Gonna Be a Poet by Tom Vowler

Between hits we hang out at the beach, perched naked on salt-rimed stanchions, cocking a leg high like we’re the Karate Kid, before tumbling into the waves’ icy maw, where we bawl so hard even the gulls are offended. February 2019, a shithole town in northern England, where dying industry still spews toxic clouds out over wind turbines that loiter in cliques, some refusing to pivot, as if from ennui. We should swim out, graffiti them so they’re all beautiful, Billy says, and it’s hard to disagree.

Freezing water, we know, can rival cocaine for its dopamine spike, and we stay submerged until our cores begin to shut down, emerging skin-pinked like we’ve been ruined by the sun. We never remember towels, our clothes tasked with the drying of bodies, clinging to us like needy children.

There are worse places to live, and presumably better ones; you just needed to self-medicate a little, as the sea only resides in your marrow so long. I look back at the abandoned fairground, remember a time when such thrills were enough, rides that roiled and disembowelled you, night air replete with candyfloss and menace. The few dog-walkers to brave the livid easterly regard us with suspicion or disgust, this pair of feral ocean-dwellers.

Surely post’ll be at yours now, Billy says. He’s probably right, but I convince him to linger a while on the sand, postpone the disassociation that will consume us for the rest of the day.

We’d stumbled across legal highs last year at a party across town. Synthesized in India or China, they mimicked classic substances – MDMA, ketamine, acid – their structures customized by chemists to get round the laws. Alpha-numeric conjunctions that sounded futuristic: 5-APB, 3-MMC, AM-2233. When one was banned, a new one was designed, sold as a research chemical and glibly labelled Not for Human Consumption. We’d purchase a gram online, snort or shoot it into a vein, then 20 or 30 grams if the effect was auspicious enough. It was like ordering pizza.

Billy carves druidic symbols in the sand with a piece of driftwood, then stands and hollers at the gulls, We’re psychonauts, we’re friggin’ pioneers, before collapsing on me in a ball, laughing or sobbing, I can’t tell. I soothe him, the pair of us shivering in an impulsive rattle and I know we need warmth soon.

It’s not the track marks I picture on my friend’s arms, but the mosaic of bruises adorning them, limbs psychedelic with color, a father respected in the town but who sheds his layers of mercy after a few drinks.

You still gonna be a poet? Billy says and I borrow the words, flagellate myself with them in a silent mantra.

Although it’s never uttered, I know one day we’ll return some of that hurt to his father, a quiet and private reckoning. But for now, I haul my friend up and we lurch back to my flat, where hot baths and a parcel of alpha-numerics await us.

Tom Vowler is an award-winning novelist and short story writer living in south-west England. An Arvon tutor with a PhD in creative writing, his latest novel, Every Seventh Wave, is set on the north Cornish coast. More at www.tomvowler.co.uk and @tom_vowler.

Winter beach
Photo by Joe Byrnes on Unsplash
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