short stories

~ The Mask Of Normality ~

~ The Mask of Normality ~

“So Bryan, what is it that you do?”

I looked at my fellow wanderer across the dinner table from me. He was a man of the backpacking world. He was a man who had done many jobs, who had travelled many places – a man who, like me, struggled to categorise his entire existence in the universe within a specific labelled box of employment. Still, after swallowing the food he was chewing on, he began to try to justify his bohemian lifestyle to the family. I sat back and watched curiously, knowing that it was normally me on the receiving end this question, flapping and flailing around like a fish out of water, unable to give them the solid answer they sought. 

     After a couple of minutes of explaining how he worked and travelled, how he didn’t have a home, and how he had recently spent a year living in a hostel, an awkward silence fell over us. I looked at the mother and father across the table. If they had been culturally-programmed robots then you could almost see the sparks flying from their eyes. You could see the circuits crashing and the sound of  ‘malfunction – malfunction – malfunction’. It was a sight I knew too well; when people couldn’t categorise you easily within a culturally and economically-defined box, then they often stalled and didn’t know what to say. Their silence was deafening but thankfully Bryan found some humorous words:

Well, it looks like my mask of normality just fell off.

     I let out a laugh and thought about the absurdity of the scenario. Here we were once again, justifying our bizarre and unconventional lives to a family we were visiting. Often we had joked about the looks of bewilderment that were cast our ways whenever we talked about our lives. I guess you don’t really think about it until you’re out of education. When you were still studying you could say you were in education to get people off your back. But the second you were out and didn’t have your identity assigned by a job role, the looks of bewilderment and judgement were thrown your way by the bucket load. It seemed that in society a man or woman’s destiny was to become a particular thing, a labelled component of the cultural machine, and this was reflected in the fact that one of the first questions people asked each other when meeting was ‘what do you do?’

      No matter where you went in life, the question was always there. Meeting a girl in a bar – ‘what do you do?’ Meeting a stranger on your travels – ‘what do you do back home?’ Meeting some relatives – ‘what are you doing now?’ Even turning on the television and watching a game show – one of the first questions was always ‘what do you do?’ Often I observed my species take part in this behaviour when interacting with each other. If you could toss out a label of economic-based existence and explain it with a couple of sentences, then the process would be very swiftly done. Out your label would come, the other person would then categorise and judge you on what sort of person you were, and then the conversation would move on. The problem for Bryan as well as me was that I just didn’t have an answer that would satisfy them. Once somebody asked me the question I had to go on a long winded explanation telling them of all the different jobs I had done, my partition in medical trials, my backpacking trips, my writing and the general concoction of chaos and anarchy that was my life. Like Bryan had noted, it was usually at this point the mask of normality was blown off and I was exposed for the abnormal creature I really was. From the top of my head, I could remember at least ten times this had happened and I had been automatically cast as the outsider of the group.

     I guess I should have just accepted it and replied that I was effectively a drifter. I mean, I was a drifter, there was no way around it any more. But I guess I was a little uncomfortable with that label due to the connotations it had. It’s not that I was completely destitute or homeless, but it was true that I roamed around from one place to the other with not too much of a long-term plan. Of course there was a romantic side to the image of being a drifter, but mostly it just scared people away, and made them think of you as a loser, loner or outcast. Yes, all things considered, the mask of normality was well and truly off if you gave yourself that label.

     One day I decided I would just make up a role whilst out on my travels. Meeting people you were never going to see again made it possible to experiment with alternative identities, sort of like a mild schizophrenic I guess. I went ahead with this idea and started to say I was a journalist. This masked identity had a level of credibility because I had actually obtained a degree in journalism early in my adult life. I could talk about the industry and use its terms and even reference a business magazine I had done unpaid work in the past. What’s more, it was a respected profession so this allowed the person I was speaking to to have some level of respect for me. This answer allowed the mask of normality to stay placed on my alien face. With a nod of the other person’s head and a smile on their face, I was an accepted member of the human race.

      To raise the stakes one time out of the interest of an experiment, I thought I would go all out and give myself the label that was revered as ‘successful’ and the epitome of a respected profession. I decided to say I was a lawyer. I had taken a few law modules in my journalism degree and even sat in on court hearings while writing and reporting. Because of this, I again knew some of the terms and areas of law I could talk about. After hearing their profession first to make sure they weren’t actually a lawyer, I explained away my made-up role as a solicitor. As I did I looked at their looks of approval on their faces. My mask of normality and acceptability was fixed on my face stronger than ever. People in bars gravitated toward me. Girls even desired me more. It truly was amazing to see the difference what a single word could do. With this mask I was more than just an accepted member of human civilisation; I was in actual fact a respected member of human civilisation.

      The schizophrenic madness went on and eventually I got to a point in my life where I had self-published a book and received a total of two hundred and something sales. I had been writing all my adult life but now I actually had something published which was available to buy online. This meant I could give myself the labelled identity of ‘writer’. I mean, ultimately in reality I was a largely unknown writer with a very small following, but to some other outcasts and outsiders who read my writing, I was indeed a ‘writer’. I got started with using this answer whenever I was hit with the ‘what do you do?’ question. As I did, I noticed that people responded the most to this out of any of the labels of existence I had fed them. The interesting one with this is that the mask of normality fell off your face if you said this anyway, especially if they went on to ask what sort of stuff you wrote. My stuff consisted of stories and thoughts of an outsider, all full of existential and alienated angst. If they were to actually read what I had written then that was an automatic exposure as the misfit I was. Often, to my horror, some of them even bought my book – at which point my mask of normality was destroyed beyond repair and they naturally distanced themselves from me cautiously.

      Eventually I faced the facts and realised I didn’t really have the right to say I was a ‘writer’ either when asked what I did. The ‘do’ question was more referencing what you did in order to get money. I hadn’t made more than a few dozen pounds with my writing; in fact I had lost money with the online adverts I occasionally did. So I retreated back to being an undefined being with no real label. It was time to just try and avoid the question and stop lying that I actually was a regular human-being with some sort of normal identity. I couldn’t keep my face straight and live in my world of lies anymore.

     As life went on this way, I resigned myself to the awkward pauses and stares whenever the Do question was thrown my way. Consequently, there were great moments when imposter syndrome struck severely. Talking to girls in bars or attempting to apply for jobs, I never truly felt comfortable that I was one of them. At all times I was just a couple of questions from being exposed as the abnormal creature I was. Soon I gradually began to feel a million miles away from the world of normal people that continuously pounded the pavements next to me. They were all around me and often it got exhausting interacting with relatives and new people you’d meet. I had rarely come across someone who even understood completely what I was attempting to do with my life – that I was more interested in exploring, adventuring and seeking to create art over anything. What I ‘did’ wasn’t possible to define within one word. I was a misunderstood individual and I got more and more tired with humanity more with every superficial interaction and tongue flicker of that awful question.

      Sometimes, when the social alienation and anxiety got too much, I would rack my brain into what mask of normality I could try and give myself to get people off my back. Maybe I could just reside myself to a normal job. Maybe if I could get one more book on Amazon and then be the author of two books, maybe that was enough to label myself as a ‘writer’. Maybe one day I could even get a job in copywriting or something off the back of my creative writing. Maybe one day I could be a regular person, shepherded and confined within a labelled box of economic employment like the rest of the human race. I got lost in these thoughts gradually but eventually sobered up from my mental musings. The truth was the truth and, in all honesty, I guess I was just an alien like my friend Bryan. An interstellar mutant of some kind, destined to wander on and on from place to place and job to job until the end of my days. The mask of normality had no place on my face. I was too awkward, too incompatible – too insane to fit into a socially-approved box of existence. In a world of accepted citizens who had found their place in human society, I limped on through like some out-of-place extraterrestrial, somehow finding a way to get by and survive. ‘Too weird to live; too rare to die’ as Hunter had said. That is what I did. That is what I do. And that, as I sit alone again in this dark room pouring the mess in my mind onto the page, is what I will always do.

short stories

~ Living on an Edge ~

~ Living on an Edge ~

His eyes were bloodshot and demonic. His remaining hair fluffed off into wild little quiffs. Almost half of his front teeth were missing and sporadic drops of saliva shot out his mouth when he spoke. I was in New Zealand and the thought hit me whether I was actually staring at an orc of some sort. I mean presumably the Lord of the Rings movies used costumes and make-up, but this creature in front of me wasn’t too far from looking like he was spawned in the dark pits of middle earth itself. To be fair, after hearing how he and his son frequently smoked crystal meth together, it was no surprise that he looked like he did. It was understandable. What wasn’t understandable was how this man was in charge of the entire floor of a wine factory. I had been working here for over two months and every day I had to listen to this snarling beast shout and spit orders at a bunch of backpackers who were simply too tired with him to listen. Still, it was my final day and I let his words fly far away over my head. His reign of bullshit was over. His superiority complex would have to be suffered by whatever backpacker was going to walk through the door next. For me it was time to hit the road again. I toiled away until the end of the day, took one last look at the orc and then strolled out the door onward to the next adventure feeling like Bilbo Baggins himself.

The job itself had been a much needed bank top-up. It had been over six months since I arrived in New Zealand from Chile almost completely broke. I had blown all my savings travelling around South America and had consequently limped into the country on the other side of the world from home with a bank account in as worse state as the orc’s teeth. What followed was a tempestuous time of bumming around, hitch-hiking, sleeping in airports, bad diet habits, and scraping by off random agricultural jobs. It wasn’t all bad. Sure, I had been subjecting myself to a life of struggle and financial stress, but everyday I awoke with wide eyes ready to face the world before me – and being in one of the most beautiful countries out there, well, that helped too naturally. Of course, I would always lie to my parents whenever I contacted them – telling them I was fine and had no problems with money. I knew that if they knew I was living the way I was it would leave them in a state of panic and worry. Maybe I should have also been more concerned about living so precariously on the edge, but often in this life that’s exactly where the excitement and adventure was at. It was true that there was desperation and depravity out on that edge, but sometimes there was a little majesty and magic too. Sometimes the edge was a beautiful place.

I continued loitering on that edge as I hitch-hiked down the south island, stopping in a town for a week to party, before eventually heading to a job I had heard about off my Chilean friend. It was somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, among the fjordlands, and allegedly you could make good money sticking some plants in the ground. I had the plan to save up some more money to continue travelling in Asia after I was done in this country. Working consistently in one place with no distractions (mainly drink and women) would ensure that this was possible.

It was on the third day of that job, somewhere in the morning, that I decided to quit. I quickly concluded that I was never going to last the duration. The work itself was quite literally backbreaking and it turned out that I was the only backpacker working there. On top of this, the hostel I was staying at was a sort of abandoned shack without electricity, close amenities, a warm shower or even another traveller. The idea of staying there for three months made me shudder and I decided to get out of there fast. I grabbed my backpack, hit the open road once again and hitch-hiked all the way back to Queenstown – the place I had stopped in to party for a week on the way down here.

Now, aside from its spectacular scenery, New Zealand is a more or less a boring country to live. I mean, the sort of place that is best to retire, walk dogs, or work in a wine factory and become a meth addict. But Queenstown itself was the exception. Hailed as the adrenaline capital of the world, the town is a little wonderland of bars, restaurants, hostels, tour agencies and overcrowded houses that sit tightly packed together between the surrounding mountains and Lake Wakatipu – an enormous mass of sparkling blue glacial water that stretches out into the neighbouring valleys. When people weren’t skiing, bungee-jumping, skydiving, or riding speed boats, they could be found drinking in the array of bars that were stuffed into the small town centre that was no bigger than a couple of football fields. At night one could find any nationality of backpacker twisted in one of those establishments. It was the sort of place that was as far away from home as possible for most people – the sort of place where they were there ‘for a good time, not for a long time’ – and consequently this led to the chaos, debauchery and sexually-promiscuous behaviour that was rife at any given evening in any given bar. In all honesty it was probably the worst place in the world to save money and avoid the distractions of drink and women, but my will had been broken after just a couple of days of tough work out in the sticks and I needed a drink. The town was notoriously hard to find a place to stay, but luckily for me I knew a girl from my previous job in the wine factory who could get me a bed in a house a little out the centre that overlooked the lake and mountains. By New Zealand standards, I had hit the backpacker jackpot.

I arrived to that house and saw a Kiwi guy dragging a bed out the front door and attaching it to the roof rack of his car. I stood and watched him curiously. “Don’t mind me” he said. “I’ll be outta your way in a sec.” He and his friend proceeded to lift the bed onto the car, throw some straps over it, tighten it up, then get in and drive off down the road. It was an interesting sight to arrive to, and also an illegal one I quickly discovered. The Kiwi had decided to steal the bed after being kicked out of the house by the landlady. And he wasn’t the only one. The landlady was in the process of kicking most tenants out after so many had failed to pay their rent, or moved in secretly to sleep on couches, or threw wild parties and damaged the house – as was evident by the gaping holes in the walls of the hallway. Over twenty people had been living in this seven bedroom house, and now over half of them would be kicked out to be replaced with a new set of backpackers, including my good, respectable self.

After settling in, I decided it was time to go out there and look for some sort of job that would support my temporary existence in this chaotic town. As always my CV was a mediocre read which wasn’t going to help me too much. Most jobs in Queenstown were in hospitality or tour agency work – both of which I had zero experience in. With this in mind I headed straight to a labour agency that was located on the outskirts of town. As soon as I walked in they took one look at me and saw what type of person I was – another drifting backpacker with no discernible skills or trade or talent. It turned out I was in the perfect place. A new DIY store was opening soon just outside of town and they needed a bunch of helper monkeys to assist the store’s staff with setting up the interior. They gave me my work helmet and high-vis vest; I was to get started the very next day.

Settling into the job was an easy affair and I soon made friends. The labour agency picked up and shipped off a group of people to the work site everyday. There must have been over fifteen people crammed into that mini-bus every morning, most of which were hungover or asleep. When we got to work we were given an inspiring team briefing before everyone dispersed and went and found ways to keep themselves busy with some simple task that would normally end up taking an entire day. The team itself consisted entirely of backpackers, all of which were male. Speaking to them all, it was clear that most of them were like me: young guys scraping by and travelling around in whatever way they could. Naturally this had led them to this no-skills required job. I thought I had been living like a bum but after a week it was clear that I was an amateur at fringe-living compared to this team of delinquent drifters. Among the team included: a Mexican eighteen year-old who had overstayed his visa and was working illegally; an English guy who was running away from debt collectors back home; an Irish guy who was penniless and sleeping in the town park; a dutch guy living in the back of his van; another English guy who arrived drunk and smelling of booze every morning; and a couple of guys who spent most of their time using the work materials to build items of furniture for their house they were renting. To single out the English guy as an alcoholic was a little unfair I quickly realised. Most people not only in this job, but also in this town, were living lives that left their livers and bank accounts in damaged states. The allure was simply too great. Every night the town’s bright neon lights shimmered below beside the lake – the enticing glow of a bunch of people partying and enjoying the temporary buzz of being young, free and far away from the suffocating world of normality back home.

Naturally it wasn’t long before I was lured into that lifestyle myself. Most weekends quickly became a blur of hedonistic partying. Sometimes there was some hiking or camping, but that usually involved large amounts of alcohol too. Not only did I have the influence of all the guys working at the labour agency, but also I had a house of about twenty people residing at the house. Coming home from work everyday, there was usually at least a couple of people knocking back the drinks and preparing to make an assault on the town centre. There was simply no escape. Chaotic weekends soon turned into chaotic weekdays. Summer was here and I could do nothing but prepare to strap myself in for the ride. The drinks had been served – the madness had begun.

Now in this life, a man or woman lives on their edge more than you think. So many people out there in those towns and cities are limping by in ways you can’t see on the surface. What a person needed to survive in this world was food, water, shelter and normally a drink or something to take the edge off existence. If you had those things, then you could get by in some rudimentary way. Well, like many people in this town, I was getting those things and not much else. After a while I was making it to work just three or four days a week. This was usually enough to afford rent and cheap groceries, and then concentrate on the main expense of enjoying the summer festivities of this chaotic town. The whole thing quickly began to feel like I was in some sort of amusement park where I would do just enough to afford the entrance fee and ride out the rollercoaster of life. The thought hit me: wasn’t that what life was anyway? Finding a way to get by and survive while trying to find time to actually enjoy the ride? Still, often I thought I had taken it too far. I was on the other side of the world from home and I had a tooth problem I couldn’t afford to address, my remaining clothes were now tattered and frayed, my passport was considerably damaged, and the lack of sleep I was getting left my mind in a constant state of delirium. Some days I awoke and stared into morning mirrors of realisation and saw the sanity slowly fading from my eyes. At this point it had also become clear that my plan to do some travels in Asia was down the drain, and instead I was just concentrating on surviving the summer here and making it back home when my visa finally expired. My two year trip was coming to an end and I wanted to go out in style. The neighbourhoods of normality beckoned back home and I was going to exploit this brief chance of living young, wild and free in a beautiful place.

And so onwards the descent into madness continued. House parties. Work parties. Festivals. Christmas. New year. My birthday. More house parties. Camping trips. Climbing mountains. Sleep deprivation. Sleeping with strangers. Sleeping with friends. Not sleeping at all. Eventually the job at the DIY store was finished and we were all left searching and fighting for whatever form of work the agency could give us. This included traffic wardening, furniture removal, construction, and, on some weeks, nothing at all. Consequently my bank account began to slowly sink down and down towards the depths of true poverty. I was slowly falling off that edge into the abyss of being homeless, penniless and possession-less on the other side of the world from home. Naturally I felt better knowing that I wasn’t alone in such a fate. By now I had become good friends with the English alcoholic James from work. Many nights we spent together getting twisted in town or down beside the lake. Hearing the stories from his life, it was clear that he had set up camp and made ‘the edge’ his home. The last years of his life back home had consisted of travelling around the U.K with a cheffing agency, staying in hotels and drinking heavily every night. After a couple of years he had finally saved up enough money to travel. He flew one-way to Bangkok and drove around South-East Asia for eight months on a motorbike before arriving here skint in Queenstown where he was now scraping by week by week, paycheck to paycheck, living in a hostel dorm with nothing but a few items of clothing to his name. Like the orc back in the wine factory, he was another man loitering precariously on the precipice of total destruction, all the while still managing to be an integrated, working member of society. Meeting all these random characters in New Zealand, I came to realise that in a way there was a little bit of this insanity inside all of us. I could see it in the orc’s eyes. I could see it in James’ eyes. And now, facing those morning mirrors of realisation, I could gradually begin to see it in my own eyes: the anarchy of the human mind that must be suppressed so we could all fit into society and get money to survive in some elementary and socially-acceptable way.

As the time went by, mine and James’ influence on each other slowly and surely caused us both to descend deeper into those pits of madness. On one temporary job we both took turns controlling the traffic flow into the town centre during a busy festival period. One of us would stand on the road and aggregate the traffic in and out of the city centre, while the other went next door to the bar to drink red wine and chat with our friends who were working there. Under the influence, we decided to blog and post our exploits online and quickly became famous in town as ‘the traffic terminators’. Many cars drove past waving and offering us free drinks and food. Some people took pictures with us. Journalists even came and interviewed us for the local newspaper. With our new found fame, we felt like the kings of Queenstown – two drifting backpackers, somehow the momentary heroes of this famous town. Of course we always tried to keep the town oblivious to the fact we were really just messing around and taking it in turns to go next door to the bar to drink and talk crap with our friends.

It wasn’t until we worked one job that I realised we had perhaps gone a little too far. Through the agency we had been tasked to help set up and take down the stage for a gig somewhere about half an hour outside of town. The deal was that if we set up the stage and took it down after, we could each get a free ticket to the show. Like responsible employees we set to the task in the early morning and helped finish off setting up the stage. Then, like irresponsible employees, we went back to town where we spent the afternoon in the sun by the lake joining in an all-day DJ party. What followed was a day of drinking, dancing, swimming in the lake, a free concert, and then swiftly being dismissed from the job of taking the stage down the second the supervisors saw the state of us after the gig.

It was safe to say that the owners of the labour agency hated us after that fiasco and consequently assigned us the worst jobs they could, or nothing at all. Either it was a day of no work, or a day of doing menial tasks alone at some millionaires house in the middle of nowhere for the minimum wage. By this point any hope of travelling in Asia was over and I was hoping that a week stopover in Bali would suffice. I now had just a few hundred dollars of borrowed money left in my account. The entropy of the universe had worked its force and slowly ground me down. I was now a man holding on – living life to the fullest you could before death and destruction claimed you totally. Still I kept holding on as I was nearing the flight, picking up the scraps of employment, counting the pennies, living off packs of instant noodles – napping on my lunch breaks to catch up on some sleep. In the meanwhile the house had become a circus of insanity. We had created a rota in which you had to sign in when you started drinking and then sign out when you stopped. This soon created a competitive nature amongst everyone and our house quickly became some sort of perpetual party. It was a literal madhouse in moments and often I went and stood alone on the balcony staring out at that beautiful lake view, appreciating that my life was truly more absurd than ever before.

Eventually the day had come and it was time to escape Queenstown with whatever remnants of sanity, money and possessions I had left. I took one last look in that mirror and realised I had done it; I had lasted out the summer – five months of utter chaos on the other side of the world. Good friends had come and gone, the original group of the house was now being broken apart – the time in paradise now over. I said goodbye to all the friends I had made there and headed alone as always again to the airport. I was flying to Bali with basically nothing but a few tattered items of clothing, a damaged liver and mind, a faded passport, and money that most likely was not going to be enough to get me completely home to the U.K. Still, I felt more alive than ever and as the plane took off, I looked out the window at Queenstown to soak in the last glimpse of the town below. It was then that I caught my reflection in the window pane. Staring deep into my tired eyes, I could see a specific stare now seared into my soul. It was the look of my English friend James. It was the look of the orc in the wine factory. It was the look of every crazed soul who was living their life precariously close to the edge of sanity and society, trying to live their life to the fullest they could without completely destroying themselves. I smiled to myself and then stared down at my shoes – beaten and battered and bruised – little bits of material hanging off the outer section. Right then I realised that the edge was a place I had gotten to know all too well whilst out on my travels. It was a place of chaos and madness – a place of fire and destruction. It was a place where I was going to be for a long time yet.

With that thought in mind, I ordered a red wine and toasted to the next adventure.

short stories

~ Misdelivery ~

~ Misdelivery ~

   The decision to quit was made somewhere around the end of the third week of the course. I watched with sad eyes as the man opposite me sat reading out his writing while everyone in the class sat around like a bunch of vultures waiting to pick at the flesh of his work. That everyone did as a bunch of people, all of different backgrounds and lifestyles and perspectives, weighed in with their suggestions for changes to the man’s story. To my horror I watched as the man nodded in agreement with everyone and butchered his piece apart to please everyone in the room. Any chance of there being any fire in his work was thrown out the window as he reduced everything in it to appeal to the lowest common denominator of a diverse crowd. Like so many people concerned about their reception with the masses, he had abandoned his authenticity and courage at the judgement of the crowd. This was supposed to be creative writing course, but I had quickly remembered that creation was an act best done alone in the pits of solitude. From Van Gogh to Bukowski, any art worth its salt was usually forged in the shadows from an individual who created out of necessity instead of desire, and who went out and experienced the world, rather that who sat in classrooms with notebooks trying to please people and make academic sense of something which belonged to the realm of mystery and magic.

    Since the start of this course it had become clear to me that I had no doubt started it as sort of a last ditch attempt to cling on to the ledge of normality. Doing a master’s course at a university was almost enough to convince people you had your life together, and no doubt a part of me wanted to delude myself with that idea too. But it was true: I was fooling myself I realised there and then. Despite my connection to the act of writing, I didn’t belong here either. It was time to let go of the ledge of normality and free-fall into the abyss of the unknown – to throw myself off that cultural conveyor-belt. I was better off being beaten up by life some other way that would allow me to retreat home to a dark room to pour out the pain onto the page without the guide of any teacher or textbook or institution.  

      Leaving the university for the last time, I headed home back to that familiar dark room to sit and try and make sense of it all. In that space of isolation I sat and thought about the circumstance that had befallen me. Oh god, I cursed myself. I had moved to this city specifically for this course, and now I had made the decision to quit, I had to figure out what it was I was going to do next in the absurd game of life. As always there were no easy answers and I thought about changing my mind and sticking with the course. Of course I knew that this was the cowards way out; I knew I would just still be clinging to that ledge of normality a little longer just to trick myself and others into thinking that I actually had my life together in some basic way. So many people did this their entire lives, letting themselves empty out on the inside just so others would think they had their lives together. Such a fate seemed like a nightmare. The absolute intensity of the feeling of sadness I experienced in that class felt like the entire universe telling me to get the hell out before it was too late. Yes, I was definitely through with the course I decided. I wouldn’t bother to notify my tutor; I was too annoyed at her and the course to even write a basic e-mail. And my parents, well, they had just about given up on me, and this would be the final nail in the coffin for sure. But hey, at this point maybe that was for the best.

      After a while of sitting there in the dark and staring up at the ceiling, I decided that some fresh air would do me good. I removed myself from my lair and went out to face the world. Out there in that concrete jungle I roamed at leisure with no particular place to go to. As I roamed, I looked around at the faces. I looked around at the houses and the front gardens. I looked around at the job advertisements and the shopping malls and the newspapers and the billboards. Once again I didn’t understand any of it. Sometimes I was certain the gods had made a mistake. Perhaps there was a mix-up at the cosmic warehouse? Surely my intended destination was another planet somewhere a few galaxies back in the other direction. Where was the manifest? Who had screwed up the works? Who was I supposed to be angry at? Looking out at the foreign world before me I wanted explanations and answers.

    I kept looking around at the faces of the people on the street. I saw businessmen and pram-pushers. I saw sub-cultural groups like hipsters or rockers. I saw many types of people but I couldn’t see anyone I truly felt at home with. Often in this world I felt like some sort of diseased alien, and I couldn’t help but stare into the eyes of those humans and desperately want to make them understand who I really was. I guess it was true that at times I felt anger and resentment toward the human race. All I wanted to do was to vomit my pain onto their pressed and polished realities. I wanted to drag them into the woods of madness and steal from the sanity from them. I wanted to lead them into my wild and show them the spaces of solitude where my soul resided. I guess I just wanted at least one other soul to step into my mind and see and understand how I felt with the reality and society that had been presented to me. But as always it was useless and all I could do was wonder whether it was all some kind of joke the gods had played on me. If so the humour was lost on me. Yes, oh yes: the humour was lost on me.

     Soon enough the shitshow of reality was too much and I decided I’d try to add some excitement in my life by doing what so many did in times of desperation. Alcohol. I went to the nearest store and bought a four pack of beers. For a small price hopefully I could trick my brain into thinking something exciting was happening. I went in, purchased the liquor off a young female clerk and exited back onto the now rain-sodden street. I stood still on the sidewalk and began to drink the first can. After a few sips I started walking down the road. I finished my first beer and started drinking a second. By the time I had finished that I was feeling pretty good – so good in fact that I decided to befriend a homeless guy with a dog sitting in the gutter of the sidewalk of a busy intersection.

       “Alright lad, got any spare change?” he asked as I walked over.

       “Yeah don’t worry my brother” I said. “I’m going to give you some change, but first would it be okay if I joined you for a drink?” He looked at me with a confused and hesitant look. After a few seconds of scanning me up and down he accepted me.

       “Well sure, take a seat lad.”

       “Thanks.”

       I sat down and nestled myself into his cardboard which was soggy from the rain. I put my back up against the wall, stared out at the street, sipped my beer and offered my final can to my new best friend. He looked down at it, scrunched his brow and shook his head.

       “No thanks lad, I stay away from that stuff these days; that’s what caused me to end up like this. It’s the devil’s blood that stuff. You ought to be careful with it too.”

       “It’s helping to keep me sane right now” I told him.

       “That’s how it starts” he said. “But if you’re not careful soon it’s not you consuming the drink, it’s the drink consuming you.”

       “That’s kinda poetic” I said. “You ever thought about being a writer?”

       “A writer? Does it look like I’m interested in that kid? That’s the last thing on my mind. A roof over my head and some warm food in my stomach would be nice.”

      “Sorry. That’s true. I just thought you expressed yourself nicely and all.”

      I carried on sipping my beer, feeling the alcohol flow through my veins. I could feel myself getting comfy. We got chatting about his life and he started telling me about all his travels in Asia and South America. Having travelled in those areas myself, I was naturally curious about his ventures out there in the world. I began asking him about his adventures. Typically his travelling stories were full of chaos and anarchy and bohemian madness. As he spoke about his nomadic life, I couldn’t help but identify with it and think whether or not I was staring into my own future. It seemed that the man had led a similar existence in his twenties to the one I had been living. It was full of wandering wide-eyed through the world – of drifting wildly on the fringes of society. I couldn’t help but let myself wonder. Perhaps the life I was living was also going to lead me to be sleeping in the gutter one day? I mean, the possibility was viable for everybody out there, but in particular anyone who dared to drift away from the cultural conveyor-belt like I had done. The automatic life on the cultural conveyor-belt may have been boring and predictable, but it protected you from those rain-soaked gutters – it protected you from the madhouses and the cemeteries. Riding it like a good citizen of the state you were transported through education into a steady job, into a mortgage, into the shops on the high-street, into parenthood and finally into retirement where a grave and wooden box awaited to package you into eternity. Sure, it may have sounded dull and tedious to the adventurous individual, but hey, at least you didn’t freeze to death alone on some cold winter street.

     After fifteen minutes of talking about his life, my beer can was empty and I decided to leave my new friend alone to himself – something I now suspected he wanted. I gave him some spare change, said goodbye and headed off down the street. I then thought about what to do next. I was now pretty drunk and didn’t want to go home, so I thought I would head further into the city centre and try and find a party of some sort. After one month of studying here I still had no friends to drink with, and so I decided to go and find a hostel. From my travels I knew that in a hostel you could often find some other souls who were also out of sync with the human race too. And this was Brighton: the end of the line – the place literally and culturally on the fringe of the country – the place where the hippies and minorities and artists and madmen gathered together. Surely there was some life somewhere out there on those streets.

     After walking around for a while, I eventually found a hostel down by the seafront, just across the road from the pier. From the outside it looked dirty and unmaintained. Stain-covered curtains blew out the cracked windows as dirty towels hung out to dry. It seemed like the perfect place. I purchased some more beers from a shop and walked over to a group of people outside the front drinking and smoking. The group was made up of a diverse crowd including dread-locked hippies, Australian backpackers and some stoners sitting around on the floor eating pizza. They didn’t bat an eyelid to me joining in their group, and within a few minutes I was chatting to a Polish guy and a Kenyan guy over a beer. It turned out that both of them had recently emigrated to the country and were now working in Brighton while living in this cheap hostel, trying to get by in any way they could. I told them my story of just quitting my course to which they laughed and toasted drinks and offered me a joint. The good times were flowing and after one hour they made the decision to go do cocaine off a bin in an alleyway. Following this they then offered me to come with them to some rave in a “dark and dirty but decent club”. It had been a strange day so far, so naturally I made the decision to keep the pedal pressed down. I finished my drinks and joined them to the club.

      It was sometime around eight the following morning that I found myself standing with a bottle of wine on the edge of the roof of a house on the seafront, thoughtfully advising some stranger walking on the street below “not to take life so seriously”. A night of anarchy had ensued and by this point I was completely ruined; it had over twelve hours of drinking and partying with no sleep or rest. I had left the flat alone and now was at some random person’s place with the last remnants of a group of ravers strewn out across floors and sofas and beds around the house. The Polish guy was still there after having decided to miss his shift at work, but the Kenyan had disappeared somewhere into the night after dropping a tab of acid. Most people were asleep or unconscious by this point, but I stayed up chatting with some young English guy who had run away from home and had plans to live on a boat and sail around the south coast. As he told me with wild eyes about his little plan, I realised that the night had given me the medicine I needed: finding and talking to some others who were also existing on the fringes of society – who lives were also in a state of chaos and  permanent disorder. Finally, the situation of letting go from that ledge of normality and quitting my education didn’t feel so bad. I napped on the couch for a few hours and then stumbled back to my apartment.

      In the following days I had no urge to find a job or plan my next move, so I spent time just living quietly and simply, going for runs down by the coast, meditating and writing away in that dark apartment room of mine. I also spent a long amount of time simply roaming the streets of the city itself. As I did I kept looking more and more for these people who were living on the fringes of society or who had fallen off the conveyor belt altogether. Like a man on safari for a rare species, I looked for the freaks, the misfits and the weirdos. I looked for the outcasts and outsiders – for the aliens and the eccentrics. I searched for them out on those grey streets and when running down by the seafront. One area a little out the city besides the water was a good territory to spot them. Roaming there, I often saw some outsiders and misfits living in vans, fishing in the ocean, and smoking out on the rocks. I always wanted to go up to them and ask how their life was, but I figured they wanted to be left alone.

      Eventually one such creature came up and approached me as I was walking back to my apartment one afternoon. I was listening to some music through my headphones, but could still hear his drunken staggering and slurred words creeping up from behind me. I took my headphones out and turned around to face him. He was a bald-headed, middle-aged man in cargo trousers and a long grey coat. He was holding a bottle of cheap cider in his hands and had a wild glaze in his eyes.

      “I said, lad, I asked you how’re you doing – didn’t you hear me? Don’t people in this town ever speak to each other anymore? Do you think you’re better than me or something? You think you’re better than me don’t you..” I studied him curiously for a moment, trying to deduct if we was a harmless drunk or something to be afraid of.

      “I couldn’t hear you” I told him. “I had my headphones in. But I’m good thanks. How are you?” He looked at me silently for a second and then grinned maniacally.

      “That’s okay my son!” he shouted. “That’s okay. It’s all good! I’m all good! Do you want some cider lad?” He held out the white lightning cider in front of my face. I declined politely to which he carried on chugging away. After a few seconds of watching him drink I continued to walk down the street. He decided to join me. We then walked together for a while as he told me about his life in Brighton, and how he had been a DJ for over twenty years, and how the rest of the time how he liked to climb buildings, presumably drunk.

      “You see that block of flats over there lad? I climbed that just last week. And the week before that I managed to make it all the way on top of the hospital. The police came and arrested me as soon as I got down of course, but they’re used to me by now! A little slap on the wrists, nothing else! All the coppers in this town have been arresting me for climbing for over ten years now. I’ve just about climbed all there is to climb. I’ve had a few little falls and injuries, but I’m still going! You can’t stop me! Oh no, oh no. You can’t stop me!”

      As I listened to his tales, I wondered how this man was still alive. It was only four in the afternoon and already this man was so drunk he could barely walk straight. Climbing any sort of building or scaffolding in his current state surely was a sure outcome of severe injury or death. Yet he must have done it dozens of times. I never even thought to ask him why he actually had this obsession with climbing things. But I felt like I didn’t need to after a while. The passion and delight in his drunken voice said it all. He was a child in a middle-aged man’s body. He was just simply having fun and enjoying his life in any way he could. Such a wild, free-spirited person again made me feel good. As Bukowski had once said: “The free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it. Basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.” And it was true: just hearing his stories alleviated me of some sort of pain inside me. It made me feel relaxed. Most people his age were climbing career ladders, yet this man was out DJ-ing and climbing the city buildings for no reason other than having fun.

     In the next days I continued seeing him walking along those street pavements with the same brand of cheap cider always in hand. His energy never changed. Always energetic and friendly. Always smiling and chatting the head off some stranger. Whenever I saw him he updated me about his climbs and exploits, and in return I told him my story about quitting my course and how I was just drifting around for a moment, figuring out my next move in life. One or two times he invited me to drink and climb with him, but I decided against it. My life already had enough madness in it for the time being.

     Eventually a few weeks went by and I stopped seeing him in the neighbourhood. I was always out there on the streets roaming and expected him to come into sight, staggering around a corner with a bottle of cider in hand, but he never did. At first I assumed he had packed up and moved to another town, but then I remembered that he had lived in the city all his life and loved it to the bone. It didn’t seem likely for him to hit the road so suddenly. I kept an eye out for him constantly. It wasn’t long until I overheard some guys at a construction sight. They were talking about a man falling from some scaffolding. I stopped and listened curiously. They spoke about a man who had fallen to his death in the city somewhere a week or so before. My stomach sank suddenly. Immediately I rushed home and went on the internet. I started searching for the news story. I typed some keywords into Google – ‘man’, ‘dies’, ‘death’, ‘falling from building’, ‘Brighton’. I pressed enter. A load of results then appeared, including one which immediately caught my eye – a news story from six days before from the local newspaper. I clicked on it hesitantly. I started reading. I scanned through the story and, sure enough, it was what I had feared. It was the man I had spoken to. It was the man with the big smile and drunken swagger. It was the man who had been climbing buildings in the city for ten years. He had died after falling from the top of a new block of flats still in construction. Finally, the gravity of existence had claimed him.

    Hearing the news of the death, I had a sudden urge to get out of Brighton as soon as I could. I was spooked. It was true that I saw something of myself in that wild-eyed man. In those pupils I saw the alien madness and the child spirit struggling to survive. I saw the pain of existing in this concrete society. This world was always at odds with those types of people. It had swallowed him up and surely those streets and this society were going to swallow me up to. Under the weight of this thought, I went and made a drastic decision. I went online and booked a flight to Mexico with the student loan money that had just come into my account for the course I had quit. The government had paid me a student loan to last the full year, but having already left the course in October, I now had some finances to play around with. I had wanted to travel in Central America for a while and now these tempestuous circumstances called for the adventure to come into play. I arranged the trip for the upcoming weekend and then went and poured myself a glass of red wine to toast my next voyage.

      After finishing the bottle of wine, I sat there drunk for a while staring at my bedroom wall. I was feeling lonely and had a sudden idea to go and see if my homeless friend was there on the street again. I headed out, bought some beer from the shop and walked down the street. Sure enough it was raining again and there he was in his usual spot: sitting there on his soggy cardboard, back against the wall, stroking his dog playfully. I went over and said hello. I then sat down beside him, soaking in the gutter, feeling the rain fall down from the heavens above. I opened a can and offered him one – this time he accepted.

     As I drank and chatted with the homeless man, I thought of the chaos of the last few weeks; I thought of my life and this man’s life and the life of the alcoholic climber who had fallen to his death. It really was true. Some people had just simply been misdelivered to the wrong planet. They found themselves stranded on a rock apart of a species they just didn’t understand. There was no room for them in human society and, like this man, my place was seemingly on the sidelines. It was in the solitary shadows – in those rain-soaked sewers and gutters. Since the playgrounds of youth, I had always felt separate and isolated from my species, and here, twenty years on, nothing had changed despite my attempts to fit in. This little attempt to cling onto the ledge of normality by doing a masters course had quickly failed and now I was falling back into the abyss of the unknown. I was heading back out into the wilderness of planet earth. I was as lost as a man could be and, as the rain started coming down more heavily, I cast my gaze up into the dark night sky, dreaming of something distant and far-off – a home somewhere out there in the galaxies of the cosmos. I didn’t expect to find one however. I didn’t expect to ever find one here on this planet. It was doomed and destined way of the wanderer. It was the way of the outcasts and outsiders – of the misfits and aliens. And by now it was clear that I one of them too. By now it was clear that no matter how far through life I travelled or where I travelled, I would always return to those spaces of separation, sitting alone, drinking beer, staring up into skies – waiting and looking for something – anything – to come and take me home.

short stories

~ A Suppression of Expression ~

writing-1209700_1280.jpg

~ A Suppression of Expression ~

“But why can’t you just speak about how you feel?” she asked me. “Why can’t you just be open about it instead of keeping it all locked up inside your head? You don’t always have to be alone. Just open up and say how you feel. Please – just share something with me.”

   The words came and hit me like a freight train. After a long day of motorbiking through the mountains, there I sat drunk in a home-stay in Northern Vietnam with a young Danish girl, once again unable to verbally communicate the thoughts that haunted the hallways of my mind, that scratched and clawed at the walls of my skull. Such a task was clearly not an issue for herself. After travelling together for only just a few days, already she had stared into my eyes and spilled the dark stories of her troubled past. She had told me in detail of her eating disorders and the beatings from her father – of the eight year therapy and depression. In the drunken haziness of smoky rooms in foreign lands, she had invited me into the unique wilderness of her mind and allowed me to see its rugged contents in all their scratched and scarred beauty.

    It was always comforting to have such conversations out on the road; a stranger from another country pouring their heart out to you was for me one of the greatest experiences of travelling. It was a window into the human condition – something that was all too rare to experience in the everyday existence of life back home. So far on my travels I had stared into eyes and listened to the secrets of many damaged souls out there wandering the world. I had heard tales of death and destruction; of pain and desperation. On sunset beaches, mountain trails and in smoky bars, I had travelled into the worlds of other souls and got lost in their rugged expanses. This time the directness of her questions made me suddenly realise it was always me listening in to words but never opening up myself and expressing my own inner thoughts and secrets. Once again I sat tethered down by something, hesitating, puffing on a cigarette and sipping a beer to stop my mouth from spewing its mess and madness upon her. “It really helps to talk about” she said, spotting my stalling. “Speaking to someone about my problems really helped clear all the mess from my mind. You will feel better after I promise.”

   It was true; it was true. Like her and the others, I also had a lot of chaos in my psyche that I needed to share and express in some way. At times I so desperately yearned for another to come and take a walk in the wilderness of my own skull and know what it was like not to be alone with all the thoughts swarming around inside of it. Often back home I stood frustrated before non-understanding eyes with every ounce of me aching for some form of genuine interaction, and now here with this girl was the perfect opportunity. But once again my tongue stuttered and flailed around in my mouth as something restrained me from sharing the things I had locked up inside of me. The thought hit me that I was a hypocrite; I always wanted my fellow species to throw away their masks and makeup and speak from the heart, yet here I was again not capable to do it myself. Staring down the barrel of the loaded eyes of another human-being, I could never find the words to express how I truly felt. Unlike her, there was no therapist out there for me; no chance to utter how I felt in totally clarity. It was hopeless. The conversation shifted as we went back to small talk with the other group of backpackers before we went to bed and sunk into the still silence of the night.

    One day of biking later and we were once again drunk after sharing street drinks and karaoke with the locals. Now alone in the night under the light of the full moon, we sat entwined on a bridge in the center of town as the 3am silence enveloped us and the urban landscape that lay sprawled out around us. She continued to share some more things with me while asking again to share my problems with her. After a while I uttered a couple of vague things about past battles of depression and a personality disorder before retreating back to the beer and cigarette. The words came out jumbled and restrained; even here far away from home in the drunken company of this girl I trusted, I still couldn’t really let another fully into my own mind. She seemed pleased that I had opened up a little bit but we both knew I was still holding back – that I was alone with my thoughts and problems as I had always been. Together physically with another soul, I sat once again in the solitary fields of my mind, staring up into skies and wishing for another to come and join me completely in my wilderness.

    Later on that evening when the beer cans lay empty and she had gone to bed, I went to get my backpack and reached for the pen and paper; in times when the storm inside my skull got too fierce, I always reached for the pen and the paper. With them in hand I walked out onto the balcony and sat down at the table. Back alone and safe from the eyes of another, finally I could write down and clearly communicate the thoughts inside my head. Like she had needed the therapist to vent her thoughts and secrets, I needed the pen and the solitude to finally express from the depths of my soul – to cut the tether and rise up freely from the mental tyranny that was the suppression of expression. As the words started raining down, I stared out at the buildings and houses across the river and wondered how many others out there were trying to summon the strength to voice the words and thoughts they had hidden away inside themselves for so long. The thought of that kept me scribbling away until the first embers of daylight crept over the horizon. The sky was gradually illuminated as I bled my brain dry onto the page. The existential pain. The desperation. The loneliness. The alienation. The fact I had fallen for a girl with a boyfriend. The fear that I would be alone on those balconies of isolation until the dying of my days. Finally it all flowed out freely and fearlessly. Like a dam that had finally been released, waterfalls of thought poured effortlessly onto the page, surging forward from the source of the soul. I looked down at what I had written and felt better; I felt my mind return to a calm state. Once again, I had found the release I needed via the pen and paper.

   It is true what you told me girl. In this life we all need to find a way to finally express the things we have locked up deep inside of us. After a certain amount of time of being alone with our struggles, we need another soul to come and take a trip inside ourselves so that we aren’t suffocated by our own individual pain and madness. For me I could not find the way to face you so know that the words on this paper are my total therapy; know that they save me from complete self-destruction. This is the only gateway to the depths of myself I truly know. With these words I lead you into my wild, and show the solitary places my soul resides. With these words I throw away the mask, and show you what chaos really lurks beneath my skin. With these words I attempt to say what can’t be expressed in words, but only felt in that burning feeling in the gut, that ache in the heart – that existential pain in the soul that longs to liberate itself from being totally alone and lost in the great enveloping ether of existence. You saved yourself with therapy but know that these are the words that save me. These are the words that stop me from falling from those balconies of isolation. These are the fingertips fighting to save myself from the wild things that roam around inside of me. Come on in. Welcome to the haunted woods of my twisted mind.

Sorry for the mess, but it’s the only home I know.”

short stories

~ Not Letting Them Break You Down ~

~ Not Letting Them Break You Down ~

Yes, it’s true that there are many kind-hearted people in this world, many people who want the best for you, but make no mistake about it: out there there are also countless people who want to break you down little by little – piece by piece. You are not always in good company in your day to day life. At every second, the sidewalks and cities of the world are filled with people who will try to assert their dominance over you to their own gain; who want you to feel timid and fearful under their shadow; who want you to be laid out on the floor so they can stand a little higher with their head in the clouds. Integrated into a society that often rewards their behaviour, they are the sociopaths, the narcissists, the bullies, and the manipulators. Sometimes they are simply the people who have suppressed their own issues and are looking for someone to vent their own inner pain upon.

    Like most of us, I have come across a few of these creatures in my life. Sometimes they are easy to spot; sometimes they will first infiltrate your radar and appear as friends. The meetings have been many but the most notable example I can recall of this was when I was backpacking around Australia. Desperate as ever for money to keep on travelling in some basic way, I went online and responded to a casual job advert. It was from a middle-aged man who owned a few properties in the city of Adelaide and needed some help with them and his farm a little out of the city. The job description seemed like an easy fix, so I applied, got a call from him and arranged to begin work at the start of the following week.

    It was three days later I got picked up with a fellow backpacker who had also responded to the ad. We were picked up on a dusty highway on the outskirts of the city. A beaten Toyota jeep pulled up along the freeway and there he sat behind the wheel: a big, bald and burly behemoth of a man, Australian but of Greek descent, with noticeably large hands and chunky fingers – the sort you knew had seen a lifetime of hard manual labour. I climbed in tentatively and introduced myself to him. Straight away he gazed at me with a piercing stare that shot right into the depths of my soul. I felt intimidated from the start. I looked down at how ragged and scarred those chunky fingers clutching the gear stick were and suspected that tough work awaited me. A painful, bone-crushing handshake then went and confirmed this.

   Thirty minutes later we arrived at his farm and got to work. There was no time for ceremony I realised as he threw a spade at my feet and asked me start digging up a fence post in the nearby field. I grabbed it and began thudding away at the ground in the baking Australian sun. I already suspected he expected me to work at a fast pace, so with that in mind I toiled away with all my strength, breaking the earth apart and pulling out the fence as quick as I could while watching the sweat drip off my forehead onto the cracked ground beneath my feet.

     After finishing this task he got me to clean out an old barn that was crammed full of junk that seemed to have been gathering there for at least a few decades. Giving me just fifteen minutes to complete the task, I ran around like a madman clearing everything out as fast as I could. While I whizzed around, he would repeatedly come and look shocked that I hadn’t finished the job yet. He’d stop in the doorway of the barn and scowl at me with a look of disgust.  “What’s going on boy? You should have finished this by now. This isn’t good enough. You’ve gotta be quicker than this. Hurry up boy, hurry up”.

    Already I began to see that the bald behemoth hated my very blood and guts. This feeling only intensified when, after clearing out the barn, he threw a shovel at my feet and asked me to clear all the horse manure off an entire field. This job was to be followed by clearing out a hen paddock which had a stench bad enough to make the devil weep – that’s not to mention a little interruption where I had to try and herd some sheep onto another field as he stood by the fence watching me with what I sensed was a feeling of jovial delight.

    This sort of degrading, back-breaking work went on for a few days. And not just for me. Me and my friend would look at each other with exhausted eyes as he rampaged around the farm like a madman getting us to grind out our sweat and blood for what was essentially the minimum wage. At lunch he would invite both of us into the farm kitchen where we would eat lunch and drink a beer in a strange and uneasy atmosphere. It was a time to rest, but I never really felt totally comfortable to sit back and relax. There was an aura of contempt in the air and I felt a sort of bitter resentment or animosity towards us. Any attempts at small-talk or humour to creep under his tough exterior only resulted in that piercing stare he used so well and frequently to make you feel small and intimidated.

    It was after a week of this exhausting existence that my friend decided to quit. It was a Sunday evening and I was speaking to him over the phone. “Yeah screw working for that bastard. I’m not killing myself for minimum wage. I spoke to a guy in the hostel who once worked for him too; it turns out he just likes to screw backpackers around for fun. He’s a psycho mate, he doesn’t even need the help, the farm is just a hobby of his. Just do yourself a favour and quit now. I’ll help you sort something else out.”

    I thought about it and decided his words made sense. It didn’t surprise me that other backpackers had been through this ordeal and left after a few days. It didn’t surprise me that someone like that found pleasure in tormenting young backpackers like us he no doubt suspected came from privileged backgrounds. I thought some more about it and agreed with him; that it was better to just quit and find another casual job which wouldn’t be so painful and degrading.

   I was about to text him my message of resignation when I suddenly heard another voice speak up somewhere inside my head. It was an old and familiar voice I recognised – the voice of stubbornness and resistance that I had occasionally listened to in hard times gone by. I thought back to the week on the farm and I knew from that piercing look in his eye that he wanted to break me down; I knew he found pleasure in recruiting backpackers and getting them to quit; I knew he felt better about himself that he could do these jobs that other mere mortals could not do. Having both of us quit after a week would only strengthen his resolve of hatred and contempt further. It was right there and then that I was going to brave out his thunder and lightning – that I was going to stand tall against his storm. My mind was made up and so began the start of a silent war. It was a war of endurance. Of pain. Of persistence. Of blind defiance to prove a point that I wasn’t even sure was at the time.

    The week got started again and the battle continued where we left off. Picking me up on that dusty highway every morning, I was taken to the farm where I cleaned out hen pens of shit for minimum wage, where I blistered my hands as I dug away with a blunt spade into hard earth, where I scrubbed windows at a speed great enough to make my wrists snap while he stood beside me and barked at me to hurry up. There was one time on the way home that I had to run down a highway with a container when he had run out of oil. Having returned as fast as I could, he still remarked how I should have filled the container up a little more to the very top. “You’re just no damn good kid; you haven’t got any common sense and you haven’t done a day’s work in your life have you?”

    I quickly realised that there was no room for any positivity or gratitude in this bizarre relationship. Sometimes a moment of quietness meant he was satisfied in some way, but other than that it was a lifeless affair. At lunch we would always sit in that disturbing silence as we ate and drank under heavy air. One time he spoke to me about his divorce and his daughter, but that was as deep and human as the discourse ever got. Any attempt to get any further details only resulted in hitting that familiar brick wall. Like many men across the world, he had closed himself off with a tough exterior that few, if any, would ever truly penetrate.

    Eventually we started working in the city tending to all the homes and apartments he rented out. With him owning what seemed to be an entire neighbourhoods worth of residences, we shot around Adelaide like maniacs while rushing in and cleaning out the properties at lightning speed. I mopped floors, scrubbed dirt, cleaned windows and cut the grass while making sure I didn’t miss a patch that he would no doubt lose his beastly temper over. Sometimes I would briefly allow myself a quick moment of standing still and staring up into the sky, wondering how the hell I had ended up on the other side of the world in such a random situation. This wasn’t exactly what most people imagined when they thought of worldwide travel; scrubbing shit stains off toilet bowls while getting shouted at to speed up wasn’t exactly the mind-broadening experience I had envisaged back home.

    Still, I found a way to deal with the absurdity of it all. The work itself wasn’t such a problem; I knew that the majority of people in the world had to toil away in hard, menial work for much less than the minimum wage I was earning. It was the fact that I had to deal with a snarling boss who was standing over my shoulder and relentlessly barking at me for hours on end. I reminded myself that they were just words and escaped into my own mind where I dreamt of coming adventures out on the road. One time he snapped at me while cleaning a bathroom for missing a spot on the toilet cistern, and I just stood there thinking of my east-coast trip while his words shot out at me. Like I had realised a few times in my life, I knew that in the depths of your own mind was the last refuge of freedom that no demon or tyrant could ever penetrate no matter what weapon or words they used. Insults could be hurled and skin could be pierced, but never could the bastards find a way to break into the wonderland of your own inner joy and imagination.

    This tactic continued to work well until one day where he dropped me at his own property where he lived. We both cleaned up the inside of the house as normal and then he took me out into the back garden. He led me over to a hole in the ground with the top of a large pipe visible at the bottom through the dirt. Throwing that worn and weathered spade at my feet again, he asked me to dig around the whole pipe so that it was possible to get down beneath it and make a repair. After giving me this task he jumped in his van and said he would return in half an hour. “I want it done before I get back, you understand?” he said before pulling out the drive and disappearing down the road.

    With that in mind, I got to work again, thudding that crappy spade against the rock-hard ground. The midday sun beat down as the sweat poured from every orifice of my body. The battle continued and, after twenty minutes of struggle, I began to realise that the situation was totally futile. My body was dehydrated, my hands were blistered and bloody, and every thud into the hard ground opened up only the tiniest piece of room around the pipe. In a moment of exhaustion I threw the spade aside and went and sat under the shade of a tree. I then went to the shop and bought myself three cold drinks before returning to the garden. I sat still in my own self-pity; I knew I was beaten and I didn’t care. I waited for the bald behemoth to return and shout at me.

     While I sat there, I decided there and then to ring my friend to see what work he was now up to. I picked up the phone, rang him and began explaining the predicament I was currently in. Hearing my story, he was shocked that I still hadn’t quit. “Man, what are you still doing working for that psycho?” he said. “I’ve just sorted out a job at a party-hire company. It’s regular work, five days a week, and twenty bucks an hour. Quit and I’ll get you in here as soon as. I’ll speak to the boss tomorrow. Save yourself now brother.”

    I told him to speak to his boss let me know. I put the phone away and carried on sitting there in the shade, thinking about the absurdity of the situation before me. As my mind wandered, I thought of the bullies in school. I thought how so many human minds vented their own hatred and fear at others just to make themselves feel a little better. This bastard of a boss was no doubt the same. I knew that those bullies and haters won the second you keeled over to them. When your back was up against the wall and faced the haters, one had to stand strong and remember that – no matter what they threw at you – as long as you kept the flag of joy raised in your heart then they would always lose. ‘Bring on your thunder and darkened skies; pour down your rain and watch my flowers rise. Ignite your hate with those flames of doom, and in that warmth watch my spirit bloom’ – a piece of poetry I had written once in a diary, which I suddenly remembered.

     With that piece of poetry in mind, I decided then that I would endure his storm a little more; that I wasn’t going to quit the job unless he fired me. My mind had ventured once more into the realm of chaos and, as he came back to the house and began barking once again, I found a strange sort of sense of happiness and peace while staring into his red, erupting face. I realised then that it had hit the wall and gone through. It had well and truly become a game of madness.

    And so the battle went on and on. Some days I’d be on the farm cleaning up horse shit or fencing in the midsummer heat, and other days I’d be whizzing around those houses, trimming those lawns, scrubbing those toilet bowls, mopping those floors. Everyday I arrived home exhausted and in need of a twenty minute long shower to cleanse the dirt and the sweat and the madness off me. I’d look into the mirror and tell myself that it was a life experience – a lesson to be learned that would help fund my next stint on the road as I travelled down the east coast of Australia. Sometimes his degrading words reverberated around my skull as I went to sleep, but I eventually laughed them off, revelling in the stupidity of the situation that I was sure to remember until old age.

    The days ploughed on until it was at the end of the third week where I had just finished cleaning up the horse paddock on the farm. With the smell of horse shit now permanently ingrained into my clothes, I limped into the jeep, beaten and mentally traumatized as ever, ready to return home to that cold shower. It was a friday evening and we drove to the spot on the highway where I was always picked up and dropped off. We reached the spot and pulled up along the highway. As we stopped he turned off the radio and let out a sigh. An uncomfortable silence filled the air. “I tried kiddo” he said eventually. “I tried kiddo, I really tried. But you just ain’t good enough. Here’s your check for the week. I won’t be needing you again”.

        I looked over to him. I then looked down at his hand and took the paycheck from him. There were no more words – just silence and a check. I let the realisation hit me and suddenly felt a symphony play in my heart. It had finally happened; I knew at that moment I had been successfully fired. My hands were blistered, my back sore and my mind exhausted, yet through the pain and strain and the verbal abuse, I hadn’t quit – I hadn’t let him have the pleasure of breaking me down. I sat back soaking in the aura of sadness that filled the car. This time I noticed he wouldn’t look me in the eye with that piercing stare, but just gazed out the window waiting for me to leave.

      After a while he turned and told me to get out the jeep. I clambered out and looked down at my hands. The blisters on the insides of my thumbs were red and raw with pride and pain. I then looked up at the sky and let out a big stupid smile. A victory had been achieved; a lesson of life learned. I watched his Toyota jeep cruise off down the highway, never to be seen again. I watched it until it disappeared over the horizon, knowing that he would always carry his hatred with him, for I had not let him offload it onto me.

     That little job in Australia ended up serving as good preparation for what I was to face throughout the rest of my life. Since then I have encountered many other people like that man. For as long as you walk this earth, they will inevitably come at you from time to time. They will come at you in the workplace. They will come at you in the bars. They will come at you in the streets and the towns and the cities. When they do one must know how to stand tall against the contempt and absurdity that the human mind is too often capable of producing. One must stand with courage in their heart and madness in their mind, knowing that there is a joy inside of you that they can never take away; knowing that there is a fighter spirit that all the hate in this world can never wither down into nothingness. With that simple act of learning to dance in the rain and laugh in the face of the howling wind, one could ultimately save themselves from becoming yet another one of those hateful souls looking to offload their own inner hate and pain onto others.

    That day when I was fired, I clutched my paycheck and strolled down the road back home with my head held high. I had been beaten down, I had broken my back scooping up horse shit at record pace, I had blistered almost every finger of my hand – hell I had even been fired – but I hadn’t let him break me down, and in some way that fact was one of the most valuable things he could have paid me with. Even with my measly paycheck, I had been gifted something that would prove valuable to the end of my days. I had learnt that within me was a fighter spirit that the most ferocious storm or hateful soul couldn’t easily extinguish. And in a world where so many resentful and hateful spirits crossed paths with you, few things were more valuable than that. As I had written that day in a teenage diary of the past:

“Bring on your thunder and darkened skies; pour down your rain and watch my flowers rise. Ignite your hate with those flames of doom, and in that warmth watch my spirit bloom.”

    With that thought in mind I moved on through Australia ready for the next adventure, ready for the next battle – ready for the next quest in the wild and wonderful and, sometimes, backbreaking game of life.

 

 

short stories

~ The Ones That Get Away ~

~ The Ones That Get Away ~

      Out travelling the road of life, lost in the night of some foreign country, roaming the cobbled streets of the old town, kissing her under the moonlight. She was a lawyer, seven years older, with hazel eyes, brunette hair and the sort of Mediterranean look that made you think of fancy restaurants overlooking sparkling blue waters. She wore a flowery summer dress that shown off her hourglass figure; her ears adorned green jewelled earrings and she carried an expensive-looking designer leather purse under her left arm. I of course knew that usually these creatures of luxury were out of reach for a no-good, drifting nomad like myself, but for some reason the gods above had backed me this evening. Perhaps they were just having a laugh amongst themselves, but they had backed me and I had lured her in.

      We had met about one hour before in a smoky traveller’s bar where our eyes had crossed paths as we both sat on bar stools staring wistfully into time and space. I smiled, went over and asked if she too was also bored with existence. She looked up at me with piercing eyes and, after a second of awkwardness, the tension was cut with a friendly smile. From there on in we got talking and shared a drink: two whisky cokes with ice.

     It was a few minutes into drinking and chatting that I first began to realise she was slightly more upper-class than the girls I normally went after. As we chatted she told me of the human rights court cases she had been working on; she told me of her education and how she owned her own apartment. She was too charming to be snobby about it or anything, but I quickly concluded that she was definitely a little more sophisticated than the girls you normally met in these traveller bars. With this in mind I tried to come across as a regular, upstanding member of human society. I talked about politics and economy; I talked about theology and philosophy. I tried and tried my very best, but after five minutes my cover was blown.

       “You’re a little strange aren’t you?” she said with a wry smile.

       “Well you’re the local lawyer sitting on your own in a backpacker bar.”

       “Yeah, and so what? We all have our moments of madness. Besides I’m not alone; I’m waiting for my friend behind the bar. She finishes in an hour.”

        I looked over where a blonde girl was mixing a cocktail behind the bar.

      “One hour?” I said. “Why don’t we go for a walk somewhere else, to another bar, or perhaps you can give me a private tour of your town? You know, teach me the history and that? I am a tourist in your country after all.” She took a long sip of her drink while staring into my soul, making me wait – making me guess. The look in those hazel eyes told me that she knew I was full of it, but finally she agreed anyway. We finished our drinks and went off out into the night.

      After exiting the bar, we wandered through the winding streets of the old town with no particular destination other than the present moment. We passed busy bars and restaurants; we walked along the waterfront of the harbour. We made small-talk about my travels and she told me how I was brave and how she had always wanted to travel alone. It was something I had heard from many people while out on my travels. Damn near enough everybody in society wanted to quit their job and travel the world – like always, I didn’t understand why so very few actually did it.

       Eventually we stopped under a streetlight in one of the side streets. With no one around, we finally embraced and shared a kiss in the silence of the night. We then stared into each others eyes and I made a comment about whether she always went for guys seven years younger than her. She let out a little laugh and suddenly – for about the fifth time that year – I was hopelessly in love with a stranger. At that moment all I wanted to do was to swim into her eyes and drown myself. It was a feeling I knew all too well. Not just then, but I regularly had this feeling – an overwhelming feeling of total reckless abandonment to something or anything or everything. Often all I wanted to do was to abandon myself to the world, to the wonders, to the women. I wanted to get lost in those foreign countries, lost down those old cobbled streets – lost again and again in the eyes of those beautiful strangers. I was reckless, I knew, and possibly insane.

       Even if we somehow formed some sort of relationship it wouldn’t have been long before she realised I was completely incompatible with the regular life she wanted. Women like this wanted structured and stable men. They wanted men who could be husbands, men who could be fathers – men who could stay in one place and raise children and talk to their neighbours about the weather over the garden face. The problem was that I was none of those things. I was a wayward wanderer, a restless dreamer with itchy feet – a piece of trash caught in the wind being whipped around by the pull of my gypsy heart.

       Looking further into eyes I thought about the alternative to the mess and madness that was my life. It was true that somewhere inside a part of me wanted to be a regular human-being sometimes, but the problem was to do that you were supposed to solidify things. Houses were supposed to be cemented down; relationships were supposed to last; job positions were meant to be held for years and not months. It’s not like I didn’t understand what was to be done in order to be a functioning member of the human race, it’s just that I couldn’t seem to do it even if I wanted to. Something had gone wrong in my DNA or upbringing. My mind was possessed by a great fire; my soul was caught in a wild storm. This woman was beautiful, stable and deemed successful in society’s eyes as a lawyer. She had a chance – she had a strong chance at a normal life. But what chance did someone like me have? I was a nomadic fool who couldn’t even stay put in one place or job position for a full year. I couldn’t fit myself into anywhere. I couldn’t even drive a goddamn car. The gods may have backed me tonight in the short-game, but long distance I was sure they wouldn’t have touched me. The game was a fix and there was no chance – there was just absolutely no goddamn chance.

      After a while we carried on strolling around through the lanes and streets. We petted a stray cat and followed it down an alleyway; we kissed again against a beaten old wall; we kissed once more around the back of the town church. Eventually we moved into a small, secluded square where I twirled her around and watched her flowery dress dance in the midnight breeze. The moment was damn near perfect, but it was sad – it was so sad for some reason I couldn’t quite say.

     “You know, I have to work this weekend, but I will be free on Monday. If you’d like to hang around town then maybe we could spend some more time together? We could take a boat to one of the islands. I’d like to see you again.” She smiled and stared into my eyes. I smiled back, stalling, my mind exploding with a million and one thoughts.

     “Yeah, I’d like that” I said finally.

     “Good… I like you. Even if you are a little younger, and a backpacker.” She gave that same wry smile that just about knocked me out on the floor. I looked at her then looked up toward the night sky, wondering why the gods liked to inflict such bittersweet pain upon us all. Was there a purpose to our pain? To our impossibility?

      Eventually she checked the time and saw that she had to go back to the bar and meet her friend. They were going to the gig of a friend and she asked me if I’d like to join, but it didn’t feel right so I said no. She gave me her contact details and we’d said we’d talk again, and that she hoped that I would wait around town to spend some time with her, and then I gave some phony agreement and immediately hated my own guts. I said that we’d meet again, knowing that I already had a bus booked out of town in two days time. It was an empty promise I’d made with many women out there across the world. I’d said it to women in South America. I’d said it to women in Asia. I’d said it to women in Australia and New Zealand. But the reality was always the same: I never saw any of them again. They drifted out of sight forever like ghosts into the mists of mind and memory. They went on to forget me and sit entwined together on sofas somewhere with other men in suburban neighbourhoods of stability and sanity.

       Before going I gave her one last kiss, said goodbye and watch her skip away like some deer into the night. She rounded a corner and just like that she was gone forever. Drenched in the silent solitude of foreign lands, I stood alone in the night once more. I would have thought that I’d have gotten used to this scenario by now, but for some reason this night the thought of what just happened consumed me. As I walked back to my hostel under those flickering street-lights, a sad feeling filled my flesh and bones. There was just something different about this time – about this woman. It was in her eyes. Deep down in those hazel eyes I could really see the alternative life so many other men my age would go on to live. I could see myself being a settled soul with a steady job, coming home to a loving wife and kids. I could see myself going on summer vacations and walking in the park together. I could imagine the polka dot dresses she would wear to our anniversary meals. I could imagine the way she would smile at me on a sunday morning. Such thoughts weighed heavy on my mind and I gradually got lost in all of them – entertaining them, playing with them, toying with them – but I knew deep inside of me that it was a reality out of reach.

        On sunday I was heading further down the coast, leaving her behind like all the others. I already had my ticket and hostel booked and I wasn’t going to change my plan. After all, what would actually happen? ? It was nothing more than a slip of character and in a moment of clarity, I allowed myself to retreat back to the acceptance of who I really was. I knew deep down in my bones I didn’t belong with  woman like that. I was still just a piece of trash caught in the wind whose fate was to keep getting lost in those foreign countries, lost in those strange towns – lost in the eyes of those beautiful strangers. The world she resided in was never meant for me. Instead I belonged to the wind, hurtling over the horizon, swept by gusts of curiosity that left me staring out of bus windows in foreign lands knowing that I was doomed and destined to never to step off and belong to one place or person or particular community. It was a chaotic life, and it was my life. My own personal disaster.

   It was two days later when I boarded my bus and watched the town drift out of sight. I pressed my head against that familiar bus window and stared out at the passing countryside. As I watched the towns and farms go past, I reflected on the night with the girl and thought about what it would have been like to see her again. Many thoughts went through my head but as I sat there and stared out the window a bit longer, I gradually felt my mind begin to shift back to its familiar state of being excited for what was over the next horizon. Maybe I was a bad guy or even just mentally disturbed, but whatever it was I knew that this was a sickness that couldn’t be cured by any drug, job or pretty woman with hazel eyes. It was right there and then that I realised with a sense of horror that I may never find the cure to whatever madness it was that consumed me. If a beautiful woman like that couldn’t get me to change my plan then I just had to accept I was doomed. If a beautiful woman like that couldn’t get me to change my plan then I just had to sit back and accept that no matter where I went in this world, or how many years passed me by, I would always just be that young boy out there exploring the world, wide-eyed and curious, moving from town to town, drinking in smoky bars, falling in love with strangers, wandering through old cobbled lanes, staring out of bus windows – eternally and hopelessly lost in the dream of what it is to exist.

 

thoughts

~ An Invisible Prison ~

~ An Invisible Prison ~

“The blocks flew open and suddenly I entered into a race I didn’t even ask to be a part of. My immediate thought was of escape, but everywhere I turned it seemed the coordinators were there to usher me back onto the track of the rat race. I looked and looked for the alternative but it was near impossible to find. The people who called themselves alternative wore hippy clothes and tattoos, but were still tied down with careers and cars and televisions and credit cards. The track was hard to leave and even if you wanted to – the warnings were there. The homeless people on the side of the street. The mental asylums. The prisons. The cemeteries. Abandoning the arena of normality may have sounded grand in my head, but the reality was that it a dangerous and even deadly affair. Many a man or woman has hit the bottom after leaving the state-owned racing track towards death. Such an undertaking was not something one did lightheartedly. But on the other hand, what about the others who found the gold in the wilderness? What about the Kerouacs, the Dylans, the Edmund Hillarys? The wilderness of the world had many dangers, but the static life of the suburbs that awaited me seemed like a death sentence. Anything seemed better than being silently imprisoned in an invisible prison which no one else could see. How could you explain the pain of a prison which many people aspired for? The pain of a prison where the fridge was full but the soul empty? The pain of a prison which came with a shiny automobile, a high credit-rating, and a HD television?”

34189476_1691962560879749_3783500316691922944_o.jpg

(taken from my book ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ available here)