OUR FIRST BIRTHDAY
It wasn’t how I thought my life would turn out, not at the time. I figured I had made some good decisions or at least enough good decisions to put me in a place that was decent enough to jump off from and make my next ‘life move’. That’s not exactly how I was thinking about it at twenty two. No twenty two year old thinks about their life like that but if I think back hard enough, that’s the thought process I can see taking place inside my head.
Perhaps I’m being optimistic about myself otherwise I wouldn’t have been sitting in the drivers seat of a £400 Ford Capri with my worldly belongings scattered on the passenger seat beside me - which is more or less exactly where I had been for at least seven days.
On the one hand, you can’t get much lower in your life than this unless I add the remaining facts into the story, which are that the only thing on the passenger seat next to me is a half smoked packet of cigarettes and the Ford Capri isn’t mine. It’s a new low for me but one that I’m appreciating more as each day goes by. I might be down and out but I still have half a packet of cigarettes to keep me company. I even have a little money in the glove box to buy some more when I run out.
The money has been going down fast though. On the ropes I may be but I still have some standards. Every morning, I’ve been taking myself to the local pool, swimming and showering to get ready for the day. If you let yourself sink all the way to the bottom, you’ll never recover so this is a good thing I do for myself. With the window down, I light up another and look down the lane for any signs of action but nothing ever comes this way, at least not since I’ve been living here. The radio is playing Blondie’s Heart of Glass.
Somewhere out in an alternate universe, there’s a guy the same age as me, who has worked hard all his young life to get where he wants to be. Right now, he’s sitting behind a desk doing his thing, making some money, going places but he has no time for his soul. No time to sit in his car without somebody coming to find him wondering where he is or what he’s doing. No time to light a cigarette, take a couple of pulls and lazily look out of the window at the past, the present and the future all happening at the same time. They must be happening at the same time because every moment I can see looks exactly the same as the last one… and the one that’s coming.
There it is right now. Boom! Exactly the same.
The illusion of going somewhere is a useful tool. It delays having to look at what’s actually happening in your life because when all those years behind the desk have passed, what you’ll really want to do is sit in your car in a quiet country lane, tap a smoke out of your packet and watch time drag its moments up the lane behind itself.
This is how I justify living in a car. How could I have come so far and still have gotten nowhere. It’s a physical impossibility. It goes against the known laws of physics. You move and you create distance but how is it that one person can move and look good while doing so whilst another moves and only succeeds in getting further away from everything. Family, friends… shit, even strangers would be made welcome. There’s not much room in the back but there’s enough.
THE TENTH ANNIVERSARY
I had decided to leave the last place I had been living in. Not just the studio apartment and my job, but the entire package.
That book was finished.
There was a guy who owned a shop underneath the apartment who sold second hand goods and one evening, he waved me into his shop. He was from Malta and maybe hiding out here from some crime or other, but he was always OK with me. I heard on the grapevine that he had been arrested for something serious back home and got away without sentence by waiting outside the judge’s house while he was out on bail and threatening to have him murdered if he didn’t let it go, but you know what grapevine’s are like.
Inside the shop, he pointed through the window to an old classic Mercedes he had bought that morning. I told him it was nice car - and it was. It was in great condition and it was big, like old cars used to be. You may not remember if you’re of a certain age but there was once a time when sitting in the back of a car wasn’t a punishment but actually quite comfortable. He liked the car too but his girlfriend told him he had to sell it because it didn’t have any seat-belts in the back for the children and “what the hell was he thinking of.”
He asked me if I wanted it. I said sure I wanted it. My Audi was nearing the end of its lifespan and I was something like 24 hours away from riding a lame horse that wouldn’t make it even to the outskirts of town. We got to talking and did a deal. It was a shitty deal, but a deal that worked all the same. I would give him my Audi and - once he had been upstairs to see what I had that was worth having - most of my belongings too. Then he would give me the Mercedes.
The following day, I had maybe four things left. A suitcase of clothes, a guitar, a large box of books and a six foot tropical fish tank with eight catfish in it. There were some other things like small notebooks but nothing particular that I can recall now. It didn’t take me long to pack that’s for sure. The box of books, the suitcase and the guitar went easily into the boot and the fish tank sat perfectly on the back seat. The fish themselves were a little more difficult. I had to go to a pet-store and buy a polystyrene container along with a weird liquid they use in commercial transportation to put the fish to sleep. It worked well. In a bag, in the polystyrene box, they were still alive when I got where I was going in the passenger footwell.
I can’t have done more than twenty miles when I heard the voice of Robert DeNiro in the movie Heat coming from the back seat.
“Don't have anything in your life that you can't walk away from in 30 seconds.”
I think that’s how it goes.
I had made a schoolboy error. I should have re-homed the fish. I had to re-home my damn dog a few months earlier when the house I was living in was sold from under me and I really loved my dog. I cried that day like a child who just found out he was adopted but I was painted into a corner over it.
If I had re-homed the fish, then the suitcase of clothes, the books and the guitar could all have been bought again if necessary - and in hindsight, I can tell you this with my hand on my heart: I don’t have any of those clothes anymore, neither do I have any of the books because I lost them all when my house burned down, the fish all died a few weeks later when the thermostat blew and the guitar I had to sell anyway to get the brakes fixed on the Mercedes… which eventually went the same way as the catfish for exactly the same reason.
Later, as I was driving the Mercedes to some guys house who bought it off me for peanuts, I pulled over in a country lane, pushed the button to lower the window, reached over to the passenger seat where I tipped out a cigarette and sat doing absolutely nothing but looking out of the window. Funny how things turn out. Ten years later and everything is pretty much exactly the same as it always has been except this car is mine - at least for the time being. Just me and half a packet of cigarettes to keep me company.
I had more miles on the clock than ever and I nearly got melancholy over the whole affair. Then I glanced up into the rearview mirror to find that Robert DeNiro had been replaced by the Fight Club main attraction, Tyler Durden. He leaned forward, rested his forearms on the top of the seat behind my head and whispered in my ear:
“You don't own your possessions, your possessions own you.”
He was right damnit but I knew that all along. Always had. That’s why I was sitting here with nothing but a packet of cigarettes again, watching the same moments happening all at the same time - except this time, I noticed a tiny advancement in my journey.
I had electric windows.
OUR TWENTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY
Once again, the anniversary turned up without me purposely acknowledging it. It appears to have a built in timer that likes to point me in a certain direction on a particular day. This time I was driving my Saab back home from a day-job appointment - a job I still have, love and intend to keep. It was pretty late at night so I pulled into a service station to grab coffee to keep sleep at bay. Most people figure I have an easy life and that’s either because I’m good at making it look that way or because I work hard at being as good at it as I can be. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two.
Anyway, I had pulled in, grabbed my coffee, and was on my way back to the car when I realised there was nobody else in the car park but me. I pressed the button on the key that unlocked the car and I was back in that moment again. I smiled as I realised I had come a little further still. Not only did I now have electric windows but I also had a car I could unlock with the touch of a button from fifty feet away.
That was something right?
Sitting in the car - which was also noticeably a lot warmer than any of my previous cars have ever been - I pressed the button that lowered the window inside the door and on a reflex, reached over for a cigarette. There they were. Right were they had always been. The packet half full as ever. Outside, nothing was happening but I guess if I could have gotten high enough into the air, I would see that everything was happening just as it always had. Here came those moments all over again. Each one bouncing across the car park like a bubble on a wave of hot air. Inside of each, a whole world waiting to explode into being. I watched them for so long, I found I had smoked two cigarettes and I was still watching them long after.
I wondered what alternative universe guy had been doing today. Twenty five years was a long time in whatever game he was in. In all likelihood, he had probably gotten quite far. I pick one of the bouncing bubbles and use it like a TV to look in on his life. Curled up on a red sofa in his Metropolis apartment, he looks happy enough. Two glasses of wine sit on a low table, a pair of shoes I wouldn’t even know how to find even if I had the sort of money to spend on them lie on the floor next to it. The room sure looks nice though - as one would expect following a lifetime of playing see who can die with as much stuff as he can gather.
I look closer. Where did all his hair go? Did he leave it on a train somewhere… and what are those lines all over his face? Deep, deep furrows show the scars of a desk-bound warrior, each the seed of another win or a loss waiting to happen. It doesn’t matter which.
At first, I considered one of the glasses of wine would be for his partner, but they both belong to him.
My alternate universe friend is in a bad way, but help is at hand because he can see the end from here. I can see behind his translucent eyelids and read his thoughts. All he wants is for it to be over and he is so close to the finish line, he can taste it. It tastes of burnt chalk.
If he can muscle up another few years of inclination, he’ll make it to where he wanted to be all along. Sitting in his car with the time and the space to figure out exactly what the world had been asking of him all along.
I couldn’t see more than this. The bubble is pierced by a sharp rock on the floor of the car park and explodes into a dust that spreads itself across the windscreen of the Saab. I turn the key in the ignition and pull the stalk that sends eight jets of blue screen-wash onto the glass and wipe his life away in less than a second.
All I need to do is remind myself that the road I’ve chosen to travel is on the outside of the bubble. I’ve already experienced everything there is at the end and that’s useful because when I get there again, I’ll see it for what it is and not believe there must be more than this, because there isn’t.
Unless of course there’s the option of heated seats and wipers that come on by themselves when it rains - that would really be something.
Then I would really be going places.
Extracted from a forthcoming collection of Dirty Realism