short stories

~ Off The Rails ~

nice beach

~ Off the Rails ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

short stories

~ The Mask Of Normality ~

~ The Mask of Normality ~

“So Bryan, what is it that you do?”

I looked at my fellow wanderer across the dinner table from me. He was a man of the backpacking world. He was a man who had done many jobs, who had travelled many places – a man who, like me, struggled to categorise his entire existence in the universe within a specific labelled box of employment. Still, after swallowing the food he was chewing on, he began to try and justify his bohemian lifestyle to the family. I sat back and studied him curiously, knowing that it was normally me on the receiving end of this question, flapping and flailing around like a fish out of water, unable to give them the solid answer they sought.

After a couple of minutes of explaining how he worked and travelled, how he didn’t have a set home, and how he had recently spent a year living in a hostel, an awkward silence fell over us. I looked at the mother and father across the table. If they had been culturally programmed robots, then you could almost see the sparks flying from their eyes. You could see the circuits crashing and the sound of ‘malfunction – malfunction – malfunction’. It was a sight I knew all too well; whenever people couldn’t categorise you easily within a culturally and economically defined box, then they often stalled and didn’t know what to say. Their silence was deafening but thankfully Bryan found some humorous words:

Well, it looks like my mask of normality just fell off.

I let out an awkward little laugh and thought about the absurdity of the scenario. Here we were once again justifying our bizarre and unconventional lives to a family we were visiting. Often we had joked about the looks of bewilderment that were cast our way whenever we talked about our lives. I guess you didn’t really think about it until you were out of education. When you were still studying you could say you were in education to get people off your back. But the second you were out of school and didn’t have your identity assigned by a job role, the looks of bewilderment and judgment were thrown your way by the bucket load. It seemed that in society a man or woman’s destiny was to become a particular thing, a labelled component of the cultural machine, and this was reflected in the fact that one of the first questions people asked each other when meeting was ‘what do you do?’

No matter where you went in life, the question was always there. Meeting a girl in a bar – “what do you do?” Meeting a stranger on your travels – “what do you do back home?” Meeting some relatives – ‘what are you doing now?’ Even turning on the television and watching a game show – one of the first questions was always “what do you do?” Everywhere I went I curiously observed my species take part in this behaviour when interacting with each other. If you could toss out a label of economic-based existence and explain it with a couple of sentences, then the process would be very swiftly done. Out your label would come, the other person would then categorise and judge you on what sort of person you were, and then the conversation would move on. The problem for Bryan as well as me was that I just didn’t have an answer that would satisfy them all. Once somebody asked me the question, I had to go on a long-winded explanation telling them of all the different jobs I had done, my partition in medical trials, my backpacking trips, my writing and the general disastrous concoction of chaos and anarchy that was my life. Like Bryan had noted, it was usually at this point the mask of normality was blown off and I was exposed for the abnormal creature I was. From the top of my head, I could remember at least ten times this had happened, and I had been automatically cast as the outsider of the group. Their stares of shock and confusion were seared into my mind.

I guess I should have just accepted it and replied that I was effectively a drifter. I mean, I was a drifter, there was no way around it anymore. But I guess I was a little uncomfortable with that label due to the connotations it had. It’s not that I was completely destitute or homeless or something like that, but it was true that I roamed around from one place to the other with not too much of a long-term plan. Of course, there was a romantic side to the image of being a drifter, but mostly it just scared people away and made them think of you as a loser, a loner or an outcast. Yes, all things considered, the mask of normality was well and truly off if you gave yourself that label.

One day I decided I would just make up a role whilst out on my travels. Meeting people you were never going to see again made it possible to experiment with alternative identities, sort of like a mild schizophrenic, I guess. I went ahead with this idea and started to say I was a journalist. This masked identity had a level of credibility to it because I had actually obtained a degree in journalism early in my adult life. I could talk about the industry and use its terms and even reference a business magazine I had done unpaid work in the past. What’s more, it was a revered profession, so this allowed the person I was speaking with to have some level of respect for me. This answer allowed the mask of normality to stay placed on my alien face. With a nod of the other person’s head and a smile on their face, I was an accepted member of the human race.

To raise the stakes one time out of the interest of an experiment, I thought I would go all out and give myself the label that was revered as ‘successful’ and the epitome of a respected profession. I decided to say I was a lawyer. I had taken a few law modules in my journalism degree and even sat in on court hearings while writing and reporting. Because of this, I again knew some of the terms and areas of law I could talk about. After hearing their profession first to make sure they weren’t actually a real lawyer, I explained away my made-up role as a solicitor. As I did, I observed the looks of approval on their faces. My mask of normality and acceptability was fixed on my face stronger than ever with this label. People in bars gravitated toward me. Girls even desired me more. It truly was amazing to see the difference what a single word could do. With this mask I was more than just an accepted member of human civilisation; I was in actual fact a respected member of human civilisation.

The schizophrenic madness went on and eventually I got to a point in my life where I had self-published a book and received a total of two hundred and something sales. I had been writing all my adult life but now I actually had something published which was available to buy online. This meant I could give myself the labelled identity of a ‘writer’. I mean, ultimately in reality I was a largely unknown writer with a very small following, but to some other fellow outcasts and outsiders who read my writing, I was indeed a ‘writer’. I got started with using this answer whenever I was struck with the ‘what do you do?’ question. As I did, I noticed that people responded to it the most out of any of the labels of existence I had fed them. The interesting thing was that the mask of normality fell off your face if you said this anyway, especially if they went on to ask what sort of stuff you wrote. My stuff consisted of stories and thoughts of an outsider, all full of existential and alienated angst. If they were to actually read what I had written, then that was an automatic exposure as the misfit I was. Often, to my horror, some of them even bought my book – at which point my mask of normality was destroyed beyond repair and they naturally distanced themselves from me cautiously.

Eventually I faced the facts and realised I didn’t really have the right to say I was a ‘writer’ either. The ‘do’ question was more referencing what you did in order to get money. I hadn’t made more than a few dozen pounds with my writing; in fact, I had actually lost money taking into account the online adverts I occasionally did. So I retreated back to being a person with no real label. It was time to just try to avoid the question and stop lying that I actually was a regular human-being with some sort of actual normal identity. I couldn’t keep my face straight and live in my world of lies anymore. Back to being undefined and unclassified I went.

As my life went on this way, I resigned myself to the awkward pauses and stares whenever the ‘Do’ question was thrown my way. Consequently, there were great moments when imposter syndrome struck severely. Talking to girls in bars or attempting to apply for jobs, I never truly felt comfortable that I was one of them. At all times I was just a couple of questions from being exposed as the misfit and weirdo I was. I guess this hit its peak when I went back home with a city career girl who promptly packed up and left when I described my life to her as we lay in bed. Naturally I soon started to feel a million miles away from the world of normal people that continuously pounded the pavements of society next to me. They were all around me and often it got exhausting interacting with all the new people you’d meet out on those streets. I had rarely come across someone who even remotely understood what I was attempting to do with my life – that I was more interested in exploring, adventuring and seeking to create art over anything conventional like a career or starting a family. What I ‘did’ wasn’t possible to define within one word. At the core of it, I was a misunderstood individual getting more and more tired with humanity with every superficial interaction and tongue flicker of that awful question.

Sometimes, when the social alienation got too much, I would rack my brain into thinking what mask of normality I could try and give myself to get people off my back. Maybe I could just reside myself to a normal career. Maybe I could eventually even get a job in copywriting or something off the back of my creative writing. Maybe one day I could be a regular person, shepherded and confined within a labelled box of economic employment like the rest of the human race. I got lost in these thoughts gradually but eventually sobered up from my mental musings. The truth was the truth and, in all honesty, I guess I was just an alien like my good friend Bryan. An interstellar mutant of some kind, destined to wander on from place to place and job to job until the end of my days. The mask of normality had no place on my face. I was too awkward, too incompatible – too insane to fit into a socially approved box of existence. In a world of accepted citizens who had found their place in human society, I limped on through like some out-of-place extraterrestrial, winging it and somehow finding a way to get by and survive. ‘Too weird to live; too rare to die’ as Hunter had said. That is what I did. That is what I do. And that, as I sit alone again in this dark room pouring the mess in my mind onto this page, is what I will always do…

man mask

 

 

 

short stories

~ Living on an Edge ~

adult-alcohol-bar-274192

~ Living on an Edge ~

His eyes were bloodshot and demonic. His remaining hair fluffed off into wild little quiffs. Almost half of his front teeth were missing, and sporadic drops of saliva shot out his mouth when he spoke. I was in New Zealand and the thought hit me whether I was actually staring at an orc of some sort. I mean presumably the Lord of the Rings movies used costumes and make-up, but this creature in front of me wasn’t too far from looking like he was spawned in the dark pits of middle earth itself. To be fair, after hearing how he and his son frequently smoked crystal meth together, it was no surprise that he looked like he did. It was understandable. What wasn’t understandable was how this man was in charge of the entire floor of a wine factory. I had been working here for over two months and every day I had to listen to this snarling beast shout and spit orders at a bunch of backpackers who were simply too tired with him to listen. Still, it was my final day and I let his words fly far away over my head. His reign of bullshit was over. His superiority complex would have to be suffered by whatever backpacker was going to stumble through the door next. For me it was time to hit the road again. I toiled away until the end of the day, took one last look at the orc and then strolled out the door onward to the next adventure feeling like Bilbo Baggins himself.

The job itself had been a much-needed bank top-up. It had been over six months since I arrived in New Zealand from Chile almost completely broke. I had recklessly blown all my savings travelling around South America and had consequently limped into a country on the other side of the world from home with a bank account in as worse state as the orc’s teeth. What followed was a tempestuous time of bumming around, hitch-hiking, sleeping in airports, bad diet habits, and questioning my life decisions while scraping by off random agricultural jobs. It wasn’t all bad, though. Sure, I had been subjecting myself to a life of struggle and financial stress, but every day I awoke with wide eyes ready to face the world before me – and being in one of the most beautiful countries out there, well, that helped too naturally. Of course, I would always lie to my parents whenever I contacted them – telling them I was fine and had no problems with money. I suspected that if they knew I was living the way I was it would leave them in a state of panic and worry. Maybe I should have also been more concerned about living so precariously on the edge, but often in this life that’s exactly where the excitement and adventure was at. It was true that there was desperation and depravity out on that edge, but sometimes there was a little majesty and magic too. Sometimes the edge was a beautiful place. Sometimes the edge was exactly what you needed.

I continued loitering on that precipice as I hitch-hiked down the South Island, stopping in a town for a week to party, before eventually heading to a job I had heard about off my Chilean friend. It was somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, among the fjords, and allegedly you could make good money sticking some plants in the ground. I had the plan to save up some more money to continue travelling in Asia after I was done bumming around in this country. Working consistently in one place with no distractions (mainly drink and women) would suitably ensure that this was possible.

It was on the third day of that job, somewhere in the morning, that I decided to quit. I quickly concluded that I was never going to last the duration. The work itself was quite literally backbreaking and it turned out that I was the only backpacker working there. On top of this, the hostel I was staying at was a sort of abandoned shack without electricity, close amenities, a warm shower or even another traveller. The idea of staying there for three months made me shudder and I decided to get out of there as fast as I could. I grabbed my backpack, hit the open road once again and hitch-hiked all the way back to Queenstown – the place I had stopped at to party for a week on the way down here.

Now, aside from its spectacular scenery, New Zealand is a more or less a boring country to live. I mean, the sort of place that is best to retire, walk dogs, or work in a wine factory and become a meth addict. But Queenstown itself was the exception. Hailed as the adrenaline capital of the world, the town is a little wonderland of bars, restaurants, hostels, tour agencies and overcrowded houses that sit tightly packed together between the surrounding mountains and Lake Wakatipu – an enormous mass of sparkling blue glacial water that stretches out into the neighbouring valleys. When people weren’t skiing, bungee-jumping, skydiving, or riding speed boats, they could be found drinking in the array of bars that were stuffed into the small town centre that was no bigger than a couple of football fields. At night one could find any nationality of backpacker twisted in one of those establishments. It was the sort of place that was as far away from home as possible for most people – the sort of place where they were there ‘for a good time, not for a long time’ – and consequently this led to the chaos, debauchery and sexually-promiscuous behaviour that was rife at any given evening in any given bar. In all honesty it was probably the worst place in the world to save money and avoid the distractions of drink and women, but my will had been broken after just a couple of days of tough work out in the sticks and I needed some sort of drink. The town was notoriously hard to find a place to stay, but luckily for me I knew a girl from my previous job in the wine factory who could get me a bed in a house a little out the centre that overlooked the lake and mountains. By New Zealand standards, I had hit the backpacker jackpot.

I arrived at that house and saw a Kiwi guy dragging a bed out the front door and attaching it to the roof rack of his car. I stood and watched him curiously. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “I’ll be outta your way in a sec.” He and his friend proceeded to lift the bed onto the car, throw some straps over it, tighten it up, then get in and drive off down the road. It was an interesting sight to arrive to, and also an illegal one I quickly discovered. The Kiwi had decided to steal the bed after being kicked out of the house by the landlady. And he wasn’t the only one. The landlady was in the process of kicking most tenants out after so many had failed to pay their rent, or moved in secretly to sleep on couches, or threw wild parties and damaged the house – as was clearly evident by the gaping holes in the walls of the hallway. Over twenty people had been living in this seven-bedroom house, and now over half of them would be kicked out to be replaced with a new set of backpackers, including my good, respectable self.

After settling in, I decided it was time to go out there and look for some sort of job that would support my temporary existence in this chaotic town. As always, my CV was a mediocre read which wasn’t going to help me out too much. Most jobs in Queenstown were in hospitality or tour agency work – both of which I had zero experience in. With this in mind, I headed straight to a labour agency that was located on the outskirts of town. As soon as I walked in, they took one look at me and saw what type of person I was: another drifting backpacker with no discernible skills or trade or talent looking for a quick fix. It turned out I was in the perfect place. A new DIY store was opening soon just outside of town and they needed a bunch of helper monkeys to assist the store’s staff with setting up the interior. They gave me my work helmet and high-vis vest; I was to get started the very next day.

Settling into the job was an easy affair and I soon made friends. The labour agency picked up and shipped off a group of people to the worksite every day. There must have been over fifteen people crammed into that minibus every morning, most of which were hungover, asleep or still drunk. When we got to work, we were given an inspiring team briefing before everyone dispersed and went and found ways to keep themselves busy with some simple task that would normally end up taking an entire day. The team itself consisted entirely of backpackers, all of which bar one were male. Speaking to them all, it was clear that most of them were like me: young guys scraping by and travelling around in whatever way they could. Naturally this had led them to this temporary no-skills-required job. I thought I had been living like a bum in New Zealand, but after a week it was clear that I was an amateur at fringe-living compared to this team of delinquent drifters. Among the team included: a Mexican eighteen-year-old who had overstayed his visa and was working illegally; an English guy who was running away from debt collectors back home; an Irish guy who was penniless and sleeping in the town park; a Dutch guy living in the back of his van; another English guy who arrived drunk and smelling of booze every morning; and a couple of guys who spent most of their time using the work materials to build items of furniture for their house they were renting. To single out the English guy as an alcoholic was a little unfair, I quickly realised. Most people not only in this job, but also in this town, were living lives that left their livers, minds and bank accounts in damaged states. The allure was simply too great. Every night the town’s bright neon lights shimmered below beside the lake – the enticing glow of a bunch of people partying and enjoying the temporary buzz of being young, free and far away from the suffocating world of normality back home.

Naturally it wasn’t long before I was lured into that lifestyle myself. Most weekends quickly became a blur of hedonistic partying. Sometimes there was some hiking or camping, but that usually involved large amounts of alcohol too. Not only did I have the influence of all the guys working at the labour agency, but I also had about twenty people residing at the house I was living in. Having a mixture of English, Irish and German housemates was never going to be a sober affair, and coming home from work every day there was usually at least a couple of people knocking back the drinks and preparing to make an assault on the town centre. There was simply no escape. Chaotic weekends soon turned into chaotic weekdays. Summer was here and I could do nothing but prepare to strap myself in for the ride. The drinks had been served; the madness had begun.

Now in this life, a man or woman lives on their edge more than you think. So many people out there in those towns and cities are limping by in ways you can’t see on the surface. Mothers. Fathers. Teachers. Lawyers. Bus drivers. What a person needed to survive in this world was food, water, shelter and normally a drink or something to take the edge off existence. If you had those things, then you could sort of get by in some rudimentary way. Well, like many people in this town, I was getting those things and not much else after a while. Eventually I was making it to work just three or four days a week. This was usually enough to afford rent and cheap groceries, and then concentrate on the main expense of enjoying the summer festivities of this chaotic town. The whole thing quickly began to feel like I was in some sort of amusement park where I would do just enough to afford the entrance fee and ride out the rollercoaster of life. The thought hit me: wasn’t that what life was anyway? Finding a way to get by and survive while trying to find time to actually enjoy the ride? Still, often I thought I had taken it too far. I was on the other side of the world from home and I had a tooth problem I couldn’t afford to address, my remaining clothes were now tattered and frayed, my passport was considerably damaged, and the lack of sleep I was getting left my mind in a constant state of delirium. Some days I awoke and stared into morning mirrors of realisation and saw the sanity slowly fading from my eyes. At this point it had also become clear that my plan to do some travels in Asia was down the drain, and instead I was just concentrating on surviving the summer here and making it back home when my visa finally expired. My two-year trip was coming to an end and I wanted to go out in style. The neighbourhoods of normality beckoned back home and I was going to exploit this brief chance of living young, wild and free in a beautiful place.

And so onwards the descent into madness continued. House parties. Work parties. Festivals. Christmas. New year. My birthday. More house parties. Camping trips. Climbing mountains. Sleep deprivation. Sleeping with strangers. Sleeping with friends. Not sleeping at all.

Eventually the job at the DIY store was finished and we were all left searching and fighting for whatever form of work the agency could give us. This included traffic wardening, furniture removal, construction, and, on some weeks, nothing at all. Consequently, my bank account began to slowly sink down and down towards the depths of true poverty. I was slowly falling off that edge into the abyss of being homeless, penniless and possession-less on the other side of the world from home. Naturally I felt better knowing that I wasn’t alone in such a fate. By now I had become good friends with the English alcoholic James from work. Many nights we spent together getting twisted in town or down beside the lake. Hearing the stories from his life, it was clear that he had set up camp and made ‘the edge’ his home. The last years of his life back home had consisted of travelling around the U.K with a cheffing agency, staying in hotels and drinking heavily every night. After a couple of years, he had finally saved up enough money to travel. He flew one-way to Bangkok and drove around South-East Asia for eight months on a motorbike before arriving here skint in Queenstown where he was now scraping by week by week, paycheck to paycheck, living in a hostel dorm with nothing but a few items of clothing to his name. While we drank together, he often told me his travelling stories of evading the Russian Mafia in Thailand while committing carnage with his friend. As he did, I looked into his eyes and saw that sinister spark of madness. Like the orc back in the wine factory, he was another man loitering precariously on the precipice of total destruction, all the while still managing to be an integrated, working member of society. Meeting all these random characters in New Zealand, I came to realise that in a way there was a little bit of this insanity inside all of us. I could see it in the orc’s eyes. I could see it in James’ eyes. And now, facing those morning mirrors of realisation, I could gradually begin to see it in my own eyes: the anarchy of the human mind that must be suppressed so we could all fit into society and get money to survive in some elementary and socially-acceptable way.

As time went by, mine and James’ influence on each other slowly and surely caused us both to descend deeper into those pits of madness. On one temporary job, we both took turns controlling the traffic flow into the town centre during a busy festival period. One of us would stand on the road and aggregate the traffic in and out of the city centre, while the other went next door to the bar to drink red wine and chat with our friends who were working there. Under the influence, we decided to blog and post our exploits online and quickly became famous in town as ‘the traffic terminators’. Many cars drove past waving and offering us free drinks and food. Some people posed and took pictures with us. Journalists even came and interviewed us for the local newspaper. With our newfound fame, we felt like the kings of Queenstown – two drifting backpackers, somehow the momentary heroes of this famous town. Of course, we always tried to keep the town oblivious to the fact we were really just messing around and taking it in turns to go next door to the bar to drink and talk crap with our friends.

It wasn’t until we worked one job that I realised we had perhaps gone a little too far down the rabbit hole. Through the agency we had been tasked to help set up and take down the stage for a gig somewhere about half an hour outside of town. The deal was that if we set up the stage and took it down after, we could each get a free ticket to the show. Like responsible employees, we set to the task in the early morning and helped finish off setting up the stage. Then, like irresponsible employees, we went back to town where we spent the afternoon in the sun by the lake joining in a house DJ party. What followed was a day of drinking, dancing, swimming in the lake, a free concert, and then swiftly being dismissed from the job of taking the stage down the second the supervisors saw the state of us after the gig.

It was safe to say that the owners of the agency hated us after that fiasco and consequently assigned us the worst jobs they could, or nothing at all. Either it was a day of no work or a day of doing menial tasks alone at some millionaire’s house in the middle of nowhere for the minimum wage. By this point any hope of travelling in Asia was over and I was hoping that a week stopover in Bali would suffice. I now had just a few hundred dollars of money left in my account. The entropy of the universe had worked its force and slowly ground me down. I was now a man holding on – living life to the fullest you could before death and destruction claimed you totally. Still, I kept clinging on as I was nearing the flight, picking up the scraps of employment, counting the pennies, living off packs of instant noodles – napping on my lunch breaks to catch up on some sleep. In the meanwhile, the house had become a circus of insanity. We had created a rota in which you had to sign in when you started drinking and then sign out when you stopped. Prizes and punishments were consequently assigned depending on everyone’s performance. This soon created a competitive nature amongst everyone, and our house quickly became some sort of perpetual party. Beer bottles would lay sprawled out across the living room as those walls once again adorned gaping holes. It was a literal madhouse in moments and often I went and stood alone on the balcony staring out at that beautiful lake view, appreciating that my life was truly more absurd and thrilling than ever before.

Eventually the day had come when it was time to escape Queenstown with whatever remnants of sanity, money and possessions I had left. I took one last look in that mirror and realised I had done it. I had lasted out the summer – five months of utter chaos on the other side of the world. Good friends had come and gone; the original group of the house was now being broken apart; the time in this paradise now over. I said goodbye to all the friends I had made there and headed alone as always to the airport. I was flying to Bali with basically nothing but a few tattered items of clothing, a damaged liver, a warped mind, a faded passport and money that most likely was not going to be enough to get me completely home to the U.K. Still, I felt more alive than ever and as the plane took off, I looked out the window at Queenstown to soak in the last glimpse of the town below and reflect on one of the best times of my life. It was then that I caught my reflection in the windowpane. Staring deep into my tired eyes, I could see a specific stare now seared deep into my soul. It was the look of my English friend James. It was the look of my drunken housemates. It was the look of the orc in the wine factory. It was the look of every crazed soul who was living their life precariously close to the edge of sanity and society, trying to live their life to the fullest they could without completely destroying themselves. Thinking about all those wild souls, I smiled to myself and then stared down at my shoes – beaten and battered and bruised – little bits of material hanging off the outer section. Right then I realised that the edge was a place I had gotten to know all too well whilst out on my travels. It was a place of chaos and anarchy – a place of madness and magic. It was a place I was going to be for a long time yet as I carried on stumbling and staggering recklessly through life.

With that thought in mind, I ordered a red wine and toasted to the next adventure.

 

 

thoughts

~ Stray-Dog Soul Madness ~

“It’s the stray-dog soul madness. It’s that itch you can’t scratch. It’s that feeling that leaves you staring up at ceilings in the middle of the night. You may settle down occasionally, sink into that sofa of comfort and routine, but even in those periods you will consistently look out around you for certain things. You will look out for the foreign travellers in your own town. You will look out for the birds taking flight from telephone cables. You will look out for the leaves being swept down the street in the wind. And when you see those things some part of you will just desire more than anything to join them and get lost once more out in the unknown. A part of you perpetually longs to be wandering down the cobbled lanes of some old European town, or hiking through a mountain wilderness, or sitting on a foreign beach staring out into a sunset sky. And no matter how much time passes, the madness shall never truly leave you. The years of wandering shall carry on and on; the infection in your heart will remain in some way. Even on your deathbed your heavy eyes will still lift to the horizon once more – ready for the next trip, ready for the next adventure – ready to sail back to the starry ocean of infinity where your stray-dog soul truly belongs.”

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short stories

~ A Christmas Abroad ~

~ A Christmas Abroad ~

“It was December 25th, Christmas Day, and I was sat alone on a sofa in the hostel reception sipping a caipirinha cocktail. I was in sunny Brazil, Rio De Janeiro, out travelling the world with a beach right out on my front doorstep – yet I couldn’t help but feel slightly depressed. For the first time on this trip I was homesick. Christmas was the time to be with family and friends back home – not getting drunk half way around the world by yourself. That was fun of course normally, but in this instance it felt a little out of place. It wasn’t my first Christmas abroad, but it was my first one not shared with a large group of people in a home of some sort. It was a strange feeling – a feeling which lead to me drinking more and more sugary, high-strength cocktails.

While wallowing in my own tipsy self-pity, my roommate came over and asked to join me for a drink. He was an eccentric, middle-aged, bald Greek guy who been travelling most of his adult life. He had stories from just about every country and continent and still maintained that child-like excitement about the world around him. He sat down and shared some drinks and travel stories. I told him of my first trip to Ghana and he told me of his life of perpetual gypsy travel. It turned out this was his eighth Christmas abroad in a strange country far from home. He told me about them all as we sipped our drinks down in an orderly manner. After chattering away like excitable children, we decided to go down to beach to catch some Christmas day sun – the world-famous Copacabana beach was right on our doorstep after all.

We reached the beach and slumped ourselves down in the sand. We ordered a few beers off a vendor walking past and carried on drinking in the midday heat. I sat there staring out into the Atlantic ocean, sipping that cold beer, chatting away with my new friend. While there in the heat of the sun, I gradually began to think about my own future, and whether I would be spending the next Christmas at home or somewhere else in the world on a beach with a stranger. Was I heading down the same path as him? Was I sailing further away into the unknown? Was I becoming a perpetual traveller? As I pondered these questions a man came over across the sand trying to sell us sunglasses. Now drunk, I bought a pair and invited him to sit and drink a beer with us. We got chatting and I soon found out that he too was a foreigner travelling in Brazil. As we drank, he spoke about his life, his journey and his aspirations for the future.

It was strange; in those moments as I sat there and listened to those two nomadic strangers, I suddenly felt the homesickness begin to subside. Listening to excited people who were travelling alone in a foreign country made me feel like I was back home, wrapped up warm around the glowing lights of a Christmas tree. It made me feel like an excited kid again. It was then that I realised these were the kind of people in life I shared the greatest affinity with. Not the settlers or static souls, but the wanderers – the aliens – the nomads and outcasts. The people who didn’t try fit into a society that didn’t fit them. And the more I travelled, the more of them I met. They were the ones with the wild eyes that – if you looked deeply enough – beheld the scorching sunsets, the jagged mountains, the wide oceans and gypsy madness. They were the ones who laughed in the face of soulless monotony and declared war on the normal – the ones who took life by the scruff of the neck without compromise and hunted the horizon until the very end.”

short stories

~ The Ones That Get Away ~

~ The Ones That Get Away ~

Out travelling the road of life, lost in the night of some foreign country, roaming the cobbled streets of the old town, kissing her under the moonlight. She was a lawyer, seven years older, with hazel eyes, brunette hair and the sort of Mediterranean look that made you think of fancy restaurants overlooking sparkling blue waters. She wore a flowery summer dress that showed off her hourglass figure; her ears adorned green jewelled earrings and she carried an expensive-looking designer purse under her left arm. I of course knew that these creatures of luxury were usually out of reach for a no-good, drifting nomad like myself, but for some reason the gods above had decided to back me this evening. Perhaps they were just having a laugh amongst themselves, but they had backed me and I had lured her in.

We had met about one hour before in a smoky traveller’s bar where our eyes had crossed paths as we both sat on stools staring wistfully into the time and space. I smiled, went over and asked if she too was also bored with existence. She looked up at me with piercing eyes and, after a second of awkwardness, the tension was cut with a friendly smile. From there on in we got talking and shared a drink: two whisky cokes with ice.

It was a few minutes into drinking and speaking that I began to realise she was slightly more upper-class than the girls I normally went after. As we chatted, she told me of the human rights court cases she had been working on; she told me of her education and how she owned her own apartment. She was too charming to be snobby about it or anything, but I quickly concluded that she was definitely a little more sophisticated than the girls you normally met in these dingy backpacker bars. With this in mind, I tried to come across as a regular, upstanding member of human society. I talked about politics and the economy. I talked about the news and the weather. I tried and tried my very best, but after five minutes my cover was blown.

“You’re a little strange, aren’t you?” she said with a wry smile.

“Well, you’re the local lawyer sitting on your own in a backpacker bar.”

“Yeah, and so what? We all have our moments of madness. Besides, I’m not alone; I’m waiting for my friend behind the bar. She finishes in an hour.” I looked over where a blonde girl was mixing a cocktail behind the bar.

“One hour?” I said. “Why don’t we go for a walk somewhere else, to another bar, or perhaps you can give me a private tour of your town? You know: teach me the history and all that? I am a tourist in your country after all.” She took a long sip of her drink while staring into my soul, making me wait – making me guess. The look in those hazel eyes told me that she knew I was full of shit, but finally she agreed anyway. We finished our drinks and ventured off out into the night.

After exiting the bar, we wandered through the winding streets of the old town with no particular destination other than the present moment. We passed busy bars and restaurants. We walked along the waterfront of the harbour. We made small talk about my travels and she told me how I was brave and how she had always wanted to travel alone. It was something I had heard from many people while out on my travels. Damn near enough everybody in society wanted to quit their job and travel the world – like always, I didn’t understand why so very few actually did it.

Eventually we stopped under a streetlight down one of the side streets. With no one around, we embraced and shared a kiss in the silence of the night. We then stared into each other’s eyes and I made a comment about whether she always went for guys seven years younger than her. She let out a little laugh and suddenly – for about the fifth time that year – I was hopelessly in love with a stranger. At that moment all I wanted to do was to swim into her eyes and drown myself. It was a feeling I knew all too well. Not just then, but I regularly had this feeling – an overwhelming feeling of total reckless abandonment to something or anything or everything. Often all I wanted to do was to abandon myself to the world, to the wonders, to the women. I wanted to get lost in those foreign countries, lost down those old cobbled lanes – lost again and again in the eyes of those beautiful strangers. I was reckless, I knew, and possibly insane…

Even if we somehow formed some sort of relationship it wouldn’t have been long before she realised I was completely incompatible with the regular life she wanted. Women like this wanted structured and stable men. They wanted men who could be husbands, men who could be fathers – men who could stay in one place and commit and raise children and talk to their neighbours about the weather over the garden face. The problem was that I was none of those things. I was a wayward wanderer, a restless dreamer with itchy feet – a piece of trash caught in the wind being whipped around by the pull of my own gypsy heart.

Looking further into her eyes, I thought about the alternative to the mess and madness that was my own chaotic life. It was true that somewhere inside a part of me wanted to be a regular human-being sometimes, but the problem was to do that you were supposed to solidify things. Houses were supposed to be cemented down; relationships were supposed to last; job positions were meant to be held for years and not months. It’s not like I didn’t understand what was to be done in order to be a functioning member of the human race, it’s just that I couldn’t seem to do it even if I wanted to. Something had gone wrong in my DNA or upbringing. My mind was possessed by a great fire; my spirit was caught in a wild storm. This woman was beautiful, mentally stable and deemed successful in society’s eyes as a lawyer. She had a chance – she had a strong chance at a normal, healthy life. But what chance did someone like me have? I was a nomadic fool who couldn’t even stay put in one place or job position for a full year. I couldn’t maintain any relationships. I couldn’t even drive a goddamn car. The gods may have backed me tonight in the short game, but long distance I was sure they wouldn’t have touched me. The game was a fix and there was no chance – there was just absolutely no goddamn chance.

After a while, we carried on strolling around through the lanes and streets. We petted a stray cat and followed it down an alleyway. We kissed again against a beaten old wall. We kissed once more around the back of the town church. Eventually we moved into a small, secluded square where I twirled her around and watched her flowery dress dance in the midnight breeze. The moment was damn near perfect, but it was sad – it was sad for some reason I couldn’t quite say.

“You know, I have to work this weekend, but I will be free on Monday. If you’d like to hang around town then maybe we could spend some more time together? We could take a boat to one of the islands. I’d like to see you again.” She smiled and stared into my eyes. I smiled back, stalling, my mind exploding with a million and one thoughts.

“Yeah, I’d like that,” I said finally.

“Good… I like you. Even if you are a little younger, and a backpacker.” She gave that same wry smile that just about knocked me out on the floor. I looked at her then glanced up towards the night sky, wondering why the gods liked to inflict such pain upon us all.

Eventually she checked the time and saw that she had to go back to the bar and meet her friend. They were going to the gig of a friend and she asked me if I’d like to join, but it didn’t feel right, so I said no. She gave me her contact details and said we’d talk again, and that she hoped that I would wait around town to spend some time with her, and then I gave some phoney agreement and immediately hated my own guts. I said that we’d meet again, knowing that I already had a bus booked out of town in two days’ time. It was an empty promise I’d made with many women out there across the world. I’d said it to women in Asia. I’d said it to women in South America. I’d said it to women in Australia and New Zealand. But the reality was always the same: I never saw any of them again. They drifted out of sight forever like ghosts into the haunting mists of mind and memory. They went on to forget me and sit entwined with other men on sofas somewhere in suburban neighbourhoods of stability and sanity.

Before going I gave her one last kiss, said goodbye and watch her skip away like some rare deer into the night. She rounded a corner and just like that she was gone forever. Drenched in the silent solitude of foreign lands, I stood alone in the night once more. I would have thought that I’d have gotten used to this scenario by now, but for some reason this night the thought of what just happened consumed me. As I walked back to my hostel under those flickering streetlights, a sad feeling filled my flesh and bones. There was just something different about this time – about this woman. It was in her eyes. Deep down in those hazel eyes, I could see the alternative life so many other men my age would go on to live. I could see myself being a settled soul with a steady job, coming home to a loving wife and kids. I could see myself going on summer vacations and walking in the park together. I could imagine the polka dot dresses she would wear to our anniversary meals. I could imagine the way she would smile at me in bed on a Sunday morning. Such thoughts weighed heavy on my mind and I gradually got lost in all of them – entertaining them, playing with them, torturing myself with them – but I knew deep inside of me that it was a reality far out of reach.

On Sunday I was heading further down the coast, leaving her behind like all the others. I already had my ticket and hostel booked and I wasn’t going to change my plan. After all, what would actually happen in the long run when she discovered who I really was? It was nothing more than a slip of character and in a moment of clarity, I allowed myself to retreat back to the acceptance of the wretch I was. Catching my reflection in a window, I knew deep down in my bones I didn’t belong with a woman like that. I was still just a piece of trash caught in the breeze whose fate was to keep getting lost in those foreign countries, lost in those strange towns – lost in the eyes of those beautiful strangers. The world of stability and security she resided in was never meant for me. Instead, I belonged wandering with the wind, hurtling over the horizon, swept by gusts of curiosity that left me staring out of bus windows knowing that I was doomed and destined never to step off and belong to one particular place or person or community.

Sure enough, it was two days later when I boarded my bus alone and watched the town drift slowly out of sight. Holding a ticket to some vague place beyond the horizon, I pressed my head against that familiar bus window and stared out at the passing countryside. As I watched the towns and farms go past, I reflected on the night with the girl and thought about what it would have been like to see her again. Many thoughts went through my head, but as I sat there and stared out the window a bit longer, I gradually felt my mind begin to shift back to its familiar state of being excited for what was over the next horizon. Maybe I was a bad guy or even just mentally disturbed, but whatever it was I knew that this was a sickness that couldn’t be cured by any drug, job or pretty woman with hazel eyes. It was right there and then that I realised with a sense of horror that I may never find the cure to whatever form of madness it was that consumed me. If a beautiful woman like that couldn’t get me to change my plan, then I just had to accept I was doomed. If a beautiful woman like that couldn’t get me to change my plan, then I just had to sit back and accept that no matter where I went in this world, or how many years passed me by, I would always just be that young boy out exploring the world, wide-eyed and curious, moving from town to town, drinking in smoky bars, falling in love with strangers, wandering down old cobbled lanes, staring wistfully out of bus windows – eternally and hopelessly lost in the dream of what it is to exist.

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thoughts

~ Down And Out On The Road ~

~ Down And Out On The Road ~

“I awoke with a dry mouth and my head aching with the aftermath of the previous night’s exploits. The girl was gone and I lay there, alone again, in a strange hostel room. I looked at my backpack, beaten and battered and bruised on the floor. I now only had a few items of clothes left and my wallet confirmed I had burnt through all my money again. There was a sadness in the air and the fading ink on my passport cover told me I would soon be a ghost. Eventually I dragged myself out of bed and roamed the streets in search of sustenance. After devouring some cheap street-food, I made it to the beach and stood there staring out into the ocean. Somewhere on the other side of that great mass of water was the land of home – the land where I could have been suited and booted up like a regular member of the human race. I imagined myself waking to an alarm clock, fighting through traffic jams, working a conventional job and chatting about the football down the pub. I imagined the routine, the television shows, the suburban lawns and quiet desperation as I slowly and statically sank into unfulfilled old age. Maybe I was down and out in foreign lands, but returning home to that would surely finish me off. I didn’t belong to that world and the only way to save myself was to dive deeper into the abyss – deeper into the chaos – deeper into the wilderness. With a hungover heart and a mind stained with madness, the only way out was to continue wandering into the wild like an abandoned dog trying to find his way home.”

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(taken from my book ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ available here)

thoughts

~ Behind The Looking Glass ~

~ Behind The Looking Glass ~

“Twenty hours later and there I sat alone on that cross-country bus – head pressed against the window, gazing out at the towns and villages, watching the human race go about its existence. I watched the mothers hang clothes on washing lines; I watched the old men sip coffee in roadside cafes; I watched the kids playing football in the dirt. Everybody was there belonging to a place in space and time as I passed by like a transient cloud in the sky. Many people detested those long bus journeys but I found a strange comfort and peace within them. In the temporary situation of being in between places, I had momentarily transcended some boundary of static belonging. I was invisible; a ghost – a voyeuristic stranger on a bus briefly belonging to nowhere – to nothing – to no one. As I continued down the meandering road of my life, it became clear to me why I found comfort in those long journeys on the road. On those journeys I was in my natural state; on those journeys I succumb to my gypsy fate. Holding a ticket to some vague place beyond the horizon, it was my unavoidable destiny to be a stranger on a passing bus, lost in space and time, gazing out the windows of curiosity, doomed to never step off and belong to one particular place or group of people.”

(taken from my book ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ available here)

poetry

~ Bum ~

~ Bum ~

“When your eyes hit me, I am transported,
out to foreign lands, to which I’m deported;
where I trek cross-country toward the coastline,
and hitch-hike down the highways of your mind;
where I wander through wilderness with no goal,
and sleep rough in the shipyards of your soul.
And each day when I watch the setting of sun,
I don’t care where I’m going, or where I came from;
‘cause when you look at me, I become the gypsy one,
happily lost in your world, like a drifting bum.”

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