Solstice

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You can’t believe the sound a pool ball whirled in a sock makes when it connects with a human skull until you hear it in person. A dull thwack, gristly, mixed with the sound of something heavy dropping into hard butter. There’s a sense of give. And then the sound of someone falling – which they almost always do. A face first plant into a floor, broken nose into the bargain. Followed, depending on the drivers of the situation – hatred, payback, random violence, kicks – with the running steps of the attacker, disappearing around a corner or into a cell.

I’ve heard all those sounds. Never caused any of them, but I was there. I saw the blood too, and watched the bodies being carried away.

But that was all a long time ago. The tiny gravity of half-kilo pool balls doesn’t play on my mind unless I let it. I only thought about it today because the Queens Speech is up and running. That, and the bizarre terrorist attacks taking place over and over again with the same kind of common implements: vehicle, bottles of water, kitchen knife, fists, and shouting. As a great man once said ‘Nobody owns life, but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death.’ Death is easy once the cause is established and the medium figured out. We all have access to it. We can all be sucked down by the emotional gravity that’d push even a parish priest into a vicious blood lust.

But that’s not today. Not for me, anyhow. It’s the Summer Solstice. The interplay between vast gravitational celestial bodies, whirling around, too fast to comprehend. Days shortening until the end of December. Passing back round like a huge pool ball in a cosmic sock. Dependable, finite, march of Time. Moving too heavily to stop or change pace, even though sometimes I’d like it to.

What does any of that mean? Not much, I suppose, except I am valuing being alive at the moment. Happy that I dodged the worst orbits life aimed at the weak spots. Feeling re-birth, the circular way of things.

Problems

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A day of mixed problems of varying seriousness and effect.

Firstly, my 85yr old neighbour is living in a perpetual state of stress because someone’s bin got vandalised yesterday. It took ten minutes to calm her down. I stood in the howling wind and rain in a pair of shorts and t shirt outside her door as she took her time telling me the fine print details. By the time I’d told her to go back inside and ring me if she was worried, I was soaked to the skin. I just know this isn’t over. I am completely at her mercy right now. There is no reasoning with someone that old. The only solution is to hide and ignore her shouting over the gate for me. Which, of course, I will never do..

Later this morning I got a text from my GP asking me to ring the surgery. It took all of five seconds for me to realise they are trying to kick me off of my codeine prescription. The dosage is poxy – 15mg four times a day – but it’s enough in these days of opiate paranoia to become a blip on a doctors radar. I’ve nursed that prescription for years. And I always only ever use half the prescribed dose, meaning the time between repeat prescriptions goes a long way to proving my ability to maintain a sense of restraint and control over the codeine. This doesn’t seem to have got me very far. A week on Friday I’ll know for sure, when I’m deep into an argument in a doctors room with some poor sap who knows me less than you do. I’m not knocking their obligations to a patient with codeine, diazepam, and pregabalin prescriptions – it’s just common sense – but justifying the codeine is going to be tough. Truth is, it’s genuinely needed, but this won’t go far in the cold light of the surgery on Friday. Ever tried to prove pain? It’s tough. There is another little withdrawal looming on the horizon. And freshly opiate-free synapses hurt. Trust me.

The General Election is tomorrow. I won’t be doing my usual drunk/medicated vigil in front of the tv screen into the early hours, shouting at the screen and pledging my allegiance to Satan if only he’d suck back the souls he rented to the Conservative Party candidates. It’s an exercise i recommend, especially if your neighbours can hear you at 4am on your tenth Red Bull and vodka, wired up to the political mainline like an electricity sub-station. People who hear that kind of behaviour never want to engage you in conversation about politics ever again. But I’m driving for four hours at 9am on the next morning so I’ll just go to bed and grind my teeth until the savage dawn awakens the next chapter of Austerity, Cuts, and Right Wing death squads. What the fucking hell have we become? It’ll be a fast and dangerous drive because my mood will be terrible. There is no chance that Labour will win. Anyone living in hope is delusional. People in the UK are either rich, hideous, and scared, or poor and too apathetic to rise up and care about how many times they get kicked in the balls. And the latest terror attacks have rubber-stamped Theresa’s victory. The majority want someone punished and they want it done with excessive force. Doesn’t matter who, just as long as they aren’t White and we don’t get to see them putting out the flames on their children’s backs. Jeremy Corbyn is too empathetic for this country of revenge-hungry beasts. We are at War. And Jeremy admits he wouldn’t press the button. It’s just common sense, and I applaud him for it, but the average voter doesn’t want to hear about taking backwards steps; about being weak; the chance for peace. They want blood and for someone to guarantee they can live their life on Facebook without giving a thought to anyone else other than clicking ‘Like’ on a random acquaintance’s holiday photos. X-Factor, Dance-Off, Bake-Off, Fuck-Off TV, rammed down semi-alcoholic throats at the end of long boring weeks in a dead end job, hating everyone. It’s the British way.

Jeremy will lose. Maybe not by a crushing defeat, but by enough for him to walk away into history as the man who should have proved the UK had some sense of hope for the future, if only enough of us had had the guts and the brains to stand up for peace.

Problems, eh. You’ve got yours and I’ve got mine. Right now it’s time to put Kurt Vile on the stereo and try to calm down. Maybe smoke a joint. Let it all pass. I mean, these are dangerous times. Someone like me doesn’t need to add their own foul twist on an already evil brew. By Friday morning we’ll all know just how fucked that brew can get us, and the hangover is going to take an eon to shift. Maybe it’ll never leave us.

Know your place.

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The kid was screaming in her pushchair. Really letting loose. High pitched. No words, just the air-splitting. I drew level along the path. It was a beautiful place. The father turned to me and said, ‘Morning,’ then shrugged his shoulders and sighed, nodding his head towards the screaming.

‘Good fun?’ I asked. He didn’t answer.

It took thirty seconds to walk to the corner of the viewpoint. It’s a popular place to scatter ashes but I couldn’t see any fresh ones down below. And no new flowers. Down the trail the young girl was still screaming. Dad had had enough. He leaned his face right under the cover of the pushchair and screamed back, inches from her face, ‘SHUT UP, POPPY. JUST SHUT UP. NOW!’

It did the trick. She stopped at once. Adult aggression had overridden whatever reason she had for screaming. She knew her place in the scheme of things and now she understood that adults are big, powerful, and threatening. Would Dad forever be a symbol of hurt and hate? She could see rage, twisting his face as the spittle flew from his mouth. I’d seen it at her age, too. Many times.

I walked the usual route from the viewpoint down the incline and back along the canal. The crowds were out but most of the people I said ‘Hello,’ to as I walked along didn’t answer me.  At the end of the canal, tourists grouped like muted bees around the car park. Pastel shades of mail order outdoorsy clothing everywhere. Kids paddled around in canoes. Ducklings floated around near the rushes. Typical Bank holiday scene from any English beauty spot. Solitude for the masses. I sat outside the café in the sunshine. Drank a diet coke. Took some diazepam. Thought about why I’d had an urge to kill myself yesterday. Two women at the next table talked about ‘Immigrants’ being The Problem. They were wrong.

The Midnight Monster

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It had been a bad night again. Not down to the meds this time. I think I’d fallen asleep around 11pm, laptop still on next to the bed. The air was hot from a day in the heatwave. The stone house had retained the warmth and was releasing it slowly, cooking me. A dog barked, waking me up. I kicked the duvet off and lay there on my back, naked, the dog barking and barking out the back somewhere. The thing wasn’t happy, wherever it was. There was aggression in its voice.

Behind my house is just miles of countryside. Probably ten miles in a straight line from my back door to the nearest house in that direction. It’s quiet, and sometimes you can see the Milky Way up there, and those fools in the Space Station. Noise around here means you should be alert. Noise doesn’t herald anything of any good out here. You learn to take notice of sounds when the nights are usually deep silence.

From over the hill the sound of Sheep baaaaaa baaaaaa, bleating and concerned. I got up and looked out of the window expecting to see a flock of loose sheep behind my house, or the pack of Wolverines chasing them. Nothing. I scanned around but the place looked still. Getting back into bed, I grabbed my Mag-Light torch, and wondered if it was worth going downstairs to get my axe – kept by the back door in case of emergencies – but I reckoned I needed more evidence and reason before I introduced a large sharp steel blade to the night. I turned off the laptop and fell asleep.

3am – I was woken hideously from a dream about riding Bill Gates around a Horse Track. Something had let out a yell outside. The dog barked again, scared, yelping. Silence, then a terrifying scream, something so cutting and bizarre that I reached for the torch without thinking. No animal I’d ever heard could make a noise like that. There it was again. A high pitched, blood-curdling shriek that sounded like it ended in a laugh. I lay there, heart beating faster, waiting for it to yell again so I could judge how far it was from my home and, more importantly, my open windows.

I thought of Bigfoot. Shit, he’d be able to climb into my upstairs windows without much effort. I imagined myself being dragged outside like the Skyscraper scene from King Kong, naked, flailing weakly as I was carried off into the night. No point worrying, I told myself, things will take their course as they always do. I waited until it was starting to get light. Nothing. No more screams, no more barking. I sensed a change outside. Birds were starting to sing, the darkness ushered out by the promise of another fine day. I got up and drew back the curtains knowing whatever had been terrorising me had gone. I was right. A beautiful dawn, orange sky, green trees, dewy grass, monster-less. I had survived another attack. In calm, rational, early morning serenity I made my way downstairs chuckling to myself at how stupid I’d been. Light makes even the worst coward braver than he was when he couldn’t see what was coming. Was any of it even real? When you have a psychotic mental illness that question is one you ask yourself a lot. And you learn to appreciate how much of a target you are. There are many monsters out to get us, real or imagined. In the dark there is no difference between the two.

 

Polar opposite

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‘Out of the blue and into the black, they give you this but you paid for that.” – Neil Young

Strange start to the day. I dreamed that Mark E Smith had died in the early hours, then my drunken neighbour’s headboard started to knock on the wall again. Another alcohol-fuelled masturbation alone in the dead of night.

Then the news this morning: a team of women are about to walk to the South Pole. This is an incredible feat and worthy of either praise or derision. They’d dressed them up in little pink jackets like the female gang from Grease. It didn’t suit them. They were doing two hours of training a day in Norway; a  group of female British army soldiers, all organisation and clipped speech with few vowels. The reporter looked cold, but out of all the questions he could drill down to, all he wanted to know was how they’d go for a crap out there in the snow. I’d never considered it.

“We build a little wall, then a hole,” one of them said, “then we scoop up the poo in a bag and carry it with us.”

What? Had I heard that right? Three months of scooping up your shit into bags and then carrying it along like Santa until you finally get rescued. What happens then to the shit? Jesus Christ…. These things play on my mind. Eight women pulling sedges full of their own shit is not an image to stay with you if you want to enjoy your day.

I imagine that the realities of walking for months in a blizzard are worse than the magical story sold to the participant on expedition sign-up day. Polar Bears and nuclear submarines are in the north, leopard seals and UFOs in the south. And always the freezing cold. Nobody needs that kind of challenge. Not me, anyhow. There is no fun in sleeping outside where the wind howls and where a thin layer of nylon won’t stop nature if she really wants your blood. The frozen wastes are littered with the bodies of goofy explorers who tried desperately to prove they weren’t failures in life, generally. I have the edge over them in that respect: I realise I’m a failure and I can accept that fact. It’s knowledge like that which has kept me alive so far and out of the jaws of an eight hundred pound Polar Bear.

The day is breaking now. Dawn is here. I’ll be walking today, too. No shitting into a bag for me. My walking is prescribed by my Psychologist. It’s a time honoured way of creating the right chemicals in your brain and of not dying from apathy. I’m sure there’s plenty of research about it somewhere. What’ll happen today is anyone’s guess. I’ll start out with good intentions and, if I’m not careful, I’ll end up trying to have a fight with anyone and everyone, or hurting myself. The least that could happen is carrying my own shit behind me – which, of course, metaphorically speaking I do.

The savage owls have stopped screaming in my garden, the sun is up. Might even be a nice day. Walk carefully out there, my friends.

Passionate debate

She was wearing stockings. I could see the tops of them as she crossed her legs up high, drunk. The short dress was skewed from a bad rearrangement following a trip to the toilet. Across her shoulders a small fur stole hung off one side and exposed a black bra strap. Her hair was messy curly and looked like it’d had recently seen the ruffles of an overzealous lover.

He sat the other side of the small pub table and spoke loudly, gesturing his hands like he’d watched too many politicians and was trying really hard to expand his power base purely by hand signals. He was winning. The small party around him listened to his slurred words. She ran a stiletto up and down his leg as her husband watched out of the corner of his eyes from another table.

“We are in control of the country now. Let’s just get the immigrants sorted out and we’ve done it all,” he boomed. She swooned a little under the weight of the booze and the prospect of a fuck with a sense of purpose, from someone who was going places. Her hand moved under the table towards his groin.

Next to them at this post-meeting Conservative pub crawl, four older members watched the foulness in front of them and nodded approval. The immigrants needed stopping. They would lower the tone of the whole fabric of British society if they were given half a chance. Where would family values be when people were having sex in the streets and homes were being invaded by heroin-addicted squatters? Thankfully, they thought, all that was a long way away right now. What we had here was the cream of the crop, spilling gin and tonics and cheap lager on the scrubbed tables of a backwater pub high on a hill – non-white patron count = nil. This was the future.

Her husband finally had enough of watching his wife fondling the local Conservative Party council candidate. He stood up, told her she was a whore, stumbled out of the pub and rapped on the window outside. “You fucking bitch,” he yelled at her, then zigzagged off into the night.

Much was decided locally that evening, including my solemn oath to never enter politics.

The Rattle

The dark flat smelled of dust and damp at the same time. I’d cleaned the bastard enough but the smell just wouldn’t leave. Other people may have called to question the source but I didn’t, I knew. This tiny flat – with no central heating or hot water and a dilapidated electric shower that dribbled out lukewarm water when it felt like it – had been the residence of other single men like me going back down through the years. It was the property full-stop for the failed.

I’d recently been suspended from work, due to mental health (lack of), and even though it was the best summer weather for years I kept the blinds down and myself to myself. Everyone would know the truth out there. Out there was where people would talk to me, then laugh when I went up the high street. I was finished, washed up. Out there was dangerous.

I’d moved in to the flat with a pretty decent opiate habit. I had acquired it again after all those years as a result of a big codeine prescription on the back of some surgery. Then an ex had managed to supply the odd bit of oxycontin and an occasional fentanyl patch – chewed lightly, pressed against the inside of my cheek and under my tongue. It had all been enough, along with some tramadol, to get a half decent habit going without my knowledge. And that’s how it always happens: turn your back for a second from opiates and there you sit, reaching up from life towards them like a baby in a dirty cot. But one night in the flat I realised I hadn’t taken any that day.

I knew withdrawal, the little rattles from years ago, all the first signs without anyone having to explain anything to me: aches, runny nose, fidgeting, anxiety, the usual. That night I noticed the anxiety first, ignored it, then my nose started to run. I knew it’d all be ok though, no need to let the thing progress further, because I always had codeine around the house; god knows, I’d been prescribed enough of it over the past year. There were always a couple of stray tablets in an otherwise empty packet in a drawer somewhere. No worry; never any worry when I had opiates in the house back then. I went to the main med drawer, opened it, dug through the empty packets I hadn’t been bothered to throw away, and………. found nothing.

Ten minutes later the floor of the flat was covered in empty packets, thrown furniture, clothes, and a sobbing body: my body. There was nothing in the place. No opiate, not even a shitty synthetic opiate. I couldn’t believe it.

There is nothing so depraved as an addict in the grips of a withdrawal. A throwaway sentence, half stolen, but it resonates with absolute truth. Clear as a bell. Being denied something, some substance, that your body and mind needs is like suspending yourself above a volcano by the feet – you know how you got there, but it’s inconsequential compared to the peril you are about to find yourself in if circumstances don’t change. It is a vicious and unforgiving place to be. Withdrawal is like punching yourself in the stomach and then hating yourself for the pain. Actually, I’ve done that too, but there is an element of control in self-harm, and there is none in opiate withdrawal.

I went to bed, taking the only thing I could find in the blind rationale that something is better than nothing in a tight spot. They were only quinine tablets, but I reasoned they must have some effect somewhere. Desperation makes logic skewed, so I’ve found. They did absolutely nothing. In bed, my legs kicked, my bones ached, my nose ran, I sweated then shivered, I raged, wanked, puked, hurt, and I rode that hellish opiate bike as the synapses in my brain called out for more, but were denied. Detox equals hell. The whole thing only took four days but it felt like years. At the end of it I’d aged inside.

A week later, with a friendly GP in tow, I forgot every second of those four days as I bounced to the chemist with a fresh dihydrocodeine prescription in my hand. All problems solved. There’s always a next time, no matter what lies you tell yourself when the chips are down.

Never get out of the boat…

The first day at the festival hadn’t been great. I’d had a phonecall as we got near the venue to tell me that my beloved Grandmother had finally died: brain cancer. Then that night I’d attacked some guy at a Steven Malkmus gig who’d been barging into me, dancing too hard I guess. Enjoying himself when I wasn’t. I’d pushed him once and told him to stop it, but he pushed back harder and that’s when it happened. We were right at the front of the gig. Before Malkmus could tell us to ‘Cool it,’ I’d grabbed the guy by the throat and was holding him there. He’d gone all limp in my hand. Fully one hundred percent drained of any fight back. Lame and white with fear. His girlfriend was beating me with her fists but it didn’t register, all I wanted to do was to hurt. Someone screamed, Malkmus looked down from above us like a divine musical conscience judging me from the ether. The girlfriend ran to get security. I came to, let him go, pushed through the crowd, and went and got drunker in a shitty bar.

But that was all history. Tomorrow was a new, and bizarre, day.

We decided to go to the on-site cinema to watch a film none of us had even bothered to read a single word about. It was the middle of the afternoon. We were sober. All we knew was it was being introduced in person by Crispin Hellion Glover (Marty McFly’s dad in the original Back to the Future film). We queued, but there was a mistake – one of the staff thought we were a band playing at the festival – and we ended up going into the cinema first and sitting on the front row about two feet from the tiny stage and screen. The rest of the front row was empty at first. We were laughing about Crispin – his dad had played an assassin in one of the Bond films. I heard a noise beside me. A guy in big platform leather/metal shoes, wearing a ripped t-shirt, old jeans, bald head, six foot five, mean expression, was standing there looking at me with his four long-haired friends. I pushed the seat next to me down and patted it, giving him a little wink and a nod. It was a joke, but he didn’t laugh. He just sat down hard next to me and growled a bit. He stunk of booze.

Crispin appeared. He looked like he’d been dipped in oil. For half an hour he gave a bizarre slide show/performance three feet from my face. He was gurning, slathering, oozing around the tiny stage, simpering into a microphone. He introduced his film by saying he’d financed it himself and filmed it in Bulgaria. He told us the theme was one of disability and boundaries. I was ok with that.

Five minutes in, my friend nudged me saying ‘Ben, we’ve got to get the fuck out of here. Something very wrong is happening and we’re in the middle of it.’ Strong words, but he was right. The film was a B Movie style story of a guy with cerebral palsy who just happened to be a paedophile going around raping children. The lead actor actually had a scene where he got his cock out and genuinely fucked a girl who was wearing calipers. No-one could quite believe what they were watching. All two hundred or so of us sat open-mouthed. Someone behind me left. It was like watching a shark attack.

There was something on my shoulder. And snoring. The big guy next to me had, even in the middle of this horror, fallen asleep on my shoulder. The film climaxed with a final rape and murder. The house lights came up. Crispin bounced onto the stage for a Q&A session. Nobody could think straight, let alone speak. Then a voice – ‘I’ve got a question, Crispin.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Do you wish hoverboards were real?’

Nervous laughter. Crispin, chained to a cult classic seemingly forever, unable to be appreciated for the art he’d always wanted to create, put his head in his hands.

The guy next to me woke up and pushed himself off of my shoulder. I left. It had been an appalling afternoon.

That evening I went to watch Sunn o)) while the others saw another band somewhere else. Sunn o)))… Look them up. It’s indescribable apart from telling you that the lead singer (singer is the wrong word….grunter? priest? Satanist?) wore an outfit that made him look like the statue of liberty after thirty years with a heavy Crack habit. Lasers shot from his fingertips in the smoke. The low frequencies of the music made the hair on the girl next to me move and vibrate. It was the most awe inspiring gig I’d ever seen. As their set finished, they pulled back their monk cowls and the singer took off his mask. It was the guy who’d fallen asleep on me in the cinema that afternoon.

In a haze I went straight out to their merch table and bought a cd. My subconscious was shattered. I probably would have done anything anyone suggested. There’s only so much your spirit can take.

That night I got drunk in a bar with a guy from Cincinnati. He was watching an American Football game dressed as an orange bear. It had been that kind of day.