how to kill time while waiting to die

How to Kill Time While Waiting to Die – an extract

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The next day I decided my great escape was imminent. All things considered, there was simply no way I could no longer subject myself to my parent’s reign and those four walls. I tried to fix up my old bike as best I could and then attached a tent and pannier bags to the back of it. I left the house when they were both at work and headed toward the city outskirts. I watched my neighbourhood disappear into the background as my feet hit the pedals round and round. Soon my city was out of sight and I was in the open countryside. Summer was now here and I cycled freely alongside the fields of crops without even bothering to check a map. Obviously it was true that I never really had a plan or clue about where exactly I was heading in life, but now I realised I was in a situation that encompassed that completely. I just kept rolling on down the road towards whatever awaited me beyond the horizon. Cars went past me and I thought about where they were heading and why. What purpose powered their engines? What meaning pushed down on those pedals? For me there wasn’t one other than heading roughly southward, and for now that was good enough to keep me going. I even liked the simplicity of it in that otherwise confusing moment. It seemed more sane and worthwhile just to keep those pedals turning than what I was doing in my job at Amazon. Just keep on going, further and further into the distance, drifting out of sight of whatever I passed – the same thing I had been doing all my life.

This was what life was to me – a one-way journey to the grave; there was no going back or stopping, one could only head towards their eventual end while occasionally breaking down and getting drunk along the way. But still, I kept looking at the people in the cars passing me and wondering about them. I saw families maybe heading on holiday; couples heading home; people heading to work. I looked at their faces and their eyes and their expressions. Their lives seemingly had structure and stability; some sort of semblance of order in contrast to the total chaos of mine. It was all delusion, I felt – on my part and theirs. Like me, they were just heading nowhere, only ever-forward towards the setting of the sun and the darkness of their death while finding things to keep themselves busy with along the way. For some reason that thought comforted me and, for one of the few times in my life, my brain began to go quiet. I simply kept pedalling without any thought or concern for anything else in the universe. I had become like squirrels, just doing my thing automatically and existing without some grand plan or purpose. I had become like the crashing waves on a shoreline, or the clouds drifting in the sky above, or the leaves being blown away in the wind. I was something just happening for no real reason other than just to happen. 

I kept pedalling and feeling like some sort of monk until the daylight started to fade. It was at this point that I realised I was now technically homeless and needed to find a way to shelter myself. I found a secluded spot in some woodland just away from the road and setup my tent. I then walked to the nearest shop, bought a load of food and beers, and then returned to my tent. I lay in it stuffing my face with cheap sandwiches and cakes, replenishing the many calories I had burned that day, before smashing the cans of beers down. Naturally, I couldn’t help but realise that the last time I was in a tent was in a nice place with a pretty girl, drinking wine and having sex while daring to daydream of some sort of home or companionship with another. Fate had worked its almighty magic once again and here I was a couple of weeks later: back to my solitary state, homeless, jobless, slightly cold –  lying alone in the dark with my only companion being the use of my right hand. 

2

After the second day of cycling, I was down in the Somerset town of Bath. By now, the lockdown had been eased and people were allowed to go to pubs again while being socially distanced. I locked my bike up in the town centre and walked around the town in the sunshine before finding a pub that was a prime place to people-watch. Table service was all that was allowed due to the ‘social distancing’ rules – that was fine with me; I sat back and ordered away while letting the afternoon drift by lazily. I sipped those ciders and watched the happy couples, the well-dressed revellers, the shoppers with their shopping bags. I watched the bike couriers going back and forth, remembering another one of my short stints of money-making. I was back on safari again, observing the human race in all its strange mystery, wondering how people did what they did without going insane or off-the-rails like me.

Soon I got bored of such ethnographic observation and left. I carried on walking through the high-streets and eventually came by a busker. Most buskers drew small crowds and pittance change, but I noticed this man had amassed a crowd of maybe forty people. His guitar case was full of money and he had a stack of CDs available to purchase. Slightly intrigued and having nothing else to do, I stood and watched him play. His playing was wild and fast and flamboyant. He held his guitar flat on his lap and finger-picked the strings in a way I had never seen before. I stood there impressed, watching a man totally transfixed and absorbed in what he was doing. In between songs, he told everyone how he was from Australia, and how he had quit his job to travel the world in a van while busking along the way. Not many people inspired or even interested me in this life, but looking at this man I couldn’t help but be a little captivated. In him I could see a better version of myself. Here he was: living off his passion, travelling the world, seemingly content and even having his own home in the form of a van. I thought about the fact I hadn’t ever made a penny off my writing and that I never had entertained a crowd and that my current home was a crappy tent that couldn’t stand a slightly strong breeze. The contrast between my life and another’s was, once again, stark and depressing.

I decided I’d stick around til after he finished and do something I rarely did sober: approach and speak to a stranger. I wanted to know more about this man and see if he was the real deal. Was it possible for a man to survive while living life completely on his own terms? Did he experience any doubt or anxiety about the way he was living? Was it all a front and really he was just as lost and insane as me? Such questions swirled around my mind as I approached him once he had finished performing. He immediately stopped what he was doing to look me straight in the eye with a bright smile. He thanked me for watching the performance and asked my name. We then exchanged details before he invited me to smoke a joint with him back at his van once he was done packing up his equipment.

I bought us a couple of beers from the nearest shop and went to meet him at his van. He lit up a joint and invited me to sit on the floor of his van which was overlooking a park. People were sprawled across the grass having picnics as we sat there drinking and smoking. I looked inside his van at his living arrangements. On the outside was a tapestry of graffiti artworks, the sort of cosmic shit you’d expect from someone of the gypsy lifestyle, and on the inside was his humble abode – a bed, a mini kitchen and tabletop. The whole vehicle to me stood as a big fuck you to normal life which naturally made me feel welcome sitting there. 

The beers went down as he continued to me a little more about all his travels and what inspired him to live the life he was living. “I remember telling all my work colleagues that I was going to quit my job. They all laughed at me, mocked me, told me I was crazy and all of that. I have autism so I always felt like I didn’t fit in there anyway.”

“I can relate to that,” I said, before telling him my own tragic story, cycling down south randomly after just quitting my job where I also felt disconnected from my work colleagues. I also told him about my novel writing, the succession of meaningless jobs I had subjected myself to, and my general disenfranchisement with anything this world presented to me. He didn’t look at me with pity like most people did when I told them my life story, but instead his eyes had a look of deep understanding and even relatability. It was the ultra-rare look of a human-being’s eyes who actually saw where I was coming from. It was like looking into an alien’s eyes; the sort of look I unsuccessfully scanned for on the faces of passersby on streets. A strange feeling of comfort fell over me.

“Come inside my van man. I wanna show you something.” I put down my beer and entered inside, for some reason wondering if he was going to slam the door and suddenly kidnap me or something. The funny thing was I think I wouldn’t have even bothered to resist being taken away at that point. I needed not worry though; he invited me to sit down on his bed and pulled out a little book. He then proceeded to show me a collection of his photos from his travels, as well as little things he had collected along the way.

“This is me travelling through Europe.” He showed me photos of him performing on the streets of Rome and Paris, as well as pictures of him in his van in the Alps. “And this is me back in Australia.” He then showed me photos of him in his life back home. He looked like a different person: much paler, slightly overweight, with tired eyes and a classic forced smile. “I know right,” he said, knowing that I was struggling to even recognise him in the photos. “The photos only show how my outside appearance has changed as much as my inside. It only reflects the state I was living in then, compared to the state I live in now.”

“I guess becoming homeless was good for you then.”

“Ha,” he laughed. “Becoming a travel bum was necessary for me. If I hadn’t had taken the leap, I’d hate to think of the dark place I’d be in now. I know it’s easy to fall into despair and give up on this world. I mean, society fucking sucks I know, and the worst thing is watching everyone just accept that their lives are nothing more than pointless jobs and television and getting drunk on the weekend and never questioning anything because ‘that’s what’s normal’. The western world in particular is facing a spiritual crisis. Everyone I know back home was depressed or anxious or an addict of some kind. But you don’t need to be a victim of the culture you were born in man. You can choose to unplug and play your own game at any point. You are the maker of your own destiny and, with the right outlook and plan, you can create the life you love. But first you start by summoning something from your soul; it’s there if you search hard enough. The light in the darkness; the fire that can set a whole forest on fire. Find whatever it is and let it burn, burn, burn. That’s what I let happen to me. I was so jaded and depressed and nihilistic at my own job in Sydney. I could see myself falling into a dark place and resenting life. I knew this would make me another victim of this culture, so that’s when I knew I had to quit my job, sell everything I owned, gather all my savings, buy a van and hit the open road with my guitar. Here I am two years on and I can honestly say I’m so much happier and content with my life. I wake up excited every day about what the day will bring, and when I’m out there playing for those people – and people like yourself come up and speak to me – I feel like everything in the universe is in the right place. I’m exactly where I need to be. And ultimately, that is the greatest feeling in life man – a feeling I don’t plan to stop chasing for the rest of my life. So yeah, just keep going man and following that feeling. You’ll find your way man, I’m sure of it.”

Maybe it was the weed or the tiredness from the cycling and sitting in the sun all day, but right there and then that man was making more sense to me than any teacher, parent, politician or preacher that I had come across on my meandering path through life. I didn’t really know what to say back to him after he had been regaling me with his words. In the end, I just thanked him for the words of advice. We then finished the beers before going back to get my bike and cycling out of town while stoned to find my latest spot to pitch my tent alone again for the night.

3

The next day the inspiring words of the gypsy musician were quickly knocked out my head as I carried on heading south through a thunderstorm. Rain poured down for almost two hours as I cycled along lonely country lanes watching the lightning bolts flash in the surrounding sky. Cars passed me and I could feel the gaze of the people inside, looking upon me in my drenched glory, determining I was a madman. I guess I was at that point. I knew all my stuff in my pannier bags would be getting wet seeing as the bags were barely waterproof. I eventually took shelter in a cafe the town of Glastonbury until the storm had passed. I then carried on through the lighter rain which continued throughout the afternoon.

By the time I arrived into the town of Exeter, I decided there would be no camping that night. With wet clothes and it still raining, I decided to treat myself check into a badly-rated, £10-a-night hostel. I stood outside and rang the doorbell. Nobody answered. I saw that there was a number on a noticeboard on the door. I called it. A few minutes later, a stoned Spanish man shows up to let me in.

I brought my bike in and dropped my stuff down in the reception area, still dripping from the torrential rain I had been enduring all day. The Spanish guy kept looking at me while he loaded up the computer to check me in. “You’ve been cycling in this weather all day?”

“Yes.”

“You’re crazy man. And where you are heading?”

“I’m not sure – somewhere in Cornwall probably. As far as I can go away from home.” He looked at me and smiled before shaking his head. 

“You’re crazy man,” he said again. “Crazy.”

I kept waiting while he took my ID and entered my details. For some reason I always got nervous when people checked my perfectly official ID – imposter syndrome came in many forms.

“Okay Bryan. That will be £12 please.” I thought about pointing out the room was advertised at £10, but at that point I didn’t have the energy to get into a debate; I simply needed a shower, some dry clothes, and a strong drink of some kind. He then proceeded to tell me the social distancing rules of the hostel. Obviously it was impossible to socially distance in a hostel, but I knew it was merely something being said because it had to be said.

Once I was not looking like a drenched rat, I lay down on my dirty bed and checked my phone. There was still no word off my parents. My mother didn’t own a phone, thankfully, and my dad held some belief that only the kids should contact the parents rather than the other way around. I was quite happy with this. Such a strange belief allowed me to continue in my madness undisturbed. I even went a step further and deleted all forms of social media and my dating apps. I wanted to be off the grid, an unknown wanderer, uncontactable by anyone and everyone from home. I was now one of nomads, like the few people that were staying in the hostel. A quick scan of it showed me a mix of strange characters staying there. Not the sort of people I expected in a hostel. Most were elderly, some overweight, and some even slightly threatening-looking. I soon found out that this was because the hostel worked with the government to give shelter to people waiting to be accommodated in council housing. Like me, they were homeless, just waiting and existing, living off super noodles while sitting there smoking weed and browsing ther phones because they had no job or money or anything else to do. 

I could feel myself staring at one particularly rough-looking guy while questioning where my path was leading me. This insight into the future was too much to take, so I headed out into the town to find a pub. Maybe I’d meet a nice girl? Make some friends? Have a wild night out in a new place? In the end I sat alone at a pub table socially-distanced drinking five beers while speaking to absolutely noone. There was even no interaction with the bartender due to having to order my drink from my phone. I then got a kebab and went back to the hostel where I found the Spanish guy who had now switched from stoned to drunk. He came over to me laughing and asking me to tell my story to his other mate who was sitting at the table drinking. I told another person the story of my random adventure, inspired by total disillusion with my job and living with my parents. 

“You’re funny man,” he said. “So your parents don’t even know where you are? Such a random guy ha ha!”

“Thanks.”

“Hey listen,” he suddenly said. “If you have no set place to be anytime soon, and you want to stay here in the hostel with us a little longer, you could volunteer. We need another person to split the shifts with on the reception. All you’d have to do is check people in, clean the kitchen at the end of the day, and make a few beds. I mean, you said yourself you have nowhere to be and nothing to do. So why not? You’d have a place to stay and get a food allowance too.” I stood there slightly confused. I had just escaped a job and this was the last place I expected the offer of another to come to me. I looked around at the old, slightly dilapidated hostel. I looked at the other looking drifters sitting around under bad lighting either drunk or stoned or depressed. The whole place was sort of symbolic of myself. Maybe this was where I was supposed to be? Maybe such a flophouse was where I belonged? The thought of cycling again in the rain over the hills of Devonshire was enough to make up my mind.

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

how to kill time while waiting to die

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

Covid-19 was the name of the virus. Just when I thought life couldn’t be any more tedious, in came a new period of lockdown rules which reduced life to something that was merely going to work and sitting at home watching Netflix shows. There were no clubs open; no pubs open; no restaurants open; no gyms open; no libraries open. There were skies without planes; roads without cars; shops without food. ‘Stay Home’ was the national slogan and you were only permitted to go outside for one walk or exercise session a day. I knew most people chose safety over actually living their life, but now there wasn’t even a choice in the matter. Existence was all that was allowed in the name of safety. The only thing to do was dwell, to linger, to wait for something – anything. Yes, the apocalypse had come and my god – it was the boring apocalypse one could have predicted. No zombies or nuclear bombs or asteroids – just a slow dying of the human spirit as we all sat inside staring at screens and twiddling our thumbs.

Locked in my flat, l didn’t really have much to entertain myself with. I didn’t own a television or games console – just my laptop which I used for my writing (which had now stopped). I could have just got drunk of course, but for some reason I decided to pack in the drinking and dedicate myself to living a zen-like sort of lifestyle. Aside from my one run a day and the occasional visit to the supermarket (the only thing still open), all I did was I spend the time sitting and staring into space. Life quickly became a mix of meditation and masturbation; of getting lost down internet rabbit holes for hours into the early morning. My landlord Martin was in the flat too of course, although we somehow managed to rarely see each other. It was just the usual occasional chitchat in the kitchen before returning alone to our rooms. One might have thought the situation would bring us together – two people confined with no one else in the world to see or speak to, but for some reason it only made us more distant than before. Our aloof relationship was just another example of human interaction in the modern age – of having people constantly close to you but choosing to be alone with people on the internet instead. 

This solitary existence went on until sometime in the second week of lockdown when Martin told me I would have to move out after my next rent was up. I checked the calendar and realised this was in five days’ time. Typically, I wanted to question his reasoning behind this, but at that point I couldn’t be bothered to argue or even enquire about his seemingly spontaneous decision. Maybe the fearmongering media had already cast its spell upon him and he didn’t want a potential virus carrier living in his safe space? Maybe he just wanted the flat to himself now he was confined in it for twenty-three hours a day? Maybe I was more insufferable and annoying than I actually realised? Whatever his reason, I wasn’t going to argue about it and – when the time came – I packed my bags of the few things I owned, cleared out the junk from my room, and took one last look at it before leaving. There it went: another transient dwelling of mine now confined to memory; another mostly uneventful chapter of my life over as the dust settled on the tops of the shelves. 

I headed back to my hometown of Coventry via the train. Fortunately they were still running, although you were only permitted to use them for ‘essential or emergency purposes’. I wasn’t sure that the UK government were going to go full-on totalitarian with the rules, but it appeared I was wrong as I got stopped by a police officer at the station who asked me my reason for travel. I told him I’d just been kicked out my place and was having to move back with my parents. He looked at me and my flimsy backpack with almost a sad and pitiful look. He then looked down at the floor and back up to my face. “On you go lad,” he finally said. 

I got on the train and sat there alone in the totally empty carriage, enjoying the rare peace and quiet that was seldom found on public transport (it appeared this apocalypse thing actually had some benefits). I then stared out the window, looking out at the countryside, reflecting on the next chapter of my life that was to come. I hadn’t really acknowledged the situation at hand so far, but at the point of being on my way home it suddenly hit me: I was thirty years old and about to be back living with my parents. It was a situation that was almost enough to make a grown man weep – especially a man who was at odds with his parents as much as me, but I reminded myself that it wasn’t completely my fault and that such a tragic situation was acceptable given the unprecedented circumstances. Still, such mental gymnastics wasn’t going to spare me of the actual horror of the situation at hand. It had been six years since my last spell there; and my last memories of that period weren’t great to say the least. I recalled the frequent arguments with my parents, the constant annoyances, the desire to escape at the nearest opportunity. I recalled the horror of having to listen to my parents have sex through the paperthin walls; of listening to them argue about the most trivial and meaningless things. Could I really endure such a way of being once more? Every year of my life seemed to distance me further away from my parents, and any commonground that was once there was now gone. I almost even felt that I wasn’t welcome in their home anymore – like I was now a stranger in comparison to the boy who grew up there. In the place of that hopeful child, they now had a disenfranchised thirty-year-old man who saw the world through very different eyes than he once had. What was I but yet another adult that had been beaten and bent out of shape by the world that awaited you once you had grew up and left home.

When I got home, I dropped my bags and made a cup of coffee. As soon as I walked into the living room, my mum was stressing about the rug. “Watch your coffee! This is a brand new rug! Don’t you dare spill anything on it…” Once again it appeared they had purchased something that brought them much happiness to their lives. After a brief bit of small-talk about the virus, my dad moved the conversation onto the cost of living there. £50 a week – which wasn’t as bad as I expected. My parents were both working class and were constantly itching to remind me that there wasn’t anything such as a free lunch. “I had to go out and work for a living when I was 16….” “Nobody paid my way.” “If you want to stay with us, you’ll have to contribute…. you’re a grown man now.” It was all the usual stuff that showcased what absolute working class heroes they were. Anyway, I was prepared for their script and told them I’d even pay the first month up front – that got them off my back for a while.

I then sat there with them watching television shows for a couple of hours. These included game shows and television soaps where you sat watching fictional characters live their lives as yours passed by on a sofa. It seemed not much had changed since I had last lived here – the five hours of television each evening before bed was still the norm. I guess that was their way of killing time, each person did it differently. At one point I had seen enough and took myself upstairs to my childhood bedroom. There I sat there on the bed, staring out the window into the back garden. I then stared at the walls, and my old books, and then my reflection of the mirror on my wardrobe. I recalled the times I had stared at it as a child and teenager. Here I was again: my face older, my body with more creaks and scars, my hair now starting to grey. My youth had deserted me and I was now edging towards middle-age, back in the same spot like nothing had happened. And when I thought about it, it was true – nothing had really happened. Like many people of my generation, my twenties had passed me by in an uneventful blur of stumbling around physically and mentally. No relationships, no adventures, no real purpose or meaning – just a constant existence of confusion and dissastisfaction. It was enough to cause waves of sadness to wash over me. I was supposed to be concerned with what was happening out there in the world, but what was happening in my world seemed like the real crisis. My detached nature suddenly escaped me and I looked up at the stars wistfully. I looked at them shining in the night sky and longed for something more, for not simply being dejected and disillusioned with this wretched world that I was stuck in. I longed for meaning and purpose; for some kind of sustenance for my soul. And I thought of all the others like me out there, locked down in their homes or wherever the hell they were. I thought of them staring up at the same sky and feeling the same things – of feeling confused and dismayed with this world; tired of the human experience; bored with absolutely everything that this life offered. Truly this earth and existence was some kind of prison for a certain type of person – the ones who looked up above and thought a bit more about everything than you were supposed to. It was too much to take so I went and rejoined my parents to watch some more mindless programs and numb my brain to sleep.

short stories

~ In Between Places ~

~ In Between Places ~

Living in a hostel in my own country, I had become one of those strange ones who was a drifter in their own ‘home’. There was no way around it when people asked what I was doing; I was without a job, without a place to stay, without a woman, a car, and any real sort of life plan. I was floating in the existential breeze, a modern-day drifter, and no matter how clean my clothes were, people still stared at me like I was a bum when they found out my circumstance. I guess in reality that was the truth these days. After all, I had just spent the last couple of weeks drifting around the country on a bicycle – my few belongings crammed into a couple of flimsy pannier bags while staying in random hostels along the way. On top of that, I had quit two jobs and lived in three cities within the space of nine months. I was out living on the edge and it was a strange feeling because, although I had a decent amount of savings in my bank account, I still felt as though I wasn’t far from being completely in the gutter altogether. I guess that was just the anxiety speaking.

The time spent doing nothing allowed me to reflect a lot on what the next chapter of my life would entail. It seemed the coronavirus crisis had put an end to any international backpacking desires – that world was at least a year away from recovering to its former self. The best thing I decided for me was to get my own place and wait it all out, try and get some words down on paper and some miles down on the bike to maintain whatever sanity I had left. I began searching for a place and quickly found out I was no longer worthy to pay overpriced rent to landlords. Most house shares and apartments demanded ‘PROFESSIONALS ONLY’, as well as proof of income, three month’s bank statements and references – none of which I was duly able to provide. I quickly realised that, even with those savings in my account, I was not able to integrate myself so smoothly into human society. So in that hostel I dwelled, perpetually extending my stay every couple of days, telling people I was looking for a place and was just there temporarily whenever they enquired about my living circumstances. 

It seemed I wasn’t alone in being in between places. Another woman in her fifties was staying at the hostel in the week while working as a nurse, before going back to stay at her mum’s on the weekend. Then there was the Brazilian guy working there after leaving his family behind in Brazil. Then there were the people from the council who were put there temporarily while searching for housing. That’s not to forget the Chinese girl waiting to see if her visa was granted so she could stay in the country. All in all, it was a random collection of vagrant characters, and it made me feel slightly at home to be around people whose days and weeks were not scheduled or planned to any civilised degree. At night, we sat in the kitchen and chatted away while the world of society went on outside. The hostel was on top of a hill and I stared out the window and saw the lights of the city shimmer below: settled people in their settled lives, going through the roundabout of their routine existence’. Did I want to be like them? At the moment, for the first time in my life, I felt like I did, but I knew I’d also be feeling lost after a couple of weeks in that life too. No doubt the problem wasn’t my circumstance, but myself (as usual).

My days continued to meander on in the city of Sheffield. I took myself out hiking and cycling in the peak district. I saw some friends and drank some beer. I soon got to the point where I had no motivation to even look for a place to stay and entered into some sort of passive, detached state. I sat in parks and stared into space for hours. I aimlessly drifted down the city streets, deciding at the last second where to turn. One day that random route took me into a rundown bar in a rough neighbourhood. I sat down beside the bar and drank a beer when a guy I had met on a medical trial the year before walked in. We started catching up and I soon realised my situation wasn’t so bad. He confessed to me his drinking and gambling problems, and the fact he had spent a grand in the last five days, as well as his frequent visits to the local brothel. Maybe I had no direction, but at least I wasn’t that low, although the bottle was tempting me more and more. I tried to stay away from drinking heavily to help keep my mind clear, but pretty soon I was back at it with people in the hostel, stumbling to the pub with my comrades of the rootless life. I guess there was no way around it. I needed it there and then to help alleviate the anxiety of my situation.

I continued to look at the options I had and felt no desire toward any of them. A couple of years ago, I would have got on a plane to anywhere that I could afford. But now, something in me had seemingly changed. I was in between places physically and mentally. There was no clear thought process; everything was hazy and it was like reaching the peak of my entire existential journey through life. I was drifting in a smoky mist, expecting to see the sight of a lighthouse somewhere in the distance to help direct me towards the shores of belonging. But the reality was that the shoreline was never going to come. I was a lost sailor out on the ocean of human existence, and for now the fog was thicker than ever – my mind in a state of frozen helplessness. I think many people experience this in their lives at some point, but for me this seemed to be my eternal state. The state of being in between places. The state of feeling lost. The state of total non-belonging to the world around me.

Some more days drifted by and I eventually managed to get some viewings for places to live. I had decided Sheffield wasn’t the city for me and that it would be better to retreat back to Nottingham – the city I had lived in previously before the coronavirus had forced me to move back with my parents. I arrived at the viewing and was shown around the property by the landlady. It was an old Victorian house on a quiet street, occupied with two other tenants – a Spanish bartender and an old sound engineer who lived in a hut at the bottom of the garden. After introducing me to them, she showed me up to my room in the attic conversion. “The previous tenant was a woman who lived here for eleven years,” she said as we entered. “She was an alcoholic and didn’t look after the room too well, so I’ve cleaned it all out and redone it completely.” At that moment I looked around the room and imagined that woman being myself; someone who had stumbled in there one day while unsure what to do with her life, and had ended up dwelling there for over a decade while enslaved to the bottle. It was a grim thought and I looked at the bed in the corner. I looked at the old desk beside the window. The sight of it all made me feel uneasy. There was an aura of sadness and I imagined my months and years passing by between the walls of that small room. I imagined lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling as the fire inside me finally died out. I wanted to run far away from it, but there was nowhere to run to anymore. It was either this, or back to the hostel, or back home to live with my parents. Seemingly, I had been cornered by life.

After the viewing, I went to a park I knew and lay there in the grass. It was a hot September day and the park was full of groups of people, all relaxing and laughing; drinking and playing sports together. It was the same park I had visited frequently the last time I lived there. I walked through it and sat down in my usual spot – a patch of grass beside a tree on the back of the field. Deja vu struck as I beheld that familiar sight, and it seemed I had gotten absolutely nowhere since the last time I sat there. In fact, I had even gone backwards. I had even less direction than usual and I didn’t know whether to take the room. I didn’t know whether to book a flight to some far-off country. I didn’t know anything and I just sat there like a statue frozen in time. Perhaps the future would hold something better for me, I thought; something where I at least felt a connection to what I was doing, but for now I was directionless, passionless and devoid of any real zest for life. Questions about what I was doing with my life would have to be avoided and deflected. I was in survival mode; just holding on until the fog in my mind cleared and some basic way forward was revealed. This was it. There was no great wisdom or revelation like in past times. My guts had gone; my burning desire for life extinguished. There was nothing left to do and, with that, I laid down on the grass, looked up at the sky and closed my eyes – hoping my dreams at least could save me from the reality of life.

short stories

~ Holding On ~

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~ Holding On ~

A new chapter had arrived and I was living in Nottingham – a new city for me to make my mark and perhaps finally integrate myself into human society. The quest hadn’t gotten off to a good start. I was hungover, pissing blood, unemployed – lying on my bed trying to summon the strength to get up and face the world. I reached over and grabbed my CV from the bedside desk. It was a bigger mess than ever. Twenty-seven-years-old and I had never worked a full-time job. Most of my peers had an employment history of structure and sanity and sensibility; what was on mine was scraps of part-time employment intermixed with huge gaps where I had been bumming around the world or living off medical trials. From an employer’s point of view, it was nothing but mess and madness. I put it back down on the desk and looked down at my body: skinnier than usual since my recent decision to become a vegetarian. A scar on my left knee reminded me of the time when I had drunkenly fallen into a basement in Spain. Another one reminded me of getting beat up by a group of guys after kissing someone’s girlfriend. 

The scratches and scars weren’t just on my skin, but etched into my heart and soul too. I could feel a throbbing pain within me slowly succumbing to the inevitable; the entropy of the universe slowly wearing me down little by little, piece by piece. It was true that holding it together was harder year by year. Half-way through my twenties and I had let myself drift far away from a normal, healthy life. I was now out on the fringes of sanity and society; of self-destruction and madness. I felt alone in my grim fate but I couldn’t help but walk the streets and wonder how many others were also out there trying to hold on to that ledge too. How many people had faced those morning mirrors while trying to summon the strength to face another day? How many people also felt disconnected from the world around them? How many people were also holding on to whatever it was that was momentarily saving them from drowning in the abyss?

Indeed, some days the sadness of those streets was too much. You could see it in the passing faces. The struggle of everyday life. The dreams and desires that had been suppressed. The people mindlessly drifting down the sidewalks of life, following someone else’s path and not their own. Maybe I was just an angsty young man projecting my own problems onto others, but a part of me could feel the weight of this society tearing everyone apart from the inside out. Our modern civilisation had left so many of us gutted and debauched. It seemed that very few of those humans were doing well to me. Most were ‘getting by’ or ‘making ends meet’. Some were pretending that everything was great with fake smiles and social media posts, but in reality, most were living lives of quiet desperation and spiritual emptiness. Other than them you had the madmen and maniacs who made no secret about their wretched fate. You only had to go to the town centre to see them wandering aimlessly down those streets, shouting and swearing at skies above in an attempt to vent their inner pain. Looking at those dejected creatures, I sometimes felt a sort of affinity toward them: a part of me suspected that their fate was my fate. My manic mind just couldn’t be reprogrammed to the type that could put up with the trivia of everyday life. Once you had lived a certain way and saw society from a certain angle, there was just no way to make your way back to the safe farm of social sanity. No way to accept the small-talk and watch the televisions and cast the fake smiles and bullshit the job interviews. 

I thought I had let go of that life forever but I met a man one day while coming home from the pub who made me realise I had to try and hold onto it a little more. There he was lying there beside his own vomit, sipping a two-litre bottle of cider, asking me for change. I gave him some then sat down beside him. We started speaking and he told me how he was a student just a few years ago before deciding to abandon his studies and start bumming around the world. Specifically, he told me about his travels in Asia and how he had come back home and fallen into hard times with no friends or family to support him. His tale caused a strange and uneasy feeling in my stomach. The more I listened to his story, the more I realised that his path had been the same as my path. The travelling, the isolation – the abandonment of education and indifference with society. The similarities made me wonder if that was where I was also heading. The spaces of the down and out? The vomit-stained gutters? The idea of it scared me so much that I ran back home and got to work on finding some sort of employment. 

Back in my apartment room, I opened up that laptop and loaded my CV. I stared at that page and tried to think how I could possibly stitch together the chaos of the last years of bohemian madness. I quickly came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to fabricate this document which acted as a passport to a healthy life of employment and social acceptance amongst peers and parents. I extended some dates and started applying for as many jobs as possible. All types of jobs. Office jobs. Bar jobs. Even journalism jobs from my degree I hadn’t used in the last five years. I flung my application out into the professional wilderness hoping some human resource manager would bite. The rejections and non-replies predictably came in thick and fast. Even with all the adjustments, my work history was a total disaster and I was now a ‘red flag’ for most employers – understandably I guess. 

Eventually, I decided to head to an industrial work agency and let myself get a menial job of some kind. Specifically it was a job in a metal fabrication factory. Almost anyone could do this sort of work; you merely did a repetitive task that a machine would eventually do once the technology had developed. There was no intellect required and the minimum wage pay reflected this. That was okay. It was something at least and I didn’t need much money; just enough to get by and give myself some time alone to work on my writing when I got home. I got started on the job, working eight to five, Monday to Friday. My time there involved standing on a factory line and helping to grind down pieces that came out the machine. Little bits of metal protruded from the corners and I simply had to grind the roughness down to something smooth. I admired the irony of my role and wondered if I could perhaps turn the machine on myself. 

It was a long day of mind-numbing work and by the time I got home, I only had just a few hours to myself to try and wake myself up to do something. My plan, of course, was to write myself into stardom, but often I was too tired and just slumped on my bed and stared at the ceiling. It was my space of solitude and the silence of the room allowed many thoughts to run through my head. A part of just still couldn’t understand how so many people submitted themselves to this routine all their lives. The relentless work five days a week for a weekend that flew by. And, of course, few people did anything with their weekend other than try to cheer themselves up with highstreet shopping or drinking. In the blink of an eye, it was Monday morning again and you were back there in the workplace staring into space and facing another long week of mindless work.

That mindless work continued in the metal fabrication factory until they suddenly ran dry. I collected my last paycheck and went back to the agency to see what gruel they had on their menu. After sitting in front of a smug young recruitment agent talking about his new watch, I was given the assignment of helping out at an old pet food factory. I knew I wasn’t qualified for much in this world, but this was a new low even by my standards. Consider the fact that the factory was a one hour commute away too, and that ten per cent of my wage would be eaten up by the bus fare, it was safe to say I wasn’t feeling too great with the situation at hand.

Still, I needed to get some money to avoid joining the homeless man on the vomit-stained sidewalks, so I sucked it up and got to work. Walking into the factory for the first time, I was greeted immediately with the overpowering smell of pet food. It was a stench that quickly ingrained itself into your clothes, skin and soul. I was told that I would get used to it. Lucky me. On the way to see the manager, I walked past a ‘waste bucket’ where damaged or out-of-date packets of cat food had been chucked in. Maybe some smells you could get used to, but not that one. That was the smell of death and maggots and madness. That was the smell straight from the depths of hell.

After a quick conversation with the manager, I was put on a conveyor-belt line where I was to load up cans of dog food that would be stripped and relabelled. It was about the same level of skill involved as the last job – i.e. none at all. While I worked, I would look around at everyone in the factory. Some had worked with the machines so long they had become mechanical themselves. Their cogs in their brain moved the same robotic way, their conversations were mechanised, their behaviour automatic. You could tell who were the ones who had been there the longest due to how little light came from their eyes. This was it: the murdering machine of the mundane. People who had worked and existed in menial jobs so long that the feeling of life had all but left their veins. And it wasn’t just the dead-end jobs where this happened. It also happened in graduate jobs. In the office jobs. Even the high-paying, high-rise jobs. The people in those often became so absorbed in bureaucracy and systems that they soon lost their souls. You could see it in the faces of most CEOs and politicians; very little humanity remained in their eyes. They had been converted to some sort of thinking, calculating machines of the system.

But where else to turn to? I wondered again. The homeless laid on those sidewalks and those bills needed to be paid. I, of course, had the classic writer’s dream that one day some big hotshot editor would stumble across my work and I’d be selling millions worldwide. There in Rolling Stone magazine interviews I would sit and tell my story about how I crawled out of the drudgery and darkness to emerge clean on the other side of my dream. It was total delusion of course, but we all needed a little bit of delusion to make life bearable I guess. It’s when we gave up on our dreams altogether that the murdering machine took the fatal blow. You emptied out and rotted away like those out-of-date cans of dog food. Holding onto a dream was what kept some sort of spirit for life, and the importance of it was something I was continually reminded of while speaking to the only friend I had in the pet food factory. He was a forty-seven-year-old man who had been through a lot of jobs after being made redundant from his software developing job in London. He had gone from a high-paying job to now earning the minimum wage in that factory of doom. It was a situation he naturally wasn’t too happy with and every day he told me about how he was developing his own computer game in his spare time to try and get himself back into working in his passion. The smell of rotting pet food had spurred him on not to give up on and there he was: another man fighting to hold on and not let himself be murdered by that mundane machine that stole the light from so many eyes and the fight from so many hearts. 

That man stirred something in me and motivated me to go home and also toil away at my dream. To not let myself empty out slowly through a life of incessant and trivial routine. To write my way into some sort of glory and escape. I was trying to hold on the best I could but sometimes the horror of my situation led me back to the bottle. I’d go on weekend benders blowing all my money before staring into mirrors and seeing the sanity slowly slipping from my eyes. It soon spiralled out of control to the point where I drank myself to sleep most nights, trying to forget about the horror of my circumstance. Some nights my loneliness hit me and I’d go out to a club alone to find a girl which naturally was notably harder to do when you told them you worked in a pet food factory.

One day a new drama came my way: my laptop started refusing to charge. It would only plugin and provide power, but not actually charge the computer. Consequently, the battery started to drop down slowly and slowly by one percent a day on average. That laptop was my portal to another place and soon I would no longer even be able to write away my immortal stories – the one thing that was keeping me from losing my mind altogether. The universe had spoken and that battery was running down its course to complete destruction. I had to laugh at the symbolic nature of it all. Like me, it was becoming more and more depleted as I fought to keep my soul alive in a society which relentlessly looked to stomp it into submission. It is a reality that faces most of us out there and – as the fingers bleed in the factories, as the stressed workers tightly grip the steering wheels in the morning commute, as the fifty-year-old man works on his computer game till late at night; as the pills are swallowed and the powder snorted; as the bills arrive through the post and the prayers are not answered – so many of us are holding on in some way or another to stop ourselves from emptying out. Clutching onto beer bottles, or pills, or bags of powder. Clinging onto delusions and dreams. Clinging onto the hope in our hearts as we face the darkness of the Monday morning at work once again. 

Clinging onto the words of a short story that nobody will probably ever read. Well, I guess I’m not letting go just yet.

short stories

~ Finding the Others ~

finding the others

~ Finding the Others ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

short stories

~ Off The Rails ~

nice beach

~ Off the Rails ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

short stories

~ Clinging on ~

pexels-photo-220444

~ Clinging on ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

coronavirus diaries

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

For previous days see here

solitude

Day 4 and 5

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

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

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

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

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

 

coronavirus diaries

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

For previous days see here.

pexels-photo-143580

Days 2 and 3

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

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

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

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

(days 4 and 5 to follow)

short stories

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries

self isolation

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

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

Day 1

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

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

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

Days 2 and 3

pexels-photo-143580

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

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

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

Days 4 and 5

solitude

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

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

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

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

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