Sunday, 29 April 2012

Grown Up

It’s 3am, and my assigned partner and I are on our way up the stairs to the main sleeping floor of the homeless shelter to relieve a pair of supervisors. The smell hits first, long before we reach the top, a thick haze of old sweat and cigarette smoke like the front row of Glastonbury’s main stage on the final day, then the staggered snores and mutterings of men in various stages of sleep. We walk between the camp-beds, my partner ahead of me, her shoes shushing gently on the worn carpet.

The supervisors we’re replacing rise when they see us, stretching the stiffness from their limbs. In the dim light from the windows one of them shrugs off a luminous safety vest and holds it out to me.

‘You know how to use a fire extinguisher?’ He whispers so as not to disturb the men sleeping close around us.


He shoves the vest into my hand. ‘Well, you’re the fire marshal now.’

And they leave. I try and foist the vest onto my partner, but she insists it remain with me on the grounds that ‘I’m the man.’

I study the squat fire extinguisher stashed beneath my chair and realise I have no idea how to use it. The advice printed on what’s left of the label says ‘Aim at fire.’ This is the instruction that will allow me to save the lives of hundreds of people if something catches alight in the next two hours. There is a temptation to ignite one or two of the homeless people, just a little, and let them flail around aflame as melodramatic proof that I am not up to this job.

It first became apparent that people considered me a grown up when I worked in a pet shop. If some child were banging on the glass of the guinea pig cages their mother would throw me a knowing sidelong glance before announcing, ‘You’d better stop that or the man will shout at you!’ At which point the child would recoil from me in abject terror.

I wanted to fling my hands up and plead my innocence. When did I become some kind of fun-spoiling crypto-fascist? I felt the need to throw my lot in with the child; I’m with you, guinea pigs are boring, bang the glass! Set them on fire and applaud as they screech like boiling kettles for all I care! Just don’t sever me so flippantly from my childhood.

By some definition I could not grasp, I was suddenly seen by many as a grown up. This is why, perhaps, if ever I occupy a spot in London for more than a few minutes I will inevitably be approached by a waylaid foreigner and asked directions. I had always assumed that my face’s default position was that of vacuous bafflement, as if my brain were perpetually tuned to BBC Parliament. Instead it must be vaguely trustworthy, possessive of some chance verisimilitude when I send the asker in a random direction. A Spanish lady and her family approached me once as I waited outside Camden Town tube station and enquired whether I was a taxi. The only response I could manage was an exasperated spreading of my hands, a slow turn to the empty curb behind, then back to her as she gazed at me expectantly.

Western culture is devoid of any definitive transition into adulthood. Teenage dystopian fiction is filled with clear-cut gruesome rituals that are the death knell of childhood, and the world of Pokemon is built on a delightful transparency, youngsters expelled at thirteen to enact any cruelty they wish on the animals of the land. The UK is too politically-correct to let me venture into the allotments behind my house and cold-bloodedly enslave or murder the resident foxes. No survivalist trek into the wild can last for more than a few hours before stumbling across a Little Chef. How could I have earned my stripes rather than become an adult without even noticing? I needed more experience, to see more of the world. I had experienced nothing to thrust me headlong into manhood.

As 4am approaches on the sleeping floor of the homeless shelter, the lights of the city eerily still in the distance and the winter creeping into my bones, a young guy, perhaps my age, perhaps less, rolls in his tattered sleeping bag to face me.

‘Have you ever seen a dead alcoholic?’ he asks.

And it’s true, I think, as his eyes stare into mine. I haven’t lived through anything at all.

‘No,’ I say. ‘I haven’t.’

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Modern Dating II

This post is sponsored by the words Pot, Kettle, and Black.

A few months ago I wrote a blog entitled Modern Dating. It portrayed any guy who partakes in ‘alternative dating’ (online, personals, chloroform, etc.) as a maladjusted misanthrope stuck behind his computer with a seething erection and crispy tissues plastered irrevocably to his hands, and any girl as the female equivalent; this perhaps involves a cucumber. A number of people more experienced in the online dating world did not take kindly to this astringent assumption. They suggested I should try it myself before mouthing off on the Internet. This, combined with a growing phobia of dying alone beneath a railway bridge and my bloated corpse only coming to light after several weeks of being eaten by cats, encouraged me to give it a go.

I chose a free dating site, which, days later, was in the news after one of its members beat another member half to death with a hammer following a bad date. Now, the very crux of my previous dating post was that no one shows their true self in alternative dating. Gaping flaws, such as a penchant for hammer-orientated violence, become endearing quirks, crippling anxieties charming idiosyncrasies. Even with this insight I soon found myself glossing over my personality defects and listing only my most esoteric of tastes. Yes, my favourite film is Three Colours Blue by Krzysztof Kieslowski! The only photos I uploaded were either pretentious Instagram or pretentious black & white, and all conveniently devoid of bad skin, fat belly, and hairy back. By the time I was finished, my profile was home to a version of myself I’d never met.

Initial interest was exclusively pugnacious transsexuals in bondage gear inviting me to their house for a blow job. Their numbers have been safely stowed for a few years down the line. Online dating is particularly belittling due to the arrival of a notification each and every time someone visits your profile, balks at the abhorrence of your photographs, and hurriedly absconds. It took a few weeks before I made contact with any real females.

This blog is built upon a foundation of disastrous dates and romance run aground. Who else can say the first girl they ever kissed promptly threw a pint glass at their head? However, this entry will be slightly different. Although not one of my four dates was a success per se, all of them, to varying degrees, went smoothly.

The difficulty lies in a superficial notion of imaginary science upon which people judge the future viability of a hypothetical relationship: chemistry. Although I understand the importance of getting along with someone, this apocryphal natural harmony has eluded me at every turn. It might be the fact that I am naturally awkward and take a while longer than most to feel comfortable around somebody new. This, as well as an archaic adherence to chivalry, often sees my relatively unhurried pace to sleep with someone diagnosed as a chemistry deficiency. Whatever happened to taking the time to get to know someone?

This is a disadvantage in the world of online dating. When finally I do meet someone I am plagued with a heightened awareness that I must make a great first impression. I arrive with a gargantuan flashing sign around my neck that screams LOVE ME. So scared am I of failure the date becomes a job interview, a frantic dissimulation, the desperate concealment of all blemishes to try and appear as the perfect man, as someone who isn’t inwardly terrified of being revealed as not worth knowing. Amid the exertion of maintaining the charade there’s no space to formulate chemistry.

The result was three non-awkward but ultimately lacklustre dates. Three separate girls sent near-identical postdate messages: You’re a really nice guy, but there was just no chemistry.

I persisted with a fourth date. Within ten minutes of sitting down in a pub on the Southbank, I knew it was doomed. Every time I spoke her eyes glassed over in a way I’ve only seen before in students I’ve taught. My chemistry vacuum yawned widely between us. So I decided to experiment. If being myself doesn’t work, and presenting a version of myself modified for social acceptance doesn’t work, I would be somebody else.

So the next time I opened my mouth I told her about the years I spent as a primary school teacher for troubled kids in Manchester. I regaled her with the tale of my near-goring in the running of the bulls at Pamplona. I made a devilishly inappropriate joke about Chlamydia.

And she laughed. And she believed. And when I text her the next day to ask how it went, she replied that there was great chemistry.

Although I’m not proud of lying to someone, it was necessary in order to stop deluding myself. Dating, online or otherwise, will not work for me. I will never make an earth-rending first impression. I will never glide inside the doorway in full Navy uniform and sweep someone off their feet back to my villa in the hills to engage them in headboard-abusive acrobatic sex.

So my online dating profile currently stands idle. All that’s left is to wait in the hope that one day there will be someone patient enough to get to know me, that time will outweigh lacklustre first impression. And if not, you will find me by following that smell to the noise of feasting cats underneath the railway bridge.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Easter Bunny

This is as close as I’ll ever get to posting a blog of cute animal pictures. In fact, while we’re here:


Now that we’ve satisfied that Internet quota, I have a rare uplifting story to tell; a tale of heroism against the odds; a legend about the time I had to finger a rabbit to save its life.

...I didn’t say it was going to be a typical uplifting story.

For some years I worked in a pet shop. Contrary to popular belief, this did not entail daily communions of hugging fluffy creatures nor the animal-induced learning of saccharine life lessons. Rather it required being soaked in urine at 6am, dangling hamsters from my fingers by their teeth, and generally battling to prevent idiotic customers from inadvertently murdering their pets.

The rate at which people are able to off their new friends is really quite impressive. Common sense rarely hinders customers from leaving their brand new gerbil in the car while they go shopping. For five hours. At the height of summer. My claim to fame is selling a hamster to the head anchor at ITV news, only for him to return a week later to inform me that his son had ‘thrown it down the stairs.’

So when an elderly gentleman and his young granddaughter approached me about their new rabbit being ill, I was less inclined to care. The girl had likely fed it Super Noodles or tried to sync it with iTunes. I was soon informed that two months prior the little girl’s father had been diagnosed with cancer. Then he’d died. A rabbit had been bought to cheer the girl up. It died. And now its replacement had refused to eat or poop for three days. Half-hourly syringe-feeding was required throughout the night or it would... well, you get the picture.

At this point, to emphasise my heroism, I should point out that this was my tenth work day in a row, with a combined total of near a hundred hours. But like the cold-hearted rom-com businessman who answers his door to find an abandoned squalling babe, my heart melted just enough. I took the rabbit home.

He was tiny, only two months old, ginger and white in colour. His stomach had bloated and hardened like a condom packed with gravel. Every half an hour I forced a feeding syringe behind his front teeth and injected formula that smelled approximately of regurgitated afterbirth down his throat. It’s lucky that rabbits are unable to vomit.

By midnight I had christened him Wilhelm and we were cuddled up on the sofa in front of the TV. Four feedings later, just after 2am, the exclusive first showing of Cheryl Cole’s new music video came on. Wilhelm was clearly not a fan. A gout of diarrhoea lashed across my trouser leg. A torrent of it soaked my crotch as I hoisted him up. I ran for his cage, Wilhelm at arm’s length, splattering a trail of diarrhoea across the carpet and up the stairs. I dropped him into his cage, and with his steely rabbit indifference he filled the corner with a puddle of half-digested formula. When he was finished, I flipped him over to clean him up.

The rabbit had prolapsed. Where usually his exit hole would be obscured by fur, the urgency of his bowel evacuation had forced his bottom inside-out. A shiny pink lump like a pierced tongue protruded from his brown-stained fur.

The diarrhoea was a good sign. But his stomach was still bloated, backed up like a blocked pipe. It could not be cleared while he was wearing his bumhole as a belt. It would have to go back in.

I paused to rub Vaseline on my finger, the rom-com businessman burdened with changing a soiled nappy or consoling his distraught love interest. This was my animal-induced life lesson. Wilhelm must live! Live!

I pressed my fingertip to his flagging behind and with one firm shove popped it back inside. Then I pulled out and watched as the diarrhoea resumed, worse than before. I begged for his bottom to hold. I was an engineer manning the shields on the USS Enterprise, Tommy Lee Jones praying for his lava diversion to take the strain. Until 7am I monitored his butt as the flesh flexed and rippled, but held true.

Later that day the customers returned for their rabbit. Wilhelm was out of the woods. I had been awake for thirty hours and sexually violated what had become my best friend. Like the final scene where the softened rom-com businessman loses custody, they took the rabbit and left. There could be no appeal. They didn’t even bloody say thank you.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Digital Ghosts

An old school friend of mine recently died. I hadn’t spoken to him in approximately a decade. The only reason I’m aware of his death is Facebook. As has become customary, my former class mates and I have vacuously honoured our past acquaintance by becoming friends online, while in the real world crossing the street at the first sniff of an awkward encounter. We occasionally ‘Like’ someone’s status or photograph when they get a job/get a baby/get fat, and exchange asinine comments about bygone halcyon days whenever an old class photo surfaces. So it was only when these shades of the past began leaving their condolences on this old friend’s page that I realised something had happened.

There is a small but growing number of Facebook profiles on my friends list now that belong to the deceased. They have been maintained as digital memorials, a more convenient alternative to tending a grave. Once a year erstwhile familiars unearth their blanching memories, like estranged relatives at an obligatory family reunion, to type a few words of remembrance. Some profiles are even created posthumously as a contemporary take on the inevitable idealisation of loved ones when they’re gone.

There is often anger or chagrin when a deceased celebrity is employed from beyond the grave in the name of advertising; Marilyn Monroe expressing fondness for a perfume she could never have worn; Gene Kelly unable to contain his hither-to unknown break-dancing passion at the sight of a car he could never have driven; various genocidal dictators being wheeled out to testify their love of Nandos chicken. I may not be famous, but need I still worry how I will be represented once I am dead?

A statistic recently revealed that 11% of Britons have included their various online passwords in their will, the ultimate tick of the ‘remember my log-in’ box, so that, amongst other priorities, their Facebook/Twitter/secret fetish dating site profiles can be dealt with accordingly when they die. We used to worry about our souls being consigned to infinite damnation. Now we worry there will be no wi-fi connection in the void.

The last time I left my Facebook open within a 5 mile radius of any friends I returned to find I had become a fan of Ballbusters Gay Porn and had left comments to half my female acquaintances offering them a thorough spit-roast. What would happen if they had my log-in details once death had rendered me defenceless? The thought of being mercilessly ‘fraped’ for the remainder of eternity concerns me more than it should. Most people will respect a gravestone. Far fewer respect a social media profile. 

Many years ago I came across the MySpace page of a teenage girl who had committed suicide. Years later random men still visited her page to express their anger at never having had the chance to fuck her, no doubt spurred on by how much longer it was taking them to knock one out over her pictures. The profiles of other suicides become a breeding ground for religious propaganda, insincere declarations of remorse, finger-pointing depression awareness campaigns. The cacophony of voices drowns out the person at the heart of it all.

One day soon I expect Facebook to cater funerals. An event invite will appear on your homepage, the ceremony and wake taking place over chat. A sarcastic commentary can run alongside on Twitter with the hashtag, in my own case, #DeadDave. Those people I used to know can pay their condolences with memes of sad-looking cats in bowties. Then for the rest of time I will be immortalised by my pictures of drunkenly humping a tree and old status updates of smart arse pretentious banter until my inexorably lengthening Timeline stretches too far into empty space for there to be anyone else left to remember. Meanwhile, my physical body can be fly-tipped down the verge of the M27 and devoured by voracious badgers.

I’ve come to hope that I will be forewarned of my death in some way. Just to give me time to delete every last kilobyte of my online presence so that I will require no plot in the ever-expanding digital graveyard.

I knew this old friend for 11 years. I consoled him the best a 9-year old could when his parents got divorced. I bought what was very likely a stolen copy of Mortal Kombat from him. Years later he pretended to mug me in the street then laughed when I fell over with fright. These are my memories of him. I did not go to his funeral. I do not even know how he died. I visited his Facebook profile once to register my condolences. And now I have no reason to ever go back.