Chapter 9 – Chasing Annihilation
A few days after quitting Elixium, Tom took a black cab to the church for his dad’s funeral. The vehicle weaved through the morning deluge, passing the multi-coloured terraced houses on the hills of Totterdown.
He’d overslept and arrived at the church late, his head throbbing with a hangover. He’d been drowning his sorrows most nights, wishing he’d managed to escape Elixium and meet Isla at the train station. He wondered if he’d ever see her again.
As he rushed through the church’s wrought-iron gates, he could hear the priest delivering a sermon. The church doors swung shut behind him with a bang, and several heads in the congregation turned to glare at him. He lingered at the back, where Dave waited—rigid and pale. This would be his friend’s first visit to a church since he left Northern Ireland.
After the service ended, Tom met his Aunt Miriam and older brother Russell, who’d travelled up with his family from Brighton. They walked to the cemetery adjoining the church and assembled around an open grave, black umbrellas protecting them from the rain.
“I chose granite for the headstone with gold lettering,” boasted Russell.
“And the casket?” Tom asked.
“Um... It’s pine.”
“Surprised you didn’t knock one up out of plywood yourself, Russ.” Russell had built a security camera company from scratch, but was notoriously tight-fisted. He contributed nothing to his dad’s care costs and never visited or called the nursing home.
“Thomas!” exclaimed Aunt Miriam, who was now in her eighties and a widow of nearly thirty years. She still had the same kind, sad eyes he remembered from his childhood. “I’m sure it’s lovely. You must let me contribute something. Funerals are so expensive.”
“I won’t hear of it,” said Russell, holding up his hand. “I’m always happy to help. Besides, I’ve just landed a government contract,” he told Aunt Miriam. “Business is booming.”
Under John Major and now Tony Blair, millions were being spent on CCTV. Tom gritted his teeth as Russ gushed about face identification and cameras that can read number plates.
“Nineteen-Eighty Four was not supposed to be an instruction manual, Russ.”
Russell looked at him askance. “And what are you doing these days, little brother? Have you finally been promoted?”
“I’m between jobs at the moment. I wasn’t fulfilling my potential at Elixium.”
Russell rolled his eyes.
They fell silent and bowed their heads as the coffin was lowered into the ground. As the priest read the last rites, a noisy funeral procession entered the cemetery, drowning out his voice. A lavish display of irises, delphinium and carnations wobbled on the roof of a slow moving hearse, which carried a gold sarcophagus. Next came uniformed officers on white horses and Scotsmen in kilts playing bagpipes. The rain thinned, and the sun broke through the clouds as they marched in line. After a fleet of black limousines, mourners poured into the cemetery on foot, some of whom Tom recognised from Elixium.
Russell grimaced. “What the—”
Tom spotted Reuben Fenwick in one of the vehicles, dressed in a black suit with a navy turtleneck underneath and black sunglasses. He guessed Reuben’s father had died, recalling him saying that his father was ill during their altercation. Although Reuben’s presence annoyed him at first, he consoled himself by acknowledging that death was the great leveller. For all the extravagant displays of grief, Watson Fenwick, CEO of Elixium Pharmaceuticals, would be buried in the same dirt as a pauper.
Tom buried his own sorrow for a later occasion, beneath the mental clutter of his mind. These rituals were supposed to help a person process their loss, but a few empty words and scattering dirt on a cheap pine casket did nothing for him. One day he’d have to grieve his father, and his mother too who died of cancer several years ago. But for now, he closed his eyes and blocked everything out: Dave patting him on the back in consolation, his aunt sobbing quietly, his sister-in-law fussing over the flowers. He embraced numbness and closed his eyes.
The official wake didn’t last long. Tom had a quick tipple with Dave and his aunt, but Russell said he needed to begin the long drive back to Brighton. Tom offered his hand to his brother, but he did not take it. The jibe about the casket obviously hadn’t landed well.
After they’d left, Dave invited Tom to continue the wake at his house off St. Werburghs’ Road. When they reached the house, techno was blasting out across the street.
Dave patted down his pockets. “I think I forgot my key.”
The doorbell was no use with the brutal Berlin techno pulsing through the house from Snout-Nose Steve’s bedroom, so they threw gravel at his window.
Five minutes later, Snout-Nose Steve let them in. He wore a rainbow tie-dyed t-shirt and nothing else, not even underwear. Steve looked petrified and could hardly speak. Eventually he told them he’d been lost inside a K-hole for ten billion years, albeit compressed into ten earth minutes.
“Nothing is real,” he said and started mumbling about the constructed nature of reality and about when he smoked DMT at a festival and saw ‘machine elves’—little creatures made of copper that lurked between dimensions.
Dave shielded his eyes. “Put some clothes on, you feckin’ gobshite!” He brushed past him and into the kitchen. “There’re coffee beans everywhere, Steve! And why’s the hob still on?”
“Hobstilon,” repeated Snout-Nose Steve. “Machine elves from the planet Hobstilon.” He clutched his stomach. “Oh shit. I’m gonna be sick.”
Snout-Nose Steve dived into the kitchen and Dave closed the door behind him, not wishing to watch him puke over the dirty pots in the sink. “You better clean that up, Steve,” he shouted over the retching sounds.
Tom followed Dave upstairs and into Snout-Nose Steve’s bedroom, where they perched at the end of his bed. The room, the largest in the house, was lit by a green lava lamp, with turntables crammed on an office desk and vinyl records everywhere.
Tom knocked back a beer he’d bought at the corner shop, the sour taste refreshing on his tongue. Steve’s druggy behaviour disgusted him, but he ached for oblivion. He swigged his beer, almost half the can in one go. I need something stronger. He checked Snout-Nose Steve’s bedside cabinet. In the bottom drawer, covered by a lesbian porno, he found an unopened bottle of Buckfast tonic wine.
“Aha! This stuff is awesome. Blessed by Benedictine monks.”
“Go easy,” said Dave, snatching the bottle.
“Come on, man,” said Tom, reaching out. Dave had his best interests at heart, but the nagging grated on his nerves. Fuck temperance, I need to get wrecked. He couldn’t face the anguish he’d been storing up all day. Not tonight. Not right now.
Dave cradled the bottle in his arms tightly. “You’ve had enough already. Anyway, it’s not yours to drink.”
They exchanged frosty stares, but fortunately Snout-Nose Steve stumbled in. “That’s better,” he said, rubbing his guts and belching. “Oh good, you found the Buckie. I’ll fetch glasses.”
Dave handed the bottle to Snout-Nose Steve, and leaned back on the bed with folded arms. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you… again.”
Soon Tom was raising hell with Snout-Nose Steve, drinking and smoking roll-ups. In a sulk, Dave mixed jungle on the belt drive turntables, trying to mix in a tune he snagged a couple of weeks ago on dubplate.
“Davy boy,” said Steve, shaking his head at the clattering train wreck of beats. “You can’t mix for shit.”
“Better than you. Just wait until I get some 1210s.”
“Great tune though,” said Tom. “Turn it up.” Immerse me in noise.
“Dude, the neighbours,” protested Dave.
“Sod the neighbours,” said Tom. “This is a wake, right? So let’s wake the fucking dead!” He cranked the volume up as loud as it would go.
“Alright,” said Snout-Nose Steve in approval. Outnumbered, Dave donned the headphones and retreated from their excess.
“Where’s Hazeem?” Tom asked Snout-Nose Steve. “I want a pill.”
“He’s out dealing, but I got some MDMA. Up for a dab?”
Tom nodded. Raw, filthy amphetamine would hit the spot about now.
Snout-Nose Steve pulled out a small bag from his skinning up box and prodded Dave’s arm. “How about you, Davy boy?”
“Count me out,” he shouted over the booming bass. “I’ve got work in the morning.”
Tom smiled. “Sealing tuna cans? You can do that in your sleep.” Dave had been on edge all day at the funeral and sullen this evening, but his eyes flashed with suppressed temptation. He blatantly wants some, thought Tom. Snout-Nose Steve crushed some yellowish crystals using a credit card on the back of a CD case. He dabbed the powder on his gums and passed the drugs along.
Tom preferred to bomb MDMA. He wrapped some crystals in a cigarette paper, swallowed it with a mouthful of Buckfast and then made another bomb for Dave.
“Nah, better not,” said Dave.
“You’ve been drinking, anyway. A tiny whinny bit of Molly won’t make any difference.” Dave liked to put up these walls of resistance. Makes him feel better, because he can blame me for twisting his arm.
“I guess,” said Dave.
That’s it. Give in to destruction. “Anyway, It’s my Dad’s wake. It’d be rude not to.”
Dave frowned. “You sure you’re okay, Tom? This feels wrong.”
“It’s all fucking wrong.” And he already knew it wouldn’t relieve the pain, not at all. I’m not chasing happiness, I’m chasing annihilation—the chance to be non-sentient for a while. Why? Because unfiltered reality is too harsh; I need these magic substances to amend God’s flawed design.
Last night he’d roamed the city, thinking of Isla. The video rental store where he met her had closed down, and the council had already covered the street art she’d painted at the end of his road. Whited out with emulsion. Like his father, she’d been erased from the world too easily.
“Still feeling a bit wrong, myself,” confessed Steve. “Fackin’ strong that ket’. I’m gonna make us a bifta.”
“Good,” said Tom. The tune on the turntable was ending. “Dave, get back on the decks. Then we’re gonna have a boogie.”
With jungle pumping through the speakers and chemicals pulsing through their veins, they rocked out until the early morning, shadow-boxing invisible foes with their flailing limbs. As their eyes dilated, their movements became more erratic, but somehow perfectly synchronised to the beats and breaks.
Around four in the morning, they piled into the lounge, reclined on the itchy, flea-ridden sofas and smoked the last of their weed.
“It’s a real shame about your dad, Tom,” said Dave. “I’m always here if you wanna talk.”
“Thanks, man,” he mumbled, exhausted and nauseous. “Where’s that spliff?”
“It’s in your hand, dude.”
“Oh.” He couldn’t be bothered to light the thing, he was ready to crawl in the corner and die. He’d be feeling like this for days; after mongy Monday comes tearful Tuesday, woeful Wednesday and tense Thursday. Then back out clubbing on Friday, an endless cycle of decadence and despair. Images of his father’s body—decomposing in that cheap, flimsy casket—infiltrated his mind. He threw the hood of his hoodie over his head and pulled the cords tight.
“Oh fuck,” moaned Snout-Nose Steve. “I’m munted.”
They’d run out of MDMA and Hazeem was still out. Desperate to resurrect the party, Tom grabbed his coat from the chair, and searched the pockets until he found a small bottle—Metanox.
“Bet I can cheer you up,” said Tom, passing the bottle around.
Dave’s jaw slackened. “Where on earth did you get that?”
“It’s a long story.”
“You’re not going to…”
He meant to get rid of the drug. He hated the thought of taking a narcotic produced by Elixium, but now that he was coming down and feeling weary, adding Metanox to the mix seemed a viable option. “Why not?”
Dave flapped his hands, his face reddening. “You don’t know what that shit is. And there might be long-term effects.”
Snout-Nose Steve asked if it was good.
“Good? It was ace, man. I mean, the situation was kinda sketch, but the high was mega.”
Tom unscrewed the cap and moved it close to his face.
“I’ll never speak to you again if you take it,” threatened Dave. “I mean it.”
He’s bluffing, thought Tom. He squeezed a droplet on to his eyeball. “I’m getting rid of it later, I promise.”
Dave crossed his arms and huffed.
“Steve?” Tom passed the bottle to Snout-Nose Steve, but he did not take it. “Don’t listen to mother. He’s just being paranoid.”
Apprehensively, Snout-Nose Steve accepted the bottle.
They relaxed on the sofa, listening to Selected Ambient Works 85—92 by Aphex Twin. Tom fell silent as a gentle calmness soothed his mind and cleansed his body. Once again he merged into the sonic landscape, losing his body. It was beautiful and euphoric. He felt like a disembodied colour.
“Clouds,” Tom announced, as the track Ageispolis began. “I’m turning into a fluffy pink cloud.” Body evaporating into a massive nebulous structure floating in the sky. Free from everything.
This mystical feeling lasted until the sun peered through the curtains and Bristol’s shrieking seagulls assaulted his ears. Huddled on the sofa, Dave stirred from sleep and moaned. Tom smiled, at ease for the first time all day. Despite the exhaustion, Metanox lifted his mood and settled his thoughts. What a shame he couldn’t keep the drug. For a moment, he thought about holding on to it, but stopped himself.
No, Tom, you can’t keep stolen property from Elixium on your person. You need to flush the drug down the drain when you get home.
Noises in the flat disturbed his thoughts.
“Haz is back,” said Steve. “Let’s get some more weed.” He left the room.
“Ah shit,” said Dave. “I gotta get to work. How am I going to handle it?”
“Drink loads of coffee and you’ll be fine, man.”
Snout-Nose Steve suddenly poked his head around the door frame and grinned. His dread locks were so dirty they barely moved. “You two homos up for a bong?” He showed them a 9-bar of draw.
“Shit, where’s my keys?” asked Dave, rushing around the room. “Steve, have you seen them? I’m sure they were on the table.”
“No… I mean yes. Johnny threw them out the window. You’ll probably find them in the rose bush.”
“Who the feck is Johnny?”
“You know Johnny—long hair, hippy, Greenpeace activist, loves his horse tranquiliser.”
“That narrows it down, Steve.”
“Nah, you know Johnny. Met him at Global Gathering. Anyway, he came over earlier and we had a smoke and a little ket. It was all good until the last bump. That last bump was a killer. Felt meself melting into the chair, and I knew I was gonna go ketatonic—we’re talking super-massive K hole, man. The corners of the ceiling were turning inside-out. Johnny said, ‘Quick Ste, we gotta find the key for the K-hole.’ We crawled up the walls and on the ceiling. Our hands and feet were like magnets. The light bulb sucked us into another dimension and that’s where we found the key.”
“So why did you throw it out the window?”
“That’s a good question Davy boy, and I can see Johnny hanging out the window, but… uh, I honestly don’t remember why.”
While Dave rushed off to find his keys, Tom and Snout-Nose Steve took turns taking hits from the bong. The weed hit Tom’s brain, synergising with the Metanox, and for a few moments, Tom relived the cloud-like feeling. “The Metanox was good, right?”
“Couldn’t really tell,” said Steve. “I’m still ketamized. You mind if I try some more?”
“Um, maybe next time,” said Tom defensively. He grabbed his coat. “I’m gonna dip.”
Early Thursday morning, Tom wandered home through the city. The streets were deserted, save for a few early morning joggers; who glowered at him disapprovingly as they passed. I’m such a druggy, he realised, but instead of feeling ashamed, it pleased him. He could be whoever he wanted now.
As he turned the corner on to his road, his body quaked with a sudden flush of adrenaline. Reuben Fenwick’s Bentley Continental T was parked outside his house. When he reached closer, Reuben wound the window down and greeted him.
“Hello, Thomas.” He was still wearing the black suit and navy turtleneck from the funeral.
“Reuben? Have you been waiting there all night?”
“I rarely sleep more than two hours. Sleep is a waste of time. Anyhow, I felt I needed to clear the air. I see you’ve had a busy night.” Tom could only imagine how dishevelled he looked right now. “Now that tempers have cooled, I wanted to apologise for deceiving you. The management position at Elixium is still open, should you wish to reconsider?”
Tom shook his head. “Leaving has helped me realise I need to make my own way.”
“I’ve made my mind up.”
“Very well,” said Reuben. “I wish you the best of luck, Thomas.”
You took that too well, Reuben. What are you up to? Tom’s anxiety was further raised by the smirk which spread across Reuben’s face as he started the engine, although he had often suspected that Reuben was physically incapable of smiling warmly.
Back home, Tom stared out of the window at the sycamore trees lining the road. He couldn’t believe Reuben had camped outside his house all night. Wait. Did that actually happen? Did I hallucinate the whole encounter? He was so high he couldn’t tell anymore. Shit. I’m losing it.
He was shivering, so he went to bed, although he wasn’t sure he could sleep. The sheets felt soft and comforting and he wrapped himself in them tightly, trying to get warm. It was silent, but he could hear residual echoes of music in his mind. Beautiful sonic hallucinations. The trans-dimensional sounds of Venom Empire.
As his mind edged closer to sleep, he realised he’d forgotten to flush the Metanox. A shadow loomed on the wall. It appeared to ripple, as if the painted surface was bubbling. Gradually, the distortion resembled a face. It was Watson Fenwick, Reuben’s dead father. Liver spots dotted his bald dome and his brown eyes were bloodshot. His thick sideburns descended to form a bushy white moustache. His cheeks and bulbous nose were rosy with spider-veins from years of drinking fine wines.
The vision didn’t alarm Tom, in fact, it brought great comfort. Watson delivered a series of rather confusing lectures on Marxism, robotics and advanced molecular chemistry that lasted for nearly three hours straight. Although he understood very little, Tom listened intently, transfixed by Watson’s aged, rasping voice. He enthused about advanced synthetic chemicals and mind-control. Tom wrapped himself tightly in his duvet, hovering somewhere between wake and sleep.
Tom drifted into a dream world; a beautiful shoreline. The waves slid like silk over the rust-coloured sand and the sun was warm above him. He felt awash with calm, gazing out at the mirrored sheen of ocean and the white stratum of cloud above. He relished the sounds of the sea: the sizzle and fizz as the waves broke and the cool water met his bare feet. A man stood in the distance, silhouetted by the sun. As he grew closer, he realised it was his father. His heart melted in his chest.
“Dad? Is it really you?” He was just as he ought to be—silvery haired, but strong and rosy-cheeked. Nothing like the emaciated form he’d last seen at the nursing home.
“You!” his dad said, gritting his teeth. “What are you doing here?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“I moved heaven and earth to fix you a job at Elixium. And you had to screw it up, didn’t you? Get out of my sight.”
“But Dad, you don’t understand—”
“Go away,” shouted his father. “You’re no son of mine.”
He’s right. I messed everything up.
He stared down at his feet, words escaping him. A little girl with pigtails in her hair ran past him and smiled. The gap between her front teeth reminded him of Isla. She had a pair of wooden castanets in her hand and she skipped along the beach, dancing.
He wobbled and tried to steady himself, but the sand swallowed his feet. He fell into a vortex of silt, as if slipping through a giant hourglass. His body deconstructed, neurons frayed like cheap rags, his flesh ripped to shreds, cells exploding, DNA unravelling, atoms and particles pulled apart by the sheer force of the void.
He re-materialised in a black, alien world. Before him, the Grandmaster—he recognised the purple robes and the ram’s skull, except this time the skull was no mask. A snake, red and black, circled within each eye, hypnotising him. There was nothing else inside the skull, at least, nothing physical.
He heard Watson Fenwick’s voice. “You’re my son now.”
Tom felt something slithering against his skin. He held a hissing snake in his hands. Shocked, he dropped it as fast as he could, and then everything exploded. He could see Reuben Fenwick being devoured by the flames.
He winced—something inside his head was throbbing painfully. He palpated the back of his head and, covered with hair, he found an open wound. He plunged his fingers in, deep down into his own brain matter and found something inside. A small cylinder. He grimaced as he pulled it out and discovered it was a bottle of Metanox, covered in blood.
“I’ll be with you,” said the Grandmaster. “Forever.”
The bottle escaped his hands and rose above him. It suddenly smashed into his forehead and released a thousand butterflies of light which fluttered around him, every wing more golden than the sun.