I watch as the world passes by without me. From my perch atop the old Record Ridgway factory, I can see for miles across the city. The void is calling me. It’s the only one that ever does.
I’m just high enough to trigger that strange human urge to jump, but low enough to know that, unless I’m lucky, it would only leave me with broken bones. Cold stone and corrugated sheeting surround me, rust, broken glass and thick moss covering everything like a post-apocalyptic botanical garden of abandonment.
I sit on the concrete lip and admire the frescoes of graffiti that punctuate the 1930s architecture. Ninety odd years didn’t seem too long a time, all things considered, but the view from here has changed drastically in that time. So has the world. The men who had worked their trade in the factory below were long gone. My granddad had been one of them. The company was sold to an American firm, and all production moved to China. Sheffield Steel couldn’t hold a candle to Chinese slave labour apparently.
Despite the brooding figure that I may strike, I am no vigilante or prowler of the night. In fact, it’s eight in the morning on a cold Tuesday, and I’m hunched up in a little ball up here with a pounding headache after drinking a full bottle of Jack the night before. Why choose a derelict factory? Why not? I find it a good place to reflect. The factory, like me, is little more than a ghost. Why do I need to reflect? Personal failure, as per usual.
My manuscript had been rejected by every agent once again, and my healthy coping mechanism had of course been to resort to excessive levels of alcohol. I’m pretty sure that I’d decided to kill myself as the weight of my failure pulled me down into the dark depths of depression, but I’d got distracted at some point by drunken thoughts and ended up building a Lego house when I found an old box of the stuff while searching for a rope. Feeling groggy and strangely reflective, I’d wandered up to the factory when I woke and couldn’t fall back to sleep again. I always end up here when I need to think. Maybe I’m here to contemplate life. Maybe I’m here to end it.
Time always passes in erratic waves up here, as though the weathered stone is caught between two conflicting presents. Look down and the world is a hectic kaleidoscope of colours and movement as thousands of people go about their meaningless lives. Look up and all is a slow churn of blue, white and grey as clouds creep across the skyline, stretching and shifting their shapes subtly, almost unnoticeably.
As someone who spends far too much time staring at the clouds, and also as someone with what is often insultingly called a philosophical nature, you’d imagine that I’d wax lyrical about the sky. Many poets had. But then, at the end of the day, what even is the sky? A big old pile of nothing. I wandered lonely as a cloud… Ha! Sure. This is England. Every cloud and their mother are up there partying it up. A British cloud wouldn’t know loneliness if loneliness hijacked a plane and flew straight through it.
This mess of idle thoughts is pretty common. Welcome to my mind. Watch the low door frame as you enter and don’t bother wiping your feet as the place is a shithole already. To the right we have alcohol dependence, and down the corridor you’ll find self-deprecating humour and an empty room where I’m told the emotions should have been installed, but nobody ever got around to it. There are cracks in the walls big enough to slide your hand through, and the roof is held on by duct tape. It may not be much, but it’s where my thoughts call home.
“Now then, Quasimodo! Get down here before that ugly mug of yours puts some poor gargoyle out of the job.”
I sigh, consider ignoring the voice for a moment, then glance down. Corgi wouldn’t go away because of something as simple as me ignoring his very existence. This was a shame, since the cold terror of the void was usually better company than the pudgy excuse for a man that had invaded my sanctuary.
“That’s not what your mum was saying last night.”
“Really? Your mum jokes? I expected more wit from you. Has the drinking finally killed off your last brain cells? Anyway, my mum’s dead, so joke’s on you.”
“Decomposition produces a surprising amount of heat. A half rotted corpse provides more warmth than my last girlfriend, and the silence of the grave is a welcome change from the usual incessant chatter.”
“Cheery fucker, aren’t you?”
“You know you love me for it.”
“Someone’s got to. If I stop talking to you then nothing would stop you throwing yourself off there.”
“You’ve quite the ego. Who do you think drives me to come up here in the first place?”
I contemplate just how much of a bastard Corgi is as I edge myself from my perch and begin the short journey through the inner ruins of the once proud unit. The tools here had been world famous, the workers well respected, and now it was empty and half flooded, a heaven for street artists and urban explorers.
It doesn’t take long until I slip out of the factory and squeeze through a hole in the metal fence near where Corgi was waiting for me. We hate each other. It’s really the best foundation for a friendship you can have. It takes effort to hate, so it only makes sense to reserve it for people you can just about tolerate.
I take a final look at the shell of former industrial glory. You can almost see the shadows of the workers, ghosts of a dead age. I find them pleasant company. They don’t buy me drinks though, so I have to turn my attention to less favourable souls like Corgi and the lads.
We leave the factory and weave through streets until we reach the city centre. A fine drizzle is in the air, but that’s nothing surprising. The cold bites at me. It’s nice to feel something. As we walk, we trade small talk, mostly about video games. It’s all we ever really talk about. Most other topics spiral towards depression with surprising speed. Politics, the environment, relationships, careers, or aspirations, all of them are sensitive subjects these days.
The Bible-bashers are out in force today, their signs and stands filled with booklets cluttering the already cluttered pavement. One is set up next to a homeless man. They each ignore the other’s existence. I don’t really get it. I’m no God botherer, but my general understanding is that kindness and charity were the foundations of faith. Yet these guys stand around all day with their signs, oblivious to the real world suffering around them. Give food to the poor, raise money for the homeless, lobby for better education. Hell, fuck off abroad for some charity or other helping out developing nations. Do anything. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t do anything either. But unlike them, I don’t pretend to care.
Corgi grabs one of the booklets as we pass and leafs through it. He stops at every image of a woman and holds it up for me to see.
I consider the picture with the same scrutiny that a fine art dealer would examine a Da Vinci painting. “Passable. Good body. Weird eyes though.”
“Ooh, what about this one?”
“I’d nail that one like Christ on the cross.”
Corgi laughs then slings the booklet into a bin as we pass. With enough boredom, you turn everything into a game. The more bored you are, the shittier the game. Casual sexism roulette is an easy one. Devalue others because you don’t value yourself.
I cheer up a little as we reach our destination. Nothing quite warms the soul like a sign for a J.D. Wetherspoon. I pull open the door and bow theatrically to Corgi as I let him past. The pub is quiet this time of day. Huddled close to the bar are a handful of older men, mostly ex-labourers of one kind or another, who sit nursing pints of John Smiths. They show up every day at nine o’ clock on the dot when alcohol could be served, and stayed there for most of the day. This place was the closest to a home that they had, and it was a sight mirrored in every pub across the country.
Slightly further back than the pissheads are the old biddies sipping their fifth refillable coffee and gnawing at a slice of toast that they had started eating an hour ago. This was another universal constant.
A young girl is manning the bar. She looks slightly haggard. My expert eye knew a hangover when it saw one. Probably a student. The faces of the bar staff change every time I visit, though they all have a slightly worn quality to them. The key is to mix up which pubs you visit on a regular basis so none of them can get used to your destructive lifestyle and feel pity for you. Variety is the spice of life after all. That’s where the old pissheads went wrong. They became part of the furniture and the staff know exactly how sad their lives are. When your eventual funeral is made up of more Spoonies than actual family and friends, you know you fucked up somewhere.
“I’ll have a BBQ burger and a vodka tonic,” I tell her in a voice pitched low enough to ease her headache. Her eyes seem to thank me. It always pays to be nice, at least when it takes absolutely zero effort to do so.
“Dude, it’s twenty past nine in the morning,” Corgi says accusingly. His voice makes the girl wince. He has that effect on people.
“Yeah, you’re right. Make it a double.”
“Burger or vodka?”
“Double vodka tonic isn’t covered in the deal.”
“Better throw in a cider while you’re at it then please.”
She shrugs and taps away slowly on the screen. Corgi orders a large mixed grill, then we take our drinks and settle into a corner table as far from anyone else as possible. I quickly down the vodka then nurse the cider as we wait for the food.
“So how’s the writing going?” Corgi asks me.
“Well, I’m sat in a Wetherspoons drinking before ten. My spirits are clearly high.”
“Nobody liked your story then?”
“Fuck if I know. That knowledge requires communication. What I get is the cold silence of jack shit. But hey, it was only two years’ hard work. No real loss, right?”
“I don’t know why you keep trying. You clearly aren’t very good at it.”
I’m torn between dry sarcasm and trying to defend myself. I could explain that agents receive hundreds of submissions every week but only accept a handful of clients each year, but that sounds like an excuse even as I think of the words. I’m not sure I even believe it either. Maybe I am just not good enough. That would be more fitting with my usual MO. Sarcasm it is then.
“Nah. You see, the industry sells to the market. Not real people. Anyway, tell me again how your apprenticeship went. You know, the one that would guarantee you a job for life? Oh, that’s right! You did unskilled grunt labour for pennies, then got let go the second they’d have to start paying you minimum wage.”
“Point taken.” Corgi looks deflated, and I almost feel sorry for him, but then the food arrives and his emotions instantly bounce skyward at the sight of the plateful of meat. He tucks into the meal and I have to respect his ability to devour steak without wasting time on such menial things as chewing.
I return to the bar a few times and start to reach that perfect state where time ceases to have meaning. It’s only when a shadow passes over me that I really look up from my latest drink.
Three men of varying shades of ugliness are standing over us. In generous terms, they are what could loosely be described as the rest of ‘The Lads’. Tink is a tall fellow with that wide kind of build that isn’t fat or muscular, just kind of there. Larry is scrawny with a shaved head and a sense of fashion that screamed neo Nazi, even though he is soft as a brush and listens to shitty teen pop, while Toto is black skinned with dreadlocks and an ever present smile.
“Are you boys ready for tonight?” Larry asks, clapping his hands together.
“Yesh,” I answer. I may be drunk. Fuck if I know. A drunk guy should be the last person you trust to make a judgement call about anything.
Toto gathers up my empty glasses and shakes his head at me. He is still smiling. It’s vaguely unnerving.
“It isn’t eleven yet and you’ve had three doubles,” he tells me, as if I didn’t know that already.
“And a cider,” I add proudly. “You said we’d do pre-drinks.”
“Yes. An hour or so before we go out. At eleven. PM.”
“PM, AM, easy mistake to make. You’re still going to have a drink, right?”
Toto’s smile grows, showing off his pearly white teeth. “Of course. My round. Though, I think pints will do us for now.”
“Whatever you say, chief.”
I settle further into my seat as Tink and Larry join us around the table. Corgi chats with them about any old bollocks, but I’m not really listening. A war is raging inside my skull, the alcohol fueling both sides like the Americans in the early days of any conflict. On one hand I was drunk and surrounded by friends with a party on the horizon, on the other, I was drunk and fucking miserable. Part of me wanted to brood, the other part wanted to laugh. My body compromised by hiccuping then slamming my head onto the table.
“You have bad coping methods, my friend,” Toto tells me as he returns with the drinks. This doesn’t stop him from handing me my drink though. Toto is a good guy like that.
“We can’t all have your cheerful disposition,” I reply without raising my head. From my position on the table the words come out mumbled.
“We each hold the key to our own happiness.” Toto speaks the words with a calm assurance. The sentence holds warmth and confidence, enough to convince you that the world wasn’t really all that bad.
This time I do laugh. “All I seem to be holding is cheap alcohol, so maybe you’re right.”
“You are a clever man. Don’t beat yourself up. The world is all too eager to do it for you. Keep trying. All you need is a little luck, and luck is nine tenths probability. Try enough and you have to get lucky eventually.”
All I can do is shake my head and chuckle. Toto is that rare breed known as an optimist. To him, the glass was always half full, even if it was being smashed over his head. Not that anyone would dare to try that. He had an intimidating presence that was a odds to his nature, kind of like Larry, except Larry was as fearsome as a wet bit of bog roll, while I have no doubt that Toto really could fuck a man up. With him and Tink, we lesser mortals had a nice shield between us and any threats that our drunken antics might incur on any given night.
“I wish I had your optimism, mate. Maybe it’s easier to be happy when you’re a cheery bastard. I’m preconditioned to see the worst in everything. Frankly, I think you’re a naive idiot living in a dream world of rainbows and ignorance. But hey, you know what they say: Ignorance is bliss.”
“You are wrong,” Toto says, his eyes suddenly hardening in some undefinable way. “You take the easy path. To be negative is simple. It’s optimism that takes real strength. You call it naive, but to see pain and think you are powerless to make others’ lives better is what’s truly naive.”
We all stare at him wide-eyed. Even I find myself speechless, and that’s pretty damn uncommon. It’s Larry who finally speaks up after taking a large gulp of his hipster real ale.
“Bloody hell, you two. Without drawing the obvious race card, why’s it always have to be black and white? Middle of the road. That’s where most things live.”
“Why would anything live in the middle of the road?” I snap. “Bloody stupid place to live. You’d get hit by a fucking car, dickhead.”
Toto’s eyes soften again and he breaks into a booming laugh that instantly lifts the mood of the room. Well, our moods anyway. The crones scowled at him with that thinly veiled racism that English grannies have mastered.
Tink drains the last of his larger and stands up. Watching him stand was like watching a deckchair unfold.
“Right, lads! That’s me done. I have to pick up Tommy then run errands before getting ready. I’ll see you all tonight, yeah?”
“Yeah, yeah!” Corgi chips in, his metaphorical tail wagging excitedly. “A good party is just what we need. Some drinks and some pretty girls. It’ll help us all forget the shitshow that is our lives. It’s going to be great!”
I don’t even have the energy to stamp on his heart and tell him no women will spend a second in his company. The alcohol is hitting me hard now. I’d passed the equilibrium and was on the rough side of the curve. I try to stand but can’t.
“Agreed!” I nod. “I just need to cool off for a bit first. Anyone fancy carrying me home? It seems my legs have forgotten how to be legs.”
Tink and Toto exchange glances. Finally Tink shrugs. “Fine. Just don’t throw up down my collar again.”