NATD Chapter 6, Part 1

While I dwelled in a world of my own, locked away in the simple abyss of my own bedroom, the world outside was furious. Whenever I looked out the window or at my phone screen, or heard the news or saw someone else’s face, I felt the bitter press of an Earth that has lost whatever easiness it may once have had. And I wanted it to stop.

On the streets of Bristol that week were loud, furious protests that reminded everyone how terrible everything was. On the Friday, thousands of women took to the streets to protest against rape; on the Saturday, people of all colours and creeds protested against Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States; on the Sunday, there was a Christmas market which everyone used as an excuse to drown their sorrows in an alcoholic supernova.

Across the globe, an abstract madness infected people everywhere. Everyone was lonely, everyone was together, everyone was separate. My dear human, to be born into this age is to feel separate and scared, vain and self-loathing, competitive and helpless, and not to have a blind clue what to do about it.

I have often wondered to myself: what is it that is making all these people so insecure? Why is that I have felt this strange, ubiquitous depression myself? Why can we not do anything about it?

A thought came to me while I was walking the whizz-planed corners of the wild room of a nightclub, dippsy-daisying on magical substances and feeling enshrined in the flare of the bopping lights. Is it because we don’t know where God is? I was gazing into the straddle bound kaleidoscope of a staircase when I saw it ascending up and up and up, higher than perhaps any staircase of human proportions ought to be, and I wondered: is that God at the top of it? So I set foot after foot up the stairs, and began to climb and climb so high the ground descended and collapsed and the air rushed every way it could until I was in a different place altogether, sidling through a floorway of space and stars and reaching out trying to touch something but never quite finding what it was that had first called me forward. I felt that God had summoned me, but when I reached the place I needed to go it elapsed that I had in fact been fooled and there was no one there at all.

I stared into the dawn of human cognition and remembered the time when that first person said the word ‘I’. That was the beginning of the movement from God in heaven to humans on earth. From then we became no longer one, but many separate things, each with our own trapped sense of self-consciousness and each with the unacceptable knowledge of our own mortality. Our ancestors had religion to overcome this: collections of tales and practices that they thought might quell the existential terror. Some people still cling to these. I don’t, my dear human. I can’t. There is no God. I have called out for Him in the night, and no one answered. If there was a divine sensibility to the chaos of existence people would not suffer, and yet there is so much suffering… Evil transposes itself into even the most mundane of the day to day.

Why is there this suffering? Not because a God is helping us. There are no myths that help me transcend the decay and death of the material world. There is no trans-substantive force that can aid the people on the street crying for justice. There are drugs and there is sex, and there is the feeling of being high in a nightclub and the feeling you are invincible and that, perhaps, for that night alone, there is no death, that you are invincible, intimately, eternally connected to the fellow humans around you who, for that brief, insubstantial moment, you love…

But then you come down and you sleep and you wake up and the world is the same bare, ugly place it was in the sober hours of yesterday. What then?

But we still do this because we need to get away from something. We are running to get away from the hideousness of work, from the loneliness of life and from the intolerability of our own self-awareness. We are doing this because we are afraid to die.

But nothing will keep us from dying; nothing will stop us from plunging; nothing can save us, unless there is a soul within us all that lives on to be lonely in another place.

This, at least, is what I thought to myself the day after Lola kissed me. Isn’t it good, my dear human? Aren’t I brilliant in analysing the human condition in such a way? Aren’t I a genius?

Aren’t I?

TBC…

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NATD Chapter 5, Part 3

I didn’t see Elliot again the rest of the day or night. At home there was only Ciara slumping around in her grey tracksuits, ignoring me other than to send me a look of malediction when I encountered her making coffee in the kitchen at midnight.

The following evening Harriet and I met a dark and bright Lola on Cotham Hill and walked up to the Student’s Union, where Harriet’s friend Robbie Boltham joined us. He was a small, beautiful, silky boy I suddenly remembered from halls, who spoke quietly and gave the impression of being intelligent but a little awkward. Lola seemed to smile and twirl with everything she said, and I encountered the distinct sensation of falling as we sank our obligatory two drinks before the show.

But the more fascinated by her I became the more uncomfortable I felt. I was watching her closely all night, and was quite sure she was doing the same to me but managing it in moments I wasn’t looking. Either that or she wasn’t really interested by me at all and I was utterly paranoid.

The production, apparently, was a success. It featured some very serious student actors taking themselves very seriously in a very serious play, and although I abhorred the earnestness of it all I somehow found I was immensely jealous of the main actor. The boy playing Eddie Carbone was beautiful and – I clench my fist to admit – very good. There was something ineffably attractive about him. He reminded me of a blunt instrument that could nonetheless still cut you. It was his youth and his seriousness that I envied, even though I knew I had both of those things. It was inexplicable at first. I kept sneaking glances at Lola whenever he was taking centre stage, but her face was untelling. I went back to imagining myself as the protagonist, and by the end intensely desired for the whole audience to have been watching me, to have been applauding me, for Lola to have been looking at me.

In the bar afterwards we continued to drink, and I sank into a solitary silence over the sound of undergraduates describing the play with academic terms they had only recently learnt.

‘I felt as if it were the gender boundaries that were more restrictive to knowledge – knowledge in the Foucaldian sense, you know – rather than class. The social differential is still too abstract, too undefinable in a trans-Atlantic context.’

‘But the promulgation of capitalist knowledge is endemic to all genders, where it varies by class-‘

‘No, no, no, it varies by gender because the female – that is to say, the cis-gender female experience – is intrinsically different to the cis-male experience as they are their own class, their own perspective, their own people….’

‘I loved the main actor,’ said Harriet over a pint of lager. ‘I thought he was the best thing about it.’

‘Yeah, he was good,’ said Robbie, ‘but he kind of stole the limelight from everyone else. And, like, I get the play is supposed to be about masculinity and the implosion of the ‘man of the house’, but Beatrice didn’t even get a look in. She was just kind of… there. Not doing anything.’

‘But isn’t that the point?’ said Lola, to whom I was standing in close proximity in a state of implosive perplexity. ‘Bea doesn’t get a look in because it’s all about the man. It’s all about how masculinity always subverts femininity and women always get smaller as a result. His wife is only there to provide a counter-point to his need for control.’

‘I guess so,’ said Robbie. ‘But she was a bit too passive for that. I think they could have worked on her character a bit more.’

‘Women always get diminished by men,’ bemoaned Harriet.

‘I don’t see how you can say that,’ said Robbie. ‘You’re taller than me.’

Harriet laughed at this.

‘Don’t men suffer from this arrangement as well?’ I asked Lola, but I realised as I spoke that I was directing the question to no one because she had suddenly vacated her place. A third of a gin and tonic remained where she had been standing.

The cast of the play had just entered the bar and an enormous cry went up from the assembled crowd, who busied themselves around them like ants. Congratulations were flying about like explosions in a fireworks-night sky. ‘We loved you…’ ‘The aesthetic was stunning…’ ‘So involving…’ ‘You must have rehearsed so hard…

As I looked I saw the main actor, surrounded by other people who in that moment seemed equally as beautiful as him. He was smiling modestly, barely talking, looking more at the floor than anything else. Then he looked up, and our eyes met for a second. Then he looked away.

‘I got you a G and T,’ said a newly re-arrived Lola after what must have been a few minutes.

‘Oh, cheers,’ I said with the appropriate surprise, and finished off my fifth beer of the evening.

‘You study English, don’t you Charlie?’ said Robbie. Lola and I clinked our glasses together.

‘Oh, yes,’ I said. ‘I’m extremely intelligent.’

There was a pause, and then Lola burst out laughing. Harriet gave a half-laugh and Robbie seemed not to know what to do. He emitted a conscious chuckle after a few seconds.

‘Right. What did you make of it?’

‘Well, it’s very interesting you ask that really. I feel like I’m not qualified to comment because I don’t really have a father.’

‘Oh – err… Why does that not qualify you to comment?’

‘Because,’ Lola interjected once again. She seemed to be wanting to read my mind as she saw fit. ‘The play is about the destruction of the father figure. Charlie has no father figure. Neither have I. But Charlie feels it means he doesn’t understand father figures and so has no perspective from which to comment.’

A rainy silence fell about the table.

‘Precisely,’ I said. Then to Lola: ‘I didn’t realise you don’t have a father?’

‘That’s a story for another gin and tonic,’ she replied.

‘I don’t know that you need to have a father figure to understand the play…’ said Robbie.

‘Maybe you do,’ said Harriet with an unstoppable flicker of her eyes over me. ‘Maybe you need to understand, like… ­Why a father might implode like Eddie does. Or fancy his cousin, though that’s a bit weird.’

‘His niece,’ corrected Robbie.

‘Incest is often a feature of the search for self-recognition,’ said Lola sagely. Then she twisted her neck to look at me with such a comical expression that I laughed for perhaps the first time ever.

The bar frenzied with bright young things soaking their souls in the dark amber light, and as the clock swung forwards we finished up and made our way out to Queens Road. I was uncertain about what our plans would be until Lola said to me: ‘I think we’re going for a walk’.

‘Oh, are we? Sure.’ Then to Robbie and Harriet: ‘We’re going for a walk’.

The latter left us, and like that Lola and I turned up towards Clifton. We walked in a wary, self-observant way, the way two people who have just met each other do when they want to impress. We were either watching our feet hitting the pavement or the outlines of the buildings pressing against a warm, blue night, making a show of only occasionally glancing away from our surroundings to look at one another.

As we went under the tumbling arc of the trees in Victoria Square, Lola broke our unquiet silence with one of her habitual leaps into a dark and unprompted topic.

‘Do you think people have always been sad?’

It felt more natural this time, what with the alcohol rolling about in our veins. I kicked a damp patch of dead leaves before I answered.

‘Are people sad?’

‘I think so. Don’t you think?’

‘Yes, I do. I think people are miserable.’

‘Did you hear about the boy who killed himself last week?’

‘No?’

‘Oh, it’s dreadful. He was in first year. Only eighteen. He hanged himself in his room in halls.’

‘Christ…’

My imagination leaned somewhere unpleasant but the gin kept it from going too far.

‘Apparently no one knew about it… But that’s what they always say, isn’t it? No one knew they were depressed. There’s always a sentence in the newspaper article that says ‘his death came as a total shock,’ or something like that. And an unidentified source says ‘We had no idea, he always seemed so happy to us’. I don’t get it. Why is this happening?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘They’re saying suicide rates are rising across the world. Apparently we’re in the middle of a spike. But why?’

‘I don’t know,’ I repeated.

‘It makes no sense…’

We passed under the archway into Boyce’s Avenue.

‘I’m not sure anything really makes sense. I’m constantly asking myself that: things like, ‘why was I born who I am?’ ‘Why do some people talk to me when others don’t?’ Or, I don’t know, ‘Why do we live on a spinning ball in a thing called the universe?”

‘But that sort of stuff is removed from this, though, isn’t it? Some things do make sense. Behaviour sort of makes sense. People do stuff because of other stuff. I got out of bed this morning because I wanted to meet Charlie Gunn and see a play. I chose to come to Bristol because I wanted to study Philosophy here. But ‘I killed myself because I looked happy’? That doesn’t link up. It’s schizoid.’

‘But they didn’t kill themselves because they looked happy, they probably did it because they hated the world.’

‘Yeah, I mean… But why should more people be hating the world now than before?’

‘Because everything’s wrong.’

‘Maybe it just feels like everything’s wrong, though.’

‘Same thing.’

We passed a homeless person by a bus stop, and Lola unflinchingly reached into her pocket and dropped some coins by her head without looking to see how much she was giving her. The homeless person didn’t say thank you because she was either asleep or passed out.

‘You see,’ I said as we carried on. ‘Stuff like that happens in this world. Homelessness. It’s screwed up. If the world was a good place, that wouldn’t happen.’

‘The world is fucked,’ she agreed. Then with a twist of delight she added: ‘Everything’s fucked. Ooh! Have you been on the swings over there before?’

She pointed somewhere across the green on the other side of the road and before I knew it she was over there herself with me following wildly behind. She all but vanished into the darkness before I found her in the children’s play park by the Suspension Bridge, mounting a swing.

‘You’ve got a real knack for spontaneity,’ I gasped into the thick, breezy air. ‘How do you do it?’

‘Oh, I don’t know!’ she replied, building up momentum on her swing. ‘My mind is like a massive ball pit. I’ve just got to go with whatever it brings up.’

‘That’s an exhausting way to live,’ I said, though didn’t add that I was subject to exactly the same caprices. I sat on the swing beside her and began a thoughtful rock back and forth.

‘Utterly. Sometimes it can be disastrous. But sometimes I get the full rush of something beautiful and it’s just – delicious.’

‘You’re trying to tell me you’re a slave to your mind?’

‘Oh, absolutely. There’s nothing I can do.’

‘Same for me. I’m trapped.’

She didn’t reply to this, but instead continued to swing back and forth in the darkness. After a few minutes she got bored and jumped off.

‘Let’s go to the bridge. I want to look at the lights down in the city. It always makes me feel like I’m looking at something more important than I really am.’

We slithered out of the park and down to the Suspension Bridge. Two security guards were on watch and eyed us carefully from their CCTV-screen filled office as we walked by. Presumably their main job was not to protect the bridge, but to stop people from jumping off it.

Lola was right about things looking more important in the nighttime. From up on the Bridge, Bristol spreads out beneath you like a pageant of stars thrown down from the cosmos and caught in the valley’s bowl, rather than a collection of electrically powered lights for people who don’t know what they’re doing with their lives. In fact I thought it would be a good idea to say this to her.

‘They don’t know what they’re doing with their lives, do they?’ she agreed, her starry head drooped in gift-wrapped despair. ‘No one knows. No one has a clue.’

‘No. And we don’t have a chance.’

‘Maybe we might have done, if we’d both had fathers and been pointed in a clear direction. Maybe we wouldn’t care so much about how screwed everything is. But now… Now all I see is the dreadful stuff of the earth.’

‘Is that to do with having a father?’

She turned her inky eyes to me, and the seemingly sudden apparition of her face enflamed something powerful in my chest. But it wasn’t my usual urge to have someone – at least, not as I knew it. It was uncomfortable but flavoursome at the same time, like the first lick of a taste you know must be slowly acquired over time.

‘What are you looking for?’ she said.

I paused and let the distant honking of a car drift away below us.

‘Peace,’ I said.

‘What are you looking for in women?’

‘In women? What do you mean?’

‘I mean in women. Don’t you sleep with women?’

‘I – err – well, I have done. I mean, not all the time. It’s something that happens to me sometimes.’

‘What are you looking for in them?’

‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. I just – I like them.’

‘Do you ever feel lonely?’

I felt something snap.

‘I never feel lonely.’ The lie was so obvious and discordant I may as well have dropped a brick between us. Lola practically glanced to the ground to see where it would have lain.

‘I think you’re lying.’

‘I’m not. I never feel lonely. Do you?’

‘No,’ she replied. ‘Never.’

I eyed her carefully, confused by what I now saw as her strange illusion of both familiarity and strangeness. I felt her to be especially female, but then, in fits and starts, violently male. When she turned her head one way, she was a girl – in the other, a boy. She was an expert liar and a supple truth-teller. In the same moment, I felt I knew both exactly what she was getting at and absolutely nothing whatsoever.

‘I think you’re lying,’ I said.

‘So what if I am,’ she shrugged. ‘What does it matter to you?’

‘Nothing, I suppose. If being lonely means other people aren’t in your life then it really does have nothing to do with me.’

‘So you’d only have an effect on my life if I wasn’t lonely?’

‘I suppose.’

She laughed.

‘You couldn’t be more wrong.’

‘Who are you? Why are you talking to me like this?’

She laughed again.

‘You’re an odd one,’ she said.

‘You can talk,’ I said.

‘Absolutely,’ she said. ‘We’re two of the oddest people alive. Aren’t we marvellous?’

‘Why did you ask me out for coffee? Why did you want to talk to me about all this stuff?’

‘Isn’t it enough for me to say I just thought you were good looking and leave it at that?’

‘Because –‘ I held my tongue for a moment. ‘I don’t think it’s true.’

‘What, that you’re good looking? No, you’re right. It’s more than that. It’s because you’re interesting, too.’

‘Yes… I am. I’m very good looking and very interesting.’

‘In fact, you’re fascinating.’

‘Yes… But so are you.’

‘I don’t know about that.’

‘No, you are. You unnerve me.’

She gave me a look of delighted shock.

‘Do I? Well, then we’re a perfect match, aren’t we?’

‘Do I unnerve you?’

‘I couldn’t possibly say.’

‘I get the feeling that I know you much better than I should, but also that I don’t know you at all.’

‘Well, isn’t that something.’

She grinned that large, tonic-like grin at me once more, and I felt the sudden need for a joint.

‘I’m sure it’s because I’ve invaded your privacy,’ she continued. ‘We’re a society of stalkers now, after all. That’s what facebook has done to us: made us more withdrawn, more anxious and more curious about other people’s lives. A whole generation of people taught to advertise themselves at all times and to envy those they can’t compete with.’

‘Profound.’

‘I know. I am. Shall we go?’

She led me away from the bridge and we walked through the silent, mid-week streets to Southleigh Road, where Lola’s house was. It took her all the way to her door, which felt odd because usually in these situations I was making a break for the girl’s bedroom. That’s all I had ever known: a girl shows an interest, no matter how vague or disrupted, and I would twist her into whatever shape would fit me that night. But I wasn’t feeling this now. As she mounted the front steps and turned to face me, her dark, handsome face looking up through the black and amber night, I felt something very, very unfamiliar indeed.

I was about to speak but she cut me off.

‘Don’t add me on facebook,’ she said. ‘Not yet, anyway. I’d rather get to know you in my own time.’

‘Who said we’d be getting to know each other?’

‘I did.’

And then, with the flash of her own control across my vision, she leant in and kissed me.

SHE kissed ME, my dear human! She did it to me!

Before I knew it the door was closed and I was standing with her number in my phone, and then I’d spun under the misty trees of Whiteladies and was back in my room lighting up a joint, then another, then another and a can of beer –

Something was boiling up inside me – some itching memory of something traceable but indistinct that had lain dormant for a very long, very uncomfortable time…

I sat back in the armchair by the window and smoked and drank and stared at the spotted city below me, but it didn’t feel right. I took an old bottle of cheap whisky off the shelf and swigged from it, then finished the rest of my beer. I was feeling alternately hot and cold, suddenly thirsty then suddenly not.

Everything was closing in, my dear human, everything was feeling not quite right at all, no not quite right at all… I span round and stared at the poster of the horsehead nebula that hung opposite my bed, and found that it was moving beyond the boundaries of its paper and the stars were seeping in all their opalescent madness into the wall –

– I thought I saw a figure in the corner of the room, but when I looked it had moved and there was nothing there at all –

I drank more whisky and smoked another joint, but nothing was dulling the feeling of panic that was closing my throat and nauseating my stomach, and nothing was stopping the sense that everything everything everything was futile, pointless, hideous, painful – oh GOD, what if after death there is nothing but terror and pain? What if we don’t even exist? What if loneliness is the only thing that is true?

I dug five valium out of a drawer and sank all of them with a glug of the whisky.

Who was this girl? What was she doing here? Why had she done this to me?

Was it because of her I was feeling the Bad Place coming?

Why was I alive at all? Why had I been born?

Selfish parents! Stupid humans!

Why couldn’t I explain this to anyone? Why would no one listen?

A shot and a drag and a shot and a drag and I was trying to drown it, waiting for the substances to do something, waiting for the valium to hit, waiting to be free of this mortal incapacity…

I was being sick out the window, and I realised I’d put on some music but I didn’t know what the song was called or who it was by…

I screamed into the darkness, a finite shriek to whoever might be there to listen, but in answer to my fear there was only silence, and there was no one there to hear me cry, nothing there to fill the emptiness

Then I –

TBC…

NATD Chapter 5, Part 2

After plans were agreed upon and we’d used our phones to buy tickets, Lola and I stepped outside to find the overcast, end-of-summer morning had given way to an amber autumn afternoon. The redness in the leaves of the trees seemed suddenly very pronounced, and the wind not quite so cold.

‘It’s so lovely,’ Lola simpered as she gazed at the trees. ‘Forget the library. Why don’t we go for a walk? I want to go to Royal Fort Gardens. It’s such a good place to sit when you’re supposed to be somewhere else.’

We walked side-by-side up Tyndall Avenue and past the Physics Building, or side-by-side so much as she would let me for she kept pushing herself forward at too brisk a pace, like a child excited by everything she saw. She attracted the attention of more than one passing undergraduate as we went, but seemed totally oblivious to it.

‘I’ve never really spent much time in Royal Fort Gardens,’ I said in a moment when our proximity was close enough.

‘Oh, they’re lovely,’ she replied, gazing at the eponymous Palladian house. ‘Someone once told me it’s called ‘Royal Fort’ because it was a fort for the Royalists during the Civil War. Isn’t that interesting? We’re standing on land that was fought for the king.’

‘It’s a shame the king lost. I thought the house is just offices now.’

‘It is. Everything beautiful disintegrates eventually. And I hate the monarchy anyway. If it were down to me, everything would be destroyed and rebuilt again as something beautiful that everyone could be a part of. Especially offices.’

We rounded the corner to the top of the hill, from where we could see the Wills Memorial Building and the odd roll of cityscape through the slowly unravelling trees. A few students sat around smoking cigarettes, as well as an old academic in an over-sized tweed jacket whose hair looked like it was also dying with the autumn. Lola ran down the hill without a word to go and examine a branch she particularly liked the look of. I stayed where I was, too self-conscious and generally too off-balance to follow her.

Her sudden distance relieved me a little because I felt troubled. It wasn’t for quite the same reasons as the morning. Then it had been life, the universe and myself; now it was life, the universe and Lola. Discounting Friday I had known her for all of forty-five minutes, and yet in that time she had mysteriously seemed to change both the weather and my temperament. She was madly charming, utterly peculiar and utterly unreadable. As I watched her from the hilltop, I tried at least to decide what I thought of her figure: it was slightly tough, slightly voluptuous, almost muscular. I couldn’t quite categorise her as feminine.

After a few minutes she came back up the hill, gasping with her great, tonic-like grin on her face.

‘What are you standing around for? You’re missing out!’

‘On what?’

‘This,’ she said, indicating the garden beneath her with a flourish. ‘Don’t you want to look more closely at it?’

I eyed her carefully, then, for the first time in years, I think I felt

the beginnings of a smile on my face; a smile that wasn’t forced. It felt so unnatural that I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

‘I think I need to have a nap,’ I said eventually. ‘I didn’t sleep much last night. But I’ll see you tomorrow evening for the play?’

‘Oh, yes,’ she grinned. ‘Yes, you certainly will.’

TBC…

NATD Chapter 5, Part 1

‘It’s not looking good.’

My tutor’s chair creaked as his unshapely body sat back in it to study my essay marks. A bird chirped tauntingly outside and I thought, ‘At least you don’t have to deal with this.’

Hendrik DeSleep had called me into his office on a matter of ‘grave urgency’, as his email had put it. He had been my tutor for two years now, but this was only the second time I’d met him. Every time he’d asked to meet, I found some excuse to get away. This time it was unavoidable. I wanted nothing to do with him; I wanted nothing to do with adults. He was everything I hated.

He was a fat, balding, boring South African who seemed to barely even be interested in his own topic field of post-colonial literature, nevermind anything else. In the days when I’d actually gone to lectures, he’d once given a talk introducing post-colonial studies that was so dull half the audience fell asleep. He didn’t seem to want to know his tutees, and I’d make a fair bet that none of them wanted to know him either.

He reclined now in his cheap office chair, beneath a front-cover poster of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’.

After a fat, indulgent minute, he spoke again.

‘Your marks have been slipping rather dramatically, mister Gunn,’ he wheezed. ‘I’m rather surprised. You did very well at the start of your first year, but, as your marks show, you nearly failed your second year and you’ve failed both your essays so far this term. This isn’t good.’ He looked at me as he said this last sentence as if I had thought that perhaps it was good. Then he rubbed his forehead tiredly, and, with all the air of someone who wishes they were somewhere else, asked, ‘What’s – what’s going on?’

‘I’m struggling,’ I replied.

‘Yes, I can see that. But why?’

‘I don’t know. I’m not feeling well.’

‘Not feeling well? Do you mean mentally or physically?’

‘Both.’

DeSleep didn’t look at me, but instead moved to his computer screen and opened up some university intranet page.

‘If you’re not feeling well, you need to go to the health services. Or look after yourself better. Have you been to the doctor?’

A pang of fury exploded within me.

‘No.’

Do you know what it’s like to be afraid of life? I wanted to say. Do you know what it’s like to fear death like I do? Do you know what it’s like to have no future?

‘Well, then you must. Do that straightaway. But, as it stands, you’re in very serious danger of failing both of this term’s units, and therefore the year. You know what that means, don’t you, mister Gunn?’

I glared at him, but he just continued to stare at his computer, filling out what looked like a feedback form of some kind.

‘It means you’ll either have to re-take the year, or you’ll fail your degree. And you don’t want that do you?’

Perhaps I do, I thought.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Perhaps not.’

‘Go to the doctor’s. Are you talking to your parents?’

I laughed, much longer and harder than seemed appropriate.

‘No!’

DeSleep looked at me now.

‘Go to the doctor’s, Mr Gunn. And make sure you focus on your next two essays. I’ll be in touch soon.’

‘Thank you.’

I stood up to leave, and glanced once again at the ‘Things Fall Apart’ poster. Then, as the door was closing behind me, I heard DeSleep yawn.

*

I thought briefly about calling my mother, and I got up her number on my phone, my thumb hovering over the green button and wondering whether to press it. Then I locked the screen and put it away.

It was nine-thirty on the Monday following Friday’s confused ecstasy, and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I was rarely up this early, but I hadn’t been able to sleep and so had decided to turn up to DeSleep’s meeting anyway. I could go to the library, I thought – or I could go home and smoke a joint. But Elliot could be in either of those places, so in the end I decided to take a walk instead.

As I walked past the pleasant, grey-stone Victorian houses of Redland, I reflected for the umpteenth time on the events of the weekend. A strange, depressed tension had invaded the house after Friday night. I’d slept with Margot, but was uncertain as to whether Elliot, Harriet, Ciara or even Margot herself were aware of it. My sense of time and space had been confused, but my understanding was that Margot and I had gone home earlier than the others, and she’d left before they’d returned. I don’t know if they saw us leave, but they certainly knew we were gone. Margot was high, and I was quite sure I’d fed her something, probably valium but perhaps something else as well. Elliot spent the following two days at Margot’s, and in the short spaces when we did see each other he ignored me with a conscious, malignant calculation. I didn’t know what she’d said, and I didn’t know what Elliot knew. In a depressive spin from the drugs and the circumstances, I’d decided to try and stay away from them all as much as possible. I felt horribly, horribly guilty, and my anxiety was making it hard to think. The Bad Place was plotting something bad.

I walked up Tyndall’s Park Road, sparing a glance at the student health services and momentarily wondering if I should go in. Then I turned away into Cotham, and walked up hill and down hill til I was in the dingy, graffitied alleys of Stokes Croft.

DeSleep’s talk had frightened me; not just because of the potential failure of my degree, but because of the inevitable failure of life. Reality is absurd, confusing and brutal. I needed something to tell me it was otherwise, but all I saw on my lonely journey was evil.

Through Cotham you can see the pretty townhouses reserved for the rich and beautiful, but secretly unhappy and emotionally deprived; through Stokes Croft you can see the homeless decaying in their droves, making no secret of their deprivation. Two drunkards were shouting and screaming at each other on the Cheltenham Road, only they weren’t drunk as much as they were high on something. Perhaps it was heroin, perhaps it was acid. Perhaps both, and more. Rich, ‘respectable’ people passed invisibly by as one of them, a woman with enormous dreadlocks and missing teeth, shrieked something inexplicable at the other and threw an empty glass bottle at him. On the other side of the road, an old Afro-Caribbean man was smoking a joint without the slightest care in the world. That’s how people survived, I supposed: they stop caring.

But I couldn’t stop caring. As I entered the streets of St. Paul’s, I glanced through every window and wondered what discord occurred behind each one every day. How many marriages had fallen apart here? How many children had starved? How many teenagers had committed suicide? How many tears had been shed – and when did they stop being shed, and why?

On Bond Street was the Cabot Circus shopping centre. Hovering over the fast, grey traffic was an enormous advert for a fashion chain featuring two models, a boy and a girl, posing together with a precise, mathematical beauty. Their smiling faces suggested both desire and satisfaction all at once.

I wandered inside, and absent-mindedly bought a new pair of trainers. I don’t know why; I didn’t need them. But they satisfied something quiet and ephemeral within me, just as the pair I now threw away had done when I first bought them. They cost eighty pounds.

The streets began to feel strange, and I began to feel more and more distant. The faces I passed were harsh, dissatisfied and angry. Vast, concrete office blocks reminded us all that there were illimitable heights we were not invited into. A woman sat alone on a bench in Castle Park looking sleepless, watching her daughter play with a mobile phone. Although the autumn was beautiful, winter was inevitable.

The world felt huge, infinite and terrifying. I reached the river and stared at the water, and didn’t understand what the water was; then I looked at my hand, and I didn’t understand what my hand was. I felt sick; I felt the Bad Place.

What’s the point of living when we are all going to die anyway? Why stay alive when everyone I know will die, and the Earth will die, and the universe will die? Why persist when reality is so cruel? 

Death underscores everything. I felt it now, my dear human, this terrible thing: the original fear, the first, primal terror of being alive.

But then my phone rang, and when I looked I found it was my mother. I didn’t answer. Instead, I took off my new shoes and threw them in the river.

Then I walked home in my socks.

*

Sometime around twelve I arrived at the library because I didn’t know what the hell else to do. The thought had briefly run through my mind that perhaps I should try and write a good essay and save my degree, but as I approached the sliding doors of the gross, brutalist building that passed for a centre of learning I was no longer so sure. In fact, I was about to turn around and go home when a voice ripped through the fog of my loneliness.

‘Charlie?’

I expected for some reason to see Harriet, but I found it instead to be someone I thought was familiar.

‘Do you remember me?’ said a girl. She was standing on the steps up to the library, a cadent ray of midday light catching the side of her face.

‘Didn’t we meet…’

‘We met on Friday at Drogue,’ she said decisively, with a little smile. ‘My name’s Lola.’

Lola, Lola… The name came back to me, but my head had been so far removed from normality that it was hard to formulate these things.

‘Lola… Yes! Of course, you’re Harriet’s friend. Aren’t you?’

‘Yeah, that’s right. I do Philosophy with her. Sorry if you didn’t realise who I am – I’ve got a real habit of scaring people with my memory. I think memory is one of the most terrifying things, don’t you think?’

‘I suppose so,’ I agreed with hesitant surprise. ‘But then isn’t terror just one subjective interpretation of the condition of being?’

‘Yes, if you think existence is up for interpretation. At any rate, we only think we exist because of our memory most of the time. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t know much. Things would be an awful lot nicer.’

We paused as the rustle of a rising breeze passed by us together with a group of girls talking loudly about their weekends.

‘What are you doing now?’ she decided to ask me. Then before I could answer she said: ‘Coffee?’

‘Coffee? Certainly – yes, I could have coffee. Coffee,’ I added, perplexed by the concept.

Lola smiled delightedly. ‘Alright, let’s go. The library can wait.’

*

We found a little café on St. Michael’s Hill, from which we could see the enslaved students locked at their desks through little windows in the side of the library. Lola was ahead of me at all times and practically ordered me a drink without asking what I wanted.

‘So,’ she said, once we were settled in the far corner where fewer people could hear us. It felt a little conspiratorial. ‘Tell me about yourself.’

‘Well. I’m not really sure where to begin. I’m always a little baffled by the mystery of myself, to be quite honest.’

I thought, or thought I heard, a tiny note of fascination in her throat, before she burst out laughing.

‘Amazing! “The mystery of myself”… We all are. But now, seriously,’ she said, huddling over her cup. ‘I don’t know you. You’re fascinating aren’t you?’

Utterly baffled, I took a careful, considered sip of my coffee – extra strong at my request. She was watching me with large, saucy eyes.

‘I don’t know that I am. I mean, yes, I am. Of course I am. I’m very intelligent, actually. And I used to think I’d be famous.’

‘Famous doing what?’

‘I don’t know… I just assumed something would come along that would guarantee it. Acting or modelling or something. You kind of do when you’re sixteen, don’t you?’

‘Don’t you still?’

‘Well…’

‘I know you do. Everyone does. I do. Did you know that two-thirds of the country’s children say their only aim in life is to be rich?’

‘Really? I didn’t know that.’

‘They’d probably say the same thing about fame. Did you know that half of all schoolchildren are depressed?’

‘I can’t say I’m surprised… But where are you reading this? I can’t tell if you’re being genuine or if you’ve been reading the Daily Mail.’

‘It doesn’t matter. Why are they depressed?’

‘I thought life is depression.’

‘Perhaps it is.’ She flicked her eyes into her coffee and then back at me. ‘What are your family like?’

‘I don’t really have much of one. I grew up with my mother, and that was about it. She has an aunt but I’ve only met her once or twice.’

‘And your father?’

‘Left when I was five.’

‘Do you talk to him?’

‘No. I don’t know where he is.’

I felt for the first time in years something strange and uncomfortable forming with in me, some offshoot of the Bad Place that had lain dormant waiting for its moment to be nudged awake. This girl confused me. In the few minutes we had been sitting together she had interrogated me thoroughly, and yet somehow kept the inexplicable sense of having kept one eye on what was happening in the rest of the room. She’d constantly be glancing around, and yet give you the sense that she was only focussed on you. She seemed both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, just like how I felt about myself, only fantastically, extraordinarily female. And yet…

‘You don’t know where your father is?’ she said with nothing more than a cocked eyebrow. ‘You mean he just – disappeared?’

‘Yes. Exactly that. I don’t know where he is.’

‘And you’ve never tried to contact him?’

‘No… It was a sort of unspoken rule between me and my mum. He ran off with another woman and she wouldn’t hear another word about him.’

‘That’s tragic. Do you think he got bored of being old?’

‘That’s what I always think… That’s one of the things I’m most afraid of. Getting old.’

She stared into her cup.

‘Me too,’ she said.

‘All that happens is you die inside… You get a job you don’t like, you work hours that exhaust you, you earn money that keeps you alive, you have children who worry you and you have a marriage that falls apart… Either that or you stay alone. And I don’t know if I like either option.’

‘And then you die,’ she said. ‘And then you die.’

We paused and let this unfortunate fact flitter about the table.

‘Are you scared of dying?’ I asked.

‘Are you?’

‘Lola!’ came a voice, which this time did indeed belong to Harriet. ‘And Charlie,’ she said with some surprise. ‘How funny, I didn’t think you two knew each other that well.’

‘We don’t,’ I said as Lola and I exchanged glances. ‘We just met outside the library.’

‘How funny,’ she repeated. Then to me: ‘I wasn’t sure you’d remember meeting Lola after… Well, on Friday.’ She was evidently indicating the hefty dose of drugs I had taken.

‘Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,’ interjected Lola. ‘I was on plenty of things too. I’m surprised I even lived to see the sun come up.’

‘Christ, guys. You should slow down.’

‘I’ll slow down when I die,’ I thought to myself.

‘What are up you to?’ said Lola, sporting that high, energetic grin.

‘Actually, Robbie and I’ – she indicated someone called Robbie with a wave of her hand towards the café counter – ‘were just talking about getting tickets to see a student show tomorrow night. It’s A View From The Bridge. Maybe you’d like to come?’

‘Yes!’ trilled Lola with a spike of loveliness. ‘That sounds great! What do you think, Charlie?’

I looked from one face to other, examining their femininity in what felt like a new-found but still uncomfortable clarity.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Why not?’

TBC…

NATD Chapter 4, Part 2

Minutes passed, and the tension waxed and waned as the substances crawled into our veins and the music flowed and crescendoed like a fast tide. Before I knew it everyone was seething drunk, and the cocaine rush was lifting me up off the floor and away from my thoughts about Nietzsche and the chaos inside me.

Elliot hulked about the room restlessly, occasionally moving to the speakers to change the music and sitting to take more coke. The room was revolving around the drugs, which made me think I would take mine soon. But just as I was about to go upstairs to fetch them, the opportunity to sit next to Margot arrived like the morning sun on my horizon. Elliot was deep in a furious conversation about rugby or something similarly insignificant – she was defenceless, alone, a sure target for the wonderful, the unstoppable Charlie Gunn!

‘Margot,’ I said, taking a seat next to her on the sofa. She turned to me with a jerk, her great, grey eyes gazing at my beautiful face. Her inebriation crawled about her skin, her deep, dilated pupils peering out of a gale of wildness in the mind. ‘How’s it going?’

‘Charlie-e,’ she crooned breathlessly. ‘Charlie Gunn. You have quite the reputation, don’t you, Charlie Gunn?’

‘Well, I suppose I do,’ I laughed innocently. ‘You’re referring, I assume, to my reputation with the women?’

‘Yes. Yes, the women.’

‘Well, what can I say. It just happens sometimes.’

She continued to stare at me with either fascination or fear.

‘You’re very good looking,’ she said.

‘How awfully kind of you to say so. You know, you’re a terribly beautiful woman yourself –‘

‘No, no, I don’t believe it,’ she said, shaking her head madly. ‘I don’t believe it for a second.’

‘You are, you know. I mean it.’ I looked deep into her wide, uncertain eyes. ‘I don’t understand why you choose to stay with Elliot. After all this time. After everything he’s done to you…’

I let these words hang off the edge of my lips like a delicious flavour I hoped the girl would bite. Margot dripped her watery eyes across the room at Elliot, who was bellowing incomprehensible things with the lads and laughing like there was nothing better in the world. She lingered on his face for a moment.

‘I don’t know…’ She looked desperately from Elliot to me. ‘He doesn’t mean to be bad. I don’t think he half-understands his own strength.’

‘But he mistreats you and maligns you so much, and he cheats on you, Margot. Haven’t you had enough?’

The poor girl’s inner conscience was stirring in her brain for the first time in years.

‘Yes, he does… But… But…’

‘Think about it.’

I gave her another profound, elemental stare, the kind that was meant to communicate something incommunicable with words. She gazed back at me, and I could see her confidence was shaken.

‘Ten-thirty!’ suddenly came a roar from Sam, leaping off the sofa and nearly knocking an unsteady Harriet off her feet. ‘Someone order a cab!’

In a fuzz of cigarette smoke, Elliot insisted on ordering the cab – using Uber, which I believe he rather praised as a business model – and within ten minutes we were in a large people carrier, racing through the laughing, amber streets towards Drogue. Margot and Elliot sat together, while I was squashed between Pete’s muscular frame and the door. I’d filled a plastic bottle with vodka and blackcurrant juice before I left, and was thanking the warm imperviousness it gave me for allowing me to tolerate these people. I was counting the musical beats until even stronger substances would hit me and I would be taken away from this mortal consciousness and touch the divine for at least the transcendent hours of a Friday night.

The queue for Drogue was waving like a fat snake when we arrived. From within the enormous warehouse-turned-nightclub came the thumping of music hammering against the walls, shaking violently through every surface like a demonic drum beating from the devil’s handshake. We entered the scramble at the back, to the sounds of the weekend revellers buzzing with alcoholic excitement.

‘Look, it’s Lucy Redhouse!’ cried Harriet, pointing over the railing to a girl across the street.

‘No it isn’t, that’s a girl from my yoga class,’ yawned Ciara.

‘I like her leggings.’

‘My mate Bence used to get with Lucy Redhouse,’ smirked Pete.

‘She’s beautiful,’ sighed Margot wistfully.

‘Elliot!’ cried Sam. When Elliot turned to him, Felix gestured with his eyes to the girl, staring obliviously at her phone, and Elliot stuck his tongue out like a Maori warrior. This gave cause for a fresh round of laughter.

I checked my wallet to see if my customary valium was hidden inside, and was relieved to see that they were. Six of them, to be precise. I had to keep them there in case the Bad Place came and panic descended, at which point they became my only hope of survival. Tonight, though, it seemed as if I’d only need them to forget whose company I was in.

The queue shoved forward violently. There was shouting from ahead, and as we looked up a person of manful youth erupted from the bulge along with a flying accomplice who landed him several punches before our watching eyes. ‘Stop him!’ cried a girl, and the crowd began shouting alternate cries of ‘Stop!’ and ‘Fight!’

‘Plebs,’ spat Elliot, grinning wildly with pleasure.

‘I can’t decide if I want them to stop or fight,’ sighed Ciara with a contemplative stroke of her chin, as if she was clever.

Two enormous bouncers exploded out of nowhere and dragged the lads apart. One of them gave in immediately, but the other tried to fight on and the bouncer proceeded to beat whatever daylights were still living in him out of existence.

We all watched in fascination, simultaneously repelled and respectful of the masculinity on display.

Elliot then turned to me and said, ‘That’s what you’ll get if you ever pick a fight with me, Gunn!’

The lads all laughed and the girls tittered, apart from Harriet who turned to me with what I almost thought was concern.

‘You alright, Charlie?’ she asked.

‘Oh, just simply splendid, terrific, on top of the world,’ I replied, and immediately made to take my drugs. A pill of MDMA and forty milligrams of 2C-B, my dear human! What a transplendent path I would be fox-trotting down on this heavenly coil tonight! I gulped them down with the last of my vodka and fruit juice as if I were swigging from the pap of the universe itself.

Harriet raised a smile to tell me she was on my side, but I had eyes only for Margot. As the queue moved forward, I did my best to stay next to her where we could talk, letting Harriet stand behind us. Elliot was two steps ahead.

‘WA-HEY!’ one of the boys cried for some reason, and the others cried a territorial ‘WA-HEY!’ back, along with a few scattered profanities. I gritted my teeth and wished to god I didn’t have to be with these imbeciles. Just thirty minutes and I’d be free of caring – just thirty minutes…

‘We all got our materials, boys?’ Pete cut in, and the lads all nodded sagely, their faces suddenly sincere and secretive. With furtive glances about them, they each withdrew their drug of choice – small, innocent-looking white pills of MDMA – and slipped them down their throats in quiet, swift movements. A great, hulking bouncer thudded past at almost precisely that moment, but the pills were already gone.

Invigorated by the alcohol and realising we were near the front of the queue, I took advantage of the lad’s momentarily turned backs to hop in front of them like a genius. (Perhaps I was having a delayed reaction to the coke? I felt MAGNIFICENT!!!). ‘Evening,’ I saluted to the young girls in front of us, who barely had a chance to curtsey before I was at the foot of the bouncer.

‘ID,’ the brute grunted monosyllabically. ‘He could do with some elocution lessons,’ I quipped to myself and produced my provisional driver’s licence. I eyed his duncey little features as he struggled to read the card – the poor dear was probably illiterate. ‘Do you have anything on you you shouldn’t have?’ he asked.

‘Only my devastating genius,’ I replied.

The bouncer stared at me with a look of the most intense fury I had seen for some time. For a moment I thought he was going to raise his fist.

‘Get the fuck inside before I kick you out,’ he eventually said, and I sauntered past him like a dandy on a summer stroll.

I looked back to see that Margot was the one immediately behind me, and after we were both through the bouncer’s checks I locked arms with her and entered the building. She seemed surprised by this but did not resist – and Elliot couldn’t see us for the unsightly size of the bouncers blocking his view.

Immediately after walking through the doors the night outside seemed to be sucked in with us. Opened up before us was the huge main dancefloor, a newly dark world where figures flashed between internecine lights and the frenzied, repeated rumbling of noise pulsated around a vivid humidity and sublime wailing of souls in the rumbling black. The lads caught up with us – whereupon I released Margot – and greeted the heat with faces that told everyone they were in their element.

‘Party ti-ime!’ cheered Sam, and the others all joined in with another chorus of laughter and imbecility.

It was generally agreed that we would all go to the bar and buy some drinks. I was fascinated and delighted to see that Elliot seemed not to be keeping such close proximity to Margot, so I tried as hard as I could to stay by her side, engaging her in conversation with whatever my mind threw up. I bought her a drink at the bar, as a gentleman does – a double vodka coke and a beer for yours truly – and then headed out to the smoking area.

Drogue was an enormous, three-floored, multi-roomed ex-warehouse that had been re-appropriated as a place for the young people of this world to forget their earthly boundaries and ascend to heights inaccessible to the sober. The lights grow darker and the music grows louder as you enter the melee, a vat of lost souls spinning in beautiful tumult on whatever substances they had chosen to escape the world with; the chaotic, gorgeous madness of the young trying to squeeze the life from their youth.

We all took a seat in the large, canvassed smoking area, where I desperately dug into my pouch of tobacco and rolled myself a cigarette. Margot sat beside me, and I had to withhold my delight at this subtle but suggestive movement. Elliot, quiet for the moment, glanced at us, then looked away.

As the conversation rolled between the rest of them, I cast wandering eyes about the rest of the smoking area. My view sauntered idly over the loose souls. The canvas over the smoking area looked almost phosphorescent, as if it was absorbing all the brightness of the youth that was leaking away; all sorts of waving sounds could be heard: the juttering lilt of a phone playing indiscernible music; the rubbery squeal of two girls singing along to it; and the booming cry for attention of boys being loud and unprovoked, looking hopefully but in vain at the faces of every girl that passed them; the indefinite mingling of laughter and crying. Somewhere to my right a boy pleaded hopelessly with a girl who had used to be his girlfriend, but now was not. Packs of tobacco and the occasional bag of marijuana lay on the garrulous tables. Two boys with big muscles and tight, floral shirts hugged ironically to the delight of their friends. On a stool by the wall, a girl, sitting by herself, her head down, vomited violently, swayed and fell over, lying like a damp fawn without friends or family to look after her. No one noticed. For a moment I caught her eyes, which flickered for a bizarre second before they finally cut out; then I looked away, because she was not my responsibility.

Harriet, who was tentatively dragging on a cigarette, seemed about to open conversation with me when she was cut off by a bellowing cry.

‘Siddy!’ shouted Felix. A boy turned around and bellowed a similarly loud, needy response, and the two lads hugged. ‘How’s it going, mate?’

‘Good man! Yeah, really good!’ replied Siddy. The other lads welcomed him with similar noises. ‘Harriet!’ he said, his grin as dilated as his pupils and his jaw as extended as his handshake. ‘How’s it going, Harriet! Haven’t seen you in ages!’

‘Yeah, good thanks,’ replied Harriet, taking his hand with a clear degree of apprehension and forcing her best look of joy. ‘Great to see you!’

‘Yeah, yeah, great to see you too!’ the boy said ecstatically before turning to me.

‘Charlie,’ I said, pre-empting his ecstatically charged greeting. ‘Charlie Gunn.’

‘Charlie Gunn, great to meet you too, mate. How do you know this lot?’

‘I live with Harriet and Elliot-‘

‘Nice! Nice! Awesome man, awesome! You boys on anything tonight?’

‘Mandy, mate,’ replied Elliot solemnly.

‘Ah man, sick! What did you take?’

‘What were the pills called, Sam?’

‘Dominoes,’ said Sam. ‘Apparently they’re a blast.’

‘Oh man!’ cried Siddy. ‘You boys are gonna have one hell of a night! Did you take them in halves?’

‘Nah, wholes.’

‘Mate! You know how strong they are, right? You boys are gonna have one hell of a night!’

‘Yeah, buddy!’ laughed Pete, and all the lads cheered. Margot, Di and Sarah, who had also taken the pills, looked at one another with a flash of anxiety. I too felt the drop of my stomach as my mind ran through all the possibilities of what might happen when the drugs hit. What if there was something bad in them? What if I’d overdosed? What if they made me psychotic?

I gulped down the beer in an effort to distract my wild thoughts from the future.

As it happened, everything worked out rather dip-diddily-aciously. Somewhere around thirty minutes later, I found myself in mid-conversation with Margot, her and Elliot seeming to have tacitly fallen out for the night, and we were discussing the pros and cons of doc martens footwear when all of a sudden my world inverted rather violently.

First I sensed a bulging warmth in my stomach and a tingling about the soles of my feet. Then, as I watched Margot’s face begin to fall back into a distant, greyish haze, I sensed a slow, rising seep of lightness in my head; then, within moments, it became an avalanche. It rushed throughout my face and down through my body and nauseated stomach and down my right leg and back up and down my left leg and back up and into my sick stomach and into my heart which started pounding like a bull smashing open the barn door and a million splendid suns imploding into hell and the pupils of my eyes swelling like the openings of black holes in the immersive eternity of space and the explosive combustion of nerve cells wingle-wangling inside out and setting my skin alight with their beauty, their energy, their sheer, all-inclusive, death-exclusive, madness-infuriating intangible gorgeousness and sickness and all at once, all the time everywhere, I was falling, I was going, I was GOINGIGNIGNIGNRIGNNVCWQIEURWKMSDV S;ADRIWKWEKD,M

‘If you’ll excuse me for just a moment,’ I politely said to Margot, and promptly crossed the smoking area, where I vomited in the corner.

The world vanished; then, one by one, in a sweep of breathless illness, my senses came back to me. First was the vague musical thumping in the background; then the hanging chatter of the smoking area; then the sound of laughter.

‘Looks like Gunn can’t handle it!’

My breath caught up with me, and I staggered back to the group in a whirl of madness.

‘I’m alright,’ I spewed breathlessly. ‘Just the – just the drugs.’

‘Are you alright?’ said Margot, looking genuinely worried.

‘Splendid, thank you.’ I looked about me and became concerned about the movement of the ceiling.

‘Are you sure you’re alright, Charlie?’ said Harriet. ‘Seriously, you haven’t taken anything bad have you?’

‘No, I promise it happens sometimes.’

‘It’s just the come up, happens all the time to some people,’ said Siddy with a wild grin on his face. Elliot, Pete and Sam looked at me with some consternation, until Elliot suddenly snapped to attention.

‘Speaking of coming up, think I’m feeling it now,’ he said all of a sudden, staring rather intensely at the opposite wall.

‘Me too, fella,’ said Pete.

‘Quick selfie, lads?’ said Felix, who had produced his phone and was already in the process of taking a blurred photo of the group.

‘Right, dancefloor?’ said Elliot, dropping his half-smoked cigarette and stamping it out.

‘Dancefloor!’ cried Pete with a clap of his hands. ‘Dancefloor, dancefloor, dancefloor!’ chanted the lads, and the girls giggled as they moved out of the smoking area.

‘Let’s head in!’ I said in a swirl to Margot, though it was probably aimed at no one in particular. The drugs were hitting heavy and hard, and I was entering the zone of the unimaginable and titty-wib-wabbling about of psychedelic walking. I trotted laughing beside Margot, bumping shoulders and brushing hands with her, and she didn’t seem to make any attempts to make it stop. Elliot, in his own brain, seemed utterly oblivious.

We all ambled back inside, and the music and the manicness caught me as I was falling and brought me back to an understanding of what was happening.

And on the dancefloor, the drugs began to carry me away…

The crowd pulsed and rejoiced, and I started seeing in sound. Every movement was a sound, every sound was a movement; the world had become such a pleasant place to be, all synchronised to music and pulsing in and out of my bloodstream, bleeding like flowers into the blue darkness. With every twist of my arm or raise of my leg the swell of sudden ripples would clear out over the crowd, who were also moving inside and outside the music, thumping and waving as one ecstatic, weatherworn mass. More than ever, I felt the plunging blueness of ecstasy, that fed into my limbs and into my heart, that caught me as I tried to run away and brought me sailing sky high like a flock of birds, all dizzying and patterning in their flight. Everything was so plungingly beautiful. I looked at Margot, her face lighting up with the push of the ecstasy, and – oh! – dear Margot looked so gorgeous, so emphatically, non-undeniably beautiful and stunning and striking. I could not believe the way she looked! Her hair hung down as if it was damp, sliding down her sliding form. How did she get her hair to look like that? And in her top, like a swimming costume, her chest looked as if it were bronzed and varnished… This was a love that I was feeling, the most intense, painful kind of love a boy can possibly feel for a girl that was instigated by a fancy and that MDMA had driven to an inferno, I was certain of it, what else could it be if I couldn’t understand anything else at that moment? What does one do when one fancies a female? What hell to unloose? Kiss her then… Kiss her!

Just as I was running these wild thoughts through my unbridled mind, the dark cloud of Elliot descended upon us. He started dancing with Margot, riding up beside her, but she seemed almost to reject his advances, if not quite so obviously. He moved his hands onto her distant body, but she kept hers to herself and looked away from him.

Suddenly a hand landed on my shoulder. It was Sam, who bellowed in my ear: ‘How you feeling mate? You good?’

‘Yeah!’ I shouted back, though I have to admit I was having trouble understanding sentences. ‘Great, man!’

‘Awesome, mate! Ah, I love this! I love it so much!’

Things were becoming both more and less vivid, and as I stared about the space at all the beautiful youth surrounding and enclosing me, I swore I could see the music moving between them, rippling like opalescent waves through their removed, statuesque faces. The lights were dipping around and the movement was an involvement of all my heart-

The DJ said something incomprehensible over the speakers, and the crowd cheered, although no one knew what he said, and no one cared. I definitely didn’t care – because I was there! I was at my peak! I was away from it all, up in the sky, high in the heavens where I could peer down at this earthly realm and condemn it for all its faults, its lives and its deaths, its ecstasies and its sufferings, and all the things that humans do to escape its repulsive, revolting reality. I was God – I was the Creator – and I condemned all of this.

The walls were crashing in as the euphoria rushed up within me, and as I stared at the lights dancing about the darkness I remembered that abortive fury I felt for time and it’s refusal to let things be permanent – because I wanted this moment to last forever! – but right then, with the chemicals swimming through every pore of my soul, it was okay. I was too high to care for reality; I was above and beyond it, and I had a girl casting down into my inward clutches.

After so much dancing, and with the drugs in full effect, Margot, Di and Sarah made for the smoking area, and the rest of us followed like the lemmings we were. Harriet followed gingerly beside, evidently downcast from the sense she was not on the same level as us.

As I jitterbugged through the crowd, my consciousness pulsed and for a moment I thought I could see a face in everything; I stared at a wall and was certain I was looking at the silhouette of someone, though I couldn’t say who. For a moment I was scared – then the euphoria returned and I chased the outlines of the humans I was with for the night.

In the smoking area we gathered to roll our cigarettes, and that speedy and sensational conversation provided by the high began pelting between the others like raindrops in a thunderstorm.

‘I’m feeling like it’s party ti-ime!’ said Elliot with a cigarette filter in his mouth. ‘Par-ty time, par-ty time!’ chanted Pete, Sam and Felix in hysterics.

I was staring at the stars, though. They weren’t the quiet, introverted things they had been earlier in the evening; now they were wide and laughing, bellowing a fitful of raucous laughter from their seat in heaven and trying to spell something out for me. I could see them do it: almost like hieroglyphics, the stars were spelling something out in the sky, a message for me to read, something drastically, profoundly important… What did it say!? I needed to know! I needed to know more than anything ever before! I stared and stared at them as they continued to laugh and draw out their eternal message, until one of them said: ‘Do you understand yet?’

‘How are you, Charlie?’ said Margot. I snapped back to her face, remembering I was a part of another reality. Di and Sarah had broken into conversation with two boys they obviously didn’t know, and I watched them talk as I tried to make sense of what Margot had said.

‘I’m fan-dibbly-tastic,’ I finally replied, trying to remember how to roll a cigarette. ‘Just staying open to new experiences, you know, I’ve taken mandy and 2C-B tonight so, you know, just keeping myself on top of things, trying out what works well, you know what I mean.’

‘You’ve taken 2C-B as well?’ she said with some surprise.

But at that moment a scream broke from somewhere nearby, and we turned to see a girl spread out on the ground, her face white and stressed, hyperventilating crazily. Her friends gathered around her and were talking to her in fast, frightened voices. I overheard the words ‘panic attack’ repeated.

‘Someone can’t handle their drugs,’ remarked Elliot. He turned back to the lads.

‘I hope she’s okay,’ said Harriet, breaking her silence. ‘Panic attacks are horrible…’

But then she caught sight of someone and her face lit up. I was trying to keep conversation up with Margot, but a symphony of greetings interrupted us.

And the stars said: ‘Do you understand yet?’

‘Lola!’

I was spinning about like a helter skelter when my eyes met this girl. Harriet was hugging her, the girl was hugging her back – for an instant, there was something intensely erotic about it – and then the girl was looking at me.

‘Guys, this is Lola,’ said Harriet. ‘She’s a mate from my course.’

But Lola didn’t say anything. She was staring at me. And I was staring at her. I couldn’t understand.

‘Lovely to meet you, Lola!’ said someone.

I forgot where I was. A wave of something dark blue and endless erupted up through me, and I got lost in a bilious swirl. But then I came back, and Margot was talking, and this girl was still staring at me. She was staring at me in an open-mouthed, fantastical way, as if she had just seen the sheer and absolute meaning in her life.

As the wave subsided, I could make out her face enough to see that she was as high, high, high as anything – and when you’re as high, high, high as anything, the sight of Charlie Gunn’s face to a young girl could seem like the sheer and absolute meaning of life.

‘Hi,’ she said, and I suspected it was addressed to me. I felt the urgent need to leave – to run away, to get outside, to escape and dance the night away in the bucolic streets and descant lamplight til dawn…

Then I felt appallingly attracted to this girl. Then I felt sick. Then I stopped looking at her, and looked manically at Margot. Distress fell upon me.

‘Excuse me for a moment,’ I said, and as the girl Lola continued to stare at and unsettle me, I withdrew into the men’s toilets, where I took out my six valium and ground them into a powder in their plastic baggy.

Then I reappeared in the smoking area, and, too washed into the time warp in my head, found Margot.

‘Shall we dance?’ I whispered to her. Elliot had disappeared with the lads to the other side of the smoking area.

Margot eyed me carefully, then looked to see where Elliot was. ‘Sure,’ she finally responded. As the girl Lola continued to stare at and unsettle me, I took Margot’s hand and led her inside.

I bought her another drink, and with dextrous skill – I need not tell you how – I poured the valium powder in without a soul detecting it, and as we entered the dancefloor she drank the whole thing.

No one saw us. No one needed to know. What more do I need to tell you, my dear human?

We were in a cab… Margot was feeling strange, very strange… I was opening the front door, and the walls were a-tippy-toeing and the floor was a-wavy-wangling … And Margot was in my bed…

She came easy at first – very easy, in fact – she was willing, compliant, lost. And the valium smoothed her out til she drove as smooth as fresh road. Then she hardened like marble, and I had to carve her out. But she flowered for me, my dear human – she was mine, all mine…

And then the dawn had come, and the stars were silent once more.

TBC…

NATD Chapter 4, Part 1

*

Let me guide you now, my dear human, to a very interesting point in the personal history of Charlie Gunn. To get to this point, we must skip forward two years, to the start of my third and final year at Bristol.

In my second year I lived in a house with a few fellow students on my corridor, a group of six boys. They were an excitable and vaguely interesting collection of selves, but as time went on I became increasingly consumed by my own thoughts and patterns, and eventually ended up trying to avoid them. Out of jealousy and pride, I hated that I couldn’t compete in their social games. They had reservations about me from the start, and I overheard one of them saying to another that he thought I might be engaging in some sort of illicit activity with the girls I so regularly brought back at night (illicit activity, I tell you!). They resented the way I spent every night in my room smoking joints and reading books and learning a damn sight more than they ever will. Distrustful accusations flavoured conversations about me, accusations to which I responded by sealing myself away.

Of course, I couldn’t explain to them about the Bad Place – how could I? It was too much to articulate. My regular visions of the destruction of the universe, of my personal horror at the nature of reality and my singing, cascading fear of death are not the sort of thing one conveys to people one does not trust. The terrible thing, of course, is that there was no one in the world I trusted; there was no one to share my pain with.

As such, there was no mutual understanding. When the time came for organising houses for third year, I found I was quietly and brutally dropped from their plans.

For a period of maybe six months, I didn’t know where I was going to live for third year. I had no close friends, and my housemates had made it implicitly clear that they couldn’t deal with my genius. I was operating on too high a plain for them, so they snubbed me and waited for the day when they wouldn’t have to live with me anymore. I remained stubborn and aloof in the face of this, but found that the loneliness became all the more intense and the Bad Place increasingly restive. My precarious position as a student hiding away from the ‘Real World’ of work, where frustrated souls spend their waking hours doing jobs they hate for something as useless as money, became an acutely painful reality. My essay grades started slipping, and the future edging closer and closer towards me became more terrifying with each passing moment.

It wasn’t until one day in the library that I bumped into Harriet, and, explaining my housing situation, she informed me that a space had opened up in her third year house.

‘It’s this guy, Jack,’ she told me over a watery cup of over-expensive coffee. ‘He’s had to drop out because of depression. It’s so sad – he doesn’t know if he’s going to come back. I swear I know a million people who’ve dropped out because of depression. I don’t get what’s going on, it’s a tragedy…’

‘How terrible for him,’ I said. ‘Do pass on my condolences.’

‘But it does mean we have a space in our house, so, I mean – if you don’t mind living with me – we do have space – if you want? I mean, just sounds as if you might need it. If it suits you.’

What position was I in to say no? I pretended to mull it over for a few seconds, then accepted the position as one would accept an invitation to a job that might rescue you from poverty – by pretending you are not in danger of poverty at all.

So in my third year, I moved in with an unlikely set of students in one of the grey Victorian terrace houses in Redland, just a stone’s throw away from the somnolent Lover’s Walk and mad ecstasies of Gloucester Road and Stokes Croft. There were four of us: me, Harriet, a dingy economics student called Ciara and a bellicose public schoolboy called Elliot.

Ciara, I ought to say, I got to know the least well of them. She was a stern worker, the inevitable ‘career woman’, the kind of person who translated life into a series of job applications, pay packets and working hours. She used to brood seriously over coursework and strong cups of coffee, and ignore you when you entered the room. It seemed as if the only times I heard her speak were when she complained about either an individual or her latest application for an internship in the City.

Elliot, on the other hand, was a loud presence. He was a law student and a rugby player, one of those beautiful but cruel individualists who knew how to twist the world as he wanted while always maintaining a smooth, studied set of manners. He was a curious collection of superficial affability and reckless misdemeanour. He would greet a newcomer with the correct handshake and polite set of questions about their day and cite the fact he lived with two girls as evidence he was in touch with his feminine side, but then complain bitterly about things that were not tailored to his otherwise overtly masculine tastes. He and his rugby mates were renowned for starting fights in clubs, and he had an infamous on-off relationship with a girl called Margot whom he regularly cheated on but who hadn’t the spine to say no to coming back to him.

I didn’t like him. And, perhaps since it was his friend Jack I’d replaced in the house, I’m quite sure he didn’t like me either. ‘Gunn,’ I overheard him spit loudly to one of his mates in the kitchen one night. ‘I don’t trust him. All he does is sit in his room and do drugs. Every day. He never talks to us. Doesn’t have a clue what he’s going to do next year. He’s not going to get employed by anyone. He’ll leach off the rest of us like the scrounger he is.’

But let me take you forward, now, to a night in the early October of 2015, when this story begins to take the shape I now see it was so destined to take. Let me tell you about Margot.

*

It was a Friday night, and the guests we had invited over for predrinks were just arriving as Harriet and I settled in the sparsely lit living room to drown our minds for another club night. I was breaking into the first of my twelve-pack of beers, ready to inebriate myself against the world and all its evils. I was feeling scared. I’d been reading Nietzsche that afternoon over a few joints, and had been shaken by his insistence that life is meaningless. ‘Nothing is worth doing,’ he seemed to say. ‘But we must do it anyway.’ Why?

Harriet was arranging her vodka and coke on the table like a flower display when Elliot and his rugby mate Pete exploded into the room like bulldogs. His girlfriend Margot followed limply behind, as did Ciara like a cloud of concrete.

‘Party ti-ime!’ bellowed Elliot with a bullish clap of his hands. One hand was carrying a plastic bag full of booze, and with the other he pointed at Harriet and me. ‘Harriet? Gunn? You know what that means? Party ti-ime!’ he repeated, as if we hadn’t understood the first time. ‘Where’s the music? Pete, put some tunes on will you? I didn’t realise we’d come to a funeral.’

‘Yeah, mate. Techno or house?’

‘House. No, techno. I want to forget about my degree for a bit. What’s up, Gunn?’ He glared down at me. ‘Ready for a big night?’

‘He always gets this way before a big night,’ said Margot before I had the chance to destroy him with a scything piece of genius. She was an empty, blonde plaything, the kind of weathervane a lad like Elliot could play like an instrument. ‘He’s such a show off.

‘Can’t blame me for being excited about a big night now can we?’ retorted Elliot.

‘Banging tunes coming right up,’ said Pete, plugging his phone into Elliot’s large, expensive set of speakers on the side table.

‘Do we have to listen to techno?’ said Ciara with a hollow slump on the sofa. ‘It’s all you ever play.’

‘He likes it,’ replied Margot. ‘And I like it.’

‘I like it, too,’ I said. I had heard plenty about Elliot and Margot’s tempestuous relationship, but I hadn’t met the girl properly before. I was immediately as incensed by her slim, asking figure as I was by the first needy gulps of alcohol.

‘Well, isn’t that a good thing then,’ she said approvingly, settling her eyes on me. I threw mine back at her. ‘And Harriet – it is Harriet isn’t it?’

‘Oh, yeah, yeah it is,’ said Harriet, apparently surprised by her inclusion in the conversation.

‘And do you like techno Harriet?’

‘I guess. I mean, yeah.’

‘Then that’s four of us who like techno. So we should listen to techno.’

‘Great maths. Did you do it for A-level?’ sneered Elliot. He was producing two large bottles of rum from his bag and practically slamming them on the table as a statement of intent.

‘Yes, actually, I did.’

‘I know. I was taking the piss.’

‘Party ti-ime!’ cried Pete, apparently oblivious to the rest of the room as he turned up the volume on the speakers. The floor began to vibrate spasmodically.

‘When are the others getting here?’ barked Elliot. ‘I want some bag.’

‘Bag’, my dear human, was the rugby team’s name for cocaine.

Harriet leaned over to me so she could be heard over the music. ‘Are you taking anything tonight, Charlie?’

‘Yeah.’

She continued to look at me, clearly expecting me to explain what it was I was planning to take.

‘Oh,’ she said after a moment, remembering to play her part correctly. ‘Cool. Mandy?’

‘Yeah. And 2C-B.’ It was a favourite combination of mine.

‘Cool. I think I’ll just stick with drinking.’

Margot had just poured herself a rum and coke and was lifting it to the ceiling. ‘Here’s to a good night, one and all!’

‘Here’s to getting fucked up!’ cried Elliot. ‘Yes, lad!’ cried Pete, hand-slapping one another and laughing hysterically.

‘So tasteless,’ complained Margot, projecting disappointment across the room. Then she looked at me. ‘Isn’t he tasteless?’

‘I’m in no position to comment,’ I said confidently, and realised I’d already finished my first beer.

Elliot looked like he was ready to come back with something when the doorbell rang and he muttered that he’d get it. Moments later the sound of cheering came from the front door, and in marched four more people, two boys in jeans and shirts and two girls in crop-tops and sequined shorts.

‘Party ti-ime!’ cried Pete again, and the two boys, burly, chiselled rugby-types, cried it back. Apparently it was some kind of in-joke. Margot and the girls hugged each other and exchanged practised, insincere compliments about each other’s beauty.

‘Pass the vodka, will you?’ Ciara said to Harriet, who obediently did so.

The girls established themselves as Sarah and Di – ‘short for Diana’ – and promptly seated themselves beside me in such a slow, proprietary manner that I wondered if they had been sent by an interior designer as decoration for the room.

‘Alright, mate,’ said one of the new guys, offering his hand out to me. ‘Sam.’

I glanced at Margot, who was looking my way again, and I resisted all the repulsion within me and shook the hand as lads are meant to. ‘Charlie. Gunn.’

‘Charlie Gunn. Nice to meet you, mate.’

The other boy, who introduced himself as Felix, then slapped a hand on Elliot’s shoulder. ‘Look what I’ve got!’ he squealed, and extracted two large bags of cocaine.

‘Party ti-ime!

‘If anyone wants some,’ Sam announced to the room, ‘it’s twenty-five pounds for a quarter gram. We don’t do the cheap stuff in this town.’

‘Margot?’ said Elliot, indicating where the lads were about to start cutting lines on the table.

‘Oh, I don’t know…’

‘Cheaps for you. Obviously.’

‘Oh, what a gentleman. Fine, then.’

I glanced at Harriet to see if she was reacting, but she was just drinking and staring at the ensemble of people before her. The two girls sat in expectant silence, awaiting their turn for attention. I wondered when I was going to take my drugs. I considered going up to my room to fetch a spliff, but Elliot started shouting at all of us.

‘Right! Let’s get some drinks in, let’s hit up a line. I’m ready – are you ready?’ he pointed accusingly at Sam.

‘I’m ready, are you ready?’ said Sam, pointing at Pete.

‘Oh, I’m ready – I am ready for party ti-ime!’

The music began to build as drinks were poured into waiting glasses. Felix and Elliot poured out a bit of the white powder on the table and started cutting up lines with a credit card.

‘Oh, I’m so looking forward to tonight,’ said Di to no one in particular, though she didn’t sound particularly enthused. Then she looked at me with bored, self-centred eyes, perhaps to at least feign some sort of interest in something. ‘Do you live here?’

‘Yes,’ I said, cracking into my third beer. I needed to be screaming drunk to deal with this. ‘My name’s Charlie, by the way. I like your top.’

‘Oh. Thank you.’ She offered a half-smile from her spoilt, careless mouth. ‘What do you study?’

‘English.’

‘A non-course,’ said Elliot, in time with a hefty snort of cocaine. He held one nostril closed and sniffed violently for a second with his head tipped back.

‘Elliot!’ Harriet snapped for a second, but then visibly held her tongue out of fear.

‘Do you study an unemployable course too?’ said Pete, and Ciara laughed.

‘Oh, don’t talk to me about employment,’ sighed Sarah woefully. ‘It makes me want to die.’

‘What do you study?’

‘Geography. I just want to get a 2:1. I’m spending nine-thousand-pounds a year and a bloody 2:1 is all I can hope for. I’ll be stacking shelves for the rest of my life.’

Elliot snorted a second line, then came and perched on the armrest by where I sat. He leaned in conspiratorially to me. ‘Shouldn’t have done a pointless degree, then!’ he hummed, then laughed loudly and slapped me on the shoulder. Largely from the fact I was halfway through my third beer, I was able to ignore this comment that was evidently aimed at me as much as it was all the damned souls across the globe whom Elliot deemed ‘unemployable’.

I turned back to Di, who was patiently watching Margot take her place before the cocaine.

‘So, Di,’ I said, leaning my arms languidly along the back of the sofa. ‘What do you study?’

‘Psychology.’

‘Oh, how marvellously interesting. Tell me, do you believe that the human psyche exists at all, when it’s impossible to prove that we even exist?’

Di looked at me as if I’d just said something inexpressibly violent.

‘What?’

‘I mean that our perception of reality is dependent on our understanding of ourselves, and, since we have no genuine way to prove that our sense responses exist and we might all just be living in a simulation, then how can one study the psychology of an individual?’

‘You mean, because we might not exist?’

‘Oh, yes. Nothing might exist at all. We might all just be trapped in a somnambulatory vacuum of solipsistic disconnection. Why, this conversation might not be happening at all.’

She stared at me wordlessly again

‘I find that scary.’

‘I know. So do I.’

‘You’re weird,’ she concluded. ‘Are you really clever?’

I laughed magnificently and splashed down the last of my beer.

‘Sorry if you find me weird, I’m just trapped in a spiral of despair about the nature of reality and the universe-‘

‘I need a holiday!’ came a sudden, cutting declaration from the centre of the room. We all looked up to see Margot standing on the table, her hands pressed to her hips like she was condescending to a naughty child. ‘Don’t you just feel like you need a holiday? I’ve only been back at university a month and I already feel like I need a holiday.’

‘Why don’t you do some work, then you’d actually deserve one!’ boomed Elliot, and he and the lads rolled with laughter. Margot glared at him from her spot on the table.

‘I work very hard, thank you. I’m going to get a first.’

‘Can you get some more mixer from the fridge?’ said Pete to Harriet. ‘Oh, sure,’ said Harriet. She obediently got up and left.

‘At least you might get a first,’ moaned Sarah. ‘I don’t have a chance. I’m not going to have any money… Oh God, the future!’ she wailed finally, and took a large swig from her vodka coke.

Perturbed by this and keen to become insensitive to everything, I pulled my wallet out of my jeans and held it aloft like a treasure.

‘Mind if I buy into the bag?’

‘Sure, mate,’ said Felix, rubbing his nostril opposite me. ‘Twenty-five pounds.’

‘With pleasure.’ I flung the notes out and moved to the other sofa to receive my share.

‘Why doesn’t anyone get me?’ Margot tantrummed from her majestic perch. ‘All I get is people like him’ – she pointed at Elliot – ‘people like him saying I don’t do enough. I feel like I’m always pushing myself so hard, and I never get any reward for it. It’s so – unfair!’

Elliot plunged his face into his hands dramatically, then glared up at her. ‘Will you please stop making such a bloody scene? God’s sake, you do this literally every time…’

‘Shouldn’t have given her coke, mate,’ said Sam over the top of his glass, and the lads burst out laughing again.

‘You’re so mean to her, Elliot,’ interjected Di. ‘She’s trying to tell you something important.’

‘Well, this is bloody cheery isn’t it?’ Pete said to me as I curled up a ten-pound note to snort through. I laughed because it would make it seem as if we were part of the same laddish conspiracy, as if I was on the same plain as the rest of them. Pete grasped my shoulder with his hand in some kind of display of laddishness. I hoped Margot noticed. Then I snorted my first line like my life depended on it.

‘We can talk about it in a bit,’ said Elliot. ‘Do you mind just not shouting it from the bloody table?’

‘If I can’t do it from the table then I can never do it,’ she huffed, crossing her arms like an indignant child.

He looked despairingly at Pete, who raised his glass back with an ironic smile as if to say ‘cheers to that’. I finished my coke then got stuck into the rest of my beers.

TBC…

Chaos In Chaung Tha

Myanmar Up To Now

*

The most profound darkness I’d ever seen was sitting over the Bay of Bengal at midnight. From the beach, you could distinguish water and sky for perhaps only thirty yards before this brooding cavern drank in all of it, deleting the plurality until there was neither sky nor water but a single, black unity that was as wide and deep as you’d dare imagine. The length of the beach and the vastness of the sea framed this eternity in the same way a human eye frames the rest of the universe: the first is nothing to the second, and yet you need the smallness of an eye to see the greatness of existence.

I was standing on the sand, staring at where the horizon ought to have been for some time. I’d taken off my watch two days ago so I don’t know how long I was there. It felt wrong to reduce something as colossal as this dark space to a human measurement – somehow that would have done it an injustice, in the same way that measuring the length of a flower somehow ignores the overall miracle of its existence. This great blackness was too elemental to be brought down by such a human neuroticism as linear time.

The beach, Chaung Tha in South-West Myanmar, was probably empty. It was impossible to tell because what lights there were were reserved for the expensive hotels further down. The rest had closed for the night, and didn’t have lights facing onto the beach anyway.

The darkness was strange. Everything felt strange. Occasionally a flash of lightning from a monsoon storm would split the colour for a moment, and you’d wait for the sound of thunder to reach you but it would never come.

At first I was interested by it, then unhappy in an odd way; then I was merely interested again. In the end it was morbidly fascinating. That immense blackness suggested so many things, and for a while I wondered if it was what death would look like: you take your terminal breath, and as your body ceases to withhold your consciousness you have a vision of yourself on that beach, totally alone, watching silent lightning and feeling the wind blow in from the sea. It could be a moment, it could be an infinity – you don’t know because time is not working like you thought it did – but as you gaze into the deep, the sound of the sea panting at your feet begins to fade, and you start to walk into the ocean, and the darkness comes forward to greet you, and everything starts to close in… Then who knows what?

Thoughts like this one came and went on that beach, but in the end I dismissed all of it. I decided it was silly to try and articulate it. Death is beyond language, and it’s certainly beyond the sea.

*

I’d been at odds with the world for at least a month, everything compounded by my presence in this weird and wounded country. It’s almost as if you can feel Myanmar’s twisted history colonise your mind, like every foreign power that hijacked it’s trajectory is recurrently beating you and leaving you to whoever is ready to abuse you next.

I’d come out to work as a teaching assistant in an international school in Yangon, but I left because my friends died. They didn’t die while I was there – they had passed on some months before, three of them within the space of two months, two of those within the space of a week. One was an accident, the other two were suicide. And it was almost as if, six months on, having moved to a new country and a new job with the full intention of becoming a new person, my past decided to reach out a grubby hand and pull me right back.

I was with my class of eight-year-olds when I first felt it. It was because I was thinking about the people who had been my friends when I was eight, and how some of them had died. I couldn’t deal with it. I was helping a child with some guided reading, and all I could think about was how he had no idea that some of his classmates could die before their time, or how even he could become depressed or lose a parent or have a panic attack so violent they would throw themselves into the road in a fit of despair. Who’s to say that couldn’t happen? It happened to my friends. It’s happened to a few too many of them.

The class teacher I was working with found me in tears that afternoon, and for two weeks I was in and out of the headmaster’s office discussing whether I was well enough to continue. I was looking after eight-year-olds, after all, and if you’re not on top of your game then it’s the kids who ultimately lose out more than you. In the end, the school asked me to leave for the sake of my own wellbeing. Wisely, as now seems obvious, they said I needed a chance to recover and they needed someone the kids could rely on.

Then my teacher shouted at me when I told her the school had cut my contract. I don’t know why, exactly, but I can tell you it was just a little bit of a shock to find that this woman was furiously blaming me for my delayed reaction to the death of my friends.

‘I feel like you’ve thrown all the opportunities I’ve given you in my face!’ she screamed. I couldn’t say anything because I was already just a bit upset, what with the losing my job because of my mates dying and all. ‘I don’t have time for this. Get out. I’ve got a meeting now – get out!

Getting screamed at was the last thing anyone did to me before I left the building, and it wasn’t exactly what I needed if I’m quite honest. Turns out the woman is insane, as I’d quietly suspected for a while. There are no rational grounds for being angry at someone for grief, and I’m fairly sure there are even less (fewer?) grounds for expressing that anger by shouting at them at the moment they’re obviously at their most vulnerable. My instinct was to say ‘Forget it, she’s got her own problems’, but the reality made it harder than normal. I had just been sent out alone into an unfamiliar country to grieve over the deaths of three of my friends, with not a clue about where to turn next, and this woman I had worked with for a month and a half had accused me of somehow being ungrateful.

I’m not even sure what ‘opportunities’ she was referring to. I worked incredibly hard for her. If they were opportunities to copy and laminate stuff then she needn’t have worried – I did plenty of that. Covered the whole bloody classroom with the produce of my laminating skills. Maybe the real missed opportunity was to ask if I could have the expensive box of tea I bought her back. It was Twining’s Early Grey and everything – not cheap in Myanmar – and the very least she owed me was a decent brew.

So with that rather disheartening episode fresh in my throat, reminding me of it every time I coughed, I went to the beach at Chaung Tha by myself and decided to be timeless for a bit.

It’s been a month now, and I sit writing this in Bagan with the utterly enormous Ayeyarwaddy River before me and the golden tip of a pagoda peering out over the trees somewhere to my right. I’m just as clueless about where to turn now as before, seeing as I’ve stubbornly refused to leave the country after less than three months here. I’m 24,000 words into the novel I always intended to write, and probably refusing to accept the fact I might have to go home and face an English winter.

I’ve seen my old teacher once since that inauspicious parting, at a colleague’s birthday party, and she acted as if we were best pals the minute I walked in the room. ‘Benjie! Come here, give me a hug!’ she cried. I nearly said, ‘Well if you want a hug, I want an apology!’, but didn’t and chose to stay diplomatic. She then proceeded to make snide comments as the evening went on, increasing with snide-y ness in direct relation to the amount of alcohol she’d consumed. ‘At least I’ve got a TA I can rely on now, what can I say!’, she snide-d on the fourth G and T. No ‘Sorry I shouted at you’ or ‘Sorry your friends killed themselves’. I didn’t say anything back, and though I’m feeling rather proud of myself for it I do wish someone would give me a gold medal and shake my hand for my self-restraint. I surely deserve something out of this. Don’t I?

Whatever. Some people are bastards and no one’s going to care if you treat them well or not apart from yourself. For that reason alone it’s best to try and remember that no one’s a bastard for no reason; there’s always something sad behind the anger. Whatever her personal circumstances, I know her behaviour is nothing to do with me. Who knows what her story is? I forgive her.

And now fate’s pushed me in a certain direction and what choice do I have but to put up my sail and go where it wants?