lab rat

Lab Rat (chapter eleven)

 The following is an extract from a semi-fictional novel I’m working on. It is based on my experience of taking part in medical trials as a lifestyle and tells the tale of a disenfranchised young man living on the edge of society and finding his place in the world while meeting fellow drifters along the way. It is still a work in progress and one that will keep being developed as I continue living this way and collecting more material for the book, but for now I will post extracts on here. Previous instalments can be found here.

Chapter Eleven

I was out. My first stint of being a guinea-pig was over. I had helped advance the world of medicinal research and now was ‘the washout-period’ – a period of three months in which I wasn’t able to test any more drugs for safety reasons. This meant no more trials until the Autumn, but that was okay; the payment from the trial would sustain me plentifully until my next drug-testing assignment. I had to wait a week or so for the payment but there it came: a singular payment of £4580 into my bank account. I’d never seen such a large payment go into my account and I sat there staring at it, touching the screen, wondering if it was real. It seemed surreal to acquire that sort of money in such a short space of time – especially for basically having a relaxing retreat from society. In a way I felt like I had cheated the system, and I kept refreshing the page to see if it was still there. It was and naturally I started wondering how I could spend it. I could have just jumped on a plane straight away, but I had my contract with the room and, if I was honest, I wasn’t feeling like going away again so soon after getting back from a big trip. I could have invested it, but that was essentially gambling in my eyes, and my luck hadn’t been in since around birth. In the end, I figured I’d just take it easy and enjoy the rest of the summer doing my bike trips, drinking and writing.

For a few days I just did nothing. I walked into town with no real mission or quest. I felt like a Buddhist monk while roaming those streets. Sometimes I got a coffee at a café; sometimes I got some beers to sit in the park and sunbathe. It wasn’t long until I had a tan which made people wonder where I’d been on holiday (I’d explain to them that it wasn’t a holiday tan, but an unemployment one). I’d also go to the main square in the city centre and just sit on a wall people-watching. Observing the human race was one of my favourite pastimes and Nottingham city centre was a good place for it. Often I felt like I was on safari in public places – merely an observer in an environment to which I was a visitor. I think it was the comedian George Carlin who said: “When you’re born on this planet, you get a ticket to the freak show; when you’re born in America, you get a front-row seat.” Okay so I wasn’t state-side watching some shotgun-wielding hillbilly tell me god hates fags, but I felt like I had a pretty good view from where I was as I sat in that square. I saw all the crazy people – cursing alcoholics sitting and drinking their bottles of wine at midday; preachers telling us that we were all going to hell; a washed-up hippy hitting some bongo drums while singing to the pigeons; a man who rode around on his bike with an amp blasting nineties’ dance music. Occasionally a fight would erupt and the police would turn up to calm things down. It was a solid show with riveting performances all round. Aside from all the madness, I watched all the regular people go about their day: the shoppers, the teenagers, the mums, the people going to and from work. With those people I saw the faces of society: some scrunched up and worn down from life, some still looking great as they strode proudly with purpose and passion. They were the faces of the winners and the faces of the losers. The faces of those who were top of the pile and the faces of those who were being trampled underfoot. It was all a big game and I wondered how my face was going to look in twenty years time. I figured if I kept on doing medical trials, I’d be able to live this stress-free lifestyle, get plenty of sleep, and have time to exercise. Maybe I wouldn’t grow old with a twisted face full of tiredness and despair. Maybe the light would still be there inside my eyes. Maybe there was a chance.

Meanwhile at my house I was still living with an odd collection of people. At first, it did feel strange to live with the landlady, but it turned out she was quite a bohemian character, very gregarious and laid-back. Her name was Thea and she was a retired nurse spending her retirement baking cakes, hosting folk music lessons, drinking wine and just generally living the good life. Her house was her castle and it was a big one with a sprawling garden, brimming with different types of plants and trees. A pond full of frogs. A greenhouse where she grew tomatoes and potatoes. There was a conservatory with a load of instruments in and a big kitchen where she baked a new cake every day. She was in the final chapter of her life, watching the sun set of her one existence, sipping that wine as she soaked in the final years of the human experience. I had always assumed the best years of your life were when you were young and full of fire, but seeing her living that way made me rethink things. I had to even admit I was a little jealous of her, but I knew that such a decadent life was far out of reach. She had bought the house in 1973 for £10,000 and now its value was over half a million pounds. Even with inflation, the value of the house was many multiple times worth what she paid for it. Owning a place like that was simply impossible now with renting prices, low-paying jobs, and the general cost of a house these days. We were the first generation to be poorer than our parents and affording a home was simply a pipe dream for most. I had to think of the girl from the trial currently living off £150 a week while walking dogs. Or Jamie struggling to get another job after just getting made redundant. No, there was no point even imagining such a life. Even the idea of retirement for most was unrealistic. Our generation would be working until we were dead. Personally, I didn’t expect to live until my retirement age anyway, whatever that was going to be, so I didn’t worry too much about it. I figured I’d go out in a blaze of glory on one of my trips, or maybe overdosing in Vegas on my 60th birthday. Maybe even on a medical trial. Who knew. For me I wanted death to embrace me before I was some senile old man having my ass wiped clean by a carer. To die with dignity was a rare thing.

Anyway I was enjoying living there and I spent time there relaxing in the garden, working out, reading, sunbathing, relaxing, drinking. In a weird way I was living the retired life with the landlady. The employed one of the household, Rahul, would occasionally watch us with a contemplative look. He was twenty-six years old, at a similar stage of life than me, and was working hard in his graduate job. He regularly worked fifty-hour weeks. He was growing into his career, climbing the ladder, working hard to become a real person. In the meanwhile he watched me sitting around stroking cats and sipping wine. It was hard to know whether he was thinking I was a degenerate loser, or whether he had it all wrong and that I was some sort of genius. I wasn’t too sure of the answer myself to be honest and I guess I was interested to know his thoughts on the whole thing.

I wasn’t the only slacker of the household. There was the sixty-year-old Sean who spent his days in his room playing his guitar and singing the same awful songs again and again. Having just spent ten years living in a treehouse in Mexico, he had come home for some surgery and gotten stuck here. He didn’t seem to have much money and he was looking for work. Occasionally he even found some, but it never lasted long. A week or two after starting he’d be back in his room strumming on that guitar once again. I couldn’t help but look at him and wonder if that was what awaited me in old age. I tried not to think about it really; it was an uneasy thought. I knew my path was far more likely to end his way than Thea’s. Apart from him there was Simon – the fifty-year-old conspiracy theorist who lived in a shed at the bottom of the garden. Now Simon did have a job as a sound engineer at a bar in town, but work was so sparse that he was rarely in. He had some other odd jobs that he worked here and there, but if no work could be found then he’d be in his shed smoking weed and watching YouTube conspiracy theory videos. At times I had to think, what was more of a madhouse – the clinic or the house. It was a close call and it did make me pause and reflect that I always seemed to end up in such environments. No doubt I was just another inmate in the madhouse too.

medical trial

Medical Trial (chapter 6, 7 & 8)

 The following is an extract from a semi-fictional novel I’m working on. It is based on my experience of taking part in medical trials as a lifestyle and tells the tale of a disenfranchised young man living on the edge of society and finding his place in the world while meeting fellow drifters along the way. It is still a work in progress and one that will keep being developed as I continue living this way and collecting more material for the book, but for now I will post extracts on here. Previous instalments can be found here.

Chapter Six

I got started with the job, my first task stacking tins of dog food onto pallets after they had been relabelled. While waiting for the cans to amass at the end of the conveyor-belt, I stood there watching some young Polish girls sit and strip the cans of their old labels. They stared out the window with emotionless expressions as they robotically picked up and sliced the labels without looking. They did one every three seconds before shoving it back onto the conveyor-belt. The girls weren’t beautiful or anything, but I couldn’t help but stare at them. Such young women with such little enthusiasm who had appeared to have done a task so much they had turned into machines themselves. They worked in silence and I wondered what they were thinking, and whether or not this was the sort of thing they had envisaged when coming to this country. Was this the better life they were hoping for? Did they have plans that stretched beyond the walls of the warehouse? Were they actually secretly fulfilled and content? As always when studying my fellow human-beings, I couldn’t be sure what was really lingering inside their skulls.

Once the newly-labelled cans made their way to the end of the conveyor-belt, I had to grab them and stack them on the pallets. It was physical work, and repetitive work, but I didn’t mind it. The speed was okay for it not to be stressful and the mindlessness of the work allowed me to daydream the hours away. Daydreaming often was a disability in life when it came to things that required focus, but when it came to situations like this, it felt like more of a superpower. I was able to pass the time away while going on some introspective adventure through the galaxies of my own mind. I thought about my travels and what other adventures I could go on in the future; I also thought of things to write about when I got home. Yes, I thought – truly the last refuge of freedom was in the mind. They had my body confined in that place for the time being, but my mind was free as always to wander wherever the hell it pleased.

After a while, my daydreaming was interrupted when another guy came to work with me. He was middle-aged, about fifty, with a bad posture, grey hair and glasses. He was friendly and started asking me about my life and how I had ended up in that warehouse. I liked him and told him everything without feeling the need to hide anything. He listened to me with interest, praising my lifestyle and encouraging me to get back on the road as soon as I could. After hearing my tale, I started to ask him a little about his own tragedy; about how he also had ended up in such a terrible job while seemingly being an intelligent person. He told me how he had worked in software development down in London for the last ten years until he was suddenly made redundant. Trying to get a new position in the industry was hard for someone his age, and for now he had been demoted from developing computer systems for big tech companies to stacking out-of-date tins of dog food. “All these companies want young graduates,” he complained to me. “They want people they can train up and have a future in the company, not some fifty-something man at the end of his working life.” The classic decay of value which awaited us all. His story was a sad one but I took solace in the fact he hadn’t given up; like many toiling away in these depressing and dead-end jobs, he had a grand plan to break free. After work everyday, he went home and devoted his leisure time to developing a computer game. He spent five hours a night working on it before getting whatever sleep he could. His plan was to upload it as an app and hope the success of it would allow him to break back into the software industry. The smell of the rotting pet food had spurred him on and there he was: another dreamer fighting for something more than he had. His story made me think of my writing and encouraged me to go home and hit those keyboard keys until the early hours of the morning, my fingertips fighting for freedom – my soul scratching and clawing for something more than what life was offering me. In my heart I felt my writing aspirations were nothing more than pure delusion, but like everyone else I was guilty of needing a little delusion to make life tolerable. Religion, love, dreams, the future – yes, delusion was the universal drug and it was just a matter of time before I wrote my masterpieces. Soon enough I would be sitting in a Rolling Stone interview telling some journalist how I crawled through the swamps of life to come out clean on the other side. I imagined the book signings, the woman knocking on my front door, the paychecks coming in for me. I imagined young writers asking me for advice and me telling them it was just a matter of following your gut and going out and living life with your heart on your sleeve. “To write it well you have to live it well,” I would say to them. “Be the centre of your own experience.” Yes, it was only a matter of time; only a matter of time before the world knew my genius. The delusional daydreams continued as I gazed out the window and suddenly began to understand the look on the faces of the young Polish girls a little better.

Chapter Seven

I carried on at the job for about four weeks until I had had enough. Getting up early and riding that one hour bus everyday; breaking my back while stacking out-of-date pet food; coming home stinking of dog biscuits. The paychecks came in and seemed pitiful for what I had sacrificed. The job itself had taken me to some new lows. At one point I had been reduced to emptying and cleaning out the waste buckets. The foul odor of that rotting pet food penetrated my lungs, almost causing me to vomit, and at that point I knew the absurdity of the job had gotten too much. I rang up the agency and told them that I had decided to quit. They didn’t seem too happy but I felt that the boss of the warehouse probably understood; he no doubt figured that an intelligent young man such as myself had moved onto something better, but no, there I was once again – a useless, unemployed graduate with little options in a recession-ravaged world. I couldn’t even work up the energy to go and search for another job; it was all simply too much for the time being. Instead I reflected on my travels and longed for some adventure. It was summer and I figured there were always places to explore around Nottingham, so I popped back to my parents to get my old bicycle. Going back to my parents was always a tedious affair and they were always keen to know how I was doing. We were a working class family and my parents only knew life as getting a steady job and settling down as soon as you were an adult. As a result, they hadn’t been encouraging of my travelling lifestyle in my twenties and were always keen to point out to me that I couldn’t be relying on them all my life. They pointed that out because a few years ago I had come back from a trip with a few thousand pounds of debt; what followed was a year at home, staring at the walls of my old childhood bedroom and feeling like they were closing in on me. I had to take my old job back at the local supermarket and suddenly my whole two-year world trip seemed like it never happened. I felt trapped, caged, suffocated. A period of depression followed in which I regularly argued with my parents. I knew that having to go back there for another stint would be too much for me, and I looked at my money dwindling down and felt a knot in my stomach. I was now in my late twenties and although there were many out there living with their parents due to the state of the economy, I knew such a thing for me would break me, as well as give my parents the gratification they wanted for seeing me fall flat on my feet again. Ultimately they wanted to see me suffer for choosing to not swallow the normal nine-to-five lifestyle like the majority of people my age were. “Why can’t you be more like your friends,” they would say. “They all have proper jobs…” “Why did you even get a degree if you’re not going to use it?” “When are you going to grow up like your brother?” Ahhh, the great questions of life.

Anyway, with my bike back in my possession, I took it out to the local countryside. I rode it around the small towns and villages, getting lost and enjoying the freedom that I had for the time being. Sometimes I would just pick a spot in a field, sit down with a 4-pack of cider, and write some poetry in a notebook. I played Bob Dylan on my phone and imagined myself in his shoes, wandering about America in the fifties meeting strange and interesting people. Aside from the cycling trips, I went to bars in town, hoping to meet some strange and interesting people myself. There was one bar in particular where all the bohemians seemed to congregate. The few times I had been in there I had met artists, musicians, travellers and homeless people. I was pretty much a bum myself at that point and I figured it was the place for me. I’d go there with Jake some nights and a few times I just went on my own. There was a smoking area at the side of the building that was packed with tables of people all crowding and conversing together. You only had to take a seat somewhere and it wasn’t long before you were chatting with some vegan anarchist about philosophy or politics. It was the perfect place for a cliché failing writer like myself and it was nice not to feel like an absolute alien for once (as I did among the socially-sane and steadily employed people that frequented the other bars).

One night I was there and got hit with the ‘what do you do?’ question. I always resented that question. Most likely because I was unemployed and didn’t have an answer to it, but also because you were expected to justify your existence with some job title as if it was the primary reason for your existence. Anyway, I got hit with the depressing question by some skin-head and just told him the truth – that I had been travelling a lot the last years and had now come home and was unemployed and aspiring to be a writer but not really being a writer. He sat there smoking his cigarette and nodding, seeming to understand the tragedy of my situation. It was then that I was informed of something which would change my life for the foreseeable future – something which seemed too good to be true in this world where people suffered to make a living.

“Have you ever considered doing one of those medical trial things?” he asked.

“Medical trials?” I said. “You mean being a human guinea-pig?”

“Yeah, clinical research studies. I’ve got a friend who does them. He normally makes around fifteen thousand pounds a year doing studies. It sounds like a pretty sweet gig too. You just go into a clinic, take some pills, have your health monitored for a bit, and then you come out with a load of money in your bank account. It’s all tax-free too.” My interest piqued with the amount of money he quoted; after tax, that was more than a full year’s wage at the pet food factory.

“Sounds good,” I said. “But isn’t it dangerous?”

“Well, he’s done loads of studies and never had any side effects. In fact, he loves going in to do them ‘cause it’s a chance to just lie around and do nothing for a bit. I’d do them myself if I could get the time off work. You need a flexible schedule to do them, but if you’re not currently working then you could look into it. There’s a clinic here in Nottingham. You’d be able to do your writing in there too.”

I sat there listening intently. The idea of testing drugs for money seemed strange at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I was willing to do it. Essentially every job required you to be locked away and sacrifice your time and health for a financial reimbursement; medical trials just seemed more direct about the whole thing. “Look you need money and we need your body, so come in and sacrifice your freedom and health for a set period of time and we reimburse you with a monetary payment into your bank account.” If anything I had to admire them for their honesty. I thanked him for the recommendation and told him I’d think about it. In reality I was already sold and I spent the rest of my evening thinking about when I could get into the clinic, take some experimental drugs, and begin my career in the human guinea-pig industry.

Chapter Eight

The smoking skin-head was right; there was a clinic here in Nottingham, in a business park beside a small village just outside the city. I went onto their website and checked them out. They were an independent company conducting a variety of studies for various diseases and conditions. The current trials paid anything from one to five thousand pounds, involving anything from three to twenty-six days in the clinic. To qualify for taking part in a trial you had to be between the age of eighteen and fifty-five, have a healthy body mass index, be a non-smoker, have no serious health issues, and have no history of drug or alcohol abuse. The history of alcohol abuse was questionable, but ultimately nothing they would be able to prove. I looked at everything they listed and realised I was good to go – finally, a role I was actually qualified for and interested in doing.

I registered and entered in my details, including my doctor who they would need to get a medical report off. Within a few days, they were on the phone and inviting me to come for an induction. I attended as soon as I could. The induction involved a medical examination, a chat with the doctor, and a tour of the facilities. Speaking to the doctor, he looked through my medical history with approving nods. On paper I was as healthy as they came: no conditions, allergies, past surgeries or major injuries. I was a natural. On the mental health side of things, I had definitely had some issues over the years, but typically I told him that I hadn’t. The way I figured it, there was no such thing as a person who had no history of mental illness; every man or woman out there had their own demons and had spent at least some time in the darkness. Ultimately there was no way for a human-being to live in this society without having their brain scrambled a little bit. After chatting for a few minutes, he began inspecting me over – shining a torch in my eyes, checking my reactions, listening to my breathing. He asked me about some scars on my body; they were all from drunken alterations, but I explained them away as bike-riding accidents. Next he lifted up my sleeve to examine the veins on my arm. For each study they would be taking multiple samples of blood, and hence you were required to have ‘good veins’ – aka veins which could be easily penetrated and drained by the nurses’ needles. Luckily, I passed with flying colours again. My whole life I had these big juicy veins that snaked down my arms. I attributed them to the cardiovascular exercises of running and cycling, as well as my general genetic make-up. In particular there was this one huge vein which protruded considerably around the underside of my elbow. This river of blood was a lucrative commodity and would be sure to get me onto a trial. This was it: my one money-making ability. Some men had marketable skills, team-player qualities, practical trades and talents. Me? I had a big vein which would secrete blood at any moment, making me an ideal candidate to test experimental drugs on.

After the medical I was given a tour of the facility which was located just across the road in a separate building. It looked more like a business headquarters from the outside than a medical facility. Walking through the reception and into the hallways, I soon saw the volunteers who were currently checked in for whatever study they were doing. They wore matching polo-shirts which identified them to their study via their colour (there were six wards in total which meant there were up to six studies taking place at any one time). Some of the volunteers were playing table tennis, some were playing pool, others were playing darts. Some sat down on beanbags and played on the Xbox; others sat in the lounge watching movies. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I watched them all relaxing and hanging out while taking home about £200 a day. Of course, they did have to be in their beds at some points for procedures, but for most of the day they were free to do as they pleased. I was even informed that there was bingo and quizzes which came with prizes. The cherry on the cake? The time spent here was completely free. You paid for nothing, all your meals were brought to you, and hell there was even a laundry service. It was like staring at the great secret I had hoped always existed when working those soul-crushing and tedious jobs. I thought of all the people out there spending money on their commutes, working for awful wages, struggling to save anything more than a few hundreds pounds a year. Fools! Here you could walk into the clinic, lay around, scratch your balls, play games, watch movies and have meals brought to you before walking out the front door a few thousands pounds better off. It was the ultimate life-hack and the big vein on my forearm was already pulsating at just the thought of it.

thoughts

~ What Am I Going To Do Now? ~

What Am I Going To Do Now?

Well, it seems I haven’t got much to say these days. I remember when I sat before this laptop, the words of passion loaded in my fingertips, waiting to explode onto the blank pages of the world. Now the ammunition is low, the gun is jarred, and the desire to pull the trigger not even there. I have my excuse: the collective madness of society losing its mind and collapsing over a virus with a 99.5% survival rate, leaving me locked up alone and unable to live life during my prime years. The coronavirus had inspired a new peak of human insanity: shutting down the world, locking children up, fining hikers for walking alone, not allowing anyone to live their lives to potentially prolong the lives of some elderly people who had already lived theirs. Ahh yes, it sounds harsh right? But just think about it for a second – many countries had crashed their entire society at the thought we could once again control a natural force (spoiler: we can’t). The countries who hadn’t locked down had shown had utterly stupid this whole thing was by having a death rate that was not too dissimilar from everyone else’s (and, in some cases, actually better – see Sweden, Nepal, and the state of Florida). Hysteria reigned supreme and I now lived in a country where McDonalds was open but gyms were closed; where smoking and drinking were legal but sitting on a bench in a park was deemed too dangerous for public health.

I knew the next ten years would slowly reveal how utterly insane and foolish these lockdowns were, and that people would lie about their support of them (just like people still lie about their support of the war in Iraq when figures show 80% of the public supported it at the time). The second-hand deaths from lockdown would far outweigh any potential elderly lives we managed to prolong (and these deaths would include younger people who still had their lives to live). Besides that, many people would have their life quality forever lessened by the poverty and mental health pandemic that was sure to follow. The youth were especially fucked and I essentially saw the whole situation as something similar to forcing young people to have kidney transplants to prolong the lives of some elderly people. This very notion sounds utterly insane and evil, but in reality that wasn’t far from what was happening. So many young people were having their insides tore out against their own will. Due to lockdown, I knew many who were depressed, stressed, anxious, lonely, jobless. Suicide rates were up and with a bleak looking future ahead of them, so many had nothing much to live for anymore. They had already lost an entire year of the best period of their lives due to the tyranny of a government and the docile nature of a public who swallowed whatever the media told them. And I was amongst those betrayed young people, hence my anger, and now the one thing in this stupid life that kept me going (travelling) was taken from me. At first, I had thought lockdown was the right thing to do, but now I had time to clear my head and actually think about it, I deplored it with every ounce of my being. I wanted to see heads roll over what had been taken from us. I wanted the people to awaken and go out and live their lives again with the knowledge of the fact that – shock, horror – they are mortal beings who will die and decay into cosmic dust. And that it’s okay – it’s okay to die; what is not okay is to not live in the first place when locked up living in irrational fear.

Okay, I can feel the virtue-signalling do-gooders sharpening their knives and shouting ‘granny-killer!’ The same people who never said a thing about the millions who die from starvation a year, the 500,000 who die from flu, the millions who die from smoking, from suicide, from obesity, from heart disease, from malaria, from road accidents, and not to mention who happily consume thousands of animals a year while turning a blind eye to the fact that all major disease/virus outbreaks of the last thirty years originated from the meat industry. The same people who go around supermarkets filling their trolleys with junk food that will cause them heart failure but feel outraged at the sight of someone not wearing a useless face covering. To be honest I was done with humanity to a degree, but this last year has cemented that. I always knew people were irrational and illogical, but I never knew it would be to this extent. I always knew people were willing to throw away freedom for illusions of security, but I never knew it would be to this extent. I always knew people were brainwashed by the media and public opinion, but I never knew it would be to this extent.

So yes, I have detached myself from the situation, but still, now in the prime of my life when I should be living life to the full – when I should be out meeting new people and experiencing things and dating women – I now have to reformulate and adjust to the tyranny imposed upon me. For a while I have been doing that: living the healthy life, getting my fitness up to new levels and meditating in my lair of solitude. I published a new book and even started learning how to drive before that was also made illegal. Now comes a time where no matter how much I meditate or masturbate or write, I can still feel the dissatisfaction brewing within me. Naturally it’s nice to believe that this will all be over soon, but it appears that society is only going more and more insane. Human rights are slowly being eroded and soon I will be forced to take a vaccine for a virus which poses no threat to me while also having to show a vaccine passport to go out to a bar or a concert or a cinema (despite the fact the people actually vulnerable to the virus had been vaccinated). We are on a slippery slope into the dystopian, totalitarian abyss and soon life will be something like Blade Runner or a Black Mirror episode. I always felt it would be that way, but I genuinely didn’t expect things to disintegrate into the realms of madness so quick. Well, silly me.

Anyway, I am twenty-nine and probably have another fifty or sixty years until I happily die of the coronavirus. That’s a lot of time, and with the world now changed forever, I have to sit back and stare at the ceiling and think: what the hell am I going to do now? Seriously. All that time ahead of me with a world that is taking away everything good about life. For the last decade I have based my life around travelling – around flying to new countries, meeting new people, exploring new cultures, dancing on beaches, kissing strangers, living wild and free and soaking in the sun and the sights. Now that world looks decimated at least for the foreseeable future, and probably even longer if this madness keeps unfolding. I mean, yes, writing is also my life passion; but my words came from that wilderness of travel and freedom, and I am not sure what exactly I will have to write about while living this new dystopian lifestyle which is insidiously being imposed upon me. I still have my running and cycling of course (they hadn’t taken that away from me yet), but I needed more of an adventure than riding my bike to the next town or jogging beside the river. I guess I could do what so many men do when they don’t know what to do with their lives: find a good woman, settle down, reproduce, and force myself into a steady and tracked existence for the next few decades. God, even just writing that sentence out makes me want to hang around unmasked on a covid ward. Maybe I could try and start a career finally? Ahh too bad – the economy is fucked, young people have no opportunities, and we are now about to enter an era of mass unemployment as small businesses crumble and psychopathic billionaire elites finally take full control of the world. 

Well yeah, things aren’t looking so good I guess. And yet I still need to go on – to keep breathing and feeding myself, to keep waking up in the morning and finding the strength to pull myself out of bed, to face the world, to talk to other human-beings and be a member of a society I can’t stand the sight of. Maybe there’s just no way around it anymore: I’ll have to become an alcoholic or drug user to make it through. A comfortably numb existence which so many have chosen to live just because the pain of being human in an unhuman system is all too much. God, now my sentences are crumbling apart. I used to write with such flow and fluidity, but look at these words now – plodding along, going nowhere, dissipating out. I can’t even be bothered to edit this shit anymore. This is what the lockdown has done to me. My one talent is now dying due to the suffocation of this tyranny as politicians and billionaires sit laughing, counting their profits, amusing themselves over the pitiful plight of the common man.

I won’t bore you with my jaded words and frustration any longer. I would normally finish a piece like this by trying to make some grand point, but there isn’t one; this is simply nothing more than a scream against the absurdity and insanity of the world. A howl in the wilderness from a wolf who has locked in a cage. A thrash of a shark who has been imprisoned in a tank. A tear of a soldier who has been deprived of his battle. I don’t know how it came to this, but one thing is for sure: no matter what society throws at me, I remain determined that this world will never take this fire from me without a fight. It may cage me and totally prevent me from living the life my soul cries out for, but I will not bend over and die like the rest. What am I going to do now? I don’t know exactly, but I will find a way to keep my soul alive, even when this world seems to want it dead and buried. Even when I can no longer distinguish society from a mental asylum, I will fight my fight and do whatever I can to keep something real and true inside of me.

short stories

~ Power Out ~

man window

~ Power Out ~

I sat alone in the darkness drinking rum. A power cut was a good enough excuse to finish off the emergency bottle I had stashed away. The remaining battery on my laptop was offering a little light for my room, and I stared at the shadow of my desk against the wall, listening to the winter wind howl against the window. A storm had been battering the country for a couple of days now, and this – alongside the national lockdown of the coronavirus – had left me feeling like I was living in some post-apocalyptic nightmare. Right now was perhaps the moment when the absurdity of the situation had peaked. I should have been somewhere else, living my one life, making the most of the last year of my twenties; instead I was imprisoned in a room of darkness, watching my youth disappear with absolutely nothing else to do but get drunk and stare into space. I couldn’t go around a friend’s house. I couldn’t go to the local pub. I couldn’t even go for a walk along the nearby river as it had recently flooded from the non-stop rain. It was a moment in time when life had just gotten so ridiculous I didn’t even know what to think or do anymore, so I just carried on sitting there in silence, drinking rum straight from the bottle, completely paralysed by the reality of the situation.

Like many people, I was frustrated and suspicious about what was actually going on with the pandemic, but at this point trying to have an informed viewpoint on the whole thing was a tiring affair. It had been almost a year since the initial outbreak, and it was hard to know what to think anymore when there was so much conflicting information out there, the media constantly creating hysteria, and everyone shouting their own viewpoint as if you were in some sort of football match. On one side you had the ‘sheep’ – the people who devoutly followed what the government said, lived in fear of the virus, and saw nothing suspicious about the whole thing. On the other side you had the ‘conspiracy theorists’ – those who questioned the rationale of the lockdown, pointed out that the statistics were being manipulated, and that there were hidden agendas at play. I researched and contemplated what I could, but it eventually got to the point where I started to question my own sanity and morality, so I had decided to just mentally detach myself from the whole thing. Maybe that was what they wanted.

Not having a job during the lockdown left me with nothing but free time, and I spent my days in a zombie-like state, daydreaming and mindlessly browsing the internet. Normally I would have used the situation at hand to get some writing done, but very little writing had been done over the last couple of months. Like the house, the power was just not there within me. That creative force that had once surged through me was dwindling, and I listened to the raindrops outside as if they were the sound of my soul being slowly bled dry. Perhaps a part of me was actually dying, I considered. This lockdown had me in some sort of spiritual prison, and looking into the mirror my eyes seemed a little dimmer than usual. Something was definitely missing inside of me, reflected by my writer’s block, and I knew I needed to do something soon to stop it from disappearing for good. But what could I do? Where could I go? How could I keep my inner flame burning in a world of rain and darkness and nothingness?

Of course, it wasn’t just me struggling in some way with the situation. I had one friend, a bar manager, who hadn’t been into work for months and was surviving off what would be half of his usual paycheck. He stayed at home all day smoking weed, playing computer games, putting on all the weight he had worked hard to shift in the time before the pandemic. Down in London I had another friend who had just been made redundant, stuck in a house-share with people he no longer liked, spending his savings on simply surviving while also struggling from a variety of health issues. Back in my hometown was a guy who had saved up to go on a big world travel trip before he turned 30; with that trip not looking like it was going to happen anytime soon, he sat at home every evening drinking heavily, complaining that his hair was going grey and that his trip was never going to happen. All in all it was a total shitshow, and one couldn’t help but wonder when everyone was going to crack and start rioting, like they had started doing on the streets of France and The Netherlands. 

I didn’t expect that to be any time soon; us British were too polite for things like that. We bottled up our frustration and instead sat in rooms of darkness, drinking our pain away, complaining about the world but never actually doing anything about it. I was no different and, in a sense of helplessness, I got out my phone and downloaded the dating apps to try and force some excitement into my life. In a time where excitement was practically illegal, you had to do whatever you could to get some, and the idea that you might meet up and have sex with some stranger on the internet was about as thrilling as things got.

Scrolling and swiping through the sea of faces, it was always good to know that there were women out there looking for companionship; looking for someone perhaps like you. Of course, the majority of matches didn’t result in conversation, and even the ones which did usually died out after a few messages. Most talk was about lockdown, about how shit life currently was, and how you were only on the app out of sheer boredom. Naturally you tried to push the idea of meeting up for a bit of fun, but most girls weren’t into that. They wanted socially-distanced walks in the park and constant messaging to eventually see where things went after lockdown was over. It was a tedious affair, and I was quickly reminded why I had downloaded and deleted the app so many times already. I put it away and carried on drinking my bottle of rum, which was now down to the final quarter, reflected by me starting to feel my head spin. 

It was then that an almighty bit of luck came my way. Like a holy bolt of lightning had struck, I got a message off a girl I knew. She was a twenty-year-old Spanish nurse who had been living back in Spain, but had just arrived back in the U.K for her studies. We had hooked up the previous summer and she was now inviting me around her new place to “watch a movie and chill”. Of course, by doing that I would be breaking the rules, but as a single man who hadn’t been laid in five months, I had no choice but to answer nature’s call. I finished off the bottle before heading down to the garage and grab my bike. Finally, some action was on the horizon.

I took to the road and started pedaling like a madman through the storm. Her place was on the other side of town, so I cycled as fast as I could, weaving my way through the deserted streets and alleyways, battling the wind and rain which almost seemed to be trying to stop me from reaching my destination. My willpower prevailed and after twenty minutes I arrived at her place soaked and exhausted. Unfortunately I couldn’t just knock on the door; there were two other students living in the building unaware of me coming over, so she would have to stealthily sneak me in. I locked my bike up against a streetlamp and used the last of my phone battery to announce my arrival.

She came to the door and immediately dragged me toward her room. “You have to be quiet,” she said, leading the way. “There is a girl in the room above us. I’ve told her I’m video-calling people, but if she hears your voice she might get suspicious.” I entered her bedroom, took off my rain jacket, and used a towel to dry myself. We then sat on the bed and started catching up about our lives over the last few miserable months. We were talking in hushed tones for about ten minutes until there was a sudden knock on the door. “Hey Eliana, are you there?” It was the girl from upstairs. My friend then quickly dragged me into the walk-in wardrobe and told me to be silent. I stood there in the dark listening to her and her housemate chat away, feeling like I was taking part in an act of infidelity. It was already the most excitement I had experienced in months.

After she had gotten rid of her, I came back out quietly laughing at how ridiculous life was at that moment. My friend then got out the alcohol: a bottle of red wine and another bottle of rum. We poured ourselves some drinks, chose a movie to watch, and got cosy in bed. Lying there it felt strange to be so close to another person; to lay entwined limb to limb, almost as if things were normal again – almost as if human interaction was actually legal.

“How are you dealing with the lockdown she asked?”

“Oh you know, same as everyone else I guess. Doing whatever I can to not go completely insane. It didn’t help that my house had a power-cut today.”

“Yeah, I can imagine. Well, I was thinking we could at least do something fun tonight…” My excitement level suddenly increased. “I’ve got some pills of 2C-B that my old housemate left me, and I thought we could maybe take it together. It’s like a mix of ecstasy and acid, but the psychedelic effects aren’t too strong, and the high only lasts a couple of hours.” I sipped my drink and thought about it. Well, I had never taken any psychedelic drugs before, and it had been on my to-do list for a few years now. And distorting my consciousness with Class-A drugs would be a nice change from the current depressing reality of life.

“Sure,” I said.

Next thing I know, she has her little bag of drugs out on the desk, measuring out a couple of pills of 2C-B. There were also a couple of tabs of acid which we decided not to use.

“There you go,” she said, handing me half a pink pill with a batman logo on it. “I think this is a good enough amount to take for your first time, and if you don’t feel high enough, there’s another pill we can crush up and snort later.” I looked down at the pill then grabbed my glass of wine to gulp it down. She did the same, and then we went back to watching the movie while waiting for the effects to kick in.

It was about an hour or so later when my peripheral vision started to become wavy. The curtains of the bedroom looked like strands of wheat blowing in the wind, and a little crack in the ceiling looked like the whole reality of the space-time continuum being ripped open. “Can you feel it yet?” she asked. I told her what I was experiencing as we started laughing, pouring more drinks, talking absolute rubbish; no longer in hushed tones. I then went to the toilet where I sat down and looked at a bag full of clothes in the corner of the room. On top of the clothes was a grey fleece which had assumed the shape of a baby elephant all cuddled up in the womb of the bag. I could see its face, its eyes, its trunk, its legs. It stared at me for a while and then suddenly blinked. It was at this point I decided that I was hallucinating for the very first time. At least I hoped so, anyway.

I returned to the room to find Eliana dancing to some Latin music. It was clear by then the movie wasn’t going to be finished. She kept telling me how much energy she had that she needed to use in some way. I was going to suggest that she used it through the act of sexual intercourse, but before I could utter my thoughtful suggestion she was putting on her shoes and telling me that we needed to take a walk around the neighbourhood. I wasn’t too keen to go back outside but obliged her request. 

Out on the streets, the storm had quietened down and there were even a few stars visible in the night sky. The temperature was now well below freezing though, and the ground was covered in a thick, glittering frost. The glints of ice on the grass and bushes looked like a starry universe itself, and we walked around like children marvelling at the world around us. The streets were eerily silent and we talked about what it would be like when things went back to normal; if they would ever go back to normal. For that moment, it didn’t really matter though as I felt the high in my veins and saw the world through a magical new lens. In a way it felt weird to feel some form of fun being experienced again, almost as if my body had almost forgotten what it was.

We eventually returned to the room to finish the rest of our drinks and climb into bed. It took about ten minutes of cuddling until we started having sex. I’m not sure how long we went for, but it felt like hours, and god how I needed it after all that time locked up alone in my room. It did make me wonder how actual prisoners in jail fared on their life sentences. Suddenly the soap in the shower scenarios began to make sense. 

The next morning we had some more sex before I grabbed my stuff and quietly left. I had barely slept and was in a strange state of mind from the tiredness and the comedown. By now it was snowing instead of raining, and I brushed my bike seat clear of snow to begin my battle back home. Cycling through the white stuff beside the flooded river, I had to think how much life felt like some sort of disaster movie. Truly, it had been one of the worst winters on record with the grim weather reflecting the mood of society. Storms, floods, snow, the sun barely making an appearance through the constant dark clouds. It really felt like the end of days. But at least I had had some sort of life last night, which helped my spirit as I tried to keep my eyes open while cycling through the slippery roads.

Back alone again in my room, I sat down on my bed and tried to warm my hands up. They were shaking from the cold and I lay paralysed under the sheets, waiting for life to return to them again. I was also completely exhausted, yet somehow unable to sleep. There were some leftover Christmas chocolates on the table and I smashed them down, trying to get some energy back into my body. By now at least the power in the house had been sorted and I was able to charge my phone again. 

I turned it on and started mindlessly scrolling through social media once more. It was then that I got another message off Eliana. “So I still have those tabs of acid left….” Jesus, for such an innocent-looking person, this girl was really wild. I looked around my room and thought about how to reply. It would be another day of staring at walls, existing like some sort of house plant, waiting for the world to go back to normal while another day of my youth died and disappeared forever. Well, maybe I was a bad guy for breaking all the rules, but at this point I didn’t care. I texted back and told her I would be back over in the evening. I then tried to sleep and I couldn’t. I then tried to write and I couldn’t. There was nothing left to do: no job to work, no project to work on, no life to live. There was no choice but to go back to hers, take some more drugs and hope that whatever life in me would still be there when this winter had subsided, and the light of spring had returned.

diaries

The Secret Diary of a Depressed Therapist

(the following is the opening for a fictional diary-style novel I am experimenting with)

Photo by Sinitta Leunen on Pexels.com

“People are the greatest show on earth and you don’t even pay the ticket.”

Charles Bukowski said that. A man who lingered on the edges of society for most of his life, working odd jobs, moving around, trying to be a writer while alienated from society. He stood on the outside of the herd, looked back in, observed their behaviour and wrote about it. Some people hated his writing, others loved it. For me, I guess I am one of the latter, and I couldn’t help but agree completely with the above quote. I mean, have you ever stopped and watched people? Like really watched them? Their behaviour, their movements, their stresses and anxieties? Have you listened to the lies that come out of their mouths and tried to understand the chaos in their brains? For me, I was drawn to that stuff from an early age and I soon found myself studying the behaviour of everyone around me. From peers to parents to teachers: I wanted to know what made them tick, what their dirty little secrets were, and what it was that would push them over the edge into the abyss of total madness. The average human brain was a dense jungle of issues and for whatever reason I wanted to go and explore it (no doubt I needed therapy to ascertain why exactly that was myself).

Naturally it made sense that I had ended up electing to study psychology at university, before spending a large part of my twenties travelling the world. Of course, at school you just learn all the dull text-book crap, scanning miles and miles of print and regurgitating it in an exam, thinking you are ready to walk on a psych ward and nurse some murderous psychopath back to some form of sanity. None of that stuff really prepares you for the real thing, and it was out on my travels where I started to get some first-hand experience of helping people make sense of the human condition. I mean, there’s something about the situation of travelling overseas that causes a person to let their guard down, take off their mask, and start spilling their deepest, darkest secrets to a total stranger. This, I felt, was that travelling was already a sort of therapy for people anyway; an activity where you took yourself away from the stifling reality of ordinary life to put yourself under the existential microscope. The average Joe could learn a lot about himself while hiking through a mountain wilderness, or getting wasted with people from another culture, or staring out at an ocean sunset while wondering what the hell it all meant. And of course, people naturally felt safer sharing their issues with people they were never going to see again (after all, we all knew what judgmental gossips work colleagues and relatives could be). 

On my travels I listened to a fifty-year-old man tell me how he had quit his job after feeling suicidal from work-related stress; I listened to a young Danish girl tell me about her eating disorders and childhood abuse; I listened to an ex-heroin addict explain his addiction and fears of relapsing/overdosing. I heard tales of disaster and darkness; of pain and heartache; of death and destruction. My reserved and attentive demeanour drew people in, and I must have spent countless hours listening to people from all around the world spill their hearts out to me. Walking the ancient Christian pilgrimage El Camino de Santiago in Spain was perhaps the greatest experience in this, seeing me spend most days wandering along the trail, meeting people from all walks of life, and talking about the things that lingered in the darkest corners of a person’s mind. The most memorable encounter being with an eccentric, middle-aged man called Pete – a retired army soldier from London who had no home or next of kin. His last remaining family member (his brother) was killed by American friendly fire in Afghanistan. With no family left and no place to be, he now lived the life of a wandering nomad, walking the pilgrimage again and again with no apparent goal other than to just keep going until he dropped dead on the ground. He was a nice guy, although it’s obvious there were some serious demons lingering within, which typically came to the surface every evening after a bottle of red wine – resulting in arguments being started, abuses being hurled, and hostel tables being flipped. Such encounters were compelling to me and only made me crave the gypsy lifestyle more; clearly there was no substitute for real life experience in getting to know just how convoluted and complicated and chaotic the human mind could be. As the godfather of modern psychology had said:

“Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-halls, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.” Carl Jung

Yeah, old Jung knew the score. The sick were out there in plagues, and by travelling the world with an open heart, you were sure to end up in the midst of human sickness. And the truth, I’ve come to learn, is that almost everybody is sick with something. Even the people who look untroubled on the surface have their monsters lurking somewhere within, and each man or woman has their own facade to hide away the reality of their true tortured self. I even remembered the teachers I had at school – people I looked up to as shining examples of successful human-beings – I later came to find out their drug habits, how some were cheating on their spouses, how one was sexually harassing members of staff, and how another was even found with underage pornography on his computer. Ultimately human-beings are wild and wounded animals ruled by desire, instinct and fear – only society has sought to suppress that side of us and to present us all as civilised beings with polished appearances. But no matter how clean your clothes are, the pain in your heart can’t be washed out; no matter how much makeup you wear, the dirt in your soul can’t be glossed over; no matter how many filters you use on Instagram, the mess in your head can’t be edited out.

Everyone is fucked-up to some degree, and I guess it’s my job to help people make sense of just how fucked-up they are, and also what – if anything – can be done about it. I know, I know: you’re probably thinking how heroic and selfless I am. Well, just know I don’t see myself as some sort of hero: a dark knight that leads people back into the light from the demon-infested shadows. I’m sure there is a view of a therapist out there somewhere (I think that was what I thought when I was an idealistic young man). You see, the truth is I’m just as fucked-up as the majority of people I speak to. Perhaps even more so actually. That’s what makes this whole thing so laughable. I mean, a fucked-up person helping other fucked-up people become less fucked-up? It’s almost poetic in a Nietzsche-esque sort of way. I guess I had spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the mess inside my head so I could, to a degree, put myself into the seats of those opposite me. They were the seats of the broken, the desperate, the lost, the lonely, and the confused. And they were states of being I had gotten to experience myself over the years, so naturally I could resonate with most of the things coming out their mouths. The only difference being that I wouldn’t dare sit in front of a therapist and divulge the contents of my mind for fear of getting dragged to the nearest madhouse. So what better place to sit than in the therapist chair myself, hearing other people’s stories, and feeling some sort of relief that many human-beings were a complete mess inside too.

Often I even thought many of them were fine when compared to myself; nothing a bit of self-reflection, meditation and a few lifestyle changes couldn’t sort out. For me, my madness was an unshakable, elemental part of who I was. It was something I had knew existed within me from a young age. There were many moments of strangeness but I guess the first notable one was when I broke into a house on my way home from a night out when I was sixteen. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of wine before going to drink it in the living room. It was Christmas and I sat there on the sofa looking at the Christmas tree, sipping my wine and feeling like Santa Claus himself. I considered taking one of the presents from under the tree but managed to stop myself. Aside from that, I started relationships with girls then deliberately crashed them just for some drama and passion. I got drunk and stood on the ledges of buildings, wondering what it would feel like for those few seconds of falling before hitting the ground. I went out into the world and sought out pain and drama like some deranged masochist. The reason I liked this shit? There was no way around it: I was self-destructive at my core. An absurdist. Prone to nihilistic thoughts. Human existence was a big joke to me and I wanted to make a mockery of it as much as possible – even getting a self-serving job that satisfied my fetish for delving into the minds of those around me. God, there’s so much to tell you about really, but I’ll spare you the full details of my own tragedy for now. We’ll have to entertain ourselves with other people’s tragedy instead.

03/01

The start of a new year. The ‘new year, new me’ were out in force and I was usually met with new clients looking to finally address their underlying issues in the hope they can finally achieve happiness, or perhaps just momentarily stop themselves from kicking the bucket. I was guilty too – starting this diary as a sort of new year experiment to see if I could create some added meaning to my life which was currently in the grips of my latest existential crisis. Dreams of being Charles Bukowski were still in my mind, and I was well aware this was another project that would probably dissipate and fade out into nothingness over the course of the year, just like all my previous projects – including a dystopian novel that was going to be the most prophetic book since 1984 (yeah, I was particularly deluded at that time). Still, it was something; another creative endeavour to keep me going and not let myself be crushed by the feeling of pissing your life away doing the same things every day. It was a common feeling most working adults could relate to. Just like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd had sang on the album Dark Side of The Moon:

“Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.

Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

The time is gone, the song is over,

Thought I’d something more to say…”

    Or perhaps a bit of Celine hit the nail on the head:

“The worst part is wondering how you’ll find the strength tomorrow to go on doing what you did today and have been doing for much too long, where you’ll find the strength for all that stupid running around, those projects that come to nothing, those attempts to escape from crushing necessity, which always founder and serve only to convince you one more time that destiny is implacable, that every night will find you down and out, crushed by the dread of more and more sordid and insecure tomorrows.”

Old Louis-Ferdinand Celine: a writer after my own heart. Anyway, enough of all that. Today’s ‘new year, new me’ client is a twenty-two-year-old woman. She is in the final year of university and expressing some of the standard concerns that ravaged the minds of young people across the world. On she went telling me about her crippling anxiety, her doubts in her head that she wasn’t good enough, that she would always be unhappy and die alone in some dark room covered in spiderwebs and sorrow somewhere. Young women are my biggest client demographic. First of all, women are more likely to actually go and get therapy, unlike us men who politely bottle up our pain and end up committing 70% of all suicides. Second of all, the young woman has a range of issues she needs to navigate in the attempt to be a functioning human-being. Everything from image issues, social media addiction, eating disorders. Some are victims of domestic or childhood abuse, some sexual assault, others are riddled with anxiety about the world and themselves. And let’s not forget the state of the economy which had left all young people screwed when it came to finding a stable career and affording their own home. It was a cluster-fuck of issues altogether, being made continually worse by the unrelenting absurdity of the modern world which was never afraid to make you feel like total shit at every opportunity.

“I feel like I’m doing all these things just to do them,” she told me. “I don’t feel a connection to what I’m doing. I’m just drifting through the motions like I’m not really there, and I keep wondering: will I always feel this way? Like when I get married and when I have kids. I’ll just be doing those things too because that’s what everyone does. Surely everyone doesn’t feel like this? I know they can’t. All my coursemates are applying for jobs and planning their lives. They sound excited, enthusiastic, hopeful. Meanwhile, I just can’t relate to them at all. I just have this emptiness inside.” I let her have a moment for self-reflection before interjecting.

“Have you spoken to anyone else close to you about this? Do you have anyone in your life you feel understands you?”

“No, that’s another thing – no one understands me. If I had someone to talk about these things with, I would, but I don’t. Isn’t that why I’m here after all?”

“I understand. I can say that you are certainly not the only one feeling these things, but that doesn’t negate how you are feeling. However, losing interest in things you once enjoyed and feeling no connection to anything is often a sign of depression. Would you say this a feeling that’s manifested recently? 

“Well, I started feeling this way after the first year of university. I was waking up in the morning with no energy, and sometimes it took me over an hour to get out of bed, then when I did……”

I sat back and let her go on, seeing if her introspective exploration of her issues could help us identify the area that was causing her these troubles. The best thing to do with a new client is to just let them speak. The thing is that most people just have so much shit inside of them they need to get out, and having a stranger whose job is to listen to anything and everything you want to express can be the godsend they’ve needed. It’s really quite simple in a way. You give them their space to scream, you acknowledge their scream, and you help them make sense of where their scream came from and what can be done about it. Most aren’t even expecting some grand epiphany or something like that; just the sheer relief of getting all that shit out inside of them is enough. All that shit that has been tearing them up through the years; all that shit they hold inside when they say ‘fine thanks, you?’ Finally, their time has come. So sit back, look attentive, and let them vomit out the contents of their constipated mind right in front of you.

We carried on for another thirty minutes trying to get to the root cause of why she felt that way. Soon her time was up and I said goodbye to her, had some lunch, then welcomed back one of my regulars: an unemployed widow with no savings whose social anxiety stopped her from getting a job. After that it was a guy with bipolar disorder who had recently smashed up his parents house and set fire to his car. It was another cheery start to the year.

After work, I headed to my local. I had considered the dry January thing but decided it was just another trend and fashion that I didn’t really want to follow. I couldn’t bring myself to face another year sober so I sat down at the bar and ordered a drink. I then looked up at the television. More talk of Brexit negotiations were on the screen, along with the latest football scores, and something about government officials dodging taxes. It was a world of absurdity out there but drinking helped you escape for a brief while. I got my double rum and coke then got speaking to one of the resident alcoholics. You needed people like that to make yourself feel better at times; people worse than you that made you feel okay about yourself in comparison. It was a common mind trick we all played on ourselves and I utilised it too. I downed my drink with him, put the world to rights, and headed home to masturbate and eat some leftover macaroni and cheese. And some digestive biscuits too.

thoughts

~ Haunted ~

~ Haunted ~

“After another night of reckless behaviour, I went and faced that morning mirror. I looked into my eyes and saw a harsh truth staring back at me. It was one I had always tried to avoid. Something dark and sinister lingered inside of me. It was always there stirring in my soul, haunting the hallways of my mind, whispering into my ear in moments of peace and happiness. I didn’t think I was to ever get rid of this parasite inside of me. It patiently waited for its moment to lure me back into the darkness; to pull me back to the periods of self-destruction and madness. And even when I thought I was finally rid of it – that my life had finally become one of sanity and order – there it would appear once more in my reflection. A twisted smile, a sinister stare, reminding me that it would always be there inside. The thought hit me that perhaps this sickness is not something I am meant to be cleansed of, but only learn to live with. It was a fundamental part of my being and I had to embrace the fact that maybe I wasn’t the pure-hearted guy I believed I was. And when I looked back at my life and my behaviour over the years, I began to understand why things had been how they had been. Some of us struggle to let the light touch our souls, because deep inside we know the darkness is where we truly belong.”

short stories

~ What Am I Doing? ~

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~ What am I doing? ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God knows, somebody has to.

 

 

 

 

 

thoughts

~ Heading Home ~

~ Heading Home ~

“Sometimes you wonder how many souls are also out there drifting through life, staring into space and skies, dreaming of something ineffable, a home that can never seem to be found here or there or anywhere. The eyes scan and search those grey streets for another of your kind, but you know deep down your fate is to wander alone through the wilderness of life, becoming ever more scratched and scarred by the wild things roaming around inside of you. You know you deserve a home, everyone deserves to feel like they have a home, even if it’s just for a short period, to stare into the eyes of another who finally understands, but ultimately nothing comes or arrives. Its the dark room of isolation. It’s the solitary shoreline. It’s the tired head against the bus window. It’s the trudging on alone through the swamps and storms, fighting through the muck and mess and madness in your own mind. Yet through all of this inner chaos, comes a great strength somewhere inside of you, strong enough to blast the darkness, to slay your demons and save yourself from the haunted places. In your own isolation, you gradually become a warrior of the wild – your own protector, your own saviour. You create your own world and forge your own path home. Even if you will never find it, you’ll always be out there hunting the horizon with wide eyes, moving fearlessly forward to the lands of your distant destiny. To the lands of salvation. To the lands of light and love and the life that is yours and will always be yours.”

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short stories

~ A World Not Made For Lovers ~

~ A World Not Made For Lovers ~

Her hazel eyes dimmed with a sadness. There was a heaviness in them which pulled them down to the ground. There was the light of love still in there somewhere, but it had been suppressed down to the tiniest flicker in the vast darkness that enveloped every horizon of her inner universe. Like most lovers in this tortured world, she sat alone in silence and stared emptily into space, confused at the situation of existence before her. She knew deep down a sensitive soul like hers didn’t belong in this society of cruelty and trickery. She wanted affection but got rejection; she wanted passion but got apathy; she wanted to fly but was tethered down by the concrete gravity of reality. In her heart she felt betrayed that the gods had left her stranded in this environment. Her cards had been dealt and now, like a little bird in a cage, she flapped around hopelessly within her confines, aching inside to return to the place where her spirit belonged soaring free.

      We had met recently out on the road and now by circumstance I found myself with her in the Netherlands. A Spanish girl in Amsterdam, Sara, away from home, trying to get by and make her way out in foreign lands, but stuck in a struggle I knew all too well. “The people are cold here” she told me. “They are like robots. The men just fuck you and then stop speaking to you. I can’t make any friends. People put up barriers if they don’t know you already. Honestly, I have no idea what I am doing here.” She carried on spilling her pain and frustration, talking about her ex and her past failures in relationships. “I am broken but everyone is broken after a while, you just have to keep looking and find the person who is less broken than you are.” 

     Her words struck a chord with me and naturally it felt good to be around a fellow scratched and scarred soul. We continued sharing our thoughts about life as we roamed around Amsterdam, spending our time drinking in the cafes and bars, strolling down the canals and checking out the sights of the capital. At one point we walked around a museum and talked about life and travel and relationships. We looked at Van Gogh’s paintings – another lover driven to madness and isolation by the weight of the world. In his self-portraits you could sense his simultaneous love and despair for the human condition. Speaking to Sara while viewing the paintings, I stared into her eyes and saw that same tortured look. I saw that little bird inside longing to be free, to be loved and to belong to someone or something. I had seen it before in the most beautiful of souls I had come across out there on the road. It seemed that if you walked this world with an open heart, you were sure to suffer more than the average person. If you truly loved without a filter than people didn’t know what to do; often the other sex saw it as a weakness and inevitably you were left heart-broken and dejected. I thought of Van Gogh cutting off his ear giving it to a woman to show his love. Admittedly cutting off body parts was perhaps a little extreme but, like Van and Sara, whenever I fell for someone, I went in with all my heart and was inevitably left shunned. Ironically I was here with her but had recently fallen for another girl who had rejected me, and now I had only added to her misery by misleading her. I was also part of the problem. But I had my own problems too. We were both drowning in our own individual way.

     When I really thought about it, it seemed that it wasn’t just relationships where the ones who loved without a filter suffered. It was life and society in general. The more open-hearted you were, the more you were beaten and broken down by the nature of humanity. I couldn’t make sense of it. I looked out at the world around me and saw a brutal and backwards system. It was a place where the cruel and cold-hearted rose to the top. A place where sociopaths and narcissists flourished while the most caring and thoughtful were trampled underfoot. A strange game was being played and the people who were usually the winners were the ones with the fake smiles, the smooth lies and a cold, calculating nature. To be sensitive and caring was considered a weakness in this society. It wasn’t good for the economy. It wasn’t good for survival. It wasn’t good for business or strategy. The best rewards were for the merciless and uncompromising. Dog eat dog, as they said. Every man and woman and child for themselves.

    Meanwhile, those who loved with reckless abandon didn’t make it. They lingered in the solitary shadows and sidelines. The lovers. The dreamers. The idealists. The poets. The INFPs. Often this world didn’t know what to do with them. So many of them were cast out, shunned, neglected, or misunderstood. In the worst cases they were gunned down by the fear and hatred of humanity. John Lennon. Martin Luther King. Gandhi. Malcolm X. JFK. Abraham Lincoln. Aside from them you also had the sensitive and artistic souls driven to suicide or early death by the crushing weight of it all. Kurt Cobain. Hemingway. Winehouse. Kerouac. Ledger. Sylvia Path. Robin Williams. For such people to survive in this world, they needed to put up walls and toughen themselves up. But so many of them were clearly unable to do that, and consequently they were left burdened by feeling too much in an uncaring and hostile world, slowly being driven to death and destruction and alcohol and madness.

     Yeah, no matter how you looked at it, it was a world not made for lovers and I guess, like Sara, I knew opening my heart up to it would also leave me tortured, sitting alone and staring into space, confused at the situation of existence before me. But I didn’t really know what else to do. I was a man ruled mercilessly by his own heart. With child-like curiosity I explored the world around me. I tenaciously followed my passions. I lived fiercely according to my ideals. I loved without a filter. I expressed myself from my heart and soul. I thought these things would be good qualities in life but so far it had only made my life extremely difficult. People abused my kind nature. Speaking from my heart often caused people to distance themselves from me. My authenticity didn’t give me acceptance. My ideals and passions were not compatible with society. I guess I had the ability to stop being this way, but a part of me refused to let the essence of myself be diluted down by the hostile environment I had found myself in. 

     “You need to stop being so sensitive and ruled by your emotions.” 

     “Man up.”

     “Learn to play the game like everyone else.”

     I’d heard it all before just like the others had, but by now I knew I wasn’t going to change. Speaking to Sara as we strolled around Amsterdam, I was reminded how much better the world was when you had those sort of people around you. Just a day or two in her company and suddenly my faith in humanity returned. Suddenly the streets of society didn’t all seem to be doom and gloom with people like her somewhere out there. As long as you just came across a few pure-hearted people every year, it restored something in you; it relinquished the dread inside of you of your own species. Normally those lovers were the most troubled people, but in my eyes they were the most courageous, the most beautiful, the most precious. They were the ones who reminded you that there was still some hope left. The ones who reminded you that humanity wasn’t totally doomed. The ones who reminded you that there was still a chance to find some gentleness in the craziness of this world. 

    To the lovers out there fighting on in this world where so many cold-hearted creatures and demons run amok, don’t let yourself be swallowed up by the storm. Keep the flowers growing in your heart; keep the doves flying in your mind; keep the sun shining in your soul. Sara, little bird, if you are reading this, I hope you find your happiness and learn to smile a little more. Don’t let the weight of this concrete world grind you down. Don’t let yourself be broken down by those hollow-hearted and empty-eyed creatures. Keep your heart kind; keep your soul pure; keep loving fearlessly without a filter. When all is said and done, it’s the people like you that keep the soul of humanity alive.

short stories

~ The Way of the Wanderer ~

~ The Way of the Wanderer ~

It was month six of being back in the routine of normal life. I was on the south coast of England in Brighton, working in a pub down by the marina. It was a typical bar job, only it left me even more wistful-eyed than usual having to spend my spare moments gazing out the window at the ocean while dreaming of sailing off somewhere out into the great unknown. Outside that glass sat dozens of boats lined up in the harbour, bobbing side to side in the water, their sails flapping in the wind – those pieces of cloth eagerly twitching to once again feel the airs of freedom and adventure they were born to catch. In between pouring drinks and half-heartedly participating in small-talk with customers and fellow workers, I cast my gaze out to those waters while feeling the allure that only the bohemian soul feels each time they see those sails flapping in the wind, or a bird take off from a ship’s mast, or even something as simple as a singular raindrop swoop and swerve its way down the window glass. This yearning for freedom was only exacerbated by having to serve the group of fishermen who did a few hours graft out on the boats every morning, only to arrive in the bar midday to sit around a table and knock back copious amounts of ale. While I toiled away, they sat around jovially conversing and joking of the morning’s exploits out at sea. To me they seemed like men who had figured life out: a way to get the job done, taste the fresh air of life and get back to conversing around the tables of life, drunk, messy-haired and wild-eyed. Perhaps I was staring into my own distant gypsy future I thought, forty years of chaos and survival down the line, living on a scraggy old boat, still bobbing side to side through life’s waters at the mercy of the current of my own restless heart. It was a nice thought to entertain myself with. Other than those guys were some weary-eyed pensioners who sat in dark corners alone silently drinking themselves to sleep. The thought hit me whether they had spent their entire lives on the grind just to afford the privilege of drinking themselves slowly and solemnly toward death. I looked side to side from the alcoholic fishermen to just the standard alcoholic. As always with my extensive daily ethnography of the human race, it was hard to say exactly for sure which life was the one that had been lived well in complete certainty.

There was one thing I still felt certain about in my flesh and bones: a man wasn’t made to endure an entire life of relentless workplace bullshit only to descend toward death in a dark and depressing manner. Of course, not all jobs out there were like this – seemingly just the vast majority (which naturally included my low-skilled job). It had been increasing in absurdity as the last weeks had gone by and it was right about when my power-crazed supervisor was belittling me for pouring a couple milliliters over on a whiskey and coke that I made the conscious decision to quit. Having someone scrunch their face and speak down to you about something so trivial in order to make herself feel important was enough to make up my mind. Often in these jobs one had to deal with such souls – bitter souls, vengeful souls, spiteful souls – and there was only so much I could endure of the professional human-being before the deluge of absurdity caused me to crave the sweet release of the wild. I had been thinking about walking El Camino de Santiago through Spain for a while, so naturally it seemed like the next trip now that I had decided to pack my bags yet again. Summer had just begun and my skin awaited to feel the rays of the Spanish sunshine while wandering freely across an entire country. It wasn’t long before the final decision was made. I handed in that old and familiar notice and left the bar and scowling supervisors alone once again in that world I was destined to never understand or belong to or even tolerate for any considerable period of time.

Two weeks later I touched down in the French Pyrenees in a city called Bayonne. From there I would travel to the town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to begin the 500-mile hike across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The route was traditionally an ancient Christian pilgrimage where lone wanderers would slowly and surely make their way across an entire country to achieve some sort of religious salvation. Nowadays the hike was completed by all sorts of lost, nomadic souls in search for something that would alleviate the pain of what it was to exist as a human-being in a seemingly meaningless universe. That had been part of the reason the trek had appealed to me. Being back in the neighbourhoods of normality always numbed my flesh and bones with a sense of sadness. Life just lost its magic when you were surrounded by sensible people content in their own lives of structure and sanity. Predictability and order were the slaughterhouses of the soul. I felt a greater thrill when I was surrounded by the desperate and deranged, the crazed and wild – the misfits and outcasts who threw their lives into a flimsy backpack and walked solo across an entire country just because something deep inside possessed them to get totally lost in the mystery of the unknown.

I couldn’t have gotten off to a better start meeting cockney Pete straight off the plane – an eccentric, bald-headed, retired army soldier with no home or plot or next of kin. He was a person who walked the Camino again and again simply because there was no other place for someone like him left in human society to reside. This time was number three of the year and number thirty-one in total. The man had walked so much the blisters were permanently marked into his mind as well as his feet. Hearing him speak, it was clear to me that he was a scratched and scarred soul, and naturally my alien flesh felt an affinity to such a being.

Having had him befriend me and a young Danish guy at the airport, we all walked together in the rain through the town of Bayonne toward the train station to try and catch the last train to St-Jean. Pete led the way marching through the streets while giving us a briefing on the journey that awaited us. With an erratic nature and a childlike sense of awe, he shared tales of the classic pilgrimage and basically told us how we weren’t cut out for it and that we should just go home.

“Lads what you gotta understand is that this isn’t your usual holiday. I hope you didn’t come here to piss around. If your heart isn’t set on it then just turn around and get back on that plane right now. I’ve walked this walk over thirty times now and I see people like you all the time starting this walk, thinking it’s a breeze, a booze-up – a walk in the park. Let me tell you right now, it’s not what you think. This journey – it’s a mental one as well as a physical one. Be prepared for the unexpected. Out there on that trail you have a lot of time to yourself and a lot of people aren’t ready for the things they have to face and deal with in their own minds. Especially in the Mesetta part of the walk; it’s a long stretch of nothingness and I’ve seen people break down and quit.” He kept wiping his bald head dry with a cloth while he briefed us, still clearly thinking he was in the army. “Did you see those two other English guys who were on the plane? Tourists. Tourists the both of them. I can see how they walk, how they dress – how they speak. Did you see that little guidebook they had? They will turn around and be heading home before the end of the second week. I’ve walked this walk over thirty times now, so I know what I’m talking about. Thirty times. Over thirty times I’ve walked the Camino now.”

Pete was delightfully mental. Already just off the plane the trip was well and truly off to the start I had hoped for. The scripted small-talk conversations about jobs and studies were a long way away now. I was back in foreign lands, walking in the rain with a deranged and wild soul, on the precipice of it all: sanity and society – joy and despair. He invited us to stay in a hotel with him in Bayonne, but I wanted to get to St-Jean so me and the Danish guy left him to it, at which point he got offended and stormed off into the rain. I knew I would see him again, so I didn’t get too sad about the whole situation. Someone that crazy was good to have around for small periods of time only, and I hadn’t quite gauged to what degree of insanity he was operating at just yet. I liked him but I didn’t really fancy waking up in a hotel room in a foreign town with a knife to my throat just a few hours after landing. The descent into chaos needed to be gradual at times – the breakdown piece by piece, rather than the entire engine exploding in your face as soon as you turned the ignition key.

The next day I got started on the walk, making my way over the last batch of hills in the Pyrenees before dropping down onto the plains of Northern Spain. It was a short and rainy stop in France and now I was in the lands where I could practice the awful Spanish I had picked up on a couple of trips in South and Central America. At the end of the day I emerged from a wooded trail and arrived in my first ‘Alberge’ – army-like barracks where all the wandering Camino souls lined themselves up to eat, drink and try to sleep after a long day on the trail.

The first one I stayed in was an old converted cathedral which could give shelter to almost two-hundred people. Looking at the sea of faces, it was clear that the walk attracted a diverse group of people of all shapes, sizes, religions and bizarre personalities. From young South Koreans walking to put it on their resume, to recently divorced Italians, to old married Ecuadorian couples, to attractive young Europeans, to the usual midlife crisis crowd – it was an eclectic pick and mix of modern-day pilgrims trudging their way slowly towards the shores of some distant destiny. In the evening we all sat around tables eating ‘el menu del dia’ while talking about life and travel and anything else in between. As always, the randomness of it made me feel good; it made me feel relaxed to be sat in circles of other people also drifting aimlessly through the great wilderness of life. Listening to them all, it was clear that they were people of different forms, of different experiences – of different confusions and delusions about life.

In the first days I walked the trail with a Croatian, an American, a Danish guy and, of course, Pete who continually appeared on the trail chatting the head off some slightly concerned stranger before shifting to another. Everyone on the trail knew who he was by the end of the first few days. He was known as ‘Camino Pete’ – the man who walked the trail again and again simply because there was no other home for him other than the rugged, dusty path of the Camino. I gradually began to learn that his life was even more chaotic than I imagined after recently losing the last member of his family, his brother, when he was killed by American friendly fire in Afghanistan. It made sense why the man wandered perpetually like he did. His life may have been chaotic, but it made me feel good knowing that there was someone like him out there relentlessly hunting the horizon for some sort of personal salvation and liberation. The more I spoke to him and watched him talk the head off of strangers, the more I realised this ‘something’ was probably a wife – a fellow soul to spend the rest of his days with in a more peaceful way than the absolute anarchy that had been the last years and decades of his life. Again, I sympathised with Pete; often I stared into the pretty eyes of passing women in the streets thinking they could save me from this life of chaos I had drifted towards. It is true that many a good man has been driven to death and madness by the lack of a woman’s love. Camino Pete just needed his break, like we all did.

Besides him I gradually began to learn why so many other pilgrims walked this path. Conversations were had with many walking besides little streams, wooded pathways, old cobbled lanes, golden fields of wheat, or sat around restaurant tables sipping wine on some street corner in a small town in the middle of nowhere. As usual with solo travelling, the social mask was off and people were more willing to speak from the heart when they were far from home surrounded by people they may never see again. This led to moments where I was walking alone on the trail only to find myself five minutes later listening to a complete stranger’s life story like I was some sort of therapist. Like I had noticed before in my life, my receptive, introverted personality attracted many people who wanted to vent the storms and thunder that raged inside their skulls. Maybe I was destined to become an actual therapist, I considered at one point. The idea of people confiding in someone like me was enough to shake my head in utter confusion and bewilderment. Didn’t they know I was on the edge like the rest of them? That I was also just a short way away from drowning totally?

Still I thought I’d give it go anyway, test the waters and see what desperation and madness was stirring within the skulls of my fellow pilgrims. Speaking to those first people I met on the trail, I found out that the Croatian walked because he was a Christian at a point in his life where he needed to decide where to take his career in dentistry – a decision that possibly involved him moving to my home country: the U.K. The Danish guy walked because he had just left his job and didn’t know where to go next on the road of life other than the fact his Chinese girlfriend was still studying in Denmark. The American guy walked because he could – a modern nomad who made money from renting out a couple of apartments in New York (although I suspected he too was searching for a girlfriend). Other than that, some people simply walked for leisure, including myself I thought. The people asked me if I had a reason to walk, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that I just simply walked to walk. There was an equilibrium about this way of life which made far more sense to me that the conventions and traditions of my society. Putting a backpack on my shoulders and just moving forward in the present moment from town to town gave me a sort of monk-like contentment that could not be found in the things I considered trivial and frivolous back home. Job promotions, cultural box-ticking, mortgages, cars, material goods, the weekend, public holidays, television soaps and sitcoms – all of it just confused me to the core. Nothing about it excited me and made me feel alive in any way. More noble – more fulfilling – was this bohemian life out on the trial, speaking to people about life, living hour to hour, day to day, meal to meal. Perhaps I was fooling myself again though – something I definitely had been guilty of in the past. I’d go from thinking I’ve discovered the secret of life to being sat in a bar feeling hopelessly lost. On one particular occasion after the first week, I sat having a drink with a Belgian family watching the world cup football while awkwardly trying to justify my nomadic lifestyle to them. The parents were both teachers and were walking with their young son and daughter during the summer holidays. I’d look at them and ask myself whether I wanted what they had. Did I want that life? A life of family? Of career? Of stability and security and suburban sanity? Certainly, they seemed happier than I was on the surface of things, but I knew that that sort of predictable life would probably drive me to a high-story ledge eventually. As always, I grabbed my backpack and carried on walking wide-eyed into the unknown.

The journey went on as the weeks and miles passed by through the plains of Northern Spain. Each day I awoke after a bad night’s sleep in a crowded dormitory, chucked my clothes into my dusty backpack, grabbed some light breakfast, rubbed my eyes and let the soles of my shoes hit the trail once again. It amused me that I didn’t even have a map for the whole operation; I was totally reliant on these little bits of yellow paint that lay on the sides of rocks, street signs and dilapidated old buildings. Like with so much of my life, there was no set plan and I felt strangely at home in that unknown. Often, I wished life was as simple and peaceful as the trail life. Just following that yellow paint through a country left my mind in a meditative state, only stopping for paella and red wine and moments gazing out at pretty landscapes. The fields and quiet little towns I passed through allowed me to drift off into my own little world, and I spent time sitting wistful eyed in cafes, staring out and observing the settled lives of the residents there. After a long day’s walking I would sit back and watch swallows fly in sunset skies as I sipped my coffee in a hazy state of mind, scribbling some poetry and short stories into a wrinkled notebook. Soon I forgot about my everything else outside the Camino. The trek began to feel like a small lifetime, and the process and stages emotions of the walk encapsulated this. Sometimes I walked in a group; sometimes I walked alone. Sometimes I experienced joy; sometimes I experienced sadness. Sometimes I felt lost; sometimes I felt found.

If the Camino was a little snapshot version of life itself, then it was only natural that some female came along at some point to steal your heart and leave you confused. The moment came in the middle of the day as she stood there like an apparition, a fleeting mirage in the midsummer heat. There a little further down the trail I watched her blonde hair blowing in the breeze and tanned skin shining in the sun. The path had presented me with many things so far and now it had presented me with a goddess here to destroy me. Naturally I knew I didn’t have much of a chance with such a creature. The gods had cursed me by offering me conventional good looks, but also by leaving me with a strange, unrelatable personality that left most girls running for the hills like scared deer when they saw what really lurked beneath the superficial surface. They got lured in but the second I opened my mouth I could see them mentally packing their bags and bidding me goodbye with a confused and disappointed look in their eyes. I knew it was a hopeless task, but still I figured I’d get speaking to her anyway to see what exactly had driven her to walk the Camino.

Sharing some red wine around a table in a courtyard of an Alberge that evening, we spoke about life and travel and everything in between. Unbelievably the conversation went extremely well. It turned out that she was a twenty-four-year-old student from Denmark, studying theology and religious studies while working in a homeless shelter. Her name was Laura and she was a lover of philosophy, astrology and anything that involved mystery, magic and a little bit of hippy madness. Despite her model good looks, she was uncorrupted at her core and still remained a bit of gypsy spirit unafraid to pick up bits of dirty string from the road to use as bracelets, or bite her nails, or pop the blisters on the feet of other hikers. Trying and failing not to be lost in her raw beauty, I carried on sharing my mind with her while she let me peer a bit deeper into hers. It appeared, like a lot of Camino wanderers, she too wasn’t quite sure what she was searching for or even doing in this thing called life.

“Yeah I don’t really have any idea what I want to do in life,” she said. “Like you I would like to travel half the year and then work the other, maybe in a non-governmental organisation – a charity abroad or something. I don’t think I want a settled life, but I’m not sure. I don’t know.”

I emphasised with her lack of certainty about her direction. Like me she was also in her mid-twenties which meant her mind was feeling the effects of over two decades of cultural conditioning. The expectations to conform to the expectations and traditions of the older generations were at their peak in the twenties, especially as the end of education beckoned and ‘the real world’ awaited in all its stern-faced, cross-armed seriousness. The heavy hands of society, parents and teachers would fall on the quaking shoulders of young people standing at the crossroads of life, wondering what the hell they should do for the rest of their lives. I felt that after the age of thirty most of the pressure and tension was gone; if you weren’t part of the cultural machine by that point, people simply gave up and labelled you an outcast, hippy or simply crazy. Being the tender age of twenty-four and at her most vulnerable, her mind was no doubt full of noise about such choices in life. Still, she needn’t have worried too much I thought – a girl who looked like that was never going to have too much of a tough existence in this world. At least I imagined so anyway.

The next days we wandered together along the path talking relentlessly about anything and everything that lingered in the recesses of our skulls. There was a closeness between us that was altogether rare to experience with someone you had just met. By the end of the second day, we had told each other so many private things about ourselves that we never thought we’d share with another. I had even shared with her some of my writing which I had never done with anyone directly before. In between this we shared music with each other, sat and rested under the shade of trees, and enjoyed good coffee and ‘tortilla de patata’ in cafes – little bits of cake mashed together with potato, egg and cheese. Throughout all of this, I felt a strange sense of happiness and joy I was yet to experience throughout the grand journey of life. The thought hit me that it’s strange when you feel something that you haven’t felt before; especially in the third decade of your life. By then you imagine your brain has felt it all: the pain, the pleasure, the thrill, the desperation, the fear, the humiliation, the ecstasy, the anger – the crippling sense of loneliness that comes creeping up on you out of nowhere on a busy street corner. What could be left to feel? To taste? But it was true: there on that path with that girl I felt the world shine clear in a new colour alien to my eyes; I felt my flesh burn with a tingling sensation that made me feel strong enough to march against a thousand armies. The simple sight of her smile was enough to make me feel like I had arrived at the end of my Camino – that there was nothing left to strive for, to search for, to wander for.

But wander we did, on and on, over the hills, to every new town and every new sunset. New friends came and went as each horizon disappeared only to be replaced by another one beckoning me ever further forward.

Soon enough the inevitable happened and I awoke one day to find Laura’s bed empty. I had been up late drinking and by the time I awoke the whole Alberge was silent and deserted. Hungover and bleary-eyed, I grabbed by bag and started walking alone out on the trail. By then the crowds from the early stages of the walk had dispersed and it was sometimes an hour or so before I saw another soul on the trail. That day I walked alone expecting Laura to eventually come back into sight. Somewhere down on the trail she would appear again – her tanned skin shining in the sun and blonde hair blowing in the summer breeze like it had that day I was first saw her. But the miles and days drifted on and on, and it soon became clear that she had left my world as quickly as she had entered. I was not to see her again on this trip. The peace and contentment of sharing my path with a fellow soul I had searched for so long was gone. I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. I guess I knew she was a rare find. She was a person I had searched for back home in the eyes of strangers of streets, the eyes of strangers of trains – the eyes of strangers in bars and clubs and restaurants. Finally, I had found her out somewhere in Spain but now she was gone in a Camino instant.

And so back to wandering alone I went, spending the days drifting down the path, listening to some music and philosophy lectures on my phone, reading in hammocks, staring up into the sky and smiling at the immensity of it all. It was just me and my own madness as it had always been in my life, heading toward the horizon of the unknown, lost in the dream of existence while marvelling at the sights along the way. I missed Laura of course but I soon realised that this was how it was meant to be for someone like me. It was all I ever knew: the state of wandering alone; of moving through new lands; of observing and watching the world from behind the looking glass of my own eyes. In many ways this Camino business was probably the most natural thing I had done in my life.

Eventually I met some other pilgrims along the way and was back to my therapist ways. This included one of the more interesting characters I had met – Marti – a young eighteen-year-old from the U.K out on his first travel adventure. At first, he didn’t seem like someone I would have too much in common with, but I soon got close to him and learnt about his world. Coming from a rough neighbourhood, he had gotten involved with gangs back home until he eventually made the decision himself to remove himself from that scene and begin broadening his horizons. He had done this by moving to France where he had been working as a floor tiler, and now by taking time off from work to come and walk across Spain. The more I learned about him, the clearer it was that he had a tough time in the past – including the fact that he had never really known his parents and was raised instead by his uncle (and to a large degree himself). I could see the fire in his eyes begin to blaze when he spoke about such things. I knew he needn’t worry about his troubled past; the fact he was where he was now, doing what he was doing at such a young age, told me his fight was going to be a victorious one. His quest out in his wild had begun, at a much younger age than my personal quest, and I knew he’d be alright in the end.

Other than Marti came Monica. Monica was a twenty-eight-year-old nomad from the states, one of the ones somewhere down south in the desert. She was small in stature, but titanic in personality. One of the most extreme travellers I had ever met, her adventures had taken her to every continent of the world, to over three-thousand different rides from hitch-hiking, to fighting off Mexican truck drivers with a knife, to being a fire breather in the circus for three years – all the way to meeting a German guy in Guatemala and spontaneously hitchhiking to Vegas to get married. Her way of wandering was more like being blown around in a violent storm and it was clear that the thunder and lightning had left its mark in her crazed eyes. She was the most extroverted creature I had ever met, and although it was fun listening to her stories, I eventually found myself trying to get away from her just so my introverted mind could catch its breath. By just running her mouth she had a habit of pulling you into her own madness. I already had the mess of myself to deal with, and someone as wild as her was simply too exhausting to tolerate for any extended period of time. Still, I liked her, and eventually I learned that she was walking the Camino to come to terms with the fact that the guy she spontaneously married in Vegas had ended up moving back to Germany where he suddenly fell ill and passed away, effectively leaving her as a twenty eight year-old widow. She said she was walking just to walk, but I could see and hear in her voice that this was the real reason. Her way was a redemption; it was an understanding and coming to terms with the strange situation that had just befallen her. Eventually we parted ways and I carried on walking alone on the trail.

As I reached the green hills of Galicia and approached the end of the great pilgrim’s walk through Spain, I thought some more about all the weird and wonderful people I had met along the way and wondered why in the hell I was also out here drifting from town to town with no plans or ticket to even return home. Yes, it was true that I liked to walk just to walk, that it was own personal nirvana to be wandering freely through a country in the summer sun with just a backpack and the clothes on my back. But perhaps like some of the others I was fooling myself and there was something I was subconsciously searching for. Perhaps there was something gnawing at me inside after all. I kept expecting to have some great epiphany as I walked along the trail, or while I was sat in another cafe staring into the sky, or when I was swimming in a river after the end of another day. But sure enough, nothing came or arrived in my mind. The days went on and I eventually found myself stumbling into Santiago towards the finishing line. I had walked the five hundred miles across Spain, completed the ancient pilgrimage – another travel experience seared into my soul – and all I could do was stand underwhelmed in the cathedral square of Santiago and watch the other pilgrims congregate together and celebrate their personal journeys. Some cried, some posed for photos, some hugged, some sat alone and soaked in the atmosphere. I guess I was one of the latter, and I sat and stared expecting some great revelation to sweep over me, but nothing did. I was still another wanderer on his journey through the wilderness of life. I hadn’t found anything or been found myself. Despite the fleeting feeling of arrival I had felt with Laura, I was still just whipping around in the unrelenting winds of existence as ever – a relentless wanderer of life, sitting on steps and staring up into skies overcome by the wonder of it all. No finish. No end. No arrival. The road carried onward…

In the days and weeks that followed the Camino, I carried on travelling in Europe. For once I didn’t have such a burning desire to keep on living nomadically, but I also had no desire to go home and work at some job I had no interest in either. I still had enough money to keep on travelling and I decided to use it by travelling down the coast of Portugal with an American guy I had met on the Camino. We headed first to Porto and then onward to Lisbon. After this I flew to Budapest to party for a week. It was a strange period in my life and for the very first time, I felt tired and bored with the act of travelling. Uneasy with this feeling, I decided it was because I was now off the trail and travelling around conventionally with buses while staying in busy city hostels. With this thought in mind, I took a bus down to Slovenia to start a three-week hike there that would return me to the style of travel I had become accustomed to back in Spain.

Walking the first days on that hike, I soon came to realise and accept that I was still not feeling quite right. The hike itself was beautiful, but it was extremely isolated and all the mountain huts were closed. I had a little shelter with me I had picked up from a camping store which was far too small for my six-foot plus frame. At night I was cold, wet and miles away from another soul. I quickly began to see what I was doing was a bad and possibly dangerous idea. Still I kept on moving until one night when the sun had set and left me enveloped in the darkness of the thick forest. My head-torch had failed, and I used the last remaining battery on my phone to help me put up the shelter I had. With little room on the mountain side to place it, I settled for a damp patch of mossy turf. I erected the small nylon structure and then crawled inside like an insect trying to shelter from the night.

As I lay there gazing up at the starry sky, unable to sleep in the cold howling wind, I thought about my shambolic situation. Truly I was no longer where I was supposed to be: shivering in the night, tired and alone in a foreign country, fighting off spiders from crawling into my tent, hoping no wild animals would come across my momentary lair in the absolute middle of nowhere. Feeling hopelessly lost, I started playing over the whole Camino trip in my head. I thought of the places and faces along the road. I thought of all the little exchanges with other people. I thought of Pete, Laura, Marti, Monica and all those other wandering souls out there in the world making their way through life. Thinking about it all, I suddenly had the urge to write more than ever before. I remembered something Laura had said to me: “why don’t you write a book about your experiences and share how you feel.” I had been feeling it gradually within me for a long time now. My phone notes were littered with notes of things I wanted to write down when I was reunited with my laptop that was waiting for me back home. More than ever before, I had a strong existential desire to express the contents of my soul, to share my own story from the past few years of bohemian madness. A few weeks after finishing the Camino, that epiphany had finally arrived and suddenly all I wanted to do was to be home and write and write and write. It played over in my head through a sleepless night, and the next morning I accepted I had wandered too far through the wilderness. I was no longer fighting the good fight. I was no longer on the path where I belonged. In the realisation of this, I got up, picked up my backpack and marched back along the trail to the last town I had come across. Once I was there, I went and caught a bus to Croatia. Once I was in Croatia, I booked and took a flight back home to England. Once I was in England, I opened up my laptop and started to write my first ever book.

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You know, when people ask why I travel I still find it a hard question to answer. It is true that I was never able to find what I wanted from regular life. The jobs. The education system. The consumerism. The conventions. The expectations and traditions. Like others I met on the trail, I was a born explorer and found myself stuck in a system which seemed to sedate me into a passive existence. So, I guess I did what I felt was necessary and started to explore my outer worlds without any compromise. I ventured as far out into the world as possible. I climbed the mountains. I roamed the cities. I partied on the beaches. I worked the terrible jobs. I got lost in the eyes of strangers. I travelled far and wide until the journey eventually led me inward into myself. And I guess it was there where the real gold lay; where I found my passion and purpose. From England to Australia, from menial jobs to medical trials, from being down in the dumps to being high in the mountains – it has been a crazy journey through the wilderness, and no matter where I’ve been out there, it appears the only home I have ever found is right here at this keyboard expressing myself from my heart and soul. I have travelled the world and found the greatest adventure at the end of my own fingertips. It is the greatest act of exploration I have known, a journey into the soul where there are far greater treasures than one can possess physically. It is an act where I am finally able to express myself in a world that left me feeling voiceless. An act where I am able to share my experience and the experience of all those other wanderers out there in the world. An act where I am able to create a place which I finally feel I actually belong.

When I got home from that period of walking the Camino and travelling in Europe, I found myself glued to the keyboard for months after. I got a seasonal job working alongside my dad at a courier company, and every day after work I just sat alone before my keyboard, writing down the thoughts and tales of my journey onto a blank page. For the first time in my life nothing else mattered. I had no external desires other than where I was and what I was doing. Everything else faded from sight and I knew that finally I had found what I was subconsciously looking for all those years out on the road. I no longer cared about the adventures or the girls or what was over the next horizon. I no longer cared about that long, meandering trail. I no longer cared about the backpacks or hostels or foreign countries. Like the other pilgrims in the square of Santiago, finally my journey was over. Finally, my Camino had finished.

As these words poured out onto the page, for once in my chaotic life, finally:

I had arrived.