Ben Brooks is a 21-year-old Englishman who, during a recent tour with Tao Lin, was named One of the Best Young Writers in the World by our global editor, Andy Capper, who, as his title implies, knows a lot about the world. When Andy asked Ben for a piece of fiction, he sent this story, which Ben claims is 100 percent true. But we are of the "it's fiction if the writer says it's fiction" school. That is, we are of the "most writers who write about themselves just lie about it, and claim they made it up in their big brains" school. We also asked Ben to write a bio and he sent us this: "Ben Brooks was born in Gloucestershire, which is in the United Kingdom, in 1992. He is the author of Fences, An Island of Fifty, The Kasahara School of Nihilism, Grow Up, and Lolito. He was long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize and some other things and he has had like three girlfriends and other stuff."
I’m 18 and hiding from school. Ellen is 42 and in an office. She moved to London three years ago. She’s from Portugal. Her job is writing computer code. Her husband is in jail.
“Why is he in jail?” I type.
“Oh, me too.”
“What? How old are you?”
Ellen writes about wanting to sit on the faces of the men she sees on public transport. She writes about wanting to be choked, and demeaned, and elbowed in the eyes. She says that her dad was calm and quiet, and that after he sat in them, chairs smelled of pine needles.
We spend afternoons writing emails and evenings on instant messenger. Ellen talks about her colleagues and her boss and how she feels. I invent several girls and a web of anxieties to go with each of them. It doesn’t matter. We talk to be listened to.
When we start to trust each other, we admit our actual ages and exchange genuine pictures. Nothing changes. School ends. She’s promoted.
She reads my first books and says that she likes them more than other books. Each one sells under a hundred copies. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want a job and I don’t want university debt. I’m not getting taller. I can’t grow a beard.
“Why don’t you move here?” she says. “There’s space. There’s too much space.”
“I don’t have any money," I say. "I don’t have a job. I wrote a CV, but I didn’t know what to put so I just put ‘Wall Street.’”
“You don’t have to pay rent. I can buy drinks. You’ll have an Oyster card that tops up from my bank account.”
“It’s better than being alone.”
I close the computer, pile clothes and books into a suitcase, and drink until I’m asleep.
On our first night, we take cocaine, drink Captain Morgan, and talk about hypothetical futures. She wants the Mediterranean. I want to live in Alaska.
After we have sex for the first time, she puts her cheek on my chest and whispers that I’m talented.
“Oh,” I say.
Something: on cocaine, I can get it up but nothing ever comes out. Same with Fluoxetine. My record for any other time is three and one quarter minutes.
“We can do this every day,” she says.
She begins to snore. Has this ever worked? This has almost definitely never worked. I press my thumb into the hollow of her cheek.
For three months, every weekday happens the same way. She leaves for work before I’m awake. I wake up, and read and write until she gets back. When she does, we drink and watch American comedies on her computer, balled up under a bare duvet.
I’m in the armchair trying to write something long enough to excuse me from a job for at least two years. Ellen can’t be my mum indefinitely. Does she want to? It almost seems like she wants to.
“Come here,” she says. “Sit on me.”
Maybe she can be my mum forever. Maybe that’s OK. She’ll keep getting promoted and I’ll keep sleeping for 16 hour stretches.
“Write on my lap. Be affectionate. You’re never affectionate.”
I don’t move. She lights a cigarette, hikes up her skirt, and crushes it out into her thigh. The new ring joins four others, already green and flaking. They happen every time I refuse to sleep in her bed.
“You don’t love me,” she says.
“What?” I say. “What are you talking about?”
She raises her arms into fifth position, like a short, thick dancer. I look up from the computer screen, blinking. She’s unsteady.
“Wait,” I say. “I do.”
“I do. Loads.”
She tugs the laptop out of my hands and hurls it at the ground. It’s her laptop.
I grin dumbly and leave. I buy four Polish beers, drink them, and fall asleep behind a set of industrial bins, thinking of sealskins and the Ross Ice Shelf.
In the morning, before leaving for work, she tells me I’m allowed back into the house. When I get there, she’s gone. A note on the kitchen cupboard says there are turkey sandwiches waiting in the fridge.
I go through the house, finding a box of dildos, three wraps of cocaine, and two bottles of red wine. I sit in the center of the living room carpet and drink both bottles while watching YouTube videos of cute animals. Ellen comes home when I’m halfway through the second.
“Those were my bottles of wine,” she shouts. “Get out.”
It’s hot and I only have six pounds. The oyster card automatically tops up from her bank account. I catch a train to somewhere central and sit smoking and reading in a park, feeling somehow like my body is dissolving. Two men with fluttering hands ask me for Rizla. We talk about how healthy everyone looks and pinch the folds of our bellies. They pick up crack. We sing the national anthem at the back of a bus and try to crush cans against our foreheads, leaving marks that look like we’ve fallen asleep on coffee cups.
One laughs, and points out of the window. “He lives on Murder Mile,” he says. “We’re going to Murder Mile.”
The other one lands an elbow between his ribs. “Don’t scare him.”
“No,” I say. “It’s OK. I think it’s funny.”
Ellen calls in the morning. I’m on an unfamiliar laminated floor. There are no curtains and the room feels like it’s being lit by a perpetual camera flash. Moving hurts.
“Come back,” she says. “Are you OK? Where are you?”
“I don’t know.’ I sit up. “Oh, I’m on Murder Mile. Some people got murdered here. It seems fine.”
“Come back. Right now.”
I remember being thrown out by my real mum, age 16, and moving in with a lanky Indian drug dealer who played Fifa all day and practiced to YouTube body popping tutorials all night. I remember that my mum called me three weeks after she threw me out and cried and asked me to come back.
“You said I had to go.”
“And now you can come back.”
I remember that it happened once more that year, again when I was 17, and twice when I was 18.
The next night, I read an entire book out loud to Ellen while we sit at opposite ends of the bathtub, taking sporadic breaks for cocaine and cocktail making. I’m having rum screwdrivers. She’s having "everything."
“Just keep reading,” Ellen says. “Just keep reading and it won’t stop.” She sips from her pint glass. It contains three different spirits, two types of juice, and white wine. She’s calling it "The Ellenator."
“It will stop,” I say. “It has an end. There are like a hundred more pages.”
“Then we can read another one.”
“You can read another one. It’s six already. I’m taking an Alprazolam and going to sleep.”
“Lets do bumps. I don’t want to go to work tomorrow.”
I finish reading the book. My throat is sore. At the end, the main character decides to opt out of everything, and collapses on a bed of moss. I fall asleep almost immediately. Ellen arranges her legs on top of mine, mixes a new drink, and rereads the book until she has to leave for work.
Anne, a girl my age who I’ve known from the internet for four years, visits and sits next to me on the sofa. She says, “The Turner Prize isn’t fair.” She says that her boyfriend is a genius. She says he can speak six languages, including Russian and something invented by Tolkien. I listen. I wait.
We do sex on the sofa, underneath my parka.
Ellen comes home with plastic bags of wine and beers. She starts screaming. She hurls bottles and coins and keys.
Ellen locks herself in her bedroom. I picture her legs slowly disintegrating under the heat of cigarettes. I drink the surviving beers and fall asleep watching a documentary about Siberian prisons. That looks OK, I think. I could do that.
Anne calls the next day, after Ellen has left for work. I’m naked, lying on my back on the kitchen tiles, smoking and pedaling the air. Somehow, I’ve convinced myself that this is as healthy as actual cycling.
“She’s crazy,” Anne says. “You have to leave.”
“My thighs look fat.”
“She’s not crazy,” I say. “I just don’t hug her enough.”
“You have to go home. Go and stay with your mum.”
“I don’t have any money.”
She hangs up. I drink a beer and repeatedly refresh various social networking sites. Ten minutes later, she calls back.
“I booked you a coach,” she says. “For tomorrow. I’ll print out the ticket. We can meet at the park.”
I bury my thumb in my bellybutton. My BMI is too high and I’m not qualified for Antarctic expeditions. I’m stranded.
During the bus journey back, I drink light beer, scratch the scabs on my scalp, and write. I add to a word document I started when I was 17 and trying to make my sister laugh. She said my other books were the most boring books she’d ever opened.
The word document becomes a book, which I finish while living with my nan. When it’s accepted for publication, I get an email from Ellen. It’s the first time we’ve interacted in three months.
"Congratulations on the book, I knew you could do it.
I’m sorry for not being in contact. Everything seemed difficult. I shouldn’t have invited you here. Don’t think I didn’t like having you around, I did, but I expected too much. You aren’t a husband yet. And I’m not a mum. I’m as lost as you are."
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