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

~ Beaten ~

beaten

~ Beaten ~

Eyes full of sickness and sadness, I stared at the dancefloor with a feeling of resentment. There they all were: those happy people with their happy faces. They moved effortlessly across the floor like they moved effortlessly through life. No doubt they all lived sane and orderly lives of structure and stability. They didn’t know my pain, my madness. They didn’t know what it was like to linger always on the sidelines and stare in from the outside. I stood there doing exactly that, leaning on the bar while watching them as they moved and grooved. I downed a double whiskey coke while continuing my ethnographic observation. I drank another one then realised my friend had left with a girl. I looked around for any possible chance with a female before conceding defeat and heading for the door.

Exiting the bar and stumbling down the street, my eyes beheld a jungle of kebab shops and neon lights leading me through the city centre. I watched as drunken revellers shouted, scoffed food and clambered into taxis. The human race was a wild species that had been tamed by its own creation of civilisation, but there was still a certain level of anarchy we allowed to unfold. This was best witnessed at 4am on highstreets full of broken bottles and broken minds; on highstreets where couples stood screaming at each other; on highstreets bearing piles of puke that were symbolic of the inner sickness of society. The sight of it all made me sad and it was at this point I remembered that it was my first time in Sheffield and I was supposed to be staying with my mate who had disappeared with a girl. I had no battery on my phone to contact him and suddenly found myself in the situation of having nowhere to sleep. Not an ideal situation admittedly, but by that point I was too drunk to care. Lost in the blur, I carried on staggering down the sidewalk until three men started speaking to me. I must have done or said something slightly disagreeable because the next thing I know I was getting the shit kicked out of me on the floor. Kicks and punches rained down upon me. My body grinded against the pavement. Venomous words of hate filled my ears. The beating continued for a good thirty seconds until the blurry figures ran off and disappeared out of sight. I picked myself up and assessed the damage. Blood dripped from above my left eye as my ribs ached and hip throbbed with a friction burn from the concrete. I knew immediately that my body was going to have more scars – more symbols of the destruction of my life etched permanently into my skin and flesh. 

Still not knowing what to do or where to go, I wandered around the early morning streets of Sheffield city centre while looking like someone from a horror movie. I didn’t have anywhere really to go and just kept stumbling around in a drunken daze. Eventually a police woman picked me up after some bystander spotted me in my gory state. I told her what had happened as she drove me around town in her car. I guess I was expecting to get taken to a hospital, or perhaps to the police station to file a report, but in the end she just cleared up my wound and dropped me outside a closed train station. I got out of the car and stood there alone in the cold winter night wearing just a t-shirt. Cuts to the public services in Britain had resulted in this – underfunded and overstretched, they looked for any way to avoid you utilising them. Consequently I stood there shivering and staring into the empty station, waiting for the damn thing to open. My ticket wasn’t until noon, but I was just going to board any train I could. If only there was a train off this planet, I pondered. 

Finally the station opened and I went inside and sat down watching the smartly-dressed business people get ready for another day at work. I watched the mothers quickly glance at me and look away in horror. I watched the little kids snicker and gossip about the wounds on my face. Those looks followed me onto the train where I tried to sleep but was woken up by a ticket inspector who told me my ticket was invalid for the current service I was on. I got out my card and paid for a new one as the conductor kept his distance. Thirty minutes later, I arrived in Derby where I was meant to switch trains to Nottingham. Looking at the board, I could see it would be another fifty minute wait in the cold until I could catch the connecting train. Suddenly it was all too much and I left the station and paid for a £40 taxi back home.

I think it was about 3pm in the afternoon when I awoke finally sober. Being too tired to clean myself first, I had collapsed onto the bed and left bloodstains all over the sheets. I grabbed them and threw them in the laundry. I then went into the bathroom and stared at my beaten face in the mirror. Back in a normal state of mind, I could finally see the severity of the beating I took. There were deep cuts, bruising and bumps around the left eye, as well as a few scratches on the right. It was a sorry sight to behold and I suddenly remembered that I was supposed to be going on a date with a girl later that evening. Maybe it could be rearranged, I thought. I then spoke to a friend on the phone who convinced me to head to the hospital to check for a concussion. I walked there for an hour as people continued to look at me like some sort of circus freak. I reached the hospital and stood looking up at that sad building with its rows and rows of windows. Windows in which the dying lay dying – windows in which those old hearts beat their last beats, those lungs gasped their last breaths and those eyes soaked in their last bit of light. I guess that’s where we all end up, maybe with a few relatives and flowers beside us if we are lucky. I headed in where the doctor inspected me and told me that I didn’t have a concussion but that I needed to be careful. I asked if there was anything I could do to stop the scarring around my eye. No solid advice was given. 

All things considered, I sat back and knew it had truly been a night of disaster. Perhaps the most disastrous of any night out I had, and there had been a few dramas along the way. I thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, but apparently the gods had a few more tricks up their sleeves. When I returned home I checked my jean pockets and realised I had lost my passport at some point during the night. I also remembered that I was supposed to be starting a new job in a few days, and that I would have to turn up on my first day with my face looking like I had just ten rounds with Mike Tyson. That’s not to mention what the girl would think of me when I showed up to the date. It was a sorry state of affairs and all of a sudden a strange feeling fell over me. I touched the wounds on my face and felt like crying. It was the realisation of the horror and futility of it all. The world was relentless pain and agony, and no matter how good things got, you were always just a short way away from being stamped down by the boots and fists of life. I was only one week into the new year and already it was looking to be another one of misery and destruction. It was a depressing thought and I went into the bathroom to once again stare at my gory reflection in the mirror. I was beaten – scratched and scarred and stained with a dirt of which I’d never be clean. It was a sight I had beheld many times in my life – physical and mental wounds that gathered over the years – wounds that told the story of what each human faced on their path through life.

I continued wallowing in my self-pity until something strange happened. Out of nowhere, I burst out laughing. I looked in the mirror and laughed and laughed until my stomach hurt. I walked back into my bedroom and laughed some more. I even did a little dance in front of my wardrobe mirror while marvelling at the absurdity of my appearance. The misery subsided and I felt a strange determination within me. It was something that always appeared in moments where I was truly in the swamp of despair. The more this world tried to stamp me down, the more I just wanted to rise up against it and bare the blows. Maybe I was losing my mind completely, but I was going to make sure that life would be lived before death had its dirty way with me. With that thought in mind, I cleaned my cuts up some more, showered, drank a beer and got dressed for my date. 

It was going to be another magical evening.

short stories

~ The Barriers ~

pexels-photo-764880

~ The Barriers ~

It was date number seven and she sat across the table as I prepared to finally reveal who I really was. We had been dating for a couple of weeks and on each date I had put on a mask and played up to the image of a regular guy. She was a girl who wanted the normal life; whose principles were founded on what was established and trusted by the majority. Because of this, on previous dates I had hidden my true face. I had pretended that I was a straightforward guy, a follower of mainstream culture who wanted the quiet suburban life complete with the steady career, nice car and a few miniature humans running around on a rug in the front room. In reality I was none of those things, but I had come up with a plan to get close to her and see if I could be accepted by slowly revealing my true nature. So far it had worked well; in just a couple of weeks, we had already formed a close bond. Beds and kisses had been shared, hands had been held and eyes stared into. Now, finally feeling free enough to reveal who I was, I let go and spoke from the heart about how I really felt about life. I spoke about my desire to create art and live a life that was true to my own values and not those of society’s. As my mask lay on the table and my truth poured out of me, I could see a look in her eyes which I had not seen previously. It was not a positive one. It was a look of disappointment; a striking look of sudden distance. In those eyes, I watched her mentally pack her bags and sprint off over the horizon like some sort of scared deer. Clearly the truth of me was enough to make her distance herself immediately and leave me alone with my heart in my hands. It didn’t matter about the bond we had made in the previous meetings. It didn’t matter about the kisses and the laughs and the tender moments of connection. I was not compatible with her reality and everything from our previous meetings had suddenly been thrown out the window. Everything had changed in an instant.

Following that conversation, we got up and left the bar. We kissed and said goodbye and I said I’d see her soon, but we both knew there and then that something had changed beyond repair. I watched her turn to leave and head home up the road as I stood alone in the winter night. I then walked home in that chilling cold, my breath in front of me, the flickering street lights illuminating the vapour of my lungs – the twisted tree branches hanging above like the sinister hands of madness snaking their way down to finally snatch me away for good. By the time I was back in my room, I knew for certain that it was all over. There was no way I’d see her again. Her ship had set sail and I lay there on the bed sinking into the depths of the earth. My heart ached and I stared up at the ceiling thinking about all those other souls out there lying on beds alone, losing their minds and aching in their bones for some basic form of human connection, but never being able to find it because of who they really were on the inside. The pain I felt was strong but not completely foreign. From a young age all I had wanted to feel some basic human connection, but never once had I been able to find it completely. Yes, I knew I was a little odd and perhaps even a little crazy, but I thought if I could try to be one of them for a while, make a connection with someone and then slowly reveal who I really was from beneath their radar, that there just might be a chance that there would be a home for me inside the heart of another. This crazy little experiment of mine had predictably proved that wrong. I was back in my room of isolation facing those walls yet again. Those walls that closed in year by year. Those walls that would eventually be my tomb.

The next day the text arrived in my inbox. “I’m sorry; I think you’re great. I’ve had a really good time together, but I don’t think we should see each other any more.” It came as no surprise at that point. I had seen the rejection in her eyes the night before at the bar; the text just told me in words what that look had already shown me. It was a depressing thought but when I really thought about it, it wasn’t just the rejection of her that killed me inside; it was the rejection of myself from humanity in general. This wasn’t the first time I had been cast out after taking off my social mask. Every time I had opened up and tried to connect to another person from the level of who I really was, I had been looked at strangely and kept at a distance like some sort of diseased animal. There was a criteria that most people seemed to stick to when selecting who would enter their lives – a criteria I simply did not fit. Those cold looks of dismissal always left me feeling like I would always be walking those cold streets alone, returning to those dark rooms of isolation and staring up at ceilings until I eventually lost my mind completely. 

The most painful thing was that in her eyes that night in the bar I could see a level of understanding. Like she recognised and understood where I was coming from, perhaps even an element of respect for choosing to walk my own path, but she could not let someone like that be a part of her life. In her eyes I saw the barriers that kept the outsiders at bay. I knew that there were others out there who felt that a life of following a set path was a suppressed form of existence; that life was meant to be lived and not to driftly through following safe and established cultural patterns. I think everyone knows it deep somewhere inside. Our hearts all scream out for true freedom from the system at some point. But for the safety of their own social sanity and acceptance of the crowd, people raise the barrier and don’t let anyone different from the tribe in. The social validation was simply too gratifying; the place among the crowd too comfortable. It was the same in the books I had written. People said they understood my pain and where I was coming from. They told me how it made them feel free and good inside to hear a voice scream out from the wild. Yet, no one ever thought to do the same and stand apart from the crowd and follow their own path. There was something in the way that stopped people from coming to my side of the fence. Everybody wished to be themselves and posted Instagram quotes of it, but so very few were truly willing to walk the walk.

As always I didn’t understand the complexities of human nature and for the next few days I walked the streets again scanning for someone or something. A part of me had resided myself to a life of isolation but the loneliness soon made me search for a look in the eye of someone who might have a place for me in their own story. I couldn’t find anyone I could bring myself to talk to so I ventured back to the dating apps, scrolling, swiping and searching for someone that might understand. Eventually I got speaking to one girl who shared some mutual interests. We started dating and again everything was going well for a while. It was about one month in and again I opened up and started to show her a bit of my real character. I expressed myself from the soul and shared my truth with her. I thought this was it; someone who would let me in and unite under the same banner of freedom. But slowly her eyes dimmed out of interest and attraction. I only saw the same look in her eyes that I had seen from the other girl that night in the bar. It was a look that would haunt me until the day I died. A look that showed the barriers that would make my life one of loneliness and isolation. The barriers that people raised to keep the outsiders in the darkness. The barriers that kept the wilderness at bay. 

The barriers that would just not let me in.

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.

 

 

thoughts

~ A Familiar Feeling ~

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~ A Familiar Feeling ~

“I had been back almost a year, living the normal life. At times I thought I had gotten rid of the itch; that my life might finally begin to settle down into some sort of steady routine. Maybe it was tiredness but a part of me even wanted that at times. But no matter what happened, it was always there in my heart, like a ghost that would never grant me peace. The desire for the open road. It called my name back into the unknown. It left me staring up at ceilings in the middle of the night. I knew it would never go away: that need to throw my things into a backpack and go get lost on a new journey. It was a feeling that left me looking out at the world around me: the comfort, the security, the familiarity. It was an easy life and a safe life. It was a life many people around the world would have killed for, but I just couldn’t be happy with it. No matter how much I tried to follow the script and settle in, at all times a great force possessed me to abandon it all for the thrill of adventure. Gradually I realised that there was no way around it. Some of us just can’t be permanently adjusted to systems and societies. We cannot fit into forms or fashions. We are wild at heart, explorative in spirit. We have those eyes that look to the horizon, those feet that itch for adventure, that heart that aches for freedom. And no matter where we go or what we do, there will always be a piece of us longing to go to a place where we do not know what will happen but the rising and setting of the sun. That wilderness is our home, and it is the home that will make us wanderers until the end of our days.”

short stories

~ A Nightmare on the High Street ~

entrapment

~ A Nightmare on the High Street ~

I woke up in my room with a hangover from hell. A storm raged in my head and my tongue felt as dry as sandpaper. I had no recollection of getting home and a quick search in my pockets gave no clues to the tragedy of the night’s story. I sat up and looked around at my lair. Beer cans lay toppled on my bedside draw, my clothes were strewn across the floor and a general sense of dread seeped into every corner of the room. A spot of tidying up was necessary, but first my stomach was screaming out for sustenance of some kind. I dragged myself out of bed, got dressed and went out in pursuit of something to alleviate the hunger and the pain.

It was normally a ten-minute walk to the city centre but I made it there in fifteen. It was a journey which soon turned into a sinister one, and not just because of the rain clouds gathering. Walking down the busy Saturday high-street, I looked at the faces of the people around me and felt like I had entered some sort of nightmare. Perhaps it was the paranoia of the hangover, but this time they looked even more abhorrent than normal. Their expressions were hideous, their laughs were hideous, their movements were hideous. A sinister aura filled the air like I was in some sort of horror movie. Humanity was a strange foreign species and sometimes when my mind was in the right place, I could see them for the terrifying creatures they were. It was the way they clutched those shopping bags; the way they stuffed McDonald’s burgers down their throats; the way the red-faced mothers pushed those prams with the screaming kids along. In their red faces you could see the strain and the pain to heave humanity relentlessly forwards to its doomed future – towards a future of greyness becoming constructed by the cranes that loomed over us.

Suddenly I felt the paranoia and alienation stronger than ever. I felt that they were going to spot that I wasn’t one of them and lynch me up for the unwelcome guest I was. They were going to burn me on a stake, stone me to death – chop me to pieces and feed me to their dogs. A panic attack was brewing and I knew I had to get out of there fast. I looked around. I spotted a run-down old bar just off of the side streets and headed there to take shelter.

After entering I looked around cautiously to observe my surroundings. It was a dark room with a musty smell in the air and a decor that was in desperate need of refurbishment. Old men were dotted around on tables alone and an awkward silence filled the air. I ordered a pint of Guinness from the bar and sat down in the corner. Across the room an old man with beer down him sat on his stool leering at me. He took a large sip of his beer and then placed it down firmly on the bar.  “We got ourselves a newbie here,” he said. “What’s your name kid?” I told him my name then looked away to sip my beer, hoping he would leave me in peace. It was no luck; he kept talking at me and by this point there were three other elderly men glaring at me with frightening looks. I thought the darkness of the bar would save me from the terror of the streets, but it appeared I had stumbled into a haunted house of some sort. I could see the horror and consternation in their disturbed faces. Faces of sadness and defeat; faces ravaged by time and life; faces of tired old men drinking alone at tables while waiting to live and waiting to die. I then spotted some obese woman plastered in cheap make-up eyeing me up while trying to stir her drink with a straw seductively. There was only so much I could take before I took my leave and headed back out onto the streets.

Outside I turned and almost tripped over a homeless person sitting there in the rain. “Got any change kid?” he asked. Naturally I didn’t; no one had physical cash any more. I apologised and left him there wondering if one day I would face the same fate of the gutter. The next corner I turned around there was a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses standing and preaching their gospel to anyone who would listen. They claimed to be people of faith, but looking into their eyes I could only see fear. It was the way they stared and the way they spoke. It was the way they clung onto those signs and ideologies because they were as lost and frightened as we all were. And so they should have been. Looking at the scenes around me, it was clear the apocalypse was coming and that no god was coming to save them.

I continued making my way across the main square while trying to avoid the manic crowd. They now seemed to be coming in the hundreds of thousands like an angry swarm of locusts. The noise was deafening. My panic started brewing once again so I sat down for a second to try and calm down. I breathed in and out deeply to catch my breath while observing my surroundings. Looking around the square, I saw an old man feeding the pigeons a little down from me. He had a look of sadness in his eyes; it was subtle but it was there. Some little kids pointed and poked fun at him. One of their parents spotted them but said nothing, instead turning away to look at their phone. The old man noticed the kids and continued to feed the pigeons. I thought I could see a tear in his eye, but perhaps it was just the rain – I couldn’t be sure.

After a couple of minutes I carried on looking for somewhere to eat. I turned a corner and saw some flowers left outside a shop where some kid had been stabbed to death on a night out a couple of weeks before. It was a place I had walked past many times drunk and the thought hit me how easily it could have been me who bled out alone in the cold winter night. Twenty years old and slain on the sidewalk in a drunken moment of madness. The flowers lay soaked in the rain and some had already begun to wilt. One card bore the message “May you rest with the angels.” Another read “I pray that you are now in a better place.” I hoped they were right.

 Suddenly the crowds on the street started getting bigger and bigger; the noise louder and louder. My head started spinning and the panic struck hard again. I needed to get out of there. I started jogging. I carried on until I reached a food joint I liked. I headed in, ordered some food and sat down alone in a corner. Five minutes of solitude passed until a family came and sat down next to me. It wasn’t long before the mother started shouting at one of the children for throwing a chip at his sister. A stern telling off resulted in the kid to start screaming and crying. The mother carried on shouting until the point she was almost screaming too. At that moment it felt as if the whole world was screaming and crying. The people, the buildings, the walls, the weather. All that noise that pierced me to the bone; all those shrieks and cries that I just couldn’t escape.

I couldn’t take anymore and headed back out onto the street. At this point the rain was coming down more heavily and a sense of total desolation washed over me. I stood frozen in time and space like some sort of statue. I could hear the sirens wailing in the distance, the chavs cursing, the drunks shouting, the cars beeping. I could see the plastered makeup faces and mindless marching crowds. Suddenly I had this feeling I was stranded in a strange world far, far away from whatever place I was supposed to be. I had crash-landed into a place where I didn’t belong. My flesh and bones knew the terror of my environment and asked me to retreat from it all. My apartment room called to me and I started running home at a quick pace. I weaved in and out the crowds. I darted across the traffic. I passed the houses, the parks, the buildings. I kept running and eventually made it to my apartment and ran inside. I slammed the door shut and walked over to collapse onto my bed. 

Back in my lair, I stared around me and suddenly felt an overwhelming gratitude for my solitude. I looked at those four walls like the great guardians they were. They were the walls that kept the world at bay – the walls that sheltered me from the horrors of humanity. It was all out there: the mindless people, the empty eyes, the broken hearts, the starving homeless, the stabbing victims, the lonely souls, the screaming children, the old alcoholics waiting to die in dank bars. Maybe my fate wasn’t great, but to be alone in this room was a relief from the terror that lay waiting for me outside. I was trapped in a world to which I didn’t belong, and sometimes when my mind was in the right place, I could see the true horror of my circumstance all around. I closed my eyes and laid down on my bed, not fearing the darkness of sleep. Sometimes the greatest nightmares were right in front of you, if only you dared to open your eyes.

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.

 

short stories

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries

Self-Isolation: The Coronavirus Diaries

self isolation

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

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

Day 1

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

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

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

Days 2 and 3

pexels-photo-143580

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

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

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

Days 4 and 5

solitude

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

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

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

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

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

 

short stories

~ 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 try to put the cocaine inside of it. Not wanting to end up banged up in a South American jail for the next few 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 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 patted her down then 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 naturally my gringo Spanish was 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 myself 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 desks. The shirts and ties. The small talk. The routine lifestyle. The television screens. The suburban lawns. 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 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 over the last years, 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.