Feelin’ it fast

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The cars were wrecked, covered in mud, dinted, full of hungover kids and fucked up camping equipment. Girls had tried to plat their hair but the rain and the sweating atmosphere of airless tents had rat-tailed every one of them. They looked like refugees escaping some desperate war zone. Close to the edge of panic.

Car after car sat in the gridlock in the village. The bus driver was shouting to me about the madness of camping in a field around here and listening to ‘that shit music’. I shouted back that he just felt old. Like I did.

I got off at my stop, walked slowly across the road, waved at the Romanians at the car wash. They smiled and waved back, then went on cleaning a Porsche as the fat driver stood back admiring the power of money. His sunglasses were too big for his piggy face. Trousers too tight, belly hanging over the front. Gold bracelet, heavy and glinting in the sun, hung against the top of one hand, dragging him down, nailing his soul to the floor. His teeth matched the white foam but his skin was red. Blood pressure too high. Climbed off his big-titted wife barely half an hour ago as she lay panting under the weight. Cock barely functioning despite the view below him writhing in mock ecstasy, trying her best.

He moved his head to one side, checking out the cleaning job on the car. It had never occurred to him how much you can get people to do for ten pounds. You got your car cleaned, smiled at – bowed at, too, sometimes. Language barriers make for odd gestures. The traffic moved slowly. He eyeballed the bored drivers. He thought about where to drive when the car was clean. Maybe McDonalds? Eat a burger. Then pick up the wine and get back to those tits. Man…they’d been a good investment.

I went inside my house. Put my bag down. I heard the roar of the Porsche start up. He revved the engine four or five times for maximum effect, turned up the stereo. I heard him pull out into the traffic and accelerate away up the hill, really gunning it. I wondered if his wife was ready for another go on the mountain of blubber that was heading her way in the sunshine, too fast to stop.

 

Woe

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The chairs scraped on the tiled floor in the little back room in the big Georgian house. There was a blackboard on the wall chalked with Greek, sometimes Latin, other times French verbs. We always had about half an hour in there before we went into the main teaching room. This was a time to say hi to the other students (about eight of us) and practice the shit on the black board. The technique must have worked because there I was, ten years old, able to conjugate French and Latin verbs. The Greek was fucking impossible.

The place was for gifted kids. Man…..

-I can’t concentrate. I couldn’t back then, and I can’t today. There’s a recirculating thought zipping back around when I thought I’d given it the slip. Even a simple memory and a few minutes sitting typing is impossible. What the fuck is happening to me?!

I’m trying to avoid feelings of woe. Yes, I guess that’s the main issue today. But I’m not the only one.

The rain flooded out a big festival near here last night. Girls with smeared glittery faces turned up at the supermarket shivering and trying to reconcile that they’d gone past the point where festival mud had stopped being chic and funny. The headline band had cancelled their show. Up on the bleak hills of the festival site, open to the elements, 20,000 people are shivering in brown goo this morning. And no amount of ketamine will dry your clothes. Rumours of water being turned off in the showers, cars too deep in the mud to move by tractor, and roaming gangs destroying tents. Fear is apparent in the Twitter posts of desperate teenagers. No chance of walking home from that remote hillside. God, the nearest train station is 6 miles away down a road with no pavements, used by speeding articulated lorries from the quarry. No escape. They are all trapped like tadpoles in a jam jar.

I can’t think straight. There is not single chance I can write anything coherent today. I’m thinking of airplanes, sunny beaches, electricity, the solid thwack of a metaphysical arrow. Woe.

Wasted again

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I burned another incense stick but the smell of weed was overpowering. There were a couple of windows open, but I was sure that they only spread the problem down the backs of neighbouring houses. For some childish reason the whole thing felt naughty. Here we were, two middle-aged guys wrecked on booze, pills, and weed on a mild July night. Listening to music. Laughing. Talking about the old days. Passing the joints back and forth like we’d done a long, long time ago. I wasn’t mentally ill, and he wasn’t struggling with his past alcoholism. Neither of us had been through tough times. Not last night, anyhow.

The lights drew moths in through the windows, the music moved on, we sank more beers, smoked up a good fug, and I twirled on the old office chair at my desk talking rubbish over and over again about that one person whom I’d have preferred to his company right then. He was oblivious, rambling and starting to lose any coherent train of thought. I decided not to offer him any of my codeine and pregabalin. I’d taken some but, then, I am a professional. I watched him – eyes reddened, slurring his words, veering wildly from reminiscence to periods of semi-rage as we navigated our shared experiences. He took longer to roll the joints, got less involved in listening, and more in talking. His eyes seemed to have become smaller, like tiny red marbles, withdrawing into his face to escape the sensory overload that the cannabis and ethyl alcohol were laying down on his brain.

He over-ordered from the pizza menu and I rang the order in, mostly because I was the nearest we had to a public face. When the delivery guy turned up he was greeted with a cloud of blue smoke and a beaming smile faking innocence and trying desperately to get the money into his hand and explain, yes, I’d over tipped by a long way but to just take the fucking money and let me shut this front door for the love of God. Too much attention was already being garnered at the back of the house, what with the music and the stench, to have to fight a battle against the general public on two fronts.

He ate greedily, in the clichéd stoner way. I chomped through my shitty pizza only because I hadn’t eaten for almost 36 hours. It tasted of warm dough, fat, and battery acid. When he’d eaten two pizzas and some chips we sparked another joint up and sat back with full stomachs smoking into the night. Bottles and cans everywhere, music booming into the early hours down this quiet hillside. Two old friends. Wasted again.

Character Study in A Minor

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He was odd. I knew that much the first time I’d met him, before he even started talking. Today he was wearing a long duster coat and cowboy boots, white shirt open nearly down to his navel, blue jeans. It was 1990.

The kid had lived up the road from me for years but had gone to a public school rather than mix with the rest of us in the festering pool of genetic freaks, shared girlfriends, and poor educational prospects delivered at the local comprehensive. Now we were standing outside the smokers common room at the sixth form college in a nearby town. It was sunny. Dust blew along the old surface of what used to be a tennis court. He was a few feet away, chest puffed out so it looked like he had some form of spinal problem. Inane grin showing too many teeth, arrow straight, like a nightmarish Muppet or a horror film cyborg. His chin extended far in front of his face, not helped by a sight underbite. Flattop hair, buzz shaved at the sides, sloped downwards and mirrored the angle of the chin. I was studying him, watching him leering at a girl he was talking to. I could hear him telling her lies about having signed up for the Army, being trained in close combat. She was disinterested, took a cigarette out of a packet, and went to light it. Like a gunslinger, in a blur, he took a matchbox from a pocket in his jeans, lifted up a snakeskin cowboy boot, and struck a match on the sole. He flourished it at her cigarette. I guess she was too overcome with the ferocity of the gesture and the stares from the people around us to refuse. He waved the flame out and tossed the dead match onto the ground with too much effort. Now she looked embarrassed.

His voice was kind of mid-Atlantic. Gravelly, too. Cross between Clint Eastwood and Eton. The accent took a lot of effort, and he spoke slowly, considering the vowel sounds and the tone of the thing before saying the actual words. He was trying to portray a superior air. We were all beneath him. He was leering again, his eyes flicking down to her chest when he thought she couldn’t tell. Most of the other people on their smoke breaks had stopped talking to each other by now and some were openly laughing at him.

‘Hey, Alastair. Why do you light matches on your fucking boots?’ someone asked.

‘If it’s for a lady, then I have to make an extra special effort,’ he replied, grinning at the girl. My God, those teeth went on forever. I wondered how many teeth a human head is supposed to contain and if he had broken some kind of natural order of things. She took a step away from him, her legs unconsciously moving her away from danger; primeval instinct of self-preservation. He had the same look in his eyes that I had seen on nature documentaries: a shark heading up through the surf and about to open its mouth before the first exploratory bite; the adrenaline keenness and focus of an apex predator. Like a San Francisco harbour seal, stranded from the safety of its own kind, she could sense a shift in the atmosphere, she looked scared.

‘Err…thanks for the light, Alastair. I’ve got to run, I’ve got an art lesson in a minute.’

‘I’ll see you on the bus then, my lady.’ He looked pleased. Okay, so he had missed the target in his first rushed attack, but he knew where the prey would be heading and he was going to make damn sure he was ready for the ambush next time. On the college bus, no-one could hear you scream.

The clock ran round to the hour. People began to leave. I had a free period and was going to smoke some hash on the playing field, so I was in no rush. I sat down against the wall and checked I had enough Rizla papers. I looked up. Alastair was standing there, blocking out the sunlight.

‘You know, Ben-boy, drugs are bad for you. They make you weak.’

‘Fuck off.’

‘The women prefer someone with class. Someone who can operate at maximum performance all the time. Drugs just slow you down.’

‘Really…’

He fidgeted a bit, like there was some kind of internal struggle going on behind the crazy look in his eyes, then grinned again, pirouetted around on one of those high cowboy boot heels, and walked slowly down towards his GCSE retake class.

Le Sourire

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Heart beating hard and fast. 2am. I kicked off the duvet, stared at the ceiling again, and tried to focus my thoughts. I could almost see the feeling in the air above me, all around the dark room, moving just that tiny fraction out of phase with everything else. You could squint and maybe you’d catch it for a second moving quickly out of the corner of your eye or right ahead of you disappearing, fading quickly into the stone window frames. If I didn’t know better I’d have said it was a spiritual intervention or message. Religions have started on lesser foundations.

And over it all, that feeling thumping, cossetting, working deep inside against the grain of everything I’ve ever known. Call it what you want. This thing has power.

When I finally woke up, the sun had started to aggressively pound into the hillside, a dog was wailing, and my head moved quickly through the gears from early waking numbness up into that feeling again. I couldn’t have stopped it if I tried. I took my meds, swallowing them down with cold water, and went into the bathroom. I looked in the mirror over the wash basin. My eyes were red, I looked old, fat, ravaged by years of bad experiences. I told myself this was only a dream. No-one could really be that crazy. I soaked my face, grey beard and all, in the sink and lifted my head back up to the mirror. Nothing had changed at all except the water running in great globules from the straggled edges of my face. Then I thought of those images stored in my brain from the night before, the things that were said, looked once more in the mirror, and couldn’t stop a smile.

 

Where were you?

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Only God knew why I was in that farmhouse with a head full of acid. I’d been up for two nights – the first at a party with a girl, talking into the early hours, no sleep at all, smoking, cadging drinks, trying to hold it together and get our heads down in a little pink bed (which broke). After the party I’d gone home, showered, met some friends and bought the acid. The next night had been wild and crazy in a small house in another village. And for the first ever time LSD had caused a proper hallucination – a great starry dog face looming out of the night sky down at me. I’d taken some more at midday, watching tv all afternoon, laughing. Now I was coming down slowly from the trip in this farmhouse. People mooched about in the big rooms, a door was off its hinges.

The farm was owned by the parents of two twins a year younger than me. We were all at the same sixth form. They were crazy. Always fighting with each other. Really punching hard, smashing things around the home, there were fist sized holes in doors. The parents had gone away and they’d regret it when they got back.

Three or four kids were rolling joints in the kitchen, and there was talk of some amphetamine arriving soon. I was beginning to feel good again, more in control, but they saw through me and, like most morons who never understood LSD, began making weird faces and doing strange gestures with their hands to provoke someone in the early stage paranoia of a trip. I grabbed a joint and told them to chill out. The hash tasted sweet. I took long tokes, watching the blue smoke collect up high near an unmoving ceiling fan, some shit music drifted through from another room.

There is a point in a trip where you cross from total madness into a serene, calm, phase. It was the best part of LSD for me. I felt in touch with the way of things; the Cosmos; whatever greater being was tending the campfire. The come-down was beautiful every time. I always tried to string it out for as long as it lasted, make the most of things, lie down in a cornfield and watch the clouds, or put some great music on and watch the cars pass by my bedroom window. Sometimes I’d walk out to the Church and sit on the low wall and look over to the nearest town. Even the smoke from the steelworks there looked beautiful. Everything in a come-down made sense, you just needed to have the capacity to accept what the acid was telling you. Go with it.

In the farmhouse the mood was beginning to shift. People were drinking heavily out of whiskey bottles and getting macho. We were heading to a crisis point and if those other poor saps couldn’t see it then more fool them. I had been smoking for a couple of hours and now it was time to leave before the place exploded. I took a back lane home as dusk began to soak up the light. By the old air raid bunker I sat down and watched the Scunthorpe streetlights turn the horizon into a vast orange blob. The last parts of the acid were leaving my brain. I’d stay and sit it out up there. The warm night hugged tight.

 

The Scunthorpe Wife

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He moved closer, hoping the dwindling light of his fame was still visible enough in the gloomy hall; that it still meant something after all those years. He’d traded on his pudding bowl hair cut in the early days – almost registered it for trademark purposes, wigs, the silhouette on a t-shirt bearing his band’s name – but now he was bald and just prayed people looked at him through the lens of their youth. And some did. He was grateful for it.

The music skipped on. The crowd were all riding the joyous wave of being back in the early 90’s. Driven now not by being part of a zeitgeist, but by white wine and the chance to escape how awful things had turned out for them. Most people were sitting down. Back in the day the only people sitting were too-fucked-up to stand or dance, or were colluding young couples seeking the dark. The lights were worse then. He knew all those little truths. How many clubs like this had he been at over the years? He couldn’t begin to count. The ones he’d played at were just a blur, but they were nothing compared to the monstrous conveyor belt of punters in the places on the Appearance Circuit he was working now. Thousands of photographs, ‘Hello, mate,’ people singing old songs to him spilling beer, and everyone looking older. Sometimes he wondered if this phoney fame would last forever. Would he still be appearing when everybody had white hair and the crowds were reduced by time to ten people in Shackleton high seat chairs in the sunny glow of a retirement home lounge? He shuddered.

At the bar, a beautiful woman was talking with her friend. She was petite, sparky, the kind of face you don’t forget – an imprint of something perfect that maybe even touches deep down into some level of the subconscious: you are meant to take notice of a woman like her, it’s just evolution, baby. He remembered her face from the appearance last year. He was sure of it. They’d chatted, he’d enjoyed it. Of all the women in the town she had stood out. He was glad to see her again. Maybe this time he’d be lucky. He touched her arm. She turned around and laughed. Man, she was so pretty. He adjusted his shirt, made a sweeping motion with his arms to level up the collar, and began the honed charm of somebody who meets industrial numbers of people.

They talked for a while, she was good company, people were taking photos, the Stella tasted sweeter, as it always did, the more he drank. He called her his ‘Scunthorpe Wife’. She thought that was funny, but she knew what he was really getting at. She wasn’t going to let that happen. The music continued, the lights blitzed, people were shouting over the noise, laughing, this was what it was all about. The time was right. He was in the zone. He hugged her. She hugged back, laughing to her friends. Then he turned his head, aiming to kiss her. She let him, puckering up jokily, but he was too far into this and into her. Their lips touched. She felt his tongue try to force its way into her mouth. She drew her head back, looking confused. He laughed, fobbing it off as something people who are drunk and used to be famous do all the time. Like sitting alone in their little flats, sifting through yellowed press clippings and trying to drink in those feelings for the thousandth time. Like a cocaine addict chasing that first buzz. Never truly replicating it, but not ever wanting to admit the terrifying fact that they’d been as high as they’d ever be. No second chance.

At the end of the night he went back to the hotel and took out the few warm cans he’d put in his suitcase. He sipped on one as he thought about failing to snare her. For a moment he wondered about the lucky guy who she’d gone home to. If he was ever famous?

 

Panda

 

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She was talking in a softer voice. And she had leaned forward towards me. By then I was staring at the floor, breathing heavier, letting the tears find their own path. She kept going ‘Ben, this is the sadness that you have to feel, and to get to know. It’s ok.’

My mind was jumping from childhood images, to recent events, to hopes, and then into the overwhelming void of all of our fears and horrors. It was an overload of such harrowing proportions that I stopped being able to see anything in the beige room clearly. Only the sound of her soft voice encouraging me, telling me I was ok, kept me free from disassociating into that secret place I’d found when I was little. I used to be able to choose the entrance point, the length of stay, and the depth, but now I’m sucked inside without a choice. I could feel the unseen hands on my shoulders. She kept talking. I guessed she knew what was going on.

After a while I looked at her. She was flushed pink in her thin face, unsettled, it seemed like what I had said and how I’d reacted had resonated with her. ‘Can you hug anything when you get home…a teddy, pillow? I know it sounds stupid, but try.’

I nodded my head but had no intention of following her advice. I glanced at her again, she seemed sad too. I thought of how stupid I looked – tears still wet on my face, trying to breath calmly – and apologised. Most people do when they’ve come out of a crying fit in front of another person. I guess it’s because we all know how it feels to see somebody in distress. Watching someone cry is difficult viewing.

I drove home feeling emptier than normal. I pushed the accelerator down harder than usual, drove fast and careless, skidding the car around tight corners. I was trying to get out of the fug, just to feel something. I made a vague plan to hurt myself when I got back.

When I finally came home I locked the back door behind me. I was heading for the kitchen and the knife drawer. That’s when I saw it, looking at me from a shelf. Just as I’d left it. Old as me, nose squashed from all the hours and days and years of being held tightly in times of trouble. Keeper of all my childhood, comforter, the only friend I’d had in dark times, now just an old bear sitting in my little old house gathering dust, kind of forgotten.

I walked over to it, laughing at my own stupidity, then picked him up and held him like I did when I was just a blonde-haired boy who never knew if he’d die tomorrow. I hadn’t hugged that bear for thirty years. He knew what to do, he didn’t ask me anything, didn’t judge, just quietly listened. I forgot about the knife and put him back down on an armchair. He still worked.

 

Staying Alive

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At 3am you get the sense you’ve been here before; light crawling up the hillside, the grey porridge of the end of night, too early to move, too late to go to sleep. Early July, 3am, is a time to sit on the edge of a bed and draw the curtain and create the notion of hope in the forming daylight. You might sit like that for a while, pausing to throw yourself back onto the bed and stare at the ceiling and wonder, and think, and try to let all those thoughts drift up and out of the open window with any prayers you might have silently mouthed. And I did.

Where thoughts like that go is anyone’s guess. I could almost see them reaching out from inside and forming long golden lines like cosmic silk, floating up into the morning. Almost. Perhaps some God somewhere gathers them in and weaves a better future if you can only provide enough? A vast omnipotent being, taking in my hopes and dreams and slowly piecing the threads together until it hands them back to me fully formed into a gold jacket. Maybe that’s what happened to Barry Gibb? He had the right contacts up there, a direct line. Priority customer. Maybe I’m still in the queue, further down the list? Or they boogied all their bonhomie away on that one sacred item of clothing? NO energy left to complete my order.

And that’s it today. The birds need feeding, the grass needs mowing, and I still have to write some more stuff in order to eat. Standard day on earth. Basic human events. Totally under control. So why is my heart beating faster than it should? My thoughts aren’t still. They get only so far then return to the same point over and over, like a looping disco track. I just don’t have the right clothes.

 

Paragon of Animals

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Quiet up on the moor this morning. No sounds of outward bound groups screaming with the delight that trees and air and rocks can zap into an inner city brain if you let it.

As I stood at the viewpoint a guy came past, looked me up and down, smirked. He was fit, sinewy, tanned, hardly out of breath as he ran. I watched him kick up the dust on the old railway line. He was moving. I looked at myself when he’d gone out of sight: old, out of shape, dusty boots, shorts, rucksack. Dressed for suck-sess. He was superior in every way, bouncing along like an impala, too fast to catch or throw a rock at, smug. Men like that always win, always sprint past through life. They are go-getters. The sharks in the sea. Viewing the rest of us as prey. Too full of testosterone to see properly out of their eyes. I thought about turning back, writing the day off in maudlin self-hurt, but ended up on auto-pilot down the incline under the canopy of July, 2017.

The walk was quicker than usual. Maybe a trick of the mind, maybe worm holes, or some psychotic delusion. I kept reciting the Hamlet Soliloquy, famous as the ending of Withnail and I. It seemed to make sense. ‘What a piece of work is a man!’

A pretentious mental tick…… ‘Man delights not me..’ over and over, and the geese on the canal heard some of the words before they could paddle away with their chicks in the early morning sun. The village was empty. I made it back up the hill, locked the garden gate behind me. Got to typing.