Most people may have told you that the worst feeling in the world was heartache; or possibly grief, or sorrow, or a stubbed toe. Not me. I would have told you that the absolute worst feeling was waking up in a morning and feeling tired.
Stubbed toes aside, most of those other feelings had inspired numerous works of art and literature. The only thing tiredness had ever inspired was a deep desire to go back to bed. Besides, no matter what emotional pain a person went through, they could at least find some small way to deal with if they were awake. But being tired, that was one of the few things in life with the power to render a person completely and utterly useless.
Especially if that person happened to be me.
I couldn’t deal with tired. It always felt as though a thick gunk were seeping from some black swamp at the back of my brain, gluing all my thoughts together in one big mush before slowly trickling downwards, oozing out beneath my eyelids and doing its damndest to weld them shut. As it did, my veins would rattle inside me, bubbling and throttling, spitting and snarling until they were soothed by a breakfast of coffee and cigarettes.
Whilst I waited for such sweet poison to take effect, I would stumble around the house like a moron. I’d put the cornflakes in the fridge and the milk in the cleaning cupboard. I would take a fresh pair of boxers from my bedroom drawer, set them down and then misplace them six or seven times before putting them on backwards and almost falling over myself as I did so. Nor was it particularly uncommon for me to blast hairspray under my arms and furniture polish in my hair.
Nancy would often take great pleasure in my early morning mishaps. It did frustrate her somewhat that for the first hour or so of each day I could only communicate her via time-delay; responding to her every question or comment by staring at her vacantly for half a minute like some gormless idiot then muttering something vaguely resembling words. Yet it also came as a source of great hilarity for her when I would leave for work only to come sloping back several minute later because I’d forgotten to swap my slippers for my shoes or made it most of the way to work with my dressing gown still on.
If she had been any normal person, she might have understood how I became rendered numb by fatigue on a daily basis, but Nancy was not a normal person at all. She was a Morning Person.
She saw the morning not as a battle to fight nor a war to be won, she saw it as some bright beacon of opportunity to be savoured and cherished; as something she could get some kind of perverse kick out of.
She was the kind of person who would always wake up five minutes before the alarm clock went off, just to prove to herself that she could. She’d then bound out of bed with wide-eyed optimism, reader to relish any and all challenges the day could throw at her.
Every morning she would parade around the house like Mary Poppins on speed, and every morning I what little life I had in me would jealously hate her for it. Indeed, her unwavering ability not only to function but to positively thrive at the start of each day was one of Nancy’s many qualities that I envied, and in many ways, there was a part of me that was actually rather grateful.
I was grateful for all those times, on the most God awful of mornings, when the tiredness would cripple me like some sickening disease and she would come to my aid with a much needed pot of coffee, my lunch prepared, clothes laid out and arse verbally kicked into action.
I would never admit to being grateful for it at the time, mostly because I was too tired to realise that I was, but with the benefit of hindsight I realised now just how much I appreciated having Nancy around to bring me to life each day.
And, as I sluggishly stretched my heavy body to all four corners of the couch, it occurred to me now -not for the first time since that fateful Saturday- how lucky I had been to live with someone so willing to see my flaws not as some chronic ailment which would besiege me for the rest of my days, but as opportunities, as challenges, as something that she could change and help with. Waiting for that evil hangover to pounce upon me, I wished she were there to help me still.
I’d done it again. I couldn’t remember falling asleep, but everything around me suggested that I must have done.
I remembered walking into the house, cracking open a bottle of bourbon that been in the cupboard since Christmas, and collapsing on the sofa with it. Wave after wave of the thick, sugary liquid had shot down my throat, warm estuaries of alcohol trickling to every part of my body until I was encapsulated in a satisfying blanket of numbness.
After that, I guess I must have passed out, falling through the dark skies of my subconscious and toppling out on the other side of daybreak, where I woke to the glaring lights of the television and the rapid, jovial voices of Breakfast TV presenters.
I sat up and rubbed my face with open palms, breathing in hard through my nose and out through mouth as my head trembled with uncertainty about what time it was, what day it was, and where the hell I’d left my cigarettes.
I found those pretty easily, spotting a solitary brown tip poking out of a crumpled blue packet, taking it out and scrambling around for a lighter. I sparked up and felt the day’s first adrenalin shot of nicotine rushing around my system, tying my empty stomach in knots and burning my chest, which already felt as though it had been raped by some sadistic swine with a cheese grater.
I felt sick. Not sick enough to vomit, but an even worse kind of sick that made my whole body feel hollow. My fingers stank of cigarettes, the dry odour of stale whiskey lingered on my breath and the faint stench of vomit lingered in the air.
I stood up and was helpfully reminded by one of the Breakfast TV presenters that it was five minutes past eight on Monday morning.
I let out a loud grown and allowed my face to sink into itself as I made a cup of coffee, doing everything on autopilot until my brain could catch up. After downing the coffee, I washed away the bitter, foul stench of the weekend with a nice hot shower, then dressed into my usual work attire; pale blue jeans, jet black shirt and a brown, corduroy blazer that Nancy had bought for me, insisting that it made me look sophisticated whilst I was sure it made me look like an old man.
Then, feeling vaguely human again, I gathered up the usual essentials; keys, wallet, cigs, lighter and Ipod, threw my leather satchel bag over my shoulder and headed out the door.
I always enjoyed the walk to work, especially when the sun was shining as it was this morning. After stopping off at the corner shop for a pack of twenty and a sandwich, I was free to treck down through the outskirts of town where the old, abandoned cotton factories stood, proud of their place in Ellington’s heritage, in the pale, orange glow of the morning and the sharp, grassy verges that lined my route appeared greener than the would for the rest of the day.
The crunching guitar riffs of my favourite bands pounded my eardrums, sending a satisfying surge of adrenalin blasting through my body and there was a spring in my step that, much like the green grass, would naturally fade as the day progressed.
The building where I worked sat boldly, puffing out it’s red bricked chest from the edge of a busy main road and dominating the street.
I passed through the dusky corridors lined with dirty, cream plasterboard walls and faded brown carpets, past several doors which led to the number of other businesses housed here and headed to the top floor.
This was where my enjoyable walk to work ended. Here, on the sixth floor of Victoria House, were the headquarters of the Ellington Express, Ellington’s best selling, weekday newspaper where I worked, as part of a team of two, to create the paper’s three-page entertainment supplement, created especially to generate more advertising revenue from Ellington’s numerous clubs, theatres and entertainment hotspots.
Inside were brightly lit wooden desktops, spread out in no particular fashion and littered with overflowing in-trays, computers that had been at the height of technology back in 1995 and dirty, white phones which constantly buzzed back and forth with the hyper clatter of journalists chasing stories and sales folk chasing sales.
Loose bits of paper hung from every inch of wall space, declaring print deadlines and contact numbers and sundry other bits of information that were of little importance to me.
To be honest though, that’s how most of my colleagues at the ‘Express viewed me; of little importance. As I made my way to my desk, I was greeted, as usual, by a barrage of scornful looks from people who I always felt resented my being there and believed I had no right to be amongst them.
After all, they were the real journalists, they wrote the real stories that people wanted to read, and if they had to wait for hours on the doorsteps of grieving parents to write about their daughter’s drug overdose, then that’s what they had to do.
They’d been to university, got their qualifications and earned the right to put on a shirt, tie and trench coat and call themselves ‘journalists’, whereas I sauntered into work in my jeans every day, wrote some drivel about whatever two bit band would be playing in town before subsequently vanishing from public memory, then left again, and had blagged the right to do so by pure fluke.
The week after my twenty-first birthday, I had started a two-week work placement at the ‘Express, spending most of my time making cups of tea, running errands and pretty much acting as the company bitch until Zara, who at that point was the entertainment team, had been taken ill.
As it happened, I’d been to gig at Club Ten -the single biggest music venue in town- the night before and Keith McGuire, the paper’s gruff, chain-smoking editor had overheard me telling someone about it. He immediately setting me the task of filling the space with a gig review.
So I did, and I impressed him, and wound up filling what was then only a two-page section single-handedly. A few days and several compliments from readers later, and I was offered a job.
Back then, I’d thought that if anyone had reason to dislike me in this place it would be Zara. I’d muscled in on her patch and hers was the only role in the company to which I was any threat.
But then again, Zara was a rebellious girl who seemed to despise our colleagues almost as much as I believed they despised me, and to her, having me on her team was like the two of us flipping the bird to the lot of them.
She was in the kitchen when I arrived that morning. I walked past and waved, then sat down at my desk.
Besides Zara and the cups of tea she’d make which surely deserved some kind of award, my desk was my favourite thing about the whole building. I sat with my back to a small window that would never quite open as far as windows were supposed to, but let in just enough breeze to make things tolerable in those rare moments of hot British weather.
In front of it, on the window sill, sat all manner of junk, an empty pot which I assumed had once held a plant in the days long before I moved in, several flyers promoting ill-fated club nights and a little figurine of a man playing guitar which I’d skillfully and proudly crafted out of Blue Tac during a period of what much more pretentious writers would refer to as ‘writer’s block’, but which I liked to call a serious a case of ‘can’t be arsed’. The paint on the sill itself was almost completely non-existent, thanks to months of having press releases sellotaped on to it and ripped off again, the tape pulling flakes of white paint away to reveal sordid hints of its garish gray undercoat.
In front of me sat the desk, littered with promo CDs which I pushed aside now as I sat down and buried my face in my hands. Beyond the CDs were dirty cups and tea-stained to-do lists that I almost never stuck to, and a framed picture of Nancy that I now lay down flat in front of a computer screen raised a good six inches from the table by a stack of old vinyls my Mum’s boyfriend had sent me away with. Next to this, lay a portable CD player, several pairs of headphones which hardly worked, dead batteries and a telephone which was the most depressingly dirty shade of white imaginable.
Beyond it, past Zara’s much more organised desk and a stack of brown filing cabinets plonked with abandon in the middle the room, I had a pretty good view of the kitchen from where Zara herself now emerged, carrying two cups of her superb tea.
“You look like shit, mate,” she said as she plonked one down next to me and sat down.
Usually, I hated it when girls called me mate, it just didn’t seem right. It was as though you were either being politely warned that they didn’t find you in anyway attractive and that you shouldn’t even try to come on to them, or that they did fancy you, but didn’t want you to know about it, neither of which were particularly helpful hints.
It was different with Zara though. She called me mate for no reason other than that’s what we were, mates. That word coming from Zara suited her perfectly since, despite her somewhat fragile appearance, her pale skin, acute hips and her soft, small face, she was a fiercely tough girl who took no shit from anyone and at once had both the defiant air of a punk rock rebel and a genuine concern and consideration for those she cared about.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I lied.
“Well, Nancy left me at the weekend, but apart from that.”
“Aw, that sucks, mate. What happened?”
“I’m still trying to suss that out for myself. Something about me being a loser who will never amount to anything and her wanting nothing more to do with some fat, drunken idiot who will only drag her down and halt her plan for world domination.”
“Stupid cow. Want me to knock her block off?”
I wasn’t sure if she was serious or not. I never was when Zara talked like that, and usually found it best just to let out a nervous laugh.
“Nah, probably just best if I gave her some space for now.”
“If you say so. So, what’s on today, partner?”
“Got an interview to do later, some guy who’s starting up a new club night.”
“So, in other words you’re off to the pub for the afternoon?”
I was, but not for the entire afternoon, and certainly not for the reasons I usually went to the pub. I always tried to conduct interviews either in The Robin Hood or at Dirty Frank’s, mainly because I felt most comfortable hitting strangers with a barrage of questions when we were both armed with a drink and I was in familiar surroundings, but also because, Dirty Frank’s eponymous proprietor, who wasn’t dirty in the slightest but enjoyed the sexually debauched reputation that such a name afforded him, would often provide me with free drinks in exchange for talking up his band nights in the paper.
No matter how many times I went there, walking into Dirty Frank’s was always an exciting experience. You took a quick turn round a sharp corner and found yourself bolting down a steep flight of steel steps with the light of day folding in behind you and a blurry red lamps guiding your path to the bar.
Once inside, especially if you went down at lunchtime as I did now, you could normally find Frank sat at the edge of the bar, head buried in the paper, flicking ash from a rolled up cigarette, wearing some combination of denim and leather and with thick, orange hair like waves of fire atop his head, dancing towards a little luciferian beard.
Some ‘70s prog-rock band would be playing in the background and Frank would be drumming out a rhythm on the bar with his free hand before noticing you and leaping to attention behind the bar.
“Now then, Jacko, how the devil are you, lad? What can I do you for?” He would always ask, as though he hadn’t seen me in years and would do anything to make amends for such absence.
Then, like I did now, I would ask for a pint, he’d tell me it was on the house and ask me to come and review a band later that week.
“Anything for you, Frank. What’s the band?”
“They’re an Irish punk group. Ginger Mahone they’re called. You heard of ‘em?”
“Never, but I’ll get on to it anyway.”
I chewed the fat with Frank for several minutes until I was approached by a short, stubby looking lad, no older than me, who wore dark skater jeans and a hooded top, and whose buoyant enthusiasm manifested itself in his rosey red cheeks.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for Jack Conner,” he said in a light voice that seemed totally ill-suited to his robust body.
“That would be me,” I replied, extending my hand.
The lad introduced himself as Eddie, the guy I’d come to interview, and he followed me to the back of the room where we took a seat beneath a large poster advertising a Grateful Dead gig that had taken place twenty years ago in some town in America Frank had probably never been to.
We got ourselves comfortable and made small talk as I set up my Dictaphone and pulled out a notepad, then we got down to business.
“So, Twisted Star Promotions then. You guys are fairly new on the scene here in Ellington, who’s involved exactly?”
“Well, not many of us. There’s just me, Eric, Eric’s sister who does the typing and…”
His words drifted off into the back of my mind as I became distracted by a tall, suited figure sloping towards the bar. I blinked hard and snapped back to attention.
“I’m sorry, typing?”
“Yeah, you know, sending e-mails and writing letters and….”
But he’d lost me again. What on earth was Ben doing here? Out of all of us, he was the one who drank the least, and he certainly wasn’t prone to turning up at a bar on his lonesome for a liquid lunch.
He looked sad, or at least the back of him did, as he slouched into a bar stool and ordered a large whiskey.
“Jack?” said Eddie, bringing me back to the task at hand.
“Sorry mate, next question. What bands have you booked?
“You know Bimbo on Board? They’re getting pretty big, they’re our first band. You should come down and do a review”
I had stopped listening, and instead concentrated on staring at Ben, feeling overwhelmed with concern for him.
I spent most of the interview like this. I’d done enough of these things in my time to be able to breeze through an interview on autopilot, firing off questions and ignoring the answers whilst still keeping an ear out for my cue to speak again and just praying for the whole thing to be over quickly.
When it was, we both stood up and shook hands. Eddie reminded me about the Bimbo on Board gig before he disappeared up the steps towards daylight and I hurriedly threw everything into my satchel bag then made for the bar.
“I saw you, but I didn’t want to interrupt,” said Ben quietly as I took up a seat beside him.
“No worries – pint please, Frank – so, what you doing here anyway, mate? Not like you to be out boozing on your own.”
“I had my interview with Fensworth this morning,”
“Oh yeah, how did that go?”
I’d already come to my own conclusion on that one, but I figured it wouldn’t be very nice to let him know that.
“Didn’t get it, did I? Bunch of bastards.”
“Home come, what did he say?”
“Same shit excuse about me not having enough experience. Christ, Jack –sorry, another whiskey please, Frank – I know I’ve said this before, but I’m stuck in a frigging vicious cycle here. Can’t get a job because I’ve no experience, can’t get the damn experience because I can’t get a job. What am I supposed to do?”
“Maybe get a shit job to start with? Work your way up? Offer to work for free to get the experience,” I suggested, not being very helpful.
“But why? That’s not what I, or my Mum and Dad at least, spent thousands of pounds on sending me to University for is it, Jacko? I always thought the whole point of Uni was so you could bypass all that shit, so that life would be easier for you in the long run. What’s the point in getting a degree if all you’re qualified for is to make burgers?”
We’d all heard this self-pitying rant many times before, but since Ben didn’t usually complain about all that much, we always let it slip, even if I didn’t really want to right now.
“I tell you what, I’m giving up. With you as my witness Jack, I’m giving up. I’m just gonna sit on my arse getting fat and bladdered and complaining about foreigners stealing our jobs like half the blokes on our estate.”
I’d never heard that one before. I sighed, what do you say to something like that?
“Look mate, we’re going to this gig at Club Ten tonight yeah? Why don’t you go home for a bit, chill out, meet us back here at half seven? We’ll go out, get sloshed and forget all about Fensworth,” I said, trying to be as sympathetic as I could and trying not to let him know that I really had enough problems of my own without worrying about a manically depressed University graduate.
“Yeah,” he smiled, “That sounds good.”
I threw the rest of my beer down my throat and felt a mushroom cloud of gass exploding in my stomach then I bid Ben farewell and descended out of the tunnel of darkness that was Dirty Frank’s steel stairway, shielding my eyes from a piercing sunlight that attacked me like a sniper as I broke into daylight and headed back to work.
Returning to Victoria House, I caught sight of the scuffed and ripped tails of Zara’s jeans dragging up the spiral staircase and chased after her.
Worrying about Paul so much as I had been, my own problems with Nancy seemed to have slipped to the back of mind, and I suddenly felt overwhelmed by an urge to make everyone else around me happy.
“Alright Zara?” I beamed as I caught up to her on the staircase.
She let out a long, emphatic sigh and cocked her closed lips to the side.
“What’s up? You were buzzing this morning.”
“Just been trying to sort out a mortgage with Jonathan,” she explained. “It didn’t go well. You know Jack, I’m at that point in my life now where all I want to do is settle down with my fiance in my own house, but oh no. We need to save a deposit of about twenty grand before they’ll even think about considering giving us any money. Twenty grand! It’ll take us years to save that.”
I didn’t quite know what I was supposed to say to make her feel better, so instead gave her the briefest of hugs and offered to make her a cup of tea, a tactic that had often worked with Nancy when I didn’t know how to calm her down either.
I spent the rest of that afternoon in a daze, writing up a feature based on that morning’s interview without much enthusiasm, before doing my research on Ginger Mahone and knocking up some copy.
Usually, I’d approach such tasks with aplomb; labouring over every word and trying hard to come up with my latest, greatest turn of phrase. Instead, as the post-lunch slump set in and my body and brain surrendered to fatigue, I ignored my impulses to fight it and rode a breeze of emotional tiredness all the way to home time; switching off any desire to think about anything.
I arrived home that night with plenty of time to do nothing, to simply sit and take a moment to myself before heading back out, but I decided against doing so. Everything about the house, from the crack in wall above the fireplace that I’d been promising to plaster over for weeks to the pristine China dishes, a present from her mother that were displayed proudly in a cabinet in the kitchen but which we were never allowed to use, reminded me of Nancy. And besides, a faint smell of vomit still hung in the air.
So instead of idling around, I showed, changed, ate and headed out to The Robin Hood, hoping to grab a quiet pint by myself before the night began.
It was still early in the evening, and the city centre had that immediate air of a post 9-5 desert about it as I strode across, my only companions a few smart looking blokes in suits who’d been working late and several ASBO kids trying to destroy a telephone box.
By now, I guessed, everyone was either at home revelling in domestic bliss, or in the pub trying to avoid exactly that.
I knew which one I preferred. I also knew that I was very much looking forward to enjoying that quiet pint, maybe confiding in Suzy about how drained I felt and escaping the haunting memories of the house, the hassle of the office and the nagging needs of the Gang of Five.
So, understandably I thought, I was somewhat disappointed when on entering the Robin’ the first thing I saw was not the army of college students laughing and joking in the corner as they toked on rolled up cigarettes, nor the bulky, tattooed builders unwinding after a hard-day’s graft, but Ben.
The stupid swine hadn’t gone home. He’d left Dirty Frank’s and made his way here, drinking all afternoon. I wasn’t entirely sure of this at first of course, but as I made my way over to him, three things strongly suggested that I was right.
He’d removed his tie and jacket, rolled up the sleeves and undone the top buttons of his crumpled shirt, changing his uniform from one belonging to a fresh young upstart to that of a professional piss artist at the end of a double shift.
He was talking to people, pestering them almost. Ben wasn’t necessarily a shy bloke, he packed enough confidence to get about in life and never had any problems engaging with those who he knew, but he had always been the type to keep himself pretty much to himself and only speak when spoken to when in the company of strangers.
And then there was the way he smelt. The closer I got to him, the stronger the dry stench of whiskey and beer on his breath and the smell of stale smoke on his clothes became.
“Ben, did I not tell you to go home for a bit?” I asked, immediately asking myself as to why I suddenly had the authority to tell him what to do.
“Yeah, sorry Jacko. I did mean to go home and get changed, but it was like, I finished my drunk, then I had one for the road, then I was passing this place anyway, so I thought, stop in and have one for the next road. You know Jacko, there are quiet a few roads on the way home.”
“I know mate, but when they say ‘one for the road’, that doesn’t mean you have to have one drink for every street, you know?”
“Oh yeah, I know, but anyway, I was here, yeah, in The Robin Hood, and I got talking to this bloke, nice fella he was too, but then he left, so I just carried on talking to this other guy instead. I was like, you know, I was like Tom Cruise in that film.”
It was weird, Ben didn’t really sound all that drunk, but he clearly was, and he certainly wasn’t making any sense.
“The one with the shrimp.”
“Yeah, you know, where he’s sat on that bench all day talking to strangers about his shrimp boats and his Jenny. What’s that called again? Forest Grumps?”
“Thanks? What for?”
“No, knobhead. Tom Hanks. He was in Forrest Gump. Not Tom Cruise.”
“Oh right, yeah, ha ha!”
Ben started to laugh loudly and had no intention of stopping. He laughed hysterically to himself as I took out a cigarette, almost cried as I ordered, and then drank a good portion of my pint, giggled to himself whilst I was engaged in conversation with Suzy and was still chuckling away when Rob and Jonesy arrived a few minutes later.
“What’s up with him?” asked Jonesy as we all stood and watched Paul giggle like a mischievous school child.
“Tom Cruise,” I said with an air of despair in my voice.
“What’s so funny about Tom Cruise?”
“He’s a shrimp!” cried Ben, and promptly burst into hysterics again.
“Christ, Jack. Has he been snorting something?”
“No, he’s just bladdered.”
“But it’s not even seven yet.”
“I know, but this drunken fool has been out on the lash since lunch time after his job interview.”
“Fucking hell. Celebrating or commiserating, Ben?”
“I’m comisheraty!” Ben yelled, punching in the air in triumph. “No wait! I am celibate, celebrating, that’s the one. I’m celebrating! That fat flubber Fensworth doesn’t want me? Sod him! I’m gonna start a new life as a bum, raking in the Dole money and blowing it on booze!”
Rob gave Ben a look that was part shame, part pity, and ordered three pints of larger and a glass of water for Ben, hoping to sober him up.
It didn’t, not completely anyway, but the glass of water did dilute his sense of excitement, and as we finished up at The Robin’ and headed towards Club Ten, he reverted back to his usual self, staring into the sky and flicking lighter on and off aimlessly.
Chapters two and three of ‘Wasted’ will be published on my Tumblr blog in late-July.