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?’
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.
‘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?’
‘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?’
‘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.
‘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.