FICTION: Sticks and Stones by Daley Nixon

I can’t wear a fucking tie anymore.

I just can’t. It’s strangling me, limiting the blood supply to my brain. It’s no coincidence that a tied tie resembles a noose. I suppose there are millions of us that slip on makeshift nooses every single morning, a ritual before arriving at the wooden gallows that are our ergonomic desks.

It was a Tuesday. As per usual, the office floor today was bustling and brimming with life.

I work as a Data Solution Architect for a mediocre IT firm in Keswick, Cumbria. The pay is substandard. The hours are strenuous. My abject existence was slowly draining away, one day at a time, swirling around the drain of bitter indifference.

“What are you doing?”

A stern voice broke through my afternoon reverie.

I wheeled my chair around to see my boss, Natalie furtively staring down at me. “Excuse me?” I asked, taking a deep breath filled with trepidation.

“There’s been a number of complaints that you’ve been spending too much time using the internet and looking on your phone during office hours.”

I flinched. “What? From whom?”

“I’m not at liberty to say. And you know that’s beside the point. This is a business. Presentation is everything. You’re already at two strikes for lateness and productivity. I’m sure you don’t want this to be your third strike. Is that understood?”

Please kill me. Kill me right now.

I nodded obediently, the wind sucked from my sails. This was utter injustice.

Natalie sauntered off. I turned back to my computer screen and minimised the Excel spreadsheet containing monthly MI figures, substituting it for the Wikipedia article I had been reading.

“Paris Syndrome” is a phenomenon noted by psychologists where tourists visiting Paris go into extreme shock when they realise the city isn’t quite as good as they imagined. Symptoms include dizziness, sweating, increased heart rate, hallucinations, and an intense feeling of paranoia – as if everyone in the city is out to get you.

I looked up surreptitiously. My co-workers were all yakking on phones, collecting low-quality coffee from machines, engaged in idle chit-chat. I flicked between browser windows, whilst pretending to resume my work. I buried my head in the thousands of infinite spreadsheet cells, each of them tiny prisons, ensnaring me in their lair.

My lower back suddenly undulated with excruciating pain. This happened on a recurring daily basis. My body hated remaining in the same sedentary position for significant periods of time. The reduction in blood circulation from stationary sitting causes cramping in my muscles and places strain on the delicate tissues within my cartilages and ligaments. The pain from carpal tunnel syndrome in my wrist was the discomfort cherry on the three tiered agony cake.

Here’s the problem; humans are apes. Apes are meant to be in the jungle. They’re not meant to be squeezed into office chairs in front of desk monitors. Fundamentally, we have the same bodies today that our ancestors had fifty thousand years ago. It took us a million years to get to that point. Our bodies slowly evolved to accommodate the activities necessary for survival. We chased and killed animals for food and clothing. We ran from predators, trying to keep from becoming their food. We climbed trees to grab the fruit in their branches. We walked for miles, in tune with the seasons, following the herds. We sat around fires at the end of each day, drumming or singing, reaching out to the gods of nature for protection and sustenance. And the next day we did the same.

Now?

We get up in the morning. We stare at a tiny screen on our way to work. We arrive at work, stare at a bigger screen for eight hours a day and then travel home, where we eat dinner and then browse between a medium sized screen (TV) and a smaller screen (iPad/tablet).

But this is the world we live in TODAY, the one we have inherited and continue to create. We will not go back to our ancient hunting and gathering ways.

We will not go back to our ancient hunting and gathering ways.

We will not go back to our ancient hunting and gathering ways.

We will not go back to our ancient hunting and gathering ways.

We will not go back to our ancient hunting and gathering ways.

We will not go back to our ancient hunting and gathering ways…

I.

In 1704, a Scottish Navy officer named Alexander Selkirk found himself marooned by his captain on uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean.

All he had with him were a pistol, bullets, gunpowder, a knife, a bible, a flask of rum, and enough food for just a few days. He watched the horizon, awaiting salvation. Escape on a make-shift raft was impossible. The closest inhabited land was Valparaiso, a journey six hundred miles north. His pistol provided reassurance that his final hours would be of his choosing. After his rescue, a different isolation set in. Selkirk returned to his hometown of Largo, where he was unable to acclimate to the regimen of daily life. In his most desperate hours he sought out the seclusion of a small cave on a high spot of land.

I glanced out of the office window, my attention wandering into the distance. Through the tinted glass, I could make out a vista of emerald hills and forests. Calling. Beckoning.

Get out of here.  Get out of here now.

I couldn’t explain it and I can’t explain it now, but something occurred inside me. Something raw. Something primitive and atavistic. Unexpectedly, I stood up. Without warning and without explanation.

I walked away from my computer without logging out (due to data protection and information security laws, all staff are required to lock their display screens using the ctrl + alt + delete method). Today was different.

I walked across the office floor, indifferent as if a stranger in the park on a blustery day. Without a single care in the world.

“Excuse me? Where do you think you’re going?” shouted Natalie after me.

Don’t stop. Just keep going.

I carried on walking, oblivious to the myriad of simultaneous decisions I was making. Financial instability. Future employment opportunities. Outstanding mortgage payments. Insufficient pension provision. All of them swirling around my head in an ear-splitting cacophony of doubt.

A sudden arrow of clarity shot through my brain leaving me with nothing but…

Silence.

I exited the building and stood outside the entrance. There was a gentle breeze in the area. I stared up at the overcast sky. A gentle rain began pattering down upon me.

This is your chance.

I glanced up at the hills. Deciduous trees were gently rocking in the autumn wind. Dancing a tender waltz.

Do it. Just do it now. You won’t regret it.

I began walking. I passed my car on the left, disregarding it. It held no use for me now. I knew what I had to do. Reaching the edge of the car park, I continued, leaving civilisation and entering the wilderness.

I climbed the hill, nearly slipping on the wet grass as I clambered up the hummock.

I reached the edge of the forest, the swaying trees welcoming me like an old accomplice.

You’re nearly there.

I entered the forest, my feet crunching on the decomposing leaves underfoot. I persevered, straying deeper and deeper into the woods.

And then I saw it.

A beautiful stone cavern, with an opening the size of a house. It looked like a giant whale mouth summoning me inside.

A cave.

I peered inside and saw nothing but hollow blackness. I entered, treading precariously.

I’m home.

My first task was to destroy my iPhone. My brand new iPhone X built, in part, by 15 year-old Chinese children working 16 hours a day for 70 cents an hour. I had no use for it now. No emails. No texts. No Angry Birds. No iTunes.

I took a rock and smashed it to pieces. It felt good.

I decided to divide the next few tasks into several stages:

Step 1

My next port of call involved surveying the land around me to see what was immediately available. This enabled me to determine what I could make and how easily I could make it. I scanned for firewood, vines that would work as rope, and other possible fuel sources. I then realised that I, like you, have absolutely no idea how to make a fire. We’re taught arithmetic. We’re taught home economics. We’re taught how to manage finances.

But we’re not taught how to make a goddam fire.

In your world, whenever I was unsure how to do something, I Googled it, or searched on YouTube for tutorials. There are tutorials for everything on YouTube.

Step 2

I collected sharp rocks to use as knives, and wooden sticks to carve, spit-roast and build shelter from. I then set about collecting random items that could be used in helpful ways.

Step 3

I had to turn my cave into a hospitable stronghold as fast as possible. Fortuitously, the cave already provided excellent wind protection and shelter from rainfall.

Step 4

The next priority was to find food. About an hour before dusk, I ventured out to hunt for edible berries. I found salmon-berries, wild huckleberries and pine nuts. I found a nearby stream that had the cleanest water I’d ever drank. I also set about catching insects which would provide an excellent source of protein.

Step 5

I attempted to build a fire. This was more difficult than all of the above steps combined. After several painstaking and laborious hours (during which I created several blisters and nearly lost a fingernail) I stumbled upon the eventual solution by rubbing the end of a dry stick into the groove of a larger piece of wood until glowing embers sparked in the groove. I then blew softly while adding moss to the flame to feed it. Note: pine sap makes an excellent fire starter in wet climates.

Take that, Tom Hanks.

Step 6

I prepared dinner and then scavenged the forest floor collecting enough wood to keep the fire going through the night.

That night, I slept bare-backed on the cold and damp stone surface of the cave, using a pile of crumpled leaves as my duvet. The stone was flatter and more rigid than any mattress I’ve ever laid upon.

That night, I had the best sleep I’ve ever had in my life.

Step 7

In the morning, I awoke early to find the time to scavenge the necessary food I needed and continued to explore my surroundings.

For the first time in my life, I was liberated. Free from the insufferable grind of a morning commute. Free from flexi-time working hours. Free from female bosses and subordinates. Free from wasting time flicking through infinite on-demand TV services. Free from flimsy mattresses. Free from uncomfortable office chairs.

One early afternoon, I decided to venture further into the woods to explore and search for additional food to store as part of my burgeoning inventory.

That’s when the first intruder came.

I heard barking in the distance. The rustling of bushes. Then, a middle-aged man, obviously a gamekeeper slowly materialized from the vacuum of the woods. He was dressed in camouflaged clothing, with a maroon body warmer, a black cap and a shotgun slung over his shoulder. He looked at me, startled.

“Jesus Christ!”

His dog had stopped a few yards before, growling menacingly. I suddenly realised that I must have looked a sight. I hadn’t showered for several days and my beard had grown considerably. I looked like a bedraggled mess.

“Who the hell are you?” The Gamekeeper asked rudely.

“I live here,” I responded, nonchalantly.  “What? Where?” he countered, his fingers twitching closer to the trigger of his shotgun.

“In a cave,” I offered.

“In a cave? Have you gone fucking mad, pal?” The Gamekeeper asked.

“No. I haven’t gone mad” I responded, repeating him but omitting the invective.

The Gamekeeper followed me the half-mile trek back to the cave, staying several yards behind me. His dog, on the other hand, bounded ahead unafraid. We reached the mouth of the cave and I walked in, taking care on the slippery surface beneath my feet. The Gamekeeper poked his head in, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. He glanced around at belongings. My food and wood stockpiles and the remains of my clothing remains.

“Christ. You really live here, pal?”

I nodded.

“Why?” he asked. His tone had shifted from amazement to sheer curiosity. “Why not?” I answered, continuing “There’s adequate shelter. It’s not as cold as you think. And it’s quiet.”

Please just go.

The Gamekeeper continued his intrusion into my new habitat. He tested out my makeshift bed on the ground. He lay back, his spine adjusting to the rigid stone surface below.

“You know what?” he said.

Please just leave me alone.

“What?”

“This is the most comfortable bed I’ve ever laid on,” he said, closing his eyes.

After The Gamekeeper had left, I made a fire and ate a hearty meal consisting of trout caught from the nearby river in the fading daylight. I decided that security and safekeeping should be my next priority, and resolved to get up early the next morning in order to start making an arsenal of makeshift weapons. A spear would be ideal and easy to manufacture.

The next day, I was awoken by ominous footsteps. I opened my eyes immediately and jumped to my feet, ready to protect my new home at all costs.

The Gamekeeper had returned, and this time he had brought a companion with him.

“Hello?” I said.

“This is ‘im ‘ere. The weird fucker living in a cave.”

The Gamekeeper’s companion came closer. He was wearing tartan trousers and a body warmer. “What are you doing here?” he asked, stopping a yard or two away from me fearfully.

“I’ve come to live in the woods” I replied.

“Why?” asked The Companion, staring at his friend in confusion, “I mean; why the fuck would you do that?”

“Why not?” I answered, sardonically.

II.

In October 2003, Timothy Treadwell, an American bear enthusiast, environmentalist and documentary filmmaker and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard visited the Katmai National Park in southern Alaska. Treadwell chose to set his campsite near a salmon stream where grizzlies commonly feed in autumn. Treadwell found himself in the park later in the year than usual, at a time when bears struggle to gain as much fat as possible before winter, and limited food supplies cause them to be more antagonistic than during other parts of the year. Food was extremely scarce that winter, causing the grizzly bears to be even more aggressive than usual.

On October 6, an air taxi pilot, arrived at Treadwell’s campsite to pick them up but found the area abandoned. He contacted the local park rangers immediately. Hours later, the couple’s mangled remains were discovered. Treadwell and his girlfriend had been killed by a 28-year-old grizzly bear, whose stomach was later found to contain human remains.

The Gamekeeper and The Companion made themselves at home in my cave. Each kept to their own part of the cave. At night, we would huddle around the campfire, eating a diet of fish, rabbits and insects and we’d discuss our previous lives.

I discovered that The Gamekeeper was an unemployed and divorced farmer. After his mother had died of ovarian cancer and his wife had divorced him, his farm became rundown and he was charged with dozens of counts of animal cruelty and finally, the bank filed a foreclosure notice for failure to pay the mortgage on the 28 acres of land he owned.

A couple of days later, I was preparing a fire in the mouth of the cave when I heard the rustling of leaves and approaching footsteps. I exited the cave to stumble upon a young couple approaching me. The man wore spectacles. The woman had red hair.

“Hello” said The Bespectacled Man. I said nothing. He glanced awkwardly at The Red Headed Woman.

“Are you the man who lives in a cave?” she asked excitedly.

“Yes.”

“We’ve heard all about you,” said The Bespectacled Man.

“How?” I asked. Although I already had my suspicions as to how the information had reached the outside world.

“Word has gotten around town about you living up here” said The Red Headed Woman.

I turned around, glaring at my two male cohorts, skulking around in the cave behind me.

“Listen. We want to join you” said The Bespectacled Man.

“Okay,” I responded.

They glanced at one another enthusiastically. “Really?”

“But not her,” I said sternly, motioning to the woman. The smiles faded from their faces.

“What?”

“You can,” I said, pointing to The Bespectacled Man, “but not her.”

“What the hell, pal?” she asked. “No women” I said categorically, unwilling to compromise. She turned to The Bespectacled Man (whom I presumed was her boyfriend). “Are you gonna stand for that?”

The Bespectacled Man glanced at her then studied me. Finally, he ripped off his shirt. “I guess, um. No women,” he reiterated. His mind made up.

The Red Headed Woman left, seething with anger.

The next week, more urban folk came. Five to be exact.

A Lorry Driver, an Uber Driver, an Auditor, a Catering Assistant and a Student who was studying Molecular and Cellular Biology (with Plant Science). As you can imagine, the latter proved extremely useful.

We were now a settlement. A gathering. A colony secluded from the rest of the world.

The new members disclosed to me that people in the local towns and cities had been talking about a Neanderthal commune in the woods. A place of regressive evolution where men lived in caves and hunted for game. Free from the monotony and ironically, the connection of the digital world.

One day, I was looking for firewood in the forest when I stumbled across The Auditor hiding behind a tree, checking his phone. I caught a glimpse of his display. He was using Tinder.

“What are you doing?” I asked, outraged.

“What?”

He tried to hide the prohibited device in his hand.

“What are you doing?” I repeated, waiting for his response. He looked ashamed and sheepish.

“You were supposed to destroy that,” I said, unequivocally.

He fumbled around for an impromptu excuse.

“I, uh, I…” he started, “Look. I was just, um, checking emails.”

“Give it here.” I reached out my hand.  He paused.

Reluctantly, he reached out and offered the phone.

I took it and smashed it into a tree.

It broke into a myriad pieces. Fragments of aluminium, lithium cobalt oxide and carbon graphite.

I was infuriated. I told the other members and we rightly agreed (after intense campfire discussion) to banish The Auditor from the community.

He didn’t go quietly.

It was then that I decided we needed rules if we were to live like this. Laws. Regulations. In order to function like a cave-dwelling community.

I engraved these rules onto the rock wall of the cave interior, in full view of the inhabitants of our Neanderthal commune. The rules were:

  • No mobile phones or electronic devices of any kind. Using anything electrical is strictly forbidden, as this is a way to connect with the broader world.
  • Only minimal clothing is permitted. No suits or ties.
  • No women. In any circumstances.
  • All food must be caught or scavenged. No exceptions.
  • Any contravention of the above rules is to be punished by immediate expulsion from the community.

The Uber Driver raised his hand.

“What now?” I asked.

“But, if we have rules,” he began “then how are we different to the rest of them? I thought that was the point!”

There was a general murmur of tacit agreement amongst the group.

“And I thought the whole point of this,” he continued, gesturing towards the woods, “was that we were away from all that.”

The community stared at me, eagerly awaiting my response.

“Even Palaeolithic men had rules,” I replied, addressing the crowd like Moses. “Don’t venture over that mountain. Don’t eat this. Don’t touch that. How else do you think we evolved as a species?”

III.

In 1981, Carl McCann, an American wildlife photographer paid a bush pilot to land him at a remote lake in the Alaskan wilderness. McCunn was intending to live amongst and photograph wildlife for about five months. On this trip, he flew in with 500 rolls of film, 1,400 pounds of provisions, two rifles, and a shotgun. Unfortunately, heavy snow began falling, and the nearby lake froze. By November, McCunn had completely exhausted his food supplies and had run out of options.

McCann used all his remaining fuel supplies to create a warm fire. He wrote a letter to his father instructing him how to develop his film. He also requested that all his personal belongings be given to his father by whoever found him. McCunn even suggested that the person who found him take his rifle and shotgun for their trouble. He then pinned his Alaska driver’s license to the note and shot himself with his rifle. That day, just before he shot himself, he wrote in his diary: “They say it doesn’t hurt.”

Some weeks later, I was fishing in the river for trout. Suddenly, I heard abrupt and muffled cries in the distance. I swiftly trekked back to the cave and found the community members congregating in a circle, as if they were performing a satanic ritual. They were alarmed. They were unnerved. I descended the steep slope and strode closer, breaking through the communal panic.

“What is happening here?”

In the centre of the circle, The Deliveroo Cyclist was lying on the floor, a pool of blood trickling underneath his head.

“What on earth has happened?”

I turned to The Auditor. “We were hunting.” He replied, agitated. “We were hunting for, rabbits. He slipped. His head hit a–”

He gestured to a boulder on the ground. Blood spattered across its smooth surface.

“Split his head open like a fucking coconut” said The Student, weighing in.

“What the hell do we do?” asked The Uber driver. “None of us have a bloody phone. Thanks to you,” he said, spitting vitriol in my direction.

“We do nothing” I said.

The community turned to me, stupefied and irate.

“Nothing?” asked The Catering Assistant. “Nothing” I repeated, kneeling down to inspect the soil. “We bury him in the ground.”

“And why the hell would we do that, pal?” asked The Student, horrified at this instruction.

“Why not? It’s green. It’s natural. Eco-friendly” I responded, glancing down at the body. “And it’s poetic. He’ll be returned to the Earth.”

“You’ve gone fucking loopy, mate” said The Uber driver, outraged. He glanced around at his companions, trying to drum up support from his silent compatriots.

“People have buried their dead naturally for centuries” I explained.

“It’s illegal” murmured someone.

The Student stepped forward, “He deserves some sort of marking in the ground. You know, as a sign of respect.”

“I can’t think of any greater sign of respect than resting his body naturally in the soil to be returned to Mother Earth. He will become part of the natural life cycle by returning his body to the soil.”

There was a smattering of laughter.

The Uber Driver stepped forward, asserting his authority. “No. I’m sick of you spouting all of this hippie gibberish. I’m taking his body back to the city. And we’re calling the police.”

I stepped forward. “You call the police, and they’ll be all over this place; murder squads, forensics teams. You name it. Do you think they’ll let us stay here after this?” I shouted, flashing my eyes from man-to-man.

“Do you want to go back to your shitty jobs? With your uncomfortable desks? With bosses telling you what to do? With your wives telling you what to do?”

Silence.

I shouted louder, “Do you?”

IV.

Everett Ruess, a 20 year old young poet and artist had been wandering all over the Southwest of the United States for the better part of the previous four years by foot. In the autumn of 1934, Ruess set out from southern Utah, with the intention of journeying south into Arizona to spend the winter.

He was never seen again.

His probable last camp was found in Cottonwood Canyon. Some people think he may have fallen off a cliff or drowned in a flash flood. Others suspected he had been murdered by bandits. A local legend holds that crossed the Colorado River to the Navajo Reservation, married a Navajo woman, and lived there in secrecy the rest of his life. His mysterious disappearance turned him into an American folk hero.

An hour later, we buried The Deliveroo Cyclist’s body in the ground. To appease the community members, I proposed erecting a wooden crucifix to plant over the grave as a sign of respect. One of the members said a brief few words to eulogize him. Something half-remembered from Corinthians.

The mood was sour and acrid for many days after that. There was a sombre air in the cave when we routinely huddled around the evening campfire. Usually, we sat eating venison or rabbit, regaling each other with stories of virile bravery and sexual vanity.

For many nights after the burial, we sat in silence, listening to the trees waltzing in the nocturnal breeze.

They say every society is three meals away from revolution. But in our case, it was one death. The members couldn’t cope.

One evening, after a night-time swim in the river to cleanse myself, I strolled back through the woodland, the wet leaves sticking to my feet. I saw something.

Blue figures dancing around the trees. Twirling. Hopping. Pirouetting. It was like a beautiful ballet light display that only I was privy to, underscored by the nocturnal sounds and echoes of the forest.

I walked nearer. The figures transformed into lights. Police lights. I crouched down behind a boulder, peering over it to see the lights emanating from a distant police van. A dozen or so police officers were crawling all over the entrance to the cave and investigating the gravesite where we had buried The Deliveroo Cyclist.  I cursed the other members. I cursed myself.

The time had come to slip into the wilderness.

V.

In 2017, a 29 year-old IT worker abruptly his Keswick office in the middle of the day without warning or saying goodbye to anyone. He was spotted on CCTV leaving the office car park and venturing towards the nearby woodland park.

His wife contacted the police several hours later when he did not resurface. There are unconfirmed reports that he walked deep into the woods and began to live in a fracture cave near Buttermere.

Shortly afterwards, there were local reports of a commune being established where men lived like prehistoric humans, sleeping in caves and hunting for food. Then police were alerted to the presence of a death that had occurred within the commune and arrested several members in connection with this inquiry. The police however could not locate the mysterious leader wanted in connection with the death.  

Several months later, a mysterious cryptic postcard (bearing the painting Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow by John Constable) was delivered to the doorstep of his wife and infant child.

The young IT worker was never seen again.

Dear R.

I’m writing this letter to say goodbye. To you and to Emile.

I’m sorry I had to go. I’m sorry but I can’t be part of your world anymore. A world of high-priced Smartphones, 42-inch LED TVs that melt ice caps even on Standby, Flat Whites with pretentious patterns sprinkled onto the foam, interest-only mortgages, increasing populations, falling literacy rates, location-based dating apps where people shop for a partner like they’re shopping for groceries and private hire companies that turn municipal citizens into overweight and lazy layabouts.

At night I sleep on a bed of stone, the sound of crickets and owls to keep me company. As Emily Bronte once remarked;

Blow, west-wind, by the lonely mound,

And murmur, summer-streams,

There is no need of other sound

To soothe my lady’s dreams.

I’m sorry I couldn’t be the man that you or society wanted me to be.

Yours, D.

Daley Nixon14925231_582242797007_2790650613557854131_n.jpg

Daley graduated from the University of Glamorgan in 2009 with BA Honours in Film & Video including Scriptwriting. Daley has written magazine articles, short stories, short films and feature screenplays, four of which have been optioned by film companies in the US and UK.  Daley is currently developing a number of projects for theatre and film.

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