The Failure

I woke up this morning and wanted to write a story. this happens occasionally, although not always in the morning, but instead of aborting whatever had been conceived between sleep and waking, as I would ordinarily do, this morning I decided to sit-down and write.

This urge to write is shared by every other narcissistically self-hating person who cannot sufficiently rely on their looks, their charm or any useful skills to receive the validation and love they so cravenly desire.

So of course, the story I wanted to write was ultimately about myself; an attempt to create an image with which to present to others, to communicate that which I can’t seem to convey in any other form. This is not the story I intended to write, but I ask you to accept as true the following statement: The events in this story have occurred in reality, though perhaps my retelling of them would not quite match those of others who were witness to them…

The decision to write was made possible by the fact that I don't need to go to work – I haven't been working for the previous three weeks – owing to what I call “an episode”, but which the sick-note my Doctor gives to me calls 'Bipolar Affective Disorder'.

A desire to create a distance in the relationship I have with my relationship to myself, is the reason why I've decided to abandon the first-person perspective in this story.

***

The Author, like every other mammal, has two main preoccupations: pleasure and pain.

The Author liked to believe that they pursued both with Dionysian zeal.

The Author despises boredom, deeply, with the kind of hatred that only fear can create. The Author was once fond of declaring that “boredom, not death, is the enemy of life!” even when only The Author was listening, even when they stopped believing it to be true; not even the skulking thought that the idea was probably just another way to phrase something The Author had once read prevented The Author from hurling the sentence at people with all of the grotesque certainty of a fanatic.

The Author rarely made new friends.

The Author is, by any standard, a piece of shit, their life a litany of terrible decisions.

The Author has spent too many days asleep, and nights drinking alone.

The Author has written this with the intent of stirring some sympathy into the condemnation they hope whoever reads all of this story will feel.

***

The Narrative Voice has two main preoccupations: motive and purpose.

The Narrative Voice questions how much motive determines morality, then begins to question purpose. It's own purpose.

The purpose of this story.

The Narrative Voice was starting to confuse itself, a common enough occurrence, but this was a confusion that hadn't seemed so flagrantly obvious before.

Confusion; a nauseating feeling, rising over and over again, wave after wave of…is nausea even the right word, or just one appropriated from someone else in the absence of a word that cannot be found? How is it that a word – inert symbol, born from the limited range of guttural noises Homo sapiens are capable of producing – can ever express what the Author is trying to convey?

Another wave; this sickening cyclical movement: what is it? The Narrative Voice knows that all things are first defined by what they are not, so perhaps the question to ask is: what isn’t it?

Well, it isn’t visceral – hardly corporeal at all, really – and yet it is experienced, it is felt, and therefore it is a sensation…but one not able to be crudely reduced to the workings of a collection of organs – no matter how complex – and therefore it is…confusing.

***

The Author has experienced hangovers and comedowns that The Author likes to believe would kill a lesser person; the kind of hangovers so intense they dangle you over the edge of delirium; comedowns that open up a black hole somewhere deep inside the chest-cavity and threaten to pull you in, to collapse in on yourself until nothing is left but total absence…The Author feels a perverse pride at having known such suffering, at having endured it, because such knowledge allows The Author to affirm that “the mind cannot suffer so much as the body”.

Kierkegaard can fuck off: the sickness unto death is as nothing when compared to the sickness The Author felt when, sometime around dawn, they emerged from a k-hole in a disgusting crack-den their mania had somehow driven them to; a huge and empty void where hours of memory should have been; the things that were seen in The Author's delirium; being forcibly ejected from the house; trying to phone a taxi; forgetting their pin number so many times that the card blocked and The Author had to convince the taxi-driver to wait outside while they woke up their housemate and pathetically begged to be given the necessary money to pay for the ride home.

When eventually The Author collapsed onto their bed, they felt such a profound loneliness and an urge to die that they took a photo of their disgusting face to try to distil the experience into a single image, which would serve as a reminder of just how low The Author could sink.

The phone, and so the photograph, was lost the next weekend.

Judging by The Author's subsequent behaviour, no lesson was learnt from this sordid episode.

***

The Narrative Voice tried to sneer, and found it surprisingly difficult.

“We both know that your ‘truth’ is adorned; nothing is false but facts are selectively withheld; the story subtly changed, always with the audience in mind…but why? To present yourself as worse than you really are, because you trust condemnation more than affection? Machiavelli was wrong to claim that a man’s fear is more dependable than his love: fear and hate are as capricious as any other human emotion.”

“And what would you know of ‘human emotion’? You’re nothing more than the voice of inertia: if it were left to you this story would go nowhere" The Author replied.

"This isn't a story, and it isn't going anywhere: there's no coherence, no plot, no real characters…this is just a ridiculous attempt at a Mea Culpa, and it's failing."

There was a silence that lingered too long.

***

The jobless man looked blankly at The Author, saying nothing, as if he were utterly indifferent. This is not to say that the man was callous, because how could we possibly know that? But for whatever reason(s) the man was simply unable – or unwilling – to interpret what he saw before him any in any other way.

The Author wants to imagine that the jobless man thought, as he watched someone at least half his age talking incessantly, that “Some people make their own problems. Why make things more complicated than they already are? Just stop worrying and fucking enjoy yourself, 'cos life doesn’t last that long.”

The Narrative Voice is unsure if it’s condescending to imagine the man thinking such thoughts, and worries that it is almost certain that expressing doubts about the content within the content is a bad idea.

The Author doesn’t give a fuck, and decides to go drink until unconsciousness descends…but then decides that since life really doesn't last that long, there must be better ways to experience it than through the hazy gauze of intoxication. So why not try to continue this story?

The Author declares to themselves "we have art in order not to die of the truth…or liver failure". To the jobless man, The Author says:

"I've only just woken up. Well not right now, obviously, not literally. I mean I've only just sort of become used to the idea of functioning in the last half an hour or so. And I've only been literally awake for about an hour. When I woke up, or rather, stopped being completely unconscious, I had my head jammed into the corner of a dirty sofa, and my brain jammed up against the front of my skull. Not exactly the best way to start the day is it?

I don't remember the walk to get here, not properly. There was just the stink of stale smoke and stale me, an awful taste in my mouth and the sound of my phone alarm going off like a demented little shit. Then confusion and then it was just, 'Fuuuuuck!', and the next thing I knew I was pretty much here already.

It was so surreal, the sensation of walking here. The parts I think I can remember, anyway. I'm still drunk from last night, or this morning or whatever, and sights and sounds are all fractured, sort of fucked up like they aren't finished yet by the time they get to my brain. The colour spectrum is warped and limited to this background of faint grey, while red and yellow swim about painfully in the foreground – like it actually hurts – and blue stabs me if I look up for too long.

You know what it feels like to be hungover though, everyone does. So I wont go on about it and I'm not trying to boast or anything stupid like that. It was just weird, that's all…oh, here's your lighter back by the way. Cheers for that…it puts you in a strange place, this sort of thing. Not feeling right in your body I mean. I don't just mean feeling uncomfortable: those sorts of feelings aren't nice, and they aren't normal but they're based on normal sensation, the normal way of feeling, they're just the opposite, or the antagonists of normal feelings. Do you know what I mean? Like, having a headache, or some other kind of ache, or holding in a piss or whatever, they're the negative version of normal feelings…yeah, sorry I'm rambling now, never mind. I'm just trying to say that it puts you off being able to function like usual if you're feeling and seeing stuff in a weird, abnormal way, a way that isn't supposed to happen. Looking at some of the charming bastards coming to this place is freaky enough as it is! Can you imagine how it felt when I walked right into a toothless old drunk, with his thousand yard stare and his mangled beard? Then again, imagine what it must've felt like for him to walk into me…

The point of all this is to say, well, I'm not in my usual state of mind right now. Feeling creepy, you could say. You know what I mean, right?

Oh shit, this way of talking just isn't quite working, is it?. It's all one way, just me throwing words at you, but I'm trying to anticipate your thoughts about my thoughts before I've even actually explained them properly and then they become something else and then…"

The jobless man stared at The Author and said nothing, hoping they would go away. The Narrative Voice was distraught. The Narrative Voice had lost control of the plot, of the purpose. It was all twisting and turning and falling in on itself.

The Narrative Voice decided to take control.

***
 

So they went into the building and through the motions, trying not to look around or to think, not that any thoughts were desperate enough to bring themselves to attention, until they were sat down on an ugly chair waiting for their turn to be examined like a cow getting checked over for diseases – the same questions, the same  commands: show your gums, let them open your mouth –  when their mind started crawling up from the slimy pond of the hangover and they noticed someone they used to go to school with. He was sat on a chair a couple of yards away. He didn't seem to notice them, and they didn't really know if he would've recognised them anyway. They felt painfully sad seeing him there. They felt sorry for him.

So fucking patronising: who is The Author to be feeling sorry for anyone as if they were a better person?

But it's what they felt.

He didn't deserve to have to keep coming to this place. He'd made no conscious choice that led him here that he could be held responsible for. He's part of a lost generation and it isn't his fault that it's left him without a job, labelled economically useless and so subjected to the humiliation of performing tricks just to beg the state for barely enough money to survive. History, or society, or whatever you want to call it, has swept him along just like the rest of us, but where he's washed up is an accident. He did everything he was supposed to do. He did exactly what he was told. It was just unfortunate for him that he wasn't very good at anything.

Just another zero, just another mediocrity.

That isn't his fault.

The Author remembered him as being a passive object, a part of the background of their school years, like so many other kids were and as they certainly were to the others, but that isn't true to their actual experience of him. They've only imposed that idea onto the images contained in their memory because there are so few of them left. No, he must have meant more to them back then, when they were both trying to create themselves, because otherwise why would seeing him here provoke such sadness? Maybe it's because he always used to blush so much. That doesn't sound like such a remarkable characteristic, and even if you knew that the skin of his cheeks didn't just flush a gentle pink, but were deep and violent gushes of red splashed across his entire face, that could be summoned by the mere mention of his name, it still wouldn't be enough to convey what must have it feels like to have your body betray you so often, and so needlessly…

When The Author was younger they thought they were living a life of existential freedom, of true authenticity, by doing only what they wanted; coasting through school with minimum effort, without diligence or ambition and relying on a natural intelligence to achieve sufficiently acceptable grades to be left alone. The grades didn't fall enough for their parents or teachers to care much, or so it seemed. The Author began to see life as just a game, and realised too late that that the game they were really playing wasn't what they thought it was and they didn't understand the rules; didn't realise they were being prepared to become Human Capital; sentient money; profit with organs.

The utter lack of effort when they were young left The Author with a low capital value. A worker with low capital value becomes trapped in a series of dead-end, menial, soul destroying jobs. This can make a person's life shit, but it was The Author's own fault. Without knowing it, they'd willing wasted their brief reprieve from the drudgery of wage-labour on drugs, poetry and trying to fuck whoever they could: the shock that smacked them in the face when they were forced to become a worker hit harder than anything they had ever experienced before. The pain grew slowly and now suffused them entirely.

The first time they lost a job, they were eventually given an appointment with a kind-looking woman. They had taken a book with them to ignore the interminable bus ride and all the waiting. After a while the woman noticed the book and exclaimed with delight that they too enjoyed Kafka. They talked mildly for a while about which of his books they considered his best. Then she said "Well, we can't have someone who reads Kafka being unemployed! Let's find you a job."

The Author still doesn't understand why reading The Castle made them more worthy of employment, but after reading the novel a second time they knew that they had finally understood something that had previously been just out of reach.

***

They were never able to keep a job for long: too many obviously false excuses for the weeks taken off as sick because they were too ashamed to admit to their exploiter that they were plagued by mental illness. The mental illness they'd tried to ignore for years.

So there were always bouts of joblessness between drifting from mind-numbing job to job. When they were fired from their second job and returned to the building the friendly woman was gone, and an atmosphere of condescension seemed to pervade the place. A condescension that rapidly mutated into disdain as the years passed.

Eventually The Author shed their shame about their mental affliction and was able to keep a job for several years, but soon enough the drudgery, the futility and meaninglessness of the work – but above all, the finite time that the job took from them – became too much, and so for once they voluntarily quit a job before they were fired.

Which is how they found themselves back in the building, sat near someone they once vaguely knew, waiting to plead to the state for money. The Author knew enough about economics to know that they'd be given at least some money, however temporarily. Surplus value must be extracted from us all, but for that to happen first we must be given at least enough money to spend in order to survive and so contribute more to the economy than we receive: when money is spent it circles around and around and everywhere along this circle people are waiting to make a profit…but voluntarily quitting a job is akin to a sin now, and those who sin too grievously are not considered fit for salvation.

Perhaps they would give The Author nothing this time.

So The Author sat and waited, trying to prepare a coherent line of argument that most mental ill-health is more than just a bio-medical fuck-up but also an epiphenomenon of the environment. Circumstance is as influential as genetics and the material conditions of the City, of the World; of us all embracing the death-drive, a slow collective suicide, are contributory factors. How was a person who represented such low capital value as The Author be forced to live in this society and not break? How could they explain that growing up after the end of history had left them with an emptiness, a lack of suffering which became a form of suffering itself because the only cures on offer seemed worse that the symptoms; then how the realisation of the lost future, the contrast against the world as it is, had created a revolutionary posturing emptied of affect by a nihilism that would be furious if it weren't undermined by the tepid melancholy that filled the space between the extremes of euphoria and depression; that the gluttony of late capitalism made The Author feel sick; that there were some mornings when the quality of the light made the City seem terrifyingly obscene…and how, despite this, the world still seemed beautiful sometimes, and on those days the emptiness overflowed with an almost mystical feeling and words and images came to The Author, and all they wanted was the time to write them down and to feed and protect loved ones without causing harm to any one or any thing in the world…but always the emptiness eventually returns and then the only way The Author knows how to endure those evenings preceding the forced awakening and return to work is with alcohol and benzodiazepines, because the effect of the prescribed medication was hard to discern? Although the suicidal thoughts had admittedly become a faint echo, a near-constant ambient noise rather than unpredictable bouts of screaming.

They knew it would make no difference trying to explain all this; that the other worker they would soon meet wouldn't really be listening, but they decided that their line of reasoning was worth remembering and so tried to commit it to memory.

***

 
Not having attempted to write those thoughts for years, it's impossible to know how much of what has just been written resembles the real experience of that moment and how much is of it is fiction.

As for the other person, and everyone else in that place who found themselves temporarily – or permanently – without employment, The Author can say nothing.

The person, once a boy and now a man, The Author had recognised, is a living creature. The Author really did go to school with them. Any details as to how he felt, how the trajectory of their life landed them in the same position as The Author, could only be conjecture.

The Author could tell you the person's name, but it doesn't belong to The Author, it belongs to a real person.

When The Author's name was called out, they left their seat and went to be judged and to justify their existence.

***

The Author knows they are deliberately misrepresenting the truth, whatever that may be. The Author has done some good in this world, and they're one of the lucky few out of the billions of people on this planet who live lives unimaginably comfortable to the rest, and yet…

The Author doesn't want to be known in their entirety. They want to be disliked. The reasons for this are an admixture of shame and regret, fear, remorse and a sincere desire for repentance: shame and regret for what they feel can only be described as a wasted life; fear that any attempt to express what lurks within them will be doomed to pathetic failure unless hidden behind a deliberately obtuse form; remorse and repentance for all the shitty things they have done in their life (and perhaps a little martyr complex: give me all the hate you feel, I deserve it).

Everyone involved – writer and reader – knows that this experiment has failed; that this is no story at all, just dislocated lines attempting to convey something that The Author believed (and still believes) can only be conveyed indirectly.

***

Can writing retain its efficacy even if the empty edifice of pretence is punctured and the intention and attempted meaning are explicitly stated instead of veiled and shrouded in customs and idioms and the Sibylline ritual of words correctly arranged on a page or a screen?

***

The Narrative Voice has lost control again, and knows there is no way to help The Author. What The Author wishes to achieve is something much more than an apologia for their existence, and knows also that The Author is correct to believe that the only way to attempt this would be to try and escape from the confines of traditional form. They knew it was bound to fail, but that made it no less disappointing…The Narrative Voice is the link between the subjects and the objects; to be a character, to become part of the story, to know the whole story at the same time and still play a role within it seemed impossible.

Perhaps some things must simply be passed over in silence….and that is no original thought. Although it has to be possible that some arrangement of words, even if they have to be completely new words, can make a connection that has never been made before; can construct a new bridge across the spaces between everything.

It has to be.

Language can never stop growing because then it might conceivably, in some distant impossible future, fill up and extend it's web so that all of the spaces in-between are filled and everything becomes so dense either all is understood, or nothing is.

We live there, in those spaces; in the unsaid where anything worth trying to say exists…but because it can never be said, it ceases to exist and gently disappears, leaving nothing behind: a true nothing, beyond what we can comprehend, because we are subjects that are objects amid innumerable other objects. Without the spaces between us, what would we become?

Maybe nothing at all…the meaning is not there in the words themselves, yet it is somewhere.

The meaning is a black hole and the words swirl across the outer edge in constant tension between futility and salvation.

 

Anomie and Post-Modernity

You want to marry me.

You haven’t said so, or even hinted at any such wish, but I know it’s true because getting married is what we’re supposed to do, and everyone does what they’re supposed to do.

Right?

I’ve only slept with one person other than you, and with that person we had sex only three times. I felt like crying after the first time. The other two left me with a thin sense of disappointment.

That’s probably why it surprised me how little I seemed to care when they eventually ghosted me, but I had more important things to think about back then; college, studying, the volunteer work and the piano lessons I was still doing after eight years despite the obvious fact that I’d never move beyond Grade 4. Even after my teacher told my parents that I “lack the intuition, dexterity and the passion” needed to ever play skilfully, still the lessons continued. The disdain my teacher showed towards my parents after that thrilled me, but of course I never allowed them to see it.

The pointless piano lessons continued regardless, but something in the relationship between me and my teacher had changed. It was subtle, but I knew it had happened: they no longer expected anything from me, no longer demanded; knowing glances evolved into rich and stimulating conversations and within a month I was enthralled.

For the first time since puberty someone was talking with me and not at me, someone who interested me and who (seemed to, at least) find what I had to say interesting as well.

Of course, there were abundant conversations all around me while I was at school, just as there was at the dinner table, on those occasional nights when my parents weren’t both trying to drown us all in ice-cold silence.

I hated most of the other kids at school. There was something about them that made me feel…nauseous. I saw them as their parents picked them up after school in absurdly expensive and over-sized cars; saw how easily they would glide like sharks into the same position, the same thing that their parents were. That my parents were.

So I hated them. I hated them in the same way I hated my parents: silently.

My good grades at school, the glowing reviews at parent-teacher evenings, ensured that my parents didn’t interpret my silence as a sign of mental simplicity, as they otherwise would’ve done. The fact that I looked them in they eyes when it was required of me also ensured that they didn’t consider me to be shy or weak-willed. Instead they happily convinced themselves that I was the complaint, competent child, serious and determined, that they wanted.

That I had had no friends since the age of eleven didn’t seem to trouble them.

The piano lessons stopped in the last year of college: all efforts had to be focused on achieving the grades I needed to get into ‘The Best University’. The best being the one chosen for me by my parents, obviously, because I was much too young to know what was best for me. Too young to choose the best university, too young to chose the right subjects, too young to choose the best career.

Too young to make any choice at all.

I missed my piano teacher.


It was around that time I began to yearn with desire to completely fuck up my parents plan for me. I wanted to find the drop-outs and drug takers they so often condemned, in their pious, hypocritical way – tutting about how “those unfortunate people” ruined their own lives and how the government ought to do more to help, entirely eliding their own culpability and roles in the sickening death-machine that created the circumstances those people lived in. I wanted to take all the drugs, and I wanted to fuck as many people as I could find.

Yet I was so utterly inculcated in the belief of the absolute necessity of going to university that I couldn’t conceive of any other realistic means of escaping. That, and I was too scared by the prospect of ‘dropping-out’. I suppose some of my parents prejudice had to inevitably contaminate me.

So I contented myself with silent hatred and online communism, and obsessed about the freedom that would come to me when I left home.

Then, when the time came; when all the work and effort had achieved what they were supposed to and I had my chance to go to The Best University, I surprised myself almost as much as my parents when I declared that I was going to take a gap year.

They protested, of course, but they knew of a few other bougie kids who were doing the same and so the idea had just enough respectability to them that they eventually allowed – and payed – for it.


Drugs and fucking. Different clothes, different people. A different accent: I tried everything I could to be the exact opposite of what my parents wanted me to be, but soon I realised that everyone I met was just like I was, came from the same background and were doing the same thing. There was no authenticity, just wealthy kids getting fucked up in Thailand or a Greek island, taking endless photos of themselves with exotic background scenes.

Of course there were squats, communes in Barcelona I’d heard about but couldn’t find; untamed places I knew existed but didn’t dare explore.

Scared again.

So eventually I returned, started my university course and bought – with my parents money – a smartphone. I’d never had a proper phone before, just a shitty old Nokia (“for emergencies”) and the novelty of the thing enchanted me. Not having a ‘real’ phone had furthered my alienation from the other kids at school, and the strange feeling, almost like grief – or what I imagine grief felt like – I began to feel when seeing the endless photos of them on social media (somehow they felt more real, as if my experience of the exact same things they had experienced was diminished by a lack of photographic evidence) finally put an end to the attempt to re-invent myself.

I became just like everyone else.

It felt good.


It was during our first year at uni that I met you, and it was you who proposed that we begin our relationship. You made it seem like a sensible arrangement made for the purposes of future prosperity, like acquiring a mortgage. It “made sense”. I was “pretty enough but not enough to find anyone better”: you were “going places”. One day you’d be “a seriously important person, probably in finance first, then government” and how could I not want the life that would come with that?

It just made sense.


Why did I agree to your proposition?

I blame my parents. I imagined with delight the look on their faces as you expounded at length on your vicious politics. Not that theirs were any better, but they hid it behind a thin veneer of liberalism and their cherished notion of politeness, which you, with your old-money attitude, couldn’t give a fuck about.

That was one good thing about you: there was no pretence. You’re a cunt, but at least you’re an authentic cunt.

Besides, you were (and still are, in a generic, boring way) good-looking, I was horny, and you always had the best drugs.

Drug-taking had begun to form an integral part of my life, but, just like the good child I told myself I was only pretending to be, I never allowed it to cause my grades to suffer. I worked hard, as always, and I excelled. Most of the time. Occasionally I’d get an average grade on some essay or other and for days after I’d cry so much it was as if someone I loved had died. Whenever this happened, you told me I was stupid to care so much about any essay or my degree at all, because “there’s no need for a career: I have enough money. Why work if you don’t have to? Grades won’t mean anything to you. Even if you wanted a job I could get you one easily”.


Our relationship ended and began again. It stopped “for the last time, the absolute last!” in our final year, but then there came a sudden confrontation with the future. Before then all I’d ever thought about was university; life beyond the age of twenty-one was no more than a faint abstraction. Faced with the prospect of a real, existential decision, I delayed the confrontation in favour of a Masters degree.

The pressure to succeed finally began to wear me down…and then you returned, already working in finance, even more ostentatious and a bigger cunt than ever.

When the Masters was over, when I had to choose a career, I felt as if a sharp object had perforated my bowels.

You offered me “another chance” to resume our relationship. When I imagined our life together, I was suffused with a feeling of anaemic dread.

But I did it anyway. I took your offer.


After the first month of our relationship you’d started to ask that we perform sexual acts I’d never considered before. You were clearly more experienced than I was at such things, so I consented: you used to be so very convincing…but I hated it, and eventually, I stopped consenting.

Eventually you stopped asking.

Then I made my own requests, and you did exactly what I expected you to do and immediately refused.

We kept fucking anyway, but with every fuck I grew ever more bored.

You fuck like an animal, and not in a good way.

When I asked you how many other people you’d slept with, you laughed and told me that you’d “fucked a couple of the working classes but not so many as my father!”. Then you laughed again and told me that when I spoke “you sound almost as frigid as the way you fuck”.

Now we almost never have sex.

I’m not as frigid as you like to imagine and I never have been. I masturbate frequently, at least twice a day – frenetic ritual of shame; oh, the grotesque things I’ve seen – and for a while I cheated on you with a musician: a guitarist with such exquisitely delicate fingers. Someone you would have hated, if ever I told you about them, and what you would hate about them the most is that they were poor and not that I’d had the best sex of my life with them.

That’s why I no longer bother to ask why you spend so many evenings at the gym now: I just don’t care, and neither do you.


A few months ago I found my piano teacher online. They were still teaching, and from the photos I could see they had aged well.

I don’t know what made me do it, but I sent them a long message detailing my life, my emptiness; explaining how much I loved that they had never expected anything from me, etc.

I received a short reply:

I did expect things from you.

I asked them to explain, but they said only:

You’ve betrayed yourself.

I wrote another, even longer message, trying to explain myself, to explain how something had happened to me – I don’t know what or when – and that after it happened my life was no longer my own; I grew tired, that’s all. Ever more tired of resisting the constant demands, of being told what was right and what was sensible and what I should do; of what made sense…

They blocked me.

After distress and confusion, then anger, I decided to hate them. I decided they were wrong.

I’ve become highly adept at excuses. I now know how to maintain the delicate balance between liberal piety and utter fucking hypocrisy. My parents were very good at teaching me that, even though they don’t know it.


So we’ll get married, because that’s what people like us do, and because you love me. Or, at least, that’s what you say. Sometimes.

When I was younger and more naive; when I first believed that despite the things you said and the way you behaved perhaps there was something more to you, something valuable; when I still wanted it to just make sense, I read the Wikipedia entry on Love.

It didn’t help, of course. The entry describes love as ‘a variety of strong and positive emotional and mental states’. I know I’ve experienced ‘strong and positive emotional states’, but I know that I now have no strong feelings for or about you.

I think I no longer have strong feelings about anything.

The Wikipedia entry on love also claims that love ranges from ‘the most sublime virtue or good habit’ to ‘the simplest pleasure’.

Simple pleasure is something I understand: it feels pleasurable to eat, shit, drink, piss, masturbate or scratch an itch (the last two things increasingly seem indistinguishable to me) and being left alone. I think that most people would consider these pleasures to be simple.

Standing in the shower for a long time, staring at water drain away while feeling it pour over me is something I hesitate to call pleasure: staying there long enough, staring at the hole into which the water relentlessly pours, while being enveloped in the undulating warmth of the cascading liquid, lifts me into a state of being so detached from any sense in which I can claim to be anything that resembles a ‘self’ that the feeling seems to me too ineffable to preclude it from being called pleasure.

Although I’m sure it’s simple enough.

As for virtue, sublime or otherwise, I haven’t the slightest idea what that is other than behaviour other people approve of. I don’t feel compelled to ask if that’s a correct summation, only to be prepared to accept that my assumption is wrong because I’m certain that if virtue means something else, any virtuous people I may have met during my life are no longer in it.

When I was a child it was necessary for at least one other child to be bullied mercilessly, which at the time seemed not only necessary but inevitable. I never questioned this assumption, I only knew that it felt good not to be the chosen child.

That feeling was relief, and relief is probably considered a pleasure, but I don’t think it a simple one. Simple implies innocent. Or at least I think it should.

Joining in with the bullying, which I suspected was one of the conditions required for not receiving the bullying myself, didn’t feel pleasurable, but I did it anyway.

Leaving the shower feels unpleasurable.

Waking up – or rather, leaving my bed – feels unpleasurable.

It’s so much easier to define what isn’t pleasurable than it is to define what pleasure is.


I have realised that my life will – has – become just an idea, an image. Nothing is real. I am not real. There is no concrete feeling, no anchor to the ground: no control…but I’ve decided to stop questioning, to stop thinking, because something makes me suspect that I’ll either find the reasons banal and repellent, or else will fail to understand them.

The marriage date is set, everything has been meticulously planned by a team of people that doesn’t include either of us.

Then we’ll fall into a routine not too dissimilar from the one we currently posses, the one my parents had and still have.

When we’re together, you tell me about the things you’ve done since I last saw you, those that other people you know have done, the minutia of detail pertaining to your various hobbies (those that I know about at least), the people you consider to have wronged you and all of the reasons why they are unworthy of your sympathy. When we do actually talk that is. Mostly we neither talk nor spend much time with each other.

I listen for as long as I can, until my mind begins to conjure the same – always the same – daydream: my eyelids are almost, but not quite, closed, as all around me people I can only vaguely discern mingle among each other, seemingly happy and saying inconsequential things that amuse them for some unknowable reason.

Then they all abruptly stop what they are doing and begin moving closer and closer towards me.

They form a circle, and the laughter begins.

The laughter grows louder, and as it does the sound becomes somehow threatening; chimps screeching; malevolent animals attacking. My heartbeat starts to increase; fear creeping into my senses; adrenal glands firing; sweating yet my skin freezing cold, and then…

You bring me back to reality again, asking – angry tone of voice and hostile posture – “Are you even listening to me?! Stop daydreaming so fucking much, it’s childish” and in those moments I can’t decide which I hate more: you, me, or everything about my life.

So I say “Sorry”, and hazard a guess at what’s the best thing to say next.

If I guess right, we don’t argue. If I guess wrong, an argument begins.

This is my life.

I don’t want it to be like this, but what else is there to do? We live in such opulence; we’re obscenely wealthy, anything I want that can be bought – and what can’t be bought? – I get, but I don’t know what I want any more, or else I find that I never really wanted what I thought I did as soon as I get it. That just doesn’t feel unbearable enough to risk losing though…

This is my life, and I don’t want it.

The Graveyard

For S

You took me to a graveyard.

We walked arm in arm through the dark and you told me you had to leave soon. The day that lay behind us, the day I’d spent in your presence, felt like something that shouldn’t belong to me.

We walked for a little while, talking, asking the interrogative little questions new lovers always ask; submitting ourselves to judgement.

The graveyard was large, and it was old. The wide, winding pathways were sparsely illuminated by a few deep-orange lights glowing gently from black Victorian street lamps. Trees towered above us, impassive and silent, waiting and watching over the corpses buried beneath them.

“You can tell this graveyard is old,” I said “that it was built by people who didn’t try to hide from death like we do now…the benches, the trees and flowers…this was made to be a place for the living as well as the dead.”

“Yeah, I think I know what you mean: the graves are such big, decorative things; something for strangers to admire…I suppose when death is more prevalent, it makes no sense to try to hide from it. But is it really better that we’re no longer so familiar with the dead? Anyway, speaking of benches, I can’t see one anywhere nearby, shall we just sit down somewhere here?”

So we sat down; a cold stone surface beneath us and a square structure behind us. I couldn’t quite see it, but I know that in the darkness our eyes met. My gaze, so often unbearably dazed and blinded, like a moth bouncing against a light-bulb, was heavy with the warmth that can only come from covetous attention. A flash of white told me that you were smiling. I wanted to keep talking to you about death but your smile made me forget everything, so instead I just smiled back at you.

We talked some more; elaborating the sketches of ourselves that we would finally hand to the other, incomplete, at the end of the night. You talked about how shy you used to be, said something about feeling like ‘a wall-flower gone wrong’. I protested that you were no such thing. I wanted to tell you that to me you seemed like a once-wistful child who lived by their dreams; dreams that would have lifted you up and far away from here, like a petal on the wind, if only you hadn’t been pinned down when you were young; pinned by something that would not let you go. I wanted to tell you that beneath your kindness and self-effacement, beneath your beautiful, placid surface, there were endless depths. I wanted to tell you that you were strong, that you were wonderful.

Instead I told you that you were pretty: your smile made me forget everything, and I forgot not to be so shallow and simple.

I no longer remember what else I said after, because soon we began to kiss.

It started to rain.

Sometimes the Universe grants us more than we deserve: as your hair tangled between my fingers, as your body, long and soft, twisted beneath my hands, rapturous desire flooded the filthy gutters of my veins.

I was Prometheus and you were the fire I had stolen. Fuck the gods; they could have my liver later, I didn’t care because I had their fire, and I wanted more of you. So I said:

“Shall we fuck in a graveyard, in the rain?”


I drink too much.

I drink too much because I can’t stand myself unless what ever ‘myself’ is can be blunted; worn-down at the edges so that the centre can be penetrated and briefly change into something else, something bearable. Ever since my heart was broken, I have been a drunk. That, at least, is what I tell myself. If it strikes you as utter bullshit, I’d be inclined to agree. All alcoholics are self-pitying creatures, and it’s far too easy to be sentimental when you’re drunk all the time.

So as the trees silently looked on, I lifted your jumper and traced my fingers across your skin, trailed kisses down to your stomach, then asked you to fuck me.

It wasn’t that you didn’t want to: I know enough to recognise that look in the eyes, but there in the rain, upon a tomb, the cold and unyielding ground beneath us…

You didn’t need to tell me “No”, your body did that for you, and so we untangled.

I asked how much longer we could stay together. You had time enough time to sit with me a while.

My Ego is an easily wounded creature, especially one that seeks the glorious abyss of post-fuck bliss with such fervour as mine. It’s another, better, way to change myself for a while and to purge the words that plague me from my mind, but the foolish desire for sex quickly began to leave. I felt like what I was: lost. I placed my head in your lap and you began to play with my hair, a scene I have replayed over and over again during all the years of my exile. I was searching with faint desperation for reprieve from my life as it had become, searching for that feeling, the one that left me when I was young and that I have ached for ever since.

I could feel the pace of your heartbeat increasing.

Words were needed, perfect, benevolent words to seal the moment and save it from the risk of indignity, because I couldn’t stand the thought of our day together becoming just one more fading memory. I wanted permanence, petulantly: the permanence of the moment in all its beauty and ugliness, in all its safety and discomfort…I wished for nothing more than for it to last forever, and to never be condemned to the tomb of my memory again.

The only words I could summon came from someone else. I have no way of knowing if you understood exactly what I meant by them. I don’t think I understand exactly what I meant by them either.

A silence crept between us. For a while it was comforting, but then I began to worry that the peacefulness was about to end.

“I want to expire,” I said “here, in this place, in this moment, in your arms. I want to sigh and release and then…go.”

“But why?”

“Because that way I can’t ruin it…I want forever, or I want the end of everything.”

You laughed and told me I was silly, but your touch seemed a little gentler.

Then, you told me you had to leave. So we stood up, collected our things, and began to walk away.

We walked in silence, until you turned to me and said “I’m going to return here someday, in the daylight. I’m going to come back to that spot and read the names on the gravestone we sat on…I want to know the names, the time in which the dead were alive. I want to imagine what they were like, whether they once took someone here to walk arm in arm with and to talk to just like we have.”

I didn’t reply, only held your hand.

Our synchronised footsteps began to slow their pace as the graveyard gates came into view. Suddenly you stopped and pulled my hand towards you. In two quick movements we were pressed together, kissing again. I pulled back and looked at your face, so inexpressibly beautiful beneath the night sky and the soft rainfall.

You smiled and looked away.

Without thinking I said “If I could, I’d have people performing the most indecent acts imaginable on my grave. What better way is there to laugh at death?”

We didn’t laugh.

We lingered, hand in hand, but since there was nothing else left to do but separate, we said our goodbyes and you walked away from me.

I watched you leaving, but before your body faded into a silhouette I turned and left:

I didn’t want to ever know if you looked back as well.

The Girl Who Disappeared

At 4:22 in the afternoon under an Autumn sky wrapped in clouds the colour of cigarette ash, the number 23 bus arrived in front of an average-sized school on the fringes of a small and mediocre town.

Three young friends stopped play-fighting and waited for the doors of the bus to pull themselves apart.

The Girl stood a few yards away, watching. Slowly she moved to stand behind them. She held her breath against the acrid taste of diesel smoke.

Jack was the first one onto the bus. Jack was a gentle and awkward creature fighting a losing battle against puberty. Newly elongated limbs competed with what remained of his youthful fat and conspired to make a faintly ridiculous creature to look at. Jack held his body inelegantly, his shoulders permanently drawn in and down. He displayed such obvious shame that it was painful to see and the other children in his world rejected him for it.

Jack did not know (how could he?) that one day he could regain an appearance of dignity; that his strong jaw and large dark eyes could make an attractive creature out of him. Perhaps he would never realise this and would become one of those rare creatures, humble and beautiful, who mistake the effect of their charming appearance for an innate goodness in other people and, reflecting this goodness back to them, become decent and loving human beings.

Or maybe he wouldn’t.

Jack and his indecision stood together for a moment. Soon his two friends rushed past, raced to the back of the bus and jumped onto the seats. Jack and his indecision gratefully followed. Previous experience had made him wary of sitting at the back of buses, but Jack had spent enough of his time sitting alone and the herds of children migrating away from the school-gates had long-since left: He was safe.

The boys were thirteen. Jacob and Olly, small and well-groomed things of around the same height, were wearing their school sports uniform. Jack was not. This bus ride home, so late after school, was a routine part of their week. Every Tuesday and Thursday, as Jacob and Olly had football practise for an hour, Jack would wait in the Library helping with whatever small tasks the Librarians could find for him until they ushered him out and he would go wait at the bus stop to play on his iPad until his friends came to join him.

***

From where she sat down, The Girl could see the profile of the bus driver. The same bus driver, it seemed, who was always stationed behind the scratched and dirty plexiglass screen between them. She stared at the man, at this alien creature made of mounds and pouches of fat, of sighs and of grey. At the sallow skin that hung over the worn collar of his shirt.

She thought of the boys sat behind her, of herself; she found it hard to believe that any of them could ever become such a thing as the bus driver but knew that they could; that a boy once existed with no idea that he would ever become the bus driver. The Girl began to feel the sensation, the one she had no name for: Life twisted and shaped living things in such strange ways. She thought of a rock pool near a beach, of the gnarled branches and roots of an old tree near her home.

She tried to think of the future, of what she would become, but this made her feel dizzy and nauseous, as if she were looking down from a great height. For a brief moment The Girl had a feeling that she would never return to herself, that she would be nothing but the nausea forever. She started to panic. Her heart beat faster.

The low vibration of the bus picked up and became a growl. The doors hissed and shuddered to embrace once again. The bus began to move slowly forward and The Girl returned to herself.

Then there was the sound of slapping hands and legs against the plastic windows: a teenage boy, a grinning fool. The bus driver and the bus let out a sigh so synchronised it was almost impossible to distinguish between them. The doors opened once again, the teenager leaped onto the bus, all laughter and energy and a faint sense of aggression; bag slung round one shoulder, grinning in the inane and arrogant way unique to teenage boys. It was Logan.

Logan was the product of three older brothers, a mostly absent father and a mother unable to exercise control over her temper or the amount that she drank.

Logan was becoming a dickhead, just like his brothers had.

The Logan’s were known by everyone in the school.

***

None of them had looked the bus driver in the eyes and the driver did not want them to. Nobody ever looked him in the eyes when he was behind the wheel and he had grown used to it, so much so that outside of work the expectation other people unthinkingly possessed – that they ought to be looked at directly – became an uncomfortable and laborious chore. He preferred to look at people indirectly. It felt safer. After the doors had shuddered together, back into their mechanical embrace, the driver set the bus into motion again and the great ugly beast stepped up its low vibrating growl into a roar.

Muscle-memory drove the bus. The drivers’ mind wandered away.

***

The Girl knew all about the boys. She knew more about them than they did, just like she did about almost all the people at her school. She knew their stories.

She knew why Logan acted like such a dickhead: he was raised by dickheads. She knew that Jack’s friendship with Jacob and Oliver would soon fade away, that the process had already started and it was only a sense of duty born of a few youthful years together that kept it alive. She even knew about the new sexual frisson between Jacob and Oliver; when they touched each other, as they where still permitted to do before they were no longer considered boys but adolescents, something subtle sent out a signal that went unnoticed by everyone but The Girl.

She knew all of this because she watched and listened to everything she could, and because she didn’t talk. Not talking made The Girl invisible to the others. No one at her school – even some of her teachers – would know she existed if asked. Invisible, she was free to observe them all.

They knew nothing about her, and she preferred it that way.

The Girl had stopped speaking after her mother died, but this was a fact and not the reason why. She remembers vividly the day she found out about her mother’s death, but what she remembers she has never told any one because she suspects that they would condemn her for remembering the wrong details: the benign indifference of the plastic chair she was sat on as someone approached the teacher speaking during a school assembly, walking trepidly and whispering into their ear; her name called; the merciless lighting overhead and the sterile, ugly flooring underneath as she was lead away to a room she had never been to; the voice of the person speaking to her dissolving into noise after the word ‘mother’.

Her mother had been ill for some time, and though neither of her parents had told her what the illness was, she knew that it would only end in one way.

Her father was waiting outside to take her home, and as they drove in complete silence she stared at the sky, passively allowing the words to leave her body, unsaid and never to return again as sound to be released but as something to retain inside her. All that remained in her mind was the conflict between two images: her mother in the hospital bed she would die in, and her mother gently stroking her hair.

She was eight years old.

***

Her father was a good man, but he didn’t know how to express his emotions, only how to suppress them. The death of his wife suddenly robbed him of this ability and he felt lost.

As he drove his daughter home that day, he didn’t know what to say. After a while, he asked if she was ok, but she didn’t respond. Unable to bear the silence, he turned on the radio, but the song that played seemed obscene in the context of their circumstances. He thought about trying to find a CD instead, but couldn’t think of one. He changed stations over and over again, searching for something appropriate. He found nothing, but when he landed on a classical music station he let the music linger a while. Soon he could feel the grief creep up from his chest. He couldn’t cry, not now: He fucking refused to cry.

So he turned the station off.

His daughter had always been the quiet type: shy, bookish, but diligent, well-behaved and she always did well at school. He knew she would soon be more intelligent than him. Maybe she already was. At times he worried about her, about her lack of friends. She seemed only to have one, another quiet boy who lived only a few streets away. He never knew what they did together. They didn’t go outside, only sat in her room. He left it to her mother to know what went on.

The boy’s family had moved to a different town the year before. It disturbed him how little his daughter seemed to care.

As the years after the death of his wife piled upon each other, he retreated into a taciturn bitterness. Although he always remembered to feed her, he thought less and less about his daughter as the grief slowly tightened its grip on him until it controlled him entirely. Eventually, he hardly thought about his daughter at all.

He hardly thought about anything.

***

All The Girl remembered from that day her father drove her home was that he asked her a few questions, questions she didn’t really hear. Except one: ‘Do you want to go and see her?’

The Girl thought about what it would be like to see the dead body of her mother. The thought made her feel sick.

She said ‘No’ and stared out of the window at the sky, watching the clouds drifting and the light drawing contours around them.

***

There were only two other people on the bus: a woman in her mid-fifties and a man in his thirties with a phone to his face like a feeding-bag on a horse, who incessantly bounced his left leg up and down.

As the bus drove on, the trees on either side of the road fell away to reveal a flat and empty landscape of crop fields and sheep pastures. Sudden light escaped the oppressive shroud of cloud-cover and the right side of the bus became exposed to an unflattering illumination along its entire length. At the the front of the bus, the old woman saw in the periphery of her vision the weak reflection of her face overlaid onto the scenery outside the window. The deep and shallow wrinkles and furrows, the sagging and blotted skin; all the signs of age that had inevitably accumulated upon her face; the secrets her carefully applied make-up could now no longer evade, all were mercilessly revealed in the unforgiving light. She forgot her composure, forgot that she was supposed to be discreetly aware of her surroundings and company. Her inner-child escaped and despaired for all the days that had left these traces, for her treasured youth and beauty so mistreated, and here in this place amongst the children it became too much. With pitiful sorrow in her eyes her hands explored her face, they stroked and stretched the skin around her eyes, along her jaw, beneath her chin and on her neck as she turned her head this way and that searching for an angle that would provide some small flattery.

She wished she didn’t care so much about her appearance, but that didn’t change the fact that she did.

She recounted in her mind all of the things she had to be grateful for: the good job, early retirement with a healthy pension; the lasting (second marriage); her two beloved, successful children and their own children.

It didn’t help. She still felt like shit.

It was one of those days.

***

The man with the phone was shitposting on Twitter, simultaneously feeling pleased and disgusted with himself, oblivious to his physical surroundings. He didn’t need to be: his body knew every bend in the road, knew how long his journey would last, knew that the kids would push the button for him when he needed to get off the bus.

He didn’t think about what came after the bus ride. He didn’t want to.

The words “sad ugly bastard” shouted in his mind, so he wrote something awful and sent it to a stranger.

Loneliness was becoming too much for him.

***

When Jacob sat down on the same seat as Olly, as their bodies brushed together, they both felt a warm excitement spike through them. This had started to be a regular experience and though they still did not understand its significance they both took a secret pleasure in it. Neither boy knew what to make of it, so they ignored it as best they could. Both were unaware the feeling was shared.

As happy and carefree as the three boys were there was something beneath the surface of their interactions, some unspoken feeling hiding behind every word. Of the three of them it was Jack who felt it mostly keenly and while he could not recognise it nor understand it, it felt painful to him. He was frightened of the feeling. It made his stomach feel tight. It was too much like the sensation he had felt just a year or so back, when a group of older boys and girls had started talking to him during lunch. Some of the girls were his age but most of them were older. He didn’t like it when he saw them looking at him. None of them had said anything particularly mean, in fact they had been sort of friendly with him, but he didn’t like the sensation that gripped him in that moment when each gaze was upon him. The whole experience had suddenly felt detached, like everything had just unlatched and drifted away, leaving him behind. After that he had never felt the same again, he never felt safe around other people.

Sometimes, on those nights when he couldn’t sleep, he would look out of his window, out at what few stars he could see, and sharp tears, a bitter taste and a gnawing sensation in his stomach would all arrive at once to push him towards the edge of something unknown and terrifying.

It was on those nights that he spent most of his time of the internet.

***

Logan was 15. Logan had five brothers. He was the type that radiated testosterone and other boys submitted easily to him. If his eyes had displayed the bright signs of intelligence, Logan might have seemed truly malevolent, but they didn’t. Yet sometimes, just before the fire of aggression started within him, his eyes sent out little signals of fear and slight surprise: he was not without a need to be accepted…but the other boys had their own fear to confront and so none of them ever noticed.

The Girl did though.

At the back of the bus, Jacob and Olly prepared to interact with Logan. Jack prepared to be in Logan’s presence. For all three boys this meant doing the same thing: falling silent and staying that way. For Jack, it also meant downcast eyes avoiding Logan’s gaze; his stance, the aggressive movements, the jokes at his expense and a silent despair at Jacob and Olly. A despair that they wouldn’t join in with any bullying Logan might decide to plague Jack with, but wouldn’t prevent either. Logan announced his presence with a single, barked command:

“MOVE!”.

The three boys moved. Jacob and Olly sat next to each other, Jack moved to the seat in front of them, as far away from danger as he dared.

Logan threw his bag onto a seat and fell into the one next to it.

He stared at the boys, enjoying the power he knew he held over them, and dreading the powerlessness that awaited him when he arrived home.

After enjoying his power for a few minutes, Logan demanded that Jack get out his iPad. Jack dutifully removed it from his bag, hoping his now sweaty palms and shaking hands would go unnoticed but hoping most of all that this wouldn’t end with his possessions broken. Again.

Jacob and Olly, suddenly at ease again, began to talk and laugh. They leaned over their seats to be able to crowd around Jack’s iPad, moving with a flexibility that was beyond him. For the first time it occurred to him that Jacob and Olly, his constant companions for years, had always been more physical with each other than they were with him. They had always somehow managed to be sat next to each other and not him; they would touch and push and joke with each other in a way that seemed so relaxed, so natural. That never happened to him.

Then Logan made a playful attempt to take the iPad away from him and from pure instinct Jack knocked Logan’s hands away, but did it with such unintended force he sent the iPad crashing to the floor. All four boys fell silent until Jack let out a quiet whimper of dismay. His face flushed with sudden red anger and his muscles, or what he had of them, tensed and his wide shoulders pulled up and in toward his body. His two friends were held in shock by the moment: they had never seen aggression displayed by their friend. The moment passed though, quickly and without resolution. Jack averted his eyes, picked up the tech from the floor, and stayed as motionless as he could. His two friends looked at each other guiltily. They had worried about him recently, about his withdrawal into himself and away from them and everyone else. Now for the first time they had been frightened by him.

The silence held itself in the air between them as they all awaited Logan’s reaction, but Logan, after staring at Jack – who did not look back – just laughed, and threw an insult at him.

Jack wouldn’t look up at them, or at anyone. He simply sat quietly with his head held down and his iPad, gently placed back into it’s protective cover, on his lap.

Logan talked to Jacob and Olly about the football team, ignoring Jack, and got off the bus after a few stops. Turning to the other boys, he called Jack a pussy and muttered a simple ‘Bye’ to Jacob and Olly: a sign of respect.

Jacob and Olly looked at each other, then at Jack. They all remained silent.

As the bus drove off and Logan walked towards home, a familiar feeling hardened in his guts. Arriving at his door, he prepared himself before entering his own personal hell.

***

The bus stopped in the village square where Jack, Jacob and Olly had spent so many innocent childhood nights together. Jack, like the old woman at the front of the bus, held his mouth open as he caught sight of the scene of his happy youth. The two smaller boys gathered their things and stood to leave the bus.

Jack, caught in a limbo between nostalgia and shame at the awkwardness he had caused, looked up at them finally as they all muttered goodbyes. As they left the bus, Jacob and Olly felt strangely elated and marched happily away to their homes and talked of the past as if it were just another part of themselves. Jack, watching them go, let his eyes fall to the floor again. For a brief moment he had to restrain himself from crying.

Taking a deep breath he left his seat, stumbled twice, and just before he left the bus he stared at his reflection in the oversized wing-mirror. When he stepped out he turned his head to say ‘Thanks’ to the bus driver with a bitter tone to his voice that surprised them both. The driver, a man who was remembered by no one, had always felt that the boy was a gentle creature incapable of malice.

The driver felt a small twinge of pity.

Leaving the bus after Jack, the man with the phone looked up at his surroundings for the first time since he had sat down, and what he saw, without knowing it, was the meek walking off to be disinherited from the Earth.

The man marched home; the cold air, slimy leaves stuck to the streets, the wind stinging his eyes and making his nose dribble. The environment seemed to be maliciously conspiring against him. He hated the outside world. He hated his body.

He walked faster towards home, longing for incorporeal company.

***

As she watched the others depart, and those still remaining on the bus, the Girl thought about the day her mother had died. When the thought became too much she did what she always did and forced herself to think about something, anything, else. She thought about everyone she knew about; what would they would become before death came for them. She thought about light; about the the biology class when all the children grew cress exposed to different levels of light and the sight of those grown in a closed box with only a single pinprick on top.

Thoughts swelled to a crescendo in The Girl’s mind as sunlight pierced the clouds again, this time accompanied by a gentle rain. Thoughts became images, only images, in her mind.

A sadness so profound that it felt like a punch to the chest overcame The Girl. Too much detail: there was just too much detail everywhere. She wanted nothing more than to think about and to know everything, but she couldn’t. The Girl was overwhelmed. The woman, the bus driver, the other children, herself, her father. Her mother.

How could she continue to exist amongst all these other existences? The sensation, the one she still had no name for, took over every single cell of her. Overwhelmed by everything, The Girl tried to ignore as much as she could, but it wasn’t possible. The inexpressible took control of her.

Sometimes everything becomes just too much.

Too much, it was all too much.

Watching the raindrops falling in the refracted sunlight, The Girl realised something. Something she could not understand. She felt a lightness sweep her away and, unnoticed, as the light played it’s majestic game across, above and between the scene, The Girl began to slowly evaporate. All that she was, all that she would be, finally released itself into the Nothing that had been calling her for her entire life.

No one saw, but it happened nonetheless:

The Girl disappeared.

The Vulture

When Mark Johnson died his family fell apart.

Like the scattered fragments of a delicate ornament fallen from a great height onto a concrete floor, they were left broken and so very far from one another.

His Son, John (how he hates his name!), felt obliged to move back into the family home. After a week he couldn’t stand to be there any more. The turgid atmosphere was intolerable: the dirty dishes, the dirty washing, the dirty everything. The tears that fell so easily from the eyes of his Sister and Mother but would not come to him.

Not a single fucking tear troubled his eyes.

He felt them though, the tears. Felt them welling up within him, swelling and pushing against the dam of his diaphragm.

No, he couldn’t cry…but he needed to.

Two days after the funeral he was sat in front of his Mother at the dinner table, despairing at yet another failed attempt to make her eat something. She was crying again. A single rope of mucus hung from her nose. For a few brief seconds it swayed gently in the air, before attaching itself to her chin. With every convulsive movement of her crying the green shiny thread twitched like a thin disgusting ribbon. John was appalled to find his upper lip curling in disgust.

He realised in that moment that he was a terrible, terrible human being, and understood that he had to leave.

So he did.

He went to a friends house and spent a night and a day binging on alcohol and cocaine. His friends, though compelled by comradeship to stay with him, slowly dropped off one by one, felled by the chemical attrition. John spent the second day drinking in the corner of a pub. His eyes bored holes into the wall opposite him for hours, while his body burned with the white heat of amphetamines. Eventually, he was discovered by two people he was vaguely acquainted with. Something about John made them feel vaguely uneasy, but these boys didn’t like to ask questions…then again, they were off to a house party nearby, did he want to come?

He was forcibly ejected from this house party a few hours after arriving: an MDMA-earnest student had asked “Hey, are you OK?” and a few minutes later John was as surprised everyone else to find himself brandishing a knife. It was a butter-knife. He kept hold of it as he was thrown out of the door. A few of the more curious – or voyeuristic, depending upon your persuasion – party-goers stood around outside and watched as John ranted maniacally on the front garden. Mostly he just screamed obscenities, but scattered amongst all the fucks and cunts were words of self-recrimination and references to hospitals and decay. The onlookers were content not to ask for clarification. When John threw the knife at a window – missing his target considerably – they gave him a sarcastic burst of applause. When he started crying, they grew bored and went back inside.

He came to consciousness on the third day laying fully clothed in his bathtub.

Soon after waking, he spent 30 minutes retching out of his bedroom window. All that he managed to expel was a trickle of yellowish phlegm. When his vision regained equilibrium after the dizzying ride of racking coughs, he spent a silent minute staring at the small pool of liquid on the windowsill beneath him. He thought of his Mother, thought about his shameful disgust, and was disgusted.

The street lights oozed their sickly orange glow into the night. He still couldn’t cry.

“Fuck you!” he said to no one.

§

Sarah (who rather liked her name, she just hated everything else about herself) spent the days after her Fathers’ death thinking of nothing but regret; about how spitefully she had spoken to him in the past, about what a terrible Daughter she was; about the endlessly litany of complaints against her parents that she had recounted to her friends over and over again. Every bad word she had ever spoken about him returned to dance a circle around her head in a mocking parade celebrating the uselessness of her grief…because she couldn’t bring him back, could she? Nothing could.

She felt as if she were choking, choking on the words that haunted her, on the hospital-smell that never left her, on the impossible fucking trauma of it all. On more than one occasion she actually did choke: a person can only cry for so long before she cannot breathe. Or, at least, Sarah couldn’t.

Then her Brother left. Selfish bastard.

What was wrong with him, how could he just walk away from it all, and leave the grief behind? Leave her behind?

The misery didn’t stalk him all day and all night like it did to her. She hadn’t even seen him cry! Not once, not even a single tear. In the Funeral parlour, as she comforted their sobbing Mother, he had sat there calmly as he picked out the coffin and the flowers and all the other decorations that were displayed in disgusting banality upon the pages of a big, glossy catalogue. It was as if he were a disinterested landlord absently choosing the furniture for a cheap flat he was renting.

It was as if none of it were really happening to him.

And then there was all that shit at the hospital. Kicked out of the place when they caught him trying to steal drugs! He still hasn’t explained, but Sarah hadn’t asked. She didn’t need to, she knew why he did it.

He was too much of a fucking coward to be there at the end. To be there when he finally expired.

Or maybe she was crediting him with too much humanity, and maybe he was just doing what addicts always do: looking for a way, any way, to get fucked up.

Whatever his motivation was, she didn’t care. She hated him.

She hated him with a fury she had never felt before, but like so many who hate with such passion, what she detested most was what she knew to be true of herself: she wasn’t there at the end either.

Sarah told herself that it was an accident, that she had just left the room – oh fuck, that room, that stinking, beige tomb! – at the wrong time. Sometimes, in her weaker moments, she almost believed herself.

Now, she was being punishment for this unforgivable act of abandonment, for leaving her Mother to be sole witness to the dissipation of a life. Of his life.

She all but had to wash her Mother, the woman was so immobilized by grief. The house soon deteriorated, the mess became just another consequence of the unrelenting shit-storm that had descended upon them. For all her diligence and effort, nothing got better, it only grew worse.

She was 18 years old. 18 years old and in charge of a broken household.

It wasn’t long before her friends slowly, silently, began to shunt her out of their social group. They made some gestures of pity at first, but mostly that amounted to a few :(‘s over texts or on social media. Her BFF Claire braved a visit to the house, but when Sarah saw the grimace Claire didn’t even attempt to hide as she made her way up to Sarah’s roomdainty little footsteps, hands held high in the air, as if she were a pampered celebrity walking over a pile of rotting garbage for a photo-shootSarah realised that Claire was already like the rest of them. The distant dispensers of pity. In that moment she knew that this would be the last time she would see Claire again. Unless she could somehow emerge on the other side of her grief clean and visibly happy, Sarah was doomed to social exile…and she knew that she would never be clean or happy ever again. I mean, fuck, it took so much effort just to appear happy before he died!

Sarah looked at Claire looking around her room as if at a homeless person sleeping by a bus stop she needed to wait at. Not that Claire would ever dream of catching a bus, the entitled bitch.

“Fuck you!” She said to Claire.

§

Brona Johnson no longer existed.

She was an absence, a negation, an empty shell. When she looked into the mirror she saw not the old familiar face, not the person she once was, but the face of an old woman, a woman aged far beyond her years; a face suddenly sagged and furrowed by deep wrinkles, its skin stretched thin and drained of all colour. Maybe all those years he would now never know, now never share with her as they had shared so many of the others – the memories of which were now painfully thin; brittle and transparent things that she could not keep in her grasp – maybe all those years had fallen to her to live now, to live all at once and at the cost of all else?

Maybe…or maybe not. She didn’t know.

She knew nothing other than that he was gone and that she was alone.

Brona Johnson didn’t exist.

§

We are all of us, at one time or another, controlled by compulsions we will never really understand.

John had decided that he wanted to write a letter.

This was a strange decision considering he had never before felt any urge to write. Writing had always seemed an antiquated and unnecessary chore, an act of vanity that it was beneath his dignity to indulge in.

But still, the compulsion remained: he needed to write. To begin with, John couldn’t shake off the vague feeling that what he was writing was a long and sentimental suicide note: addicts are adolescent souls, after all, and he was no exception.

To his credit though, this was one thing John knew about himself.

He knew also that his Sister – poor, annoying, brilliant bitch; ancient enemy of childhood! – despised him for what he did at the hospital, and he needed desperately for her to know the truth, because if she knew the truth then maybe she could forgive him.

If she forgave him, maybe he could forgive himself. Not for what he did, but for what he failed to do.

He was trying to steal morphine, copious amounts of morphine, to put an end to the misery and suffering. Not his own, though; on that last day in the hospital John had already decided that he deserved all the suffering that had ever come his way and any that there was left to wait for. The pain that ravaged his Father as he lay there in that hospital bed had, until then, been first and foremost experienced as a suffering that John experienced himself; the suffering of a child loosing paternal protection, losing safety and guidance. Losing love.

Realising this, John began an ongoing process – a seemingly endless process – of discovering just how much of a selfish dickhead he was. He also resolved to do what he knew he must: John didn’t want the morphine he was caught stealing so that he could get high. For once, he wasn’t thinking of himself, wasn’t trying to get fucked up and to forget.

He wanted the morphine because he wanted to kill the old man.

§

Sarah had fastidiously written in various journals since her 8th birthday. At the age of 10 she furtively began to write poetry. Almost all of the early notebooks she wrote in were burned in a spectacular fit of melodrama when she was 15: re-reading the early poems, she was mortified at the sickly-sweet poesy of a little girl writing about things she did not understand.

Things like love.

For a year she wrote nothing that she considered ‘artistic’, although she kept up the diary entries: habit is a hard thing to kill. But eventually the urge to express herself through poetry came back.

She kept every word she wrote as a fiercely guarded secret. The thought that anyone would ever read anything she had written filled her with a skin-crawling fear.

When she had left the hospital room, left her Mother alone to watch her Father take his final, broken breath, it was to skulk to a shadowy corner of the car-park to chain-smoke cigarettes and to read her beloved, battered copy of Ariel.

When he died, she had been reading “Daddy”.

Or so she wanted to believe, without quite knowing why. Without wanting to know why.

No one in the family was aware that Sarah smoked. Not even her Father, from whom she stole her first delicious cigarette at the age of 14. No one in the family knew that she wrote poetry either.

Now one of the family never would.

So when she sat down to write about her Father, about her grief; when she let the words seep out of her like a poison, all she could ask herself was this one question:

why bother?

§

Like the disease that corrupted his bones, the image of his agonised death-grimace had invaded every last memory that Brona had of her husband. At night, as she lay staring at the ceiling, she would try to summon the face, the body, the living, breathing human being she had so adored. But she couldn’t. All she could see was his death.

So she cried, she cried and was alone.

For a few brief moments in the endless swell of agonising time that was now her life, she felt something other than pain: she felt shame. Shame that she could do nothing, shame that she was nothing; her eyes had almost drowned her and all that now remained was a weak and scared shipwreck. It was in these moments that she saw Sarah, her poor suffering daughter, struggling in vain to hold them both together…and what of John, where was he?

Brona Johnson did not exist, but what about her children, did they exist?

§

There is nothing here.

Nothing but white, a whiteness so vast and bright it consumes everything. Proprioception is obliterated and there is no more fixed position of observation; there is no more you. The whiteness is swallowing you whole.

There is nothing here.

But that isn’t quite true, is it? There is something else here. It is black; a small, thin, vertical black line.

It blinks – or is it you blinking? – it disappears briefly and returns. You remain where you are, focused on the only other thing that exists.

The line grows bigger – or is that you are growing smaller? – it comes closer, it looms before you, huge and black.

Are you afraid?

You don’t know. There is no way of knowing.

The black line, incessantly blinking, terrible and unfeeling, moves closer. Nothing can stop it. It moves again…and then, you are gone.

§

There is a Vulture.

The eyes of the Vulture are black, and so are its feathers, so is its head, its neck and its beak. Still, you know what it is.

It looks at you with an unwavering gaze that seems neither hostile nor indifferent. The vulture moves; it takes a few steps forward, faces you directly, holds out its wings and opens its beak. For a second it holds this pose, glaring at you, silent and still.

Then it screams.

A noise of terror and animal fear hits you like a wave, knocks you down and carries you away. The noise forces itself into you, fills your lungs, floods your veins, shakes your bones.

The scream continues. It never breaks, never falters, never stops.

The eyes of the Vulture are red now, a violent, burning red, and soon so are its feathers, so is its head, its neck and its beak.

Suddenly the Vulture burst into flames, its flesh begins to melt but there is no smell, there is only the noise that never ceases, the noise that contains you completely.

You are far away now, still carried by the noise.

You are far, far away.

The Vulture burns and it screams, but you can no longer see it. You can no longer see or feel or hear or smell anything.

You are far away…and then, you are gone.

§

When Mark Johnson died, his family fell apart.