how to kill time while waiting to die

How to Kill Time While Waiting to Die – an extract

Photo by Bogdan R. Anton on Pexels.com

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. 

2

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.

3

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?”

“Yes.”

“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!”

“Thanks.”

“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.

“Sure, why not,” I said. “When do I start?”

how to kill time while waiting to die

How to Kill Time While Waiting to Die (an extract)

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.”

     “It is…”

     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.

5

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.

6

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.

thoughts

What Will Become Of Me?

“What will become of me? I ask myself this now in the summer of 2021, aged twenty-nine, with the world in a state of chaos and my life in a state of transition. I sit on the shore of a Scottish beach, staring out at the sea and the setting sun. The future looks unclear and often I don’t even know what I believe anymore. My mind feels frazzled and things I once knew for certain now seem murky. The morning mirror doesn’t show the person I once knew with such certainty. My path now seems more unclear than ever. There is an ache in my heart as I stare into those waters and ask myself: what will become of me? As time ages my mind and body. What will become of me? As close friends become distant strangers. What will become of me? As society changes in crazy ways. What will become of me? As my body accumulates more scars, as my heart is filled with more pain, as my soul struggles to shine its light. No, I don’t know what will become of me. Maybe I’ll be reduced to madness, that ranting maniac on city streets lost in his own mind. Maybe I’ll settle into a peaceful and simple life somewhere in the country. Maybe I’ll end up on a path that takes me to something I never knew even existed. As always, it’s hard to know what awaits in the unknown, and sometimes finding the faith to march on into that mist can be hard. But, as I sat there on that beach, I realised the only way forward was to just do what I’d always done before. I believed that the only way forward was to get up and keep following the heart, no matter which direction it led me. Inside I felt that was my only shot of making it through, of ending up in the right place – of becoming exactly who I was supposed to be.”

short stories

Breaking into Heaven

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Breaking into Heaven: Another Glastonbury Break-In Story

I sat staring out the window of the train, watching the sun go down over the fields of Somerset. It was late June and it had been another beautiful summer day. The picturesque sight was also enjoyed by the other people in the carriage, all drinking cans of cider and excitedly discussing the prospect of the next few days. We were all on our way to Glastonbury music festival – the greatest festival in the world – and the atmosphere was something similar to being on Hogwart’s Express. I watched wide-eyed groups of friends talk about all the magical things they were going to do once they set up camp. Shangri-La. Arcadia. Getting high at Stone Circle. Sniffing ket on their mate’s forehead. As I listened to the excited revellers prepare for another tumble down the Glasto rabbit-hole, I couldn’t help but feel slightly sick in my stomach. Those people were making their way to the festival guaranteed of a great time, whereas I wasn’t. Not because I didn’t trust myself to have another epic Glastonbury experience, but for the slightly inconvenient fact that I didn’t have a ticket.

I didn’t have a ticket and I was heading to the festival anyway – on my own too (at least for now anyway). I was due to liaise with my partner in crime at Castle Cary train station, who was currently making his way there from the separate direction of London. Already we had taken a risk spending £70 on train tickets to get us to a place where we officially had no reason to be, but my friend had filled me with confidence over the previous week telling me how amazing it would be and that we could definitely pull it off – the great Glastonbury break-in.

Normally, of course, we would have tickets for the big event, but it was not to be this year and we couldn’t face the idea of not being there, especially when fifteen or so of our friends would be. We had been on the phone every evening discussing our break-in strategy and whether or not it was even possible at all. As seasoned Glasto-goers who had worked as stewards before, we naturally knew the task at hand was a substantial one. Since the introduction of the super fence, breaking into Glastonbury was a mission that was not out of place in a Metal Gear Solid game. There was a 14ft fence to scale, perimeter patrols, lookout towers, guard dogs, the most security out of any music festival in the world, and – as we were soon to find out – hostile farm animals. But we were men of faith and believed it could be done; the festival had found a special place in our hearts over the last years, and we knew the Glastonbury gods would shine their light on us and guide us safely into our spiritual home.

Our research over the last week had provided us with two leads. The first was a campsite supervisor – our man on the inside. He had been at the festival since the start of the week and had proven himself to be a reliable source of intel (he had even just sent us a video highlighting a specific weak spot in the fence where it was possible to break in). The second was a friend who was working on a festival stall and believed he had a way of sneaking us with the old pass-out/wristband trick, although this would be somewhat difficult now since they had added personalised codes to the pass-out cards. Aside from that we had received word of a drain tunnel that led into the south-east corner of the festival, and we also knew it could be possible to pay someone to sneak you into the festival in the back of a van. Failing all else, being two young guys in decent shape, we would simply make a run for it at the gates, although this was the mark of true desperation and I hoped it didn’t come to that (not that I fancied our odds against an army of radio-equipped security guards anyway). 

8.30pm

Finally arriving at Castle Cary station, I got off the train to go meet my comrade who was waiting in the car park. We greeted each other, made sure both of us were mentally ready for the task ahead, and then headed to the bus stop. The festival was providing a free shuttle-bus to transport punters to the festival site and we – admittedly rather audaciously – were going to take advantage of it. We nervously got in line with everyone else carrying their tents, crates of beer and large backpacks, while we stood suspiciously empty-handed (our friends inside had some stuff for us, but for the sake of speed and agility, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to take much – in my small daypack were a few changes of underwear, two t-shirts, a pair of shorts, toiletries, a bottle of vodka, and a multi-pack of Twix chocolate bars – inspired from a previous Glastonbury break-in story which had served as a good source of inspiration). 

We got on the bus and went and sat down at the back. At this point the first rushes of adrenaline started to surge through my body. We were now undercover and I looked around at everyone excitedly chatting about what they were going to do when they were inside the festival. The thought hit me how absolutely painful it would be to go through all of this and then not get in. For now, I brushed that thought aside as me and my comrade spoke in hushed tones about our strategy for when we arrived at the site, while also downing some vodka (Dutch courage was going to be a necessary aid throughout the night). At one point a steward got on the bus to brief everyone on what to do when they arrived, and we sat there praying to the Glastonbury gods that she would not come and ask to see our totally non-existent tickets. 

The gods did their first work of the night and twenty minutes later we pulled into the bus and coach station outside Pedestrian Gate A. Exiting the bus, our eyes beheld the holy sight of Glastonbury festival. We saw the spotlights shoot up into the sky, the Glasto sign all lit up on the hill, the blasts of fire from Arcadia. We felt the bass reverberate through the ground and heard the roar of 175,000 people having the time of their lives. Yes, there it was in all its glory once again: the greatest party on the planet. Heaven on earth separated from us by a big fence and a bunch of burly security guards.

We had decided to get dropped at this part of the festival perimeter due to the strategy we’d devised. Our first point of attack was going to be the weak spot in the fence we had been tipped off about. This was on the outside of Bushy Ground and Rivermead camping. There was a small river that ran through the festival, and this provided a slight gap in the steel fence which was replaced by a scalable wooden fence. Our man on the inside had informed us that some people had successfully infiltrated the site this way the night before. Another reason was that there was a campervan campsite on this side and we had hypothesised that there would be less security on the gates around that end, although that was much just a hunch than anything. Well, we were men of faith after all.

We got away from the crowd queuing to enter and walked off down a path that would lead us to the nearby car park. This would be a good place to assess our strategy, and it was also next to the stream which led to the weak point in the super fence. Walking down the path, we could already see the regular patrols of security jeeps driving along the tracked road that ran alongside the fence perimetre. Aside from the patrol cars, there were also lone security guards walking around the outside of the car park. This was inconvenient for us as they were regularly walking along the spot where we would attempt our first attack on the fence. For now, we found a quiet spot in between some cars, ate some snacks, drank some more vodka, and prepared to switch into ninja mode. We also put on some wristbands that my friend had purchased off of eBay. Of course, they had nothing to do with Glastonbury 2019 (they were in fact from some random guy’s 40th birthday party entitled ‘FORTY-FEST’), but just having a wristband with similar colours to the current year’s one could potentially divert suspicious eyes away from us. On top of this, I also put on my old lanyard from when I had last worked at the festival, just to look a bit more official and, admittedly, give myself a false sense of security. 

After we had scoped out the area and mentally switched into ninja mode, we got down on our knees and started creeping closer to the stream. By now the cover of darkness was upon us, allowing us to stay hidden in the shadows. Fortunately for us the weather had been great the week before the festival, so the ground was dry which was definitely going to be in our favour, especially if we had to run from the security guards (something that was almost certain to happen). We crawled on that hard ground, stealthily edging our way closer to the corner of the car park where we could slip into the treeline beside the stream. After fifteen or so minutes, we were in prime position. The super fence was in sight and we were near the exact point our man on the inside had marked on the map, although there was no sign of the scalable fence he had spoken of. We realised at this point that extra security had been assigned to the area following the break-ins the previous night, and we nervously watched security guards walk along the bridge over the stream with their torches. Already it was looking like mission impossible. There was no way to edge closer to the gap in the fence in plain sight, so our only option was to get down into the stream itself and hope the guards on the bridge didn’t look down and see us creeping through the water. 

My friend went first, carefully climbing down the bank of the stream while holding onto some tree branches. It was at this point the foliage started working against us. Although it provided us with a degree of shelter, it also made us make more noise than any true ninja would hope to make. The sound of snapping twigs and rustling leaves could be heard, and it wasn’t long until one of the guards on the bridge above the stream was alerted by our movements. 

“Did you hear that mate?” The sound of that sentence made us freeze. “I think there’s someone down there you know.” Right then me and my comrade threw ourselves to the ground, hiding in the bushes. Soon the torches were shining down on the stream of water, systematically scanning the area to search for the origin of the noise. We waited tentatively for a few minutes until the lights had gone. It was a close call and we realised we would have to actually get in the stream if we wanted to continue. My friend went to get into it, but slipped and splashed his foot in the water. This time the guards knew for certain something was up. Calls to go and check it out could be heard as a torchlight darted across the area like the eye of Sauron. Somehow they still hadn’t seen us, although it was clear they knew we were definitely there. It was at this point I looked behind me at the path through the treeline. I could envisage an angry security guard coming from behind me at any second. We would be cornered, captured, potentially beaten up, and then evicted twenty miles off site. Our mission would be in tatters after barely getting started. The tension began to build. The adrenaline shot through my body. It was fight or flight and I made the sudden decision to retreat. I told my comrade to abandon the mission as we scrambled up the bank and ran back to the car park to take shelter in between the cars. We sat there in the shadows once again, sheltering in the merciful darkness, safe from the security hunting us with their torchlights.

After catching our breath, we decided that our first point of attack on the fence was not going to work; there was simply too much security in the area to even get close to the infiltration point. We then got out the map and reassessed our strategy, along with drinking more vodka to calm the nerves. In the meanwhile we text our friends inside the festival who were out enjoying the Thursday night in Shangri-La. I looked up at those spotlights in the sky and dreamed what it would be like to be inside with them. I imagined chatting shit with total strangers around a fire in Stone Circle. I imagined wandering through the crowds of Block 9. I imagined the joy, the delight, the ecstasy, the magic. For now, we were two rats locked outside in the darkness, but we had hope in our hearts that we would soon scurry our way into heaven.

11.30pm

As mentioned, we had studied the map and decided that it might be easier to break in via the entrance of Campervans West. If we could get into the vehicle campsite itself, it was sure to have less security than any of the main pedestrian gates. The area we were heading towards was on the South West side of the festival, and although it didn’t look far from our current point on the map, it would prove to be a tempestuous journey navigating the succession of hedgerows, farm fields, country lanes, security patrols, and even a random glamping campsite that wasn’t on the map. We headed southward along the path before making our way into another car park. Back in ninja mode, we started weaving our way through the fields whilst on high alert for any security. By now the effect of the vodka could be felt and this – along with the high levels of adrenaline and the surrealness of the situation – made it feel like we really were in some sort of espionage movie. We would have to be careful with how much we consumed though, as we needed our senses to still be in good working order for the mission ahead. It was a delicate balance of Dutch courage and being concentrated/focused enough to make rational decisions. 

After fumbling around some more through fields and hedges, we reached the outside of Pedestrian Gate D. We stopped to check the map, assess our progress, and check out all the scratches that were gradually accumulating on our legs. I thought we were relatively safe among the groups of people making their way into the festival, but it was at this point that our entire mission was suddenly thrown back into jeopardy. As my friend looked down at his phone to study the map, I saw a security guard approaching us with a dog. Immediately the adrenaline surged through my body once again. The enemy was present. My heart was beating fast as he arrived at our feet, shining his torch on our faces while his huge German Alsation sniffed us. 

“Alright lads. Is it okay if I see your tickets or wristbands please?” It was in this moment that everything really was in the hands of the Glastonbury gods. There was nothing we could do. No place to run or darkness to retreat to. A suspicious security guard and his sniffer dog stood between us and Glastonbury 2019. Me and my friend looked at each other with a look of horror. “Sure mate,” we said, before slowly holding out our completely irrelevant wristbands. We stood still as he leaned over and shone the torch onto them. He looked at them for what felt like an eternity and at one point I had mentally resigned myself to being caught and captured. Our cover was blown; our mission had failed. But no. Wait a moment. He pulled back his torch and took a step back. “Cheers lads. You can never be too careful you know, when you see a couple of young lads just loitering about near the entrance.” We nervously laughed. “No worries mate, it’s fine. Have a good night!” We then walked off in a state of shock. Somehow the decoy wristband had worked. Some random stranger’s birthday party had saved us from capture. It was the closest of all calls, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether he actually realised they weren’t fake wristbands. Maybe he just couldn’t be bothered with the aggro of evicting us. It was hard to say what had happened exactly, but by this point we were sure the Glastonbury gods were well and truly on our side. We regained our composure, had some more vodka, then kept marching southward to Campervans West. The sounds of Glastonbury continued to roar out into the valley and there was still some hope yet.

12.30am

After making our way past Pedestrian Gate D, we found ourselves besides a glamping campsite. It was closed off by a mesh steel fence, but we quickly managed to scale it and make our way inside. It was a nice relief from creeping through the darkness, and we spent some time there to use the luxury toilet facilities and regain energy with a few snacks, including a Twix – the essential fuel for any great Glasto break-in. We then followed the campsite around to the furthest southward point where we hopped another fence to get back out into the farmland. We were now creeping across a field, watching those spotlights and lasers of Glastonbury shoot up into the night sky. We could hear the DJ sets from Arcadia, the fireworks of stone circle, and the continual roar of those 175,000 people having the time of their lives. It was a beautiful and painful sound that made so many great Glasto memories come flooding back. My wistful daydreaming was interrupted when a few horses – who obviously weren’t used to strange men creeping across their field in the middle of the night – came and challenged us. They walked intimidatingly towards us, warning us away with aggressive neighing noises. There was a house nearby and we feared the horses would alert the owners, so me and my comrade quickly made our way over the field to get back onto the road that led to Campervans West.

Out on that road we were now walking in a place that no punter had any reason to be. We were far from any pedestrian gates and the only way to deal with this situation was to walk with confidence and purpose like we were working there. I made sure my outdated lanyard was visible as we headed closer to the campervan field. Soon we reached the fence of the campsite which, thankfully, was a lot more scalable than the super fence. We got off the road to slip behind a treeline that ran beside the fence, edging our way along the perimeter to see if we could find somewhere to climb over. We eventually found a spot where a support beam could help us get up. It was silent around us and we figured no one was around, but just to be sure my comrade quietly hopped onto the beam to survey the area. He poked his head over and then quietly climbed back down with a concerned look. He whispered to me that there was a security guard right on the other side of the fence. This point was a no-go and we would have to move on carefully to find another spot. I agreed. My comrade then hopped a steel gate back out onto the road and it was at that moment all hell broke loose. There was a parked car on the other side of the road which appeared to have no-one in it. How wrong we were. Just as my friend stumbled out onto the road, the doors swung open and an angry voice shouted out. “Oi you! What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Shit. We had been spotted. Two security guards jumped out the car as my friend fled into a nearby field. I watched him run off into the darkness as the angry guards followed in hot pursuit. I wasn’t sure if they had seen me so I ran quickly back along the treeline to find another spot to get back out onto the road. At this point there was nothing I could do to help my friend and I stood there on the road, catching my breath, unsure of what to do next. Suddenly I heard footsteps rapidly approaching from the road ahead. I was about to run when my friend came bolting out of darkness. He had managed to somehow circle the guards. “Run!” he told me. And off we sprinted down the road like a couple of madmen. A few seconds later I heard bangs on the road behind me. Foolishly, I had forgotten to fully zip-up my bag after my last drink, and my few items for the festival had fallen out.  My vodka: gone. My t-shirts: gone. My Twixes: gone. My inventory was now severely depleted and I considered going back to collect them, but no. It was too risky. They were casualties of war beyond saving and we carried on running until we felt safe. It was then that another threat came our way. Two stewards were heading our way on the road ahead. It was time to go back undercover and I held my head up high, made sure my outdated lanyard was visible, and then gave them a friendly hello as we passed by undetected. It was another close call and at this point the adrenaline was surging rapidly through the veins. Thankfully we found a dark field we could get onto to relax and regain our composure. The field led up to the fence of the Campervans West and also along the mighty super fence itself. It was sheltered too, far from the road and any security checkpoints. It was probably the most advantageous spot we had reached yet, although how we were going to get in was still a mystery only the Glastonbury gods could help us with. But still, they had looked after us so far and we had faith that a divine intervention was soon to come…

2.30am

We moved across the field, encroaching closer to the festival site. We stayed to the side partly to avoid the herd of cows in the centre of the field, and also to avoid any torchlights from the security on the nearby road who would now be searching for us. Those security patrols could soon be seen in the distance, searching the treeline beside the road. They were looking in the wrong place and I felt a sense of relief that we were now somewhere they were unlikely to find us. The super fence and the Campervans West fence were in sight with very seemingly little between us.

After crossing the first field and avoiding any more encounters with aggressive farm animals, we emerged onto a second field of wheat. This field ran all the way up to the super fence itself. The downside was that a distant floodlight was illuminating the whole field, and there was also a manned guard tower beside it. We would have to keep low so that our shadows couldn’t be seen by the watchman. We got back down on our knees and started crawling up the field, hiding ourselves among the wheat. The ground was rock hard and jagged bits of mud made our journey a painful one. By this point my legs were covered with cuts and tiredness was creeping in; I had also lost all my alcohol and I soon faced the daunting prospect of facing the grueling mission sober. Still, we were in too deep now and there was no turning back. At this point we could practically feel the heat of the fire from Arcadia and taste that first Brother’s cider.

We reached the top of the field where another hedgerow separated us from the fence of Campervans West. It was still our plan to climb into there, but first we thought we would sneak up to the super fence itself to see if there was a more direct way into the festival site. We followed the hedge-line up the field, which gave us shelter from the floodlight and the guard tower. The tracked road that ran all along the super fence was still there though, and every five minutes a security jeep drove past casting their torchlights into the bushes. Extreme caution was needed. We carried on and reached the bushes just before the super fence. It was probably the closest to the actual festival we had been in of the night; right on the other side of that fence was Bailey’s campground. Just twenty or so metres separated us from all the fucked-up revellers making their way back to their tents after a hard night of partying. Every now and then, we could even make out the drunken voices and the faint sound of laughing gas canisters. Still, the super fence stood in the way of such heavenly delights and we looked up to it as if it was Mount Everest. We had considered purchasing and bringing a telescopic ladder with us, but decided against it. Almost certainly we wouldn’t have made it far carting such a conspicuous piece of equipment around (no doubt it would have been slightly difficult to explain that one to the suspicious guard and his sniffer dog).

Seeing no way to scale the super fence, we decided to head back along the hedgerow to find a gap where we could get through and climb into Campervans West instead. We reached a treeline at the end of the hedge that ran down in a ditch and crawled down into it. The area was shrouded in darkness but we managed to get through the bushes, accumulating a few more scratches along the way. We could see a gap out of the foliage where we would be able to make another attempt at climbing into the vehicle campsite. But then we saw something that stopped us in our tracks. It was a dark, ominous figure beside the fence. It was hard to tell completely – and we weren’t sure if our tired minds were playing tricks on us – but it looked almost like the silhouette of a guard sat in a chair. We kept staring at it, looking for some movement, trying to ascertain whether or not it was a person. But the visibility was too bad. We had joked about bringing night vision goggles and at this point they were exactly what we needed. It was then that we could hear the sound of voices. Multiple voices could be heard coming towards us from the fence. We feared the worst. Then, to our horror, we started to hear noises from behind us too! Shit. We had been compromised. And we were cornered. Two parties approached us from both directions as we lay trapped in the ditch. The end of our mission was once again on the horizon, and a part of ourselves had resigned ourselves to our fate of finally being captured. The Glasto gods had been good to us through the night, but there was no way out of this one. The gig was finally up.

It was then that something strange happened. We heard a bang on the fence in the front of us. Then we watched in disbelief as a few figures scrambled over it and started creeping towards the bushes where we were hiding. The sound of scouse accents could be heard whispering and we watched as they started climbing down into the ditch beside us. By now it was apparent that they weren’t guards, but fellow ninjas. We breathed a huge sigh of relief and greeted our new comrades. We warned them that we also heard noises behind us, and we made our way back cautiously to the field to find a random guy standing there. “Alright lads,” he said, again in a scouse accent. It was another ninja trying to break in. Somehow, after seeing no one else trying to break in all night, we had ended up in the middle of two groups of scousers attempting the same mission. We stopped to share intel and information. The guys who had climbed over the Campervan West fence informed us that it was too difficult to break in that way – hence why they had climbed back out – but the other guy gave us some much more promising news…

“Me and my mates found a piece of scaffolding beside the super fence. It’s too heavy for us to lift it, but if you boys fancy giving us a hand, I reckon we can do it.” Suddenly our prayers had been answered. In the space of a few minutes we had gone from being down in a dark ditch with our mission on the brink of complete failure, to now having a band of brothers and a direct way to storm the super fence together. Hope had been rekindled; our mission now stood a chance of success. Glastonbury 2019 was back on. We headed back down the field towards the super fence where suddenly three or four more scousers popped up out of the wheat, ready for action. Me and my friend had to laugh. Before the night, he had made a Microsoft Word document detailing possible ways to break in. Right at the bottom of that list of bullet-points was the word: ‘scousers….?’. My friend had foreseen this happening, and with our new Liverpudlian friends, there were now ten of us in total. We had strength in numbers and it was time to make an assault on the super fence. It was time to break into heaven.

3.30am

It had been a long night and by now the first light of dawn was upon us. With daylight extinguishing the darkness, our presence was much more obvious to any patrolling security guards. Fortunately, the guard patrols had slowed down, and it had been a good ten minutes before the last jeep had driven past on the tracked road beside the super fence. The guy who had told us about the scaffolding led us over to it while telling stories of how he had broken into the festival multiple times. It filled us with hope to know we were with a seasoned veteran who had successfully completed this daring operation before. We then reached the spot where the steel scaffolding was lying on the grass, just a few metres from the super fence. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly, but it appeared to be the underside of a stage, or a piece of farming equipment. Whatever it was, there was no way that five, six, even seven strong guys could lift it. But now, by some miracle, there were ten of us; with just enough strength and manpower to prop it up against the fence. How three separate groups of people had met in this exact spot with this exact piece of equipment just lying there was clearly the divine intervention we had asked the Glastonbury gods for. Our faith had been rewarded and at this point it seemed there was no way we could fail.

Of course, lifting such a bulky piece of equipment and placing it against the steel fence was going to cause a lot of noise, and we estimated we only had a minute or so to get over before the guards were all over us. There were stewards about seventy metres down the fence that would radio it in straight away. This would mean that security would be pursuing us from both inside and outside the super fence. There was no room for hesitation and we would have to act as swiftly as possible. We mentally prepared ourselves then each went to grab a part of the steel frame. We took a deep breath and then lifted it. Even with ten of us it was a struggle, and we scraped it noisily across the tracked road outside the fence. There was no time to look if anyone had responded to the noise; we just kept dragging and heaving it with all our might. “Go, go, go!” someone shouted. “Come on lads!” shouted another. “Okay now lift it up from this end and lean it against the fence!” We turned it around, grabbed the short side of the frame and pushed it up vertically against the 14ft super fence. A huge bang of steel on steel rang out. Thirty seconds had passed and by now security would have surely been alerted. The adrenaline was now at cardiac arrest levels as everyone started scrambling frantically up the steel frame. I was one of the last ones to get onto it and I watched as my comrades at the top jumped over. I couldn’t quite believe what was actually happening. I then reached the top myself and took my first look over the mighty fence. It was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. There it was: a sea of multi-coloured tents running to the horizon. The pyramid stage in the distance. Glastonbury festival sprawled out before me. It was really there, heaven on earth, right within my reach.

I threw my body over the fence, found a support beam to slide down onto, then jumped down onto the grass. I was then faced with a smaller mesh steel fence to scale. I quickly scrambled over it and I was in! The site had been infiltrated. I stood beside a bunch of tents with some shocked campers staring at us in utter disbelief at the chaotic scene they were witnessing  (one even looked like he thought he was having a bad trip). By now the guards in the towers on the inside would have seen ten guys climbing the fence, and there would be security hot on pursuit. Fortunately for us, there was a sea of tents to disperse into and we all shot off into the campsite in separate directions. I ran like there was no tomorrow, jumping over the tent poles with enough adrenaline to run across the whole site. Half-way into the field, I bumped into my friend and another one of the scousers. We carried on running until we were on the pathway of Bailey’s campsite where we started walking at a relaxed pace to blend in with the crowd. We kept walking further into the festival while looking nervously over our shoulders. But no. No one was chasing us. No one at all. And then it hit us. We had done it. We had only gone and actually done it. After a whole night of pain and stress and feeling like hunted rats, we had broken into Glastonbury festival.

My comrade phoned our friends to inform them of our success, and the other scouse guy did the same. He was a young guy, around eighteen at his first Glastonbury. We wished him a good festival as he wandered off wide-eyed into the magical wonderland of Glasto. Me and my friend then gave each other a hug and congratulated each other on the successful completion of our mission. We were completely wired at this point, on top of the world, in absolute heaven. Unfortunately it had now gone 4am and all our friends had just gone to sleep. We would have to wait a few more hours until the real partying could begin. So we headed over to our friend’s campsite, got down into the porch of a tent, completely unable to sleep with adrenaline overload, but happy to be back once again in our spiritual home for another magical Glastonbury weekend. And after everything we had just been through, what a weekend it was going to be…

The End

 

diaries

The Secret Diary of a Depressed Therapist

(the following is the opening for a fictional diary-style novel I am experimenting with)

Photo by Sinitta Leunen on Pexels.com

“People are the greatest show on earth and you don’t even pay the ticket.”

Charles Bukowski said that. A man who lingered on the edges of society for most of his life, working odd jobs, moving around, trying to be a writer while alienated from society. He stood on the outside of the herd, looked back in, observed their behaviour and wrote about it. Some people hated his writing, others loved it. For me, I guess I am one of the latter, and I couldn’t help but agree completely with the above quote. I mean, have you ever stopped and watched people? Like really watched them? Their behaviour, their movements, their stresses and anxieties? Have you listened to the lies that come out of their mouths and tried to understand the chaos in their brains? For me, I was drawn to that stuff from an early age and I soon found myself studying the behaviour of everyone around me. From peers to parents to teachers: I wanted to know what made them tick, what their dirty little secrets were, and what it was that would push them over the edge into the abyss of total madness. The average human brain was a dense jungle of issues and for whatever reason I wanted to go and explore it (no doubt I needed therapy to ascertain why exactly that was myself).

Naturally it made sense that I had ended up electing to study psychology at university, before spending a large part of my twenties travelling the world. Of course, at school you just learn all the dull text-book crap, scanning miles and miles of print and regurgitating it in an exam, thinking you are ready to walk on a psych ward and nurse some murderous psychopath back to some form of sanity. None of that stuff really prepares you for the real thing, and it was out on my travels where I started to get some first-hand experience of helping people make sense of the human condition. I mean, there’s something about the situation of travelling overseas that causes a person to let their guard down, take off their mask, and start spilling their deepest, darkest secrets to a total stranger. This, I felt, was that travelling was already a sort of therapy for people anyway; an activity where you took yourself away from the stifling reality of ordinary life to put yourself under the existential microscope. The average Joe could learn a lot about himself while hiking through a mountain wilderness, or getting wasted with people from another culture, or staring out at an ocean sunset while wondering what the hell it all meant. And of course, people naturally felt safer sharing their issues with people they were never going to see again (after all, we all knew what judgmental gossips work colleagues and relatives could be). 

On my travels I listened to a fifty-year-old man tell me how he had quit his job after feeling suicidal from work-related stress; I listened to a young Danish girl tell me about her eating disorders and childhood abuse; I listened to an ex-heroin addict explain his addiction and fears of relapsing/overdosing. I heard tales of disaster and darkness; of pain and heartache; of death and destruction. My reserved and attentive demeanour drew people in, and I must have spent countless hours listening to people from all around the world spill their hearts out to me. Walking the ancient Christian pilgrimage El Camino de Santiago in Spain was perhaps the greatest experience in this, seeing me spend most days wandering along the trail, meeting people from all walks of life, and talking about the things that lingered in the darkest corners of a person’s mind. The most memorable encounter being with an eccentric, middle-aged man called Pete – a retired army soldier from London who had no home or next of kin. His last remaining family member (his brother) was killed by American friendly fire in Afghanistan. With no family left and no place to be, he now lived the life of a wandering nomad, walking the pilgrimage again and again with no apparent goal other than to just keep going until he dropped dead on the ground. He was a nice guy, although it’s obvious there were some serious demons lingering within, which typically came to the surface every evening after a bottle of red wine – resulting in arguments being started, abuses being hurled, and hostel tables being flipped. Such encounters were compelling to me and only made me crave the gypsy lifestyle more; clearly there was no substitute for real life experience in getting to know just how convoluted and complicated and chaotic the human mind could be. As the godfather of modern psychology had said:

“Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-halls, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.” Carl Jung

Yeah, old Jung knew the score. The sick were out there in plagues, and by travelling the world with an open heart, you were sure to end up in the midst of human sickness. And the truth, I’ve come to learn, is that almost everybody is sick with something. Even the people who look untroubled on the surface have their monsters lurking somewhere within, and each man or woman has their own facade to hide away the reality of their true tortured self. I even remembered the teachers I had at school – people I looked up to as shining examples of successful human-beings – I later came to find out their drug habits, how some were cheating on their spouses, how one was sexually harassing members of staff, and how another was even found with underage pornography on his computer. Ultimately human-beings are wild and wounded animals ruled by desire, instinct and fear – only society has sought to suppress that side of us and to present us all as civilised beings with polished appearances. But no matter how clean your clothes are, the pain in your heart can’t be washed out; no matter how much makeup you wear, the dirt in your soul can’t be glossed over; no matter how many filters you use on Instagram, the mess in your head can’t be edited out.

Everyone is fucked-up to some degree, and I guess it’s my job to help people make sense of just how fucked-up they are, and also what – if anything – can be done about it. I know, I know: you’re probably thinking how heroic and selfless I am. Well, just know I don’t see myself as some sort of hero: a dark knight that leads people back into the light from the demon-infested shadows. I’m sure there is a view of a therapist out there somewhere (I think that was what I thought when I was an idealistic young man). You see, the truth is I’m just as fucked-up as the majority of people I speak to. Perhaps even more so actually. That’s what makes this whole thing so laughable. I mean, a fucked-up person helping other fucked-up people become less fucked-up? It’s almost poetic in a Nietzsche-esque sort of way. I guess I had spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the mess inside my head so I could, to a degree, put myself into the seats of those opposite me. They were the seats of the broken, the desperate, the lost, the lonely, and the confused. And they were states of being I had gotten to experience myself over the years, so naturally I could resonate with most of the things coming out their mouths. The only difference being that I wouldn’t dare sit in front of a therapist and divulge the contents of my mind for fear of getting dragged to the nearest madhouse. So what better place to sit than in the therapist chair myself, hearing other people’s stories, and feeling some sort of relief that many human-beings were a complete mess inside too.

Often I even thought many of them were fine when compared to myself; nothing a bit of self-reflection, meditation and a few lifestyle changes couldn’t sort out. For me, my madness was an unshakable, elemental part of who I was. It was something I had knew existed within me from a young age. There were many moments of strangeness but I guess the first notable one was when I broke into a house on my way home from a night out when I was sixteen. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of wine before going to drink it in the living room. It was Christmas and I sat there on the sofa looking at the Christmas tree, sipping my wine and feeling like Santa Claus himself. I considered taking one of the presents from under the tree but managed to stop myself. Aside from that, I started relationships with girls then deliberately crashed them just for some drama and passion. I got drunk and stood on the ledges of buildings, wondering what it would feel like for those few seconds of falling before hitting the ground. I went out into the world and sought out pain and drama like some deranged masochist. The reason I liked this shit? There was no way around it: I was self-destructive at my core. An absurdist. Prone to nihilistic thoughts. Human existence was a big joke to me and I wanted to make a mockery of it as much as possible – even getting a self-serving job that satisfied my fetish for delving into the minds of those around me. God, there’s so much to tell you about really, but I’ll spare you the full details of my own tragedy for now. We’ll have to entertain ourselves with other people’s tragedy instead.

03/01

The start of a new year. The ‘new year, new me’ were out in force and I was usually met with new clients looking to finally address their underlying issues in the hope they can finally achieve happiness, or perhaps just momentarily stop themselves from kicking the bucket. I was guilty too – starting this diary as a sort of new year experiment to see if I could create some added meaning to my life which was currently in the grips of my latest existential crisis. Dreams of being Charles Bukowski were still in my mind, and I was well aware this was another project that would probably dissipate and fade out into nothingness over the course of the year, just like all my previous projects – including a dystopian novel that was going to be the most prophetic book since 1984 (yeah, I was particularly deluded at that time). Still, it was something; another creative endeavour to keep me going and not let myself be crushed by the feeling of pissing your life away doing the same things every day. It was a common feeling most working adults could relate to. Just like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd had sang on the album Dark Side of The Moon:

“Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.

Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

The time is gone, the song is over,

Thought I’d something more to say…”

    Or perhaps a bit of Celine hit the nail on the head:

“The worst part is wondering how you’ll find the strength tomorrow to go on doing what you did today and have been doing for much too long, where you’ll find the strength for all that stupid running around, those projects that come to nothing, those attempts to escape from crushing necessity, which always founder and serve only to convince you one more time that destiny is implacable, that every night will find you down and out, crushed by the dread of more and more sordid and insecure tomorrows.”

Old Louis-Ferdinand Celine: a writer after my own heart. Anyway, enough of all that. Today’s ‘new year, new me’ client is a twenty-two-year-old woman. She is in the final year of university and expressing some of the standard concerns that ravaged the minds of young people across the world. On she went telling me about her crippling anxiety, her doubts in her head that she wasn’t good enough, that she would always be unhappy and die alone in some dark room covered in spiderwebs and sorrow somewhere. Young women are my biggest client demographic. First of all, women are more likely to actually go and get therapy, unlike us men who politely bottle up our pain and end up committing 70% of all suicides. Second of all, the young woman has a range of issues she needs to navigate in the attempt to be a functioning human-being. Everything from image issues, social media addiction, eating disorders. Some are victims of domestic or childhood abuse, some sexual assault, others are riddled with anxiety about the world and themselves. And let’s not forget the state of the economy which had left all young people screwed when it came to finding a stable career and affording their own home. It was a cluster-fuck of issues altogether, being made continually worse by the unrelenting absurdity of the modern world which was never afraid to make you feel like total shit at every opportunity.

“I feel like I’m doing all these things just to do them,” she told me. “I don’t feel a connection to what I’m doing. I’m just drifting through the motions like I’m not really there, and I keep wondering: will I always feel this way? Like when I get married and when I have kids. I’ll just be doing those things too because that’s what everyone does. Surely everyone doesn’t feel like this? I know they can’t. All my coursemates are applying for jobs and planning their lives. They sound excited, enthusiastic, hopeful. Meanwhile, I just can’t relate to them at all. I just have this emptiness inside.” I let her have a moment for self-reflection before interjecting.

“Have you spoken to anyone else close to you about this? Do you have anyone in your life you feel understands you?”

“No, that’s another thing – no one understands me. If I had someone to talk about these things with, I would, but I don’t. Isn’t that why I’m here after all?”

“I understand. I can say that you are certainly not the only one feeling these things, but that doesn’t negate how you are feeling. However, losing interest in things you once enjoyed and feeling no connection to anything is often a sign of depression. Would you say this a feeling that’s manifested recently? 

“Well, I started feeling this way after the first year of university. I was waking up in the morning with no energy, and sometimes it took me over an hour to get out of bed, then when I did……”

I sat back and let her go on, seeing if her introspective exploration of her issues could help us identify the area that was causing her these troubles. The best thing to do with a new client is to just let them speak. The thing is that most people just have so much shit inside of them they need to get out, and having a stranger whose job is to listen to anything and everything you want to express can be the godsend they’ve needed. It’s really quite simple in a way. You give them their space to scream, you acknowledge their scream, and you help them make sense of where their scream came from and what can be done about it. Most aren’t even expecting some grand epiphany or something like that; just the sheer relief of getting all that shit out inside of them is enough. All that shit that has been tearing them up through the years; all that shit they hold inside when they say ‘fine thanks, you?’ Finally, their time has come. So sit back, look attentive, and let them vomit out the contents of their constipated mind right in front of you.

We carried on for another thirty minutes trying to get to the root cause of why she felt that way. Soon her time was up and I said goodbye to her, had some lunch, then welcomed back one of my regulars: an unemployed widow with no savings whose social anxiety stopped her from getting a job. After that it was a guy with bipolar disorder who had recently smashed up his parents house and set fire to his car. It was another cheery start to the year.

After work, I headed to my local. I had considered the dry January thing but decided it was just another trend and fashion that I didn’t really want to follow. I couldn’t bring myself to face another year sober so I sat down at the bar and ordered a drink. I then looked up at the television. More talk of Brexit negotiations were on the screen, along with the latest football scores, and something about government officials dodging taxes. It was a world of absurdity out there but drinking helped you escape for a brief while. I got my double rum and coke then got speaking to one of the resident alcoholics. You needed people like that to make yourself feel better at times; people worse than you that made you feel okay about yourself in comparison. It was a common mind trick we all played on ourselves and I utilised it too. I downed my drink with him, put the world to rights, and headed home to masturbate and eat some leftover macaroni and cheese. And some digestive biscuits too.

coronavirus diaries

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries (day 4 and 5)

For previous days see here

solitude

Day 4 and 5

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

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

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

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

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

 

coronavirus diaries

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries (day 2 & 3)

For previous days see here.

pexels-photo-143580

Days 2 and 3

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

Back home in my kingdom of isolation, I engaged in some reading and meditation before spending a solid hour staring into space. Having a wandering mind was a godsend in times like this and I was certain to go on many introspective adventures through the galaxies inside my head. Today my mind was reflecting on what this disaster meant for us as a species. Reading the news it was clear we were facing a huge change to our lifestyles and perhaps a period of reflection for where we were as a race. One news report said that due to the lockdown, countries such as China and Italy were seeing a massive drop in CO2 and pollution levels. With no planes in the sky, fewer cars on the road and many factories temporary closing down, the planet was finally catching its breath from the relentless battering we were giving it. On top of this, the canals of Venice could be seen full of fish and dolphins were coming closer to shore with the absence of boats.

The thought hit me that perhaps this was nature’s way of striking back against humanity. Effectively, we had been told off and sent to our rooms to self-isolate while mother nature tried to heal itself for a short while. The virus itself had even come from an animal like all the major disease outbreaks over the last twenty years – Sars, Swine Flu, Ebola and now Covid-19. One only had to watch a video of the inhumane practices and conditions animals were kept in at the market to maybe think this was our punishment for our brutal and cruel treatment of the animal kingdom. It was ironic I guess. In terms of the natural world, the human species could almost be seen as a virus itself in the way it spread, destroyed and consumed its natural environment – the very host it lived on. Perhaps all these diseases that threatened humanity were the antibodies of mother nature? Perhaps this was the planet fighting back against the very thing killing it?

It was a depressing thought to think of yourself as a biological virus so I turned to a bottle of red wine. I couldn’t drink with anyone else of course, so now it was socially acceptable to get totally drunk at home alone. I had waited for this day for a long time. I shamelessly poured myself an extra-large glass of wine, went on a youtube session and got chatting to some of my comrades who were also self-isolating around the world. One of which was a good friend who had been under lockdown for almost four weeks now in Northern Italy – the epicentre of the European outbreak. After four weeks of remaining indoors, he was now polishing off four wine bottles a day as well as a wide range of other exotic substances. I hadn’t descended that far into the depths of self-isolated madness just yet, but it would be interesting to see what debauchery awaited me over the next weeks. For now everything was all good and sane. I kept sipping my wine as the walls stood strong and I remained uninfected. The music roared from the speakers and the drinking went on for two days…

(days 4 and 5 to follow)

short stories

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries

self isolation

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

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

Day 1

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

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

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

Days 2 and 3

pexels-photo-143580

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

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

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

Days 4 and 5

solitude

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

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

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

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

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

 

short stories

~ The Search For Meaning ~

the fighter

~ The Search For Meaning ~

“So why do you do it if you don’t make much money from it? It’s a lot of time to devote to something isn’t it for a small return? What’s the end goal here?”

I looked into his eyes. Those eyes of normality. I cleared my throat. I went ahead and explained how I wrote my books not for fame or fortune, but instead of a strong need to fulfil myself from deep within. To do something that stirred my soul. To create some meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. Okay, maybe I left that last part out, but I could see from his blank expression how he thought it was strange that I devoted so much of myself to something which wasn’t rewarded by money or women or a firm pat on the back from your boss. Mostly my writing was only read by a small amount of people, but still I typed away at that keyboard like a madman anyway. It was something I was driven to do with all my heart and blood and guts. In the world, I looked around at things I was supposed to desire. I saw jobs that gave you money, prestige – hell, sometimes even your own parking space – but nothing that really was going to make me content and fulfilled at my core. Some of those jobs really gave you quite a lot of money after a while, but what could I really do with it that actually fulfilled me? Buy some new clothes? Drink some higher quality beer? Gamble it all away at the races for a cheap thrill? 

Looking around at my surrounding society, I essentially saw myself stuck in a soul-sucking system where people were forced to consumerism, alcoholism, gambling and whatever else it was which helped fill that inner existential void which inevitably widened every year. Many had children and this kept them busy with a purpose for a couple of decades, but I wasn’t too attracted to that prospect either. After all, if you had children just because you couldn’t find any meaning in your own life, it seemed selfish to bring more people into the world who would have to face the same recurring existential dilemma. It seemed that it wasn’t just me who was uninterested in creating a little miniature version of myself; I was now part of a generation where people were spawning fewer human-beings into the world than ever before. Consequently, we now lived in a dystopian world where there were a growing amount of people trying to find something to get out of bed for, or to keep them busy with – or to simply just do anything that stopped them staring into space thinking about the monotony and banality of it all. The life of tedious and trivial repetition. The life of watching other people’s lives on soap operas. The life where many people’s greatest aspiration was bossing around a bunch of bored people in a dusty office room.

I guess it was that desire to transcend the monotony of the ordinary which led me to writing – to strumming away on this grubby keyboard right now. Travelling on backpacking trips had kept me busy for a few years of my young adult life, and it really was true that travelling and exploring other countries and cultures had kept me fulfilled to a degree, but eventually the novelty of it had dried up and I needed something else to stoke the fire within. Modern society seemingly had nothing to offer me, and so I now tried to create some meaning by locking myself away in an isolated room as I obsessively tried to create the next literary masterpiece. 

It was fair to say the attempts to make our lives meaningful were often extreme and I figured many of us would have been better off in the hunter-gatherers times where you spent your time gathering food and supplies while enjoying the leisure that came alongside that. It seemed to me that so many people out there had been spiritually murdered or left unfulfilled by the sedentary and relatively easy lifestyle of modern life that gave you comfort in abundance, but left you feeling like you were some sort of robotic cog in a machine. There it all was lined up all nicely for you. The animals slaughtered out of sight and packaged neatly on supermarket shelves. The clothes and furniture delivered right to your front door. The partners available at the flick of a finger on internet dating apps. Comfortable office jobs that you had absolutely no connection to. There was no real fight to be had; no great battle to be won. Some still chose to join the army and be thrown into some sort of oil-war out in the middle east, but that was a desperate measure at best. 

A life without real meaning was torture to some people and consequently the search for it often came out in violent and ugly ways. One only had to go to a football match and see the twisted, cursing faces of people in the crowd screaming out their inner frustration at a referee simply trying to do his job. Their lack of meaning and inner fulfilment led them not only to venting at sporting events, but to the bottle – the pill – the powder. It, of course, led them to political things too. When Brexit happened in the U.K, many people suddenly saw something arbitrary to fight for. With newspaper headlines rallying you to fight for your country like there was an actual war going on, so many people jumped on board to give themselves a sense of identity and purpose that they had been missing for a long time. In their shouting faces, I saw the pain and lack of meaning in their everyday lives which had drawn them to this ‘war’. Ultimately this is what happens when a man or woman has no true calling or belonging in their everyday life – they latch onto whatever the hell it is that makes them feel their lives have something worth fighting for.

Our quest to give our lives purpose was like a thorn in our sides and often I wished I could live a life as purposeless as a cat, just sitting around and being content with sleeping and the occasional meal here and there. Naturally this desire led me to an interest in Buddhism which celebrated the notion of the purposeless life. I researched a lot about Buddhism, reading books and watching youtube videos. I soon found myself meditating often and feeling the benefits of the Eastern philosophy. Western society was all about achieving success and status and chasing promotions and whatever the hell it was that was supposed to make you happy. But with Buddhism, you went the opposite way – you eliminated desire and then had everything you ever needed right on your front door. With this in mind, I went through a period of embracing the purposeless life. I meditated twice a day and went for long, slow walks in the parks. I stopped stressing and straining at work. I quit being anxious about the future and things out of my control. The lifestyle was a welcome change but after a while, the desire to find some purpose came creeping back like an incurable disease. Couple that with people constantly asking you what ‘your plans’ were, then it was only natural that my need to create some specific goal or point to my life came back.

So I went back out into the world and looked at what I could do to make my life meaningful. Of course, by that point, I already knew without question the direction I would take. The feeling I got when I read those messages that came in about my writing was like spiritual heroin. Via my blog and self-published books, I had already inspired people to change their lives, quit jobs and pursue their deepest dreams and desires. That feedback was something that stirred my soul beyond anything else I had experienced in this life; it gave me a pleasure which couldn’t come from any drink, drug or woman. I needed more of it so I sat back and planned to write another book, and then another one – and even if my writing only had an effect on just a handful of people – then that was the existential purpose of my life. To write, write, write. To share the contents of my heart and soul. To bleed my brain dry. To pour everything onto the page and hope that it had an effect on someone out there in the world. 

It’s been a long and slippery road but this is my third book of writing and I now feel like I have manufactured more meaning in my life than ever before. There is now a contentment in my heart when I wake up every day – a fire in my eyes which I can’t be sure I see too often out on those grey streets. Hell, I’ll even go as far to say that I now feel qualified to give some advice. Well, here it goes if you’ll forgive me. Are you also staring into those skies and spaces and feeling existentially empty? Are you also yearning to feel like you’re living and not merely existing? Well, if I may put forward yet another tiring opinion from the growing amount of keyboard philosophers out there: not much makes me feel alive in our modern society, and maybe I don’t have all the answers, but I know that strumming these keyboard keys right now is a better fight than stressfully chasing some promotion or saving up for something I don’t actually need. I guess if I had any advice it would be not to mindlessly grab at what’s in front of you. Don’t try and fill an internal void with external things. Don’t try and obtain happiness through material goods or whatever the hell it is your peers and parents tell you will make you satisfied. Spend some time alone and get to know yourself. Find what makes your heart and fingers twitch a little faster. Find what makes you forget about everything else. The world around you may have got you confused, but deep down inside yourself you already know what you need to be complete and fulfilled. Let it be revealed to you slowly and surely in solitude and silence. Let it be unlocked in the heart. It’s there – your true calling – waiting for you to stand up. Waiting for you to take it. Waiting for you to make sure you are living a life, and not just existing in one.