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…

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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?

NATD Chapter 3, Part 2

*

I even made a friend of sorts. She was a female friend, a girl named Harriet who hovered about me constantly as if I was some sort of special key to the world for her. She was a generally reserved, nervous person, studying Philosophy, the kind of girl who, if she were about to walk through a door first, would stop and stand to the side for fear of looking insolent. Often I would return from a day in town to find two cups of tea waiting for me in our kitchen, accompanied by her imperious questioning about my day. ‘Did you go to the library?’ ‘Have you met that Alice Stubbins?’ ‘When’s your next essay deadline?’ ‘Oh, isn’t uni haaaard?’. She play-acted as a less insecure person than she was, so she must have feared my judgement. I didn’t mind her, though, and actually found the companionship useful because it made me look more social than I was.

I had to admit she was a fairly good-looking girl, too: her face was sad and handsome, and her voice incrementally excitable. Sometimes, in the tide of drunkenness, I would ponder whether to have her, because I knew I could… But ‘No’, I’d think. ‘Not her. I need her.’

And then, my dear human, there were the drugs…

This was the most exciting thing for me. I had never tried any drugs before. One night some of the boys on my floor offered us all some MDMA – you might know it as Ecstasy, my dear human – and, of course, we all took it.

At the club when the pill hit I at first felt sick, and I looked at the people I called my friends to wonder what on earth they’d done to me; but then the sickness gave way to the most excellent, indescribable, most outrageous euphoria a human being could ever know. My head expanded and my heart flamed and my eyes darted left to right and top to down and my veins thumped an eternity and it was hard to know if I was perceiving anything anymore other than gorgeousness, sheer gorgeousness manifest in all the mighty things of this world that was so brilliant and immense and ecstatic and, oh, wasn’t it all just too much, wasn’t it all just one almighty cockfuzzlingbrainswirlingenergypeaking triumph! In this dreamy, chaotic intensity I went dancing through the descant circles of the night and wishing well all the restive souls of the place, thanking the things that made this possible and kissing all of everything I could place my kissing lips on under the silver night, glossed opalescent with me, me, me…

I couldn’t get enough. For a night I had been in a world that made sense, and for the first time in my life I felt as if I were connected to it. The love I felt within me was so different to my normal state of waking consciousness that I just knew I needed more. I proceeded to seek out every drug I could possibly find.

To this end I became a regular user of several substances, easily acquired from dealers around town whose numbers were traded furtively between students. My palate was constituted thus: MDMA for happiness; valium for tranquillity; marijuana for removal; 2C-B for hallucinogenic ecstasy; ketamine for somnolent ecstasy; and LSD for a change of reality. I explored all of these as often as I could with as many people as were willing, and if other people weren’t available then I would do them by myself.

How fascinating it was, my dear human, to find that all states of human consciousness could be calculatedly drawn out to their extremes with just the dropping of a pill. All emotions could be contained or expanded at will. Finally, I felt I had some control over myself.

*

My first year at Bristol passed in a rage of drugged and drunken impulses. Not a night went by where I was not engrossed by the ghost of drugs past, or where I was not at a nightclub or not getting with some girl. I had developed a reputation for being quite the lady’s man, as a gentleman ought to call it, and I secretly revelled in this whenever I heard it whispered about me. I found it easy to win over girls because I knew how to follow the script of a good-looking boy chatting up a good-looking girl over an inebriation-infused conversation. And with the wild confidence the drugs could give me, I was unstoppable; then, it wasn’t so much a matter of knowing if a girl was into it as knowing how to make her into it.

The Bad Place was still with me, though, my dear human. It lingered and lurked in the dark places of my being like the demon I hoped to cast out. With the drugs, I could usually keep it from taking me. Panic attacks happened every so often, but, if I was fast enough, I could take a valium or drink a beer and drown the bastard for a little while longer at least.

But sometimes, sometimes the desires it pushed me into were too much…

I started to develop a bit of a habit. It wasn’t something I did a lot – just once every so often. It was a dilettante interest, a dabble along the ocean of unknowingness.

You see, my dear human, when one must control, one must find something to control.

One night, for instance, I felt the Bad Place coming. I was in one of the trashy nightclubs on a Friday night, when the place was filled with locals rather than students. Locals nights yield high results for me: students seldom get as drunk as the young professionals who flatter their feet on the Friday dancefloor. I was alone, and I think exercising my usual combination of 2C-B and weed, and lots of valium because without valium I tend to freak out. But the Bad Place was coming nonetheless, so I searched more and more frantically for a target.

I knew not to look to the dancefloor, because on the dancefloor you’ll find a man guarding and preying on every woman; no, one must look to the corners, to the unusual spots of this screaming pit of sexual desires. 2C-B and weed make me sexually aggressive at the best of times, so I roamed about the venue as a lion would his territory, surveying the bar, watching the dancefloor, wondering which of these women I would make mine. I could have any of them – I assure you. I’m extremely good looking.

But there were no obvious leads – that is, until I rounded the corner to where the toilets were (my favourite spot), and – with an AAAAHHHYEEESSS – quietly congratulated myself on my first-grade opportunity. For there on the floor, a few yards down from the lady’s toilets like a treasure mapped out by the lasers, was a young woman, perhaps twenty-two or three years old. She was wearing a short, silky red dress, sitting on the floor with her knees tucked up and her head rolled to the side as if she was about to fall asleep. But her eyes were open, and she was very much awake, if not aware.

It was about as straightforward as they come. You approach them by asking if they’re alright, taking a seat beside them as you do so. Gauge how drunk they are. It’s usually easy to tell from their first answer. Sometimes they tell you they’re ‘a bit drunk’, or more normally that they’re ‘fine’. Then start making conversation with them. ‘Are you here with your mates?’ ‘Do you want some water?’ ‘Here, I’ll stay with you til you feel a bit better.’ Always maintain an air of innocence. Then get them standing up and gauge how well she’s looking. In the ideal situation, she’s so drunk she’ll go wherever you take her with no questions asked. Most of the time though, it might take giving her a few more drinks, or pretending you’re a friend of theirs and you’re taking her home because they’re too drunk. Sometimes you simply have to act as the attractive stranger, and get with them in the club first. Then get them outside as soon as you can so her friends don’t see her.

It was a textbook case with this girl. She was black-out drunk, so wasted she wouldn’t remember a thing in the morning. And she was also able to stand, which was perfect. I managed to get her out the front door without much trouble at all, apart from at one point she seemed to be about to tap the shoulder of someone, presumably a friend, and I had to grab her arm to stop her from reaching. Other than that it was a straightforward out the front, into the taxi, take her back to my room and ensure no one saw her come in or go out.

In the morning you have to be up and out of bed before they are, and hide elsewhere in halls. Usually they get their clothes on and leave as fast as they can; or if not, then you have to re-enter the bedroom claiming you don’t remember a thing either. I’m good at this bit. I’m a good actor. I just act all modest and embarrassed, give them a cup of tea and shoo them out the door. Ideally, of course, they don’t stay the night at all. You just get them straight back on the street. They always find their way home. If they vomit or pass out, I leave them somewhere they’ll eventually be found.

This particular girl I describe to you was almost a staple example, apart from one thing: when she was back at mine, she tried to call the police. I had to wrest the phone from her hand as soon as I realised what she was doing. Fortunately she was drunk enough not to be able to put up too much of a struggle, though she did kick and fly about a bit. She was on the verge of passing out, though, so I got her into my bed without her waking up anyone else on my corridor.

Unfortunately the girl passed out after we were done, so I had to let her stay the night. In the morning she left pretty swiftly though, and I barely had to introduce myself.

I was good at this, my dear human. I was so good that no one ever suspected a thing. People talked, of course, of my prolific success with women, but they always put this down to my handsomeness and ability of character. It was perfect.

And whenever the Bad Place came, I would do the same thing: take the drugs, take the girl, drink the spirits and forget all of my troubles.

There was no father looking after me. I was safe now. I didn’t need a father.

TBC…

NATD Chapter 3, Part 1

*

I don’t know what happened that night at Arrizzi’s. My drunkenness had eliminated whatever strains of memory that might have made sense of the thing, and for a few days I lived in a terrible insecurity that I might have done something unforgivably embarrassing like shouted at Madeleine or tried to punch Joe Mailer. But no one ever said a word about it, and I wondered if I had imagined kissing that girl out of some sort of alcoholic hallucination.

The hangover the next day did all the punishment I could have expected to receive, however, as my indebted body paid back the loans of the night before. But even as the following days returned me to a more recognisable state of isolation, there was not the slightest sign of any girl I had kissed. Perhaps if she had been real then she had been at least equally as drunk as I was. Perhaps she didn’t go to my college, or was a lot older than me. I had no idea. I decided to never mention it to anyone.

Amongst the disarming swirl of effects this first hedonic experience brought me was the feeling that another shift in my consciousness had taken place, much as in the days after Mailer beat me up. At first I thought it was simply a mixture of hangover and heartbreak: for months after I was at pains to avoid Madeleine, desperately wanting to see her but knowing that every sight would be a thousand hammers on my heart. She and Joe Mailer became ‘official’, and, with no other friends to distract my attention, thoughts of them invaded my mind without the slightest care for the time of day. If a heartbreak consumed all your thoughts in the day, it ought only to be fair that it gives you a break in the night; but no. I would fume at inconsiderate hours, confronted by all manner of myriad miseries, staring insistently at her facebook page and feeling simultaneously ruined and righted at the sight of her with Mailer. Oh, how I wanted her – how I thought she had wanted me – how I hated him!

Most of my lower sixth year was taken up by this train of thought, until, sometime around 2nd May 2012, I realised I had exhausted my ability to feel both broken and whole at the same time. I had made some friends of sorts by then – at least people I could tolerate – and, as it happened, one day Madeleine disappeared.

I stopped seeing her around college some weeks before her A-Level exams were due to start. I checked her facebook but there was nothing on there. Then I started hearing stories about a girl who’d dropped out in the upper sixth. I assumed this was Madeleine. But then I heard more stories of people dropping out who were ‘mentally unwell’, so it became less clear; but perhaps what she had told me about her mental health really was true and she couldn’t do her exams. Part of me yearned to see her again and to make sure she was okay – I desperately wanted to be her friend and at least feel the swellings of my desperation soothed into a more stable kind of connection. But then another part took over that said it was for the best she was gone.

But, while thoughts of Madeleine had sunk deep into the furniture of my mind, I had begun to think more frequently about other things. Things had changed irrevocably, and badly. I was living with the increasing feeling that there was something monstrously wrong with me.

Almost as if the sight of Madeleine kissing Joe Mailer had awoken something inside me, the day after Arrizzi’s I felt in full force all the lonely desperation of my childhood crashing over me. But now, seeing that image before me as I lay in my sickly bed, I felt something new: the need to control.

I had felt it coming onto me for some time now: from birth, through childhood, into the dark hour of adolescence and the darker liftetime of adulthood that lay beckoning. I knew something terrible was growing inside me, revolted by the life that I was to be forced to live. There was nothing good about anything. I thought about my mother and the thing she called her ‘life’: trapped in a house and an office, distracted only by the piteous droning of television, gossip and alcohol, escaping occasionally to some beach for a week at a time only to come home momentarily changed, but in reality still trapped and still confused. What answer do people like my mother have to this life? Either they smack their minds into dullness, or they die.

So I needed to control it, my dear human: if I could control everything, then perhaps I could cease to make the world so terrible. I wanted it all to stand to some sort of moral attention, completely still under the watchful arrest of Charlie Gunn.

But this need was so great, and the underlying franticness when things were uncontrollable too much, that I began to shatter inside piece by piece. I was falling apart like a flower in my hand. And I felt it all beginning to end when, out of nowhere, on a late-June day beneath a sky that was a Mediterranean honey-blue, I had my first panic attack.

It was colossal; there had never been anything so terrible in the whole world; no, no NO NO NO, it was too much, TOO MUCH –

I tried to breath, but instead of breathing in the incomparable solace of summer, I found that I couldn’t breathe at all. The bloodways of my body shook with sick poison and my lungs stopped accepting the air that now seemed to flow away from me; I tried to cough out an explanation but there was none – my feet flibbed and flabbed forward and I felt a terrible sickness rising up inside me, a horrific, hot-tempered evil that flared in my heart and caused my thoughts to spin catastrophically into this abominable vacuum that I suddenly sensed around me, like the floor was opening up and everything, all that there had ever been throughout all history, was hurtling into it, into a final destruction – My dear human, I did not know what was happening to me – it was evil cascading like lava through me and my thoughts bent utterly on total, numbing death, my eyes stared wildly up at the sky and I gasped, uncontrollably, as I saw all time and space open up and destroy everything – all that I loved, all that I hated, all that I had never had the chance to do… Then it was final. I wanted to die. And I went spinning through the streets and telling myself I believed only in the finality of my youth and not of the universe, but I didn’t believe myself. Madeleine, the girl, the club – all of it paled from this sudden, new and terrible knowledge that had just dawned on me like the final sun to ever rise. I was going to die, and so was the universe – and there was nothing I could do about it.

As it happens I was at a barbeque with my mother at the time, and I had to excuse myself on the proviso that I felt the world was ending.

This was the price that night with Madeleine had left me: anger, fear, greed, panic. I wanted both to have the world, and for the world to never touch me again.

The fits of anxiety became increasingly frequent as that summer rolled on and died into autumn. They were always accompanied by the feeling that I’d done something wrong, that everything was meaningless, that, should I push gently on the façade of existence, all one would find is panic and emptiness. The thought of that night at Arrizzi’s brought this feeling in me. So did Dan. So did, for that matter, all adults: when I turned seventeen, I realised that I was terrified of getting older.

And whenever I felt the Bad Place coming, I would try and re-correct this feeling of helplessness by asserting control over something. I had to – if I didn’t then I would lose control of myself, and if that were to happen then I feared that the chaos that would take over would do something I dared not imagine. It was a remnant of my feelings for Madeleine, as if the outrageous passion I had felt for her had never found their correct target and had now grown wild and evil inside me. I became even more obsessed with girls than before – not individual girls, as such, but all of them, the entire other half of the population, a great, orgastic mass of sexual beings that my increasingly compulsive urges made me want to devour in one swallow.

It was one night some time into my upper sixth that these dour, demon desires first got what they wanted from me. I had felt them coming all day with the thought of being around people, and I was on my way to getting howling drunk out of sheer desperation to distance the madness. I needed to assert control over something, my dear human – and so I did it to a girl. I couldn’t help it. The Bad Place was coming, and I had been talking to an attractive girl in the year below who so obviously fancied me that it made me both want her and hate her at the same time. My breathing was shortening and heartbeats quickening – she was already drunk – I offered to get her a drink, and poured a load of vodka into a large cup of beer. She drank it without even noticing. And, when she was drunk enough, I took her stumbling frame to a bathroom, locked the door, and had sex with her.

I know this is wrong, my dear human. You needn’t tell me that. I even knew it at the time. And judge all you like, as you are well entitled to, but understand this: that at that age, suffering the things I suffered, this was the lesser of two almighty evils. I lost my virginity that night, and I barely even remember the girl’s name was Rosie.

And here is the thing you may not understand, the thing I so desperately need you to know about me and the things I’ve done: I feel guilty. I know I have done wrong. And I felt the guilt as surely as you would, my dear human. But what makes us different, you and I, is that for me the guilt felt right. I revelled in it. I positively craved it. Perhaps you do to – I after all know you as well as any human can know another, which is not at all.

This is it, my dear human: if you feel you are a sinner from birth, then trying to lead a moral life is like knowing you are a wolf and yet earnestly pretending to be a sheep. You know it is a lie: you know you want to be different; you know you want to destroy the world. Well, I knew I was a wolf, and there was nothing to stop me from killing the sheep. There is no God above, there is no Hell below, there is no cosmic judgement to strike me down in an after-life: there is only the great uncertainty of the here and now, with nothing more than my own biology in the spiral of eternity. We’re all just performances in this perverse game we call reality, and I was seeing through it all, and I was hating every bit of it.

The girl at the party passed out and seemed only to remember getting with me. Some girls who had seen us disappear questioned me on what happened afterwards, and I simply replied, ‘I didn’t realise she was that drunk’. There was something of a scandal about it for a while, but it centred more on the girl’s weakness than on my power. To all the world, it was me who seemed to be the one in control, not her; and I was the only one who knew the truth.

Anyway, my dear human, I cut forward now by some months. You’ve gathered my mental state now, so here are the practical things:

I did my A-Levels in English, History and Politics, and achieved excellent grades in all of them. Of course I did: I’m extremely intelligent. My tutor at college had urged me to apply to Oxford or Cambridge, but when application time came round I couldn’t be bothered to sign up to the extra classes and interview practice and so on because I was too busy using my time as I wanted. I couldn’t care less for the life these people wanted me to have; they wanted me to have a career and earn money and be respectable. I spat at the idea. With every panic attack that came – in the day, in the night and in the interceding hours that no sane human knows – I saw more and more through the imagery and fakeness of the society I had been born into, and decided I wanted none of it. I wanted to stop being a part of anything.

But university, so I heard, was a way of getting away from home and of doing things you can hardly do anywhere else: I imagined violent dreams of endless sex and drugs, all night every night, while my stupid peers from home would do nothing special with their lives. I envisaged escape – I envisaged rapture.

So I randomly selected a handful of English courses at a handful of universities, and received offers from all of them (obviously). Then I wrote all their names on pieces of paper, hung them on my wall, and threw darts at them til I hit one. Whether it was fate or the randomness of my aim that decided it, it seemed that I would be going to Bristol; and on a bright September day in 2013, riding the crest of an Indian summer, Bristol was where I arrived.

*

I cried a silent cry of relief after my mother tearfully left me in the bedroom of my first year halls. I wasn’t sad to see her go; I was overjoyed at the opportunity to be a new person in a new city, with people who didn’t know me, wearing new clothes that I had specially bought to make myself look as cool as possible. I had mined the internet for ideas of what would look cool at Bristol, and spent as much money as I dared on new jeans, shirts, jackets, trainers, posters and wall-hangings. I’d bought posters of one of the only bands I’d every truly tolerated, Nirvana, as well as one of The Beatles because I’d overheard people at school talking about them in an apparently profound and elemental way.

I had decided that I was to have a new beginning: this would be the place where I would be able to unload my callous desires, forget the bullies who had held me back at school and conduct all my Godless affairs under the watch of myself, and no one else. People would meet me and see the Charlie Gunn I presented to them – the beautiful, intelligent, untouchable Charlie Gunn! The best Charlie Gunn there could ever be!

Strange introductions were made with the freshers on my corridor, and within two hours of arriving I was drunk. We decided that the only thing to do was drink spirits and join the hundreds of others heading out to the freshers events at nightclubs around the city, and I simply exploded with delight at the possibilities that shook my hand with every neon light and electric thump of meaningless musical melodies that greeted me on my way. I was as anonymous as the music and as ubiquitous as the darkness over the dancefloor, as excited as the alcohol that enflamed my soul and as determined as a warrior leading charge into battle. I got with a girl on my first night, and, were it not for the watching eyes of my new group, I would have done all in my power to get her back to my room and settle the unfathomable plague that was deforming my heart.

The alcohol rolled on, and I learnt the nights as places where thousands of people inebriated themselves to flashing lights and the faces of people they didn’t know. I was automatically a member of the group of students on my corridor, whom I made every effort not to dislike for the sake of the alcoholic ecstasies they would invite me into. They were all friendly but forgettable people with whom I explored the nightclubs of this new city. But my two eyes did not care so much for them as for the girls I came across; and, whenever the opportunity came, I leapt.

I learnt all manner of new things in my first weeks at university. I learnt, for instance, about the right amount of alcohol I could drink without being sick, about the simplicity with which girls could be won over with the right smile and the right compliment, and about the easy superficiality that seemed to permeate all relations here. You would meet a new group of people everyday, and they would have no choice but take you as you seemed right there and then. This suited me very much; they would never know about what had happened in my home town, and I could pretend to be the beautiful, charming man I could force myself to be for as long as I was around them. They would never know the truth, and I strongly intended to keep it that way.

TBC…