The Art-a-thon.

We started late – at 10.10pm (not correct to the nearest second, but close enough for our purposes).

Actually, it started when I was getting the back of my train seat kicked for half an hour on the way here, but that’s part of the pilgrimage; a latter day trail to Santiago – well, Derby. DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy) has brought me here. That and Borderline Personality Disorder.

Ten minutes late is ten minutes late however you look at it. We can’t go back – put that in your metaphysics pipe on a cold evening and puff on it for as long as it takes for your eyes to start welling up. Usually I’d be concerned I was ripping off all my Sponsors, but tonight is magic: there is a whiff of cosmic-tilting-planet fuckery and we get an extra hour as the clocks go back at some point in the next four hours. I don’t know what’s going to happen and I need to drink some more of this cheap energy drink to make sure the meds I’ve just taken don’t get lodged in my throat and make me the first hazard of the evening.

SO here I am with my lovely new friends. And it’s going well so far. But, hey, even YOU could sit in a room with me for twenty minutes right now.

Somebody none of us has ever met is about to turn up. He’s in on the thing too.

He’s here…. BANG BANG BANG on the front door.

And…he has two male Life Models (alive and fully functioning ones) with him. It’s too busy in here for them, so they are setting up in another room. There’s plenty of nervous excited noise in here. A lot of pre-race nerves, helpful at the start of anything. Get the adrenaline throbbing. Test the old veins.

A friend has clocked my stash of cheap energy drinks and now there is serious concern that if I drink all of it I may have a heart attack. One of the models has left the room, staring at all of us in turn, muttering “Okaaaaay………….Okaaaaayyy….” under his breath. I don’t blame him.

But we all know this won’t last. The joviality is good and it’s genuine – for now – but the clock is ticking and the deadline is not moving from 6am. Personally, I love and hate deadlines – Boxing Journalism has taught me that much. Three AM wake ups and early morning deadlines to catch the screens of faceless Editors everywhere, anywhere, means I know the pain of a creative (a-hohoho) profession. Everyone else here is an artist, and damn good ones, I mean really talented. I’m the only one doing something as stupid as writing. Their pieces created tonight are getting auctioned in a couple of weeks. Obviously no-one is going to bid for what I do. My Sponsors get a copy and that’s as far as things go. I can’t honestly say I’m sitting here thinking I’m equal to these amazing people – and they are amazing. Truly.

I’ve led myself on to a half-thought about trying to explain my/our/the condition, but I don’t think it’s late enough for that…yet. Plus, I don’t feel it would be anything other than patronising to the people sitting within twenty feet of me right now. No, I might return to that thorny issue when the mood is different: maybe somewhere around four am, or when the silence descends and things get serious. Who knows? I guess I’m going to find out, but we should get around to it really, after all, this is the elephant in our room; between us in here and us: me and you.

Seven hundred words an hour. Will that cut the mustard? Will it be a good and genuine enough effort compared to the others in here? More energy… – wait….no, the cheap drinks I’ve bought don’t say ‘ENERGE’, like I thought they did. They actually say ‘EMERGE’. What does that mean? Have I bought three litres of laxative? What’s going to emerge? Are my brains going to flood out of my ears like golden syrup?

A friend to my right has peaked too early with her Pro-Plus. Her hands shake uncontrollably. I offered her some ‘Emerge’ but she declined. SO…common sense hasn’t left us all, for now. Sometimes I despair at the constant false economies – why, in the name of Arthur C Clark, did I buy the cheapest energy drinks in the Co-Op? Sugar free or not, no good ever came of Pantothenic Acid (one of the ingredients). I don’t even know what it is, or where it’s meant to go; possibly not in a human stomach in the kind of amounts I’m planning on drinking this night.

Oh…. I just looked up Pantothenic Acid on the internet. Checked the facts. I’m wrong. Without Pantothenic Acid I would be dead. So would you. Pantothenic Acid is a vitally important vitamin (B5) which humans need to produce hormones and to maintain their immune system. Seems like erring down the cheap aisle of spuriously branded energy drinks has guaranteed me life for the next seven hours at least. I suppose if we combine a custom-made Tupperware container and fifty gallons of ‘Emerge’ and seal ourselves in, in individual pods, we could all achieve a kind of immortality only the present Royal Family seem to have access to. Twenty four hours a day in liquid B5. Would that be enough to do the job?

NOTE – Consider coffee tables made of perpetually living volunteers in large caskets full of ‘Emerge’. Dragons Den. Ring Duncan Goodhew and Daryl Hannah. This could work.

Business will wait, though. To more important matters – like the slow progress I’m making. A thousand words up in an hour and a half isn’t going to make me proud; not when I can write well over a thousand words an hour on men punching each other in the face, when I’m pushed. Which is often.

A friend is putting together a music playlist right now to soundtrack our night but there is something wrong with the process. I’ve just heard the first ten seconds of around a hundred songs. I don’t recognise any of them, but that’s ok. These people will have to go to some extreme lengths to raise my blood pressure. You see, they are My People, my brethren, despite me being the oldest in this room by at least ten years. I have headphones but I can’t bring myself to upset my friends by being rude enough to put them on. Hey…that’s Borderline. No, it’s still not time to go down that path. Midnight hasn’t struck and the creepy double hour is not happening yet, though it’s on the horizon. And I’m nervous – very – about betraying the eight people in this room. I don’t know all their personal horrors and the trials they’ve been through, but I know enough to realise that I am not really worthy of being ‘The Voice of the Borderline Personality Disorder Sufferer’. I am the gatekeeper of my own story, but that is enough, surely, for anyone. These people deserve more than my cheap words hashed together. They need art, beauty, and someone with the ability and the sophisticated vocabulary to do them the justice they deserve. And, they do deserve. More than you know.

The music stutters…. Plays for a minute, then moves on to another song.

One of the Artists has just broken into an improvised song about a girl called Emily. Truly. Emily’s dad is an old friend of mine from a time before I didn’t have enough reasons to be in this room right now. I’m sure Emily is a cool kid. Her dad (Neil) was – still is, I’d hazard a guess. I wonder if she’ll laugh when she reads this? She should.

Long spaces at this point. Good for hiding sections before and after talking about Emily, and handy if you want to show her she’s in this piece, but save her from the rest of the nightmare. Midnight approaches. There is some metal music playing. Nu-Metal, I think. It didn’t last long. Skip skip skip skip. Track after track blurring into one frenzied mixtape of such appalling horror that midnight is the only time to listen to it. Bingo. Midnight. Happy New something… Don’t know what. I’m tempted to say ‘Happy new me’, cos the old one was broken, but I’ll leave the slushy sentiments for now.

Break Time. No. No break for you yet, Ben, old friend. You need to put more effort into this. Get the thing moving, stop getting bogged down in the clichés. Yeah, BPD (acronym pretty easy to work out, yeah?) is a bummer.

“I’ve been in a room where fifty people were being exorcised” – says a friend. We’d been discussing what I thought was the start of Tubular Bells coming from the powerful remote speaker on the other side of the room. I was wrong, and I still don’t know what the song was if it wasn’t Tubular Bells.
“There were people flying about,” she continues.
“What, like… really?”
“Well, they were more throwing themselves about, and talking in demonic voices, but you get the drift. Pretty awesome stuff.”

Not for me. Not at this hour. This big old building in the centre of Derby is creepy enough without the added pressure of obsessing over the paranormal. We have a swift discussion about how the film The Exorcist wasn’t really scary. I can’t comment because I’ve never had the guts to watch it. Hideously pathetic, Ben. Again. OK. The male models are ordering pizza. That’s a good enough change of direction, unless Freddy Kruger delivers pizzas in Derby. But it’s thrown the track well enough to stop the impending ghost stories – and we were only a moment away from the start of that kind of nastiness. I used to think I saw ghosts from time to time when I was a teenager, but I realise now that those shadowy figures weren’t paranormal, just a manifestation of a blossoming mental illness. Still, the edge has been taken off right now by the pizza order. The models are nice guys, with great timing. I suppose after keeping a pose for two hours – which they have, rigidly – you develop a sense of timing when the time is right (hohoho…the gags are starting….but they will be nipped in the bud/arm, and scrotum, before they ruin this thing further). Which reminds me: I need to read it back now to see where I’m headed.

– I’m headed nowhere. That’s the apparent gist, on read-back. Just utter drivel up to this point. Must press on, though. People are creating great things in front of my eyes in these early hours, and some of them will have found it difficult to even be here in this room tonight. I need to get things together; find a tone; a theme.

Politics on the stereo now. Some song about fracking. Political singers all have the thick accents of bad actors. Ingratiating. Grating, too. Remember that, Ben, you ungrateful bastard, when your house is disappearing into a vast cavern created by sucking up thirty million litres of shale oil that used to support the weight of your old home village. No amount of mimicked rustic local-yokel dialect will ever sound grating under those circumstances – not if they are cleaning oily sludge off your dog then chaining themselves to a pipeline in support of a cause you hadn’t cared about ten minutes previously.

Brain starting to either feel the time, or the ‘EMERGE’. Might aim for the headphones. Politics eases into some Eurodance on the stereo. What Hell have I signed up for? Don’t want to upset my friends, though. Fight the urge. This is the least you can do, Ben.

Holy mother of God! The fire alarm!

Someone was using a blowtorch to fire molten bits of paint across the room. The canvas had started to smoulder. BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP. A friend points out that there aren’t any responsible adults here. You got that right, Sister. I’m no more responsible than I am a Walrus, and I’m not the only one like that in this stormy sea. It’s ok. Things are quickly brought back to calm again and nobody is hurt. We aren’t destined to burn tonight. Back to the Walrus pull-out.

IS there an animal as weird as a Walrus? A ton of rampaging blubber with tusks you could skewer a five hundred pound diabetic on, which turns pink in the arctic sea, but changes – by witchcraft – to brown on land. What could compare? A peacock? A wolf on one of those cheap “Spirit of The Wolf” fleeces? Choose your spirit animal right now. Right now! Not that I know what that means or what the purpose is, other than to elicit fear from the spiritually unwary. NO spirit guides in here. Let’s steer clear of that stuff, or I’ll spend the rest of the night too afraid to go for a piss.

The canvas isn’t smouldering any more. WOW! What a metaphor! Some time tonight I’m sure I’ll figure out what it means.

We’re quietening down now. People are deep into the art that’s being created. I’m sitting here a fraud, bashing out on this laptop. Goes with the territory, though. All that self-loathing and self-doubt. You have all touched on that feeling at some point, I’m certain this is true. Thing is, I’m guessing most of you have not tried to cut yourselves, never mind attempted to end your life. Whoah! That’s the kind of closing statement for this piece I was aiming for. I’ve peaked too early. But there is a morbid message behind all of this medicinally and sleep-deprived nonsense. Ten percent of us – Borderline – die by our own hand, statistically speaking. Some experts say that figure is higher (more like thirty percent), but few will go lower than ten percent. Pretty serious stuff, eh. I know I shouldn’t be here. The same sort of perverse luck that stopped us all being burned to death a while ago in here, left me waking up half hanging off a bed and staring at a pool of my own vomit one Monday morning. I can think of better things to see, but I suppose a pool of vomit on that occasion could quite easily have been a tunnel with a spurious white light at the end. I’d been unconscious for over twenty four hours. There were a lot of pills involved; plenty enough to do the job. It wasn’t the first time either, or the last.

Yeah, despite me not knowing the terrible details, these people around me right now are familiar with that last paragraph. They know it intimately. The minutiae will be different, but the theme will remain a constant – which makes me sad.

I open another ‘EMERGE’ and the friend to my right says, laughing, that technically I am self-harming. I can’t argue. It is vile stuff and it tastes like melted batteries. As a joke I’ll tick the yes box again in the ‘Self Harm’ section on the daily diary card I have to fill in for my Psychotherapist, and watch her reach for the net. Hohoho, ‘You don’t have to be crazy to work here….blah blahblah.’ Krayzee. .. Shit, every time I see one of those signs I want to do something terrible. In fact, just thinking about them makes me want to go and do something terrible right now.

The goddamn clock has gone back. It’s the freaky double hour.

No-one has freaked out yet. There is still plenty of time. And it could happen. Really.

OK.

I’ve stopped looking at the word count – lie. Two and a half thousand. Pitiful. I feel like I’m walking through tar now.

I’ve just noticed there is a camera high up in a corner of this room. And a sign on the door says“CCTV Cameras in Operation”. Why? I covered up the camera on this laptop as soon as I got it. Cameras are not our friends. Hooray….paranoia. Later than I thought it would show, but here we go… (Do NOT hide under a desk, despite the temptation). A friend just said she once stayed awake for almost two weeks straight: causing her to think she was being followed by Badgers. I was chased by a Badger once. Or was I? Nah, I’d been ok. The Badger had been real enough, diving out of nowhere and humping itself along like a water-filled goatskin bag with venomous teeth. I’m pretty sure Badgers aren’t venomous, despite what DEFRA and the people in Barbour jackets and Hunter wellies say. That night, my Badger looked a serious animal with serious intentions. Life was better preserved – mine, anyway – by getting out of the creature’s way. It kept on down the road and disappeared across the traffic lights and into the night, where Badgers belong, and I don’t.

The fucking clock isn’t moving. Is it moving? Check, properly. Yes, it is moving. These treacherous energy drinks are overriding the medication. Kurt Vonnegut explained time as simply being caught frozen in Amber, or not. Which is perfect. The soundtrack for the past half an hour has been ‘Disney’ songs. We’ve danced, from time to time – me, from my chair. But Kurt didn’t dance, not in those meat mines. Dancing was pretty thin on the ground in Dresden the day after the fire-bombing. Tell that to the Grandkids at bedtime… Disney and mass murder. Uneasy bedfellows, unless you’re a child in Palestine right now, I guess. People really do get desensitised to horror. What a repulsive thought at this time of the night – or at any time at all. Simply wretched for humans to purposely hurt each other for uncertain and skewed gain. Who decides who wins from death? Pocahontus? Her Disney incarnation is singing from the stereo right now, and she’s as good as anyone to answer that question. As good as me, anyway. I feel like a stuffed Owl.

Bad trip, that one. I’ll get off it.

The clock has actually stopped. No, really. The red seconds hand is pumping limply up towards the ten and bouncing slightly short. It’s three in the morning. Nothing has slowed down – except my brain. Pregabalin or codeine? Codeine, I think. It won’t help the brain speed, but it’ll stop me worrying. Faithful old Codeine.

Somebody take my third litre of EMERGE away from me. For the love of God.

My brain is on fire.

But it won’t last.

This liver damage might.

Shit, I’ve started writing Haiku. Nothing on earth should have got me to that point. It’ll be poetry next.

The last poem I wrote was almost twenty years ago. And, as piles of clichéd crap go, it was large, and stinky. I can’t remember what the whole pathetic mess was about, but I know it ended up in a book somewhere. Three of them did, I think. Awful. Truly awful. I ‘composed’ – hahaha, I am a wanker – them when I was working at HMP/YOI Wetherby. A real shithole of a prison. Bad memories of batteries whirled in socks and connecting on the backs of unprotected skulls in the morning sunshine. A sickening sound and profuse bleeding every time. Followed by shouting, an alarm, the sound of heavy boots worn by heavy men, then dragging. Much dragging. What hope did anyone have of reform in there? None. People exited those rusty fences with nothing but contempt for everything and everyone, and they lived it all again, and again. In….out……shake it all about. Ya do the Prison Cokey and you…..

……get beaten senseless in the showers.

Or raped.

Hooray for Four AM soapboxes. And lovely lovely Codeine. But we’re getting far off track. Too far for me to genuinely think I’ve earned the one hundred and eighty pounds of sponsorship from fifteen wonderful people who made me happier than they would ever believe. You might think that’s stupid, or that I’m sitting here wrecked and tired and vulnerable – and those things may all be true, come to think of it – but my overriding feeling right now is one of love and thanks. You all came through for me, even though most of you haven’t seen me for over twenty years. I suppose all you know of me is the gibberish I post on Facebook, amalgamated messily with the vague memories of a young man with long hair and a bad attitude. Yet you still donated/sponsored. You did a good thing.

The amount of money was superfluous to the sense of support I got from those fifteen magical people. I wasn’t kidding when I said it made me cry. Hating myself is easy, but you gave me something else, another view: the man I used to be, the man I could have been, and the potential of what I might become. Heavy stuff.

Lighten the tone. Please. I’m simpering and whimpering. It won’t do.

Tiredness has passed. Man alive, there are some ace pieces of art in this room right now. Biased, maybe, but this is true.

If dawn rose now it’d be both apt and pretty cool.

Is three and a half thousand words enough? I have not left this seat for eight hours, other than to use the toilet. Nor have my hands left this keyboard – except for grabbing at that shitty drink or my meds. I suppose I could have typed faster and really gone to town with a train-of-thought essay on Indo-China, or on Irish Travellers and the question of why I spent a week in a Belgian forest with gangsters – ten thousand words of pure mental breakdown – but this is truly all that came to mind. Will you be angry? The BPD says ‘yes’, you will, and you will hate me and never speak to me, or remember me kindly. And if I give that thought a free reign it will run and run and, eventually, I may find myself staring at something that will kill me. I may even pick it up. I have been known to use it, too. Skills, man. That’s what it’s all about now. Thoughts like those are cut off at the pass like an expertly laid ambush in a shitty cowboy movie. Where John Wayne has his racist ass handed to him, on a badly made oversized Dream Catcher, by every Native American who was ever passed up for an acting job in favour of a blacked-up white guy.

See…..pure drivel. Let me off the leash for a few minutes and I start exploring the latent racism of old Movie Stars. Another few hours and I’ll be wading in to Bruce Forsyth, and then where will the world be? Better, my friends. You can be sure of that.

The hours haven’t been tough. Even in the quiet time around three AM, simply being in the same room as these brilliant people has given me an immense sense of calm and comradeship – patronising, maybe, shit….shouldn’t I really have come up with something better for all of them than a badly worded cliché about silence in some BPD ether that none of us understands? But there are very few people I can say those words about. My wonderful missus is one of them, she’s my main reason for being alive. And…..well……that’s it. Rare moments indeed and they are worth filing away somewhere where I can get at them in a tight spot – total recall in full chromatic, cinematic, I-Max, colour. Better than any tablets. I should know, I’ve had them all.

We are drawing to a close. I did my part and kept my side of our bargain, to whit: I did sit at this cursed laptop from ten PM until six AM (including the pointless extra hour due to milkmen, or farmers, or some other odd reason I don’t understand) and I typed. Unfortunately the result isn’t up to much but I put the time in. You should have seen me. I wish you had. I want you to have been proud. But then, this was a ‘Members Only’ evening. Your participation would have meant you’d have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, with all of its attendant horrors. And I wouldn’t want that for any of you. Genuinely.

Tomorrow is today. I still haven’t found a metaphor for a burned canvas.

What is the lesson of tonight? Is there one? Yes. It’s pretty important too, but simple. At one time there was a chance I may never have said the following, but those bad moments are getting fewer:

I am alive. I am alive.

Paranoia up The Hill

“A paranoid is someone who knows a little of what’s going on.”
William S. Burroughs

And we need no more of that kind of talk around here. The quarterly battle with the Meter Man is ramping up to handwritten notes, pleading me to let him in. No, no, Meter Man. This is not a place for you to go about your treacherous business without ever offering to take off your shoes. No. I am the king of this castle. And I like my carpets unsoiled by uninvited feet. So, back to the drawing board my friend. There is enough on my plate right now, and things may turn nasty between people who should really know better. Meter Man, you are an enemy with more supplies, but you don’t live here. I do.

I’ve been informed that there are a series of chains – put up in the dead of night – across bits of land that borders mine, and belongs to my dog-breeding neighbour. The chains aren’t his. I investigated. They are thin chains, plastic, and they cordon off an area of no use to anyone. My neighbour is seeing it as an illegal land-grab and is promising to unleash all sorts of stupid bullshit terror if an inter-neighbour war begins. His eyes gave him away, though: red, puffed, huge bags, crepe paper skin. He’s spent. Victory is beyond him. This is a war I will be dragged in to. There was once no good reason to have a Fiskar wood-chopping axe near my back door, but that is changing. Big, bad things begin with chains. Historically speaking.

A huge buzzard is flopping about on the backs of the gardens and up into the nature reserve right now. Such a huge bird to be hunting so close to humans. I’m watching the great thing flap like a pier jumper into an autumn ash tree, then stop to pour scorn at me with its raptor-yellow eyes, seeming to say ‘please turn your back for a second…It won’t hurt a bit’. I must remember to wear a hat when I go out.

I’ve got to stop peering at dog walkers from my back windows, least with these high-powered binoculars anyway. They can all see me. And my name is mud enough without adding ‘Peeping Tom’ to the mix. I can read the writing on the wall, even if you can’t. Dog walkers, or Police Officers posing as dog walkers? Or simply the curious out for a morning laugh at the local village nutjob? Something isn’t right when a man standing against his window with a serious optical instrument – pointing in YOUR direction – causes you to be nervous. Looking out is always better than looking in, surely?

But the wider world can’t see me, that’s almost certain – I stuck a piece of paper over the front facing camera of my laptop. That was the first thing I did when I got it. And, since I live on my own, there is hardly any talk to listen in on. And satellites can’t see through curtains. Not if they’re thick enough and tightly closed at all hours. Only bad comes of surveillance, all ways round: the snooper, the snooped, and the whistle-blowing righteous – who only wanted a minute of fame and to let us all see how we are NOT free.

Julian Assange is toast; all pale and grey. The guy can’t even fake a bad shoulder and get a trip to the hospital. What’s he going to do when the serious stuff starts, like cancer, or falling down the stairs in the early hours drunk on Ecuadorian white spirits? They will get to him. Be sure of that. They may even get me, just for writing his name – they might get you too if you don’t take precautions. This is how it goes. ‘They’ always need somebody to grind up into shark chum. Assange now, your dog next. These are lessons we’ve been taught by History – Slavery, genocide, occupation, bombs, gas chambers, on every continent. Always bubbling under the surface, and always looking for an edge over the next guy, or Nation, or Peoples, chasing the cash all the way across the surface of our planet; a relentless monster that could turn up anywhere at a moments notice.

The Meter Man is just the advance patrol, a scout on the stone prairies of my Village, riding his EON war pony and dreaming of my scalp. And if I am not careful, many men soon come, Kemosabe.

The Native Americans say that if a knock at your door goes unanswered, someone you know will die. How?

The Safest Safe of all

A gun… No, no no. Not what I should have seen. He hadn’t meant me to see it. But there the thing was – some kind of pistol: one of those types Steven Seagal uses to push into the face of a Mexican Cartel Boss seconds before whipping a kick into his jaw.

It was just laying there all black and dully menacing on the carpet, by an armchair. Ok, so this gun wasn’t the first I’d ever seen, but those ones had been legal. This wasn’t. And it was in the opiate-fuzzy ownership of a heroin dealer who was currently struggling with extreme paranoia.

He’d been holed up in the flat for a couple of weeks, not daring to go outside for fear of the Police and someone he referred to as “Gedgy” (a supplier from a nearby city who was apparently higher up the street narcotics food chain). When he told me that Gedgy had already kidnapped someone selling heroin a few miles away for non-payment in full of a wholesale drug contract, I began to wonder how long I’d been in the flat and if I really needed bundling into the back of a transit van on a Friday afternoon. By the sound of him, Gedgy wasn’t someone to reason with rationally. And I didn’t need that kind of adrenaline injection under any circumstances; who does?

My patient’s girlfriend appeared from a bedroom, half dressed. “Hi, Ben,” she said. “Has he told you about being paranoid as fuck?”
“Yep.”
“I said it’d all be ok, but he won’t believe me,” she said. She moved towards him but he motioned for her to sit near me.
“They won’t get anything anyway. She hides our stash up her,” he said. “So when the coppers come, there’s nowt they can do unless they’ve got proper good evidence. It’s fucking awesome up there, ain’t it love?” He laughed, then stared lovingly at her sitting next to me in her tiny vest and g-string.

The gun loomed large on the floor. He was twitching nervously, blood-shot eyes flicking around the room. It was obvious that despite his corpulent opiate habit, he hadn’t slept for long enough to make being within murdering distance of a firearm a safe prospect for anybody. I’d dealt with raving lunatic heroin dealers before, sometimes even if they were armed with machetes and motorcycle chains, but you can run from those things. Even in an advanced stage of paralytic fear, I would always back myself to find a whimpering solution, or a ten meter head start… Guns were different. They were death machines, with no quarter given. No fighting back, or running, would save anybody against someone armed with a gun who really wanted to kill them. A brutal and universal truth; a truth that wasn’t lost on me.

I couldn’t contain the tension any longer, “SO…..is that gun real?” I asked him, looking him straight in his unhinged eyes and nodding at its place on the floor.
He thought for a moment, “Yeah.” Then added, “But I wouldn’t use it unless I really had to…..Sometimes you just need to show people you mean business.”
I nodded sagely. What the fuck was I doing in here with a maniac and a gun?!
He rolled and lit a spliff. Leaning back in the armchair, he blew great clouds of silver-grey smoke into the air above him. The weed seemed to calm the twitching. He sat motionless, like a great monstrous bullfrog, overweight, sweating, then mouthed some silent words to himself. And that, my friends, was the cue I needed. Calm was one thing, talking to yourself was another. And at some point the elephant in the room was going to raise its ugly head: now I’ve seen the gun, when was I going to call the police? It was only a matter of time before this thought appeared across the fractured plains of what was left of his mind. And then….well….things could develop into something neither of us wanted at that exact moment. Or, in fact, ever.

I made some feeble excuse, after pretending I’d received a message on my phone, and said I’d be back next week. He seemed happy with this, and said he’d watch me from an upstairs window until I’d gone. “And if you see a black Tranny Van out there, put your fucking foot down.”

I started up my car and rolled gently, as coolly as I could, through the small estate. The call to the Police took place about ten seconds later. When they finally kicked his door in, the gun was gone. Some places are better than others to hide things, I guess. He knew that wisdom better than most.

Bugged

The chalet was large and full of expensive china. Magnums of champagne were on display on a table, and I was sitting in an armchair that looked like it was from the lounge of a Greek Shipping Magnate. The head of the family had gone South on business, leaving me his three enormous sons (all in their early twenties), his wife, a couple of daughters, and his mother.

I’d been welcomed in, as usual, with warmth and old-fashioned civility. The coffee (I don’t like coffee, but didn’t dare refuse) got handed to me in a cup and saucer, with two types of raw sugar, a silver spoon, and a pair of silver sugar tongs. I drank the coffee as quickly as I could and tried in vain to refuse a sandwich.

The women effortlessly moved around the open-plan kitchen on a long-programmed autopilot, making food, cleaning, washing up. They gently bickered. The men sat around the living room. I’d put the voice recorder on the table in the middle of us all.

The site was huge. It had a shop, a private gym, and many many things I didn’t want to know about were going on outside, quietly. We’d been laughing and joking about a recent bare-knuckle fight one of the sons had taken part in – an hour and a half of bloodied violence – and heard how his head had swelled to twice its natural size. The fight had been a draw in the end, and when he got home his fiancee took a whole ten seconds to register who he was, then screamed.

He’d already offered to fight me when we had been in Belgium. In a fit of stupidity I’d turned around and replied “So, what if I could really fight, eh?! What if I was dangerous as fuck?”
He’d loved my answer – spat out with the kind of fear only someone who has spent a week wearing a concealed money belt containing his passport/cash/ferry tickets, even when they slept, could understand – and shouted back “I knew it!! I knew it!! I knew you could fight!! Didn’t I tell you all!” while patting me on the back and laughing with joy. “We’ll spar tonight, Ben.”
We didn’t. But from then on I was potentially as masculine as they were. No bad thing. It was no deterrent at all, but it did raise my status. Nobody who couldn’t actually fight would be stupid enough to say that kind of thing….there……in front of that assembled company. Not unless they were unhinged.

But today it was going well. We were laughing, enjoying ourselves. They all knew everything was being recorded – and some things were only said outside before, or after, my visits – and hammed it up accordingly. It was a fun afternoon. Right until one of the Sons put up both of his hands and hissed “Shhhhhhhhhhh!”
I immediately stopped asking the question I was halfway through.
“You hear that?” he said.
“Hear what?”
“That beeping”
I couldn’t hear anything.
“There!” said another Son.
Yes, there it was. A high pitched beep followed by faint radio static.
“It’s under that sofa” said a Son. He rose and went over to the beige three-seater and easily lifted the front of it up with one hand. Nothing. Beep.
“There it is again!”
Granny came over, eyeballing me. She cocked an ear. “It’s here” she said, pointing at my bag by the table.
The Sons stopped searching the rest of the furniture and walked towards the bag. Oh fuck….I racked my brains. What was in my bag?? Shit, right, I knew there was a pack of spare batteries, a bottle of coke, ermm…ermm….what else? Think, brain! My phone was inside it too, but it was off.

A Son picked up my bag, and offered it to me to open. Trying to remain calm, I opened the zip. As loud as anyone needed, came the BEEP, followed by static, then “Two, two, receiving…..over”
“What is THAT?” Said a Son.
I tipped the bag upside down on the table. I was right, just some batteries, a bottle of coke, and my phone. Again……BEEP… “Come in, over”.
It came from my phone…

They were watching my reaction, carefully.
“So….what’s the score here, Ben?” I was asked.
“I have no idea! It’s my phone, but I’d turned it off.”
I tore at the phone, showed them it was off….. BEEP…..”Come in….”
Ripping the back off the phone, I removed the battery and told them I hadn’t a clue what the hell any of that was about – which was the truth. They backed off, but we cut short the interviews and I was invited outside for a tour of the gym.

It was all smiles.

We paused by the gym door, one Son in front, one behind. I felt a large hand on my shoulder. “You know, if you are snide, you are in trouble. Shotgun, boot, gone.” There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Ha,” I replied. “You couldn’t kill your way out of a paper bag.” What the hell was I gibbering about!? Fear. Fear makes you do stupid things.
He laughed. “You’re alright, Ben. You’re funny.” He patted my back. They had been in situations like this before, many times, I guessed. I hadn’t.

Inside the gym I took a couple of swings at a punch bag. It wasn’t impressive. It’s hard to hit when you are shaking.

Midnight Deal

“You don’t have to have been an arsonist to be a fireman.” – Me.

Ys, ys, yes, a-hoho. A self-indulgent quote from a self-indulgent guy sitting at an old desk, watching the rain drip from the overgrown honeysuckle hanging across the glass of the window opposite. I should really be doing the washing up, or writing ten pieces I’ve been offered by an Editor of a large, vicious, niche sporting magazine. I’ve ignored his emails for about two months now. Easily done, on the face of it, but in this business, profile is everything: without somebody reading something you’ve written, you are not alive. Nor are you relevant.

You are also poor.

And then there is the ‘Book’, the thought of which is sending shivers of terror down my spine, arms, and inner eyelids, when I close them and try to forget the whole situation isn’t actually happening – which is frequently. Many good things can be accomplished with a bit of impulse and drive, but being chained to something as terrible as a book on one of the most dangerous men in the UK is something not really akin to painting the fence, or building a patio. In my case, any patio being built around here may well contain a fourteen stone, five foot ten, rotting corpse under it if I don’t deliver on a ridiculous promise I made in the middle of a Belgian forest at around midnight.

It had been an awful journey.

After a sleepless night on a North Sea ferry – trying to avoid the stag parties and a wanton Malaysian waiter – I’d plodded down a gangplank and into a blacked out car containing two very large Irish Travellers. Two hours later I was in a snowy compound in a forest of pines, being given great hospitality by someone once referred to by the Serious Organised Crime Squad as “Our number one target”, with an estimated ill-gotten fortune of £200,000,000. Yes. Imagine that. We struck the book deal at around midnight in a huge log cabin. A large TV was silently throwing out the boxing bouts of the evening above the stone fireplace. Someone, somewhere, was getting his head kicked in. I wondered if I was next.

The rain has stopped, now. Amazing how that can shift a mood. Well, I’ve put down my voice recorder with its forty plus hours of amazing interviews with my dangerous friend (yes, he regards me as a friend now. And, in truth, it’s reciprocated), and I’m off to make a cup of tea and wonder if another pregabalin tablet will ease the situation further. In another reality I am sitting under a palm tree and watching unicorns frolicking in the crystalline surf, and people don’t have guns or bombs, and nobody forces anyone to drink petrol, then sets them on fire, or hangs them out of helicopters over Monaco.

And those things have happened. I am the gatekeeper of some of them.

Three sugars in my tea now. It used to only be one.

Medical Angels


It was chaos, looking back. Above my desk I had a small notice board. On it I’d pinned a small photo a colleague had taken of Dog the Bounty Hunter’s house in Hawaii while she was on honeymoon, a medal from McDonalds that a patient had given to me with the words “you’re the best”, a picture of Emilio Zapata, something the daughter of my recently ex’ed-partner had drawn, and two empty coffee shop loyalty cards. I never drank coffee. On my desk were piles of paperwork, a copy of the Tora, and a bottle of my medication that needed keeping cool – I’d stopped storing it in the staff fridge because someone had hidden it once, right about the same time as someone pissed in my bottle of orange squash…hohoho.

The NHS Drug Treatment Programme where I worked was managed by a fat ex Chief Inspector who liked to shoot animals and talk wistfully about how things used to be in the Police Force, and who had the widest management-speak vocabulary I’ve ever come across. He had all the politician gestures, too – fist with thumb on top to denote firm but non-threatening authority, open hand……shit, I can’t even bring myself to describe the rest of it. Too awful for words. Like watching a zoo-mad ape going through the same gestures over and over again with conviction in its face, but no soul in its eyes.

I know there’s a huge outpouring of sentiment when it comes to the NHS. Before I worked for them I felt the same way; love and respect to the army of caring angels who often worked for nothing just for the chance to make the world a better place. And, I’ll be honest, that kind of shit appealed to me at first; still does. What I actually found was much, much different. People simply didn’t care. They went through the motions – because if they didn’t, they’d be disciplined – but the default setting was one of irritation and hatred of patients. When a well known patient died of a heroin overdose, people laughed and made up jokes. How we chuckled that morning when his corpse was discovered in an alleyway by the local bin men, blue, needle hanging out of his forty three year old arm. Funny, but there weren’t many laughs at his funeral; I know; I went to it.

A CPN on the team bragged about how little work he did, but still missed the times when he used to sneak patient’s diazepam for himself on a psychiatric ward while he slept on night shifts. There was a lot to be said for the free time and the free meds. And some could find a lot of free time if they were clever enough.

I found some staff making ‘Top Trump’ cards of our patients with categories including “Mental”, “Smell” and “likelihood of death”….. Really. They sat laughing; thought it was what humans in need were about – a cheap laugh, people to look down at. It’s a lovely feeling to be overweight, with money in the bank, a house, car, job, and the moral high ground over someone with an addiction problem. Power is something even a low-grade NHS worker clings to at almost any given opportunity. Help yourself to the view of someone’s shitty life and suddenly your own doesn’t look so bleak, eh.

I was the most unpopular member of staff on the Team. I wore that honour as a badge. I didn’t go on a single ‘Staff do’, or buy a single birthday present. Someone once asked me why I never did anything out of work with my colleagues – thought I was the weird one in all of this – but I couldn’t tell them the truth: I hated the whole lot of them more than most people; that I knew those fuckers were employed to help the vulnerable and instead they’d become hideous monsters. Man…. If ever I got into heroin again I’d know to stay a million miles from that place. The anecdotes I’d heard about families chaining opiate-dependent offspring to radiators to help with a detox  made total sense when scum like my colleagues were the alternative.

When I finally left – with my mental health in tatters, after a suicide attempt (my third), and a subsequent suspension – I heard people were glad to see the back of me; that jokes had been made about my failed suicide once the news had gotten out, and that I was “never any good”.

That summer I sat in my little flat with the curtains closed, medicated out of my mind, braving frequent appearances from the mental health team, daily visits from my poor mother (who dreaded knocking on that door each morning and there being no reply), and reckoned on it all being the end of me. It wasn’t. Clearly. I had messed up a relationship – someone I’d wanted like crazy since we’d been at school – and now I was alone with the mice in the dark.

It was ironic the Mental Health Crisis Team had helped to save my life on that occasion. The NHS had compounded me getting really ill that summer, and punished me for it with rabid joy, but it had also arrived in time to stop my overdose and death. Dialectics personified.

I don’t know where I’m going with this now. Do I hate the NHS? Am I just mad at working with fucking idiots? Am I bitter? What’s the problem here? I really don’t know. I suppose I want to tell you not everyone in the NHS is bad, but some are and that’s the point. And those kind of people should stand out, but they don’t. Not every port is ok in a storm, even if it’s meant to be, that much is clear to me. The NHS saved my life, and continues to help me on a daily basis. For that, I’m grateful. But don’t ask me to believe in Angels.

“Call on God, but row away from the rocks.” – HST

Christmas Jail – Please release me..

Rows and rows of heavily barred windows rose up beyond an inner fence of thick steel mesh crowned with razor wire. Across the exercise yard a tall metal pillar was topped with several fully functioning, high resolution, all-weather, surveillance cameras. It was Christmas Eve, 2002.

The sounds of shit dance music and shouted requests for a loan of tobacco filled the dark early evening. Somewhere off to my left, from another House Block, wafted the last few words of a Christmas Carol; shouted at first, then screamed until the singer came away from his small window and someone else summoned up the breath for a chorus of “Please release me….”

Entering the large House Block where my office was located, I clanged the large metal gate shut as quietly as I could, then heaved and locked in place the heavy wooden inner door. The smell of prison hooch filled the lower hall. It was a smell I instantly associated with Christmas: sweet, sickly, rotten fruit and sugar with yeasty high notes of desperation. Passing the laundry, the smell intensified as the three laundry workers lounged inside the fuggy room – they’d have spotted me well before I’d got to them, and had already got plan A, B, and C in place for hiding the fermenting stash. I waved, smiled, and walked on. The festive brew lay undisturbed, ready to render the unwary blind, sometimes permanently. Merry Christmas…

My office was dark, but I didn’t put the light on when I entered. The security lights outside on one side of the exercise yard shone out in the cold and left artificial moonlight shadows on the walls inside. The phone rang. I knew it’d be my wife but I didn’t want to answer, and I didn’t want to go home. So I sat and stared at the badly filled in wall planner opposite. It had been a bad year.

I hadn’t cheated on her, but ten months later I would. I didn’t know it at the time, all I knew is that I wasn’t happy, something was missing. Right now it wasn’t untenable or inevitable, but all the signs were there in glorious grim technicolour. Twenty minutes passed. She would be at home worried that I had already left her. Our marriage was collapsing, we both knew it. She didn’t deserve any of this. I didn’t love her.

I left the House Block the same way that I came in – avoiding the main thoroughfare and the unending line of “Happy Christmas’s” I’d have to go through with pissed Prisoners and merry Staff before I finally got out of the jail and into my car. I locked the metal gate quietly again and started off down the outside of the cell block, breath hanging in the High Secure air.

Half way along the exercise yard I heard a drunken voice from a cell window shouting at a female member of staff on the walkway above me: “Oi….MISS. I’d fuck you!”
I stopped and looked in the direction of the voice’s cell through the evil river fog that always hung over the jail in winter. He saw me and added: “And I’d fuck you too you gay bastard.”
I laughed. “Happy Christmas luvvy,” I shouted back.

The road home ran through the flat lands of the Isle of Axholme. It was desolate in the December cold. At home the prearranged family meal had finished. Tomorrow a heap of shit presents would be opened and I would get drunk enough to fall asleep and not have to talk about us.