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When you’re HIV+, blood tests aren’t anything out of the ordinary. But, sitting in the queue at the hospital last Monday, looking down at the form I’d been given, two words hit me like a punch in the guts:
I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. Looking back, the signs were there: Night sweats, diarrhoea, low energy, sleeping all day, unexplained rashes, various other niggles and twitches. I had become complacent about my continuing good health. I treated the ‘niggles’ as separate incidents and didn’t consider the bigger picture, when really, my body was jabbing me frantically in the side saying “pay attention to me.”
However, before you all picture me getting rushed off to an isolation unit and wrapped in cling film in case I catch a cold, let’s backtrack for just a sec. ‘Treatment failure’ is not the same as say, ‘organ failure’. It just means the meds aren’t doing what they’re supposed to. There are other options out there, far more than in the 80s and 90s, thanks to the men and women of medical science and their never-ending quest to find new ways of fighting the virus.
But it was still enough to raise my viral load above the ‘undetectable’ level for the first time in almost four years, and put a worried look on my doctor’s face.
Now I’ll admit I’m one of the rarer cases, but I’ve never got on with those bloody pills from day one. Over multiple experiments with different combos, the side effects have been constant, varied, and always unpleasant. The first regime sent my cholesterol soaring to 6.5 (not great for a then 28-year-old), the next one gave me a level of insomnia that would leave me awake for four days at a time, the one after that gave me the shakes, and the latest hasn’t worked at all.
I’m now back on the regime with the four-day insomnia bouts while they figure out what they can give me now. It’s a waiting game.
Is it manageable? Yes.
Is it fun? No.
Do I like worrying that, despite our stringent safety measures, medically speaking, I’m more infectious to my negative boyfriend with a raised viral load? No. It’s excruciating (by the way, take note all you idiots who don’t get tested regularly. Untreated HIV makes you more infectious).
Am I looking forward to a month of side-effects on the old drugs and possibly more when I get a new regime? Absolutely not.
For the first time since I got diagnosed, I’m resenting having HIV. With all these copies of the virus running riot in me, I feel somehow ‘dirty’ inside. I resent the side effects, I resent taking the pills every day. I resent the fact that my body is now so full of chemicals my sweat turns my white bedsheets yellow, I hate the blood tests, the needles, the paranoia when I cut a finger and I don’t have a plaster to hand*. It’s a choice I make to be so cautious, but it’s grinding me the hell down.
But most of all, I just want to make sure the person I love never goes through all this himself; which means no more messing about with my regime. Side effects I can cope with. Bad health and being infectious to my partner I can’t. So I’m staying on the old regime for now.
I’m not a saint. I’ve played my part in the onset of this blip and it’s kicked me into touch. I’ve been lazy with keeping appointments recently. I became complacent that the pills were doing their job. I’ve gotten ‘used’ to being healthy. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you take care of your sexual health, respect yourself and stay informed, you don’t need to go through all this. HIV isn’t the greatest threat to your sexual health. It’s ignorance.
To quote a good friend Mike, (@LondonVoiceOver on Twitter): “Those of us who live with it and thrive may inadvertently send the signal that it’s no great shakes. It is, and no one needs to catch it to prove a point.”
*please see comments for medical information on this
“I told you I was trouble,” Amy Winehouse sang, “You know that I’m no good.”
For me, that’s the most poignant lyric she ever wrote. It sums up the mind of an addict. You see, it wasn’t a brag; it was a mixture of ‘keep away’ and ‘help me’.
How do I know? Because not so long ago, I was Amy Winehouse.
For most addicts, there’s a constant presence on your shoulder telling you you’re not good enough, that somehow, you’re ‘less’ than everyone out there. Your thoughts go round like a washing machine on high-speed. The noise in your head is constant, loud and harsh. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a rich and famous popstar, or Mary Taylor in Islington, homeless and sleeping rough in a shop doorway; it’s that same mindset. Alcohol and drugs are merely the medication.
Addiction isn’t fun. Addiction isn’t “Let’s go to the pub and get pissed and have a right laugh” or “Let’s get fucked on drugs and get up to mischief”. Addiction is lonely, terrifying and insidious. Oh, sure, you start out like everyone else, a few drinks here and there, a dabble or two in something a little harder. You don’t realise when it stops being fun, but it does. Suddenly you find yourself alone in a room, afraid to go out, because ‘outside’ is too damn scary.
So you take that hit, and for a short while, the noise stops. Peace through oblivion. Then you come around and the noise starts again, louder this time, and coupled with the anxiety, fear and terror that come with withdrawal. So you take another hit. Sweet, blessed relief. And somewhere in the back of your mind you hope you don’t wake up from this one. You’re nothing but trouble, you see. All you cause is pain and worry.
I read a fantastic blog by Russell Brand today, in which he said:
“When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction, you await the phonecall. There will be a phonecall. The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough, that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new. Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone. Frustratingly it’s not a call you can ever make — it must be received.”
The problem is, addiction is the only disease in existence that tells you that you haven’t got it. Lock an addict away and they’ll be looking for an escape, or biding their time and playing the ‘yes, I’m fine now’ role until they’re alone again. I’ve had people in the kitchen pouring drink away while I’ve been climbing out of the bedroom window on my way to buy more.
I’ve been a day out of hospital after being found in my flat, hours away from death, and already I’m figuring out where I can get hold of some gear. I believed the booze and drugs were giving me something. In fact, it was the opposite. They were hollowing me out, alienating my friends and family and slowly stripping me of all that was real and good.
Sadly, all the love and support in the world wasn’t going to help Amy get better. She was trotted out on stage at every opportunity to make money for her record company. She didn’t have the luxury I’ve had of anonymity, of being left alone so she could get better. Contracts had been signed and albums were due. Her star had to keep shining, and all the while the press were snapping at her heels, waiting for her to fall again.
I can’t imagine anything more frightening than the whole world waiting with bated breath for me to fuck up, then posting it on YouTube when I do.
Yesterday evening, people shut down Facebook and Twitter on their computers, still in shock and disbelief at this tragedy, before heading off down to the pubs and clubs for a well-deserved weekend blowout.
Mary in Islington sits down in her shop doorway, begging for a few coins to get a can of beer. Just a little something to help take the edge off. You might have seen her last night, she may have come up to ask you for some change, desperate and devoid of pride, but like a lot of people, you probably looked away, annoyed and uncomfortable.
Sunday morning rolls around, and half of London wakes up with a hangover. Some might even still be going. iTunes seizes the opportunity to promote Amy’s albums on its homepage to make some cash, and somewhere in Islington, an ambulance arrives to take away the body of a homeless woman found dead in a shop doorway.
And all over the world, recovering addicts wake up and pray to a God they’re not even sure exists for the strength to stay clean one more day.
The world carries on. Then somewhere, a phone rings.
You know those people who always seem to say the right thing? Those serene individuals, calmer than Buddha, who wait patiently while you witter on like a blithering idiot, then promptly sum up every feeling, every emotion, everything you’ve been trying so desperately to verbalise in one, simple answer?
Yeah, I’m not one of those people.
Ironic isn’t’ it? I mean, I’m a writer. Words are like, my thing, you know? But talking isn’t. Oh, sure, I can construct perfect paragraphs, sizzling sentences and compelling copy, but ask me to talk without a crib sheet and I fly off on a million different tangents, tripping over my words and getting so caught up in what I want to say, I never actually manage to make the point I originally intended to make.
It’s probably why I chose to make this my living. Ask me to write what’s in my head and I’ll give you an articulate, well-structured piece of copy. Come to me for advice and I’ll serve you up the verbal equivalent of a really fucking bad first draft.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a ‘closed’ person. I’ve done the I-am-an-island thing and I’ve worn my heart on my sleeve, and nowadays I like to think I’ve found a happy medium concerning what and with whom I share things.
But GOD, that talking thing. It’s like my thoughts trip over halfway between my brain and my mouth and what comes out is a tangled mass of arms, legs and the contents of the owners’ handbags. Ever seen a pile up in a cycling race? Yeah, that.
Take tonight for instance. I was on the phone with someone who’d had a bad day. A simple enough situation, but you see, he’s one of those people. The kind of person who can say in four seconds what you’ve been trying to say for half an hour. The kind of person who always says the right thing, and does so without having to try three different versions of it. Out loud. The kind of person I just wish I could be like.
Let’s just say he’s ‘special’ to me, and I wanted so badly to come up with some earth-shattering wisdom to solve all his problems and leave him comforted (and slightly in awe of my verbal dexterity), but all I managed were a few long pauses, punctuated by the razor-sharp “Uhm…yeah…well I don’t really know what to say. It’s like… yeah, cause uhm…”
You get the picture.
We began wrapping up the phonecall and saying goodnight. Inside I was feeling like I’d been utterly useless. Then, right before we bid our farewells, he said this:
“Thanks for listening to me moan. I really needed that.”
For this writer, sometimes I need to forget about words. Sometimes all I need to do is just listen.
Afterwards, I went into the living room where my flatmate and best friend of ten years was watching TV.
“Why is it that when I’m talking to him, I can never put into words what’s in my head? It just comes out all jumbled and I end up sounding like an idiot.”
“Because you’re emotionally invested,” she replied simply, “you’re not impartial so it’s harder.”
Yeah. She’s another one of those people.
‘The Room and the Briefcase’ is the concluding part of an extract from Kristian Johns’s forthcoming book ’11:47′, available next year. Parts 1&2 of the story will be available for download directly to Amazon Kindle devices soon. Read part 1 here.
Kyle’s ‘work’ phone had woken him from dozing on the sofa, but he never ignored a call. Not when there was money to be made.
There was no background noise on the line, which meant the caller was indoors, but then again, Kyle never got the kind of calls people made out in the street or on a train. The caller sounded like they had a chest infection or something.
“Hello?” Kyle repeated
“How much for you to visit?” The voice on the other end belonged to an older guy. Kyle could tell these things.
Sounds like the only visit you need is from a doctor.
“Three hundred. I’ll negotiate on overnights but I’m generally not an overnight kind of guy, y’know? You got a name?”
“We have a deal.”
“OK, dude, what are you looking fo—“
Kyle looked at the phone and arched his eyebrows. “Well, you’re rude,” he muttered while trying to tame his curly brown hair and wondering if he could get away without showering. A sniff of his t-shirt told him not.
His phone beeped with a text telling him the address, and instructions to arrive in an hour.
He texted his best friend Ian: Got a job. U gonna still be up in a couple of hours?
Almost immediately the reply came back: Sure. Come ova if u want. Have half a cold pizza n beer J
Fifteen minutes later, still damp from his shower, he took one last look in the mirror at the boyish face and slim body that drove so many older guys wild, and satisfied, grabbed his jacket and keys. It was Wednesday night, and midweekers were few and far between lately, so it was a good thing.
Might even go regular? He thought, swiping his wallet over the reader at Pimlico tube station and heading down to the cool, painted concrete of the tunnels below.
He arrived ten minutes early at the address in Kensington. A pretty fucking nice address at that. Kensington’s one of those places where you’re walking down a street lined with townhouses and you suddenly twig that none of them have been converted into flats yet. This was where money lived.
He’s loaded. Should have said five hundred. Dammit.
The door opened almost as soon as he pressed the bell, which startled him slightly — like the guy had been waiting there. The guy was a well-dressed man in his mid-fifties, wearing a double breasted grey suit with a blue shirt and tie. For some reason he was carrying a briefcase, and Kyle wondered if he’d only just arrived home. He offered his hand
“Hi, there. I’m Kyle, we spoke about an hour ago?”
— and you’re minted and ugly so I’m being polite and hoping this goes regular. Sad fuck.
The man looked momentarily down at Kyle’s hand, and then jerked his head in an ‘in-you-come’ gesture.
Minted, ugly, rude. But minted.
Kyle stepped inside and followed the silent, shuffling man down and immaculately tiled hallway and into a plush living room. They sat on the couch. The man kept hold of his briefcase.
“I usually get the money thing out the way first. Makes it less awkward at the end. That cool?”
The man nodded and produced an envelope from his blazer pocket. Kyle didn’t feel the need to check. The guy had a townhouse in Kensington for fuck’s sake.
For some reason, the guy gave Kyle the creeps, and not just because he didn’t talk. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a first-timer to clam up. No, this guy was a different kind of creepy. To anyone else, he would have appeared nervous, sitting there, breathing like a phone pest, clutching his briefcase like it was welded to him. But not to Kyle, whose years of experience as an escort —
— had given him an uncanny ability to read people. Kyle always felt a sense of power when he was with clients, but this guy exuded a powerful aura of control. It made him feel…dislocated…vulnerable.
“So. What do you like to do?” Kyle asked, dismayed to hear an edge to his voice; a slight tremor that turned his vowels to ridges.
The man’s eyes fixed on Kyle’s and his face cracked into a humourless grin and Kyle’s skin prickled with unease as he realised he’d forgotten to text Ian the guy’s address like they always agreed.
“Uhm…you like coke? I have some on me. It’s good for relaxing. Makes you feel like the king of the world.” said Kyle, cursing inwardly as he fumbled his wallet and dropped it on the floor.
The man continued to smile at him, like he found Kyle amusing.
Have a line and focus. He isn’t the one in control here. You are. Always remember that.
“Is it OK to do it on the table? It looks —
— just chop the fucking line and stop babbling!
“—expensive. I wouldn’t want to—“
The man’s voice was husky, but still went through Kyle like a gunshot. He tried to hide his juddering hands as he knelt over the spotless glass table and shook out more coke than he should have. He chopped two fat lines, pulled out a well-rolled note and snorted. He handed the note to the man, feeling the burn and gagging slightly as the coke hit the back of his throat. The rush was almost immediate — he always bought top-drawer stuff.
The client barked a deep, phlegmy cough as he finished his own line and returned to the sofa, still holding the briefcase.
Fortified by the coke, Kyle knelt up behind the man and began kneading his shoulders. The man inhaled a deep, wheezy lungful as he slumped under Kyle’s expert fingers.
“That feel good, mister?”
The guy nodded.
Course it does, you limp-dicked old fart. You’ve probably come in your y-fronts already. Easy money.
Kyle reached for the hand holding the briefcase, “Why don’t you put that down so you can relax with me on the —?”
“NO!” shouted the man, jumping up, his suit jacket half-off his shoulders. His eyes flashed, and Kyle felt his fear crack open again.
“Okay! Okay!” Kyle held his hand out in an ‘easy there’ gesture but the man stepped back again, his eyes flashing.
“Don’t you dare touch it! Don’t you DARE touch this case!” He hugged it in a pose that might have looked absurd if it hadn’t been for his vicious expression. His face was turning a deep shade of purple and his eyes bulged. He tugged at his collar with his free hand.
“Dude, calm down, I wasn’t going to…are you O—“
The man thudded violently to the floor before Kyle could finish his sentence. Gooey blobs of phlegm splattered from his mouth as he fought desperately to catch a breath. The hand holding the briefcase let go and grabbed at his shoulder. The noise was awful, a rasping, desperate sound like nails down a blackboard
He’s having a heart attack. He’s having a goddamn motherfucking heart attack.
Kyle knew he should do something —
— you’re a rent boy who’s given him drugs.
— call an ambulance, anything, but he was glued to the spot, mesmerised by the horror of watching another human being dying, knowing he should do something, pick up the phone, call out, anything, but torn by the fear of the consequences.
— call a fucking ambulance. Flush the coke and call an ambulance
The man gaped at Kyle with eyes shot through with fear, confusion and blood. He pawed feebly at it the briefcase before his body was wracked with a final, violent spasm, and then he lay still.
Kyle stood rooted to the spot. A wild jumble of thoughts clattered round in his mind: I should check if he’s dead I should call an ambulance I should flush the coke and then call an ambulance I should try and give him the kiss of life I should grab my shit and get the fuck out of here I should see what’s in that briefcase.
The briefcase the man had been so ferocious about protecting.
I should see what’s in that briefcase.
He knelt over the man, heart pounding so hard he swore he could see his t-shirt rippling. He gingerly put his ear close to the man’s mouth. No breath. Not even a whisper.
He slid over to where the briefcase lay upside down on the smooth, varnished wooden floor and flipped it over. It was nothing special: just your bog standard department store job, black leather, with a cheap, gold combination lock on each side of the handle.
“What’s so important that you couldn’t let this out of your sight, eh?” Kyle asked the dead man, searching in his own bag for the screwdriver he always carried around with him on jobs. Police didn’t take kindly to knives. At least if he got stopped and searched he could say he was borrowing it.
A few well-placed jabs, a couple of turns of the wrist and the locks sprang open. It was then, Kyle understood.
He’d often wondered what a million pounds looked like. And now he reckoned he had a fair idea.
He pulled out his phone and dialled Ian.
**EXCERPT FROM TRANSCRIPT OF USB RECORDER FOUND ON THE BODY OF MATTHEW WRIGHT. DATE: June 26th 2011**
(Shuffling noises, metallic sound, probably from chains. Sound of a man crying)
(Male voice): He didn’t come today, or yesterday, or the day before that. But my today and yesterday might just be someone else’s today. I don’t know. I’ve tried to count the seconds and get some sense of time but I can’t concentrate. I don’t know if he’s coming back. I keep blacking out. I’m so hungry. So goddam FUCKING HUNGRY!
(Screams, shouting, chains rattling)
WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU! COME BACK YOU FUCKING CUNT!
(Sound of crying lasting approximately two minutes.)
Every time I wake up it’s from the same nightmare. I hear the sound of the door in my dreams. It scares the shit out of me, but scarier still is the sick way in which I want to hear it. I just want to hear the door open again. I keep…
…I just keep waking up and seeing it open, but I know it’s not really open because he’s not there. I miss him. It sounds so fucking stupid but I miss him. He’s a monster. He’s a FUCKING FUCKED UP MONSTER
(Chains rattle on each word, as if speaker is pulling at them for emphasis)
…but he’s the only human being I think I’ll ever see again. Oh God, how long till I go? How fucking long till I just black out and don’t wake up. PLEASE. Oh, God, please.
(Crying for approximately thirty seconds. The next two minutes of the audio is also muffled and could not be understood)
…of my fucking life. Oh God, I’m so sorry, I’m so, so fucking sorry. Tell John I’m so sorry. And tell him I love him.
**END OF RECORDING**
BBC NEWS WEBSITE: DATE: 7TH JULY 2011: TIME: 11:47am
KENSINGTON ‘HOUSE OF HORRORS’ REVEALS MORE VICTIMS
It has today been confirmed that the remains of a further five victims have been excavated from the basement of the Kensington address where 53-year-old Geoffrey Hamilton was found dead from a heart attack last week. A postmortem on Hamilton’s body has since established the presence of cocaine in his body at time of death.
In a dramatic twist, the corpse of a young male chained to the floor in the basement of the property. Although official cause of death has not yet been made available, it is suspected that the victim, named as 27-year-old sales executive Matthew Wright, died from multiple fractures to the back of his skull. Speculation that Wright may have taken his own life by repeatedly striking his head against the floor has neither been confirmed nor denied.
In a statement issued by the Metropolitan Police today, Detective Chief Inspector Chris Reynolds said:
“We can confirm that we are still in the process of excavating the basement at 45, Barrington Gardens, SW7 and have so far recovered five bodies in addition to those of Geoffrey Hamilton and Matthew Wright. All are believed to be male and we are awaiting the results of DNA testing to determine their identities.”
The funeral of Matthew Wright is expected to take place next week, when the body is released by coroners.
‘The Room and the Briefcase’ is an extract from the forthcoming collection ’11:47′, available next year. Parts 1&2 of the story will be available for download directly to Amazon Kindle devices soon.
The room is about ten feet by six, and the ceiling is low — only about eight feet separate it from the floor. There are no windows, which gives the room a damp, humid smell, underpinned by another odour, like meat that’s been left in the fridge too long. I haven’t heard any sounds from the outside world, so I’m assuming the room is underground, but I don’t know how far.
The room was white once, but it hasn’t seen a decent coat of paint in years — possibly decades — and the walls and floor are concrete. There are dark, mottled patches everywhere, each roughly the size of a person. He’s had a go at painting over them, but you can see the stains coming back through the peeling paint like mould.
The room is empty apart from me, and I’m chained to the floor opposite the heavy steel door that serves as his entrance and exit. He’s positioned me so I have no choice but to look at him when he comes in. He likes that, you see. He’s always dressed smartly, like he’s just come from the office, and he’s always carrying a briefcase. He never talks.
There are two thick metal rings buried either side of me and I’m shackled to them, crucifix-style by heavy chains. There’s enough play in them for me to sit up, scratch my face and stuff like that, but the cuffs are inlaid with rows of sharp spikes which have pierced my skin and will rip my wrists to ribbons if I try to pull them out. I black out occasionally, and when I wake up, I always find there’s fresh blood seeping from the wounds — like I’ve been struggling in my sleep.
The cuts are infected now, and there’s a faint rotten smell coming from them. My contacts fell out long ago and my mouth feels hot and putrid. I smell sour with sweat. My clothes are hanging off me and when I wake up from my blackouts, the floor is hard against my now jutting bones. My face is a scratchy mass of beard and my hair is lank and greasy. The days of haircuts, perfectly trimmed stubble and hard effort at the gym just to fill out my t-shirts seem so far away now – and so pointless.
I don’t know how long I’ve been here. It must have been a while, because the faces of the people I love are becoming fuzzy in my mind. I try to recall John’s face, but as soon as I get a clear picture, it melts away. I try to remember if I told him I loved him that morning, or if I texted him something soppy and alcohol-fuelled later when I was out drinking after work, but I can’t check, because my phone’s been taken. I hope I told him I love him. I miss him. I wonder if he’s trying to find me.
Panic is supposed to subside over time, isn’t it? It’s not true. The fear is relentless. I’m full of adrenaline every waking second, waiting for the sound of the door. My whole life now revolves around waiting for the sound of that door come and to rip apart the constant silence. That’s probably why I keep blacking out. I guess your body is only designed to cope with so much stress before it shuts down. Unconsciousness is a relief to be honest. I mean, I have dreams, but they’re all about being in this room anyway. Sometimes I wake up and don’t realise I’m still dreaming, and sometimes when I’m awake, I question whether I’m conscious. I wonder if I’m going insane.
There’s a screeching sound from the door as he pulls back the heavy bolt on the other side, and despite the fact I’ve been waiting for it, a thunderbolt of fear slashes through me. My bones jump beneath my sagging skin, bile rises in my throat — although there’s nothing in my stomach to throw up — and my pulse hammers in my veins.
And then he’s there in the doorway — an unattractive guy of about fifty, with greying temples and a paunch. He’s wearing the grey suit today, with a cornflower blue shirt and a patterned tie. He’s got two suits — one grey and one navy — and about four ties. He sticks to white and blue shirts. And of course he’s got the briefcase. Always with that fucking briefcase.
He shuffles, slightly hunched over, into the middle of the room, sets the briefcase down and walks back out. He’s disappeared from view, but I hear a faint clanking, whizzing sound, like a rope against a pulley. I suspect he has some sort of dumbwaiter system, because he always returns with a tray.
He checks to make sure his briefcase is still there, and shuts the door. Although it’s already silent in here, the sound still feels like it’s been sucked out of the room; like the air’s tighter somehow. He walks towards me.
I often wondered what it would be like to stare into the eyes of a madman, and now I know. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. If that’s true, this man has no soul. There’s nothing there behind his eyes. Absolutely nothing.
At first, when I still had the strength to get angry, I used to scream abuse at him. Brutal, primal things I never even imagined myself saying in my head, let alone out loud. I’d vow to get free and tear him limb from limb. I’d spit, kick and bite, scream at him like nothing human until my throat was in shreds, but he never reacted. He just stood there, observing me with this kind of… muted curiosity until I wore myself out.
Later on, I switched to begging with him, asking why I was there, what he wanted from me. I’d describe where I lived, what I did, the kind of person I was, hoping to connect with whatever last scrap of humanity he may have had. But he just watched silently as I slowly wore down and broke; until there was nothing more of the ‘me’ I used to be. Until I was just a whimpering slab of meat, sobbing and flinching whenever he came near me.
Now I stay silent the entire time he’s here. My trembling gives me away, but I’m damned if I ever let him see me cry again. I’m not in a position to make resolutions — I’m going to die here, I know that now — but I’ve promised myself one thing: I will never cry again in front of that monster.
He carries on now like he’s tending to a mannequin and not a human, pulling down my trousers so I can defecate into a bedpan. Once I’m done, he pulls them back up and begins spooning stone-cold porridge from the tray into my mouth. His breath stinks like cold chips, and every time he inhales, I hear a rattling, wheezing sound. The spoon clatters like a tuning fork against my teeth.
When he’s finished feeding me, he goes and sits on top of the briefcase and just watches, head tilted slightly to the side as if he’s pondering something. At first — back when I had a spirit — I tried to stare him out, but I never won. I refuse to look directly at him now, but I won’t turn my head away. Instead I fix on the spot on the wall just beyond his left ear, and wait till he’s done. Sometimes he’ll sit there for a few minutes, sometimes much longer. The only sounds are the thundering of my heart and his rattling breaths.
He gets up after a few minutes, and immediately I’m a mannequin again to him. I’m invisible as he picks up the briefcase and heads to the door.
I don’t know why, but for the first time in what must be weeks, I speak to him. My voice is alien, dry and unfamiliar, yet resolute, echoing off the bare walls.
“I’m not afraid of dying.”
He stops in the doorway and turns his head slowly to the left, but he doesn’t look at me. And for the first time ever, I hear him speak:
After the door shuts, after the bolt shrieks into place, and after counting to a thousand to make sure he’s gone. I break down.
I cry for me. I cry for the memory of sun on my face, the feel of a hot shower on my skin. I cry for the smell of John’s aftershave, for sex, eating chicken salad, and the loss of my dignity. I cry for the little things, like fresh sheets and the cold side of the pillow on Sunday mornings when John goes out for a run. I cry for my life and my meaningless achievements. I cry for an end to all this.
He was wrong. I’m not afraid of dying — I’m afraid it won’t come soon enough.
Another blackout. I’ve fallen onto my left wrist and the barbs inside the shackles have bitten deep. My forearm is hot, swollen and bloody. I stretch my good hand into my jeans pocket. After all this time, I still can’t believe he missed it when he took my stuff, but there it is, small and metallic in the palm of my hand:
A USB recorder.
I press the button and begin to speak…
I looked in the mirror at the red-eyed quasimodo squinting gunkily back at me and shuddered. Not because of my reflection — I’ve seen myself in worse states — but because I knew what this meant.
Now, before you start branding me a hypochondriac, I’m not so stupid as to think conjunctivitis is a serious condition. Fear of blindness wasn’t responsible for the quiet dread that crept over me as I crossed my bedroom and opened a drawer.
It was the fact that until the infection had cleared, I would have to wear what was sitting inside.
I hate my glasses. They have the ability to instantly transport me back in time to when I was a chubby, gawky kid with no real friends, constantly teased because he never quite fitted in. They were a constant companion right from the age of four, all the way up through my teenage years.
As soon as I put on my glasses, I’m transformed from a confident, strong-willed man, into a shuffling, self-conscious little boy again. I’m once again freezing to death on a school sports field, waiting to be picked last, because nobody wanted to have a kid with glasses on their team.
I have the most invisible pair ever: two frameless bits of glass held together with one piece of wire, with two longer pieces fixing them to my face, but to me they feel gargantuan. It’s like they weigh a ton as well, pulling my head down to my neck so I’ve got no option but to stare at the floor.
Going without them isn’t an option. With both my eyes boasting a prescription of -4.75 (that’s ‘really fucking short-sighted’ for all you non-optical people), I’d be run over before I even made it to the tube station.
At fifteen years old, after bludgeoning my mother into getting me contacts, she relented.
I stood in the bathroom, tongue out, eyelids stretched, fiddling with this slimy little bowl of plastic for ages, because I was damned if I wasn’t going to get this thing in my eye.
When I finally got them in. I looked at myself and burst into tears.
Most people take their own reflection for granted — but I’d never seen my own face clearly in a mirror.
Shuffling round the gym on Tuesday night, looking at all the hot guys with their spec-free gorgeous faces, it felt like I was back on that playground, looking at the bigger boys standing together in a corner, sniggering at me. Their voices shouting, “Oi! Are you that Su Pollard?” and “Look! It’s Timmy Mallett!” echoing round in my head like a cheesy flashback scene from an 80s movie.
Later that night, tired and sore-eyed, I poured out my misery on Twitter and posted a picture of myself as a bottle-ended nobody.
No amount of you-were-adorables or aww-how-cutes were going to make me feel better, until I noticed something: all the lovely folk of Twitter had begun posting photos of their own childhood di-glass-ters.
I suddenly realised just how many of my fellow Tweeters still wore glasses in their profile pictures.
These were gorgeous, confident men and women — proud of their bins. Were they shuffling around in the background, hoping they wouldn’t be noticed? Hell to the no!
The tweet that finally dragged me out of my needless self-pity and made me realise just what an idiot I was being came from @bishbashboshjosh, who said:
Okay, @guy_interruptd campaigns against the stigma about HIV, but needs therapy for wearing glasses?”
Hmm…well, erm…. Yeah. When you put it like that.
So I’ve decided that tomorrow (well, when I get some money anyway) I’m going to harness my inner geek.
I’m going to take that self-conscious little boy by the hand, march right into Specsavers, (because apparently a lot of people regret not going) and get myself a funky-chunky black pair. I’m going to grab my four-eyed counterpart by the bollocks and be an out and proud speccie.
Well, some of the time, anyway.
The next morning, I dressed in a crisp white shirt and grey suit, and strolled to work with my bespectacled head held high.
Standing at the counter, waiting to pay for my usual breakfast roll, the woman behind it looked up, blinked and said, “Oh! It’s you! I’ve never seen you in your glasses before! You look really handsome.”
“Thanks.” I beamed.
And as I walked out of the cafe, smiling to myself, I thought: Maybe I’ll keep these on for a couple of days after my eyes have cleared up.
Every tale has a beginning. This is mine:
There once was a small boy who loved words.
At the age of two, still in nappies and barely even toddling, he was gatecrashing his older sister’s reading classes, bullying her into submission and demanding the tutor’s time, until at last, his bemused but secretly very proud mother sent him for lessons of his own.
He was fascinated by letters, and how he could put them together to make syllables, then words, and finally — sentences and paragraphs.
Books were his friend during difficult times — his parents divorce, bullying at school, an unsettled childhood. Something about the clean white pages filled with neat, ordered rows of words calmed him, and, once he started turning those crisp pages, he happily escaped for hours into the worlds they created in his mind.
He dreamed of becoming a writer. He wanted to use the power of language to affect others, to fuel their emotions and imagination the same way it had done for him as a little boy.
The boy became a man, and never lost his love of words and writing. He started a blog — at first in secret, fearing people would think it was no good — but eventually admitting it was him writing the posts he so often posted links to.
He dreamed of the day he would hold his first published book in his hands. He could see the book in his mind’s eye. For some reason it always had a yellow cover. He saw himself at a party to celebrate its launch. All his friends were there, and it was one of the happiest moments of his life.
Then, one day, a respected author who was familiar with his work asked him to write a short story. The short story was for a collection featuring new and established authors.
Numerous disappointments over the years had left him slightly cynical, and even as he sent the finished manuscript, in the back of his mind he believed nothing would ever come of it. Until a few weeks later, when he got an email with a PDF attachment. It was a proof of his story, laid out in book format, typeset and bearing his name at the top of each page. It blew his mind.
On the 15th July 2010, he’ll be at the London Literature Festival, doing a reading from that very story. Its title is Dying, And Other Superpowers, and it’s part of a collection entitled Boys and Girls, published by Glasshouse Books. You can buy a copy here if you’d like – it only costs a tenner, and £2 from every sale goes to The Albert Kennedy Trust.
On the 12th August, he’ll be at the launch party for Boys And Girls. All his friends will be there, and it will be one of the happiest moments of his life.
His childhood dream will have come true, but hopefully, his tale is only just beginning.
Oh, and the book’s cover? It’s yellow. Funny how life turns out, isn’t it?
Remember when you moved to London? It seemed so exciting. A real 24 hour city, alive with possibilities. You gazed in wonder at the majestic buildings of the West End rising high in the air — like your hopes and dreams — reaching to heaven.
Well, what happened? I’ll tell you what happened. You became busy. Worse — you became a Londoner.
If you recognise yourself in any of the following, you need a week away in the country. And no, I don’t mean Hampstead Heath. I mean the real country. Yeah, somewhere they don’t have a tube. Scary, huh?
1. You no longer look up
Well obviously when I moved here I did a little sightseeing, but nowadays, I don’t have time to stroll around looking at pretty buildings. I have to get to work! I’m busy — and important! What are all these tourists looking at anyway? Move!
2. Waiting more than three minutes for a tube is absolutely preposterous
WHAT? FOUR minutes? But I have a meeting to get to! Why the hell do I pay all this money for a season ticket if I’m forced to break my stride and stand still for that long? I’m very busy and extremely important! And I’ve had five Starbucks today for chrissakes! I need to walk it off! Sack Boris Johnson!
3. Everyone walks too damn slow
God, get out of my frigging way! Really, I’m writing to City Hall to propose they introduce fast and slow lanes on all pavements. Everywhere. Even in my cul-de-sac. I’m far too busy and important to be held up by leisurely walkers. You’re obviously unemployed. Or a tourist.
4. The Underground is a battleground
Dear foolish day-trippers who stand in all the exits to study the maps: don’t you know you’re going to end up deaf from our crescendo of passive-aggressive tutting as we walk past? Seriously, it’ll be off the Richter scale in a minute if you don’t move.
Actually, while we’re on the subject, I swear I’m going to batter the next fucktard who waits till they get to the fucking barrier before they look for their Oyster Card!
And yes. Please do stop dead after you’ve gone through while you decide where to go next — you know how it thrills me to be on the bottom of a seven-person pile up behind you.
And of course I don’t mind you dragging that wheelie case behind you as you meander from side to side, blissfully unaware of the amount of space you’re taking up.
But please, just stand on the right of the escalator, you moron! I have to get past, and by golly I’ll push if I have to! Did you not hear me before? I’m busy! And important! Gah!
5. You think anywhere outside Zone 2 is too far to travel
Crystal Palace? Where’s that? Is that in Zone two? Zone three, you say? Oh, gosh no. I’m far too busy to travel all that way! I mean it’s miles! Can I even get a signal on my BlackBerry in Crystal Palace? I’m snowed you know. I have calls to take!
6. It surprises you to meet people who have English as a first language
You mean you were actually born here? How weird! I thought you’d be from Poland. Or Brazil. Anyway, got to cut this short I’m afraid. So busy
7. Purple hair and ballet tutus are acceptable attire
Well, of course not for me, but I no longer blink in surprise when they float past me in Sainsbury’s. Although I have been itching to try something more daring…
In fact, when I get my next haircut, unless it’s going in four different directions and I can’t see out from under my fringe, I’m not paying for it. OK?
Skinny jeans and dirty, ripped T shirts? I should jolly well hope so! Let’s all fuck off to Shoreditch and practice looking bored.
8. You feel superior to non Londoners
How much for three pints of beer? Seven pounds, you say? Oh, that’s hilarious! In London, seven quid wouldn’t even buy you one! Oh, I want to move here! But on my London salary. Haw haw.
Look! You even have self-service checkouts! How quaint! Yeah, we had those in London ages ago. They’re really great for me when I have to fly in and out because I’m sooo busy. And really, hideously important.
What was that? You coughed, but I could have sworn you just called me a twat…?
9. Fresh air smells funny
Oh, my God, that’s so weird. I just blew my nose and my snot wasn’t black! Mind if I stand in your garage with the car engine running for a bit? My nostrils are burning from all this excess oxygen and I feel rather sick.
10. You find the sound of sirens comforting
Silence is unnerving, and anyway, at least it means the police are doing their job. Sort of. What was that bang? Not a gunshot, surely. Must have been a car backfiring. I’ll know tomorrow anyway because I won’t be able to move for police tape. Although it had better not make me late for work. I’m stacked at the moment.
So how many did you get? Is it time to book that train ticket? Or maybe you’ve thought of a few I haven’t? If you have, leave them in the comments section, I’d love to hear them.
Till next time…