Fine Print

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Someone told me that you should just write. Doesn’t matter what it’s about – choose the first thing that comes into your head. I followed that advice for years. Even sitting doing paid gigs for magazines/websites and PR companies. Mostly the advice proved to be good. Only one Editor refused to print something I’d written without ‘Major fucking changes to the way you are blowing smoke up the ass of the W.B.C.’

Today I’m finding it difficult. Really difficult. Worse than psychotic episode brain-freeze. Or gibberish. Shit, I liked the gibberish. Reading the ravings of someone deep into a paranoid belief the neighbours are all police officers makes for fun reflection when the dust has settled. I’ve written high, low, hallucinating, starving, puking, hungover, and when it’s been so cold that the olive oil in my kitchen has frozen. But not today. There is no coherent thought I can drag along on the back of. Well, there’s one, but it’s so consuming that I feel like I’m being eaten from the inside out.

My Psychologist and I argued on the phone about how I deal with this. She’s worried. Kept asking me about my propensity to self harm. Wanting to assess the level of danger. I could hear her typing things down carefully as I spoke. ‘No……honestly, for fuck’s sake, I’m safe.’ One answer like that is usually enough, but she must have asked me four or five times over twenty minutes. Same answer, same typing. Same thought, over and over and over. Same face, same smile, same laughter.

Music on now. Loud. Someone told me it’s all about grounding yourself in times like these. I guess it works, mostly. Maybe a quick prayer will help?

Okay, God, you fucking owe me. Let’s not argue about that, eh. We both know it. I’ve borne enough bullshit and hurt to last me from here until you high-five my hand warmly as I ride through those big gates on a Raleigh Chopper. Time for that re-birth you’re always banging on about in those pamphlets that come through my letterbox infrequently. Forget the gibberish about dinosaurs and homosexuals. That stuff isn’t important. You’ve lost your way a bit concentrating on things that don’t matter. Give me this one fucking chance to feel good.

There. I told you this thing would be incoherent. But at least whatever being is tending the eternal campfire up there now has the fine print in black and white. Spiritual proof, if you will. Maybe you can write your way to anything if you let it just flow?

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Nights of panic

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The house was on a new development. Mock Tudor. Hideous. I was only looking at it because my partner thought it was the right thing – the upwardly mobile thing – to do. She was bland. I guess that’s why the blandness of the little street appealed. All I knew was that it was bigger than the house we were living in. And I wouldn’t have to hear the neighbours over the road fucking in the summer with their windows open. Screaming up the hot night while I lay in bed not wanting to do the same with the woman laying next to me. Every time I heard them I imagined the kind of love and lust that was driving those screams and moans. It had never been like that in my life. Fuck those hot summer nights. We would breath heavy. Both of us knowing the other wasn’t asleep. Not touching in bed. Me staring into the gloom praying I wouldn’t feel a hand on me under the thin sheets. Having to make up an excuse.

But the new house was going to be away from all that. The neighbours weren’t going to screw all night and shout each others names into the stinking rotten Epworth air. This was a move upwards. Up Up, into the middle class. Two cars on the drive. Waving to grass-cutting middle-aged car salesmen across the way on Saturday afternoons. Pristine house. Glass of wine with Dinner. Better and better cars and sofas and holidays until the rest of my hair fell out and the pension cheques started dropping on the mat. Climbing up into the apex of fat mediocrity. Tense puckered kisses goodbye in the mornings, the limit of sexual contact. Thankful for it.

The house was owned by a single woman in her mid to late forties. I can’t remember her name but it was something like Crapper, or Merde, or some other shit-based reference. I remember laughing when I first heard it. She had curly brown hair and, possibly, an eating disorder. She was very thin, drawn, and her eyes had sunk right down into their sockets. I was shocked when she opened the door to show us around. And she was timid, really scared-looking. Mousy. Like she was about to run to a safe room and bolt the door behind her. She barely whispered when she talked. Something told me she’d seen something awful and couldn’t wash it away. I thought that’s why she kept the house so clean. The hallway and stairs had a brand new carpet, you could smell the newness. The walls had been painted cream and it looked as though the paint layers were thick and expensive. My partner loved the place, so after we looked round we went back to the estate agents and told them we’d offer near the asking price. I wondered about the new carpets in a new house. I asked what it was all about.

‘You didn’t see the news last year?’ she replied.

‘No..’

‘Her husband attacked her one night in the house with an axe. It was pretty bad. She was trying to leave and he was chopping at her as she was coming down the stairs into the hallway to the front door, trying to run. I heard she curled up into ball by the front door and he just kept on hacking. Someone next door heard the noise and called the police. She nearly died.’

‘Jesus!’

‘He got twenty years in prison.’

‘And that’s why the new carpet and the paint job?’

‘Yeah. You do still want to put an offer in?’

The sales pitch wasn’t the best I’d ever heard. But at least it was honest. Mrs Crapper, or whatever she was called, had only just come out of hospital and wanted rid of the place where she’d almost been chopped to pieces by someone she trusted. She wasn’t even living there any more. She’d moved in to her sister’s. She couldn’t face living alone. Being hacked at with an axe tends to change people.

So we bought the house, violent memories and all, and I set about cleaning the car on Saturdays, waving to the guy across the road. Losing more of me by the second. Disappearing into the middle of my life in a beige haze of nothing out of the ordinary. At least in the summer, with the bedroom windows open, the nights were still. Like they were in the marriage bed.

 

Fooled

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A long time ago – is two years a long time? – I used to write about Boxing. It was mostly always a paid gig, depending on the publication and the Editor, and the strength of the subject matter. Really though, when you lay the subject bare, there is only so much you can say about people punching each other in the head. I used to try and stay away from that sort of thing and aim for the off-kilter parts of the sport: the weirdness, the characters, the underworld, and the feeling of being covered with blood splatters while you’re sitting ringside watching the Doctor playing pool on his iphone instead of watching the fight. Nights of baying crowds, high on Cocaine and cheap booze, with me sitting next to the canvas with a notebook and pen, trying not to look the fighters in the eyes when they were getting punched senseless in the corner right in front of me. Some of them even whimpered. Say what you like, but you can see pain and fear when the punches rain in. I don’t care who they are, or how they tell a press conference about ‘desire’ and ‘courage’. I know Rocky doesn’t exist outside of a cinema screen. Just like I know that blood takes ages to remove from a white cotton t-shirt.

But, ah, those sweaty nights. Locked in turmoil. Earning a crust, hating the sport, writing hours of endless gibberish with mock sincerity. Avoiding the fights in the crowd, sitting next to scantily dressed ring girls who were barely able to climb into the ring on heels you could skewer a pig with. The background soundtrack of wolf whistles, shouts of ‘I’d fuck you!’ and the drunken jeering when the round starts. Blood-lust. The smell was tangible. Testosterone, earnest machismo. Barred teeth and pumping fists into the auditorium air. One glorious, unpredictable, human machine. A combine harvester ready to go at a moments notice. Anywhere. For any reason. Mob rule pressure cooker release valve, ready to test the limits.

Some nights there was need for the security cordon around the ringside area. The fearless few always lost in the end, carried out by men in black towards back entrances and a lesson in the alleyway that would leave an impression lasting beyond the life of the bruises. Other nights I was left alone in relative quiet between gangsters and many, many handshakes and faces eager for me to write the right things about their boy. I almost never did.

When I got home after an event I was always shattered. Emotionally spent. Covered in sweat and tiny freckles of blood. I’d go and shower, leaving my face lifted up to the shower head and thinking about the meaning of all that violence. The swollen hands and noses, broken ribs, the money changing hands, futures decided in the half a second of lapsed concentration. Sated violent desire, hotel rooms, come-downs, ice baths. The spectacle of it all; steeped in history and evolution. Satisfying the crowd, but not me. I always thought everyone was being fooled anyhow. Nobody ever won.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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.