I’m having a clear-out, boxing and bagging the detritus which I seem unable to avoid accumulating. It’s not that I’m fastidiously tidy – far from it – but I am on a mission; determined to live with less distractions.
As I’m filling a cardboard box with paperbacks, I come across a photo of Cassie, Maggie and me at my flat one Bonfire Night. We’re laughing into the camera, obviously quite drunk, my arm visible in shot as it clicks the shutter. Studying the image, grasping for the memory, I feel myself transported back to that night, experiencing once again the whiff of cordite in the air and the spine-tingle of anticipation.
“I’ve been having these weird feelings which I find hard to articulate, even in my own head. I’m not good at analogies, but imagine a combination-lock being clicked into place one digit at a time, or a telescope being slowly focused, or a pregnant lady who’s just been told her due-date. Actually, forget that last one; I told you I wasn’t good at analogies.
“You may find this hard to believe, but there was a time when I felt destined for a proper career; the Foreign Office, the BBC or, alternatively, something thrusting and entrepreneurial. Now, with the benefit of hindsight it occurs to me that I’ve been programmed to want success by my parents, by school, by books and TV – by the dreams that dance on my eyelids when I sleep.
“The equation seems obvious to me now: talent plus belief, multiplied by drive equals success! Unfortunately the program must have crashed at some point during my mid-twenties, probably due to excessive emotional input. None of it makes sense anymore – ‘garbage in, garbage out’ as computer coders say. That’s how I see the program of my life; basically, I am a robotic wage-slave propelled by bug-ridden and ‘no-longer-supported’ software.”
“Sweet Jesus!” exclaims Cassie returning from the kitchen with a tray of drinks and laying it with a ‘tada’ on the coffee-table between Maggie and I. “This conversation sounds pretty intense for a Friday night?”
“It’s not a conversation as such,” replies Maggie archly. “That would require me to be speaking as well. Think of it more as a ‘broadcast’. In fact forget about it entirely and tell me about these fabulous-looking drinks you’ve made – I trust they contain generous quantities of alcohol?”
“Affirmative captain,” replies Cassie and for a moment I fear they are about to reprise their Apollo 13 movie routine – only funny the first couple of times you hear it.
“They are…” Cassie pauses to mime a drum-roll, “gin and tonics made with Bombay Blue Sapphire Gin! Just look at the bottle, isn’t it gorgeous?”
We all gaze at the elegant bottle, studying its design and marveling at the list of botanical ingredients on the label. Admittedly I am not well travelled, but I’ve never even heard of ‘cuceb berries’, ‘orris root’ or ‘grains of paradise’. They sound implausibly exotic, evoking memories of places which I guess must originate from books or films rather than my real life. We take turns handling the bottle, watching the last of an autumnal evening sun refracted through its blue-tinted glass.
Cassie glances at her phone.
“Where’s Ben?” I suddenly blurt out in that tactless way of mine.
“Ben’s decided not to join us after all,” says Cassie evenly. “He’s having a ‘lads night out’ with his mates from work and staying at one of theirs.’”
“Wow!” I say, desperate to bring some levity to bear, “he chickened out then?”
“Evidently,” says Cassie, pursing her lips. “Anyway we don’t need him. He’d probably just drive us all mental by over-analysing things.” She waves her hand dismissively signaling that it’s OK to move on.
After a respectful pause Maggie says the words I have been waiting for all week.
“Talking of ‘things’”, she announces, “I have procured three trips.”
“Lemme see, lemme see”, shouts Cassie, like an excited puppy, probably over-compensating for Ben’s absence, I think, while silently rebuking myself for over-analysing her.
Maggie produces a tiny zip-lock bag and delicately upends the contents on to the coffee-table, first checking the target spot is dry by wiping it with her sleeve. The acid trips resemble four tiny squares of blotting paper, each printed with the symbol of a purple ankh.
“Incredible”, I mutter pointlessly. I feel at once elated and apprehensive.
Maggie and I have been together for two years and our relationship has entered that post-lust phase, meaning we seek the company of others at weekends rather than exclusive time spent together. Cassie and Ben’s flat is known as ‘the party flat’, partly because it’s on the 15th floor of a tower block right in the middle of London and partly because it’s ex-local authority and the neighbours never complain about the noise. It’s Bonfire Night and the three of us (not four as previously expected) are going to watch the fireworks, as we always do, from this amazing vantage point. Except this time we’re going to do it on acid – yay! This is a ‘first’ for all of us, which isn’t to say we are exactly strangers to recreational substances.
As you should always be when taking drugs, we are serious and ritualistic. Maggie places the blotting-paper squares onto each of our tongues like a priest administering communion wafers. We accept the host, sit back and wait for something to happen. We are silent for a few minutes exchanging expectant looks, trying not to jump the gun.
“Hey look, an ectoplasmic blob!” I exclaim, pointing to a much-maligned Paul Klee print framed on the wall. It gets a laugh.
“I like it OK!” says Cassie, indignant but laughing. “It’s a conversation piece!”
“Look, nothing’s going to happen for ages,” says Maggie. “So let’s just carry on as normal?” She gestures, self-mockingly at the word ‘normal’, realizing in an instant that there’s nothing normal about this evening.
“Agreed,” I say. “But if anyone feels anything, they have to report it – OK?” The others nod vigorously.
Cassie gets up and puts some music on. The three of us dance with exaggerated enthusiasm, swigging our drinks and reminiscing about previous parties this flat has seen. When we tire of our war stories, we pass time gazing at the impressive view from the small balcony. Dusk is falling. The view south is a panoramic fan-shape: to the east lies the Canary Wharf tower flashing its aircraft-warning-light; a morse-message of impenetrable intelligence. Straining our necks we take in Battersea Power Station, the BT Tower and many other London landmarks. It’s 6:30pm. We’ve started early, naively presuming the acid will wear off in time for us to get some sleep. We continue dancing, smoking and, despite our previous agreement, speculating on what the experience will be like. Will we smell colours or see angels? Will one of us be overcome by the desire to fly and leap from the balcony?
An hour later, still nothing has happened, but an ethereal grey mist shrouds the view, cloaking the horizon and the tops of buildings. At first it makes us all anxious. Then we hear the first firework (it was smoke from the bonfires, you see?). Pretty soon the sky is ablaze with the fiery comet-trails of rockets and myriad explosions of magnesium stars. I wonder if this is what the Blitz felt like; deafening bangs punctuating the glowing pall. Cassie opens a window and the smell of cordite and people-sounds drifts in on the breeze. A rocket comes doodle-bugging out of the haze and explodes right outside the windows. Then another and another. We suspect the council estate kids are deliberately targeting our block; delinquent little bastards. Louder thuds, felt in the solar plexus, indicate the big guns of the public display on Primrose Hill, each major explosion accompanied by the faint sound of cheering when the wind gusts in our direction.
It’s about this time that reality begins to cave in around our heads. My first symptoms are an orange aura at the periphery of my vision and fits of uncontrollable laughter, verging on mania, which soon infects us all. Confusion over small details such as who has the cigarette lighter or what music we’re listening to seem unfeasibly hilarious. Simple tasks like making drinks or visiting the toilet have become recklessly ambitious projects requiring planning, discussion and regular review of the objectives, not helped by the fact that we seem unable to stop ourselves collapsing into hysterics over every detail. Time, when we remember its existence at all, has developed elasticity. At one point Maggie asks me whether Cassie has gone out? It seems doubtful, but we spend what seems like an hour weighing and re-weighing the likelihood. When she finally walks into the room we greet her as though she has returned from a lengthy and hazardous expedition, only for her to tell us, she’s been in the kitchen watching the lights on the BT Tower.
When it’s my turn to visit the toilet, even though I’m not entirely sure I need to pee, I impress upon the others that I am not going far and to expect my imminent return. I forget to turn on the bathroom light and stand there in the gloom watching the shadows on the frosted windowpane as the luminescence from outside causes the fig tree on the window ledge to rustle with sentient life. I empty my bladder with some difficulty then stand before the mirror thankful that my face is in shadow lest I gaze upon madness. I’m suddenly hot and claustrophobic so splash cold water on my face. The act appears to transform the bathroom into a jungle shack by a beach. I’m sure I can hear the gentle, calming sea as I gaze at the fig and past it to the moonlit window. Eventually I tear myself away and rejoin the others.
Maggie notices that the fireworks have all but come to an end; whizz-bangs and unfathomable rumblings becoming punctuated by growing periods of silence. Disappointed we seek out new experiences to fill our attention, opening cupboards and drawers for inspiration. Cassie finds a box of candles she keeps in case of power-cuts and with some difficulty I help her light them, feeling like some sort of fire-controlling wizard as I do so. Maggie dims the lights and the room is transformed into a cathedral of undulating luminosity, staggering in its beauty. The fireworks are forgotten and with them all sense of the past.
Inspired by the find of the candles we spend the next few hours searching the flat like hyperactive children maddened by E numbers discovering hitherto unsuspected wonders. A souvenir slide-viewer from a skiing holiday in Chamonix is passed around with reverence. We take it in turns to project ourselves shivering into its enchanted snow slopes and ice caves. The act of peeling oranges from the fruit bowl spell-binds our attention. We ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at the ecstatic drops of citrus dew that spring forth from the peel and marvel at the taste in our mouths like crackling shard of space dust.
The TV which was tuned to MTV now plays nothing but a snow-storm, each phosphorescent particle pulsing with a complex inner logic. Maggie and I watch in rapt concentration as the static mutates into helix patterns in time to music emanating from somewhere in the flat.
Our phones light up with messages from friends and families also celebrating Bonfire Night. We struggle to decipher them and they quickly become the source of acute paranoia. The suggestion that someone might call, possibly even one of our parents, decides the matter; all phones are switched off and the landline unplugged. At some point in the evening I later recall that we had a visitor; some arty friend of Cassie’s. Thankfully she couldn’t cope with our exuberance and scattergun logic and left, shaking her bobble-hat in bewilderment.
Sleep is forgotten that night and come the morning with reality’s unwelcome topography threatening, we pull on coats and tip-toe through the sleepy streets to Regent’s Park. The ambience of dug-over flower beds and golden trees breathes new energy into our depleted soul-reserves. Maggie has remembered to bring an iPod and we take turns listening to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Innervisions’, one of our tried and tested ‘come-down’ albums. In the Rose Garden; summer’s thorny cenotaph, Cassie becomes convinced we’re being shadowed by a park-keeper, which makes us self-conscious. We whisper speculatively about how others might view our motives for being in the park so early in the morning. After a brief debate we flee the park and feeling agoraphobic and spent, slink home to fitful sleep and carnival dreams.
My memory of that vivid hallucinogenic experience has diminished in clarity over time. I can no longer see the after-image of psychedelic dazzle that dogged my senses for literally years afterwards. But something in me changed that night, something of which I told no one; the dawning realization that I was bored with seeking new experiences, with gorging on sensation and mindlessly consuming information. I’d reached sensory overload, and for what? To discover meaning and purpose in my existence? That night I realized that the search for meaning, if I were ever to find it, lay not in the future, but in my experience to-date. Time to call off the search, ignore the tyranny of Kipling’s ‘unforgiving minute’ and properly pause to reflect.
The next morning after the fireworks, I stood on the balcony looking afresh at the panorama of London. Almost in a trance I perceived the tower block as the spindle of a massive gyroscope, with me at its center, combination lock-tumblers clicking inexorably into place.
About three months later Maggie and I split up; no drama, nor acrimony, just no spark left and no hope of re-ignition. Cassie split up with Ben (no surprise there) and sold me the flat (there’s a surprise!).
I don’t see the others much these days. I’ve become something of a recluse. I took voluntary redundancy and stopped responding to social invitations. I don’t have time for the sort of life I used to lead. All my spare time is devoted to recording my life-story to date, filling in snatches of half-remembered details from the past decades; from childhood and back still further, grasping for the blurred impressions of infancy.
When I find myself blocked – as I often do – I return to de-cluttering, chucking out old bank statements and letters from girlfriends, unsubscribing from mailing lists and Internet dating sites, deleting old blogs and social profiles determined to stem the tide of new, probably empty, experience. I also look at old photos trying to discern whether their fading subjects hold genuine, prima facie memories or simply memories of past viewings. Occasionally I leave the flat on research missions, visiting old haunts; former places of employment; schools; childhood parks and playgrounds like a spectre, eager to tune-in, to reconnect with how I felt back then. Sometimes this process is rewarding and I sit for hours afterwards in cafés and on station platforms typing up the rich rushes of detail. Other times, nothing – no emanations, just a barren psycho-geography refusing to reveal its secrets. At these moments I wonder, semi-seriously, whether I might be a ghost.
Occasionally Ben pops round to the flat lessening the probability that I am haunting rather than fully and corporeally occupying its four rooms. He’s very successful now; owns his own marketing consultancy; engaged to a Russian model. The conversation is OK, but I think he pities me, probably imagines I’m some sort of drug casualty, my rational thought-processes incinerated by the radiant heat of my own imaginings. What Ben doesn’t understand is that it’s there with me all the time, the feeling of almost-completeness; like an aura at the periphery of my vision, hinting at another universe. One day soon I feel certain that the atoms will shift, re-arrange themselves and that the veil that separates me from true understanding will shift and reveal its mysteries. On Bonfire Night that moment feels tantalisingly close as I stand on the balcony of my 15th floor flat gazing out at the glowing fog; flinching as the rockets reach their zenith and explode in the sky, illuminating my expectant face.
Dan T Patton
Read Dan’s previously published short story ‘Killing by Candlelight‘ here…
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