I entered the airport at dawn in a zombie-like state. It had been another sleepless night and it was time to return home after what was perhaps my most reckless trip yet. Leaving Portugal, I found myself depleted in more ways than one. My belongings now amounted to just three kilograms in my carry-on backpack. I was light, lighter in everything – bodyweight, money, clothes, sanity. I was travelling on an emergency passport after having lost my normal one along with other things. Those other things included my electric razor – my lack of razor made evident by the big, bushy beard now covering my face. What had happened to everything I wasn’t entirely sure about. The trip had been a total blur, fueled by heavy amounts of alcohol and a lack of sleep which was now commonplace whenever I travelled. That insomnia had left my brain in a beaten and battered state. My body too was a similar way – skinny and sunburnt and in need of some serious rest after a chaotic few weeks in the Portuguese sunshine.
In such a weary state, I naturally got reflective about things. I realised that at that point I’d been living on the run for almost ten years. A whole decade ago I went out on the road of discovery and adventure, seeing what awaited me out there in this wilderness that has maddened my mind and scarred my skin. I went out into the world with wide eyes seeking something that seemed not available in my immediate surroundings. I stuffed those backpacks with my few belongings; I stuffed my eyes with beautiful sights; I stuffed myself with soul-stirring experiences. I was living for myself and soaking in as much life as I could during my youth. But after all of that, I’m finally at the point where I start to wonder how sustainable this lifestyle is. On this trip I had once again experienced enriching moments and connections with others, but more than any other trip, I had also experienced some very dark moments, including a couple of days that I would reckon as the worst of my entire life. That time began with me being kicked out of a hostel for passing out on the floor of a room that wasn’t my own. The memory of the night before was non-existent and in my ashamed state, I decided to carry on drinking at a nearby bar in the morning on my own. The last thing I remembered was smoking a joint with a retired guy from California before waking the next day with a large number of belongings missing including my passport. I had a bus booked up north to start a five-day hike along the coast that I really didn’t want to take. Confused, stressed and with the worst comedown of my life, I stumbled onto that bus feeling like some sort of gremlin – my lack of identification now confirming I was out of place officially as well as mentally.
That feeling of defeat was also there in that airport that morning as I continued drifting around in a zombie-like state, wondering just how much longer I could keep living life on the edge like this. Just two days I was partying ’til 6am on the streets of Lisbon before going to the British embassy to pick up my emergency passport. A stern-looking guard with a machine gun searched me and escorted me through the building while my comedown and lack of sleep filled me with nerve-shredding anxiety. That moment was just another point of chaos and madness in what was now a strong back-catalogue. My mind thought back to getting arrested in Australia for trespassing and having to hitch-hike to my court case. It thought back to almost being hit in the head by a falling rock on a precarious mountain path; to narrowly missing an avalanche by thirty minutes in a Himalayan valley. It was true that there was only so much chaos one man could endure before he was pushed to the brink of total madness (or worse, death), and now – at thirty years old – I feel the voice of sanity call out to me through this mist, telling me to calm down and stop this freefall into the abyss of anarchy. “Come in and relax,” it says. “You’ve experienced enough of this hedonistic life. Take a breath. Step back. Take some time to enjoy a quiet life.”
Meanwhile, I think of a man I know in his eighties. He is a beat poet who seems to have been also living on the run all of his adult life and continues to do so in whatever way he can. I read his stories about drifting around Europe while busking and living on pennies. I also think of my friend Bryan, three years older than me who had been living even more on the edge than myself during the last few years in Australia. He’s just about to commence a one-month hike through the Alps with his girlfriend. Maybe there is a way to live like this without going totally insane. But am I like those other guys? I wasn’t sure. They certainly didn’t seem to end up in the situations I got myself into. They knew how to look after themselves and not spiral off into complete oblivion like I too often did. My self-destructive side was seemingly getting worse with each trip I went on and maybe I just had to accept that I wasn’t cut out for this high-flying lifestyle anymore. Maybe I really was crazier than the rest.
With my mind in a pensive and delirious state, I made my way through security. I wandered through the duty-free shops before finding a little cafe to sit down. I then ate some breakfast while watching others walk around the departure lounge, all of them looking so much fresher than myself.
I guess it was strange as someone who was a travel addict, but sometimes airports could make me feel alone more than any other place. I think it was the sight of the families, the loved-up couples, the rowdy groups of friends. It seemed that were very few others like myself in those crowds – solo travellers making their way to or back from another tiring adventure. As usual, when looking at regular people, thoughts of sanity and stability entered my brain. I thought of finally getting my own place and settling down in one place. I thought of women – of the French girl I had recently met in Mexico. She was on a two-week holiday there and was now back in her stable life with a good-paying job and about to buy an apartment. Maybe I’d learn French and move over there to live a nice quiet life with her. Maybe I’d finally learn to drive, get a pension and stop this calamitous journey through the wilderness. But almost as quickly as these thoughts entered my mind, they were pushed aside by the other ones – the thoughts of wandering ecstasy, of partying with new friends in foreign lands, of standing on sunset shorelines and hiking through mountainous valleys. I thought of the love of anarchy and adventure, my soul sailing further out into that intoxicating sea of the unknown – that same sea which had currently left me in a disheveled state with no passport and few belongings, with insomnia and sunburnt skin, but also with a spirit that was set on fire and a mind that was blown wide open.
Oh, what is a man to do once he has tasted such a life? This thrilling run out beyond the fences, this glorious dance in the lands of chaos – how does he return from that to a life of sensibility and suburban sanity? How does he trade the mystery and magic for the predictable and comfortable? For the safe and steady? I still had things I wanted to do, after all. I still wanted to fulfill my dream of cycling from the UK to Asia. Of hiking the great Himalayan route. Of finally travelling around Colombia. My list was still incomplete, but continuing in such a way of being didn’t bode well on the current basis of things – at least when I thought of similar others to myself. I thought Jack Kerouac – the great beat writer – drinking himself to death in his forties. I thought of Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson – their brains blown to the wall with self-inflicted shotgun wounds. I thought of that guy from Into The Wild starving to death alone in Alaska. It was true that living at full speed on the edge for so long usually made you more likely to end up in a graveyard or institution. Still, a part of me yearned to keep on living this way, putting the pedal down to the metal, soaring down that open road of life as the wind raises the hairs on my head. On the other hand, I also know it’s time to recognise that I’m slowly falling apart too. The wheels are buckling, the engine is failing, and the screws are coming loose.
The smart and sensible thing to do is to accept I’ve experienced more adventure than most people ever will, and finally begin to take my foot off the gas. But the thought of leaving this life behind fills me with tremendous sadness. It causes me to distract myself by reading through the messages on my phone. One Argentinian girl asks me when I’ll be coming back to Mexico. A dutch girl asks if we are ever doing that hike in Italy. Once again, my mind wanders and starts to dream of the next adventure, the next horizon, the next great run through this bewitching wilderness that has claimed each and every part of me.
This strange feeling of conflict is there as I sit there with my sleep-deprived mind, with my skinny body, with my half-empty backpack, with my emergency passport, with the cuts on my arm of which I’m not sure of the origin. The people around me seem to notice I’m not entirely with it as my hand shakes while drinking my coffee. A couple of coins fall out of my pocket and I reach down to pick them up off the floor. I then look at my jeans and notice that they are starting to tear apart at the seams. It almost seems symbolic and I think about getting them stitched up once again by my mother or landlady. I also think back to that nice Puerto Rican girl in Mexico mending my frayed backpack in Mexico earlier in the year. It was funny: all these women stitching me back together, mending me, repairing me. But maybe this time I’m realising that some things just can’t be stitched back together. There is no thread strong enough anymore to stop me from ripping open as I dream of the next adventure with my tired and maddened mind. And even if there was, I’m not sure I would even want that at this point.
I wake up and stare into that mirror. The same thing we all do every morning. Every time you see the same, yet slightly worse version of yourself. You’re one day older and you’re more tired, more weathered, more disillusioned with the world around you. You’re another day closer to death and your dreams have even less chance of becoming a reality than yesterday. It was never a pleasant sight but today that reflection was worse than usual. Today was the death of my youth. Yes, the years had fallen by and I was now thirty years old. No longer was I classified as a young person; I was now a fully-grown adult – the sort of thing kids looked up to – and there were no excuses for how much in disarray my life was. By this age you were supposed to have it all figured out: partner, marriage, career, mortgage, life purpose, and all of that keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ stuff. The truth is that I still felt like a clueless teenager, wandering aimlessly around, masturbating too much while struggling to come to terms with my own transient existence. Although mentally I may not have felt like I was thirty, physically it showed. Looking at my reflection, I could see the rings around my eyes, the crow’s feet starting to break through, the grey hairs which were not too numerous to pull out. The light in my eye was a little dimmer, the skin a little paler. I was becoming what old people had always seemed to me – walking examples of the inevitable descent towards death and darkness which eventually enveloped us all.
After a while of grimacing at that mirror, I got dressed and headed out onto the streets. I walked through that urban wasteland while staring at the passing people. The young, the old, the rich, the poor. Most of them, like me, didn’t stand a chance. The world spat on their dreams, took the joy from their heart, forced them to abandon their individuality to survive. Spiritually unfulfilled, they turned to vices to numb the inner pain: alcohol, drugs, porn, television, social media. Yes, the average person in the street was demented and insane – and no doubt I appeared that way to them too.
I carry on walking around the city centre with no purpose or destination. My 30th birthday, did anyone really care? Did I care? I eventually text one of my friends to ask if he wants to go for a drink. I knew he was off the rails at the moment and thus likely to say yes. It seemed to me that was what friends were for when you reached a certain age. You would never arrange to do anything together like play football or go to movies, but when you needed to go out and drink yourself into oblivion, they would be on hand to help you fulfil that need. It was a mutual transaction; many times I had responded to the call when he was in his hour of self-destructive need, and now he was reciprocating the favour as I drowned my sorrows and rued the fact I was now no longer young.
I met him in the main square in the city centre. A quick hello then we were soon sipping pints while updating each other on the tragedy of our lives. He told me about how he was still living paycheck to paycheck, no savings to afford a holiday or the driving lessons he needed. But it was all okay, he told me; he had devised a grand plan. “I’m gonna find myself a cougar and become a house husband.” I looked at him curiously. “There are so many lonely middle-aged women out there nowadays who want a younger guy. I’ll just stay at home all day, cooking dinner for when she gets home. The easy life.” I listened and knew this was the fantastical daydream of a desperate man. Looking at him in his current appearance, his odds of finding any woman seemed slim. He had once been considered cute, but was now balding and overweight with evidently not much to bring to the table. He had a degree in marketing which had been rendered useless by ten years of disuse as he worked the same job in a drab pub. He knew he didn’t have a shot at anything, and now his focus was on sponging off a middle-aged woman who had some financial capital. I didn’t blame him, and I started considering the same possibility myself. Perhaps he was onto something? Perhaps my destiny was to housekeep while waiting for my older wife to come home and fuck me? Having known each other since secondary school, we then got to talking about old times and old friends. Most of them now lived in London working graduate jobs, pursuing careers, working hard to become real people. Career professionals. Respected members of society. Everything that we weren’t.
“I don’t speak to them anymore,” he tells me. “I feel like they look down on me.”
“Probably,” I said.
“Yeah, I mean they’re all back there earning big money at graduate jobs their parents managed to get them after university, and I’m still here, almost thirty and broke. It’s all who you know and what you know. I got my degree but every job asks for two years of experience and how the fuck am I supposed to get that? You have to do internships, but I’ve been working fifty-hour weeks since I finished university just to get by. I don’t have the time or the means. The system is fucked man.” I sat there listening to his anguish and dissatisfaction. His comments may have seemed like excuses to most, but there was a lot of truth to it. Following university, I had also experienced the brick wall of not being able to get a job due to lack of experience. It was a catch 22 – needing experience for a job, but not being able to get experience without a job. Fortunately for me I had quickly decided not to even bother getting on the treadmill of a career. Living life based on what made your CV look good seemed absurd to me, and there was a freedom in not caring if you took six months off to go travelling, become an alcoholic, or just do nothing at all. I guess the downside to this was that only the low-paying jobs were available to you. But I didn’t care; less pay usually meant less responsibility, and less responsibility meant less stress, and less stress meant you didn’t go slowly demented over the years. In my head I was a modern-day Buddha, an enlightened being – a heroic rebel to the consumer-capitalist culture that was rotting people’s hearts and minds and souls. Of course, I knew this was my personal spin and in most people’s eyes I was just unsuccessful or an underachiever. Perspective was a fine thing and ultimately a person had to shape theirs in whatever way justified the way they were currently living their life.
We carry on drinking and I notice Jake started to slur his words and get hostile. I was used to it. He had a lot of inner demons and they usually came out around the fifth drink. I knew it wouldn’t be long until he started getting aggressive and arguing with people around him. After that he would declare he was going home after one more drink. This time there wasn’t even one more drink and off he went suddenly marching out the pub, telling me he was going to pick up a kebab and go home. I watch him stumble across the bar, disappearing out the door into the night, another wounded soul seeking shelter from the world. Then, sitting alone on my 30th birthday, I decide to continue drinking. Around me I hear the whirring noise of excited people – people in groups, people with friends, people who weren’t drinking alone on their 30th birthday. I knew I didn’t have the charisma or confidence to go up and speak directly to strangers, so I ordered a couple of double rum and cokes to at least make myself think that I could. About forty-five minutes later, I’ve reached the required level for social interaction, and suddenly I’m on a table with two younger guys. I think they could see I was on my own and pitied me. I graciously accepted their pity and reimbursed them with some self-deprecating jokes and a round of tequila shots.
After that, things got blurry and I’m in that hazy, soft, comfortable place of alcoholic sedation. I let myself drift through that haze until I eventually end up in a taxi on the way home with a twenty-one-year-old girl. Well, not too bad for an old-timer. The sex carries on into the morning – another meaningless fuck that I had now lost count of. Of course, I didn’t finish as usual. I very rarely finished during sex, and almost never after I had been drinking. Lying there on my bed, I can see she’s sad that I haven’t given her my seed; it was a look I had seen off many girls doubting their own attractiveness as they lay unsoiled on my mattress. This was the one thing that was required to be a man – to continue the human race – and it seemed I was also naturally incompetent at that. I attributed it to too much masturbation growing up. My genitalia only knew how to reach orgasm via my own touch. A vagina was simply no match for the highly-tuned movements of my right hand. I wondered how many other men were like me out there. We were the porn generation after all – the first people in history to watch whatever fucked up fantasy we wanted via a half-decent internet connection. Perhaps it was more common than I realised, and soon the highly-advanced sex robots would come, and no longer would any human be able to reach orgasm via traditional penetration. Perhaps this was the end of humanity; not with a bang, but with a whimper – everybody fucking silicone robots in dark rooms alone as humanity petered out to its pitiful and pathetic end. Feeling the way I was during that hangover, I welcomed it.
I carried on drinking for another couple of days; maybe it was three, I wasn’t sure. The debauchery looked to be getting out of hand but finally I sobered up and tried to make sense of the events. In particular, scrolling through my online bank statement after going on a bender was always a tragic affair. The needless drinks at 3am; the excessive fast food orders; the money withdrawn from the cash machine that your empty pockets tell you is totally spent. My bank account had taken a beating, which was forgivable considering I was having my 30th birthday crisis, but also slightly concerning considering the fact I was unemployed with no money coming in.
Funds were getting tight and consequently I started searching for a job. I loaded up the job search websites and scrolled through the muck of lowly-paid, menial positions. “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now.” Morrissey’s lyric always stuck in my head when I had to surrender myself to the system and beg up some kind of employment. How people managed to stay in one job for most of their life, or even years of their life, baffled me thoroughly. By week three or four, I was violently itching to liberate myself with a letter of resignation. Those letters had been written, and sometimes they hadn’t – sometimes I just didn’t show up because the thought of getting up in the morning to go to a place which shit on my soul was too much. By the time I was applying for a job, I was already imagining how and when I was going to quit it. I had to think to myself: getting to thirty years old without holding a job for more than a year was quite an achievement. I thought about listing it on my CV, then realised it was already there for the prospective employers to see anyway in my work history. This spotty work history naturally made it harder for me to even get a job in the first place. This became apparent again when I saw a job advert for the Royal Mail. I looked at it with interest. For some reason I always fancied myself as a bit of a postman; getting paid to walk around in the fresh air, working on your own, no boss over your shoulder or office politics to deal with – as far as jobs went, it wasn’t actually too terrible. But the Royal Mail wanted me to explain each and every gap in my work history. There were at least ten gaping holes on my bloody bombsite of a CV. I felt depressed that I had to explain why I wasn’t devoting myself to some job, as if each time you weren’t stuck on the grind, you had to justify your momentary freedom from the machine. The whole thing made me want to go and play with traffic to be honest, but I went along with their game and paved over some of those gaps by stretching my employment dates (like everyone else, I knew that bending the truth was an essential part of surviving in the modern world).
I guess my attitude towards work was kinda lousy to many people – especially towards my parents, who constantly reminded me that I needed to get a career, and that I was wasting my university degree (which was a worthless media studies degree anyway). Even my sister was consistently on my case.
“You’re intelligent,” she would tell me. “You have something to offer the world. Don’t waste your life in bitterness and jadedness. There’s a job out there for you somewhere, you just have to find what it is.” Thoroughly inspirational words, I’m sure you’d agree. I disregarded them as I did with everyone else.
After an hour of applying for jobs, the hopelessness of it all got to me. I stopped what I was doing, went to the kitchen, pulled a beer from the fridge, and returned to my bedroom desk. I then closed the job website and loaded up my sci-fi novel I had been working on. Important work awaited. The book was currently 18,000 words long and based around the theory that the universe was a computer simulation. It was just an eccentric theory, albeit one that some physicists and scientists took seriously. Anyway, I imagined what would happen if we somehow all conclusively proved we were living in a computer simulation. I imagined the existential crisis of everyone, the collapse of religion and society, the anarchy that was sure to follow. My theory is that society would destroy itself as everyone saw no meaning to anything anymore. The book would follow a protagonist who goes on a soul-searching quest through the wasteland of civilisation to discover if life is worth living anymore. He would meet people who felt relieved that life wasn’t real, and others that were driven to suicide and madness because their egotistical illusions had been shattered. Eventually he would end up happy in some peaceful commune, content in the knowledge that life is just a game and there’s nothing fundamentally to worry about. (Yes, of course there was some edgy philosophical point to it all.)
I guess it was just an idea I found interesting, and like all deluded people who thought of themselves as writers, I daydreamed about it one day becoming a best-seller. I imagined my book sitting on bookshelves and me signing copies at some launch event. It was at least a more exciting prospect of climbing a career ladder, spawning some children, or buying my own property and filling it full of furniture. No doubt my writings would never be read by anyone – my manuscript gathering dust in some dark forgotten corner – but it at least gave me something to do and daydream about while stuck on this earth. This was it, essentially, the bargain of human existence. Every man or woman had to find something, no matter how trivial, to give their life some basic meaning. Kids, careers, gardening, football teams…. hell, even something as ridiculous as taking pictures of trains. The important thing was finding something to do to help pass the months and years. At the end of the day, we were all killing time while waiting to die.
Savings from my inheritance were getting low and the rent needed to be paid, so it really was time to cast aside my future nobel-prize-winning writing and get a job. So far my applications had predictably proved fruitless, but fortunately I had a friend who could help me out. I figured over half of all jobs were being worked by people who had got the position through someone they knew (‘It’s who you know and what you know’ – as my dejected friend had lamented). Anyway, the guy I knew worked at this call centre for an energy company. I loathed the idea but I needed money quickly, so I begrudgingly sent them my application. I was immediately invited to an interview – an interview I was sure to pass according to my friend. Even though I had the advantage of being close with someone who already worked there, I felt I was sure I was going to screw it up anyway. Interviews were my natural enemy. I loathed absolutely everything about them: dressing up smartly, pretending you wanted the job, pretending you were qualified for the job, and just generally chatting Grade-A bullshit while ‘selling yourself’. How humanity had come from being hunter-gatherers to this was a mystery to anyone. The whole thing was a horrorshow, and just mustering up the energy to even pretend I cared for ten minutes was hard enough work, but my head needed a roof over it and my stomach needed food, so I put on my only shirt/pair of trousers and marched solemnly toward the interview.
Outside the building, I stopped and stared at it. There it was: another office building in a business park with a bunch of human-beings inside, all of them hunched over desks, toiling away their hours and days in stuffy cubicles. I looked through the window at them all locked into their work stations like batteries in some sort of machine. Outside the car park was completely full; nice cars sat neatly parked while the owners sat inside working all day to pay for them. A quick scan showed the spaces for the big dogs, their signs above them: ‘Senior Director’; ‘Assistant Director’. Maybe if I worked away for ten years I could also get in the position of having my own parking space. Maybe that would please my family.
After a minute or so after observing this strange environment, I entered the building. I checked in at reception then was taken upstairs to wait for my interview. I sat outside in a hallway preparing my answers for the merciless interrogation that was about to come my way. My mate had filled me in on what they would ask and they were, of course, the usual collection of mundane interview questions.
“What about this position interests you?”
“What skills do you have that you feel will suit this role?”
“Can you name one time you provided excellent customer service?”
It was a tedious process and, god, how I just wanted to spit out the dirty truth into their faces.
“I’m here because I’ve always been really passionate about not starving to death.”
“I’m here because sleeping on the streets isn’t too comfortable.”
“I’m here because I have to be here.”
It was a tempting prospect but, of course, I knew such mental musings were never meant to be uttered, only to be kept locked deep inside the vaults of the brain. Ultimately the truth was a creature of the darkness; it preferred to stay hidden in the shadows, fearing how people would react to it if it showed its face to the world. It was vulnerable, sensitive, and the times it came out into the daylight usually led to people stamping violently on its face until it was dead or you were dead.
Remembering this, I made sure my truth was locked safely away and that my mask of social normality was fitted tightly to my face. It was then that a woman came out with a big friendly smile, spectacles on, paperwork in hand. “Are you Bryan?” she asked. I told her yes. “If you just want to follow me inside…”
I entered tentatively. The room was a bland, soulless office space, with absolutely nothing in it besides the desk and chairs in the centre of the room. To my unpleasant surprise, there was a second woman already sitting at the desk, also wearing a big smile.
“Hello,” I said, shaking her hand. I sat down and faced her and the other woman. Two of them were there staring at me, middle-aged women who had no doubt been here ten times longer than I had been at any other job; middle-aged women who may as well have lived on a different planet to me. They shuffled their papers about and pulled out some pens. Suddenly the room grew smaller as my anxiety increased. I could see they had a copy of my CV, complete with all its fraudulent dates on. I did wonder then if you could actually face any real legal trouble from lying on your CV. The thought went out of my head when I remembered that the majority of the population would be in the shit if that was the case. At that point the discourse began and I was caught; like a fly in a spider’s web, I was well and truly in the worst place a creature like myself could have been.
“So obviously you’ve seen the job description online, but we’ll just go through the details of the role here and what will be expected of you.” I forced a smile and a nod. I then sat awkwardly, not knowing what to do with my hands while she ran through the dreary list and what the company was all about. I hoped she would just keep on speaking, but I knew soon I would be expected to tell them why I wanted to spend eight hours of my day sat inside this building doing something I had zero interest in. There was no use dwelling on the absurdity of it however, so I quickly got into character as the questions started.
They were all the questions I anticipated, so I rattled off my formulaic answers. I talked about my past positions in customer service, about how great I was at dealing with a variety of people, and how committed I was to doing a job well. I gave overblown examples from my past jobs showing just what an upstanding employee I was. I was blagging it so well that even I almost started to believe the bullshit coming out of my mouth. They sat there nodding and smiling like idiots; it seemed the bullshit process was going nice and smoothly. It was then that a question came that wasn’t in the script I hadn’t thought through.
“Can you name one time when a problem arose during work, and what you did to overcome it?”
I hadn’t mentally gone through this one and I sat there frozen. Although I was good at coming up with bullshit with a little preparation, I was never actually too great at bullshitting on the spot. I delved down into the sewers of my mind, searching for some stinky bullshit to feed them. But at that moment nothing was coming to me. “Take your time to think about it; there’s no rush to answer.” Seconds of awkwardness felt like minutes and I kept on searching for something to say. Eventually my flashlight lit up a dark corner of my mind’s sewer. There it was: some stinky bullshit. I pulled it out and presented it to them. I told them a story about a time I was working with my dad as a delivery driver. We were short on time to deliver all these items to a business park so I got him to drop me off with all the parcels to deliver on foot, while he went to a different location and delivered there. The details were inconsistent and it was poorly told, but I had at least given them some sort of answer. I think they could tell it was bullshit but thankfully they ate it up as the nods returned and the pens started ticking those pieces of paper again. The bullshit process was once again going nice and smoothly.
After fifteen minutes of interrogation, the ordeal was over and I was free to exit. I thanked them for their time, walked out the building, and shook my head free of all the utter nonsense I had just spouted. I then loosened the tie on my neck, feeling like I was taken off some sort of noose. As always, engaging in the farcical world of work was a traumatic affair, so I walked briskly home to rest, masturbate, and drink a much-needed beer.
The place I was renting was conveniently close to where the office was. It was a small apartment in a secluded court, with three bedrooms but only two people living there. The other person I was living with was the landlord. I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be living alone with the landlord to be honest, but fortunately for me he was rarely there. He was a peculiar guy, around the same age as me and also firmly unemployed. For him though his job status was no problem seeing as he was comfortably living off my rent money and the rent money of the people who lived in two more properties he owned. How a guy just thirty years of age owned three properties was initially a mystery, but one that I solved after learning he had inherited the properties off of his dead dad. Although he didn’t have to worry about making money through work, like all human-beings he was plagued by purpose, so of course he needed to do something to manufacture some meaning into his life. This included a few businesses he had set up, all of which had failed. He also told me how he had appeared on various reality TV shows over the years, managing to make some cash from them. I suspected whether he was genuine, but searching his name on the internet it appeared he was telling the truth.
As I said, he wasn’t around much, but we did occasionally cross paths in the kitchen. When there we would shoot small-talk. He hadn’t asked me much about my life, but sometimes he did ask about work. I presumed this was because he wanted to know I was reliable to pay his wage – aka the rent. It wasn’t an easy thing to give him an answer on. I mean, how does one really tell someone that they’re a bum? That you worked whatever temporary, menial job you could get? That you were currently surviving off your last remaining inheritance money? After all, people needed to understand you through your set position in society; it was the only way many people could make sense of the world after twenty years of institutional education where the goal was to become ‘something’ at the end. As tedious as I found this, I couldn’t blame people for it; it was all they knew and so, to make it easier for myself, I just lied and said I was a content writer. This sort of job could now be done online, so if you weren’t going to an office every day it didn’t necessarily mean you weren’t working. Also, I had even done a bit during my worthless media studies degree, so if anyone asked questions I could at least sound like I knew what I was talking about. I told people I wrote for business magazines mostly if questioned further, as my landlord Martin occasionally did.
“How’s work today?” he asks as I’m cooking some noodles in the kitchen.
“Not too bad,” I tell him. “Just putting together some press releases for a PR company that gives exposure to start-up businesses in Colombia.”
“That sounds interesting…”
“Not really but it pays the bills you know…”
He had never questioned me further on my lies, and maybe that was because he presumed it was bullshit, but as long as he got my rent money every four weeks, he didn’t care. He could go back to applying for reality TV shows and planning his next failed business and whatever else it was he got up to in the days he spent away from the apartment.
Well, a few days passed and it seemed I wouldn’t have to lie to Martin about my employment anymore. I got a call from the energy company to tell me that they were pleased to tell me that I would be starting training for my new role the following Monday. It seemed that after a month, I was back to being employed. I was once again a functioning member of society; an accepted tax-paying citizen with my own role and cubicle. Realising this, I went and got myself a beer from the fridge, not knowing whether I was drinking in celebration or despair. After I ended up drinking seven more, I realised it was despair.
So there I was: first day on the job, sitting in the training office with my own computer, surrounded by seven other new starters who were eager to learn and progress in the company. I looked around at them: it was a mixture of ages and ethnicities, although they all appeared to share one thing in common – they had all worked at call centres before, often for years, and they no doubt knew what they were doing much better than me. It was true that I had done customer service work before, but that was dealing with mums in supermarkets shouting at me because we had started charging five pence for a plastic bag. Dealing with people on the phone was slightly different, and one that was a bit of a nightmare for someone like myself. I couldn’t stand talking on the phone and I made a point of avoiding phone calls with friends whenever I could, choosing instead to stay safe and distanced through the medium of messaging. There was just something about communicating this way that I found unnatural and awkward. Well, that was a shame, because now it appeared I would be doing it for hours every day.
Speaking to friends on the phone was one thing, but dealing with customers was another. I would like to say that I have had many interactions in customer service that were tolerable, even pleasant on occasion, but mostly it is a form of torture that causes you to wish for nuclear apocolypse. Dealing with people in a customer service position you suddenly see them become demons from the deepest pits of hell. Knowing they are the priority and that the customer is always right, they feel they can get away with talking to you anyway they like. For example when I worked the evening shift in the supermarket, I would get many people come in on their way home for work. Many of these people were suffering from another day of working a job they hate, and maybe they were going home to something worse. As a result, they saw dealing with someone at the supermarket as an opportunity to vent their inner existential frustration.
I feared on the phone it would be even worse, knowing that they were safely distanced would allow them to really use me as a verbal punching bag. It was like when you saw people driving; if someone cut them off, you would see them shouting and swearing to the other person in the opposite car. But if you saw someone bump into someone in the street, they would both politely apologise and be on their way. Ultimately human-beings needed to feel safe and distanced before they vented the pain in their souls, and talking with someone in customer service on the phone was a perfect opportunity to do this. This was made even worse by knowing I was working for an energy company. In past years the energy companies hiked their prices at every opportunity; with it being a private market and having no one to answer to, they all collectively raised their fees each winter in unison. People were getting financially fucked left, right and centre; and now I would be having to hear about for hours every day.
Luckily for me, I had three weeks of training until I would actually have to face the wrath of angry consumers throughout the country. This training would involve learning the sort of queries I would have to deal with, and how to navigate the website and computer system. I wished the training would go on forever, and I made sure to sit back and make the most of the stress-free days while I could.
I didn’t really care for getting to know any of my co-workers, but one day I ended up befriending an older guy who was sitting next to me. He was in his late forties, softly spoken and seemingly shy. Sitting there, I often looked over and saw him scribbling down some doodles on a piece of paper. When I looked closely, I could see they were actually pretty good – artistic sketches of fantasy things like dragons and castles. It was clear that he was a similar soul to me, an escapist daydreamer, probably wondering why he also had to subject himself to such absurdity when all he wanted to do was create art. Noticing these things I struck up a conversation with him. There was an instant connection and he told me how he was a buddhist who lived in a buddhist commune in the centre of town. He meditated two hours every day and you could sense that in his calm demeanour. I guess that was another thing people did while waiting to die, seeking nirvana. If all else fails, I can always become a monk, I thought to myself. I’ll retreat to the mountains of Himalaya and meditate myself into oblivion. I’ll live off the land and seek enlightenment until the end of my days, far away from all of this nonsense.
The training went on and I eventually accepted the fact I was falling behind. My interest had gone by week two, so I joined my buddhist brother in doodling. My doodles weren’t sketches however, but sentences for my fantasy novel. For some reason I felt even more creative when in this stifling environment and I sought to make the most of it. I looked around at my colleagues, all of them unaware that the greatest novel of the 21st century was being written right under their noses. They trained to answer some phone calls while I put down immortal words that would be read and analysed in classrooms for centuries to come. Maybe one day in my autobiography I would mention how I wrote some of it while working at a call centre, and they would read it and realise just how lucky they were to be in the presence of a true genius. Well, of course that wouldn’t happen but it was a nice thing to daydream about. I continued doing that, staring out the window at the sun coming through the trees, appreciating the carefree days while jotting down some words here and there. Hell, I was even getting £11 an hour for my time- the biggest wage I had ever had in my twelve years of working. Finally I was getting paid for my writing like I should have been. Of course, I was going to be severely underprepared when the training had finished, but I told myself that I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
Well, I crossed that bridge and entered the warzone. My peaceful, stress-free days came to a sudden end as the bloody battle of customer service began. On my first day I had them all: the angry, the patronising, the annoying, the crazy and the confused. So many people who felt they had been overcharged; who were threatening to switch energy provider; who told me how horrid I was for capitalising on old people just trying to stay warm in their houses. Bang, bang, bang. The verbal abuse came at me from all angles. I was on the frontline, getting gunned down for all the things the people who actually ran the company did. I was the expendable young soldier being bombarded while the generals sat comfortably in some safe building far away from the bloodshed.
In particular I had one woman who told me to get a proper job. I questioned whether it was one of my parents on the other line. Once again the temptation to actually speak the truth was enormous; it was on the tip of my tongue, me telling her how I don’t want to do this job but I’m forced to so that I can pay my bills just like her. I thought about agreeing with her that the prices are disgusting and we were all victims of an exploitative, dehumanising capitalist system that is destroying human minds and the planet we live on. Oh yes, oh yes – the truth sat on the end of my tongue, looking out at the daylight, but once again I remembered that the truth was a creature of the darkness, so I locked it quickly back up inside my brain and recited the formulaic customer service script.
On that occasion I kept it together, but I had to admit that it was continually difficult to maintain calmness among the conversations I was having. I looked over to Gandhi beside me for some inspiration. He seemed to always be calm and collective. His years of meditation had allowed his brain to live in zen-like state, detached from the tedious conversations he was having to have throughout the day. I was inspired by him and I took some moments to try and be mindful between calls; to mentally detach myself from the absurdity of the task at hand. It was something that clearly aided him in this war and I figured it was good practice for the outside world as well.
The battle continued, and even with me trying to be in a detached zen state, I was struggling with my customer service duty. It got to the point where I was sitting in the canteen on lunch break, struggling to lift myself up out of the chair to return to my desk. I was shell-shocked. And when the phone rang I stared at it fearfully. The horror of humanity was on the other line and I sat there struggling to lift my arm to answer it.
I knew I wasn’t going to last and I think it was on day four of doing the actual job that I quit. For once, I didn’t even really think it all out. There was no notice of resignation or plan to not attend work. I was just walking to work one morning when, without thinking, I suddenly stopped outside the office. I stared at the building in front of me. I stared at the cubicles inside and the parked cars and the smokers having their first cigarettes of the day as they mentally prepared for another day on the frontline. Out of nowhere a universal force overcame my body and made it impossible for me to put one foot in front of the other. The only thing I could do was turn around and just walk somewhere else. That somewhere else was the local park. It was a nice, sunny morning and I spent some time sitting by the pond and watching the ducks. I then went and got myself a coffee and a sandwich before walking around a little more through a wooded area. There were many squirrels there, and they weren’t shy; they came up to me as I fed them bread. They were nice squirrels. Anyway it wasn’t long before my phone started ringing. It would be work, of course, wanting to know why I was feeding animals and not locked up inside my cubicle taking abuse from some stranger down the phone. I thought about answering but I figured I’d have absolutely no explanation for my strange behaviour. In the end, I just turned off my phone and carried on strolling around in nature. I then went to a bookstore, then an art gallery, and finally a pub for a couple of pints. At one point I completely forgot about work altogether. It was a nice day, and eventually I went home to try and process the end of another transient piece of employment.
Well, there was no way I was ever going to communicate with them again, at least not on the dreaded telephone. I’d send them an email that the job was giving me extreme anxiety. Anxiety was the go-to excuse of the modern age, even overtaking stress, and I had even used it recently to get out of being best man at a friend’s wedding. Almost everyone had social anxiety these days and you only had to mention it to get people to back off and leave you alone. I even went a little further, stating that I had experienced a panic attack on my way to work. I wrote the e-mail and sent it off, not planning to look at the reply for at least another few days.
I also told my sister about my latest job quitting. As always, she was keen to offer me some words of wisdom. “It was obvious a call centre job wasn’t for you. You should look for something more suitable to you. You need to find something that you have a connection to and a passion for. You should do this personality test; I did it and it helped tell me a lot about myself and what sort of jobs would be good for me. I think it’s really insightful.” She sent me a link to a website called 16personalities. Apparently this was it; my problem all along was that I needed to understand myself better. It at least piqued my curiosity, so I loaded it up and read through it.
It was a list of questions about all sorts of preferences and situations in life, designed to get an insight into the psychology of your mind. From the answers you gave, you were determined to be one of sixteen personality types based on things like introversion/extroversion and whether you acted with your heart or your head. Initially, I was kinda fearful to see what they made of the mess of my mind, but intrigued too.
After filling them out, the website determined I was an INFP – which is basically the deformed, death and blind midget of the personality types. Reading up some more on it, it appeared INFP personality types were the most likely to feel misunderstood, the most likely to earn the least money, and even the most likely to kill themselves. Essentially it was life on difficult mode and finally I had something to point to while people wondered why I was the total disaster I was. “It’s my personality type,” I would tell them. “I’m an INFP. It’s basically like living life with a mental disability.” Of course, I knew I was justifying my uselessness as a person under the banner of a psychology test. I would be just as terrible as the women who justified their behaviour based on their star sign or a full moon.
The website also listed the job roles that suit INFP personalities. Writer was the main one along with artist – pretty much things you couldn’t do for a stable living, hence why this type made the least money by a good distance. Apparently people like Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath were INFP personality types though. Lucky me, I thought – I had a good chance of mutilating my own body or sticking my head in an oven like a roast turkey.
My sister had told me it would help me understand myself better and what sort of things I would be good at, but it only confirmed the reality of what I thought about myself. I was a jagged piece of the jigsaw, with no place to smoothly slot into society. My place was not in the suburbs of sanity, but on the sidelines with the starving artists and madmen, searching for the light of existence while trying to fight off the wolves of depression and insanity. Well, it wasn’t all bad news. At least I was in the right category for wanting to become a writer anyway. I didn’t have much chance of finding a job I liked, but it appeared my delusion about becoming a best-selling writer one day at least had a faint hope of possibility. INFPs apparently included Shakespeare, Tolkien, and George Orwell. I was in good company, and with this new source of morale, I returned to my novel to strike out a few more sentences. I was nearing 25,000 words and a third of the way through the greatest novel of the 21st century. I was a man in pursuit of his own destiny. I was a man aligning his passion and purpose. I was a man killing time while waiting to die.
I eventually checked the reply to my email after three days. I was cringing at what they would say to me but it wasn’t too terrible. They said they understood but also wished I had discussed it with them – and that it was still a possibility if I wanted to. But if not, they said they were sad to lose me and that I could expect my pay in my account next Friday. Well, it wasn’t too bad; I had four weeks of decent pay at least. That would tide me over for another month or two of living the way I did – basic groceries, cheap beer, walking or cycling everywhere, and just spending a lot of time in my bedroom on my computer. I was back to being a bum; back to lying to my landlord about what it was that I was doing with my life. At least he had my precious rent guaranteed for another couple of months. His hard work of inheriting a place from his dead dad had guaranteed him another £780 of my money.
The days of unemployment recommenced. I awoke late, masturbated regularly, and sat staring at my laptop screen for hours each day. At that point writer’s block struck and I wasn’t feeling inspired to work on my novel. Now I really had nothing to do and time needed to be wasted in vast amounts. I was still inspired by the buddhist at the office, so I downloaded some guided meditations and spent hours each day sitting on my bed like Buddha himself. After a week or so had been murdered this way, I began to notice a change in my consciousness. I was more content and relaxed. I had a wider awareness of everything around me. Feeling a deep connection with the universe, I went back to the woods and marvelled at nature while feeding those squirrels. Life was easy, stress-free, blissful even!
This state of being lasted about five days until the usual desires came creeping back up on me. In particular, the need to get drunk and chase women and generally act like an idiot. It appeared no amount of meditation could take that side from me. Once again, I contacted Jake so he could assist me in another night of hedonistic escapism.
We met in the pub he worked at after he had finished a shift. He was busy chatting with his regulars when I arrived, but eventually came over to join me for a drink. Sitting there, I told him about my latest stint in the world of employment. He almost seemed annoyed that I had landed a steady job that paid more than the minimum wage and that I had given it up so swiftly. “Man, what a waste that was. You should have got your friend to get me that job.”
“Trust me, you didn’t want it.”
“I’ve been working in bars since I was sixteen. All I’ve ever known is working unsociable hours. I’d love to have a steady 9-5, Monday to Friday job.”
“Everyone says that until they actually have one. The reality of it is different. The tedious routine of sitting behind the same desk everyday. You wait all week for the weekend and then it flies by. Suddenly you’re staring down the barrel of Monday morning again with another long slog in front of you. The whole thing sucks your soul dry after a while.”
“This place is sucking my soul dry!”
“I’ve worked in a bar before,” I said. “It took about six months there until I started going crazy. In this place I was crazy after just a few weeks.”
“You’re crazy no matter what you do.”
There was a pause in the conversation as we sipped our pints to acknowledge that truth. He then went out for another cigarette and to chat to his community of alcoholics that frequented his pub. He worked in a Wetherspoons pub – the budget establishment of the UK where unemployed people such as myself could get drunk off a tenner. It wasn’t just the unemployed, but the poor in general, the depressed, the men escaping their wives, and the old people drinking alone in dark corners. Those pensioners in particular were a sad sight to behold. There they came everyday: retired people who had nothing better to do but sit and drink and stare into space. Often they would arrive in the early morning and spend the entire day there alone in solemn silence, reading a shitty newspaper while awaiting the inevitable. It was like looking into God’s waiting room and Jake told me how a regular passed away every few weeks. You always knew when you hadn’t seen their face in more than a few days. The poor bastards. This is what they got after a lifetime of work and saving for retirement: festering alone in a dank pub as the last of their days ran dry. Watching them sit there, you could actually watch them emptying slowly out until all that was left of them was the froth at the bottom, before it eventually evaporated and disappeared right before your eyes.
It was a sad sight as it always was and it once again reinforced the feeling I had inside of wanting to escape this mortal prison before the years had really taken their toll. I poured those pints down my throat hoping they would contribute to some liver illness that would help me check out around the age of sixty. The way I saw it, that was the age we were meant to live to anyway. It was only recently we had started living into our 80s and beyond. Technological and medicinal development had screwed us over; we should have been dying around fifty somewhere at the hands of some lion or hideous disease. But instead we now reached almost double that age, sitting in carehomes and shitting ourselves and forgetting our children’s faces and becoming so decrepit and frail that we couldn’t even eat without assistance. We watched the world change into a thing we didn’t recognise, where every new generation was a sad reminder of what a foreign thing you were – a relic of a bygone age which had no time or place for you anymore. All that was left to do was drink alone in pubs while waiting to die.
I sat there getting depressed, remembering I was now thirty and that the glory of my youth had fallen away. Okay, I wasn’t old like them, but I was past the point of my physical peak and now all that awaited was the long descent to join those old people drinking themselves to death, subconsciously speeding up the process because they knew the sadness of their existence on this earth was too much to bear, that they would never be those young and beautiful people they once were, that their mediocre story was nearly written and the last sorry sentences were being put down – each uneventful day a nail in the coffin of another meaningless existence; more lives that didn’t amount to anything; more dreams disappearing into dust, the only memory of your one existence being a piece of grey stone protruding from the earth in a field somewhere, getting shit on by the birds and rained on by the sky – death, as in life, seeing this world pissing on you from high above as the earth pulled you down, down, down to the ground.
Okay, perhaps my nihilism was getting a little out of hand. I was supposed to be forcing myself to have a good time, so I went over to join Jake and his crew of regulars – the degenerates to which I belonged. I introduced myself and soon the drinks were sailing back as we chatted general shit about current affairs and football. I barely knew anything about football, but when talking with drunk people you only had to give a few ‘yeah’s and ‘right’s to make it seem like you were an expert on the subject. Mostly drunk people just wanted to hear themselves speak and have someone nod their head in agreement with them. One of the guys then offered me a cigarette; I didn’t smoke but took it anyway. About twenty minutes later I’m doing cocaine in the toilet with the same guy. This is what needed to be done sometimes; you had to trick your brain into thinking that something exciting was happening with a chemical substance. I did a couple of lines with my new friend and emerged like a gremlin from the cave of a toilet cubicle. At that point I couldn’t see Jake anymore amid the crowd. I was back in that haze, drifting through the night, sailing on through the mist. That mist had become a friend over the years, sheltering me from the piercing light of reality that at times was too much to bear. This time I needed it a lot, and I let myself be consumed by it as everything blurred around me once again. More drinks went down until I remembered that I was supposed to be watching my money, so I started picking up leftover drinks on the side of the bar, not caring what was in them.
After a while, the mist had taken me into the city centre. I wasn’t even too sure how I got there when I stopped to think about it. My memory was terrible when drunk and dementia was sure to hit me in that dreaded old age. Oh well, for now I didn’t care. I was outside in the smoking area of some pub having another cigarette off some stranger. We stood there smoking and naturally I felt the need to make conversation. I asked him about his day and immediately hated myself. Small-talk was something that physically pained me and yet there I was instigating it. He told me about his day then asked me what it was that I did. I thought about lying as usual and saying I was a writer but I didn’t have the energy. I told him I had just quit a call centre job and was unemployed.
“Good on you for quitting!” he said. “Not everyone has the guts to quit a job they hate.”
“Trust me, I’m well experienced in it.”
“I get you. That office life is sickening. All those people spending their lives doing some mundane task, chasing promotions and climbing ladders to nowhere. They age terribly and are all secretly unhappy inside. And they feel good when they get that paycheck, but ultimately it goes to things that don’t make them happy and only trap themselves further in the system of sedentary slavery.” I was suddenly warming to this guy. “No fuck that shit,” he continued. “I’m glad I got out of that lifestyle when I could. Nowadays I just do online trading and deliver food for a few hours each day. You’ll never see me working a job like that again!” Out of nowhere it appeared I had found a fellow misfit. Naturally I was curious about his lifestyle and asked him more about it. He told me how he had worked a 9-5 ‘proper job’ for five years then took all the money he had saved and put it into crypto currency. He was now making regular profits and this, alongside four hours a day delivering food on a bike, was enough money to live comfortably off. The idea of a man escaping the sewer was always enough to get the blood pumping, and there and then I decided I was going to give it a go as well. Well, I had absolutely no spare money to put into trading, but I at least had a bike.
He finished his cigarette and took off into the night. Before he left, he took my number and told me he’d text me sometime. Of course, I knew he never would. The amount of random numbers I had in my phone from brief encounters on nights out was comical. I carried on through the night staggering around in the mist, trying and failing to attract a mating partner for the night. The mist got thicker and eventually the possibility of attracting anything other than trouble was long gone. Pretty soon I blacked out completely, waking up the next morning in my bed with a horrific hangover and few grazes on my body that I had no idea about.
‘It was no secret that there was a great sickness in modern society. Sadness filled the streets and I saw the souls suffering around me every day. I saw the sunken eyes, the feet dragging along the pavements, the bitter words coming out of mouths. I saw the behaviour of frustrated and jaded individuals. The people staying in jobs they hated; the people neglecting their inner voice; the people dragging others down with them. It was all around me but I kept on striding and doing my thing. I made no apologies about my way of being. I was here to live my short life on this earth to the absolute fullest. If I disliked a job, I’d quit it; if I disliked a place, I’d move from it. I refused to compromise on any of this. Hell, there wasn’t time for compromising. Very soon I would be another dead person in the ground, my one precious life all spent and gone. And with that knowledge I set out to make every year of my life a great adventure. I set out to do things that would fill my soul with joy; that would leave my mind full of memories and my heart full of fire. And as the years went by and time aged me, I would refuse to let life grind me down like it seemed to do to so many walking down those streets. No, I would continue to stand proud, a straight posture, my head high and my eyes wide and open. Still looking toward the next horizon. Still chasing that inner bliss. Still discovering the beauty of life on this earth until the very end.’
“I sat on the beach facing the almighty pacific ocean. The waves crashed on the shoreline and the sun reflected off the water onto my face. I closed one eye as I downed my bottle of beer, thinking of memories of the past and my path to here. It was true: thirty years old and still living in the dirt, dreaming in the darkness, wandering the outside spaces. Maybe some thought I would give up this freedom fight, maybe I did, but there I was once again: travelling alone in Mexico, wandering through old towns, drinking in random bars and speaking to whatever stranger drifts into my course. I am a boat out on the ocean of the unknown, and by now I don’t think I’ll ever dock. These sails still catch the wind firmer than ever and the journey shows no sign of slowing. Stormy seas I have known, and my crew of weary sailors – whose blackened faces work the coal engine rooms of my heart – their eyes know the toil of that turbulent journey. Their eyes know this ship wasn’t made for safe harbours of stability and security; those anchors of mortgages and marriages, but instead to drift in the great beyond in search of some divine light of freedom and adventure and life and beauty.”
I sat on that street corner, sipping my beer, staring emptily into space. A strange feeling overcame me. I had felt it for some time but it was then that I knew for sure that a war was being waged on my soul. I knew the light wasn’t shining as it once had, my mouth didn’t dispense my truth like before, my feet didn’t touch the ground like they once did. Something was wrong inside of me. I had wandered into some murky realm where I could feel myself disappearing in a darkness. My candle was fading and I stared into the eyes of people passing me in the street and wondered if my struggle was unique or ubiquitous. How many were watching the flames of their being slowly fade out? How many out there were losing themselves day by day? And ultimately what was a man or woman to do about it?
At one point in my life it seemed so easy. When the fire burns bright, it feels like there is no force in this universe strong enough to quell your inner flame. Your eyes burst with light and your heart thunders. Your spirit ignites the world around you. Your pen pours out poetry with ease. But life can sometimes take you down some bewildering paths. You unknowingly start to lose yourself and suddenly you’re left facing a stranger in the mirror, speaking words that are not your own, sitting nowhere, being nowhere. Reflecting back on the past, I knew I had saved my soul before, but could I do it again? I didn’t even know where to begin this time. For once there were no direction signs – no intuition, no guiding stars, and even my deepest passions were now uninteresting to me. I was now thirty years old and didn’t have any other desire other than to get drunk and drift around a foreign country. The idea of being an author had slipped from my mind after my books had sold so few copies. The notion of starting a career or family was just as alien as ever. And even the act of travelling itself had lost much of its magic. My world was a grey place so I just sat on that street corner, sedating myself with alcohol, watching people walk by and wondering where there would ever be peace on earth for those who dreamed a little too much.
Finally I pay my bill using my bad Spanish and then get up to carry on wandering the city streets. They were the streets of Mexico City – one of the biggest cities in the world – and I drift across a busy square and into a church where I see an old lady kneel before the altar. Her hands are tightly grasped in prayer as she stares up with pleading eyes. I can’t help but wonder what she is asking, but in the end I stopped, knowing her pain was private like it was for all. I walk out back into the square and see a queue of men waiting to be cleansed with some smoking plant as it’s rubbed over them. They close their eyes and look deep in thought as the smoke shrouds them in the midday sun. I then see a ranting alcoholic staggering through an intimidated crowd. Elsewhere I see other weary souls like myself sitting on street corners and staring into space. No matter where you looked, the burden of the human condition was evident. Truly it was a hard fight for us all, and at times it became clear just how sprawled out on the canvas we all were.
I continue walking along and see posters of missing women on walls. I see a scruffy stray dog come around a corner and stop in front of me. Its eyes stare into my eyes and there seems to be an unspoken recognition between us – a momentary feeling of union before he carries on along the way. I do the same and then see a man with a missing arm and leg sitting on the sidewalk. He holds a cup out for change and I throw some coins in. I guess it can always be worse, I say to myself. Although can it? A man can lose his mind – he can lose his arms and his legs – but once his soul is gone then what is left for him on this earth but a barren existence of emptiness.
Suddenly I felt a tiredness that was beyond anything I had experienced before. At that moment a part of me wanted to rest – and to rest in the permanent way. The toil of this soul-searching fight had worn me down over the years, and it was clear that for every victory you made, life was always there waiting to break you down once again. But another part of me was ready to respond to the war being waged on my soul. I would grab whatever I had left, stab my flag into the ground, and be ready to turn those dwindling flames into a great fire once more. As always, I was a walking contradiction. Some kind of mistake.
For now I decide a temporary rest at the hotel will suffice. I get some food and head back. Being a little older now, I tried to avoid hostels; I needed a good night’s sleep and was past having sex in a dormitory room. Of course, this meant it was harder to meet other travellers. On this occasion, it was surprisingly easy. I enter my room and open the door onto the balcony. It was a shared balcony with the other two rooms beside me. I walk out, put my arms on the bannister, and hear a voice to the right of me.
“What up bro!?” I turn my head and see a topless guy sitting there drinking a large bottle of beer. He was skinny with long blonde hair, shades, and a big grin plastered across his face. Before even asking, I could see he was drunk in the middle of the afternoon. His energy was good, however, so I walked over and engaged him in conversation.
“It’s not going amazing, to be honest,” I tell him. “How about you?”
“Dude, tell me about it,” he says. “I had a wild night last night; it’s a miracle I even made it home. I left my phone here so I was wandering the streets until six in the morning trying to find the hotel. At one point I honestly thought about sleeping on the street. Then things got worse as the police shook me down for drugs. After that I fell down a ditch somewhere.” He then proceeded to show me the cuts on his elbows and legs. In turn, I showed him the grazes on my face from a recent drunken accident. At least he knew how his wounds were caused; mine were still unknown to me after a week. “Anyway,” he continues. “All that shit happened but here I am drunk once again at three in the afternoon. Ahaha, viva la vida bro!” He then took another large swig of his beer before his face returned to that big grin.
I could tell straight away he was another classic wandering madman, scratched and scarred on both the inside and out. He was the sort of person I had met many times throughout my travels – the sort that I always seemed destined to stumble across no matter where I went in the world. At that moment I was happy to meet him, and we continued to talk about our trips and whatever the hell it was we were doing here. It turned out he was a forty-three-year-old Canadian who was recently out of work. He decided to deal with this by flying to Mexico and drifting around the country while drunk. Although there were thirteen years between us, I recognised the stage he was at in his life. An affinity was felt and it wasn’t long before I was joining him on the large bottles of beer as we discussed life on that balcony until the sun began to sink beneath the surrounding buildings.
“This is my midlife crisis trip,” he tells me. “Out of work, no woman, I got nothing really going on back home. And with the pandemic, it’s been a rough ride living alone the last two years. The only thing that seems right is to come to Mexico and live like a rockstar for a while off of my savings. I guess it’s not a bad way to spend a midlife crisis.”
“I hear you man,” I said. “But to me, it’s all a crisis.”
“What is?” he asks.
“Life. I mean, here you are: trapped in a slowly-decaying body of flesh and bone, stuck on a rock floating around a big ball of fire for no apparent reason. On top of this, you have around eighty or so years here, and during that time you have to deal with things like money and love and sex and purpose and politics. Yeah, there’s no beginning, middle or end to me. It’s all a crisis. To be human in this world is to be in a crisis.” He looked at me with a smile, nodding his head in agreement and toasting his beer. Our beers clinked and our connection was strengthened on the realisation we were both stray souls wandering the tempestuous wilderness of human existence.
“You know, I’ve had a good life,” he then tells me in a pensive moment of realisation. “I’ve experienced enough of this merry-go-round. You say we have eighty years here, but screw living that long. I think if I checked out in the next ten years that would be enough for me.”
“You really feel that way, or it’s the beer talking?”
“Straight up bro. At this stage in life, I feel like I’ve done it all. I’ve travelled around, slept with a lot of women, had a lot of great parties and adventures. I’ve been in love and worked in what I’m passionate about. I’m happy with what I’ve done and don’t want to get much older than what I am now. Life has been a wild ride, but I’m not sure if I can handle another thirty or forty years of it.”
I could hear in his voice that he was being genuine. It might have sounded an extreme statement to some – even a suicidal one – but I understood completely where he was coming from. It was something that was recently on my mind after turning thirty – that I didn’t want to experience the second half of life in old age. Besides a spiritual crisis, I guess I was also having a bit of an age crisis after departing my twenties. Of course, I was still relatively young, but not as young as I would have liked to have been. Inside there was a part of me that resented getting older, and looking at him I could see my future too – still wandering the outside spaces, drinking ever more heavily and going further over the edge of destitution and insanity. To keep on living this way past forty, well I figured that’s when a person really was a stray for life. Most had packed away their backpacks and began to settle down in some suburb of safety and sanity. For me that life was a death sentence already. And the idea of losing my youth – losing my strength and looks and curiosity – horrified me. I already saw the lines forming on my face, the grey hairs sprinkled into my beard, the bitterness in my personality that wasn’t there before. In my head this trip was one last celebration of youth before the downhill truly started.
We carried on drinking and then went out to hit the bars of Mexico City. We spoke bad Spanish to Mexican women, drank with other travellers, danced like idiots, and got lost in a hazy blur of intoxication. The bender had started and we spent the next week or so travelling together until we made it down to the pacific coast, specifically to a little town called Puerto Escondido. The nights of revelry continued there until he eventually headed off on a night bus to another part of Mexico. I bid him farewell and watched him drift out of my life to continue his midlife crisis somewhere else. “Catch you on the flip side,” he said, stumbling onto the bus with a small backpack full of beers.
I was back to my natural state of being alone, and I spent days at the beach soaking in the sunlight and watching the sunset on the ocean. It was a town I felt at home with, and it seemed I wasn’t the only one. Puerto was famous for being a ‘digital nomad’ hotspot. The place was filled with westerners escaping their homelands while they worked on their laptops and sat at the beach and tattooed their skin and prided themselves on escaping the rat race. I knew of these people already, but since the pandemic had made many jobs able to be done remotely from a laptop, it seemed they were now everywhere. Web designers. Graphic designers. Code writers. Even therapists. There they sat on their laptops working four or five hours a day before hitting the beach and sipping beers in the sun.
I thought about what I could do to join them in their little world of escapism from the system. After thirty years, I still truly saw no job or career I had an interest in. The only time I had felt purpose was when I was writing creatively, and by creatively I meant stories or poems – not news articles or anything people actually paid for. And even that passion was now fading. Like everything though, the grass was always greener on the other side, and while the idea of being a digital nomad was a romantic one, the reality of it was a little different. It came with its own struggles and own sadness. An American guy told me about this in a cafe by the beach one day.
“I know it sounds great being a digital nomad – and it is for a while – but in the long term I’m not sure how much someone can do it. It’s a lonely existence. At least for me I’ve never really found anywhere that feels like home. I guess it’s because it’s hard to form a community when everyone eventually moves on. And on top of this, you’re constantly surrounded by travellers who are going out and doing cool things, while you have to stay at home and work.” It was something I had thought about before while reflecting on that lifestyle, and it seemed those who had escaped the rat race had their own problems to deal with. There was no magical way to ‘live the good life’ forever, despite what the travel bloggers would have you believe. No matter what you did or where you went, you were destined to struggle in some form or some way. It was the only way – the human way.
Still, I kept thinking about it; about my options in life now my main passions were beginning to lose their spark. Where was there really to go in this life for someone like me? Would I ever return to the time when I felt truly alive? What chance was there? The war on my soul continued to rage as I struggled to see the clearing ahead to somewhere that made sense to me. I was so sure all I wanted to do was to travel the world and write, but now those things had lost their thrill, I saw no glory in anything else. Nothing appealed to me at that moment in time – only the next beer, the next woman, the next night of revelry and intoxication. I thought I was bad, but I continued to meet people that were wandering further out in the soul-searching wilderness than I was.
In a town in the mountains, I met a fellow English guy who was ‘escaping his problems back home’. I eventually discerned this was trouble with gangs and the law. Never had I seen someone so wounded, on both the inside and outside. He was only twenty-two but already had scars all over his body from various stab wounds. He couldn’t even use his left hand after he had been slashed on the wrist during a drug deal. His wounds weren’t just from home; even here he had managed to sprain his ankle here during an escape from a fight. He had also been banned from various hostels and bars after just two weeks in the town. I eventually realised this was down to his addiction to Xanax – an addiction that saw him taking five tablets at once and turning himself into a zombie. The last I saw of him, he was being taken into the back of a police van after having a bust-up with restaurant staff for not paying his bill. It was his first time travelling and I knew he wasn’t going to last long in this way of life, or any way of life for that matter.
Elsewhere I stumbled into an American guy I had met four years previously in Spain. While he was there in Spain, he was constantly chasing women. He stressed and depressed himself over finding a long-term partner, and it seemed four years on that nothing had changed. His desperation to find a woman screamed out of him, and naturally this led them to reject his advances. I even found out he had come to Mexico to meet a girl he had met the previous summer in the states. That relation had broken down after just two days of being here, and so on he went, another stray soul in search of some shelter from the storm.
Although I knew most men found a spiritual home for themselves in the company of a spouse, to me that had rarely seemed the case. There was something inside of me that needed more than a partner, and that was more clear to me than ever having just left my girlfriend just before this trip. We had been dating for a year, even living together, and it was the first time in my life I had been seeing someone regularly for a long period of time. But again, whereas many men only sought to find a nice woman and settle down, I was ready to abandon mine at the sudden booking of a flight to some faraway country. Like careers and everything else, a wife and children were other things beyond me. I needed my soul to be set on fire by something. And while they could give me joy, they just couldn’t give me that spark that was so essential for my spiritual survival.
Still, I had my romances when travelling. Most were one-night stands, but when I got to a place called Oaxaca City, I started seeing a woman continuously. She was a Mexican woman from another part of the country. We hit it off straight away and she invited me to stay with her in her apartment. She lived alone with her dog – a stray dog she had taken in and given a home to. I had to look at the dog and once again see a connection in its eyes, a feeling of union of being taken in by a woman while wandering the streets. It was nice there and I stayed with her for a week or so. We went to bars and restaurants; we went to watch Mexican wrestling; we spent lazy mornings in bed making love. For a moment I almost began to feel like I belonged there. I thought about getting a job teaching English or really having a go at trying to be an online content writer. There we’d live together – my new life in Mexico – but again there was something missing, and one day I decided to book my bus out of there. The horizon called me again and on I went to board that bus to somewhere else. To a place that helped return the fire to my soul. To a place that would fill my heart with thunder again.
The wandering went on and two weeks later I was on a Caribbean island, back to sitting on a beach and staring out at the sunset. My heart was heavy and I thought of all the people I had met along the road. I thought of the path that had led me to here and the path that awaited me ahead. The strange sadness was still there inside, and my eyes were still searching the skies for some kind of salvation. It was then that the stray dogs of the island came out onto the beach, playing around in the sand. I watched them leap about before they suddenly stopped and sat beside me. I stroked one and looked at the sunset and let a smile make its way on my face. Suddenly I felt at peace with where I was; I felt the fire inside begin to flame, and for some truth to make its way into my heart again. Yes to wander, to not belong, to constantly be in a phase of soul-searching – it wasn’t such a bad way to be. And if you kept your eyes open, so many of us were this way. Perhaps secretly we all were. In a way, what else was it to exist than to be another stray on a soul-searching quest, wandering the wilderness in search of some fire. Another stray dog in search of survival. Another stray dog in search of home.
Hello, if you have followed my blog over the last year you will know I have regularly been posting extracts of a project called Lab Rat. I am now pleased to announce that I have finalised and published these in a completed book.
“I looked around at my fellow guinea-pigs realising this was where I belonged – locked up with other people pushed out to the edge and testing drugs for a living because there was no room for them in the centre of things. There was no room for me out there either. But that was okay; I had found a new way. Test drugs, travel, and write. I saw my path slowly unfolding before me. I was happy with it.”
‘Lab Rat tells the story of a young man surviving by taking part in medical research trials. Known only as ‘Subject 55355’, the anonymous narrator of this semi-autobiographical novel is an aspiring writer who has just returned home after a period of travelling. His natural contempt for the world of work causes him to quickly quit his first job back. It is then, on a night out, that a stranger in a bar informs him about ‘drug trials’ – medical studies where a person can be paid large amounts of money for testing new medicines. The protagonist immediately embraces the guinea-pig lifestyle, meeting fellow drifters along the way, all the while still chasing his dream of becoming a successful writer. An existential piece of social commentary filled with black humour, Lab Rat is a classic outsider story that will resonate with anyone who has dreamed of breaking free from the rat race.’
The book is my first full-length story I’ve published and is now available here on Amazon, either as an ebook or paperbook. The following is an extract from the book.
‘I looked at the current list of medical studies on the website. It was like looking at a diverse and delicious restaurant menu. The studies paid anything from £800 to £5000. There were some trials for medicines treating Asthma, some for Crohn’s disease, and some for that notorious old bad guy – Cancer. There were even some trials that involved you being exposed to radiation. I was hungry for more money but I considered where I would actually draw the line when it came to doing studies. Most studies involved you testing drugs which had already gone through one phase of testing before. Would I take part in a study where I would be the first person taking the drug? I thought not, but I also knew if I was offered a ‘first-in-human’ study with a hefty payment, I’d quickly change my tune. Ultimately I was just another man blinded by my money, putting some digits on a screen before my health. And relatively speaking, I didn’t think the trials were too dangerous, but it was true that very rarely one might go wrong. I’d only told a few people I was doing medical trials but those I told were quick to mention one infamous study that happened in 2006 in London. Some guinea-pigs were testing an antibiotic that would be used to treat Leukaemia and Arthritis. A short while after being dosed, the volunteers were left writhing in agony and projectile vomiting. Soon their immune systems crashed and they suffered multiple organ failure. It got continually worse as they were left fighting for their lives and one guy had some of his fingers amputated. Some of them even had inflated heads – helping give the incident the notorious name: ‘The Elephant Man Study’. All things considered, it was a colossal fuck-up, but it had been over ten years since that incident, and lessons had apparently been learned. The doctors assured us that there were new procedures and regulations in place to stop such a calamity happening again. It was reassuring, I guess, although it did make me wonder how much compensation each volunteer got. Would I lose a few fingers for half a million pounds? Maybe a kidney or a lung for a million? If you started down that road, then where would it end? You’d be slowly slicing yourself down to nothingness in an attempt to fill that bank account with as much money as you could. I guess it was nothing out of the ordinary for many people out there.
I had the usual screening and chat with the doctor before being admitted onto the study. I passed with flying colours again, although he did stop to question the cuts on my body from when I got attacked in Sheffield. “Bike-riding accident,” I told him. “I was lucky to get off so easily; next time I’ll wear a helmet.” The doctor gave me an incredulous look. It was clear he knew I was full of shit, but he didn’t care – to him I was just another lab rat living off medical trials rather than getting a job like a normal person. No doubt, he pitied me in a way. That would explain the slight delight in his voice when he informed me of the next bit of information.
“For this trial you will need to provide faecal samples.” I stopped and paused.
“Faecal samples?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Because this drug is a treatment for Crohn’s disease, it will be necessary to monitor your bowel behaviour. So, stool samples will be necessary.” (They used words like ‘stool’ and ‘faecal’ to make it sound a little more scientific – really they were just telling you that they were going to be analysing your shit.) It wasn’t the most pleasant thought, but at least it wasn’t me having to inspect it. And it could have been worse. A few weeks back I had checked the drug trial menu to see a study taking place in which ‘the drug would be administered rectally’. Having to provide a sample of your shit was one thing, but having some poor nurse shove drugs up your ass first thing in the morning was something else. Perhaps it was there, then, where I would have drawn the line for what study I would take part in.
Back in the clinic, I got settled into my second home. I was back to being Subject 55355 and this time I was on the biggest ward, along with thirteen other volunteers. It hardly seemed like three months had passed and in a way it felt good to be back on the inside. Perhaps I was getting institutionalised already, but the idea that for the next eighteen days I wouldn’t have to worry about a single thing was comforting. I could resume my feline ways, laying around, being fed, sleeping, and even – in this case – having my shit taken away by my owners. Hell, it even felt a bit like going into rehab after the heavy drinking I had done during the previous two weeks. Yes, I thought. Get me locked up before I end up as disastrous and self-destructive as Owen.
This time the collection of fellow guinea-pigs looked a little more fitting to the situation. There were some strange looking characters including a washed-up hippy in his fifties who liked to walk around half naked – much to the disgust of the female volunteers. There was also a girl who immediately asked for screens to be put around her bed and proceeded to ignore everyone while playing her ukulele. There was one guy who sat on his bed playing Pokémon with the sound on full blast, and another who kept talking to himself while regularly hitting his laptop in frustration (I presumed he was also a gamer). It wasn’t the most peaceful environment and things got noisier on the first night when one of the volunteers started snoring loudly – so loudly you wondered if he was being strangled to death. It was an annoyance, but not as annoying as the man who cursed loudly everything he started snoring. “Fucking snoring cunt!” he would shout. “You stupid fucking pig! Shut the fuck up!” It turned out it was the washed-up hippy. I had quickly deduced he was going to be the problem man on the trial. He was an angry soul and would even snap at the nurses walking past his bed if they were too loud, suggesting they wore some stealthier footwear. “Do you think you can wear some quieter shoes? I’m trying to sleep here.” The audacity was astounding. Here was a man getting paid £200 a day to lie around and shit into a pot, and he felt it was okay to snap at the nurses working twelve-hour shifts for little more than the minimum wage. They must have hated him, especially when I later found out he had been reported on previous studies. It did make me wonder what a person had to do to get kicked off a study. They had a list of rules you had to follow, and if you broke one then you could be issued with a £50 fine. There were even some rules which would result in you being dismissed from the study and taken off the panel altogether. I wondered how far the washed-up hippy was going to push his luck. No doubt he was another bum living off these trials and maybe soon he would be joining the homeless people in the gutter. I wouldn’t have had sympathy for him. Us lab rats had to count ourselves lucky we had been given this chance to make money so easily and, for me, I followed the rules attentively and obediently, knowing full well that it was this facility which was saving me from the horrors of full-time employment in the outside world.
Anyway, after the first night I awoke to see the nurses standing there in their red ‘DO NOT DISTURB – DOSING’ tabards. I knew the drill – it was time to get to work. I swallowed down those experimental pills and wondered what side effects I was going to have this time. After that came the usual procedures: ECG, blood samples, blood pressure, temperature checks. A few hours later the moment arrived where I needed to go to the toilet. I had seen some other volunteers sheepishly come out of the bathroom with their pots and place them on the tray in the ward. None of them appeared too comfortable doing it (I guess it was quite hard to not look awkward walking through a room full of people while carrying your own shit). Well, at least I wasn’t the first person to do it. I grabbed my pot and headed over to the bathroom. I also grabbed a chart from beside my bed; there was a picture chart of all the different types of ‘faecal discharge’ and you had to write down on the pot which one your sample resembled. Was it runny or was it sturdy? Was it long or was it lumpy? Apparently, this was of utmost importance to the people conducting the study.
Inside the bathroom I sat there and prepared to do my business. I crouched on the toilet and held the pot under myself. It was then, squeezing out last night’s dinner, that I had a bit of a moment. I looked in the mirror at what I was doing and realised my life path had led me to this. A few years back I was a young man with a promising future in the communications industry. Wide-eyed and optimistic, I left university with my degree, ready to get a proper job and begin a steady career. Like every good graduate, I was preparing for a middle-class life of stability, security, and suburban sanity. My CV was updated with all my skills and my parents were eager to see me make it as a high-earner with a respected profession. Well, the years had fallen by and here I was – squeezing out a turd into a pot in order to get money to survive. It was a strange situation and I had to think of all my coursemates from university. No doubt at this moment they were in good jobs or further education. They would all be handing in important assignments or projects they’d been working on. Me? I was quite literally handing in a piece of shit.
One week into the study and things were going a bit rocky. The washed-up hippy had continued arguing with everyone he could and there was an uncomfortable atmosphere in the air. It became quite clear to me that he was another man encumbered with a lot of pain, and, typically, when he was crammed into a small space with a bunch of other humans, he tried to offload it to them. This was how pain and anger worked when inside the heart of a human-being; the more torment and bitterness a person was stuffed with, the more they barged about trying to fill other people with it. I watched him in his volatile ways and considered what his life had been like; was he abused as a child, screwed over by a woman, made angry by years and years of stressful work? Was he made this way by all the drugs he had tested on medical trials? It could have been all of these things for all I knew, but I wasn’t going to find out. I avoided such a person like the plague. Conflict was draining and I had no room for confrontation in my life – especially when I was locked up in a closed environment with that person for weeks on end.
It wasn’t just him causing the drama on the trial though. At one point a woman was on the phone to her partner when he and her son turned up by the lounge window. Whilst in the clinic you weren’t allowed any visitors, and typically this meant you also weren’t allowed to have people come up to the windows. We were on lockdown and they couldn’t risk any contraband getting in to interfere with the results of the study. Things like chocolate and caffeine could affect the blood results and so, upon entry to the clinic, they searched our bags for such illegal gear. The windows were covered with a steel mesh on the outside, but there was still the chance you could sneak a chocolate bar or something through. Perhaps some McDonalds fries? Alcohol through a straw? Or even some of the more fun types of drugs? Anyway, the CCTV cameras had caught this woman’s family coming up to the window, and ten minutes later a dozen nurses marched onto our ward telling us there had been ‘a security breach’. They then got us all to empty out all our belongings onto our beds. Suddenly it was beginning to feel like an actual prison or concentration camp. Even a loony bin. Well, the shoe fitted, I guess.
Another drama involved the Pokémon guy. We had quickly worked out he was a bit of a creep. No doubt he was another guy starved of sexual contact, made crazy by his rejection by the female kind, and for once he was in an environment where he could talk to whatever poor woman was in close proximity. He had expressed creepy comments to all the women on the trial and one night he had been caught standing at the end of one woman’s bed at 3am. “What are you doing?” she asked, rather shocked.
“Just going to the toilet,” he lied, rather poorly.
The arguments and the awkwardness – it did make me think what a social experiment these trials were. Here were a bunch of people who would never meet in ordinary life all confined in a small space for a short time. It was only natural that every now and again it was going to bring out the worst in people. Ultimately human-beings were tribal, primitive beings at their core, and for most it was a good thing they didn’t get together. For me, I quickly decided that my tactic when starting a trial was to sit back, observe, and keep myself to myself for the first couple of days. While in that state of observation, I tried to work out which person was left-wing and right-wing, which person was religious or atheist, and which person was actually a reasonable human-being. After that had been deduced, then I was able to know how to interact with each one accordingly; or which people I was just going to avoid all together for the sake of my own peace and harmony. I figured this was a tactic I used anyway in the outside world when interacting with humanity, but one which is even more necessary in this intense sort of environment.
After a couple of days of such observation, I realised there was one person on the trial who was ‘one of my kind’. His name was Steven and he was a guy in his thirties who lived in a van. He had long hair and looked like the sort of guy you would meet after midnight at a campfire in a rock festival, perhaps offering you some mind-altering substances. He had been living in his van for the last four years which you could see from the window. There it was parked in the car-park – a big, meaty, army-green van which resembled something between a furniture removal vehicle and a horse box. Inside he had turned it into a mobile home complete with a bed, kitchen, sofa, solar panels, and a toilet. Like me, he had spent his twenties wandering around the world and was now trying to figure out how to navigate life as he approached the middle-age section of it. He had recently just slip with his girlfriend of ten years and as a result a lot of his talk was about women and sex. Speaking to him, it became clear he was another wanderer of life probably wondering where he fit into the system. The brutal fact was that these wanderers didn’t; they were square pegs in a society of round holes, hence why they wandered. Their isolation is part of who they are and you can usually see it in their eyes – a specific look which is often confused with someone daydreaming. Often I myself wandered the streets looking for others with that look. I searched for it in the faces of people waiting at bus stops, or supermarket queues, or the crowds that temporarily formed at the traffic lights. Sometimes I think I even spotted it, but I never did anything about it. I continued about my day and accepted my isolation from the rest of my species. Well here I was with one in front of me: another person who probably felt he had crash-landed on the wrong planet and was wondering when somebody was going to come take him home. For now his home was that van, and this clinic, and wherever the hell he was going to drive it to after we got out.
He was a free soul to many, but I could tell he had anxieties about the life he was living. It was clear with certain things he said:
“I’m thirty-three now and I’ve got nothing to show for it except for some wrinkles. I’ve got no savings or prospects.”
“You want to be careful, one day you’re a young man full of promise, the next you’re a middle-aged man living in a van on your own.”
He was relentlessly witty and would love to crack self-deprecating jokes, but under that comical persona, I could see there were some actual concerns about the life he was living. His words reminded me that in the end not many people were truly free – hell, maybe no one was. There were only those who were good actors. Hippies, travellers, people living alternatively – they were always called ‘free-spirits’, but they were usually full of anxieties and inner conflicts. Ultimately human-beings were social creatures and it took a lot to live differently from the herd. To watch your friends buying houses and settling down while you shitted into a bucket in the back of a van and lived off medical trials was always going to cause some insecurity. Human-beings all had that innate need for social gratification, so it was only natural that when you wandered away from the herd, you felt some sort of anxiety. I knew this because I had felt it myself during the last few years of my own life. Doing your own thing was often tiring and I knew there was comfort in the herd – but I also knew that the best things in my life had come from venturing away from it. That was something I sought to share with him.
“Not many people have the guts to live in a van,” I told him. “So many people say they want to do it, but so very few ever will. People like to talk to talk, but when it comes to actually living this type of life, most people will choose comfort and convenience every time. An easy shower, a steady job, having things in common with people… It’s all a trade-off. But life is obviously more exciting when you choose a different path. Living in a van takes guts and you will no doubt inspire a lot of people. Like Hunter S Thompson said: ‘Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of the rat race is not yet final’”.
“You love a quote don’t you,” he said, noticing I had quoted about four people in the space of half an hour. “But that’s true. It takes guts to live like this. Everyone accepts the rat race so easily, but I couldn’t live that way if my life depended on it. For me, I’d just end up suicidal or something. I don’t want to be another victim of the system living a mediocre existence. Most people aren’t very interesting or even happy by the time they reach middle-age.”
“I hope I’m still living an adventurous life in ten years’ time,” I then said. “I’m at that age now where a lot of people who have been living adventurous lives begin to pack it all away. The backpack goes and sits in the garage gathering dust, the long travel trips become weekends away to the Cotswolds, and people generally filter themselves down in order to fit in some way into the system. Of course, you have those that momentarily wake up from their slumber and have the classic mid-life crisis. They get to their forties, realise their halfway through their lives and that they haven’t done anything they ever wanted to do. Then, to compensate for this, they have a few years of hedonism and pick up some new eccentric hobbies, but by that point they are too burdened by responsibilities and stuck in their ways to truly change to the version of themselves they wish to be.” I could feel myself getting into a big old speech, and I had noticed one of the nurses listening in – no doubt they regularly overheard these types of existential debates amongst us lab rats.
“You seem pretty switched on for a young guy,” he said.
“I’m just another kid who read too much philosophy. No doubt I’m just full of shit like everyone else.” I was joining Steven with his self-deprecating humour, but I really believed what I was saying. Ultimately there isn’t a man or woman out there who hasn’t felt suffocated by their cultural reality. We all know it. We all stare at each other’s faces and let sentences of sanity exit our mouths, trying to appear normal and fit in and be accepted members of society. It was a sham but we went along with it for our own survival in the herd. Being accepted among the crowd paved the way to an easy life, but god, how I sometimes wanted everyone to just toss the mask aside, tear up the script, walk off the stage, and just start acting like who the hell they really were. The frustrating thing is that I think deep down this is what the vast majority of people want: to actually just be themselves and enjoy their fleeting time here on this earth. But for the sake of convenience, most of us go along with the big charade. It’s the human desire for social validation. The comfortable place among the crowd. The small talk down the pub. The camaraderie at family dinner tables. The pats on the back. The likes on social media. It was simple how it worked: the bigger the crowd you tried to be a part of, the more of your own individuality you had to kill. The dynamic of a group meant there had to be a shared connection for it to work, but the thing was every human being was a uniquely beautiful and complicated mess. This mess had to be ironed out so everyone could unite in the ‘middle ground’ – typically the dominant cultural values of the herd. As a result, the true individual was usually alienated, isolated, and often teetering on the precipice of madness (or living in a van while surviving off medical trials).
It was a few minutes later that I found out me and Steven shared another similarity. Like me, he was another person infected with the writing madness. He told me about his fantasy novel he had been working on for years. Progress was ‘slow’, as he put it. It sounded really slow, in fact, and I had to wonder whether he was ever going to get it done. “I’m such a lazy piece of shit,” he told me. “I sit down to write and then end up procrastinating or finding some way to kill a few hours without writing a word. It pisses me off.” Although my idleness wasn’t as bad as Steven’s, I did resonate with what he said. Sometimes I sat down to write and would find myself going on a YouTube binge or exploring some strange rabbit-hole of the internet. I also aspired to write a novel. I had even given it a go in the past, but all my attempts had crashed and burned by the time I got to the ten-thousand-word mark. One day I decided that I simply just wasn’t ready to write it. Ultimately I hadn’t lived enough and was better off getting beaten up some more by life before I attempted the mountain of writing a novel. At least, that was how I rationalised my idleness. Maybe we were both those cliché pretentious guys who went through their lives saying they were writing a novel, but never actually got around to doing it. In reality, we were just good for nothing bums. Well, not completely nothing. At least we were ‘helping advance the world of medicinal research’. If that would be all we contributed to society, then I guess it was still better than nothing. And even if we didn’t make it by the time of our death, we could always use a bit of delusion and tell ourselves we were like Kafka or Van Gogh – unappreciated in our lifetimes but hailed as geniuses by future generations. Sadly, I could see us both going insane and cutting off our ears (or losing them on a trial), but perhaps our artistic success ever arriving was a fantastical daydream at best. Well, maybe that was all people like us really needed to make it through.’
“What will become of me? I ask myself this now in the summer of 2021, aged twenty-nine, with the world in a state of chaos and my life in a state of transition. I sit on the shore of a Scottish beach, staring out at the sea and the setting sun. The future looks unclear and often I don’t even know what I believe anymore. My mind feels frazzled and things I once knew for certain now seem murky. The morning mirror doesn’t show the person I once knew with such certainty. My path now seems more unclear than ever. There is an ache in my heart as I stare into those waters and ask myself: what will become of me? As time ages my mind and body. What will become of me? As close friends become distant strangers. What will become of me? As society changes in crazy ways. What will become of me? As my body accumulates more scars, as my heart is filled with more pain, as my soul struggles to shine its light. No, I don’t know what will become of me. Maybe I’ll be reduced to madness, that ranting maniac on city streets lost in his own mind. Maybe I’ll settle into a peaceful and simple life somewhere in the country. Maybe I’ll end up on a path that takes me to something I never knew even existed. As always, it’s hard to know what awaits in the unknown, and sometimes finding the faith to march on into that mist can be hard. But, as I sat there on that beach, I realised the only way forward was to just do what I’d always done before. I believed that the only way forward was to get up and keep following the heart, no matter which direction it led me. Inside I felt that was my only shot of making it through, of ending up in the right place – of becoming exactly who I was supposed to be.”
“Sorry, but I guess I’ll always be a bit of a runaway, a dreamer, a vagabond. This blood that runs inside me will not allow me to do anything else. I have stared into the eyes of those people on the street and decided I am not one of them. Their words have been heard and their perspectives considered, but ultimately the life they live is a strange foreign one to me. There is a priceless pleasure in following the heart fearlessly through life, and I guess I would rather do that all my years than allow myself to dwell in an existence that doesn’t bring me any real fulfilment. I am out on the quest, and yes, I know my road may end in wreck or ruin, but in my heart I only desire to be able to say that my life was one lived to total completion; that my soul at least knew what it was to run free through a great wilderness, rather than to stay stuck in a way of life which did not allow me to truly live.”
“No, I haven’t got that stable mind, that polished resume, those practical and pragmatic skills. I haven’t got many things that most people in this world have. But such is life and I have learnt how to survive my own way and by my own rules. Because I got those feet that march through the swamp, those eyes that lift to the horizon, that spirit that never quits. I got those values that never corrupt and a heart that can’t be tamed. And when the others lose their way, I have just enough madness left inside to pull myself up and continue on through the storm. These are the things I have, and although they may not be the things most people desire, I would not trade them for all the riches in the world.”
It was a random weekend and I had come back to visit the parents in my hometown of Coventry. I was unemployed and waiting to do a medical trial in a couple of weeks’ time, so I thought I’d pop home to be bored there instead of where I was currently living (Nottingham). It was still national lockdown from the coronavirus and there wasn’t much to do, so I arranged to meet a friend and walk around the local park while venting our frustration at the situation. We were both approaching our 30th birthday as the closing years of our twenties were wasted by a hysterical overreaction of a virus outbreak. Both of us should have been out travelling the world, having romances, living life, but instead we were wandering around the drab suburbs of our childhood town, unable to even go to a bar or do anything of any real excitement. After a while he told me his younger brother had just bought a house and was having a house-warming gathering. Well, what the hell; it was something else to do other than wander around aimlessly, so we bought some drinks from a cornershop then headed over.
We made our way inside the house where his brother and a friend were setting up a TV on the wall. We helped them assemble some chairs and then got started with the drinking. His brother and his friend were 21-years old; they had crates of beer, wide eyes, high spirits and were ready for another Saturday on the booze. Soon enough another couple of his brother’s friends arrived to join the party. We were a good age distance apart from everyone there and it wasn’t long until the obvious subject of our age came up. “How old are you?” one of them asked. “29″ I said. “29?” he said. “That’s old man. I thought I’d be having kids and stuff at 29. Don’t you want to have kids?” I shrugged my shoulders and told him no. I then cracked open another beer before moving on to the drinking games. At first it was drink whenever someone with your name scored in a football game, then it was beer pong, then a load of other games as shots and drinks were consumed every few minutes. Vodka, Rum, Bucksfast – it all went down as my memory began to black out as it had so many times over the years.
The next day I awoke in my bedroom covered in cuts and scratches. There were bloodstains on the sheets and unhappy parents downstairs. It took me a while to figure out the ins and outs of the situation, but apparently I had been kicked out of the house-gathering by my friend’s younger brother. Having skipped dinner and downed copious amounts of alcohol, I had become intoxicated to the point I was spilling my drinks everywhere and falling over into thorn bushes. I had also lost my jacket and smashed a bottle of liquor I had bought my mum for mother’s day. Oh – and just to round things off – I had left the key in the front door along with blood on the handle (something my parents found slightly disconcerting). The thought hit me that I was about to leave my youth behind and I was still doing the same stupid shit I had always done. In fact, I was even worse than those 21-year-olds. It was a sobering realisation and I tried to avoid the judgment of my parents by hiding in my room all day. In that lair I dwelled in my hungover state until boredom and horniness caused me to get out my phone to go on Tinder. It was after a few minutes of mindless swiping that I came across the profile of a girl I used to see when I was twenty-two. Seven years had passed but I thought I’d start speaking to her again anyway. Suddenly I was feeling super nostalgic; probably I just wanted to feel like I was younger again, but I asked her to go for a walk over the local farmland near where we lived. She agreed.
We met on a street corner and started catching up. It had been a strange year since the pandemic began, but this was perhaps the strangest moment of all. We hadn’t spoken in five years yet somehow it felt like no time had passed at all. Tales of the past and present were discussed as we wandered around the farm fields under a grey and gloomy sky.
“So what are you doing with your life now?” she asked. “It must be weird now the pandemic caused you to be a stable UK citizen.”
“It has been weird,” I said. “I was about to jet off to South America when the pandemic hit but instead I found myself moving back in with my parents and getting a job at Amazon. Then I quit and enjoyed the summer before moving back to Nottingham. But yeah, to be honest, I don’t really know what I’m doing right now. I always wanted to just travel throughout my twenties, but now that has been taken away from me by this pandemic. Right now I’m just living month to month, working here and there, doing medical trials and trying to get by. You know how it is…”
“I can imagine it’s been strange for you not being able to take some trips…” There was a pause. “So do you think you can finally see yourself settling down or are you planning to get away again after the crisis is over?“ I knew why she was asking this of course – it was to see if I was finally someone worth imagining a future with. That was what she wanted in the past and what I had disappointed her with once already. When I came back from an eighteen-month trip five years ago, she had hopes that I was finished with the life of being a wandering nomad. We saw each other a couple of times again but I quickly realised it was the wrong thing to do. She only ever wanted a normal life and back then even after that trip I knew there was no way I could give her what she wanted. Well, here I was five years on still feeling the exact same way. Time had changed nothing; I was still just a drifting bum with no direction or desire to join her in a settled existence. Well, if I wanted to get laid I’d have to give her hope, so I continued talking about how I was open to whatever life brought my way now travel wasn’t possible.
It must have worked as the next day she invited me around to her place for the evening. I walked over to hers from my parents, a fifty-minute walk through the streets of a sleepy suburb, filled with big houses and nice cars on the drives outside. I got to her house, knocked on the front door and entered. Inside I was jumped upon by her puppy – an eight-month-old cocker-spaniel. She had bought him during lockdown, presumably to have some company while living alone. I then made my way into the living room and sat down with her on the sofa. As we chatted about life, I looked around at the interior of the house. It was clean and well-decorated, but something about it saddened me. It was a new-build house and you could see it was a formulaic design – a computer-generated building on a computer-generated street where everything looked the same (almost like it was taken from The Sims). I looked at all the Ikea furniture tidily laid out; I looked out at the garden which was a blank square of grass with a small shed at the bottom. Everything was neat, clean, featureless. Of course, I couldn’t knock her for buying her own home at the tender age of twenty-five, but to me it seemed that there was just no soul there at all. In that soulless house we sat discussing old times as I imagined the possibility of finally forming a relationship with this girl. I could live here with her in suburbia, come home to this sofa, walk the dog in the local park, make love with her at night. I could get my old job back at the Amazon warehouse that was right off her street. It was all there within my reach: a civilized and normal life. A chance to come in from the wilderness. A chance to ‘grow up’, as my parents kept pressuring me to do. No more getting drunk and hurting myself. No more floating idly with the breeze. Just a steady, sensible, neat, ordinary existence.
Eventually we started making out and I ended up staying the night. The next morning we made love again before I headed to leave her so she could get started with her job. Of course, I didn’t have such responsibility and I walked out into the rain to begin the long walk back to my parents place. “Do you want a lift?” she asked as I headed out the door. I remembered how she always gave me a lift home in the past from her old place. I still hadn’t got my driving license after all these years, but this time I couldn’t allow her to drop me home. “No, don’t worry about it, “ I said. I then left her with a kiss before walking off into the rain (without my rain jacket, of course, which had been lost at the house-warming party).
When I got back to my parents, I packed my bags and began the journey back to Nottingham. It had been a strange old weekend and I just wanted to be back far away from my hometown. The train journey would be two hours and I spent that time staring out the window, my old pastime, wondering what was next for me in this purgatory state of living I had been experiencing. It had now been one year of living in this existential blur. No direction, no desire, no possibility to do what I wanted to do anymore. All the years were coming and going. I saw the younger kids buying houses and settling down. I saw past love flames still living a stable existence. Elsewhere friends were getting married or engaged, climbing career ladders, having babies. All those things which I still had no desire to do. My way of life was dead for the time being and I saw myself as just plodding along, acting as stupid and reckless as I had always done. Getting drunk and hurting myself; losing my belongings and breaking things; leading girls on I had no intention of forming a relationship with. Not much had changed over the last decade. I was a man trapped in time, repeating the same reckless behaviours I had always done. A couple of lines across the forehead showed the passage of time aging me, but other than that just the same old fool I had always been. Where to go from here? Who the hell knew. The lockdown of the world had left my brain in a frozen state and all I could do was stare into space and wait for something to appear to me in the greyness.