Copyright © 2001 All Rights
I see sick people. I see them all the time. They're everywhere, all around me, retching and choking and heaving up the foul contents of their traumatised stomachs. I see them on street corners. I see them in doorways, bent double, legs apart, arms outstretched, braced against the wall, nervous, frightened, but poised and ready for their impending degradation. I see them in gutters. I see them in stairwells. I see them collapsed on public monuments, sprawled across a step, a plinth, a tablet or plaque, delirious, catatonic, and covered from head to toe in the bilious by-product of their belly spasm. I've seen them all at one time or another, this disparate breed of ashen faced degenerates, this vomiting neo-tribe, this nauseous Diaspora. I see sick people. I see them all the time.
Many of our number seem not to see sick people. They side-step, swerve, and jinx their way down the pavements, veering around the stricken vessels and their spill. They stride purposefully, eyes aloft, nostrils clamped shut, brains preoccupied with the details of some conveniently absorbing distraction. A shopping list perhaps, or the electricity bill, anything that will hold their attention and help them maintain a semblance of normality amongst the bile and the muck. Occasionally a debilitated minion will lash out, try to grab a hold of one of these immaculate pedestrians, reach for it, claw for it, endeavour to reel it in. Perhaps they believe that contact with such a pure and unsullied force might rid them of their decrepit condition, alleviate their suffering, and lead them back into salvation. But the pedestrians are wise to such momentary molestation, a deft drop of the shoulder, a subtle shimmy, a well-timed hitch-kick, and they're away, free to go about their business as before, unobstructed, uncorrupted, chaste. To these pristine citizens the sick people are a lie, an illusion, a misapprehension, an unfortunate hallucination explained away as the side-effect of an iffy prawn sandwich. As far as they're concerned the sick people simply don't exist. But I see sick people. I see them all the time.
I see them so often that I've taken to cataloguing the more outrageous examples of their collective infirmity. I roam the streets late at night seeking, searching, stalking my specimens. I loiter outside bars and night-clubs, hidden from view, secluded in the shadows, watching, waiting, sifting through the likely candidates. Perhaps a drunken youth will catch my eye, or some e'd up good time girl or inebriated old gent, any one of these characters could be a potential mark. I watch them as they swagger spastically around the street, staggering vaguely, pale faced, oblivious, and alone. I tail them to takeaways, to taxi ranks, and bedsits, monitoring their slow slide into incoherence, a lone witness to their ruinous decline. I'm there when they fall, maybe twenty or thirty paces behind, close enough to see the action, close enough to smell their fear. I'm there as they fight to regain their footing, vainly flapping at whatever supporting structure lies closest to hand. A drainpipe, a traffic cone, a squat row of picket fencing, anything that might serve as an impromptu buttress or crutch. I'm there while they flounder, labouring against the gravitational pull of the pavement, desperate and inept, unable to master the rudimentary choreography that, if only they could, would surely see them upright once again. I'm there when the fight leaves their aching bodies, a discernible relaxation of the muscles, a corporal submission, capitulation absolute. I see sick people. I see them all the time.
Indeed, I've been seeing them for so long now that I've become really quite adept at pinpointing the exact moment when these condemned souls realise their fate. It usually happens a couple of minutes after they've stopped struggling, once they have accepted the inevitable and resigned themselves to the floor. It starts as an unlikely rejuvenation, an inexplicable reprieve from their projected night on the tarmac. Even at a distance of some twenty or thirty yards it's quite possible to make out the expression of surprise etched upon the faces of the damned as they realise that suddenly, they have the strength to pick themselves back up off the ground. Naturally, this is what most of my subjects then proceed to do. Why would anyone choose to do otherwise, what comfort is concrete when you could be at home in your bed? But then, before the resurgent civilians have had time to get used to the restoration of their basic motor functions, an altogether more sinister sentiment sweeps across their hopeful profiles; unreserved comprehension, utter understanding, a total grasp of the situation.
The pace of activity quickens somewhat once this unfortunate revelation has been attained. It isn't long before fear supplants knowledge as the emotion most apparent on the countenance of the victim. You can see it in their eyes, a hopeless despondency, the forlorn gaze of a lost cause, an appearance that wouldn't look out of place upon the face of an ill-fated aristocrat staring solemnly at the guillotine. It is a look bespoke of the done-fors awareness that his or her destiny is about to be delivered; they're going to vomit, and they're going to vomit very soon. The doomed candidate will generally get into position at this point. There might be a few more minutes before the sluice gates open fully, but as anyone who has endured such an onslaught will tell you, there's no point fighting it, and besides adequate preparation is vital if you are to survive the ordeal intact. Some choose to drop back to their knees, and either stretch forward on all fours, or rock back to sit on their heels, as a sprinter might before moving into the set position. Others remain standing, and lean in against a wall or post, leaving nothing but clear sky between themselves and drop zone. I've even seen instances where the unlucky applicant has adopted a kind of lunging stance, legs apart, but one foot behind the other, while their top halves remain pitched exactly as they would be under normal conditions, upright, proud, and erect. I guess the theory is that such a posture provides a solid platform from which the payload can be propelled forward away form the body, but it rarely turns out like that, I know, I see sick people. I see them all the time.
The moment the bile arrives is obvious to all but the most inexperienced of vomit flaneurs. During the seconds immediately preceding its impertinent appearance, you may notice the would-be projector adjust his or her footing slightly, or hunker down a little. Don't be alarmed; this merely signals that their ordeal is nearly over, the anticipation is the worst part. A sour acid taste rises in the throat, how did that get there, the vomiter will wonder, having experienced no perceptible contraction of the stomach? An observant observer will be able to spot this confusion, as well as the subsequent speculative hacks as the spewee attempts to purge the initial consignment. But before this preliminary shipment has even had time to hit the ground, the full flood arrives. In an instant the victim's air will change from one of calm apprehension to that of absolute terror and panic. Their entire body will convulse as their diaphragm heaves violently through their lungs and on into their gullet. A deluge of pale ale, partially digested jalfrezi, and angry gastric juice pours out of the human hose, a truly spectacular sight, a truly spectacular sound for that matter, not unlike that of a pig being gutted alive. Wave after wave of this abominable torrent escapes into the open air, raining down like some putrid fleshy gravy, stinking, brown, and grotesque. It inundates the pavement below, plastering its impermeable surface, splashing back up into the air, once, twice, maybe three times before coming to a halt and congealing with the rest of the foul swill. Of course, the producers of these evil slicks rarely notice such delicate intricacies; by this point they will undoubtedly be gripped by the pain of the hollow retches, the final few seizures that churn out nothing at all. And then, as suddenly as it began, the savagery ends. The vomiter has just enough time to wipe the sputum from his or her lips before collapsing into the coagulated clot below, exhausted, spent, empty at last.
Sometimes, upon witnessing these loathsome episodes, I wonder whether or not they constitute a kind of crude performance art. The gradual build up of tension, the ominous vibrations of inevitability, the palpable indicators of immanence. And then, finally, the act itself, vehement, ferocious, and explosive, and yet at the same time passionate, heartfelt, and athletic. Could such an incident be framed as a raw demonstration of the internal contradictions present within us all I wonder? Could such a happening serve as an illustration of society's collective need to atone for its sins? I would argue that it is no less ridiculous to consider the action of vomiting as in some small way 'artistic' as it is to do the same for particular forms of modern dance, or mime, or 'invisible street theatre'. Isn't it the case that in each of these instances, the notion of their 'artisticness' can only be ascribed merit once some supposedly significant explanation of form, movement, and flow has been concocted, or rather, contrived? It's like going to see modern art in a gallery; one generally spends more time reading the explanations than actually looking at the pictures. And so, as I consider the wider implications of the vomiter's routine, I find that I am asking myself that immortal question; is it art? But is it art? No, I invariably decide, it is not.
Come morning the rain will have eradicated all but the slightest of traces of the excesses discharged during the previous evening. The culprit may still be there, slumped against a wall, insentient and inert, but otherwise unharmed. The smell to may prove equally durable, lingering for much of the morning and on occasion well into the afternoon. But the real essence of the incident, the heart of the affair if you like, will have long since dissipated into the atmosphere, floated off into the ether to revitalise its demeaning might and gather itself in readiness to pass judgement on the next cretin foolish enough to test its muscle. And what about me I hear you cry. What about me? Where will I be when the cold light of day casts its all-seeing eye upon the depravity of the night before? Rest assured my pretties, I will be out there somewhere, watching, waiting, sifting through the likely candidates. I doubt whether you'll ever notice me, even now that you know I exist. For I am everywhere, everywhere and nowhere, just another face among the crowds. But next time you feel a threatening tremor quiver around your gut, next time you drop to your knees and prepare yourself for the worst, take a moment to check back behind you. Look closely, into the distance, maybe twenty or thirty paces back. What was that in the shadows, something moving, something there? Listen carefully for a second, hone in on that gap between the pools of light spilling down from the streetlamps above. Hear anything out of the ordinary, breathing perhaps, a heartbeat, the soft whisper of my desire? I'll be there somewhere, watching, waiting. Your sickness is my sickness. That's why I must see sick people, why I must see them all the time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Pykett is 25 and lives on the west coast of Wales - a small province on the left hand side of Europe. He doesn't have much time to write as, amongst other things, he owns and operates the United Kindom's only badger chutney kitchen and distribution centre - "it's tough, it's tangy...what more could you possibly want from a chutney?"