short stories

~ What Am I Doing? ~

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~ What am I doing? ~

I was the only ‘gringo’ on the bus – gringo essentially being the South American term for a ‘white western person’. I was heading out of Bolivia into the north of Argentina. I had just spent a couple of weeks with new friends and was hitting the road again on my own. One friend had headed up to the Amazon and the other had travelled to another place in Argentina. And so there I was: back to riding solo down the highway of life, staring out of those bus windows and wondering what chaos and madness was over the next horizon of space and time. However, I wasn’t totally alone. A little old lady had been sat next to me for the sixteen-hour bus ride. She had been quiet the whole way, but as we pulled into a police checkpoint at the border, she started to shift around in an erratic manner. I kept one eye on her while leaning my head against the window. Outside I could see a group of police officers with machine guns leading people into a room to be searched. The old lady continued to shift around nervously and eventually started tugging on my shirt to get my attention. I turned to face her. My Spanish was still pretty bad despite being in South America for about two months already, but naturally I could understand what ‘co-cai-na’ meant. She said it repeatedly before opening her bag and pulling out what looked like a kilogram of Colombia’s finest in a see-through plastic bag. Slightly taken aback by the situation that was unfolding, I stared at her blankly without knowing quite what to say. She then proceeded to grab my backpack and attempt to put the cocaine inside of it. Not wanting to end up banged up in a South American jail for the next ten years, I politely declined the old lady’s advances. I then grabbed my backpack to get off the bus and join the queue of people who were now being led through the police checkpoint.

While in the queue to get searched, I watched the old lady stand in line on her own. This poor woman, I thought. What was she doing? What was she thinking? She must have been almost seventy and it looked like she was on her way to spending her remaining years in some hellhole Bolivian prison. There was no way the officers were not going to find her stash in that small handbag of hers. Not a chance in hell. I felt bad for her but there was nothing I could do at this point. Her reckless gamble had failed and her doomed fate was sealed.

The queue continued to go down and eventually the old lady reached the table to be searched. The officers took her bag and placed it on the table. Another one then went to open it. This was it, I thought. I was about to witness an old lady have the cuffs slapped on her and get escorted off to jail. I stood there and watched the officer unzip her bag, pull out for the bag of class A drugs, inspect it under the lighting and then toss it aside. Then, to my confusion, I watched as the old lady grabbed her handbag back and passed through freely. There she walked: no cuffs, no arrest, no drama. Off she strolled to get back on the bus.

It was only when I reached the table to be searched that I saw the large stash of cocaine behind the officers. There must have been a dozen bags of drugs all piled on top of each other. It appeared that almost half the people on the bus I was on were trying to smuggle bags of cocaine across the Argentine border. The passengers consisted of elderly people, parents and their kids, but clearly that was just business as normal in this part of the world. In a state of surreal shock, I reached the police officers myself where they took one look at my passport, saw that I was a ‘gringo’ and then ushered me through without even bothering to search my bag. It suddenly hit me why the little old lady was so keen to put the drugs in my backpack. She could have got them through after all. Perhaps we could have formed a partnership and split the profits? Perhaps It could have been the start of a bright new career in the narcotics industry? I dismissed the thought and got back on the bus where me and the old lady both sat in awkward silence. I then pressed my head against the window once more, stared out at the passing countryside of those foreign lands and wondered what the hell it was exactly that I was doing with my life…

Fast forward a few hours later and I’m dropped off in a strange town in the middle of nowhere. It was the place where I was supposed to be catching my connecting bus to Buenos Aires. However, with my original bus arriving two hours late, the departure had been missed and I was now standing alone in the dark of night in a shady bus station. I tried to communicate my problem with a bus driver but my gringo Spanish was naturally of insufficient use. Suddenly I was stranded and in a spot of bother. With a gang of men eyeing me across the street, I quickly decided that the best thing to do was to get on any bus to anywhere. Luckily there was one final bus about to depart before the station closed. I booked myself a ticket to a town called Salta. I got on and arrived about an hour and a half later where I booked into a random hostel and proceeded to drink shots of whiskey until the early morning with some Irish guy who was drowning his sorrows after his girlfriend had just broken up with him. As those shots flew back, I stared drunkenly into space and heard that same question once again reverberate around the walls of my skull: what the hell am I doing with my life?

‘What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my life? What the hell am I doing with my life?’

It was a question that went through my head probably more than any other. I was an introspective and reflective guy anyway, but when you got yourself into as many random scenarios as I did, then it was a question that was frequently at the forefront of all mental musings. On this travelling adventure I had already ended up in so many random situations that left me contemplating my own existence. I had just finished university and my parents had wanted me to use my degree and go out and get a ‘real job’. Yet instead of sitting behind a desk and forming a career of some sort, I’d be in some ridiculous situation thousands of miles from home. Evidently South America was particularly bad for this, hopping from one bizarre scenario to the next. At one point I stopped and lived in Rio de Janeiro for a couple of months with a Brazilian girl I had met on the road. We stayed with her family in an isolated suburb on the outskirts of the city where no one including her family spoke a word of English. She had arrived home from her trip but had decided to stay in holiday mindset; this meant we’d spend the days at the beach before going out to get drunk at random parties, sleep in her car, crash at the apartments of some tourists, or sneak up to the rooftop pool of one of the most expensive hotels in Copacabana. At one point we had an argument and she went off with some other guys to her holiday home somewhere down the coast. In my own dismay, I found myself getting drunk at the beach on my own, staring out at the Atlantic Ocean and thinking about the alternative reality on the other side of that water back in the U.K. That alternative reality where I could have been all suited and booted up like a regular member of the human race – where I would be finishing another hard day at the office before going to have a few pints down the pub with work colleagues. My drunken mind imagined it all. The alarm clocks. The traffic jams. The work desk. The shirts and ties. The small talk. The routine lifestyle. The high-street shopping queues. It all went through my head as I knocked back the beers and passed out on a Brazilian beach.

Such existential thoughts carried on as I left South America and arrived in New Zealand almost one thousand pounds into my overdraft. Arriving to a country on the other side of the world with no money was pretty outrageous, even for my standards, but by this point I was totally lost in the wilderness of life, accepting that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but just trusting myself to the winds of fate and circumstance. That wind picked up and within a few weeks I was working in a kiwi fruit packhouse, living in a town of a couple of hundred people and renting a house with an eclectic mix of humans which included two guys from Chile, my English friend I had met in Australia a couple of years before, and my sister who was coincidentally travelling in New Zealand at the same time. Days were spent packing boxes of kiwis at a frantic rate as they poured like a tsunami from the conveyor belt, before heading home and sharing a bed with my sister in a freezing cold house in the middle of winter. It was a strange scenario to say the least, and naturally I still had no answer to that pressing question that lingered in my mind.

As that two-year backpacking trip finished and my life went on, there were times where I felt that I was beginning to realise what I was doing with my life. What was happening; where it was going; what it was leading to. Those times included coming home and thinking I was going to stop the travelling and settle down. It included times where I went back to university to study – where I eyed up career options as a journalist or copywriter and began to plot some sort of routine that would lead me safely and smoothly into old age. I should have known such things to be nothing more than mere mental musings. I’d go from having a plan to be hiking alone and writing poetry in the Himalayas. To hitch-hiking around Iceland. To raving beside an erupting volcano in Guatemala. To sleeping on a park bench in Slovenia. To walking across Spain in the midsummer heat (the most defining ‘what the hell am I doing?’ moment definitely being when me and four other hikers spontaneously decided to hike through the night, getting drunk off bottles of red wine before passing out in a farmer’s field). By this point I had learnt to go with the flow of whatever it was that was enfolding and even enjoy the comedy of my own chaotic existence. Hell, I even started to revel in it, smiling and smirking to myself in the most random of scenarios, stopping for a second and soaking it all in while the mess and madness unfolded around me. To some degree, I had managed to rewire my brain to living totally in the sheer anarchy of the moment.

I guess my most recent ‘what am I doing with my life’ moments came travelling in Europe. I had just flown back from Asia to meet my Dutch friend Bryan and head to Corsica to do a two-week trek through the island. However, our timetable wasn’t quite right and we had about three weeks until the snowy conditions made it possible to hike. Consequently, we arranged to travel through Switzerland and Italy in the meanwhile. Taking cheap buses in between destinations, we stopped and stayed with random friends we had each met travelling; we bummed around in cities getting drunk in bars and parks; we stumbled around famous historic sites such as the Colosseum or the Vatican while cracking inappropriate jokes about history and culture. Bryan was like me in that he also regularly questioned the bizarre situations and scenarios the path of his life had led him to. We had been through a similar journey in life and were both highly philosophical about our own unconventional existence. This sometimes caused us to ask that question simultaneously as we walked down the streets of Rome or Florence, or when we drank beer on a random street corner and observed the human race like we were on safari. It was a very existential time of my life, even more so than usual, and ultimately we came to the conclusion that it was probably best that two manic minds like ours didn’t share paths for too long. Seemingly we were both a bad influence on each other’s lives. When I first met Bryan, he was a clean-cut guy, only having a couple of pints of beer each time we went to a bar; but now – partly due to the influence of myself and partly due to the crushing weight of the world – he was now an even more keen drinker than I was. I thought this would be a good development, but both of us being keen drinkers was a recipe for disaster. I was suffering from insomnia at the time and there was a moment every night where we would both think about being sensible and getting a good night’s rest. Then one of us would hint about going out for a drink to which the other would then utter the trip catchphrase: ‘why not? we’re on holiday…’ Next thing we’d be stumbling out again into the wilderness of the night, getting messed up and sneaking into VIP areas in clubs, before waking up the next day, staring at the hostel room ceiling and wondering that same old life-defining question…

What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my life? What the hell am I doing with my life?’

I thought about it all those times on the road and I think about it now while I am writing these words, living alone in a new city, getting by off medical trials and agency work, not knowing what I’ll be doing in a few months’ time – whether I’ll be back out on that road or trying to write another book. It is a thought that has made itself at home in my head, but it is also a thought I think I see in the eyes of everyone around me too. I see it in the look of a businessman waiting in his car at the traffic lights. I see it at the look of a woman pushing a pram up the hill. I see it in the look of an elderly person drinking alone at a bar; in the look of a cashier in a store when they have a second to think to themselves. Sometimes I think I see it in my parent’s eyes too – in my father’s eyes as he’s doing the dishes or my mother’s eyes as she waters the plants. I have this suspicion I can’t shake that it’s all a big conspiracy and no one really knows what the hell they are doing. We all just try to follow and fake it, to go with what is expected of us by others and society, but deep down in every man or woman’s heart there are those moments of staring into skies, mirrors and spaces that are often as empty as the existential space they feel inside themselves. Perhaps that is a space that will never be filled no matter what we do or where we go. Sometimes I think I know what I’m doing, but that delusion quickly passes and I return to that bus window or solitary shoreline knowing that I am hopelessly lost in the dream of life as ever. Lost in the cosmic ocean of space and time. Lost in the woods of human existence. And accepting that, I find a sort of faith to keep walking wide-eyed through the wilderness and accept whatever it is that life brings my way. Deep down, no one really knows what the hell is going on, and the ones who do are normally just a divorce or redundancy or midlife crisis away from having their illusions totally blown to pieces. Life at its core is just pure mystery and madness, so why not just accept that? Why not go with the flow? Why not just sit back and enjoy the ride? Hell, go one further. Put the pedal down, wind down the windows, stick your head out into the wind and enjoy this random and chaotic trip of a lifetime.

God knows, somebody has to.

 

 

 

 

short stories

~ Toward the Keyboard ~

(The opening piece to my soon-to-be-finished book ‘Scraps of Madness: the Notes of a Wanderer’)


~ Toward the Keyboard ~

It was true. Oh god, oh god: it was true.

The opening years of adulthood had passed and my conclusion had been drawn: I was an alien – an outsider – an outcast. I had tried to a reasonable degree to slot myself into the paradigm of human society, but I gradually realised that there was just no place for me amongst those stern-eyed creatures of culture and convention. Each attempt to fit myself in had led to the usual bout of alien anxiety and staring up existentially into skies above. I stood still on those concrete sidewalks of life with my hands in my pockets knowing that I just simply wasn’t compatible with any of it: the jobs, the paperwork, the contracts, the football teams, the small talk, dating, mortgages, Ikea – Ant and Dec. Even simple everyday things like supermarket shopping somehow made me sad. Those aisles had a still emptiness which made my heart ache for something which couldn’t be purchased in any store, or made in any factory, or stored in any house.

People with good intentions encouraged me to mix myself in but I was hopelessly allergic to it all. A life of comfort and security was okay for a few months at the most, but after that my restless eyes lifted once again to that horizon of adventure and chaos. That possibly explained why I had spent three of the last five years on some sort of travelling expedition out somewhere in the world. Expedition makes it sound like I was climbing Mount Everest, although I did trek to the base camp twice, but too often I was bumming around, getting drunk in hostels and attempting to seem like a normal, functioning member of the human race so I could hook up with some young German girl who was about to become a lawyer and begin the peaceful middle-class existence in the suburbs.

People back home said that there was something wrong with me: that I was immature, that I was out of my mind – that I was running away from life and or something like that. Maybe they were right, but in my head, I wasn’t running away from life, but rather running toward it with wide arms, a heavy heart and a weathered backpack full of old clothes and a couple of books on esoteric philosophy to boot. It was just a different perspective and all that, you know? Truthfully, I guess I just saw no thrill in a life of bill-paying routine, in a steady career, in promotions, parking spaces, weddings, television sitcoms, shiny cars or that same old holiday once a year to somewhere in Spain. All I could do was wonder was that really what human existence was all about? Was that my destiny as a sentient organism in an infinite universe? Was that to be my fate whilst briefly incarnate in this transient cage of slowly decaying flesh and bone?

It was an interesting situation to say the least. I truly and genuinely wanted to understand their way of life, so I did the usual things. I watched TED talks. I listened to Jordan Peterson lectures. I spoke to career counselors, parents and work colleagues. I argued with strangers on the internet in YouTube comment sections. I tried and tried and tried, but in the end, I just didn’t understand how the vast majority could do it so easily. What they called ‘growing up’ and ‘the real world’ to me seemed like some weird bubble of unnatural behavior. After all, what was natural about sitting in an office in artificial light all day, only to drive home in a gas-guzzling car and eat processed foods while watching a blinking box life until you went to sleep? That wasn’t what the real world was. To me the real world was out there among the fields and trees – the rivers, the streams, the sunset beaches and mountain wildernesses. That’s where the life and adventure was at! Even better was what was out there in the cosmos with its shooting stars and endless galaxies. It felt so cruel to be able to see that infinite universe on a clear night above me. I wanted to go out and explore it all, but I had been subjected by gravity and government to instead exist in a world of monotony and mediocrity. Instead of sailing through the cosmos, we’d stutter through traffic jams; instead of exploring solar systems, we’d explore supermarket aisles. Why was it like this? Which cruel god had created this circus? This pantomime?

Okay, so I guess I was a little bit bitter of the others being content with what they had – at actually managing to make the journey from the maternity ward to the crematorium in some sort of steady and sane fashion. I envied their contentment about neatly fitting into system without any friction. They peacefully rode the cultural conveyor-belt through the education system, the jobs, the mortgages, the family life, the bank holidays and retirement before arriving safely into a wooden box to be duly buried six feet under the ground. It was a simple and smooth procedure. But me? I was a chaotic mess waiting to move perpetually on to the next adventure. I just couldn’t stay still in one spot. I had an itch that couldn’t be scratched; a madness that couldn’t be cured. I was just so excited to even exist at all that the 9-5 routine seemed impossible to do for more than a year at the very most. I needed frequent adventure but travelling all the time was tiring and most notably: expensive. It was true that I needed to find something else to help me fill the time in between the maternity ward and the crematorium like the others had done. There must have been something that fulfilled me other than travelling? Something that I could do while living in one place? Something? Anything?

There was: writing. Switching on some ambient music and letting myself lose my mind at a keyboard was a very fulfilling thing indeed. It reminded me of being a young kid again, picking and piecing those Lego bricks together, building structures and creating things, only with words and ideas instead of plastic bricks. It was an act of joyous play which never felt like a chore or a job. Hell, even the essays in school were somewhat enjoyable as long as there was some sort of agency and creativity involved. In a society of rigid rules, the act of writing allowed me to be the archetype of whatever alternative reality I wanted to momentarily migrate to. That pen was a portal and quite simply it took me to a different place. A separate place. A better place.

Yes, it was clear to me that being a writer would have been something to solve my existential problem. So naturally I looked at the realistic and sensible options available and decided to start studying journalism at university. I guess I thought that the role of a journalist would provide a way to make money while joyfully strumming away on those keyboard keys. However, about midway through that three-year course, I realised that sitting in an office and typing up a news story I had no interest in didn’t really interest me either. What I wanted to do was to WRITE – creatively and expressively that is. In a world where I was slowly suffocated by sanity and sensibility, creative writing was my opportunity to go insane – to explore the spaces down the rabbit hole and create my own wonderland of words and bizarre ideas.

So, after finishing my journalism course with gritted teeth and a damaged liver, I went on to study creative writing at master’s level. The thought of the situation made my heart pump with excitement. This was my chance to explore my passion with like-minded creatures. Finally, my tribe! My place with people who wanted to create with words, who wanted to explore their imagination – who were also driven to write out of their total and profound incompatibility with absolutely everything else in human society.

I was certain I had found my place of belonging but soon after starting I realised I was out of luck once again. I sat in a room of middle-aged marketing executives having a mid-life crisis, trying to write the next War and Peace or Wuthering Heights. One guy read out some story and I watched as about five different people from different demographics weighed in with their conflicting opinions, to which he then butchered the essence of his piece apart to make it sit in the middle of the road and please everyone. For some reason it made me sad and I decided there and then to quit. Maybe I wasn’t a writer, but these people weren’t definitely weren’t, so off I went again, quitting the course, flying one way to Mexico, travelling around, staring out into sunset skies – getting drunk and hitting on German girls who were about to qualify as lawyers and begin the peaceful middle-class existence in the suburbs. The usual.

The more I travelled the world, the more I started to appreciate and gravitate toward the wilderness of planet earth. The party and the girls and the foreign cultures: those sorts of things were definitely fun while travelling, but the best parts were always getting out of the cities and hostels. It was those little camping trips or hikes into the wild. The mountains, the forests, the fields – the sunset beaches and rugged plains devoid of any substantial human civilisation. From the volcanoes of Central America to the untouched, empty wilderness of Iceland, to the isolated Buddhist temples of the Himalayas – it was all a magical wonderland to me. Like writing, it was a beautiful escape from the world of clocks and calendars and concrete and contracts; a place where you could exist peacefully without being disturbed by a traffic jam or deadline or some boss belittling you over something meaningless and trivial.

Recalling being a little kid, I remembered that I always found a great joy in the time I spent in nature. Even if it was just a field or something, there was a sense of adventure in a simple stretch of grass which had more life than any buzzing city could ever hope to achieve. The average field mouse had more adventure in one day than many humans had in their entire lives. And it’s not just that the animals’ lives were more thrilling, it often seemed like they were smarter than us too. Take the birds for example: instead of bulldozing entire rainforests down so that they could use the materials for cosmetics and tabloid newspapers, they instead picked up and recycled fallen branches and used them to build homes integrated with the world around them. The animals understood that they were interconnected with nature and that, rather than trying to rape and destroy it, it was better to work with it. Dogs too. They didn’t chase the stick because they saw an advert on the television for it, or because they thought they would get some sort of promotion. They just did it for kicks. They knew existence was playful not political, and they knew not to stress and strain their lives away working for trivial things or the opinions of other dogs. And cats, well, they knew what life was about to the absolute core. Just look at them sitting there doing nothing. Total Zen masters. Godlike geniuses and gurus – every goddamn last one of them.

Okay, so I guess maybe I was a bit jealous and bitter again when it came to the animals. I felt sad that I was spawned on this planet as a human-being and not a squirrel or something. Since childhood I had often felt that I was born into the wrong species. I stared out into the eyes of the humans thinking that perhaps there had been a mix up back at the soul distribution warehouse. Perhaps mine had been wrongly delivered to the human department instead of the cats or dogs or birds? Probably that was it: some incompetent god not doing his job properly in the depot centre. For a while I tried to be like a cat – a total Zen master, meditating and sleeping and eating and staring into space with no excitement, just total acceptance of the here and now. But after a while I realised I was still actually human and needed things like money and companionship and hobbies and purpose. As usual I was out of luck: I was a human-being and nothing was going to change that. Sex changes had just about hit the market, but species’ changes must have been a few centuries away at the least.

And so, with a heavy heart and a broken bank account, I retreated back into human society. I flew home, got a job in a bar and tried to get back into writing. By now I had realised it was the one and only thing I enjoyed at home, so naturally I had to pursue it ferociously and uncompromisingly in an attempt to stay sane. I had been writing for a while, but I had never really had anything read by anyone else. I wanted to find my audience and so I started considering the possibilities. It was the 21st century I had realised, so maybe online was the way to go? Okay. Online I went into the virtual wilderness – to the lands of trolls, porn, junk mail and depressed people trying to make it look like they lived happy and exciting lives to strangers on the internet.

Firstly, I went onto Instagram to check out the hotshot authors: the ones with thousands of likes on every post; the ones who somehow managed to actually make some money off pounding some keys on a keyboard. As I read, I realised that there was some sort of mass trickery taking place. Everyone on Instagram seemed to post bland comments about life or love and then dress them up in pretty fonts and filters to try and make their words look more meaningful. Even worse was the way people had to like and spam comments on each other’s posts in an attempt to get more followers and views on their own pages. It was a strange situation; it was like watching those suited marketing executives in the city network with each other in swanky bars after work. Confused as ever, I decided to carry on my way.

Stumbling further through the virtual wilderness of the internet, I came across Facebook. At least on Facebook you could post lengthy pieces of texts, I thought. I logged in and started a blog called ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ where I posted images of people walking in nature with some sort of internal dialogue about travel or life or society. It was a simple concept and it worked! My blog took off within a few weeks and people, real people, somewhere out there across the world were reading and interacting with my writings for the first time ever. I felt like Shakespeare or Hemingway back from the dead, armed with a grubby laptop, hopelessly and poetically alone with everybody on the internet. The pen had moved on and there I was: hiding my face behind a pseudonym online while being read and digested by a few hundred people sporadically scattered somewhere around the globe.

As I carried on sharing my words and thoughts, a quiet flame of joy began to flicker in my heart. I wasn’t even adventuring, yet I was still finding some fulfilment by just bleeding my brain dry at a keyboard. What a joy it was just to have your stuff read by others somewhere out there! One woman even messaged me saying she had quit a job and was about to drive around Australia because of something I had written. Another young painter told me something similar – that I had given her the courage to pursue her ambition to become an artist.

That feedback was like a class A drug to me and I sat back delusional at that keyboard like a man of importance, like a man of purpose. I was content knowing that I was helping to spread some colour and madness into this grey world. I looked out at the window with a smug sort of grin. Soon those streets outside would have mad men and women crawling down the sidewalks, eyes full of fire and saliva dripping from their mouth as they quit their desk jobs and chased their passions with a demonic sort of possession. The revolution was coming over the horizon, I knew it. I just needed to keep writing away and helping the side of the crazy and disturbed and demented.

Of course, I still needed money while I was toiling away in this heroic endeavour, so naturally I worked the monotonous jobs in the meanwhile. Jobs like bartending, factory work and customer service came and went in short bursts. They were always the easiest to get for an inexperienced and introverted creature like myself. Some were bad and some were awful, but they all helped pay the bills I guess, and I could even find inspiration for things to write about while daydreaming the hours away as I stared wistfully into time and space.

This state of existence went on for a while. It would be a day of menial work followed by an evening of losing my mind at the keyboard. Somewhere in there I would find time to eat a basic no-thrills meal, and maybe even treat myself to a bottle of red wine. Occasionally I would go out and walk the streets while listening to some Zen philosopher’s podcast through my headphones. With the sound of existential philosophy in my ears, I looked out and observed the human race like I was on some kind of safari. I wandered aimlessly through the city neighbourhoods and watched the way they all walked and talked while taking mental notes for my writings. Situations like standing in the crowd that momentarily formed at the traffic lights or waiting in the supermarket queue would turn out to be schools of ethnographic observation. Maybe it was a little strange I guess, but such an undertaking added to whatever it was I was striving for in a way I couldn’t totally explain to myself let alone others. There was some burning desire deep inside me that told me I needed to observe, to learn and understand the absurdity of the human condition. To what end? That wasn’t clear, but I just I needed to know what made them tick.

After doing this for a while, I realised I had substantially segregated and closed myself off from the rest of my species. As the months drifted by, I realised I was living dangerously in a world of extreme isolation and bad diet habits. I was somewhat used to keeping myself away from the masses out there on the streets. I liked it that way mostly, the situation of being content with your own company, but my hermit-levels had slowly reached castaway proportions. Every day I went to work and avoided any significant interaction with my co-workers before going home to sit in darkness and empty my brain at that keyboard to random strangers on the internet. It was an extreme situation and carrying on at this rate would almost certainly pave the road toward the madhouse. ‘Venture down the rabbit-hole just enough to find the magic; hold on to normality just enough to avoid the madhouse’ – something I had scribbled once into my diary. With that in mind, I decided that I would go out and have a drink with a friend.

By now my circle of friends and acquaintances had shrunk considerably, but luckily I had come across a few other misfits out on the road during my travels. I remembered one who also lived in my city and got speaking to her online. Her name was Emily – an anxious girl who didn’t have much of an idea how to fit herself into this society either. I recalled her telling me how she also listened to ambient music and painted abstract art to escape normal life. She seemed like the ideal person to befriend. We spoke for a while online and then arranged to meet up for a drink down the pub.

“So, your life sounds interesting,” she said, sipping a glass of wine across the table. “I do worry about you though.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Humans weren’t meant to exist in solitude all the time. Too much time alone sends you crazy. That’s what happened to my ex.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’ve got it all figured out. I am just gonna write my books and start the revolution this world needs.” She looked at me like the madman I was.

“I’m glad you are enjoying writing now and not feeling like you have to run off to a foreign country every month. But what are you planning to do for work in the long term? Do you have any plans for the future? A career? It’s hard to make money from writing these days. Everybody with a laptop and internet connection wants to be a writer you know.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just want to write and maybe have a few more adventures here and there. I guess I’ll work whatever job I have to along the way. I’m not sure. I stopped planning too much.”

“Come on. You know I love that about you, your adventurous attitude, but realistically you can’t just continue living like this forever. You need to spend some more time with people and learn to live with others. That’s what I did. Sure, I have to bite my tongue from time to time, but it beats being lonely and isolated and depressed. That’s what being alone all the time did to me.”

“I’m sorry Emily, but I like it this way. Maybe you do, but I just don’t understand this species. I am just here to observe and write about these creatures of conformity and convention before I return back to whatever place it was that I came from.” She rolled her eyes.

“Oh, please just stop. I hate when you speak like this. You say all these things, but I know you don’t mean them. I saw you were happy with those people when we were travelling. You do like people and you are human – just accept it! You have to face up to it and learn how to be happy in this society. You can’t just hide away on your own forever.”

“I can try.”

“No! No you can’t! You need some security, a way to make money – a place to call home! You need friends and you need family. We are all social creatures and you’ll go insane if you just keep secluding yourself in that apartment of yours. I know you are working hard on your writing but why don’t you go out and see some more of your friends some time? The ones from school you told me about?”

I sat back in thoughtful silence, pondering her words. Some of the things she had said did ring true. I couldn’t deny she was right in many regards. Human beings were social creatures and often the suicides and mental asylum patients were the people who had been subjected to years of isolation. Like I said, it was true that I felt pretty good in my own company, but maybe she was right with there being a limit to it all? Maybe I did need to regularly spend time with other people? Try and see things from their perspective? Enjoy the camaraderie and gregarious nature of my fellow man?

In the end I decided her fiery words were right. I had gone too far, been too audacious in my behaviour. I had wandered too long over the fences of normality and it was time to return to the farm of social sanity to rub shoulders with some more of the others.

The next week I decided to go to a birthday celebration night out of one of my friends from school. It had been an arranged date on the social calendar for a while. A large group of people were going and naturally I had planned to avoid it at all costs. A lot of people consequently meant a lot of small talk – a lot of small talk meant a lot of explanation about what you were actually doing with your life. Such a situation wasn’t really appealing but with gritted teeth and a determination to cling on the ledge of sanity a little longer, I booked my bus ticket to London and went and met everyone in a pub somewhere deep within the concrete jungle.

I arrived late into the bar where all my friends were sat around a table already on their second and third pints. The jolly laughs and banter-filled conversations were flowing in full steam already. That camaraderie of my fellow man on display right in front of me. I breathed in, composed myself and headed over to join the circus. As I approached, they looked up at me with their big eyes and smiles. “Here he is,” one of them said enthusiastically. “The stranger! He’s still alive then.”

I forced a polite smile and sat down among them. I got comfy and began getting through the formalities, reciting the socially approved script of small talk and making sure everyone felt I was happy to be there and see them. After a few shaky minutes, I went up to the bar and ordered myself a beer, along with a sneaky double whiskey coke to steady my nerves. I returned to the table and carried on mixing in with the crowd. The conversation flowed away and soon came the inevitable questions I so feared: the questions the normal people used to categorise everyone and everything; the questions that determined whether or not you were an accepted member of the human race.

“So, what are you doing now mate?” one of them said. “We haven’t heard from you in a while. Last I heard you started a master’s course in creative writing. You still doing that?” I sipped my beer slowly, mentally preparing my answer inside my skull.

“Nah I didn’t like the course, so I quit that after three weeks and flew one-way to Mexico to do some more travelling.” He looked at me with curious eyes.

“Fair enough… I guess it’s better to do that than to pay thousands of pounds on something you don’t enjoy. How was Mexico?”

“Great,” I said. “It’s a great country to travel.”

“That’s cool. I’d like to go there sometime.”

“Yeah you should.”

An awkward silence briefly lingered; I still hadn’t answered the original question.

“So, what is it that you’re up to now?”

The justification of my madness had begun. I sipped my beer slowly again before beginning to explain away. In all honesty I wasn’t even sure how to answer that question by this point. Often, I felt that I was simply too insane to justify myself anymore. My life was like being stuck in a car on fire speeding toward a cliff that dropped into the abyss of the unknown. It was seriously difficult to explain to myself let alone others, but I began bumbling away anyway, talking about my job, about my blog – about adventure and some vague writing goals for the future. I of course knew that vague goals for the future were a key thing when justifying what you were doing with your life; if you didn’t have some sort of plan and long-term targets, then the looks of concern were thrown your way in the bucket load.

Fortunately, this round of small talk went better than expected. I explained away my job and writing, and as I got more comfortable, I began opening up and speaking a bit more from the heart. I began talking about the things that actually interested me: about the universe and art and consciousness and philosophy. But I soon felt them dissecting me with their eyes. I was pushing the limit of social acceptability and naturally the conversation began to stall. I could see the sparks flying in their eyes; the buffering taking place in their heads. I realised I had gone too far and panicked. They were onto me. It wouldn’t be long until they figured out that I wasn’t one of them. That I was an imposter. That I was an intruder.

Naturally I responded to this problem by drinking faster and faster. Over the last few years I had discovered that alcohol could act as a temporary bubble of warmth in which to nestle oneself whenever human society was swarming too loud around you. This blur of drinking went on until the world faded away and I descended into the black void of nothingness I knew all too well. The next morning, I awoke in a friend’s living room before dragging myself back home on a two-hour bus with a hangover great enough to make the devil weep. I was still alive though and looking forward to returning to my lair of solitude where I belonged locked up alone with my own terrible madness.

After that occasion, I realised that there simply was just no way back to that farm of social normality. I had jumped the fence and got lost in the woods of madness with no chance of ever returning back. I was no longer one of the regular humans capable of being considered an upstanding, accepted member of society. With this in mind, I sat in silent solitude and decided that the only thing left to do was to abandon myself recklessly to the one thing that set my soul on fire: writing. Writing, writing, writing. If human society was the army of zombies closing in on me, then writing was my way of fighting them all off – my way of blasting away the darkness and keeping that flame of joy flickering bright in my heart. I opened up my laptop and stared at that familiar blank page. I lifted my hands and rode into war once more with words as weapons to fight my battles. My fingertips fought for freedom. For life. For sanity. For my own alien spirit.

In the meanwhile, life went on as it normally did. I worked those low-paying, menial jobs while staring into space and daydreaming about things to write down whenever I got home. As soon as I finished work each day, I marched through those concrete streets toward the keyboard to pour my thoughts onto the page. It had all become some sort of private religion of madness. Writing was the only thing I truly understood in my heart – it was the only time I felt at home when my fingertips hovered over those grubby keyboard keys. As human society buzzed on outside my window, I just sat alone in my room and wrote and wrote my way into oblivion. Other than that, I didn’t know where the hell I was going or what I was doing. I was at the point where I didn’t even care anymore. I was out of the farm of sanity, over the fences of normality, running with the wild horses barefoot and bewitched into the woods of madness. As planet earth continued rotating its way through an infinite universe, I just sat alone in my apartment incessantly hitting those keyboard keys, listening to ambient music, dreaming of exploring distant star systems, chained down to the earth by gravity and government – writing words and smiling to myself in the dark while sitting back and knowing that life was absurd.

Life was totally and beautifully: absurd.

the fighter

 

short stories

~ Natural Decay ~

~ Natural Decay ~

I was back home in England, it was a spring morning and I awoke with a rare sense of optimism for the day ahead. The sun was shining through the window, the flowers and trees were in bloom, and the sound of playing children could be heard from the street below. I went out to my apartment balcony and breathed in that air of new life. Ah yes, what a glorious day it was to be alive, I noted to myself. I then went to the toilet to take a piss. As I went about my business, I stood there and stared into the mirror. A little baggage under the eyes, but all in all not too bad. It was after a second or two that I saw it. I leaned it a little closer to make sure it wasn’t a trick of the lighting or something. But no – there it was. No way of avoiding it. In all its horror and terror and consternation: my first ever grey hair

    I took a sharp step back and began to process the situation. I then retreated to my room where I sat on my bed and stared into space, thinking about the gravity of it all. Twenty six – twenty bloody six and already past my best. I thought I was at the height of my youth and strength, but clearly I was already over the hill, on the downward descent into the abyss of death and darkness which eventually enveloped us all. The cosmic tides had turned and suddenly, in a matter of mere minutes, a light spring morning had given way to a dark winter night.

     While I contemplated my own mortality, I looked around at my room. I looked around at the walls and the clothes and the furniture. There was just simply no avoiding it. No matter what it was, eventually it all began to decay and degrade and die. The stitching on your clothes. The wallpaper on the walls. The hairs on your head. The flesh on your bones. The paintwork on your car. The paperwork in your portfolio. It seemed we all walked through life trying to create and build and own things, but eventually it all was destroyed by the entropy of the universe which swept everything back into the state of nonexistence, leaving it as cosmic dust floating through the galaxies of the universe. Nothing escaped. The diamonds turned to dust. The skyscrapers turned to dust. Buckingham palace turned to dust. The Queen. Chuck Norris. Kim Jong Un. All of it but transient waves in the great cosmic ocean of eternity.

    In the wake of this conflicting realisation, I gradually began to feel some sort of existential crisis sweep over me. Twenty bloody six, I repeated to myself. Twenty six and already starting to visibly decay. What next? Aching joints? Dementia? A hernia? A sudden liking for the sport of golf? 

     The horror of vividly facing my own mortality for the first time followed me everywhere. Everywhere I looked, I couldn’t help but witness the slow withering away of life before me. I was working in a bar at the time and it was one of those cheap dives where you could get drunk off a tenner. Because of this it attracted pensioners who had nothing better to do but to sit alone in silence, read the newspaper and drink themselves slowly and solemnly toward death. I watched as some men staggered up to the bar, hunch-back and frail, still fighting their fight to have just one more drink before they finally hit the canvas for good. A few of the guys who worked there called it ‘god’s waiting room’. And what a depressing waiting room it was. Full of weary-eyed souls who had worked hard and toiled away all their adult lives; now they were finally retired and able to enjoy their free time, but what good was that when you were too decrypted to go anywhere or do anything? What good was that when your beer belly left you slumped into a seat of submission? As I worked, I couldn’t help but let myself stare at them and think of my own future. Was that to be my fate in old age? Was that what awaited me after working all my life? If so, I should have been making the most of my life now! After all, I was just coming past the prime of my youth and yet, what was I currently doing in my life? Waving goodbye to my prime years while living alone in a dingy apartment, no friends or lover, and serving pints to people drinking themselves to death while daydreaming my life away as I stared emptily into time and space.

     Okay, maybe I was being a little dramatic on my part. All in all, my life wasn’t a total disaster, I suppose. By most people’s standards, I had had a lot of adventure for my years. I had travelled in many countries, climbed mountains, watched volcanoes erupt, had romances with exotic girls, got drunk on beautiful beaches under the light of the stars and full moon. I had even been the first person in my family to go to university (not that my degree had done me any good on the job front, evidently). Still, all of that just wasn’t enough for my restless soul. Though I had done those things, I hadn’t written any of my books; I hadn’t created something that would make me remembered for the next generations; I hadn’t even truly experienced a proper relationship. I had somehow gotten to this age without ever having an actual girlfriend. Clearly I still had so much left to do and see and explore, and time was ticking relentlessly on and on, making me the oldest I’d ever been every single day as I slowly lost my looks and strength and sanity and breath.

      Eventually the horror of it all became too much and I started looking into different philosophies to see if any of them could quell my existential dread. Doctrines like Zen Buddhism, Hinduism and Pantheism seemed to all have some good stuff, suggesting things like the universe being a playing of one great energy, a single divinity where we were all the godhead playing with itself in many different shapes and forms over and over again. We never died, for this energy was eternal, and it could never be destroyed but only change shape into something else. Only our ‘ego’ died, but this was just a hallucination of the mind anyway. Overall it was a nice theory which quelled my dread for a while as I retreated into monk mode, meditating hours each day, gradually feeling detached from everything as an expression of universal energy that was eternal and infinite as the cosmos itself.

      This worked well but after a while the sirens in my mind started wailing out again. Facing those morning mirrors of realisation, I saw the sinister hand of death leaving further marks and blemishes upon me. One day I discovered a couple more grey hairs on my head. On top of this, the wrinkles on my skin seemed to become more visible week by week. Even going out to bars, I realised I was now older than the majority of people around me. To round it all off, my hangovers now lasted two days instead of one. Yes, there was just no way around it. All of a sudden I had gotten old, just like the psychedelic philosophers Pink Floyd had warned me:

“Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain.

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking

Racing around to come up behind you again.

The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,

Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

     Roger Waters had written it correct. Time just passed us by with every year feeling shorter than the last, until whole years and decades seemed to have disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving you sitting on sofas in suburban homes and staring idly into space, wondering where the hell the time all went. Thinking about that while looking out at those weary-eyed pensioners at work, I decided I still had so much to do. I wanted to see the world more than ever, to climb the mountains and spar face to face with the rugged face of life itself. I wanted to have great love affairs. I wanted to write the greatest poetry of my generation. I wanted it all and I wanted it now! 

     Yes, it was safe to say that I couldn’t ignore that restless desire to live my life to the full, so in the end I abandoned any doctrines or philosophies that gave me peace and decided to rage against the dying of the light, just as the poet Dylan Thomas had once pleaded to his dying father. To me it seemed the only way to deal with getting old. How else did a man or woman realistically face their own mortality? How else did we face the fact that eventually everything we ever felt and did would be lost forever in space and time? I guess for many people that was the beauty of life – its transient nature. Like footprints in wet sand, our lives were so fleeting and fragile – temporary cosmic patterns which eventually succumbed to the tides of transience as they were swept back into the ocean of eternity. And that’s what made it all so beautiful for some people. Just like with my travelling adventures, it was bittersweet and pretty because everything that happened on the road eventually disappeared into the hazy mists of the past as you stood reminiscing about your adventures while pouring pints in a grotty bar back in your home country.

      Reflecting further back on my travels while pouring those pints and contemplating my own mortality, I recalled my time in Rio de Janeiro. In particular, I remembered two middle-aged men I had met there, both of them of different stances about their individual descent towards death and darkness. One was a forty five year old Greek guy. I had met him in my hostel on Christmas day while drinking Caipirinhas in the reception. We ended up heading down to the beach together to drink some beers and soak in the sun. As we sat and stared out at the blue Atlantic ocean, I listened to the tales of his life. He spoke about how we shouldn’t be burdened by our age, of how it was never too old to travel and try something new. He had just about done it all it seemed: the travelling, the marriage, the divorce, the jobs, the alcoholism. And now, after just leaving everything behind, he was here looking to open a hostel and start a new life in Brazil. 

     “Age is just a number. Of course, it’s a cliche, but it’s true. Don’t worry my friend, you can keep travelling and living the life you want to live no matter what your age. Look at me, I’m proof of that. I was travelling at your age, went home and settled down for some years, and now I’m picking up the backpack again and venturing back out into the world. There is enough time for all of us. Don’t pay so much attention to a simple number.”

      “That’s a nice way to look at it,” I said. “But is there any part of you that regrets you didn’t carry on travelling and living this life while you were still young? You know it’s a different experience at my age, isn’t it?”

      “Not at all,” he said. “There is so much to experience in life and it can all be enjoyed at any age. Take your time. Don’t rush. Whatever is coming to you, will come. Don’t think because you are young you have to do all the adventurous stuff now. Hell, I have met people who went travelling for the first time in their 50s and 60s. Just do what feels right in your heart and don’t worry about doing certain things at certain ages.” 

     I respected his confidence and laid back attitude to age and life. I also respected that he hadn’t let the fact of getting old give up on his dream of opening a hostel. Like he said, there was enough time for all of us, so why rush? Why force things? We could still keep our youthful nature and hunger as the years passed us by. Age was just a number after all, even the grey hairs and wrinkles tried to convince you otherwise.

     It was just two days later I came across a Swedish guy who made me think a little differently. He was more or less the same age as the Greek guy. He seemed like a normal traveller at first, a little shy if anything, but after chatting about life over a few beers at the hostel bar, he started spilling his pain and fear and frustration at his aging flesh and bones.

      “Yeah you know, you are young,” he told me in a bitter tone. “Only twenty-two. You have lots of time to travel and see the world, but when you get to my age it’s not so easy. This is my last trip. I can feel my body wants to have children before it is too late. I want to be settled. I need to find a woman. It is time for me to have children. I can’t resist this urge. I need to find myself a woman.”

     I found his directness about his reproductive desires a little strange to say the least, especially considering that I had only just met him, but I got into the swing of it and entertained his madness. As he drank more beer, his despair and desperation poured out of him to the point where it was awkward for everyone else in the group of backpackers that were also drinking at the bar. No matter what the conversation was about, he somehow turned it back to his age and his broodiness. It made me sad and got me thinking about how I didn’t want to end up like that man, being sent insane by my age as the clock ticked relentlessly on before your eyes. If you really wanted to do something in life, then you needed to get it done before that time ran out and left you in a constant state of panic and anxiety and inner conflict.

     Being forty and having regrets was one thing, but at the extreme end of the scale were the elderly people who were now no longer even physically capable of doing anything about their regrets. In particular I thought of my seventy-year old uncle who I had bumped into walking down a street in my hometown the Christmas before. After saying hello, we started catching up and chatting about life. Eventually I told him all about my travels out in the world from the last years. As I did, I could see a look of bewitched curiosity in his eye, but also one of slight sadness. He went on to tell me how he wished he could do all of that stuff now, and how he should have done it when he was young, but now he was too old and living in an old people’s village which he didn’t sound particularly fond about. “Good on you kid,” he told me. “Go out and do it while you’re young. Retirement is not all it’s cracked up to be, you know. I wish I could do what you’re doing instead.” He patted me on the shoulder, gave a smile and then stumbled off down the street back to his retirement village, leaving me feeling a bit sad about the whole thing to be honest.

     That encounter stuck with me and made me think about how many souls were out there drifting through life, passively letting the years slip them by while idly just doing what was safe and expected of them by peers and parents and colleagues. You heard it all the time: people on their deathbed wishing they had done more, been a little braver, not worked so much, not tried to please everyone else but to follow their heart and trust their own voice through the wilderness of life. Remembering that conversation with my uncle, and the broody Swedish man, I felt that my mind was made up even more than ever that I was going to put the pedal down a little further and experience life at full velocity. Working at that depressing bar in the meanwhile, I made sure to retreat home and get to work on my books as much as possible. I made sure to keep planning my next adventures, to go running in the rain and tell people the things I felt in my heart. I made sure to walk out onto the shores of life and experience its storm full force so that I could soak in every last moment of what it was to exist as a sentient organism, riding a rotating rock of jungles, mountains, rivers and oceans through an infinite universe.

    Ultimately, I guess this insatiable desire to experience life to the max was one of the main reasons I lived my life like I did. At my core, I couldn’t accept the snail’s pace existence of everyday civilian life. I couldn’t accept the monotonous routine, the television culture, the shopping malls, the small-talk, repetitive tasks, and mundane expectations that took the light from your eye and the fire from your spirit. It all seemed like some sort of big joke to me. You didn’t exist for eternity, and yet here you were: a quick flash of existence before disappearing again forever, yet some people used this to plod along through life, burying their inner desires, working all their lives at a job they didn’t like just to come home and sit in front of a virtual reproduction of life until they went to sleep. Then they would use the money they gave their time up for to buy stuff they really didn’t need. To top it off, some people’s greatest dream was to become the head of their work department and boss around a few bored people in a dusty office room. Sometimes it all seemed like a great big comedy act, as outrageous and absurd to me as human existence itself.

     Well personally I tip my philosopher’s cap and say: fuck it to all of it. Life is not a rehearsal or a warm up act. It is not some show on television that can be replayed and re-watched at a later date. No, this is it: the real thing, here and now – the cinematic experience of your precious one life in vivid colour. You don’t let this weird and wonderful gift slip you by as you slowly decay away, but you go out and you make your stand. You walk wide-eyed into the wilderness. You let the adventures become scratched into your skin and the sunsets seared into your soul. You let yourself explore your inner and outer worlds to the full. You let yourself be free. You let yourself be alive!

     Yes, feeling that angst for existence in my bones, I thought of that grey hair on my head, of the men drinking themselves to death in dank bars, of my uncle in the old people’s home, of the man in Rio terrified at the of his own ageing flesh and bones. Every last cell of me wanted to rage and rebel against it all. And in the end, that’s exactly what I did. This is why I’m writing this book, I guess. Maybe these words will live on after I die, and I’ll have found a way to somehow keep myself alive in the hearts of others. But most likely these words will be read by a tiny amount of people, and then forgotten. Just like me. Just like you. Just like everyone else eventually.

     Oh well, what else can a man do to escape his own fleeting mediocre existence? Where else can he turn to to stop himself being consumed by the ravages of time and decay? Reckless rebellion, that’s what! Well this is me sticking a middle finger up to death and darkness and the inevitable descent into old age that awaits us all. Time may break me down, the hairs on my head may grey, and the skin may wrinkle, but I will keep on hunting those horizons. I will keep on writing these books, climbing those mountains, travelling the world with eyes full of fire and a mind full of madness. I will keep on fighting the good fight with all my heart and might and blood and guts. The grey hairs can get wither away and die slowly, but this fire inside will keep blazing as the darkness approaches. I guess at my core I’m just too stubborn to go into that good night without a little resistance. Without a little fight. 

Without a little rage against the dying of the light.

man walking toward sun.jpeg

thoughts

~ The Symphony of You ~

pexels-photo-1022690

“Let it come from the gut. Let it flow from the heart. Let every last drop come soaring out of you, pouring forth onto this world, streaming freely from the source of the soul. Let it scream out across cities of the sane. Let it roll in like a hurricane, like an avalanche. Let whatever is inside of you trying to get out, let it come out with furious urgency. Don’t hold back the very things that stir deep inside of you. To do that deprives this world of what it needs. And what this world needs now more than ever is something real and raw. What this world needs is the deepest, darkest secrets of the silent souls – the ones whose voice has waited in the shadows for too long. The ones who never get the air time, yet have the most beautiful things to share. The ones who guard their mouth, because they fear how this fake society will react to something authentic and genuine. Warriors of the shadows, you have been silent for too long. So throw down the barriers. Draw back the curtains. Walk out onto that spotlight stage. Open your heart and let this world hear the symphony of you.”