Running on empty


Image by Al Allday

Some artist he’d turned out to be. Matt had woken shortly before noon, craving a drink, as usual, but of course he didn’t keep any in the house. No booze, no pills, no coke, no weed. Just him sitting alone in the country cottage, watching the calendar, counting down the days.

He supposed at least the snow was melting. The estate he was staying on, the estate he’d been living on for over a year now, had been completely snowed in by the fierce winter and not even his dilapidated old Range Rover was able to traverse the narrow winding path that led into the village. He was glad because he was fast running out of cigarettes. Like all addicts, like all recovering addicts, he had come to understand his obsession with excess. He smoked nowadays, not one or two here or there, but thirty or forty a day, lighting one off the other and watching them slowly burn down, imagining they were the sands of time.

It had been over a year since he came here. Not a lot had happened. Of course, everything had happened. Just not to him. His father, caught up in the expenses scandal, was due to stand down at the next election and, he supposed, now that it didn’t really matter, the heat was off. He could leave, although he didn’t really have anywhere to go. Mia, he’d heard, was now married — to some rich banker. And she’d started using her title again. Contessa. Who’d have thought it? Sara was on television, one more reason to avoid it, and he hadn’t heard a word from Miranda, or anyone else from those days, since he left rehab in the clothes he’d arrived in and been driven to this desolate place and told to wait.

He was going to chance a drive into the village. He’d run the Range Rover every day in the snow, even if it couldn’t go anywhere, just to keep the engine turning. Matt grabbed his fake plastic Wayfarers and put them on — not the most cunning of disguises, but then again he’d started to dye his hair darker and slick it back, and he didn’t suppose anyone would really be looking for him in the depths of Surrey anyway. No reporters, no gangsters, no angry dealers looking to collect on his debts. He was, to all intents and purposes, a non-person. Lost in time.

The car started. First try. Matt rolled down the hill, past the white fields, through slush that had melted, making the roads passable again. The village seemed full of life. Sure, there were only two or three hundred people, and it seemed to him at one time there could be no more than two or three. But compared to the last two weeks spent sitting alone, this felt like heaven. He almost — but not quite — managed a smile. A queue at the village shop. He waited patiently. He had all the time in the world.

Restocked with Camels he wondered what to do. Life had at least had a little purpose when he was still going to NA meetings (the reason his father had allowed him the car) but they started to talk to him about God and he wasn’t having any of that. It was the final indignity. He’d rather trudge through the wilderness alone than get caught up in some goddamn cult. If they’d been more upfront at the treatment centre about exactly what “recovery” entailed he would have just done himself in there and then. As it was, he ended up getting better, but only a little better.

Deep down inside Matt was a broken man. He wasn’t an artist. He’d tried.

It was infuriating. His watercolours had no consistency and his oil paintings were just smudges of grease. Worse still, everything he sketched seemed flat, and dull, and lifeless. His drawings seemed to lack perspective and that, he supposed, was the problem with his entire life. He was a survivor, he’d been through the calamity. But now he found himself lost and utterly unable to find anything to do. At his father’s request he’d put in for law school next year, but that was a long way away. He had months and months to kill before he’d be allowed to return to civilisation. There weren’t even any girls. The village had two bars, which he avoided, and a small, grubby canteen. It was there that Matt headed, parking the enormous Range Rover outside.

He looked at the sandwich counter with a morbid sense of gloom and instead ordered a fried breakfast. He wouldn’t eat it, he rarely ate (the cigarettes, he supposed), but it would at least afford him some novel way of passing the time, of watching people from the window, perhaps sharing a word or two with the other diners about the daily news. Taking his sugary tea from the waitress he sat down with the day’s paper and began to flick through it. It felt like a dispatch from another world.

Foie gras and the veal, please. He found himself drifting away into a dream world, a world of expensive restaurants and beautiful girls on his shoulder, a world of late nights and bright lights and parties and cocaine and people, friends, people. But he was all alone.

The waitress set a steaming pile of grease down at his table, bringing him back to earth.
‘Are you alright, love?’ she asked. ‘You look ever so peaky.’

Matt had never looked in the best of health, but now with his dark hair his pallid complexion seemed even more apparent, and the doctors told him it’d be a long time before he’d be well enough to eat, to put on any real weight. For now his body ran simply on sugar, cigarettes, and a dour refusal to lay down and die. Consequently his gaunt appearance had continued its steady decline and now, his clothes two sizes too big for him, black bags permanently hovering beneath his eyes, every time he caught sight of himself in the mirror he could only think of Andros, his dead friend, his brother, his foil — the one who had to die before he could see the light.

Matt’s lifestyle had led him close to death. The doctors said he was very lucky, his heart had atrophied and his liver was ready to give up the game. Rehab. They’d made him feel bad about himself and he carried on feeling it almost out of obligation. His liver was getting better. But they could do nothing for his heart.

‘I’m fine,’ he said, finally. Adding: ‘thanks.’

At least Matt’s manners were finally improving. Now he had to rely on people’s kindness, rather than simply paying them a bribe. He could barely afford the breakfast, let alone find the money to leave a tip.

‘Never could understand what a nice boy like you is doing out here on your own,’ the elderly lady said. ‘Every week you come in here. And it’s always the same. Head shrouded in gloom.’

‘I used to be someone,’ started Matt. He faltered. ‘At least, I think.’

The woman nodded. ‘Thought I’d seen you on the telly.’

Matt shook his head. ‘You’ve got me confused with someone else.’

People often thought he was an actor for some reason.

‘I was a…’

Again he trailed off.

‘Never you mind, dear,’ the woman said, ‘it’ll all work out in the end.’

‘Maybe,’ said Matt. He was twenty five.

He stared down at the food on his plate. This was life. This was survival.

This was the end.

Trivial Blake

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