my premium Belgian lager and fake Cuban cigars while sitting in the sun on a Wednesday afternoon. I was a success in my own mind for the time being.
I carried on sifting through the profiles of potential lockdown lovers, mindlessly swiping left and right like a bewitched addict. I eventually matched with some girl called Eloise. She popped up asking me where a photo of myself on a mountain was taken. She herself had pictures of her in the woods and walking her dogs. All in all, she seemed like an actual human-being; there were no fake lips, ridiculous pouts, and her face wasn’t totally plastered in makeup. Our conversation quickly started flowing. We talked about hiking and camping. We talked about our lives and music and what we were doing to stay sane. I didn’t know whether it was cause we were both bored as hell or there was an actual connection between us, but we ended up talking for hours on end. I sat there in my parents garden texting her until the sun went down and my beers had run dry. It seemed that for once I actually had found a girl I enjoyed talking to.
I eventually put my phone down and took myself inside the house. I poured myself a juice and went to sit in the living room where my parents were reliably found watching their five hours of TV for the evening. They asked me if I knew I was going to be working in the morning.
“Well, I’ll definitely go in, but it depends how much work they have for me whether I’ll stay or not.”
“It’s ridiculous that is,” my dad said. “Making you go into work and then sending you home. They should give you half a day’s pay just for dragging you in.”
“Yeah, well, it’s Amazon. They’re not exactly known for treating their workers with any respect or dignity.” (Of course, Amazon weren’t ‘sending me home’, rather I was volunteering to go home and sit in my parent’s garden all day, but they didn’t need to know that.)
“So what are your plans when all this is over?” my mum asked.
“I’ll probably just stay here now I reckon. I’m quite happy here chilling in the garden all day with a few beers.” I really couldn’t resist throwing some bait out.
“Yes, well you can forget about that,” my dad snapped. “As soon as this is over you’ll have to go out and get your own place or start paying £100 a week at least. You’re thirty years old now; you were too old to be staying here five years ago, let alone now.” I sat there with a bored and blank stare. Every line that came out of their mouths was so painfully predictable that you could see it from a mile off. I thought they were done but then my mum repeated a line she had used about fifty times previously.
“I just don’t understand why you got that degree if you didn’t want to use it. Your sister got her degree and is now working in what she studied…”
“Good for her, but I don’t want what she wants.”
“Well, you should do. You should already be earning £30,000 a year by now with your degree. You should be aiming for £40,000, £50,000…. Even more. Not doing whatever the hell it is that you’re doing – which is nothing. Why don’t you get a proper job, like everybody else.”
“No thanks,” I said, after a moment of non-reflection. “I don’t wanna be another person who spends all the days of my life at work, then comes home to watch TV for five hours before going to sleep. And then only use the money for things that I don’t need and make me miserable – like a rug.” Such a clear personal swipe set my dad off on a rant, saying some vague things about me being brainwashed, and deluded, and whatever else it was that explained why I thought differently to them. I wanted to tell them not to bother procreating just to pressure their offspring into living a life that only satisfies themselves, but in the end I couldn’t be bothered. I simply realised the cold, harsh reality of my current existential situation and went up to my bedroom for some much-needed solitude. I then looked up out the window at those stars once again. I imagined meeting sneaking off to meet this girl somewhere, and running off to start a new life in the forest. I imagined living in peace and harmony like the squirrels. I imagined spending the rest of my days in some sort of tolerable space.
The days at work recommenced as the warehouse got busy again. Each morning I’d look around for the angel with the notepad coming around to ask if I wanted to go home, but sadly he was nowhere to be found. It appeared there was no escape out into the spring sunshine, and the long days at work were back as the norm. Fortunately I had at least managed to get myself back onto the inbound section of work where I could stand alone and not talk to anyone. I was back to living in my own head and daydreaming the days away. I was also spending a lot of time texting Eloise on my phone. At work we, of course, weren’t permitted to use our phones. Not a problem; I left some boxes stacked on my workstation and used them as cover while I texted her throughout the day. Sometimes I’d even go for a fifteen-minute toilet break just to spend some time chatting to her. I didn’t even need to daydream the days away by writing my new literary masterpiece in my head; I could simply write to her while imagining how it would be when we finally met. I knew my work-rate was going to be even poorer than usual, and I was waiting for the man with the laptop to come around and get me to justify my incompetence. There was nothing really to say, other than I didn’t care. I was really at the stage where any concern for my job was zero – a dismissal at this point would have been a sweet and merciful relief.
While texting Eloise, I couldn’t help but let my mind run away with the idea of meeting this girl somewhere during the lockdown. I was a man of daydream fantasy; of letting stories and events take place in my imagination. I was comfortable with that because I could control them and make them exactly what I pleased – unlike reality which was brutally out of your hands. There was nothing your imagination could do when the whole situation turned to shit as things, of course, usually did. Still, I knew I couldn’t hold on to this daydream forever and we made actual plans to meet on the coming weekend.
She wasn’t actually from my city, but a small town 20 miles north. She drove down and parked in a pub carpark near to a countryside park. Before meeting her, the only thing I could focus on was my hair – it was a bushy mess that hadn’t been cut in almost three months on account of all the barbers being closed. Still, apart from the anxiety of my disheveled appearance, it was closest thing to excitement I’d felt in a while in this society that had made any sort of fun illegal.
We met in the carpark and said our first awkward hello. Then we started walking slowly around the countryside park, chatting about life, exchanging stories of our last years. She was a pale, blonde girl – a couple of years younger myself, with blue eyes and a sad but compelling look on her face. I could see there was a pain there – some sort of story that hadn’t been told or expressed – and I couldn’t help but be fascinated by her as we walked without any particular destination. The spring sunshine was still out and we eventually found a secluded place under a tree to have a picnic. This naturally led to our first kiss and eventually a little more. Sex was usually as exciting as this life got anyway, but when it was out in a public place during a national lockdown, well, I was sure that was the top thrill a person could possibly experience at that moment in time.
After a while, we got speaking about camping and decided that we’d drive back up to hers, grab her tent, and find a place somewhere to stay the night. This ended up being Sherwood forest, the home of the mythical legend Robin Hood. We pitched our tent in a secluded spot surrounded by ancient trees before opening the wine and playing some card games. Eventually we got into our sleeping bags and cuddled up while listening to some ambient music. I lay there drifting off appreciating that there was even a movie-like romance to the whole thing. The circumstance of meeting during the pandemic lockdown, and of sneaking off to go camping illegally, made it seem like we were characters in some sort of scripted story – one that was actually interesting. The whole country was gripped by fear and hysteria but there we were doing our own thing, making love in the woods, drinking wine under the stars and chatting about whatever drifted through our confused minds. For once in my life I considered that this girl was something more than another meaningless exchange of sex and temporary company. Maybe it was the whole lockdown situation getting to me, but for once I considered a normal, peaceful life alongside a woman. I considered a life of harmony and home. A life without war or wandering. A life without being indifferent and detached from it all. A life where I wasn’t just killing time while waiting to die.
I eventually got word of a little trick workers in the warehouse were using to get an extra two weeks’ holiday. The government had put in a law that if you or anyone in your household had come down with or shown symptoms of Covid-19, then you were entitled to two week’s paid leave from work as a way to help stop the spread of the virus. There was nothing your employer could do but comply; it was the law, and they couldn’t even demand proof of your claims. It was one of the few times a worker could take total advantage of their employer, and it seemed that magically everyone in the warehouse had – at some point – been living with an infected person. It seemed stupid not to also stick it to Amazon and get my two weeks’ paid leave. It was a small victory for the little man in the war that he could only naturally lose over a lifetime.
I rang them up the next day. “Yeah, my parents have just come down with symptoms. A bad cough, a fever, loss of taste and smell… I think it’s best I stay off work until we know what it is.” I usually hated chatting bullshit, but this time that bullshit coming from my mouth tasted ever so sweet. For the sake of health and safety, they had to believe everything I said, take down my details, and withdraw me from work. I put down the phone and stood there with a surreal feeling. It really was that easy; I now had two weeks’ paid freedom from the warehouse of doom. Like the owners and shareholders, I was getting money for doing nothing.
I spent the next days really hammering into my new book project. This lockdown situation was raising my creativity and one morning I managed to fire off 4000 words in one sitting. I could hear the voices of doubt once again in my head telling me I was deluded and stupid and that it was a waste of time, but I simply didn’t care. At this point being deluded and stupid and wasting my time was my own private religion. There was something nice about it, even courageous. I guess we were all deluded and stupid and wasting our time to a degree. I only had to watch my dad using his wages to order his 22nd pair of jeans or 33rd T-shirt or 7th pair of shoes. Yes, truly this was what life was all about and I was doing it in my own way, once again attempting to create literature with an edgy dystopian novel that sounded great in my own head, but probably caused anyone else reading to roll their eyes in utter disinterest.
I did all of this while sat in my parent’s garden, drinking those Belgian beers and getting a tan unlike I’d ever had before. Of course, I also spent a lot of time chatting to Eloise who was taking over my mind more than I was comfortable with. After our little camping trip, I wanted to see her again at the nearest opportunity. Such a feeling was strange. Here at the age of thirty, my hard shell may have finally been cracking and I was feeling enamoured by another human-being. Naturally, I weighed up whether she was just another escape – an escape from my parents, my job, myself, and my general living situation – but I wasn’t so sure. There was an actual feeling of joy from speaking to her as my fingers typed away for sometimes hours on my phone. Naturally I was cautious and untrusting of this foreign feeling, but I followed it anyway. There really wasn’t a choice in the matter. I was a passenger on some sort of strange trip I hadn’t taken before.
Our next meeting was for two days over the weekend. Again, we loaded up on food, wine and music playlists, then found a place we could go and camp. This time we headed out to the Peak District in the centre of the country. Camping at this point was strictly forbidden so we walked for a while along a path before finding a hidden section of woodland where we could reside in peace. We set up our tent beside a stream and made some lunch. Then we went on a hike to the top of a big hill that overlooked a valley. With the sun setting over the rolling green hills, we drank from a bottle of wine and chatted about life. She was soon drunk and told me about her ex-boyfriend. She also told me she had had an abortion, and that her mother was abusive as a child, and that she had been ‘taken advantage of’ when she was a teenager. My initial inclination of her being a hurt soul were true. I guess I was no guru or genius; almost everybody was hurt or damaged in some way, but some were clearly more wounded than others. I think her vulnerability and damage only attracted me more towards her. I knew the general consent was not to go for damaged people, but I couldn’t help but be allured by such marred creatures. Probably I was just attracted to one of my own kind, but also I was always distrusting of those who bore little damage. Surely they had used some sort of cheat to make it through the fire without being burnt. Surely they didn’t know what it was really like to be human. Surely there was something wrong with them by having everything right with them.
Eventually the sun started to set and we made our way back down to the campsite. We cuddled up together in our sleeping bags as the soft sound of the music from the speaker played. Raindrops pattered on the leaves on the trees above while we lay there like we were in some sort of womb or cocoon.
“So what is it you’re looking for?” she asked me, just after a kiss.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, in life. You seem to be like me, in a transient place in your life, what is it you want for your future after all this pandemic shit is done?”
“A beer down the pub, I guess.”
“Come on Bryan, seriously…”
“Well, you deserve honesty, and the truth is I don’t really know. I’ve always just kind of drifted around and meandered through life. I only went to university because it was easier than getting a job and nothing much has really held my attention for too long. I don’t have any attraction to some sort of job, or goal, or grand purpose. I like writing but I don’t expect that to amount to anything really. I guess I’m just looking for a place that is tolerable. Some sort of way of getting by and seeing out this life without having to endure too much trouble or discomfort.”
“You don’t hope for much, do you?”
“I’m just realistic about things.”
“I’m not so sure. I think I see more lust for life than just that in your eyes. You speak like a pessimist, but I think within you is a disappointed idealist. You can’t just be looking for a ‘tolerable space’ – there’s more to life than that. I’ve had rough times and felt defeated many times in my life. But still, I can’t help but hope for something better in the future. A future with a home, a family, a reason for being, you know? A future with peace and happiness and even excitement about what each day brings. Don’t you want all of those things? Life is a struggle yes, but don’t you want to get something great out of it?” At that point I could feel that she was sussing me out and trying to ascertain if I was actually compatible with the kind of future she wanted. When she talked about family and home, I couldn’t help but think of my parents’ life. That way of life had only seemed like a secret prison to me and I didn’t see how I could get anything out of it other than the feeling of being trapped even more than I already was. This is the problem with getting too close to a woman, I thought. They eventually wanted you to settle down into their suburban, happy family fantasy which nearly always turned out in wreckage. You had the divorces, the alcoholism, the arguments, the quiet desperation as the days drifted on and on without any spark. The smiling family photos were veils to the truth of the suffocating reality that most people lived in. I didn’t know what to say something that would disappoint her. The last thing someone like her needed was to crush or belittle her one dream that kept her limping on across the tempestuous plains of life.
“It’s good for you that you know what you want and I hope you get what you’re looking for. But for me, I guess I’ll just see what life brings, if anything at all.” After I said that, we both went quiet and drifted off to sleep as the rain continued to drip down upon our tent from the trees above.
Covid-19 was the name of the virus. Just when I thought life couldn’t be any more tedious, in came a new period of lockdown rules which reduced life to something that was merely going to work and sitting at home watching Netflix shows. There were no clubs open; no pubs open; no restaurants open; no gyms open; no libraries open. There were skies without planes; roads without cars; shops without food. ‘Stay Home’ was the national slogan and you were only permitted to go outside for one walk or exercise session a day. I knew most people chose safety over actually living their life, but now there wasn’t even a choice in the matter. Existence was all that was allowed in the name of safety. The only thing to do was dwell, to linger, to wait for something – anything. Yes, the apocalypse had come and my god – it was the boring apocalypse one could have predicted. No zombies or nuclear bombs or asteroids – just a slow dying of the human spirit as we all sat inside staring at screens and twiddling our thumbs.
Locked in my flat, l didn’t really have much to entertain myself with. I didn’t own a television or games console – just my laptop which I used for my writing (which had now stopped). I could have just got drunk of course, but for some reason I decided to pack in the drinking and dedicate myself to living a zen-like sort of lifestyle. Aside from my one run a day and the occasional visit to the supermarket (the only thing still open), all I did was I spend the time sitting and staring into space. Life quickly became a mix of meditation and masturbation; of getting lost down internet rabbit holes for hours into the early morning. My landlord Martin was in the flat too of course, although we somehow managed to rarely see each other. It was just the usual occasional chitchat in the kitchen before returning alone to our rooms. One might have thought the situation would bring us together – two people confined with no one else in the world to see or speak to, but for some reason it only made us more distant than before. Our aloof relationship was just another example of human interaction in the modern age – of having people constantly close to you but choosing to be alone with people on the internet instead.
This solitary existence went on until sometime in the second week of lockdown when Martin told me I would have to move out after my next rent was up. I checked the calendar and realised this was in five days’ time. Typically, I wanted to question his reasoning behind this, but at that point I couldn’t be bothered to argue or even enquire about his seemingly spontaneous decision. Maybe the fearmongering media had already cast its spell upon him and he didn’t want a potential virus carrier living in his safe space? Maybe he just wanted the flat to himself now he was confined in it for twenty-three hours a day? Maybe I was more insufferable and annoying than I actually realised? Whatever his reason, I wasn’t going to argue about it and – when the time came – I packed my bags of the few things I owned, cleared out the junk from my room, and took one last look at it before leaving. There it went: another transient dwelling of mine now confined to memory; another mostly uneventful chapter of my life over as the dust settled on the tops of the shelves.
I headed back to my hometown of Coventry via the train. Fortunately they were still running, although you were only permitted to use them for ‘essential or emergency purposes’. I wasn’t sure that the UK government were going to go full-on totalitarian with the rules, but it appeared I was wrong as I got stopped by a police officer at the station who asked me my reason for travel. I told him I’d just been kicked out my place and was having to move back with my parents. He looked at me and my flimsy backpack with almost a sad and pitiful look. He then looked down at the floor and back up to my face. “On you go lad,” he finally said.
I got on the train and sat there alone in the totally empty carriage, enjoying the rare peace and quiet that was seldom found on public transport (it appeared this apocalypse thing actually had some benefits). I then stared out the window, looking out at the countryside, reflecting on the next chapter of my life that was to come. I hadn’t really acknowledged the situation at hand so far, but at the point of being on my way home it suddenly hit me: I was thirty years old and about to be back living with my parents. It was a situation that was almost enough to make a grown man weep – especially a man who was at odds with his parents as much as me, but I reminded myself that it wasn’t completely my fault and that such a tragic situation was acceptable given the unprecedented circumstances. Still, such mental gymnastics wasn’t going to spare me of the actual horror of the situation at hand. It had been six years since my last spell there; and my last memories of that period weren’t great to say the least. I recalled the frequent arguments with my parents, the constant annoyances, the desire to escape at the nearest opportunity. I recalled the horror of having to listen to my parents have sex through the paperthin walls; of listening to them argue about the most trivial and meaningless things. Could I really endure such a way of being once more? Every year of my life seemed to distance me further away from my parents, and any commonground that was once there was now gone. I almost even felt that I wasn’t welcome in their home anymore – like I was now a stranger in comparison to the boy who grew up there. In the place of that hopeful child, they now had a disenfranchised thirty-year-old man who saw the world through very different eyes than he once had. What was I but yet another adult that had been beaten and bent out of shape by the world that awaited you once you had grew up and left home.
When I got home, I dropped my bags and made a cup of coffee. As soon as I walked into the living room, my mum was stressing about the rug. “Watch your coffee! This is a brand new rug! Don’t you dare spill anything on it…” Once again it appeared they had purchased something that brought them much happiness to their lives. After a brief bit of small-talk about the virus, my dad moved the conversation onto the cost of living there. £50 a week – which wasn’t as bad as I expected. My parents were both working class and were constantly itching to remind me that there wasn’t anything such as a free lunch. “I had to go out and work for a living when I was 16….” “Nobody paid my way.” “If you want to stay with us, you’ll have to contribute…. you’re a grown man now.” It was all the usual stuff that showcased what absolute working class heroes they were. Anyway, I was prepared for their script and told them I’d even pay the first month up front – that got them off my back for a while.
I then sat there with them watching television shows for a couple of hours. These included game shows and television soaps where you sat watching fictional characters live their lives as yours passed by on a sofa. It seemed not much had changed since I had last lived here – the five hours of television each evening before bed was still the norm. I guess that was their way of killing time, each person did it differently. At one point I had seen enough and took myself upstairs to my childhood bedroom. There I sat there on the bed, staring out the window into the back garden. I then stared at the walls, and my old books, and then my reflection of the mirror on my wardrobe. I recalled the times I had stared at it as a child and teenager. Here I was again: my face older, my body with more creaks and scars, my hair now starting to grey. My youth had deserted me and I was now edging towards middle-age, back in the same spot like nothing had happened. And when I thought about it, it was true – nothing had really happened. Like many people of my generation, my twenties had passed me by in an uneventful blur of stumbling around physically and mentally. No relationships, no adventures, no real purpose or meaning – just a constant existence of confusion and dissastisfaction. It was enough to cause waves of sadness to wash over me. I was supposed to be concerned with what was happening out there in the world, but what was happening in my world seemed like the real crisis. My detached nature suddenly escaped me and I looked up at the stars wistfully. I looked at them shining in the night sky and longed for something more, for not simply being dejected and disillusioned with this wretched world that I was stuck in. I longed for meaning and purpose; for some kind of sustenance for my soul. And I thought of all the others like me out there, locked down in their homes or wherever the hell they were. I thought of them staring up at the same sky and feeling the same things – of feeling confused and dismayed with this world; tired of the human experience; bored with absolutely everything that this life offered. Truly this earth and existence was some kind of prison for a certain type of person – the ones who looked up above and thought a bit more about everything than you were supposed to. It was too much to take so I went and rejoined my parents to watch some more mindless programs and numb my brain to sleep.
I entered the airport at dawn in a zombie-like state. It had been another sleepless night and it was time to return home after what was perhaps my most reckless trip yet. Leaving Portugal, I found myself depleted in more ways than one. My belongings now amounted to just three kilograms in my carry-on backpack. I was light, lighter in everything – bodyweight, money, clothes, sanity. I was travelling on an emergency passport after having lost my normal one along with other things. Those other things included my electric razor – my lack of razor made evident by the big, bushy beard now covering my face. What had happened to everything I wasn’t entirely sure about. The trip had been a total blur, fueled by heavy amounts of alcohol and a lack of sleep which was now commonplace whenever I travelled. That insomnia had left my brain in a beaten and battered state. My body too was a similar way – skinny and sunburnt and in need of some serious rest after a chaotic few weeks in the Portuguese sunshine.
In such a weary state, I naturally got reflective about things. I realised that at that point I’d been living on the run for almost ten years. A whole decade ago I went out on the road of discovery and adventure, seeing what awaited me out there in this wilderness that has maddened my mind and scarred my skin. I went out into the world with wide eyes seeking something that seemed not available in my immediate surroundings. I stuffed those backpacks with my few belongings; I stuffed my eyes with beautiful sights; I stuffed myself with soul-stirring experiences. I was living for myself and soaking in as much life as I could during my youth. But after all of that, I’m finally at the point where I start to wonder how sustainable this lifestyle is. On this trip I had once again experienced enriching moments and connections with others, but more than any other trip, I had also experienced some very dark moments, including a couple of days that I would reckon as the worst of my entire life. That time began with me being kicked out of a hostel for passing out on the floor of a room that wasn’t my own. The memory of the night before was non-existent and in my ashamed state, I decided to carry on drinking at a nearby bar in the morning on my own. The last thing I remembered was smoking a joint with a retired guy from California before waking the next day with a large number of belongings missing including my passport. I had a bus booked up north to start a five-day hike along the coast that I really didn’t want to take. Confused, stressed and with the worst comedown of my life, I stumbled onto that bus feeling like some sort of gremlin – my lack of identification now confirming I was out of place officially as well as mentally.
That feeling of defeat was also there in that airport that morning as I continued drifting around in a zombie-like state, wondering just how much longer I could keep living life on the edge like this. Just two days I was partying ’til 6am on the streets of Lisbon before going to the British embassy to pick up my emergency passport. A stern-looking guard with a machine gun searched me and escorted me through the building while my comedown and lack of sleep filled me with nerve-shredding anxiety. That moment was just another point of chaos and madness in what was now a strong back-catalogue. My mind thought back to getting arrested in Australia for trespassing and having to hitch-hike to my court case. It thought back to almost being hit in the head by a falling rock on a precarious mountain path; to narrowly missing an avalanche by thirty minutes in a Himalayan valley. It was true that there was only so much chaos one man could endure before he was pushed to the brink of total madness (or worse, death), and now – at thirty years old – I feel the voice of sanity call out to me through this mist, telling me to calm down and stop this freefall into the abyss of anarchy. “Come in and relax,” it says. “You’ve experienced enough of this hedonistic life. Take a breath. Step back. Take some time to enjoy a quiet life.”
Meanwhile, I think of a man I know in his eighties. He is a beat poet who seems to have been also living on the run all of his adult life and continues to do so in whatever way he can. I read his stories about drifting around Europe while busking and living on pennies. I also think of my friend Bryan, three years older than me who had been living even more on the edge than myself during the last few years in Australia. He’s just about to commence a one-month hike through the Alps with his girlfriend. Maybe there is a way to live like this without going totally insane. But am I like those other guys? I wasn’t sure. They certainly didn’t seem to end up in the situations I got myself into. They knew how to look after themselves and not spiral off into complete oblivion like I too often did. My self-destructive side was seemingly getting worse with each trip I went on and maybe I just had to accept that I wasn’t cut out for this high-flying lifestyle anymore. Maybe I really was crazier than the rest.
With my mind in a pensive and delirious state, I made my way through security. I wandered through the duty-free shops before finding a little cafe to sit down. I then ate some breakfast while watching others walk around the departure lounge, all of them looking so much fresher than myself.
I guess it was strange as someone who was a travel addict, but sometimes airports could make me feel alone more than any other place. I think it was the sight of the families, the loved-up couples, the rowdy groups of friends. It seemed that were very few others like myself in those crowds – solo travellers making their way to or back from another tiring adventure. As usual, when looking at regular people, thoughts of sanity and stability entered my brain. I thought of finally getting my own place and settling down in one place. I thought of women – of the French girl I had recently met in Mexico. She was on a two-week holiday there and was now back in her stable life with a good-paying job and about to buy an apartment. Maybe I’d learn French and move over there to live a nice quiet life with her. Maybe I’d finally learn to drive, get a pension and stop this calamitous journey through the wilderness. But almost as quickly as these thoughts entered my mind, they were pushed aside by the other ones – the thoughts of wandering ecstasy, of partying with new friends in foreign lands, of standing on sunset shorelines and hiking through mountainous valleys. I thought of the love of anarchy and adventure, my soul sailing further out into that intoxicating sea of the unknown – that same sea which had currently left me in a disheveled state with no passport and few belongings, with insomnia and sunburnt skin, but also with a spirit that was set on fire and a mind that was blown wide open.
Oh, what is a man to do once he has tasted such a life? This thrilling run out beyond the fences, this glorious dance in the lands of chaos – how does he return from that to a life of sensibility and suburban sanity? How does he trade the mystery and magic for the predictable and comfortable? For the safe and steady? I still had things I wanted to do, after all. I still wanted to fulfill my dream of cycling from the UK to Asia. Of hiking the great Himalayan route. Of finally travelling around Colombia. My list was still incomplete, but continuing in such a way of being didn’t bode well on the current basis of things – at least when I thought of similar others to myself. I thought Jack Kerouac – the great beat writer – drinking himself to death in his forties. I thought of Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson – their brains blown to the wall with self-inflicted shotgun wounds. I thought of that guy from Into The Wild starving to death alone in Alaska. It was true that living at full speed on the edge for so long usually made you more likely to end up in a graveyard or institution. Still, a part of me yearned to keep on living this way, putting the pedal down to the metal, soaring down that open road of life as the wind raises the hairs on my head. On the other hand, I also know it’s time to recognise that I’m slowly falling apart too. The wheels are buckling, the engine is failing, and the screws are coming loose.
The smart and sensible thing to do is to accept I’ve experienced more adventure than most people ever will, and finally begin to take my foot off the gas. But the thought of leaving this life behind fills me with tremendous sadness. It causes me to distract myself by reading through the messages on my phone. One Argentinian girl asks me when I’ll be coming back to Mexico. A dutch girl asks if we are ever doing that hike in Italy. Once again, my mind wanders and starts to dream of the next adventure, the next horizon, the next great run through this bewitching wilderness that has claimed each and every part of me.
This strange feeling of conflict is there as I sit there with my sleep-deprived mind, with my skinny body, with my half-empty backpack, with my emergency passport, with the cuts on my arm of which I’m not sure of the origin. The people around me seem to notice I’m not entirely with it as my hand shakes while drinking my coffee. A couple of coins fall out of my pocket and I reach down to pick them up off the floor. I then look at my jeans and notice that they are starting to tear apart at the seams. It almost seems symbolic and I think about getting them stitched up once again by my mother or landlady. I also think back to that nice Puerto Rican girl in Mexico mending my frayed backpack in Mexico earlier in the year. It was funny: all these women stitching me back together, mending me, repairing me. But maybe this time I’m realising that some things just can’t be stitched back together. There is no thread strong enough anymore to stop me from ripping open as I dream of the next adventure with my tired and maddened mind. And even if there was, I’m not sure I would even want that at this point.
I wake up and stare into that mirror. The same thing we all do every morning. Every time you see the same, yet slightly worse version of yourself. You’re one day older and you’re more tired, more weathered, more disillusioned with the world around you. You’re another day closer to death and your dreams have even less chance of becoming a reality than yesterday. It was never a pleasant sight but today that reflection was worse than usual. Today was the death of my youth. Yes, the years had fallen by and I was now thirty years old. No longer was I classified as a young person; I was now a fully-grown adult – the sort of thing kids looked up to – and there were no excuses for how much in disarray my life was. By this age you were supposed to have it all figured out: partner, marriage, career, mortgage, life purpose, and all of that keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ stuff. The truth is that I still felt like a clueless teenager, wandering aimlessly around, masturbating too much while struggling to come to terms with my own transient existence. Although mentally I may not have felt like I was thirty, physically it showed. Looking at my reflection, I could see the rings around my eyes, the crow’s feet starting to break through, the grey hairs which were not too numerous to pull out. The light in my eye was a little dimmer, the skin a little paler. I was becoming what old people had always seemed to me – walking examples of the inevitable descent towards death and darkness which eventually enveloped us all.
After a while of grimacing at that mirror, I got dressed and headed out onto the streets. I walked through that urban wasteland while staring at the passing people. The young, the old, the rich, the poor. Most of them, like me, didn’t stand a chance. The world spat on their dreams, took the joy from their heart, forced them to abandon their individuality to survive. Spiritually unfulfilled, they turned to vices to numb the inner pain: alcohol, drugs, porn, television, social media. Yes, the average person in the street was demented and insane – and no doubt I appeared that way to them too.
I carry on walking around the city centre with no purpose or destination. My 30th birthday, did anyone really care? Did I care? I eventually text one of my friends to ask if he wants to go for a drink. I knew he was off the rails at the moment and thus likely to say yes. It seemed to me that was what friends were for when you reached a certain age. You would never arrange to do anything together like play football or go to movies, but when you needed to go out and drink yourself into oblivion, they would be on hand to help you fulfil that need. It was a mutual transaction; many times I had responded to the call when he was in his hour of self-destructive need, and now he was reciprocating the favour as I drowned my sorrows and rued the fact I was now no longer young.
I met him in the main square in the city centre. A quick hello then we were soon sipping pints while updating each other on the tragedy of our lives. He told me about how he was still living paycheck to paycheck, no savings to afford a holiday or the driving lessons he needed. But it was all okay, he told me; he had devised a grand plan. “I’m gonna find myself a cougar and become a house husband.” I looked at him curiously. “There are so many lonely middle-aged women out there nowadays who want a younger guy. I’ll just stay at home all day, cooking dinner for when she gets home. The easy life.” I listened and knew this was the fantastical daydream of a desperate man. Looking at him in his current appearance, his odds of finding any woman seemed slim. He had once been considered cute, but was now balding and overweight with evidently not much to bring to the table. He had a degree in marketing which had been rendered useless by ten years of disuse as he worked the same job in a drab pub. He knew he didn’t have a shot at anything, and now his focus was on sponging off a middle-aged woman who had some financial capital. I didn’t blame him, and I started considering the same possibility myself. Perhaps he was onto something? Perhaps my destiny was to housekeep while waiting for my older wife to come home and fuck me? Having known each other since secondary school, we then got to talking about old times and old friends. Most of them now lived in London working graduate jobs, pursuing careers, working hard to become real people. Career professionals. Respected members of society. Everything that we weren’t.
“I don’t speak to them anymore,” he tells me. “I feel like they look down on me.”
“Probably,” I said.
“Yeah, I mean they’re all back there earning big money at graduate jobs their parents managed to get them after university, and I’m still here, almost thirty and broke. It’s all who you know and what you know. I got my degree but every job asks for two years of experience and how the fuck am I supposed to get that? You have to do internships, but I’ve been working fifty-hour weeks since I finished university just to get by. I don’t have the time or the means. The system is fucked man.” I sat there listening to his anguish and dissatisfaction. His comments may have seemed like excuses to most, but there was a lot of truth to it. Following university, I had also experienced the brick wall of not being able to get a job due to lack of experience. It was a catch 22 – needing experience for a job, but not being able to get experience without a job. Fortunately for me I had quickly decided not to even bother getting on the treadmill of a career. Living life based on what made your CV look good seemed absurd to me, and there was a freedom in not caring if you took six months off to go travelling, become an alcoholic, or just do nothing at all. I guess the downside to this was that only the low-paying jobs were available to you. But I didn’t care; less pay usually meant less responsibility, and less responsibility meant less stress, and less stress meant you didn’t go slowly demented over the years. In my head I was a modern-day Buddha, an enlightened being – a heroic rebel to the consumer-capitalist culture that was rotting people’s hearts and minds and souls. Of course, I knew this was my personal spin and in most people’s eyes I was just unsuccessful or an underachiever. Perspective was a fine thing and ultimately a person had to shape theirs in whatever way justified the way they were currently living their life.
We carry on drinking and I notice Jake started to slur his words and get hostile. I was used to it. He had a lot of inner demons and they usually came out around the fifth drink. I knew it wouldn’t be long until he started getting aggressive and arguing with people around him. After that he would declare he was going home after one more drink. This time there wasn’t even one more drink and off he went suddenly marching out the pub, telling me he was going to pick up a kebab and go home. I watch him stumble across the bar, disappearing out the door into the night, another wounded soul seeking shelter from the world. Then, sitting alone on my 30th birthday, I decide to continue drinking. Around me I hear the whirring noise of excited people – people in groups, people with friends, people who weren’t drinking alone on their 30th birthday. I knew I didn’t have the charisma or confidence to go up and speak directly to strangers, so I ordered a couple of double rum and cokes to at least make myself think that I could. About forty-five minutes later, I’ve reached the required level for social interaction, and suddenly I’m on a table with two younger guys. I think they could see I was on my own and pitied me. I graciously accepted their pity and reimbursed them with some self-deprecating jokes and a round of tequila shots.
After that, things got blurry and I’m in that hazy, soft, comfortable place of alcoholic sedation. I let myself drift through that haze until I eventually end up in a taxi on the way home with a twenty-one-year-old girl. Well, not too bad for an old-timer. The sex carries on into the morning – another meaningless fuck that I had now lost count of. Of course, I didn’t finish as usual. I very rarely finished during sex, and almost never after I had been drinking. Lying there on my bed, I can see she’s sad that I haven’t given her my seed; it was a look I had seen off many girls doubting their own attractiveness as they lay unsoiled on my mattress. This was the one thing that was required to be a man – to continue the human race – and it seemed I was also naturally incompetent at that. I attributed it to too much masturbation growing up. My genitalia only knew how to reach orgasm via my own touch. A vagina was simply no match for the highly-tuned movements of my right hand. I wondered how many other men were like me out there. We were the porn generation after all – the first people in history to watch whatever fucked up fantasy we wanted via a half-decent internet connection. Perhaps it was more common than I realised, and soon the highly-advanced sex robots would come, and no longer would any human be able to reach orgasm via traditional penetration. Perhaps this was the end of humanity; not with a bang, but with a whimper – everybody fucking silicone robots in dark rooms alone as humanity petered out to its pitiful and pathetic end. Feeling the way I was during that hangover, I welcomed it.
I carried on drinking for another couple of days; maybe it was three, I wasn’t sure. The debauchery looked to be getting out of hand but finally I sobered up and tried to make sense of the events. In particular, scrolling through my online bank statement after going on a bender was always a tragic affair. The needless drinks at 3am; the excessive fast food orders; the money withdrawn from the cash machine that your empty pockets tell you is totally spent. My bank account had taken a beating, which was forgivable considering I was having my 30th birthday crisis, but also slightly concerning considering the fact I was unemployed with no money coming in.
Funds were getting tight and consequently I started searching for a job. I loaded up the job search websites and scrolled through the muck of lowly-paid, menial positions. “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now.” Morrissey’s lyric always stuck in my head when I had to surrender myself to the system and beg up some kind of employment. How people managed to stay in one job for most of their life, or even years of their life, baffled me thoroughly. By week three or four, I was violently itching to liberate myself with a letter of resignation. Those letters had been written, and sometimes they hadn’t – sometimes I just didn’t show up because the thought of getting up in the morning to go to a place which shit on my soul was too much. By the time I was applying for a job, I was already imagining how and when I was going to quit it. I had to think to myself: getting to thirty years old without holding a job for more than a year was quite an achievement. I thought about listing it on my CV, then realised it was already there for the prospective employers to see anyway in my work history. This spotty work history naturally made it harder for me to even get a job in the first place. This became apparent again when I saw a job advert for the Royal Mail. I looked at it with interest. For some reason I always fancied myself as a bit of a postman; getting paid to walk around in the fresh air, working on your own, no boss over your shoulder or office politics to deal with – as far as jobs went, it wasn’t actually too terrible. But the Royal Mail wanted me to explain each and every gap in my work history. There were at least ten gaping holes on my bloody bombsite of a CV. I felt depressed that I had to explain why I wasn’t devoting myself to some job, as if each time you weren’t stuck on the grind, you had to justify your momentary freedom from the machine. The whole thing made me want to go and play with traffic to be honest, but I went along with their game and paved over some of those gaps by stretching my employment dates (like everyone else, I knew that bending the truth was an essential part of surviving in the modern world).
I guess my attitude towards work was kinda lousy to many people – especially towards my parents, who constantly reminded me that I needed to get a career, and that I was wasting my university degree (which was a worthless media studies degree anyway). Even my sister was consistently on my case.
“You’re intelligent,” she would tell me. “You have something to offer the world. Don’t waste your life in bitterness and jadedness. There’s a job out there for you somewhere, you just have to find what it is.” Thoroughly inspirational words, I’m sure you’d agree. I disregarded them as I did with everyone else.
After an hour of applying for jobs, the hopelessness of it all got to me. I stopped what I was doing, went to the kitchen, pulled a beer from the fridge, and returned to my bedroom desk. I then closed the job website and loaded up my sci-fi novel I had been working on. Important work awaited. The book was currently 18,000 words long and based around the theory that the universe was a computer simulation. It was just an eccentric theory, albeit one that some physicists and scientists took seriously. Anyway, I imagined what would happen if we somehow all conclusively proved we were living in a computer simulation. I imagined the existential crisis of everyone, the collapse of religion and society, the anarchy that was sure to follow. My theory is that society would destroy itself as everyone saw no meaning to anything anymore. The book would follow a protagonist who goes on a soul-searching quest through the wasteland of civilisation to discover if life is worth living anymore. He would meet people who felt relieved that life wasn’t real, and others that were driven to suicide and madness because their egotistical illusions had been shattered. Eventually he would end up happy in some peaceful commune, content in the knowledge that life is just a game and there’s nothing fundamentally to worry about. (Yes, of course there was some edgy philosophical point to it all.)
I guess it was just an idea I found interesting, and like all deluded people who thought of themselves as writers, I daydreamed about it one day becoming a best-seller. I imagined my book sitting on bookshelves and me signing copies at some launch event. It was at least a more exciting prospect of climbing a career ladder, spawning some children, or buying my own property and filling it full of furniture. No doubt my writings would never be read by anyone – my manuscript gathering dust in some dark forgotten corner – but it at least gave me something to do and daydream about while stuck on this earth. This was it, essentially, the bargain of human existence. Every man or woman had to find something, no matter how trivial, to give their life some basic meaning. Kids, careers, gardening, football teams…. hell, even something as ridiculous as taking pictures of trains. The important thing was finding something to do to help pass the months and years. At the end of the day, we were all killing time while waiting to die.
Savings from my inheritance were getting low and the rent needed to be paid, so it really was time to cast aside my future nobel-prize-winning writing and get a job. So far my applications had predictably proved fruitless, but fortunately I had a friend who could help me out. I figured over half of all jobs were being worked by people who had got the position through someone they knew (‘It’s who you know and what you know’ – as my dejected friend had lamented). Anyway, the guy I knew worked at this call centre for an energy company. I loathed the idea but I needed money quickly, so I begrudgingly sent them my application. I was immediately invited to an interview – an interview I was sure to pass according to my friend. Even though I had the advantage of being close with someone who already worked there, I felt I was sure I was going to screw it up anyway. Interviews were my natural enemy. I loathed absolutely everything about them: dressing up smartly, pretending you wanted the job, pretending you were qualified for the job, and just generally chatting Grade-A bullshit while ‘selling yourself’. How humanity had come from being hunter-gatherers to this was a mystery to anyone. The whole thing was a horrorshow, and just mustering up the energy to even pretend I cared for ten minutes was hard enough work, but my head needed a roof over it and my stomach needed food, so I put on my only shirt/pair of trousers and marched solemnly toward the interview.
Outside the building, I stopped and stared at it. There it was: another office building in a business park with a bunch of human-beings inside, all of them hunched over desks, toiling away their hours and days in stuffy cubicles. I looked through the window at them all locked into their work stations like batteries in some sort of machine. Outside the car park was completely full; nice cars sat neatly parked while the owners sat inside working all day to pay for them. A quick scan showed the spaces for the big dogs, their signs above them: ‘Senior Director’; ‘Assistant Director’. Maybe if I worked away for ten years I could also get in the position of having my own parking space. Maybe that would please my family.
After a minute or so after observing this strange environment, I entered the building. I checked in at reception then was taken upstairs to wait for my interview. I sat outside in a hallway preparing my answers for the merciless interrogation that was about to come my way. My mate had filled me in on what they would ask and they were, of course, the usual collection of mundane interview questions.
“What about this position interests you?”
“What skills do you have that you feel will suit this role?”
“Can you name one time you provided excellent customer service?”
It was a tedious process and, god, how I just wanted to spit out the dirty truth into their faces.
“I’m here because I’ve always been really passionate about not starving to death.”
“I’m here because sleeping on the streets isn’t too comfortable.”
“I’m here because I have to be here.”
It was a tempting prospect but, of course, I knew such mental musings were never meant to be uttered, only to be kept locked deep inside the vaults of the brain. Ultimately the truth was a creature of the darkness; it preferred to stay hidden in the shadows, fearing how people would react to it if it showed its face to the world. It was vulnerable, sensitive, and the times it came out into the daylight usually led to people stamping violently on its face until it was dead or you were dead.
Remembering this, I made sure my truth was locked safely away and that my mask of social normality was fitted tightly to my face. It was then that a woman came out with a big friendly smile, spectacles on, paperwork in hand. “Are you Bryan?” she asked. I told her yes. “If you just want to follow me inside…”
I entered tentatively. The room was a bland, soulless office space, with absolutely nothing in it besides the desk and chairs in the centre of the room. To my unpleasant surprise, there was a second woman already sitting at the desk, also wearing a big smile.
“Hello,” I said, shaking her hand. I sat down and faced her and the other woman. Two of them were there staring at me, middle-aged women who had no doubt been here ten times longer than I had been at any other job; middle-aged women who may as well have lived on a different planet to me. They shuffled their papers about and pulled out some pens. Suddenly the room grew smaller as my anxiety increased. I could see they had a copy of my CV, complete with all its fraudulent dates on. I did wonder then if you could actually face any real legal trouble from lying on your CV. The thought went out of my head when I remembered that the majority of the population would be in the shit if that was the case. At that point the discourse began and I was caught; like a fly in a spider’s web, I was well and truly in the worst place a creature like myself could have been.
“So obviously you’ve seen the job description online, but we’ll just go through the details of the role here and what will be expected of you.” I forced a smile and a nod. I then sat awkwardly, not knowing what to do with my hands while she ran through the dreary list and what the company was all about. I hoped she would just keep on speaking, but I knew soon I would be expected to tell them why I wanted to spend eight hours of my day sat inside this building doing something I had zero interest in. There was no use dwelling on the absurdity of it however, so I quickly got into character as the questions started.
They were all the questions I anticipated, so I rattled off my formulaic answers. I talked about my past positions in customer service, about how great I was at dealing with a variety of people, and how committed I was to doing a job well. I gave overblown examples from my past jobs showing just what an upstanding employee I was. I was blagging it so well that even I almost started to believe the bullshit coming out of my mouth. They sat there nodding and smiling like idiots; it seemed the bullshit process was going nice and smoothly. It was then that a question came that wasn’t in the script I hadn’t thought through.
“Can you name one time when a problem arose during work, and what you did to overcome it?”
I hadn’t mentally gone through this one and I sat there frozen. Although I was good at coming up with bullshit with a little preparation, I was never actually too great at bullshitting on the spot. I delved down into the sewers of my mind, searching for some stinky bullshit to feed them. But at that moment nothing was coming to me. “Take your time to think about it; there’s no rush to answer.” Seconds of awkwardness felt like minutes and I kept on searching for something to say. Eventually my flashlight lit up a dark corner of my mind’s sewer. There it was: some stinky bullshit. I pulled it out and presented it to them. I told them a story about a time I was working with my dad as a delivery driver. We were short on time to deliver all these items to a business park so I got him to drop me off with all the parcels to deliver on foot, while he went to a different location and delivered there. The details were inconsistent and it was poorly told, but I had at least given them some sort of answer. I think they could tell it was bullshit but thankfully they ate it up as the nods returned and the pens started ticking those pieces of paper again. The bullshit process was once again going nice and smoothly.
After fifteen minutes of interrogation, the ordeal was over and I was free to exit. I thanked them for their time, walked out the building, and shook my head free of all the utter nonsense I had just spouted. I then loosened the tie on my neck, feeling like I was taken off some sort of noose. As always, engaging in the farcical world of work was a traumatic affair, so I walked briskly home to rest, masturbate, and drink a much-needed beer.
The place I was renting was conveniently close to where the office was. It was a small apartment in a secluded court, with three bedrooms but only two people living there. The other person I was living with was the landlord. I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be living alone with the landlord to be honest, but fortunately for me he was rarely there. He was a peculiar guy, around the same age as me and also firmly unemployed. For him though his job status was no problem seeing as he was comfortably living off my rent money and the rent money of the people who lived in two more properties he owned. How a guy just thirty years of age owned three properties was initially a mystery, but one that I solved after learning he had inherited the properties off of his dead dad. Although he didn’t have to worry about making money through work, like all human-beings he was plagued by purpose, so of course he needed to do something to manufacture some meaning into his life. This included a few businesses he had set up, all of which had failed. He also told me how he had appeared on various reality TV shows over the years, managing to make some cash from them. I suspected whether he was genuine, but searching his name on the internet it appeared he was telling the truth.
As I said, he wasn’t around much, but we did occasionally cross paths in the kitchen. When there we would shoot small-talk. He hadn’t asked me much about my life, but sometimes he did ask about work. I presumed this was because he wanted to know I was reliable to pay his wage – aka the rent. It wasn’t an easy thing to give him an answer on. I mean, how does one really tell someone that they’re a bum? That you worked whatever temporary, menial job you could get? That you were currently surviving off your last remaining inheritance money? After all, people needed to understand you through your set position in society; it was the only way many people could make sense of the world after twenty years of institutional education where the goal was to become ‘something’ at the end. As tedious as I found this, I couldn’t blame people for it; it was all they knew and so, to make it easier for myself, I just lied and said I was a content writer. This sort of job could now be done online, so if you weren’t going to an office every day it didn’t necessarily mean you weren’t working. Also, I had even done a bit during my worthless media studies degree, so if anyone asked questions I could at least sound like I knew what I was talking about. I told people I wrote for business magazines mostly if questioned further, as my landlord Martin occasionally did.
“How’s work today?” he asks as I’m cooking some noodles in the kitchen.
“Not too bad,” I tell him. “Just putting together some press releases for a PR company that gives exposure to start-up businesses in Colombia.”
“That sounds interesting…”
“Not really but it pays the bills you know…”
He had never questioned me further on my lies, and maybe that was because he presumed it was bullshit, but as long as he got my rent money every four weeks, he didn’t care. He could go back to applying for reality TV shows and planning his next failed business and whatever else it was he got up to in the days he spent away from the apartment.
Well, a few days passed and it seemed I wouldn’t have to lie to Martin about my employment anymore. I got a call from the energy company to tell me that they were pleased to tell me that I would be starting training for my new role the following Monday. It seemed that after a month, I was back to being employed. I was once again a functioning member of society; an accepted tax-paying citizen with my own role and cubicle. Realising this, I went and got myself a beer from the fridge, not knowing whether I was drinking in celebration or despair. After I ended up drinking seven more, I realised it was despair.
So there I was: first day on the job, sitting in the training office with my own computer, surrounded by seven other new starters who were eager to learn and progress in the company. I looked around at them: it was a mixture of ages and ethnicities, although they all appeared to share one thing in common – they had all worked at call centres before, often for years, and they no doubt knew what they were doing much better than me. It was true that I had done customer service work before, but that was dealing with mums in supermarkets shouting at me because we had started charging five pence for a plastic bag. Dealing with people on the phone was slightly different, and one that was a bit of a nightmare for someone like myself. I couldn’t stand talking on the phone and I made a point of avoiding phone calls with friends whenever I could, choosing instead to stay safe and distanced through the medium of messaging. There was just something about communicating this way that I found unnatural and awkward. Well, that was a shame, because now it appeared I would be doing it for hours every day.
Speaking to friends on the phone was one thing, but dealing with customers was another. I would like to say that I have had many interactions in customer service that were tolerable, even pleasant on occasion, but mostly it is a form of torture that causes you to wish for nuclear apocolypse. Dealing with people in a customer service position you suddenly see them become demons from the deepest pits of hell. Knowing they are the priority and that the customer is always right, they feel they can get away with talking to you anyway they like. For example when I worked the evening shift in the supermarket, I would get many people come in on their way home for work. Many of these people were suffering from another day of working a job they hate, and maybe they were going home to something worse. As a result, they saw dealing with someone at the supermarket as an opportunity to vent their inner existential frustration.
I feared on the phone it would be even worse, knowing that they were safely distanced would allow them to really use me as a verbal punching bag. It was like when you saw people driving; if someone cut them off, you would see them shouting and swearing to the other person in the opposite car. But if you saw someone bump into someone in the street, they would both politely apologise and be on their way. Ultimately human-beings needed to feel safe and distanced before they vented the pain in their souls, and talking with someone in customer service on the phone was a perfect opportunity to do this. This was made even worse by knowing I was working for an energy company. In past years the energy companies hiked their prices at every opportunity; with it being a private market and having no one to answer to, they all collectively raised their fees each winter in unison. People were getting financially fucked left, right and centre; and now I would be having to hear about for hours every day.
Luckily for me, I had three weeks of training until I would actually have to face the wrath of angry consumers throughout the country. This training would involve learning the sort of queries I would have to deal with, and how to navigate the website and computer system. I wished the training would go on forever, and I made sure to sit back and make the most of the stress-free days while I could.
I didn’t really care for getting to know any of my co-workers, but one day I ended up befriending an older guy who was sitting next to me. He was in his late forties, softly spoken and seemingly shy. Sitting there, I often looked over and saw him scribbling down some doodles on a piece of paper. When I looked closely, I could see they were actually pretty good – artistic sketches of fantasy things like dragons and castles. It was clear that he was a similar soul to me, an escapist daydreamer, probably wondering why he also had to subject himself to such absurdity when all he wanted to do was create art. Noticing these things I struck up a conversation with him. There was an instant connection and he told me how he was a buddhist who lived in a buddhist commune in the centre of town. He meditated two hours every day and you could sense that in his calm demeanour. I guess that was another thing people did while waiting to die, seeking nirvana. If all else fails, I can always become a monk, I thought to myself. I’ll retreat to the mountains of Himalaya and meditate myself into oblivion. I’ll live off the land and seek enlightenment until the end of my days, far away from all of this nonsense.
The training went on and I eventually accepted the fact I was falling behind. My interest had gone by week two, so I joined my buddhist brother in doodling. My doodles weren’t sketches however, but sentences for my fantasy novel. For some reason I felt even more creative when in this stifling environment and I sought to make the most of it. I looked around at my colleagues, all of them unaware that the greatest novel of the 21st century was being written right under their noses. They trained to answer some phone calls while I put down immortal words that would be read and analysed in classrooms for centuries to come. Maybe one day in my autobiography I would mention how I wrote some of it while working at a call centre, and they would read it and realise just how lucky they were to be in the presence of a true genius. Well, of course that wouldn’t happen but it was a nice thing to daydream about. I continued doing that, staring out the window at the sun coming through the trees, appreciating the carefree days while jotting down some words here and there. Hell, I was even getting £11 an hour for my time- the biggest wage I had ever had in my twelve years of working. Finally I was getting paid for my writing like I should have been. Of course, I was going to be severely underprepared when the training had finished, but I told myself that I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
Well, I crossed that bridge and entered the warzone. My peaceful, stress-free days came to a sudden end as the bloody battle of customer service began. On my first day I had them all: the angry, the patronising, the annoying, the crazy and the confused. So many people who felt they had been overcharged; who were threatening to switch energy provider; who told me how horrid I was for capitalising on old people just trying to stay warm in their houses. Bang, bang, bang. The verbal abuse came at me from all angles. I was on the frontline, getting gunned down for all the things the people who actually ran the company did. I was the expendable young soldier being bombarded while the generals sat comfortably in some safe building far away from the bloodshed.
In particular I had one woman who told me to get a proper job. I questioned whether it was one of my parents on the other line. Once again the temptation to actually speak the truth was enormous; it was on the tip of my tongue, me telling her how I don’t want to do this job but I’m forced to so that I can pay my bills just like her. I thought about agreeing with her that the prices are disgusting and we were all victims of an exploitative, dehumanising capitalist system that is destroying human minds and the planet we live on. Oh yes, oh yes – the truth sat on the end of my tongue, looking out at the daylight, but once again I remembered that the truth was a creature of the darkness, so I locked it quickly back up inside my brain and recited the formulaic customer service script.
On that occasion I kept it together, but I had to admit that it was continually difficult to maintain calmness among the conversations I was having. I looked over to Gandhi beside me for some inspiration. He seemed to always be calm and collective. His years of meditation had allowed his brain to live in zen-like state, detached from the tedious conversations he was having to have throughout the day. I was inspired by him and I took some moments to try and be mindful between calls; to mentally detach myself from the absurdity of the task at hand. It was something that clearly aided him in this war and I figured it was good practice for the outside world as well.
The battle continued, and even with me trying to be in a detached zen state, I was struggling with my customer service duty. It got to the point where I was sitting in the canteen on lunch break, struggling to lift myself up out of the chair to return to my desk. I was shell-shocked. And when the phone rang I stared at it fearfully. The horror of humanity was on the other line and I sat there struggling to lift my arm to answer it.
I knew I wasn’t going to last and I think it was on day four of doing the actual job that I quit. For once, I didn’t even really think it all out. There was no notice of resignation or plan to not attend work. I was just walking to work one morning when, without thinking, I suddenly stopped outside the office. I stared at the building in front of me. I stared at the cubicles inside and the parked cars and the smokers having their first cigarettes of the day as they mentally prepared for another day on the frontline. Out of nowhere a universal force overcame my body and made it impossible for me to put one foot in front of the other. The only thing I could do was turn around and just walk somewhere else. That somewhere else was the local park. It was a nice, sunny morning and I spent some time sitting by the pond and watching the ducks. I then went and got myself a coffee and a sandwich before walking around a little more through a wooded area. There were many squirrels there, and they weren’t shy; they came up to me as I fed them bread. They were nice squirrels. Anyway it wasn’t long before my phone started ringing. It would be work, of course, wanting to know why I was feeding animals and not locked up inside my cubicle taking abuse from some stranger down the phone. I thought about answering but I figured I’d have absolutely no explanation for my strange behaviour. In the end, I just turned off my phone and carried on strolling around in nature. I then went to a bookstore, then an art gallery, and finally a pub for a couple of pints. At one point I completely forgot about work altogether. It was a nice day, and eventually I went home to try and process the end of another transient piece of employment.
Well, there was no way I was ever going to communicate with them again, at least not on the dreaded telephone. I’d send them an email that the job was giving me extreme anxiety. Anxiety was the go-to excuse of the modern age, even overtaking stress, and I had even used it recently to get out of being best man at a friend’s wedding. Almost everyone had social anxiety these days and you only had to mention it to get people to back off and leave you alone. I even went a little further, stating that I had experienced a panic attack on my way to work. I wrote the e-mail and sent it off, not planning to look at the reply for at least another few days.
I also told my sister about my latest job quitting. As always, she was keen to offer me some words of wisdom. “It was obvious a call centre job wasn’t for you. You should look for something more suitable to you. You need to find something that you have a connection to and a passion for. You should do this personality test; I did it and it helped tell me a lot about myself and what sort of jobs would be good for me. I think it’s really insightful.” She sent me a link to a website called 16personalities. Apparently this was it; my problem all along was that I needed to understand myself better. It at least piqued my curiosity, so I loaded it up and read through it.
It was a list of questions about all sorts of preferences and situations in life, designed to get an insight into the psychology of your mind. From the answers you gave, you were determined to be one of sixteen personality types based on things like introversion/extroversion and whether you acted with your heart or your head. Initially, I was kinda fearful to see what they made of the mess of my mind, but intrigued too.
After filling them out, the website determined I was an INFP – which is basically the deformed, death and blind midget of the personality types. Reading up some more on it, it appeared INFP personality types were the most likely to feel misunderstood, the most likely to earn the least money, and even the most likely to kill themselves. Essentially it was life on difficult mode and finally I had something to point to while people wondered why I was the total disaster I was. “It’s my personality type,” I would tell them. “I’m an INFP. It’s basically like living life with a mental disability.” Of course, I knew I was justifying my uselessness as a person under the banner of a psychology test. I would be just as terrible as the women who justified their behaviour based on their star sign or a full moon.
The website also listed the job roles that suit INFP personalities. Writer was the main one along with artist – pretty much things you couldn’t do for a stable living, hence why this type made the least money by a good distance. Apparently people like Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath were INFP personality types though. Lucky me, I thought – I had a good chance of mutilating my own body or sticking my head in an oven like a roast turkey.
My sister had told me it would help me understand myself better and what sort of things I would be good at, but it only confirmed the reality of what I thought about myself. I was a jagged piece of the jigsaw, with no place to smoothly slot into society. My place was not in the suburbs of sanity, but on the sidelines with the starving artists and madmen, searching for the light of existence while trying to fight off the wolves of depression and insanity. Well, it wasn’t all bad news. At least I was in the right category for wanting to become a writer anyway. I didn’t have much chance of finding a job I liked, but it appeared my delusion about becoming a best-selling writer one day at least had a faint hope of possibility. INFPs apparently included Shakespeare, Tolkien, and George Orwell. I was in good company, and with this new source of morale, I returned to my novel to strike out a few more sentences. I was nearing 25,000 words and a third of the way through the greatest novel of the 21st century. I was a man in pursuit of his own destiny. I was a man aligning his passion and purpose. I was a man killing time while waiting to die.
I eventually checked the reply to my email after three days. I was cringing at what they would say to me but it wasn’t too terrible. They said they understood but also wished I had discussed it with them – and that it was still a possibility if I wanted to. But if not, they said they were sad to lose me and that I could expect my pay in my account next Friday. Well, it wasn’t too bad; I had four weeks of decent pay at least. That would tide me over for another month or two of living the way I did – basic groceries, cheap beer, walking or cycling everywhere, and just spending a lot of time in my bedroom on my computer. I was back to being a bum; back to lying to my landlord about what it was that I was doing with my life. At least he had my precious rent guaranteed for another couple of months. His hard work of inheriting a place from his dead dad had guaranteed him another £780 of my money.
The days of unemployment recommenced. I awoke late, masturbated regularly, and sat staring at my laptop screen for hours each day. At that point writer’s block struck and I wasn’t feeling inspired to work on my novel. Now I really had nothing to do and time needed to be wasted in vast amounts. I was still inspired by the buddhist at the office, so I downloaded some guided meditations and spent hours each day sitting on my bed like Buddha himself. After a week or so had been murdered this way, I began to notice a change in my consciousness. I was more content and relaxed. I had a wider awareness of everything around me. Feeling a deep connection with the universe, I went back to the woods and marvelled at nature while feeding those squirrels. Life was easy, stress-free, blissful even!
This state of being lasted about five days until the usual desires came creeping back up on me. In particular, the need to get drunk and chase women and generally act like an idiot. It appeared no amount of meditation could take that side from me. Once again, I contacted Jake so he could assist me in another night of hedonistic escapism.
We met in the pub he worked at after he had finished a shift. He was busy chatting with his regulars when I arrived, but eventually came over to join me for a drink. Sitting there, I told him about my latest stint in the world of employment. He almost seemed annoyed that I had landed a steady job that paid more than the minimum wage and that I had given it up so swiftly. “Man, what a waste that was. You should have got your friend to get me that job.”
“Trust me, you didn’t want it.”
“I’ve been working in bars since I was sixteen. All I’ve ever known is working unsociable hours. I’d love to have a steady 9-5, Monday to Friday job.”
“Everyone says that until they actually have one. The reality of it is different. The tedious routine of sitting behind the same desk everyday. You wait all week for the weekend and then it flies by. Suddenly you’re staring down the barrel of Monday morning again with another long slog in front of you. The whole thing sucks your soul dry after a while.”
“This place is sucking my soul dry!”
“I’ve worked in a bar before,” I said. “It took about six months there until I started going crazy. In this place I was crazy after just a few weeks.”
“You’re crazy no matter what you do.”
There was a pause in the conversation as we sipped our pints to acknowledge that truth. He then went out for another cigarette and to chat to his community of alcoholics that frequented his pub. He worked in a Wetherspoons pub – the budget establishment of the UK where unemployed people such as myself could get drunk off a tenner. It wasn’t just the unemployed, but the poor in general, the depressed, the men escaping their wives, and the old people drinking alone in dark corners. Those pensioners in particular were a sad sight to behold. There they came everyday: retired people who had nothing better to do but sit and drink and stare into space. Often they would arrive in the early morning and spend the entire day there alone in solemn silence, reading a shitty newspaper while awaiting the inevitable. It was like looking into God’s waiting room and Jake told me how a regular passed away every few weeks. You always knew when you hadn’t seen their face in more than a few days. The poor bastards. This is what they got after a lifetime of work and saving for retirement: festering alone in a dank pub as the last of their days ran dry. Watching them sit there, you could actually watch them emptying slowly out until all that was left of them was the froth at the bottom, before it eventually evaporated and disappeared right before your eyes.
It was a sad sight as it always was and it once again reinforced the feeling I had inside of wanting to escape this mortal prison before the years had really taken their toll. I poured those pints down my throat hoping they would contribute to some liver illness that would help me check out around the age of sixty. The way I saw it, that was the age we were meant to live to anyway. It was only recently we had started living into our 80s and beyond. Technological and medicinal development had screwed us over; we should have been dying around fifty somewhere at the hands of some lion or hideous disease. But instead we now reached almost double that age, sitting in carehomes and shitting ourselves and forgetting our children’s faces and becoming so decrepit and frail that we couldn’t even eat without assistance. We watched the world change into a thing we didn’t recognise, where every new generation was a sad reminder of what a foreign thing you were – a relic of a bygone age which had no time or place for you anymore. All that was left to do was drink alone in pubs while waiting to die.
I sat there getting depressed, remembering I was now thirty and that the glory of my youth had fallen away. Okay, I wasn’t old like them, but I was past the point of my physical peak and now all that awaited was the long descent to join those old people drinking themselves to death, subconsciously speeding up the process because they knew the sadness of their existence on this earth was too much to bear, that they would never be those young and beautiful people they once were, that their mediocre story was nearly written and the last sorry sentences were being put down – each uneventful day a nail in the coffin of another meaningless existence; more lives that didn’t amount to anything; more dreams disappearing into dust, the only memory of your one existence being a piece of grey stone protruding from the earth in a field somewhere, getting shit on by the birds and rained on by the sky – death, as in life, seeing this world pissing on you from high above as the earth pulled you down, down, down to the ground.
Okay, perhaps my nihilism was getting a little out of hand. I was supposed to be forcing myself to have a good time, so I went over to join Jake and his crew of regulars – the degenerates to which I belonged. I introduced myself and soon the drinks were sailing back as we chatted general shit about current affairs and football. I barely knew anything about football, but when talking with drunk people you only had to give a few ‘yeah’s and ‘right’s to make it seem like you were an expert on the subject. Mostly drunk people just wanted to hear themselves speak and have someone nod their head in agreement with them. One of the guys then offered me a cigarette; I didn’t smoke but took it anyway. About twenty minutes later I’m doing cocaine in the toilet with the same guy. This is what needed to be done sometimes; you had to trick your brain into thinking that something exciting was happening with a chemical substance. I did a couple of lines with my new friend and emerged like a gremlin from the cave of a toilet cubicle. At that point I couldn’t see Jake anymore amid the crowd. I was back in that haze, drifting through the night, sailing on through the mist. That mist had become a friend over the years, sheltering me from the piercing light of reality that at times was too much to bear. This time I needed it a lot, and I let myself be consumed by it as everything blurred around me once again. More drinks went down until I remembered that I was supposed to be watching my money, so I started picking up leftover drinks on the side of the bar, not caring what was in them.
After a while, the mist had taken me into the city centre. I wasn’t even too sure how I got there when I stopped to think about it. My memory was terrible when drunk and dementia was sure to hit me in that dreaded old age. Oh well, for now I didn’t care. I was outside in the smoking area of some pub having another cigarette off some stranger. We stood there smoking and naturally I felt the need to make conversation. I asked him about his day and immediately hated myself. Small-talk was something that physically pained me and yet there I was instigating it. He told me about his day then asked me what it was that I did. I thought about lying as usual and saying I was a writer but I didn’t have the energy. I told him I had just quit a call centre job and was unemployed.
“Good on you for quitting!” he said. “Not everyone has the guts to quit a job they hate.”
“Trust me, I’m well experienced in it.”
“I get you. That office life is sickening. All those people spending their lives doing some mundane task, chasing promotions and climbing ladders to nowhere. They age terribly and are all secretly unhappy inside. And they feel good when they get that paycheck, but ultimately it goes to things that don’t make them happy and only trap themselves further in the system of sedentary slavery.” I was suddenly warming to this guy. “No fuck that shit,” he continued. “I’m glad I got out of that lifestyle when I could. Nowadays I just do online trading and deliver food for a few hours each day. You’ll never see me working a job like that again!” Out of nowhere it appeared I had found a fellow misfit. Naturally I was curious about his lifestyle and asked him more about it. He told me how he had worked a 9-5 ‘proper job’ for five years then took all the money he had saved and put it into crypto currency. He was now making regular profits and this, alongside four hours a day delivering food on a bike, was enough money to live comfortably off. The idea of a man escaping the sewer was always enough to get the blood pumping, and there and then I decided I was going to give it a go as well. Well, I had absolutely no spare money to put into trading, but I at least had a bike.
He finished his cigarette and took off into the night. Before he left, he took my number and told me he’d text me sometime. Of course, I knew he never would. The amount of random numbers I had in my phone from brief encounters on nights out was comical. I carried on through the night staggering around in the mist, trying and failing to attract a mating partner for the night. The mist got thicker and eventually the possibility of attracting anything other than trouble was long gone. Pretty soon I blacked out completely, waking up the next morning in my bed with a horrific hangover and few grazes on my body that I had no idea about.
“I sat on the beach facing the almighty pacific ocean. The waves crashed on the shoreline and the sun reflected off the water onto my face. I closed one eye as I downed my bottle of beer, thinking of memories of the past and my path to here. It was true: thirty years old and still living in the dirt, dreaming in the darkness, wandering the outside spaces. Maybe some thought I would give up this freedom fight, maybe I did, but there I was once again: travelling alone in Mexico, wandering through old towns, drinking in random bars and speaking to whatever stranger drifts into my course. I am a boat out on the ocean of the unknown, and by now I don’t think I’ll ever dock. These sails still catch the wind firmer than ever and the journey shows no sign of slowing. Stormy seas I have known, and my crew of weary sailors – whose blackened faces work the coal engine rooms of my heart – their eyes know the toil of that turbulent journey. Their eyes know this ship wasn’t made for safe harbours of stability and security; those anchors of mortgages and marriages, but instead to drift in the great beyond in search of some divine light of freedom and adventure and life and beauty.”