Saturday, 12 March 2011

Short Story: Blue Insomnia - Part One

I died today... Was it today? I don’t know… I really don’t know…

On one hand, it seems like I slipped into this vortex just seconds ago; on the other, it feels like I’ve been here forever. It’s a bit like being an adult and retaining a powerful memory from childhood that, despite the ravages of time, remains as fresh in the mind as it was the day it was imprinted there.

In death, the routine of life has – unsurprisingly, I suppose – been banished entirely… I don’t sleep anymore… I don’t eat… I don’t feel, not in a physical sense anyway. I am unaware of my body… I do feel emotionally, or at least I think I do… And that’s another thing, I think. At university, I spent hours debating Descartes’ proposition, cogito ergo sum, or to put it in a less pretentious way, I think therefore I am. At the time, I mistakenly believed that it proved that we, as humans, exist.

Have I ceased to exist or do I exist somewhere, somehow else? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know if I’m in the present or past, or somewhere else entirely unexplainable. I was no good at physics when I was alive, nor was I particularly interested. I’m not going to pretend otherwise just because I’m dead.

Here’s what I do know. I know I’m dead because I heard the paramedic pronounce me so before the light got sucked out of the air and I was catapulted into this endless ocean. Whoever said that the hearing is the last thing to go was right although I’m curious as to how anyone discovered that to be true.

This is what death is like: it’s blue. That sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? I can only tell you what I know. Words fail to do justice to the magnificence and depth of death’s colour. I can’t explain it. It’s as though I’m floating, suspended in an incessant, creamy, azure sky. It’s exceptionally beautiful… I’m enveloped in an enchanting, cobalt infinity. I can’t see beyond the colour, but somehow, I don’t have to. I don’t want to. I feel safe. I feel peaceful. I’m not worried or troubled by emotion. There is no sound or noise, except for that which I conjure up in my mind.

Where I am, God only knows. Speaking of God, either he doesn’t want me for a sunbeam or heavenly promises of a paradise untold was a little off the mark. Sorry to disappoint you, but where I am, there are no pearly gates, no bearded old man in sandals, waiting for me with his arms outstretched. No white tunnel leading me to a plethora of ancestors, eager to facilitate my smooth progress into the next realm. Maybe I’m in purgatory, suspended casually between astral planes, neither here nor quite there. Floating… itinerant… just being.

I can’t quite decide if I’m disappointed that I’m dead… I don’t know. Would I go back if I could? Again, I don’t know. If I survived the injuries that caused my death, I would be, at best, what people uncharitably describe as vegetative. A cabbage. I always used to laugh when people said that. I’d always insist that if that ever happened to me I would want to be switched off or suffocated by a sympathetic relative armed with a pillow. So no, if I had the option of re-harvesting my body with the life I once breathed, I’d turn it down…

Somehow my life seems unimportant now. Consigned to memory. It only exists as vivid dream. My time was up. My number was called. I’ve been and gone. I think therefore I’m dead.

When I was alive, I spent too much time considering my death. Depression in adolescence resulted in an almost successful attempt at suicide that I didn’t really mean. It was attention that I wanted. It was happiness that I craved. Not death. As I came round in hospital, I felt mortified at what I’d done. Not only to myself and my liver (paracetamol overdose, if you’re wondering), but to my parents and my friends, who consequently felt like failures because of what I’d done. I tried to explain that I was the failure, not them, but they didn’t believe me.

The torture of my depression became contagious. Three years later, I discovered that my mother was on anti depressants – and had been since my suicide attempt. When my dad discovered that I was gay, he too started on the happy pills. Guilt devoured my conscience more than depression ever ate away at my happiness, especially when my mother made a better attempt at suicide that I did.

Within two years my Dad had joined her in the grave. Relatives said that he died of a broken heart. My brother told me it was my fault. My sister agreed. It was the day of the funeral and we were waiting for the hearse to arrive, carrying our father’s body. I walked into the kitchen where my siblings were muttering to each other in desperate, hushed tones. I shouldn’t have asked what the matter was, but I did. In the instant that I set the question free, I saw rage consume the pair of them. My brother launched his assault first, telling me that if it wasn’t for me, that both Dad and Mum would still be alive. I didn’t know what to do. They were right. I looked at my sister and reached out for her. She had no sympathy for me. As she took my brother into her embrace she spat her fury at me. She didn’t tell me anything that I didn’t already know. That it should’ve been me. That it was all my doing, with my perversion, filth and selfishness. Anyone would think our family were religious fundamentalists. We really weren’t. We were a normal happy unit until my depression came along and planted a bomb underneath us all. At the end of the funeral, Dad’s body was committed to the same grave as Mum’s body had been. I stood apart from my brother and sister and watched as well wishers patted them on the shoulder and said that our parents would be happy now, that they would be reunited and that was the most important thing. Without any words, I was expelled from the remnants our family.

Neither my brother nor my sister spoke to me after the day of Dad’s funeral. Phone calls went unanswered, apart from random drunk messages left late at night telling me that I was a bastard. A murdering bastard. I tried to keep contact for two years before I swallowed the hint and left them alone. And then couple of years ago, on a whim, I turned up to my sister’s house on Christmas Eve. Earlier on, I’d taken a wreath to the graveyard before going home to spend Christmas alone. I had offers from friends to share the day with them, but as usual, I wanted solitude. I wanted to reflect and think and not bring others down as I wallowed in self pity. I didn’t want to reluctantly sit at someone else’s table, eating food I didn’t really like whilst wearing a ridiculous crown made from coloured tissue paper. I didn’t want to pull crackers and pretend to laugh or force a laboured groan at an unfunny joke. I wanted to be with my family, but had been cast out, so couldn’t. As I laid my wreath, I looked at the other one laying there. Fingering the card in the biting December wind, I drew it towards my face and read the poignant eulogy from my brother and sister. Right there and then, I decided to go and see them.

At this point, I’d not seen either of them for five years. It was starting to get dark when I arrived. The lights were on, but the curtains had not been drawn, affording me a view of my living family that I had been denied for years.

I stood at the foot of my sister’s front garden and wept uncontrollably as I watched them from afar. My brother was there with his girlfriend, who I first met at Dad’s funeral. She was now pregnant. There was a toddler, a little boy. My nephew? After several moments of watching my brother tenderly stroke his girlfriend’s stomach, my sister waltzed into the room and said something which caused everyone to laugh uproariously. All heads turned towards the room from which she had come and I could see that an exchange of words took place with whomever it was who was still there. Her boyfriend? Her husband?

I drank the scene in. It was the archetypal Christmas picture cloaked in an atmosphere of mirth and merriment. Genuine affection and happiness radiated from that window, illuminating my desolation, my misery, my loneliness. At that moment, I hated them for being so happy without me. I despised them for having erased me from their lives so swiftly, so easily, so callously. I wondered if they ever thought about me? Had their feelings towards me thawed? I hated them for making me feel so pathetic. With the bile rising, I turned on my heel and walked away, knowing that I would be unable to stand further rejection.

It’s only now that I’m pleased that my final images of my family were wrapped in joy.

I’m looking back on my life now. All twenty eight years of it. I suspect that people will say that my death was tragic. I disagree. In some respects, death was a release from the humdrum existence that I’d bundled together. I may have been young when I died, but what life I had wasn’t well lived. It was short of ambition and achievement. I never seized the day or lived every day as though it was my last. I wasted energy worrying about everything. I wasted time. I was clumsy. I was a magnet for bad luck. I made the wrong choices. I trusted and put my faith in the wrong people. I was a dreamer. I always thought that the good times were round the corner, that each New Year would herald a new me that lived up to the potential that deep down, I thought I had. I was always believed that I was on the cusp of a contentment that ultimately proved illusive, out of reach. Just before I died, I thought I’d finally grasped it at long last, but my last twenty four hours proved otherwise.

I’d had One of Those Days. You know what I mean: from start to finish, everything that could go wrong selfishly decided to do so with huge great brass cocks on it. The day began when my alarm dragged me from my slumber only to discover that I had a terrible hangover. A hangover made worse, not only by the throb of fresh heartbreak, but also by the insistent sound of the WERP-WERP-WERP erupting from the clock next to me.

My sudden introduction to consciousness from the depths of sleep was shockingly abrupt, so for the first few seconds I was completely disorientated, unsure whether my dream had morphed into something else. After a passing moment staring aimlessly at my wardrobe as though it held the answers to secrets of the universe, recognition came. This was quickly followed by the realisation that my head – much like my heart - felt as though it was splitting. My mouth and throat was parched. I yawned and felt my top lip split on the inside. Meanwhile, the alarm continued unabated. Turning my head to face it, I groaned as a sharp pain tore through my head. I reached over, thwacked my clock repeatedly until silence engulfed the room and then promptly fell back asleep.

When I finally woke up an hour later, panic seized me. I didn’t have time to do anything other than stumble out of bed, relieve myself, put on the previous night’s clothes and then run. I should’ve telephoned work and told them that I wasn’t going in, that I was ill, but pulling sickies was against my own moral code. Besides, festering indoors wasn’t going to do me any good. I needed to keep busy. Distract myself from my rapidly imploding life.

As the bus rounded the corner towards the office, I rang the bell and stood up, steadying myself with the greasy overhead rail. As we came to a halt with a graceless jolt, I clambered towards the doors that hissed their frustration as they opened to let me off. I jumped onto the pavement and, realising that I was late for work, legged it.

It didn’t take me long to realise that running through crowds should be left to people in romantic films as the climax to the story approaches. It would’ve been just as quick to walk. I was almost at the door when I tripped and landed squarely on my hands and knees, right next to a pile of frozen dog shit and a cigarette that hadn’t been extinguished properly. Behind me, I could hear spiteful laughter which enraged me. No one attempted to help me up. No one asked me if I was okay. Crumbs of comfort from Joe Public were staunchly unforthcoming. I got up and stared at my red, stinging palms before attempting to brush down my knees. I swore quite a bit (FUCKING FUCK IT! was my profane weapon of choice), received a disapproving glare from a woman in a charcoal-grey suit and then made my way into the office, my face burning with shame and anger, my palms still smouldering from landing so heavily on concrete.

It only occurred to me as I sat at my desk that I hadn’t cleaned my teeth. I could taste my breath and it didn’t taste good. On the flavour spectrum, it landed somewhere between tripe, the sugar free polo that I had found in my pocket and a skin-full of last nights beer. Do I need to tell you that I died suddenly single, or is that too obvious?

Things I won’t miss now that I’ve slipped off the dish:

Number 1) Charlotte, the Office Manager at work. Thinking about it now, Office Manager is a curious title. In the real world, it means being a bit of a mother hen and sorting out everyone in the office. It means knowing what needs doing and when it needs doing by. It means organising everyone from the top to the bottom and back again. Sue, the old Office Manager, was the heartbeat of the office and ran it with an iron, but rather lovely, fist. Then she selfishly decided to retire and the boss, Lenny – or Titwank Lenny as he’s known (something to do with being caught in the disabled toilet one Christmas with his wife’s mate) hired Charlotte.

She’s the sort of person that my mother would’ve described as all fur coat and no knickers. She’s the sort of woman my Dad would’ve tutted at and muttered under his breath about. The sort of person my sister would hate on sight and claim that she was a bitch, even though no words would have been exchanged. Charlotte’s the sort of slag my brother would shag on the first date and then never phone back to get second helpings.

Since she came along, Office Manger means that you don’t do very much other than sit near the door, look down your nose at people, apply and reapply make up at regular intervals, eat noisily, make name badges for visitors, snitch to the boss on what the workers are doing, accept every offer of a cup of tea, but fail to ever make one yourself, order too many staples and paperclips but never enough paper and toner and complain about it being cold in the office, even when it’s the height of summer and everyone else is gasping for breath.

In her flawed defence, she attempts to look busy, but a quick look on Facebook tells you that all she does is update her fist-eatingly banal status before inexplicably adding LOL after everything, despite the fact that it’s not in the least bit funny, Laugh Out Loud or otherwise. For example, she’ll write, ‘cold in the office 2day LOL!’ or ‘why is it raining????? LOL’ or ‘hmmmmmmmmm really fancy a Burger King for lunch LOL’ even though she recently put her oversized arse through a brand new ‘ergonomic’ chair. She claimed it was a design fault. LOL.

There are plus points to her uselessness. For instance, last year, I took two weeks off work and she forgot to add it to my annual leave tally. When year-end came around, I got a shitty email from her, demanding that I take two weeks off immediately. She finished her email with the phrase, ‘Use it or lose it,’ and then added an unnecessary amount of exclamation marks. I don’t know if she was trying to be funny or assert her authority. Either way, I did as I was told. Why the boss hasn’t got rid of her, I’ll never know. Probably got something to do with the low cut tops she wears that struggle to contain her huge, ‘bag-of-water-tits’ as they’re commonly referred to in the office. There are some days when I don’t know why she just doesn’t get them out and be done with it.

Work-shy attitude and offensive wobbling body parts aside, Charlotte just doesn’t sit well with me. She’s a bad apple. Sarcastic without being funny. A nitpicker who revels in pedantry. A negative force. She finds joy in other peoples’ misery. She talks about C-list celebrity movement as though it’s actually important. She carps and complains about everything. Her moods dictate the atmosphere of the office. She projects venom. In other words, she’s just a fucking bitch.

Number 2) My PC at work. Like most things that require electricity and boast an ‘on’ switch, it hates me like I hate Charlotte and it transparently wants me dead. Seems as though the PC got its wish.

On the day I died, I tried to slip into the office unnoticed, with no success whatsoever, thanks to Charlotte hilariously bellowing, ‘GOOD AFTERNOON!’ at a thousand decibels. It was eight forty nine am, which meant that I was nineteen minutes late. She carried on, spraying her breakfast everywhere as she continued to wail whilst eating. ‘WHAT TIME DO YOU CALL THIS?’ she screamed like an insane woman. ‘LATE NIGHT WAS IT?’ If I didn’t interpret her tone correctly, her thousand-yard death stare left me with no uncertainty as to her disapproval. It didn’t matter that I was always in early and Charlotte often rolled up to work well past her start time. I stood there, looking awful and feeling like a complete twat. Titwank Lenny threw me a withering look before shaking his head and returning to whatever he was doing. Probably nothing. I opened my mouth to make my defence, realised that I couldn’t be bothered and promptly sat down. Chewing my bottom lip with irritation, I reached over to my computer and switched it on.

After making a strange electronic farting noise, I was treated to what Simon in IT called total and complete PC failure, which I thought was quite funny. Simon – personality free, a face that only a sexual fetishist could love, breath worse than mine – told me that total and complete PC failure was no laughing matter in a tone so serious that it became even funnier. When I realised that he wasn’t joking, irritation set in. I sighed at a volume intended to alert people to my sorry state and inspire them to ask me what the matter was – Charlotte-esque behaviour that I usually abhor. There were no takers so, realising that I couldn’t do anything until a replacement PC had been found, I got up to make a coffee.

Ordinarily, I regard the kitchen at work as I do public toilets: to be avoided at all costs. Something once grew in the fridge for seven months and since then I’ve given the place a wide berth. It was formerly a packet of ham, left over from when Charlotte had a failed attempt at the Atkins Plan. Meanwhile, the open packet of ham sat there, patiently waiting to be eaten. After a few days, it gained a watery sheen. Then it started to smell and the sides curled up as though it was trying to escape. Soon after, it changed colour. Then it started to smell even worse: think rancid milk mixed with Sugar Puffs. Several days later, black spots emerged on it. Then someone put a shitty note on the fridge door expressing their disgust at kitchen etiquette within the office. Soon after, an email went round, asking the owner of the rotten ham to throw it away. Lots of people – including Charlotte - emailed back, claiming it wasn’t theirs. Another email went round – this time, from Titwank Lenny – talking about health and safety hazards. Much more effort was expended on writing about throwing the fucking ham away than it would’ve taken to actually go into the kitchen, open the door, retrieve it and dispose of accordingly. In the end, Charlotte emailed Titwank Lenny, copying everyone in to inform the office populace that she had ‘taken matters into her own hands’ and that the ham had now been thrown away. She didn’t need to email anyone. We heard her do it. It was an Oscar winning performance in feigned disgust, screeching and faux-gagging. Afterwards, she spent the rest of the day talking about it at high volume. Sadly, this wasn’t the end of it. Lenny emailed back, thanking her and needlessly copying everyone again. She then devised a kitchen rota that no one took any notice of. Bizarrely, she failed to include herself.

Number 3) My job. Growing up, there were plenty of things that I dreamed of doing when I was older. Recruitment wasn’t one of them. I wanted to be an astronaut, an athlete (I wanted to run barefoot like Zola Budd), a pop star, a journalist, a teacher, a footballer. Upon graduating, I got into Public Relations and was doing quite well for myself until the boss stumbled across an email where I’d described her as a ‘vicious, idle, dried up old fucker who probably has a smelly fanny.’ Despite it being a startlingly accurate account of her – and quite fair, given the fact that she would always walk in and point out everyone’s flaws before spending the day doing nothing - she failed to agree. In fact she sacked me. It was three days before Christmas. I didn’t realise at the time, but the PR world is a small one. When you can’t get a reference from the only job you’ve ever had, it’s also an unwelcoming one. Four months later, I was still out of a job. I had no savings and was having to put my rent on an array of credit cards. In no uncertain terms, I was staring financial oblivion and homelessness squarely in the face. I had no parents to borrow money from. In the light of my sexuality, there was never any suggestion of an inheritance. What was left that carried any value was split between my brother and sister as my parents wanted to make provision for the grandchildren they would never meet.

I quickly became desperate so I did what anyone else in my position would do: I got a job as a recruitment consultant. I rang my best friend later that day to tell him about my spanking new role. ‘Consultant,’ he repeated over and over again, as though it was a question or I was trying to catch him out. ‘So how are you consulting? And what are you consulting about?’ I didn’t have the answers and an uneasy silence lingered on the line before I made my excuses and hung up, feeling like a failure, despite having secured work and therefore my home.

In truth, there was no consulting to be done at all. It was simply a suffix to enhance the job title, to make it sound sexier. You can’t be a clerk or an officer anymore. You either get ‘senior’ as a prefix or ‘consultant’ or ‘specialist’ as a suffix. Spit and shine. Polishing turds. I blame Tony Blair myself, although that means I probably should blame Margaret Thatcher, which is fine by me.

I soon found out that recruitment was for people just like me – a last chance saloon for graduates and transient antipodeans, lured in by promises of making money that in reality they never will.

After six months at Seed Employment, I was a veteran such was the way the company ran. The Aussies and Kiwis soon moved on or went home and the Brits usually got sacked. After the first month, all employees were given a revenue target that they were expected to hit the following month. Miss it once and you’d get a warning. Miss it twice and you’d get another. Miss it a third time and Titwank Lenny would invite you to resign. If you declined such a kind offer, the sour old bastard would sack you anyway. People would work fifteen hour days, do all the right things, say the right stuff, but to no avail. We used to call it the thanks-for-coming-now-kindly-piss-off-chat. It was cut throat and cruel.

How I managed to survive as long as I did remains a miracle. I got lucky. My best chum at work was a girl called Shandy, who took me under her wing and trained me up for the role. Her real name was Eileen, but she didn’t like it and changed it to something that she perceived to be classier. Shandy. Not only was she the life force of the office, with her exuberant personality, she was brilliant at recruitment. She had the spiel, she knew her stuff and she worked like a pit horse. Unlike me, she cared. For three years, she made the most revenue but then the bubble burst and in a four week period, she lost seven of her biggest clients. Most people would have given up there and then. Not Shandy. She got her head down and ploughed on regardless. Even when she incurred two warnings and ran head first into her third, she kept her nerve.

The only time I saw her smile slip was after the meeting where she was asked to resign. At first she laughed, thinking that it must be some kind of joke. When it dawned on her that Titwank Lenny was serious, she got up, told him to go and fuck himself and then marched out of the office. I was devastated by her dismissal and infuriated by the injustice and short-sightedness of it all.

My partner in crime had gone and seeing as though I was on my second warning, I was soon going to be following her. Three days later, my desk phone rang. It was Charlotte, eating down the phone as she spoke.

‘You’re looking after Shandy’s crap now she’s gone, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, why?’
‘Some bloke on the phone wants to speak to her.’
‘Who? And what about?’
‘How the bleeding hell should I know?’ Charlotte said, irritated. ‘Putting him through now. Is that alright with you?’ she sneered. Resisting the urge to scream at her, I looked at the cheap, laminated signs that had been fixed to the wall in front of me. It nauseatingly instructed us to smile when taking calls, because a smile can be heard down the phone. I fixed a false grin to my face and in a deadpan tone, offered a wooden salutation as the caller came through to me...

Link to part 2:

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