‘One morning I awoke in a strange room with a foul taste in my mouth. My date from the previous night was still fast asleep and I figured it was easier for both of us if I just left before she stirred. I had no battery on my phone and wasn’t sure exactly where I was. I walked out of the house which was on the top of a hill. From the doorstep, I saw the city centre in the distance and realised I was on the opposite side of the city. I then started making my long way home through unknown streets and neighbourhoods. I could have gotten a bus, but I had always resented paying for public transport, so I kept on walking – tired, hungover and even more of a daze than usual. I looked at the people walking past me, wondering which of them was also doing a walk of shame. My stumbling continued until I had made it back into the city centre when I caught my reflection in a shop window. For a minute I stood there staring at it. It seemed that on every street a window reflection was there to show you to yourself and suddenly make you question what the hell it was you were doing on that street, in that city, in that life. Did your path have purpose? Were you a good person anymore? Were you even a sane person anymore? Looking into my tired eyes, I could see I was just another messed-up young man, entertaining myself and keeping life interesting in whatever way I could. I was no different than the drunks and druggies; than the addicts and adrenaline junkies. I found my solace in the thrill of casual sex; my shelter in the tangled limbs of a stranger. It was a depressing reality and my reflection continued to stare back at me almost in disgust. There was only so much of it I could take before I had to look away and carry on along the avenue. This is what life could do to a man. He enters it with wide eyes ready to discover and explore, and then thirty years later he stands staring at his reflection in confusion and consternation. The only thing to do was carry on walking and try to avoid that reflection for a little while longer.’
Stray Dogs of Mexico
I sat on that street corner, sipping my beer, staring emptily into space. A strange feeling overcame me. I had felt it for some time but it was then that I knew for sure that a war was being waged on my soul. I knew the light wasn’t shining as it once had, my mouth didn’t dispense my truth like before, my feet didn’t touch the ground like they once did. Something was wrong inside of me. I had wandered into some murky realm where I could feel myself disappearing in a darkness. My candle was fading and I stared into the eyes of people passing me in the street and wondered if my struggle was unique or ubiquitous. How many were watching the flames of their being slowly fade out? How many out there were losing themselves day by day? And ultimately what was a man or woman to do about it?
At one point in my life it seemed so easy. When the fire burns bright, it feels like there is no force in this universe strong enough to quell your inner flame. Your eyes burst with light and your heart thunders. Your spirit ignites the world around you. Your pen pours out poetry with ease. But life can sometimes take you down some bewildering paths. You unknowingly start to lose yourself and suddenly you’re left facing a stranger in the mirror, speaking words that are not your own, sitting nowhere, being nowhere. Reflecting back on the past, I knew I had saved my soul before, but could I do it again? I didn’t even know where to begin this time. For once there were no direction signs – no intuition, no guiding stars, and even my deepest passions were now uninteresting to me. I was now thirty years old and didn’t have any other desire other than to get drunk and drift around a foreign country. The idea of being an author had slipped from my mind after my books had sold so few copies. The notion of starting a career or family was just as alien as ever. And even the act of travelling itself had lost much of its magic. My world was a grey place so I just sat on that street corner, sedating myself with alcohol, watching people walk by and wondering where there would ever be peace on earth for those who dreamed a little too much.
Finally I pay my bill using my bad Spanish and then get up to carry on wandering the city streets. They were the streets of Mexico City – one of the biggest cities in the world – and I drift across a busy square and into a church where I see an old lady kneel before the altar. Her hands are tightly grasped in prayer as she stares up with pleading eyes. I can’t help but wonder what she is asking, but in the end I stopped, knowing her pain was private like it was for all. I walk out back into the square and see a queue of men waiting to be cleansed with some smoking plant as it’s rubbed over them. They close their eyes and look deep in thought as the smoke shrouds them in the midday sun. I then see a ranting alcoholic staggering through an intimidated crowd. Elsewhere I see other weary souls like myself sitting on street corners and staring into space. No matter where you looked, the burden of the human condition was evident. Truly it was a hard fight for us all, and at times it became clear just how sprawled out on the canvas we all were.
I continue walking along and see posters of missing women on walls. I see a scruffy stray dog come around a corner and stop in front of me. Its eyes stare into my eyes and there seems to be an unspoken recognition between us – a momentary feeling of union before he carries on along the way. I do the same and then see a man with a missing arm and leg sitting on the sidewalk. He holds a cup out for change and I throw some coins in. I guess it can always be worse, I say to myself. Although can it? A man can lose his mind – he can lose his arms and his legs – but once his soul is gone then what is left for him on this earth but a barren existence of emptiness.
Suddenly I felt a tiredness that was beyond anything I had experienced before. At that moment a part of me wanted to rest – and to rest in the permanent way. The toil of this soul-searching fight had worn me down over the years, and it was clear that for every victory you made, life was always there waiting to break you down once again. But another part of me was ready to respond to the war being waged on my soul. I would grab whatever I had left, stab my flag into the ground, and be ready to turn those dwindling flames into a great fire once more. As always, I was a walking contradiction. Some kind of mistake.
For now I decide a temporary rest at the hotel will suffice. I get some food and head back. Being a little older now, I tried to avoid hostels; I needed a good night’s sleep and was past having sex in a dormitory room. Of course, this meant it was harder to meet other travellers. On this occasion, it was surprisingly easy. I enter my room and open the door onto the balcony. It was a shared balcony with the other two rooms beside me. I walk out, put my arms on the bannister, and hear a voice to the right of me.
“What up bro!?” I turn my head and see a topless guy sitting there drinking a large bottle of beer. He was skinny with long blonde hair, shades, and a big grin plastered across his face. Before even asking, I could see he was drunk in the middle of the afternoon. His energy was good, however, so I walked over and engaged him in conversation.
“It’s not going amazing, to be honest,” I tell him. “How about you?”
“Dude, tell me about it,” he says. “I had a wild night last night; it’s a miracle I even made it home. I left my phone here so I was wandering the streets until six in the morning trying to find the hotel. At one point I honestly thought about sleeping on the street. Then things got worse as the police shook me down for drugs. After that I fell down a ditch somewhere.” He then proceeded to show me the cuts on his elbows and legs. In turn, I showed him the grazes on my face from a recent drunken accident. At least he knew how his wounds were caused; mine were still unknown to me after a week. “Anyway,” he continues. “All that shit happened but here I am drunk once again at three in the afternoon. Ahaha, viva la vida bro!” He then took another large swig of his beer before his face returned to that big grin.
I could tell straight away he was another classic wandering madman, scratched and scarred on both the inside and out. He was the sort of person I had met many times throughout my travels – the sort that I always seemed destined to stumble across no matter where I went in the world. At that moment I was happy to meet him, and we continued to talk about our trips and whatever the hell it was we were doing here. It turned out he was a forty-three-year-old Canadian who was recently out of work. He decided to deal with this by flying to Mexico and drifting around the country while drunk. Although there were thirteen years between us, I recognised the stage he was at in his life. An affinity was felt and it wasn’t long before I was joining him on the large bottles of beer as we discussed life on that balcony until the sun began to sink beneath the surrounding buildings.
“This is my midlife crisis trip,” he tells me. “Out of work, no woman, I got nothing really going on back home. And with the pandemic, it’s been a rough ride living alone the last two years. The only thing that seems right is to come to Mexico and live like a rockstar for a while off of my savings. I guess it’s not a bad way to spend a midlife crisis.”
“I hear you man,” I said. “But to me, it’s all a crisis.”
“What is?” he asks.
“Life. I mean, here you are: trapped in a slowly-decaying body of flesh and bone, stuck on a rock floating around a big ball of fire for no apparent reason. On top of this, you have around eighty or so years here, and during that time you have to deal with things like money and love and sex and purpose and politics. Yeah, there’s no beginning, middle or end to me. It’s all a crisis. To be human in this world is to be in a crisis.” He looked at me with a smile, nodding his head in agreement and toasting his beer. Our beers clinked and our connection was strengthened on the realisation we were both stray souls wandering the tempestuous wilderness of human existence.
“You know, I’ve had a good life,” he then tells me in a pensive moment of realisation. “I’ve experienced enough of this merry-go-round. You say we have eighty years here, but screw living that long. I think if I checked out in the next ten years that would be enough for me.”
“You really feel that way, or it’s the beer talking?”
“Straight up bro. At this stage in life, I feel like I’ve done it all. I’ve travelled around, slept with a lot of women, had a lot of great parties and adventures. I’ve been in love and worked in what I’m passionate about. I’m happy with what I’ve done and don’t want to get much older than what I am now. Life has been a wild ride, but I’m not sure if I can handle another thirty or forty years of it.”
I could hear in his voice that he was being genuine. It might have sounded an extreme statement to some – even a suicidal one – but I understood completely where he was coming from. It was something that was recently on my mind after turning thirty – that I didn’t want to experience the second half of life in old age. Besides a spiritual crisis, I guess I was also having a bit of an age crisis after departing my twenties. Of course, I was still relatively young, but not as young as I would have liked to have been. Inside there was a part of me that resented getting older, and looking at him I could see my future too – still wandering the outside spaces, drinking ever more heavily and going further over the edge of destitution and insanity. To keep on living this way past forty, well I figured that’s when a person really was a stray for life. Most had packed away their backpacks and began to settle down in some suburb of safety and sanity. For me that life was a death sentence already. And the idea of losing my youth – losing my strength and looks and curiosity – horrified me. I already saw the lines forming on my face, the grey hairs sprinkled into my beard, the bitterness in my personality that wasn’t there before. In my head this trip was one last celebration of youth before the downhill truly started.
We carried on drinking and then went out to hit the bars of Mexico City. We spoke bad Spanish to Mexican women, drank with other travellers, danced like idiots, and got lost in a hazy blur of intoxication. The bender had started and we spent the next week or so travelling together until we made it down to the pacific coast, specifically to a little town called Puerto Escondido. The nights of revelry continued there until he eventually headed off on a night bus to another part of Mexico. I bid him farewell and watched him drift out of my life to continue his midlife crisis somewhere else. “Catch you on the flip side,” he said, stumbling onto the bus with a small backpack full of beers.
I was back to my natural state of being alone, and I spent days at the beach soaking in the sunlight and watching the sunset on the ocean. It was a town I felt at home with, and it seemed I wasn’t the only one. Puerto was famous for being a ‘digital nomad’ hotspot. The place was filled with westerners escaping their homelands while they worked on their laptops and sat at the beach and tattooed their skin and prided themselves on escaping the rat race. I knew of these people already, but since the pandemic had made many jobs able to be done remotely from a laptop, it seemed they were now everywhere. Web designers. Graphic designers. Code writers. Even therapists. There they sat on their laptops working four or five hours a day before hitting the beach and sipping beers in the sun.
I thought about what I could do to join them in their little world of escapism from the system. After thirty years, I still truly saw no job or career I had an interest in. The only time I had felt purpose was when I was writing creatively, and by creatively I meant stories or poems – not news articles or anything people actually paid for. And even that passion was now fading. Like everything though, the grass was always greener on the other side, and while the idea of being a digital nomad was a romantic one, the reality of it was a little different. It came with its own struggles and own sadness. An American guy told me about this in a cafe by the beach one day.
“I know it sounds great being a digital nomad – and it is for a while – but in the long term I’m not sure how much someone can do it. It’s a lonely existence. At least for me I’ve never really found anywhere that feels like home. I guess it’s because it’s hard to form a community when everyone eventually moves on. And on top of this, you’re constantly surrounded by travellers who are going out and doing cool things, while you have to stay at home and work.” It was something I had thought about before while reflecting on that lifestyle, and it seemed those who had escaped the rat race had their own problems to deal with. There was no magical way to ‘live the good life’ forever, despite what the travel bloggers would have you believe. No matter what you did or where you went, you were destined to struggle in some form or some way. It was the only way – the human way.
Still, I kept thinking about it; about my options in life now my main passions were beginning to lose their spark. Where was there really to go in this life for someone like me? Would I ever return to the time when I felt truly alive? What chance was there? The war on my soul continued to rage as I struggled to see the clearing ahead to somewhere that made sense to me. I was so sure all I wanted to do was to travel the world and write, but now those things had lost their thrill, I saw no glory in anything else. Nothing appealed to me at that moment in time – only the next beer, the next woman, the next night of revelry and intoxication. I thought I was bad, but I continued to meet people that were wandering further out in the soul-searching wilderness than I was.
In a town in the mountains, I met a fellow English guy who was ‘escaping his problems back home’. I eventually discerned this was trouble with gangs and the law. Never had I seen someone so wounded, on both the inside and outside. He was only twenty-two but already had scars all over his body from various stab wounds. He couldn’t even use his left hand after he had been slashed on the wrist during a drug deal. His wounds weren’t just from home; even here he had managed to sprain his ankle here during an escape from a fight. He had also been banned from various hostels and bars after just two weeks in the town. I eventually realised this was down to his addiction to Xanax – an addiction that saw him taking five tablets at once and turning himself into a zombie. The last I saw of him, he was being taken into the back of a police van after having a bust-up with restaurant staff for not paying his bill. It was his first time travelling and I knew he wasn’t going to last long in this way of life, or any way of life for that matter.
Elsewhere I stumbled into an American guy I had met four years previously in Spain. While he was there in Spain, he was constantly chasing women. He stressed and depressed himself over finding a long-term partner, and it seemed four years on that nothing had changed. His desperation to find a woman screamed out of him, and naturally this led them to reject his advances. I even found out he had come to Mexico to meet a girl he had met the previous summer in the states. That relation had broken down after just two days of being here, and so on he went, another stray soul in search of some shelter from the storm.
Although I knew most men found a spiritual home for themselves in the company of a spouse, to me that had rarely seemed the case. There was something inside of me that needed more than a partner, and that was more clear to me than ever having just left my girlfriend just before this trip. We had been dating for a year, even living together, and it was the first time in my life I had been seeing someone regularly for a long period of time. But again, whereas many men only sought to find a nice woman and settle down, I was ready to abandon mine at the sudden booking of a flight to some faraway country. Like careers and everything else, a wife and children were other things beyond me. I needed my soul to be set on fire by something. And while they could give me joy, they just couldn’t give me that spark that was so essential for my spiritual survival.
Still, I had my romances when travelling. Most were one-night stands, but when I got to a place called Oaxaca City, I started seeing a woman continuously. She was a Mexican woman from another part of the country. We hit it off straight away and she invited me to stay with her in her apartment. She lived alone with her dog – a stray dog she had taken in and given a home to. I had to look at the dog and once again see a connection in its eyes, a feeling of union of being taken in by a woman while wandering the streets. It was nice there and I stayed with her for a week or so. We went to bars and restaurants; we went to watch Mexican wrestling; we spent lazy mornings in bed making love. For a moment I almost began to feel like I belonged there. I thought about getting a job teaching English or really having a go at trying to be an online content writer. There we’d live together – my new life in Mexico – but again there was something missing, and one day I decided to book my bus out of there. The horizon called me again and on I went to board that bus to somewhere else. To a place that helped return the fire to my soul. To a place that would fill my heart with thunder again.
The wandering went on and two weeks later I was on a Caribbean island, back to sitting on a beach and staring out at the sunset. My heart was heavy and I thought of all the people I had met along the road. I thought of the path that had led me to here and the path that awaited me ahead. The strange sadness was still there inside, and my eyes were still searching the skies for some kind of salvation. It was then that the stray dogs of the island came out onto the beach, playing around in the sand. I watched them leap about before they suddenly stopped and sat beside me. I stroked one and looked at the sunset and let a smile make its way on my face. Suddenly I felt at peace with where I was; I felt the fire inside begin to flame, and for some truth to make its way into my heart again. Yes to wander, to not belong, to constantly be in a phase of soul-searching – it wasn’t such a bad way to be. And if you kept your eyes open, so many of us were this way. Perhaps secretly we all were. In a way, what else was it to exist than to be another stray on a soul-searching quest, wandering the wilderness in search of some fire. Another stray dog in search of survival. Another stray dog in search of home.
Hello, if you have followed my blog over the last year you will know I have regularly been posting extracts of a project called Lab Rat. I am now pleased to announce that I have finalised and published these in a completed book.
“I looked around at my fellow guinea-pigs realising this was where I belonged – locked up with other people pushed out to the edge and testing drugs for a living because there was no room for them in the centre of things. There was no room for me out there either. But that was okay; I had found a new way. Test drugs, travel, and write. I saw my path slowly unfolding before me. I was happy with it.”
‘Lab Rat tells the story of a young man surviving by taking part in medical research trials. Known only as ‘Subject 55355’, the anonymous narrator of this semi-autobiographical novel is an aspiring writer who has just returned home after a period of travelling. His natural contempt for the world of work causes him to quickly quit his first job back. It is then, on a night out, that a stranger in a bar informs him about ‘drug trials’ – medical studies where a person can be paid large amounts of money for testing new medicines. The protagonist immediately embraces the guinea-pig lifestyle, meeting fellow drifters along the way, all the while still chasing his dream of becoming a successful writer. An existential piece of social commentary filled with black humour, Lab Rat is a classic outsider story that will resonate with anyone who has dreamed of breaking free from the rat race.’
The book is my first full-length story I’ve published and is now available here on Amazon, either as an ebook or paperbook. The following is an extract from the book.
‘I looked at the current list of medical studies on the website. It was like looking at a diverse and delicious restaurant menu. The studies paid anything from £800 to £5000. There were some trials for medicines treating Asthma, some for Crohn’s disease, and some for that notorious old bad guy – Cancer. There were even some trials that involved you being exposed to radiation. I was hungry for more money but I considered where I would actually draw the line when it came to doing studies. Most studies involved you testing drugs which had already gone through one phase of testing before. Would I take part in a study where I would be the first person taking the drug? I thought not, but I also knew if I was offered a ‘first-in-human’ study with a hefty payment, I’d quickly change my tune. Ultimately I was just another man blinded by my money, putting some digits on a screen before my health. And relatively speaking, I didn’t think the trials were too dangerous, but it was true that very rarely one might go wrong. I’d only told a few people I was doing medical trials but those I told were quick to mention one infamous study that happened in 2006 in London. Some guinea-pigs were testing an antibiotic that would be used to treat Leukaemia and Arthritis. A short while after being dosed, the volunteers were left writhing in agony and projectile vomiting. Soon their immune systems crashed and they suffered multiple organ failure. It got continually worse as they were left fighting for their lives and one guy had some of his fingers amputated. Some of them even had inflated heads – helping give the incident the notorious name: ‘The Elephant Man Study’. All things considered, it was a colossal fuck-up, but it had been over ten years since that incident, and lessons had apparently been learned. The doctors assured us that there were new procedures and regulations in place to stop such a calamity happening again. It was reassuring, I guess, although it did make me wonder how much compensation each volunteer got. Would I lose a few fingers for half a million pounds? Maybe a kidney or a lung for a million? If you started down that road, then where would it end? You’d be slowly slicing yourself down to nothingness in an attempt to fill that bank account with as much money as you could. I guess it was nothing out of the ordinary for many people out there.
I had the usual screening and chat with the doctor before being admitted onto the study. I passed with flying colours again, although he did stop to question the cuts on my body from when I got attacked in Sheffield. “Bike-riding accident,” I told him. “I was lucky to get off so easily; next time I’ll wear a helmet.” The doctor gave me an incredulous look. It was clear he knew I was full of shit, but he didn’t care – to him I was just another lab rat living off medical trials rather than getting a job like a normal person. No doubt, he pitied me in a way. That would explain the slight delight in his voice when he informed me of the next bit of information.
“For this trial you will need to provide faecal samples.” I stopped and paused.
“Faecal samples?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Because this drug is a treatment for Crohn’s disease, it will be necessary to monitor your bowel behaviour. So, stool samples will be necessary.” (They used words like ‘stool’ and ‘faecal’ to make it sound a little more scientific – really they were just telling you that they were going to be analysing your shit.) It wasn’t the most pleasant thought, but at least it wasn’t me having to inspect it. And it could have been worse. A few weeks back I had checked the drug trial menu to see a study taking place in which ‘the drug would be administered rectally’. Having to provide a sample of your shit was one thing, but having some poor nurse shove drugs up your ass first thing in the morning was something else. Perhaps it was there, then, where I would have drawn the line for what study I would take part in.
Back in the clinic, I got settled into my second home. I was back to being Subject 55355 and this time I was on the biggest ward, along with thirteen other volunteers. It hardly seemed like three months had passed and in a way it felt good to be back on the inside. Perhaps I was getting institutionalised already, but the idea that for the next eighteen days I wouldn’t have to worry about a single thing was comforting. I could resume my feline ways, laying around, being fed, sleeping, and even – in this case – having my shit taken away by my owners. Hell, it even felt a bit like going into rehab after the heavy drinking I had done during the previous two weeks. Yes, I thought. Get me locked up before I end up as disastrous and self-destructive as Owen.
This time the collection of fellow guinea-pigs looked a little more fitting to the situation. There were some strange looking characters including a washed-up hippy in his fifties who liked to walk around half naked – much to the disgust of the female volunteers. There was also a girl who immediately asked for screens to be put around her bed and proceeded to ignore everyone while playing her ukulele. There was one guy who sat on his bed playing Pokémon with the sound on full blast, and another who kept talking to himself while regularly hitting his laptop in frustration (I presumed he was also a gamer). It wasn’t the most peaceful environment and things got noisier on the first night when one of the volunteers started snoring loudly – so loudly you wondered if he was being strangled to death. It was an annoyance, but not as annoying as the man who cursed loudly everything he started snoring. “Fucking snoring cunt!” he would shout. “You stupid fucking pig! Shut the fuck up!” It turned out it was the washed-up hippy. I had quickly deduced he was going to be the problem man on the trial. He was an angry soul and would even snap at the nurses walking past his bed if they were too loud, suggesting they wore some stealthier footwear. “Do you think you can wear some quieter shoes? I’m trying to sleep here.” The audacity was astounding. Here was a man getting paid £200 a day to lie around and shit into a pot, and he felt it was okay to snap at the nurses working twelve-hour shifts for little more than the minimum wage. They must have hated him, especially when I later found out he had been reported on previous studies. It did make me wonder what a person had to do to get kicked off a study. They had a list of rules you had to follow, and if you broke one then you could be issued with a £50 fine. There were even some rules which would result in you being dismissed from the study and taken off the panel altogether. I wondered how far the washed-up hippy was going to push his luck. No doubt he was another bum living off these trials and maybe soon he would be joining the homeless people in the gutter. I wouldn’t have had sympathy for him. Us lab rats had to count ourselves lucky we had been given this chance to make money so easily and, for me, I followed the rules attentively and obediently, knowing full well that it was this facility which was saving me from the horrors of full-time employment in the outside world.
Anyway, after the first night I awoke to see the nurses standing there in their red ‘DO NOT DISTURB – DOSING’ tabards. I knew the drill – it was time to get to work. I swallowed down those experimental pills and wondered what side effects I was going to have this time. After that came the usual procedures: ECG, blood samples, blood pressure, temperature checks. A few hours later the moment arrived where I needed to go to the toilet. I had seen some other volunteers sheepishly come out of the bathroom with their pots and place them on the tray in the ward. None of them appeared too comfortable doing it (I guess it was quite hard to not look awkward walking through a room full of people while carrying your own shit). Well, at least I wasn’t the first person to do it. I grabbed my pot and headed over to the bathroom. I also grabbed a chart from beside my bed; there was a picture chart of all the different types of ‘faecal discharge’ and you had to write down on the pot which one your sample resembled. Was it runny or was it sturdy? Was it long or was it lumpy? Apparently, this was of utmost importance to the people conducting the study.
Inside the bathroom I sat there and prepared to do my business. I crouched on the toilet and held the pot under myself. It was then, squeezing out last night’s dinner, that I had a bit of a moment. I looked in the mirror at what I was doing and realised my life path had led me to this. A few years back I was a young man with a promising future in the communications industry. Wide-eyed and optimistic, I left university with my degree, ready to get a proper job and begin a steady career. Like every good graduate, I was preparing for a middle-class life of stability, security, and suburban sanity. My CV was updated with all my skills and my parents were eager to see me make it as a high-earner with a respected profession. Well, the years had fallen by and here I was – squeezing out a turd into a pot in order to get money to survive. It was a strange situation and I had to think of all my coursemates from university. No doubt at this moment they were in good jobs or further education. They would all be handing in important assignments or projects they’d been working on. Me? I was quite literally handing in a piece of shit.
One week into the study and things were going a bit rocky. The washed-up hippy had continued arguing with everyone he could and there was an uncomfortable atmosphere in the air. It became quite clear to me that he was another man encumbered with a lot of pain, and, typically, when he was crammed into a small space with a bunch of other humans, he tried to offload it to them. This was how pain and anger worked when inside the heart of a human-being; the more torment and bitterness a person was stuffed with, the more they barged about trying to fill other people with it. I watched him in his volatile ways and considered what his life had been like; was he abused as a child, screwed over by a woman, made angry by years and years of stressful work? Was he made this way by all the drugs he had tested on medical trials? It could have been all of these things for all I knew, but I wasn’t going to find out. I avoided such a person like the plague. Conflict was draining and I had no room for confrontation in my life – especially when I was locked up in a closed environment with that person for weeks on end.
It wasn’t just him causing the drama on the trial though. At one point a woman was on the phone to her partner when he and her son turned up by the lounge window. Whilst in the clinic you weren’t allowed any visitors, and typically this meant you also weren’t allowed to have people come up to the windows. We were on lockdown and they couldn’t risk any contraband getting in to interfere with the results of the study. Things like chocolate and caffeine could affect the blood results and so, upon entry to the clinic, they searched our bags for such illegal gear. The windows were covered with a steel mesh on the outside, but there was still the chance you could sneak a chocolate bar or something through. Perhaps some McDonalds fries? Alcohol through a straw? Or even some of the more fun types of drugs? Anyway, the CCTV cameras had caught this woman’s family coming up to the window, and ten minutes later a dozen nurses marched onto our ward telling us there had been ‘a security breach’. They then got us all to empty out all our belongings onto our beds. Suddenly it was beginning to feel like an actual prison or concentration camp. Even a loony bin. Well, the shoe fitted, I guess.
Another drama involved the Pokémon guy. We had quickly worked out he was a bit of a creep. No doubt he was another guy starved of sexual contact, made crazy by his rejection by the female kind, and for once he was in an environment where he could talk to whatever poor woman was in close proximity. He had expressed creepy comments to all the women on the trial and one night he had been caught standing at the end of one woman’s bed at 3am. “What are you doing?” she asked, rather shocked.
“Just going to the toilet,” he lied, rather poorly.
The arguments and the awkwardness – it did make me think what a social experiment these trials were. Here were a bunch of people who would never meet in ordinary life all confined in a small space for a short time. It was only natural that every now and again it was going to bring out the worst in people. Ultimately human-beings were tribal, primitive beings at their core, and for most it was a good thing they didn’t get together. For me, I quickly decided that my tactic when starting a trial was to sit back, observe, and keep myself to myself for the first couple of days. While in that state of observation, I tried to work out which person was left-wing and right-wing, which person was religious or atheist, and which person was actually a reasonable human-being. After that had been deduced, then I was able to know how to interact with each one accordingly; or which people I was just going to avoid all together for the sake of my own peace and harmony. I figured this was a tactic I used anyway in the outside world when interacting with humanity, but one which is even more necessary in this intense sort of environment.
After a couple of days of such observation, I realised there was one person on the trial who was ‘one of my kind’. His name was Steven and he was a guy in his thirties who lived in a van. He had long hair and looked like the sort of guy you would meet after midnight at a campfire in a rock festival, perhaps offering you some mind-altering substances. He had been living in his van for the last four years which you could see from the window. There it was parked in the car-park – a big, meaty, army-green van which resembled something between a furniture removal vehicle and a horse box. Inside he had turned it into a mobile home complete with a bed, kitchen, sofa, solar panels, and a toilet. Like me, he had spent his twenties wandering around the world and was now trying to figure out how to navigate life as he approached the middle-age section of it. He had recently just slip with his girlfriend of ten years and as a result a lot of his talk was about women and sex. Speaking to him, it became clear he was another wanderer of life probably wondering where he fit into the system. The brutal fact was that these wanderers didn’t; they were square pegs in a society of round holes, hence why they wandered. Their isolation is part of who they are and you can usually see it in their eyes – a specific look which is often confused with someone daydreaming. Often I myself wandered the streets looking for others with that look. I searched for it in the faces of people waiting at bus stops, or supermarket queues, or the crowds that temporarily formed at the traffic lights. Sometimes I think I even spotted it, but I never did anything about it. I continued about my day and accepted my isolation from the rest of my species. Well here I was with one in front of me: another person who probably felt he had crash-landed on the wrong planet and was wondering when somebody was going to come take him home. For now his home was that van, and this clinic, and wherever the hell he was going to drive it to after we got out.
He was a free soul to many, but I could tell he had anxieties about the life he was living. It was clear with certain things he said:
“I’m thirty-three now and I’ve got nothing to show for it except for some wrinkles. I’ve got no savings or prospects.”
“You want to be careful, one day you’re a young man full of promise, the next you’re a middle-aged man living in a van on your own.”
He was relentlessly witty and would love to crack self-deprecating jokes, but under that comical persona, I could see there were some actual concerns about the life he was living. His words reminded me that in the end not many people were truly free – hell, maybe no one was. There were only those who were good actors. Hippies, travellers, people living alternatively – they were always called ‘free-spirits’, but they were usually full of anxieties and inner conflicts. Ultimately human-beings were social creatures and it took a lot to live differently from the herd. To watch your friends buying houses and settling down while you shitted into a bucket in the back of a van and lived off medical trials was always going to cause some insecurity. Human-beings all had that innate need for social gratification, so it was only natural that when you wandered away from the herd, you felt some sort of anxiety. I knew this because I had felt it myself during the last few years of my own life. Doing your own thing was often tiring and I knew there was comfort in the herd – but I also knew that the best things in my life had come from venturing away from it. That was something I sought to share with him.
“Not many people have the guts to live in a van,” I told him. “So many people say they want to do it, but so very few ever will. People like to talk to talk, but when it comes to actually living this type of life, most people will choose comfort and convenience every time. An easy shower, a steady job, having things in common with people… It’s all a trade-off. But life is obviously more exciting when you choose a different path. Living in a van takes guts and you will no doubt inspire a lot of people. Like Hunter S Thompson said: ‘Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of the rat race is not yet final’”.
“You love a quote don’t you,” he said, noticing I had quoted about four people in the space of half an hour. “But that’s true. It takes guts to live like this. Everyone accepts the rat race so easily, but I couldn’t live that way if my life depended on it. For me, I’d just end up suicidal or something. I don’t want to be another victim of the system living a mediocre existence. Most people aren’t very interesting or even happy by the time they reach middle-age.”
“I hope I’m still living an adventurous life in ten years’ time,” I then said. “I’m at that age now where a lot of people who have been living adventurous lives begin to pack it all away. The backpack goes and sits in the garage gathering dust, the long travel trips become weekends away to the Cotswolds, and people generally filter themselves down in order to fit in some way into the system. Of course, you have those that momentarily wake up from their slumber and have the classic mid-life crisis. They get to their forties, realise their halfway through their lives and that they haven’t done anything they ever wanted to do. Then, to compensate for this, they have a few years of hedonism and pick up some new eccentric hobbies, but by that point they are too burdened by responsibilities and stuck in their ways to truly change to the version of themselves they wish to be.” I could feel myself getting into a big old speech, and I had noticed one of the nurses listening in – no doubt they regularly overheard these types of existential debates amongst us lab rats.
“You seem pretty switched on for a young guy,” he said.
“I’m just another kid who read too much philosophy. No doubt I’m just full of shit like everyone else.” I was joining Steven with his self-deprecating humour, but I really believed what I was saying. Ultimately there isn’t a man or woman out there who hasn’t felt suffocated by their cultural reality. We all know it. We all stare at each other’s faces and let sentences of sanity exit our mouths, trying to appear normal and fit in and be accepted members of society. It was a sham but we went along with it for our own survival in the herd. Being accepted among the crowd paved the way to an easy life, but god, how I sometimes wanted everyone to just toss the mask aside, tear up the script, walk off the stage, and just start acting like who the hell they really were. The frustrating thing is that I think deep down this is what the vast majority of people want: to actually just be themselves and enjoy their fleeting time here on this earth. But for the sake of convenience, most of us go along with the big charade. It’s the human desire for social validation. The comfortable place among the crowd. The small talk down the pub. The camaraderie at family dinner tables. The pats on the back. The likes on social media. It was simple how it worked: the bigger the crowd you tried to be a part of, the more of your own individuality you had to kill. The dynamic of a group meant there had to be a shared connection for it to work, but the thing was every human being was a uniquely beautiful and complicated mess. This mess had to be ironed out so everyone could unite in the ‘middle ground’ – typically the dominant cultural values of the herd. As a result, the true individual was usually alienated, isolated, and often teetering on the precipice of madness (or living in a van while surviving off medical trials).
It was a few minutes later that I found out me and Steven shared another similarity. Like me, he was another person infected with the writing madness. He told me about his fantasy novel he had been working on for years. Progress was ‘slow’, as he put it. It sounded really slow, in fact, and I had to wonder whether he was ever going to get it done. “I’m such a lazy piece of shit,” he told me. “I sit down to write and then end up procrastinating or finding some way to kill a few hours without writing a word. It pisses me off.” Although my idleness wasn’t as bad as Steven’s, I did resonate with what he said. Sometimes I sat down to write and would find myself going on a YouTube binge or exploring some strange rabbit-hole of the internet. I also aspired to write a novel. I had even given it a go in the past, but all my attempts had crashed and burned by the time I got to the ten-thousand-word mark. One day I decided that I simply just wasn’t ready to write it. Ultimately I hadn’t lived enough and was better off getting beaten up some more by life before I attempted the mountain of writing a novel. At least, that was how I rationalised my idleness. Maybe we were both those cliché pretentious guys who went through their lives saying they were writing a novel, but never actually got around to doing it. In reality, we were just good for nothing bums. Well, not completely nothing. At least we were ‘helping advance the world of medicinal research’. If that would be all we contributed to society, then I guess it was still better than nothing. And even if we didn’t make it by the time of our death, we could always use a bit of delusion and tell ourselves we were like Kafka or Van Gogh – unappreciated in our lifetimes but hailed as geniuses by future generations. Sadly, I could see us both going insane and cutting off our ears (or losing them on a trial), but perhaps our artistic success ever arriving was a fantastical daydream at best. Well, maybe that was all people like us really needed to make it through.’
(The following is taken from a new novel I am working on)
I wake up and stare into that mirror. The same thing we all do every morning. Every time you see the same, yet slightly worse version of yourself. You’re one day older and you’re more tired, more weathered, more disillusioned with the world around you. You’re another day closer to death and your dreams have even less chance of becoming a reality than yesterday. It was never a pleasant sight but today that reflection was worse than usual. Today was the death of my youth. Yes, the years had fallen by and I was now thirty years old. No longer was I classified as a young person; I was now a fully-grown adult – the sort of thing kids looked up to – and there were no excuses for how much in disarray my life was. By this age you were supposed to have it all figured out: partner, marriage, career, mortgage, life purpose, and all of that keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ stuff. The truth is that I still felt like a clueless teenager, wandering aimlessly around, masturbating too much while struggling to come to terms with my own existence. Although mentally I may not have felt like I was thirty, physically it showed. Looking at my reflection, I could see the rings around my eyes, the crow’s feet starting to break through, the grey hairs which were not too numerous to pull out. The light in my eye was a little dimmer, the skin a little paler. I was becoming what old people had always seemed to me – walking examples of the inevitable descent towards death and darkness which eventually enveloped us all.
After a while of grimacing at that mirror, I got dressed and headed out onto the streets. I walked through that urban wasteland while staring at the passing people. The young, the old, the rich, the poor. Most of them, like me, didn’t stand a chance. The world spat on their dreams, took the joy from their heart, forced them to abandon their individuality to survive. Spiritually unfulfilled, they turned to vices to numb the inner pain: alcohol, drugs, television, social media. Yes, the average person in the street was demented and insane – something I had come to learn through my current job as a taxi driver.
As a person with a natural hatred of the workplace, the job of driving people about seemed like one of the least insufferable roles. My dad had been a delivery driver since as long as I remember. I once worked with him as a teenager, helping him deliver stuff in the Christmas rush. It seemed like an okay gig; working on your own, listening to your own music, no office politics to deal with. Man didn’t get much of a break in this life – especially when it came to the world of work – but a gig like that seemed a million times better than being confined in one of those cubicle farms with some sour-faced boss standing over your shoulder. And I was a natural observer of the human race – a pastime my job allowed me to constantly partake in. I looked at those creatures through my rear-view mirror like I was peering into a zoo enclosure. It helped remove me from the reality of it all, and I even imagined David Attenborough narrating it as if I was in some BBC documentary. I recalled my most recent interaction with one particular creature.
“How’s your night been mate?” he asks to kill the awkward silence.
“The same as every other night I guess,” I tell him. “You?”
“Not too good if I’m honest with you. I’ve just broken up with my girlfriend.”
“Yeah I found out she’d been having it away with another guy.”
“Sorry to hear that”
“It’s okay she was a bitch anyway”
“Aren’t they all, mate…” My throwaway comment had given him the invitation to vent, and on he went verbally sending her to hell. He then went on telling me how he was glad and it was for the best and single life was the way forward. We both knew he was deluding himself and that his urge to get involved in another eventual heartbreak was still there. I dropped him off at a bar where he will try to fulfil that urge, to numb the pain, to escape his current state of consciousness like everyone else in there self-medicating on booze. Later on that night, I pick him up. He’s alone and holding a tray of donner meat with a battered sausage in the middle. He falls into the car and within minutes is pouring his broken heart out; telling me how he wants her back, how he’s made a mistake, how he drove her away and it was his fault she cheated on him. I watch him exit the taxi and spill his food on the floor. He stumbles off into the darkness to sleep alone, the only thing greeting him the morning after being a gnawing hangover and a sense of existential dread.
Yes, the job is a window into the human condition. I look in that rear-view mirror and listen to the conversations, and accept there is a sadness in this world that will never be quelled, at least not for longer than a short while. Everyone is chasing happiness while caught up in the conundrum of their own lives: jobs, relationships, dreams, material goods. No one ever really felt lasting joy. In reality, we were all just killing time while waiting to die.
I carry on walking around the city centre with no purpose or destination. My 30th birthday, did anyone really care? Did I care? I eventually text one of my friends to ask if he wants to go for a drink. I knew he was off the rails at the moment and thus likely to say yes. It seemed to me that was what friends were for when you reached a certain age. You would never arrange to do anything together like play football or go to movies, but when you needed to go out and drink yourself into oblivion, they would be on hand to help you fulfil that need. It was a mutual transaction; many times I had responded to the call when he was in his hour of self-destructive need, – and now he was reciprocating the favour as I drowned my sorrows and rued the fact I was now no longer young.
I met him in the main square in the city centre. A quick hello then we were soon sipping pints while updating each other on the tragedy of our lives. He told me about how he was still living paycheck to paycheck, no savings to afford a holiday or the driving lessons he needed. But it was all okay, he told me; he had devised a grand plan. “I’m gonna find myself a cougar and become a house husband.” I looked at him curiously. “There are so many lonely middle-aged women out there nowadays who want a younger guy. I’ll just stay at home all day, cooking dinner for when she gets home. The easy life.” I listened and knew this was the fantastical daydream of a desperate man. Looking at him in his current appearance, his odds of finding any woman seemed slim. He had once been considered cute, but was now balding and overweight with evidently not much to bring to the table. He had a degree in marketing which had been rendered useless by ten years of disuse as he worked the same job in a drab pub. He knew he didn’t have a shot at anything, and now his focus was on sponging off a middle-aged woman who had some financial capital. I didn’t blame him and I started considering the same possibility myself. Perhaps he was onto something; perhaps my destiny was to housekeep while waiting for my older wife to come home and fuck me? Having known each other since secondary school, we then got to talking about old times and old friends. Most of them now lived in London working graduate jobs, pursuing careers, working hard to become real people. Career professionals. Respected members of society. Everything that we weren’t.
“I don’t speak to them anymore,” he tells me. “I feel like they look down on me.”
“Probably,” I said.
“Yeah, I mean they’re all back there earning big money at graduate jobs their parents managed to get them after university, and I’m still here, almost thirty and broke. It’s all who you know and what you know. I got my degree but every job asks for two years of experience and how the fuck am I supposed to get that? You have to do internships, but I’ve been working fifty-hour weeks since I finished university just to get by. I don’t have the time or the means. The system is fucked.” I sat there listening to his anguish and dissatisfaction. His comments may have seemed like excuses to most, but there was a lot of truth to it. Following university, I had also experienced the brick wall of not being able to get a job due to lack of experience. It was a catch 22 – needing experience for a job, but not being able to get experience without a job. Fortunately, I had quickly decided not to even bother getting on the treadmill of a career. Living life based around what made your resume look good seemed absurd to me, and there was a freedom in not caring if you took six months off to go travelling, become an alcoholic, or just do nothing at all. I guess the downside to this was that only the low-paying jobs were available to you. But I didn’t care; less pay usually meant less responsibility, and less responsibility meant less stress, and less stress meant you didn’t go slowly demented over the years. In my head I was a modern-day Buddha, an enlightened being – a heroic rebel to the consumer-capitalist culture that was rotting people’s hearts and minds and souls. Of course, I knew this was my personal spin and in most people’s eyes I was just unsuccessful or an underachiever. Perspective was a fine thing, and ultimately a person had to shape theirs in whatever way justified the way they were currently living their life.
We carry on drinking and I notice Jake started to slur his words and get hostile. I was used to it. He had a lot of inner demons and they usually came out around the fifth drink. I knew it wouldn’t be long until he started getting aggressive and arguing with people around him. After that he would declare he was going home after one more drink. This time there wasn’t even one more drink and off he went suddenly marching out the pub, telling me he was going to pick up a Burger King and go home. I watch him stumble across the bar, disappearing out the door into the night, another wounded soul seeking shelter from the world. Then, sitting alone on my 30th birthday, I decide to continue drinking. Around me I hear the whirring noise of excited people – people in groups, people with friends, people who weren’t drinking alone on their 30th birthday. I knew I didn’t have the charisma or confidence to go up and speak directly to strangers, so I ordered a couple of double rum and cokes to at least make myself think that I could. About forty-five minutes later, I’ve reached the required level for social interaction, and suddenly I’m on a table with two other guys around my age. I think they could see I was on my own and pitied me. I graciously accepted their pity and reimbursed them with some self-deprecating jokes and a round of tequila shots.
After that, things got blurry and I’m in that hazy, soft, comfortable place of alcoholic sedation. I let myself drift through that haze until I eventually end up in a taxi on the way home with a twenty-two-year-old girl. Well, not too bad for an old-timer. The sex carries on into the morning – another meaningless fuck that I had now lost count of. Of course, I didn’t finish as usual. I very rarely finished during sex, and almost never after I had been drinking. I can see she’s sad that I haven’t given her my seed; it was a look I had seen off many girls doubting their own attractiveness as they lay unsoiled on my mattress. This was the one thing that was required to be a man – to continue the human race – and it seemed I was also naturally incompetent at that. I attributed it to too much masturbation growing up. My genitalia only knew how to reach orgasm via my own touch. A vagina was simply no match for the highly-tuned and calculated movements of my right hand. I wondered how many other men were like me out there. We were the porn generation after all – the first people in history to watch whatever fucked up fantasy we wanted via a half-decent internet connection. Perhaps it was more common than I realised, and soon the highly-advanced sex robots would come, and no longer would any human be able to reach orgasm via traditional penetration. Perhaps this was the end of humanity; not with a bang, but with a whimper – everybody fucking silicone robots in dark rooms alone as humanity petered out to its pitiful and pathetic end. Feeling the way I was during that hangover, I welcomed it.
Trapped in Time
It was a random weekend and I had come back to visit the parents in my hometown of Coventry. I was unemployed and waiting to do a medical trial in a couple of weeks’ time, so I thought I’d pop home to be bored there instead of where I was currently living (Nottingham). It was still national lockdown from the coronavirus and there wasn’t much to do, so I arranged to meet a friend and walk around the local park while venting our frustration at the situation. We were both approaching our 30th birthday as the closing years of our twenties were wasted by a hysterical overreaction of a virus outbreak. Both of us should have been out travelling the world, having romances, living life, but instead we were wandering around the drab suburbs of our childhood town, unable to even go to a bar or do anything of any real excitement. After a while he told me his younger brother had just bought a house and was having a house-warming gathering. Well, what the hell; it was something else to do other than wander around aimlessly, so we bought some drinks from a cornershop then headed over.
We made our way inside the house where his brother and a friend were setting up a TV on the wall. We helped them assemble some chairs and then got started with the drinking. His brother and his friend were 21-years old; they had crates of beer, wide eyes, high spirits and were ready for another Saturday on the booze. Soon enough another couple of his brother’s friends arrived to join the party. We were a good age distance apart from everyone there and it wasn’t long until the obvious subject of our age came up. “How old are you?” one of them asked. “29″ I said. “29?” he said. “That’s old man. I thought I’d be having kids and stuff at 29. Don’t you want to have kids?” I shrugged my shoulders and told him no. I then cracked open another beer before moving on to the drinking games. At first it was drink whenever someone with your name scored in a football game, then it was beer pong, then a load of other games as shots and drinks were consumed every few minutes. Vodka, Rum, Bucksfast – it all went down as my memory began to black out as it had so many times over the years.
The next day I awoke in my bedroom covered in cuts and scratches. There were bloodstains on the sheets and unhappy parents downstairs. It took me a while to figure out the ins and outs of the situation, but apparently I had been kicked out of the house-gathering by my friend’s younger brother. Having skipped dinner and downed copious amounts of alcohol, I had become intoxicated to the point I was spilling my drinks everywhere and falling over into thorn bushes. I had also lost my jacket and smashed a bottle of liquor I had bought my mum for mother’s day. Oh – and just to round things off – I had left the key in the front door along with blood on the handle (something my parents found slightly disconcerting). The thought hit me that I was about to leave my youth behind and I was still doing the same stupid shit I had always done. In fact, I was even worse than those 21-year-olds. It was a sobering realisation and I tried to avoid the judgment of my parents by hiding in my room all day. In that lair I dwelled in my hungover state until boredom and horniness caused me to get out my phone to go on Tinder. It was after a few minutes of mindless swiping that I came across the profile of a girl I used to see when I was twenty-two. Seven years had passed but I thought I’d start speaking to her again anyway. Suddenly I was feeling super nostalgic; probably I just wanted to feel like I was younger again, but I asked her to go for a walk over the local farmland near where we lived. She agreed.
We met on a street corner and started catching up. It had been a strange year since the pandemic began, but this was perhaps the strangest moment of all. We hadn’t spoken in five years yet somehow it felt like no time had passed at all. Tales of the past and present were discussed as we wandered around the farm fields under a grey and gloomy sky.
“So what are you doing with your life now?” she asked. “It must be weird now the pandemic caused you to be a stable UK citizen.”
“It has been weird,” I said. “I was about to jet off to South America when the pandemic hit but instead I found myself moving back in with my parents and getting a job at Amazon. Then I quit and enjoyed the summer before moving back to Nottingham. But yeah, to be honest, I don’t really know what I’m doing right now. I always wanted to just travel throughout my twenties, but now that has been taken away from me by this pandemic. Right now I’m just living month to month, working here and there, doing medical trials and trying to get by. You know how it is…”
“I can imagine it’s been strange for you not being able to take some trips…” There was a pause. “So do you think you can finally see yourself settling down or are you planning to get away again after the crisis is over?“ I knew why she was asking this of course – it was to see if I was finally someone worth imagining a future with. That was what she wanted in the past and what I had disappointed her with once already. When I came back from an eighteen-month trip five years ago, she had hopes that I was finished with the life of being a wandering nomad. We saw each other a couple of times again but I quickly realised it was the wrong thing to do. She only ever wanted a normal life and back then even after that trip I knew there was no way I could give her what she wanted. Well, here I was five years on still feeling the exact same way. Time had changed nothing; I was still just a drifting bum with no direction or desire to join her in a settled existence. Well, if I wanted to get laid I’d have to give her hope, so I continued talking about how I was open to whatever life brought my way now travel wasn’t possible.
It must have worked as the next day she invited me around to her place for the evening. I walked over to hers from my parents, a fifty-minute walk through the streets of a sleepy suburb, filled with big houses and nice cars on the drives outside. I got to her house, knocked on the front door and entered. Inside I was jumped upon by her puppy – an eight-month-old cocker-spaniel. She had bought him during lockdown, presumably to have some company while living alone. I then made my way into the living room and sat down with her on the sofa. As we chatted about life, I looked around at the interior of the house. It was clean and well-decorated, but something about it saddened me. It was a new-build house and you could see it was a formulaic design – a computer-generated building on a computer-generated street where everything looked the same (almost like it was taken from The Sims). I looked at all the Ikea furniture tidily laid out; I looked out at the garden which was a blank square of grass with a small shed at the bottom. Everything was neat, clean, featureless. Of course, I couldn’t knock her for buying her own home at the tender age of twenty-five, but to me it seemed that there was just no soul there at all. In that soulless house we sat discussing old times as I imagined the possibility of finally forming a relationship with this girl. I could live here with her in suburbia, come home to this sofa, walk the dog in the local park, make love with her at night. I could get my old job back at the Amazon warehouse that was right off her street. It was all there within my reach: a civilized and normal life. A chance to come in from the wilderness. A chance to ‘grow up’, as my parents kept pressuring me to do. No more getting drunk and hurting myself. No more floating idly with the breeze. Just a steady, sensible, neat, ordinary existence.
Eventually we started making out and I ended up staying the night. The next morning we made love again before I headed to leave her so she could get started with her job. Of course, I didn’t have such responsibility and I walked out into the rain to begin the long walk back to my parents place. “Do you want a lift?” she asked as I headed out the door. I remembered how she always gave me a lift home in the past from her old place. I still hadn’t got my driving license after all these years, but this time I couldn’t allow her to drop me home. “No, don’t worry about it, “ I said. I then left her with a kiss before walking off into the rain (without my rain jacket, of course, which had been lost at the house-warming party).
When I got back to my parents, I packed my bags and began the journey back to Nottingham. It had been a strange old weekend and I just wanted to be back far away from my hometown. The train journey would be two hours and I spent that time staring out the window, my old pastime, wondering what was next for me in this purgatory state of living I had been experiencing. It had now been one year of living in this existential blur. No direction, no desire, no possibility to do what I wanted to do anymore. All the years were coming and going. I saw the younger kids buying houses and settling down. I saw past love flames still living a stable existence. Elsewhere friends were getting married or engaged, climbing career ladders, having babies. All those things which I still had no desire to do. My way of life was dead for the time being and I saw myself as just plodding along, acting as stupid and reckless as I had always done. Getting drunk and hurting myself; losing my belongings and breaking things; leading girls on I had no intention of forming a relationship with. Not much had changed over the last decade. I was a man trapped in time, repeating the same reckless behaviours I had always done. A couple of lines across the forehead showed the passage of time aging me, but other than that just the same old fool I had always been. Where to go from here? Who the hell knew. The lockdown of the world had left my brain in a frozen state and all I could do was stare into space and wait for something to appear to me in the greyness.
~ Fear of the Future ~
The ice caps melting. Australia on fire. The ocean filling with plastic. The Amazon slowly disappearing off the map. David Attenborough on his last legs. Angry Orangutans smashing rocks against bulldozers. Young girls sailing across the Atlantic to shout at world leaders. The earth’s temperature rising and rising. The rainforest trees falling and falling. The media telling you all of this was less important than the royal family or an episode of Love Island…
The world was seemingly coming to an end and yet we still marched mindlessly through the motions of everyday life, working our meaningless jobs, sinking into our sofas, drawing our curtains and watching television show after television as our minds became as polluted as the very air we breathed. We were a species at war against the very organism we were a part of. Like a virus, we ripped and tore at the flesh of our host. We spoke of our career aspirations for the future while ignoring the fact that we were on the verge of some sort of environmental and social apocalypse. I could feel a looming sense of dread was slowly building, the storm of destruction waiting to rain down upon us. The anxiety was at an all-time high for some people and it wasn’t uncommon to hear someone talking about how bringing kids into the modern world was an act of cruelty.
It was easy to see why some people were choosing to not reproduce. After all, why bring a baby into the blender with the rest of us? We were on track for total destruction and the way I saw it, it was going to go one or two ways. A great awakening would occur and people would realise that they are continuous with the natural universe. They would realise that it’s better to work with nature rather than against it, and thus society would begin to adjust to treat the environment with love rather than hate. Minimalism would arrive. Sustainable technologies would run the world. Meditation would become commonplace and people would put the environment before profit. It was a nice thought to ponder but in all honesty, it was just a dream. When I really thought about it, there was no way things were going to be turned around at this stage. Society had simply gotten too insane. Money and Brexit were more important than the biological health of the organism we were a part of. People cared only for their cars and castles. Angry mothers shouted at supermarket workers when told that shopping bags now cost five pence. In their resentful faces I could see the destruction and hate that our species had buried in our collective consciousness. We were always meant to destroy the world. It was ingrained in our nature from the start. It was our unavoidable destiny to wipe ourselves out.
The next century or two will be the unfolding of our demise. What will happen is the lands will be flooded, food will become scarce and society will gradually collapse under the weight of the environmental crisis. The people will live in squalor and the rich will shield themselves in pleasure-domes of material comfort. Eventually those rich will leave the earth in the last spaceships as humanity descends into desperate, frenzied chaos. All of this apocalypse waits – and sooner than we think. But still, tomorrow I will face the faces of people again asking me my plans for the future and all of that bullshit. My plans for the future? Well if you must know I imagine myself building a rocket and taking off from this sinking ship. I imagine myself sailing through the cosmos for many years in search of a new home – one in which a sane species of intellect populates peacefully. One that is harmonious with the environment rather than at war with it. One that values nature more than a piece of paper with a number on it. But for now I guess I will sit around drinking beer and awaiting our earthly demise. I will try to find what joy I can as our last years on earth are lived out with people like Trump, Putin and Boris Johnson at the helm of the ship of stupidity that sails us into the storm. Make no mistake. The abyss awaits. These men of nothingness. This system of nothingness. I know not that I can save this world, I only hope to save my soul before we all drown in this abyss. May these words been found somewhere beneath the rubble. If any aliens are reading this and are wondering what happened, I don’t know what to say. Humanity happened. And that was enough to destroy us all.
~ The Hills Above The Cities ~
“A brain overcharged by absurdity; a soul starving for something real. Another day of menial work and superficial interaction had left me craving a space of solitude. Like I had so many times before, I took myself up to that hill that overlooked my hometown. Standing above that urban expanse with its rows and rows of streets sprawled out before me, I cast my gaze outward and watched the city lights shimmering in the night. There they were: the flames of humanity flickering in the abyss of the universe; the human race floating through space, going about its transient existence. I stood there for a while and absorbed the sight. From the outside looking in, I thought of all those people living in those houses, walking those sidewalks, staring into those televisions and bathroom windows. I thought of the families at dinner tables, the lovers entwined on sofas, the friends laughing together in the bars and clubs and restaurants.
In that moment a great feeling of isolation crashed over me. In vivid detail, I began to realise just how much I was cut adrift, floating uncontrollably further and further away from those shores of human belonging. And no matter how I looked at it, there seemed to be no way to pull or anchor myself back in. It had always been this way from a young age it seemed. The times I tried to fit myself into the herd had torn and twisted me up beyond repair. I simply didn’t understand my fellow species, or any of their customs. I didn’t understand the conventions. I didn’t understand the expectations and traditions. I didn’t understand why everyone wanted to be the same rather than live a life true to themselves. It was all a great mystery to me: the jobs, the media, the school-system, the paperwork, the small-talk, the religions – the monotonous routine. It seemed that I was allergic to it all. In my most desperate times, I did try to fake it, but like an undercover alien with a bad cover story, it was never long before people cast their looks of bewilderment upon me, before they realised that I was not one of them – that I was an intruder.
It’s not that the situation of isolation was completely soul-destroying, of course. There was a great joy to be found in sailing your own ship, in walking your own path and getting lost among your own mountains of madness. Often I felt great pleasure in not being labelled and closed in to some sort of box of limitation. There was a sort of freedom that many people never got to taste, let alone fully explore. But still despite that, I was burdened with the situation of being a human-being, and like all human-beings I needed to stare into the eyes of someone who understood – of someone who recognised me for who I really was. I guess for a while on my travels I looked out for those people, expecting to find them on sunset beaches and sitting wistful-eyed in smoky bars in foreign lands. Sometimes I was even lucky to find one or two, but the interactions were usually short-lived, lasting only a few hours or days at the most. Like captains of two ships briefly passing by in a wide ocean, we stared into each other’s eyes and exchanged knowing glances before disappearing silently into the mist.
Yes, the more I stood there on that hill and thought about it, the more it seemed this was the destiny of someone like myself. The cards had been dealt and I knew deep down in my flesh and bones that it was my fate to sail alone, to get lost in the mazes of my own mind, to dwell in solitude among those mountains of madness. This was how it was; for some reason I would never fully understand, this is how it was. I guess by now it was just a matter of acceptance: a matter of accepting that I was a lone wanderer – a matter of accepting that I didn’t belong. I guess by now it was a matter of accepting the fact that no matter where I went in this world, I would always return to those hills above the cities, standing alone, staring up into the skies, looking for something – anything – to come and take me home.”
~ Misdelivery ~
The decision to quit was made somewhere around the end of the third week of the course. I watched with sad eyes as the man opposite me read out his writing while everyone in the class sat around like a bunch of vultures waiting to pick away at the flesh of his work. That everyone did as a bunch of people, all of different backgrounds and lifestyles and perspectives, weighed in with their suggestions for changes to the man’s story. To my horror, I watched as the man nodded in agreement with everyone and butchered his piece apart to please everyone in the room. Any chance of there being any fire in his work was thrown out the window as he reduced everything in it to appeal to the lowest common denominator of a diverse crowd. Like so many people concerned about their reception with the masses, he had abandoned his authenticity and courage at the judgement of the crowd. This was supposed to be a creative writing course, but I had quickly remembered that creation was an act best done alone in the dark pits of solitude. From Van Gogh to Bukowski to Mozart, any art worth its salt was usually forged in the shadows from an individual who created out of necessity instead of desire, and who went out and experienced the world, rather than sit in classrooms with notebooks trying to please people and make academic sense of something which belonged to the realm of mystery and magic.
Since the beginning of this course, it had become clear to me that I had started it as some sort of desperate last-ditch attempt to cling on to the ledge of social normality. Doing a master’s course at a university was almost enough to convince people you had your life together, and no doubt a part of me wanted to delude myself with that idea too. But my mental musings were over: I was fooling myself I realised there and then. Despite my connection to the act of writing, I didn’t belong here either. It was time to let go of the ledge of normality and free-fall into the abyss of the unknown – to throw myself off that cultural conveyor-belt. Like most of the great writers before me, I was better off being beaten up by life in some other way that would allow me to pour the pain onto the page without the guidance of any teacher or textbook or institution.
Leaving the university for the last time, I headed home back to that familiar dark room to try and make sense of it all. In that space of isolation, I sat on my bed and thought about the circumstance that had befallen me. Oh dear god, I cursed myself. I had stopped travelling and moved to this city specifically for this course, and now I had made the decision to quit, I had to figure out what I was going to do next in the absurd game of life. As always there were no easy answers and I thought about changing my mind and sticking with the course. Of course, I knew that this was the coward’s way out; I knew I would just still be clinging to that ledge of normality a little longer just to trick myself and others into thinking that I actually had my life together in some basic way. So many people did this their entire lives, letting themselves empty out on the inside just so others would think they had their lives together. Such a fate seemed like a nightmare. The absolute intensity of the feeling of indifference I experienced in that class felt like the entire universe telling me to get the hell out before it was too late. Yes, I was definitely through with the course I concluded. I wouldn’t bother to notify my tutor; I was too annoyed at her and the course to even write a basic e-mail. And my parents, well, they had just about given up on me, and this would be the final nail in the coffin for sure. But hey, at this point maybe that was for the best anyway.
After a while of sitting there silently in the dark and staring at the walls, I decided that some fresh air would do me good. I removed myself from my lair and went out to face the world. Out there in that concrete jungle I roamed around at leisure with no particular place to go to. As I roamed, I looked around at the faces. I looked around at the houses and the front gardens. I looked around at the job advertisements and the shopping malls and the newspapers and billboards. Once again, I didn’t understand any of it. Sometimes I was certain the gods had made a mistake. Perhaps there was a mix-up in the cosmic warehouse? Surely my intended destination was another planet somewhere a few galaxies back in the other direction. Where was the manifest? Who had screwed up the works? Who was I supposed to be angry at? Looking out at the foreign world before me I wanted explanations and answers.
I kept looking around at the faces of the people on the street. I saw businessmen and women. I saw tradies and pram-pushers. I saw sub-cultural groups like hipsters or rockers. I saw many types of people, but I couldn’t see anyone I truly felt at home with. Often in this world, I felt like some sort of diseased alien and I couldn’t help but stare into the eyes of those humans and desperately want to make them understand who I really was. I guess it was true that at times I felt anger and resentment toward the human race. Often all I wanted to do was to vomit my pain onto their pressed and polished realities. I wanted to drag them into the woods of madness and steal from the sanity from them. I guess I just wanted at least one other soul to step into my mind to see and understand how I felt with the reality that had been presented to me. But as always it was useless and all I could do was wonder whether if it was all some kind of joke the gods had played on me. If so the humour was lost on me. Yes, oh yes: the humour was lost on me.
Soon enough the shitshow of reality was too much and I decided I’d try to add some excitement to my life by doing what so many did in times of desperation. Alcohol. I went to the nearest store and bought a four-pack of beers. For a small price, I could hopefully trick my brain into thinking that something exciting was happening. I went in, purchased the liquor off a young female clerk and exited back onto the now rain-sodden street. I stood still on the sidewalk and began to drink the first can. After a few sips, I started walking down the road. I finished my first beer and started drinking a second. By the time I finished that I was feeling pretty good – so good in fact that I decided to befriend a homeless guy with a dog sitting in the gutter of the path of a busy intersection.
“Alright lad, got any spare change?” he asked as I walked over.
“Yeah don’t worry,” I said. “I’m going to give you some change, but first would it be okay if I joined you for a drink?” He looked at me with a confused and hesitant look. After a few seconds of scanning me up and down, he accepted me.
“Well sure, take a seat lad.”
I sat down and nestled myself into his cardboard which was soggy from the rain. I put my back up against the wall, sipped my beer and offered my final can to my new friend. He looked down at it, scrunched his brow and shook his head.
“No thanks lad, I stay away from that stuff these days; that’s what caused me to end up like this. It’s the devil’s blood that stuff. You ought to be careful with it too.”
“It’s helping to keep me sane right now,” I told him.
“That’s how it starts,” he said. “But if you’re not careful soon it’s not you consuming the drink, it’s the drink consuming you.”
“That’s kinda poetic,” I said. “You ever thought about being a writer?”
“A writer? Does it look like I’m interested in that kid? A roof over my head and some warm food in my stomach would be nice.”
I carried on sipping my beer, feeling the warmth of the alcohol flow through my body. I could feel myself getting comfy. Eventually we got chatting about his life and he started telling me about all his travels in Asia and South America. Having travelled in those areas myself, I was naturally curious about his ventures out there in the world. I began asking him about his trips and typically his travelling stories were full of chaos and bohemian madness. As he spoke about his nomadic life, I couldn’t help but identify with it and wonder whether or not I was staring into my own future. It seemed that the homeless man had led a similar existence in his twenties to the one I had been living. It was full of wandering wide-eyed through the world; of drifting wildly out on the fringes of sanity and society. I couldn’t help but let my mind wander. Perhaps the life I was living was also going to lead me to be sleeping in the gutter one day? I mean, the possibility was viable for everybody out there, but especially for anyone who dared to drift away from the cultural conveyor-belt like I had done. The automatic life on the cultural conveyor-belt may have been boring and predictable, but it protected you from those rain-soaked gutters; it protected you from the madhouses, jails and cemeteries. Riding it like a good citizen of the state, you were transported through education into a steady job, into a mortgage, into the shops on the high-street, into parenthood, and finally into retirement where a grave and wooden box awaited to package you into eternity. Sure, it may have sounded dull and tedious to the adventurous individual, but hey, at least you didn’t freeze to death alone on some cold winter street.
After fifteen minutes of talking about his life, my beer can was empty, and I decided to leave my new friend alone to himself (something I suspected he wanted). I gave him my spare change, said goodbye and strolled off down the street. I then thought about what to do next. I was now pretty drunk and didn’t want to go home, so I decided I would head further into the city centre and try and find a party of some sort. After one month of studying here, I still had no friends to drink with, so I decided to go and find a hostel. From my travels, I knew that in a hostel you could often find some other souls who were also totally out of sync with the human race too. And this was Brighton: the end of the line. The place literally and culturally on the fringe of the country – the place where the hippies, minorities, artists and madmen gathered together to indulge in their own madness. Surely there was some life somewhere out there among those streets.
After walking around for a while, I eventually found a hostel down by the seafront, just across the road from the pier. From the outside it looked dirty and unmaintained. Stain-covered curtains blew out the cracked windows as dirty towels hung out to dry. It seemed like the perfect place. I purchased some more beers from a shop and walked over to a group of people outside the front drinking and smoking. The group was made up of a diverse crowd including dread-locked hippies, Australian backpackers and some stoners sitting around on the floor eating pizza. They didn’t bat an eyelid to me joining in their group and within a few minutes I was chatting to a Polish guy and a Kenyan guy about life over a beer. It turned out that both of them had recently emigrated to the country and were now working in Brighton while living in this cheap hostel, trying to get by in any way they could. I told them my story of just quitting my course to which they laughed and toasted drinks and offered me a joint. The good times were flowing and after one hour they offered me to come with them to some rave in a “dark and dirty but decent club”. It had been a strange day so far, so naturally I made the decision to keep curiously crawling down the rabbit hole. I finished my drinks and joined them to the club.
It was sometime around eight the following morning that I found myself standing on the edge of the roof of a house by the seafront, a bottle of wine in hand, thoughtfully advising some stranger walking on the street below ‘not to take life so seriously’. A night of anarchy had ensued and by this point I was completely ruined; it had been over twelve hours of drinking and partying with no sleep or rest. I had left my flat alone and now I was at some random person’s place with the last remnants of a group of ravers strewn out across floors, sofas and beds around the house. The Polish guy was still there after having decided to miss his shift at work, but the Kenyan had disappeared somewhere into the night after dropping a tab of acid. Most people were asleep or unconscious by this point, but I stayed up chatting with some young English guy who had run away from home and had plans to live on a boat and sail around the south coast. As he told me with wild eyes about his little plan, I realised that the night had given me the medicine I needed: finding and talking to some others who were also existing on the fringes of society – whose lives were also in a state of chaos and permanent disorder. Finally, the situation of letting go from that ledge of normality and quitting my education didn’t feel so bad. I wasn’t alone in my madness. I napped on the couch for a few hours and then stumbled back to my apartment.
In the following days I had no urge to find a job or plan my next move, so I spent time just living quietly and simply, going for runs down by the coast, meditating and writing away in that dark apartment room of mine. I also spent a large amount of time simply roaming the streets of the city itself. As I did, I kept looking more and more for the people who were living on the fringes of society or who had simply fallen off the cultural conveyor belt altogether. Like a man on safari for a rare species, I looked for the freaks, misfits and weirdos. I looked for the outcasts and outsiders; for the aliens and eccentrics. I searched for them out on those grey streets and when running down by the seafront. One area a little out of the city besides the water was a good territory to spot them. Roaming there, I often saw some outsiders and misfits living in vans, fishing in the ocean, and smoking out on the rocks. I always wanted to go up to them and ask how their life was, but I figured they wanted to be left alone.
Eventually one such creature came and approached me himself as I was walking back to my apartment one afternoon. I was listening to some music through my headphones but could still hear his drunken staggering and slurred words creeping up from behind me. I took my headphones out and turned around to face him. He was a middle-aged man in cargo trousers and a long grey coat. He was holding a bottle of cheap cider in his hands and had a wild glaze in his bloodshot eyes.
“I said, lad, I asked you how’re you doing – didn’t you hear me? Don’t people in this town ever speak to each other anymore? Or are you too good to talk to me?” I studied him curiously for a moment, trying to deduct if he was a harmless drunk or something to be afraid of.
“Sorry,” I said “I had my headphones in. But I’m good thanks. How are you?” He looked at me silently for a second, and then grinned maniacally.
“That’s okay my son!” he shouted. “It’s all good! I’m all good! Do you want some cider?” He held out the bottle of white lightning cider in front of my face. I politely declined to which he carried on chugging away. After a few seconds of watching him drink, I continued to walk down the street. He decided to join me. We then walked together for a while as he told me about his life in Brighton, and how he had been a DJ for over twenty years, and how the rest of the time he liked to climb buildings, presumably drunk.
“You see that block of flats over there lad? I climbed that just last week. And the week before that I managed to make it all the way on top of the hospital. The police came and arrested me as soon as I got down of course, but they’re used to me by now! A little slap on the wrists, nothing else! All the coppers in this town have been arresting me for climbing for over ten years now. I’ve just about climbed all there is to climb. I’ve had a few little falls and injuries, but I’m still going. You can’t stop me! Oh no no no – you can’t stop me!”
As I listened to his bizarre tales, I wondered how this eccentric creature was still alive. It was only four in the afternoon and already he was so drunk that he could barely walk straight. Climbing any sort of building or scaffolding in his current state surely would result in severe injury or death. Yet if his tales were true, then he must have done it countless times. I never even thought to ask him why he actually had this obsession with climbing things. But I felt like I didn’t need to after a while. The passion and delight in his drunken voice said it all. He was a child trapped in a middle-aged man’s body. He was just simply having fun and enjoying his life in any way he could. Coming across such a wild-spirited person again made me feel good. Just hearing his stories alleviated some sort of pain inside of me. It made me feel relaxed. Most people his age were climbing career ladders, yet this man was out DJ-ing and climbing the city buildings for no reason other than simply having fun.
In the next few days I continued seeing him walking down those streets with the same brand of cheap cider always in hand. His energy never changed. Always energetic and friendly; always smiling and chatting the head off some total stranger. Whenever I saw him, he updated me about his climbs and exploits, and in return I told him my story about quitting my course and how I was just drifting around for a moment, trying to figure out my next move in life. One or two times he invited me to drink and climb with him, but I decided against it. I guess my life already had enough mess and madness in it for the time being.
Eventually a few weeks went by and I stopped seeing him in the neighbourhood. I was always out there on the streets roaming around and expecting him to come into sight, staggering around a corner with a bottle of cider in hand and that wild glaze in his eyes, but he never did. At first, I assumed he had packed up and moved to another town, but then I remembered that he had lived in the city all his life and had all his DJ gigs here. It didn’t seem likely for him to hit the road so suddenly. With this in mind, I kept an eye out for him constantly. On the streets. In the bars. Besides the seaside when I went running. It wasn’t long until I overheard some guys at a construction site. They were talking about someone falling from some scaffolding. I stopped and listened curiously. They spoke about a man who had fallen to his death in the city somewhere a week or so before – a local drunk who “finally got what was coming to him.” My stomach sank suddenly as I heard their words. I feared the worst. Immediately I rushed home and went onto the internet. I started searching for the news story. I typed some keywords into Google – ‘man’, ‘dies’, ‘death’, ‘falling from building’, ‘Brighton’. I pressed enter. A load of results then appeared, including one which immediately caught my eye – a news story from six days before from the local newspaper. I clicked on it hesitantly and then started reading away. I scanned through the story and, sure enough, it was what I had feared. It was the man I had spoken to. The man with the big smile and drunken swagger. The man with the wild eyes. The man who had been climbing buildings in the city for ten years. He had died after falling from the top of a new block of flats still in construction. His adventure had come to a sudden end. Finally, the gravity of existence had claimed him.
Hearing the news of the death, I had a sudden urge to get out of Brighton as soon as I could. I was spooked. It was true that I saw something of myself in that wild-eyed man. In those pupils I saw the alien madness and the childlike spirit struggling to survive. I saw the pain of existing in this rigid concrete society. This world was always at odds with those types of people. It had swallowed him up and surely those grey streets were going to swallow me up too. Under the weight of this thought, I went and made a drastic decision. I went online and booked a flight to Mexico with the student loan money that had just come into my account for the course I had quit. The government had paid me a student loan to last the full year, but having already left the course in October, I now had some finances to play around with. I had wanted to travel in Central America for a while and now these tempestuous circumstances called for the trip to be arranged. I quickly booked the trip for the upcoming weekend and then went and poured myself a glass of red wine to toast my next voyage into the wilderness of planet earth.
After finishing the bottle of wine, I sat there drunk for a while staring at my bedroom wall. I was feeling lonely and depressed as hell and had a sudden idea to go and see if my homeless friend was there on the street again. I headed out, bought some beer from the shop and walked down toward the intersection. Sure enough, it was raining again and there he was in his usual spot: sitting there on his soggy cardboard, back against the wall, stroking his dog playfully. I went over and said hello. I then sat down beside him, soaking in the gutter, feeling the rain fall down from the heavens above. I opened a can and offered him one. This time he accepted my offer.
As I drank and chatted with the homeless man, I thought of the chaos of the last few weeks. I thought of my life and this man’s life, and the life of the boy who had run away from home, and the life of the alcoholic climber who had fallen to his death. It really was true. Some people had simply just been misdelivered to the wrong planet. They found themselves stranded on a rock apart of a species they just didn’t understand. There was no room for them in human society and, like this man, my place was seemingly on the sidelines. It was in the solitary shadows – in those rain-soaked sewers and gutters. Since the playgrounds of youth, I had always felt separate and isolated from my species, and here, twenty years on, nothing had changed despite my best attempts to fit in. This little attempt to cling onto the ledge of normality by doing a masters course had quickly failed and now I was free-falling back into the abyss of the unknown. I was heading back out into the wilderness of planet earth. I was as lost as a man could be and, as the rain started coming down more heavily, I cast my gaze up into the dark night sky, dreaming of something distant and far-off – a home somewhere out there in the galaxies of the cosmos. I didn’t expect to find one, however. I didn’t expect to ever find one here on this planet. It was the doomed and destined way of the wanderer. It was the way of the outcasts and outsiders – of the misfits and aliens. And by now it was clear that I was one of them too. By now it was clear that I was to remain always on the sidelines. By now it was clear that I was destined never to belong. By now it was clear that no matter how far through life I travelled, or where I travelled, I would always return to those spaces of separation, sitting alone in the shadows, drinking beer, writing words, staring up into skies – waiting and looking for something – anything – to come and take me home.
~ The Ones That Get Away ~
Out travelling the road of life, lost in the night of some foreign country, roaming the cobbled streets of the old town, kissing her under the moonlight. She was a lawyer, seven years older, with hazel eyes, brunette hair and the sort of Mediterranean look that made you think of fancy restaurants overlooking sparkling blue waters. She wore a flowery summer dress that showed off her hourglass figure; her ears adorned green jewelled earrings and she carried an expensive-looking designer purse under her left arm. I of course knew that these creatures of luxury were usually out of reach for a no-good, drifting nomad like myself, but for some reason the gods above had decided to back me this evening. Perhaps they were just having a laugh amongst themselves, but they had backed me and I had lured her in.
We had met about one hour before in a smoky traveller’s bar where our eyes had crossed paths as we both sat on stools staring wistfully into the time and space. I smiled, went over and asked if she too was also bored with existence. She looked up at me with piercing eyes and, after a second of awkwardness, the tension was cut with a friendly smile. From there on in we got talking and shared a drink: two whisky cokes with ice.
It was a few minutes into drinking and speaking that I began to realise she was slightly more upper-class than the girls I normally went after. As we chatted, she told me of the human rights court cases she had been working on; she told me of her education and how she owned her own apartment. She was too charming to be snobby about it or anything, but I quickly concluded that she was definitely a little more sophisticated than the girls you normally met in these dingy backpacker bars. With this in mind, I tried to come across as a regular, upstanding member of human society. I talked about politics and the economy. I talked about the news and the weather. I tried and tried my very best, but after five minutes my cover was blown.
“You’re a little strange, aren’t you?” she said with a wry smile.
“Well, you’re the local lawyer sitting on your own in a backpacker bar.”
“Yeah, and so what? We all have our moments of madness. Besides, I’m not alone; I’m waiting for my friend behind the bar. She finishes in an hour.” I looked over where a blonde girl was mixing a cocktail behind the bar.
“One hour?” I said. “Why don’t we go for a walk somewhere else, to another bar, or perhaps you can give me a private tour of your town? You know: teach me the history and all that? I am a tourist in your country after all.” She took a long sip of her drink while staring into my soul, making me wait – making me guess. The look in those hazel eyes told me that she knew I was full of shit, but finally she agreed anyway. We finished our drinks and ventured off out into the night.
After exiting the bar, we wandered through the winding streets of the old town with no particular destination other than the present moment. We passed busy bars and restaurants. We walked along the waterfront of the harbour. We made small talk about my travels and she told me how I was brave and how she had always wanted to travel alone. It was something I had heard from many people while out on my travels. Damn near enough everybody in society wanted to quit their job and travel the world – like always, I didn’t understand why so very few actually did it.
Eventually we stopped under a streetlight down one of the side streets. With no one around, we embraced and shared a kiss in the silence of the night. We then stared into each other’s eyes and I made a comment about whether she always went for guys seven years younger than her. She let out a little laugh and suddenly – for about the fifth time that year – I was hopelessly in love with a stranger. At that moment all I wanted to do was to swim into her eyes and drown myself. It was a feeling I knew all too well. Not just then, but I regularly had this feeling – an overwhelming feeling of total reckless abandonment to something or anything or everything. Often all I wanted to do was to abandon myself to the world, to the wonders, to the women. I wanted to get lost in those foreign countries, lost down those old cobbled lanes – lost again and again in the eyes of those beautiful strangers. I was reckless, I knew, and possibly insane…
Even if we somehow formed some sort of relationship it wouldn’t have been long before she realised I was completely incompatible with the regular life she wanted. Women like this wanted structured and stable men. They wanted men who could be husbands, men who could be fathers – men who could stay in one place and commit and raise children and talk to their neighbours about the weather over the garden face. The problem was that I was none of those things. I was a wayward wanderer, a restless dreamer with itchy feet – a piece of trash caught in the wind being whipped around by the pull of my own gypsy heart.
Looking further into her eyes, I thought about the alternative to the mess and madness that was my own chaotic life. It was true that somewhere inside a part of me wanted to be a regular human-being sometimes, but the problem was to do that you were supposed to solidify things. Houses were supposed to be cemented down; relationships were supposed to last; job positions were meant to be held for years and not months. It’s not like I didn’t understand what was to be done in order to be a functioning member of the human race, it’s just that I couldn’t seem to do it even if I wanted to. Something had gone wrong in my DNA or upbringing. My mind was possessed by a great fire; my spirit was caught in a wild storm. This woman was beautiful, mentally stable and deemed successful in society’s eyes as a lawyer. She had a chance – she had a strong chance at a normal, healthy life. But what chance did someone like me have? I was a nomadic fool who couldn’t even stay put in one place or job position for a full year. I couldn’t maintain any relationships. I couldn’t even drive a goddamn car. The gods may have backed me tonight in the short game, but long distance I was sure they wouldn’t have touched me. The game was a fix and there was no chance – there was just absolutely no goddamn chance.
After a while, we carried on strolling around through the lanes and streets. We petted a stray cat and followed it down an alleyway. We kissed again against a beaten old wall. We kissed once more around the back of the town church. Eventually we moved into a small, secluded square where I twirled her around and watched her flowery dress dance in the midnight breeze. The moment was damn near perfect, but it was sad – it was sad for some reason I couldn’t quite say.
“You know, I have to work this weekend, but I will be free on Monday. If you’d like to hang around town then maybe we could spend some more time together? We could take a boat to one of the islands. I’d like to see you again.” She smiled and stared into my eyes. I smiled back, stalling, my mind exploding with a million and one thoughts.
“Yeah, I’d like that,” I said finally.
“Good… I like you. Even if you are a little younger, and a backpacker.” She gave that same wry smile that just about knocked me out on the floor. I looked at her then glanced up towards the night sky, wondering why the gods liked to inflict such pain upon us all.
Eventually she checked the time and saw that she had to go back to the bar and meet her friend. They were going to the gig of a friend and she asked me if I’d like to join, but it didn’t feel right, so I said no. She gave me her contact details and said we’d talk again, and that she hoped that I would wait around town to spend some time with her, and then I gave some phoney agreement and immediately hated my own guts. I said that we’d meet again, knowing that I already had a bus booked out of town in two days’ time. It was an empty promise I’d made with many women out there across the world. I’d said it to women in Asia. I’d said it to women in South America. I’d said it to women in Australia and New Zealand. But the reality was always the same: I never saw any of them again. They drifted out of sight forever like ghosts into the haunting mists of mind and memory. They went on to forget me and sit entwined with other men on sofas somewhere in suburban neighbourhoods of stability and sanity.
Before going I gave her one last kiss, said goodbye and watch her skip away like some rare deer into the night. She rounded a corner and just like that she was gone forever. Drenched in the silent solitude of foreign lands, I stood alone in the night once more. I would have thought that I’d have gotten used to this scenario by now, but for some reason this night the thought of what just happened consumed me. As I walked back to my hostel under those flickering streetlights, a sad feeling filled my flesh and bones. There was just something different about this time – about this woman. It was in her eyes. Deep down in those hazel eyes, I could see the alternative life so many other men my age would go on to live. I could see myself being a settled soul with a steady job, coming home to a loving wife and kids. I could see myself going on summer vacations and walking in the park together. I could imagine the polka dot dresses she would wear to our anniversary meals. I could imagine the way she would smile at me in bed on a Sunday morning. Such thoughts weighed heavy on my mind and I gradually got lost in all of them – entertaining them, playing with them, torturing myself with them – but I knew deep inside of me that it was a reality far out of reach.
On Sunday I was heading further down the coast, leaving her behind like all the others. I already had my ticket and hostel booked and I wasn’t going to change my plan. After all, what would actually happen in the long run when she discovered who I really was? It was nothing more than a slip of character and in a moment of clarity, I allowed myself to retreat back to the acceptance of the wretch I was. Catching my reflection in a window, I knew deep down in my bones I didn’t belong with a woman like that. I was still just a piece of trash caught in the breeze whose fate was to keep getting lost in those foreign countries, lost in those strange towns – lost in the eyes of those beautiful strangers. The world of stability and security she resided in was never meant for me. Instead, I belonged wandering with the wind, hurtling over the horizon, swept by gusts of curiosity that left me staring out of bus windows knowing that I was doomed and destined never to step off and belong to one particular place or person or community.
Sure enough, it was two days later when I boarded my bus alone and watched the town drift slowly out of sight. Holding a ticket to some vague place beyond the horizon, I pressed my head against that familiar bus window and stared out at the passing countryside. As I watched the towns and farms go past, I reflected on the night with the girl and thought about what it would have been like to see her again. Many thoughts went through my head, but as I sat there and stared out the window a bit longer, I gradually felt my mind begin to shift back to its familiar state of being excited for what was over the next horizon. Maybe I was a bad guy or even just mentally disturbed, but whatever it was I knew that this was a sickness that couldn’t be cured by any drug, job or pretty woman with hazel eyes. It was right there and then that I realised with a sense of horror that I may never find the cure to whatever form of madness it was that consumed me. If a beautiful woman like that couldn’t get me to change my plan, then I just had to accept I was doomed. If a beautiful woman like that couldn’t get me to change my plan, then I just had to sit back and accept that no matter where I went in this world, or how many years passed me by, I would always just be that young boy out exploring the world, wide-eyed and curious, moving from town to town, drinking in smoky bars, falling in love with strangers, wandering down old cobbled lanes, staring wistfully out of bus windows – eternally and hopelessly lost in the dream of what it is to exist.