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The Birthday Boys

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After quitting his menial job and moving back in with his mother, Ron resolved to change. He stopped looking in the mirror. He was no longer going on the internet, which he had been using to watch porn every now and then, nor was he watching television. Sometimes he felt he was evading his problems more than solving them, but at least a calm reigned in his head. He was living back home, the thought of which made him cringe, so he tried not to think about it. His mother bought the food, as he was making no money, and made his meal.He ran every morning, at least, so he could tell people he was running every morning. He came to depend on this activity to give his day weight.

Ron fought pathetically against feeling worthless.

One day, Ron had an argument with his friend, Bob, in which the latter called him a ‘bitch’.Afterwards, Ron looked at himself in the mirror and saw fear in his eyes. He despised the thing he had become and wasn’t quite sure how he had become it. Life was black.

At the start of July, Ron found himself on a plane for Italy. Looking down, he imagined the people from his life – Bob, his old workmates, etc. – and used his perspective to belittle them. This gave him comfort; he wished he could always look from above. Then he found himself pathetic, and fuzzy pain surged through his head.

He was coming to Italy. At least there was that. But time was ticking – he was already twenty-four – and he only seemed to be alienating the few friends he had. He was spending his days deluding himself into thinking he was being productive, when in fact he spent most of them with a book on his lap staring into space. He had no real skills to speak of, and his degree in English Literature wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. He went weeks deluding himself into thinking all was fine, or ignoring his problems, then about one day per month realised he was bad at everything.

In the airport, Ron met Bob and his Italian girlfriend. They drove him back to a house in the mountains. Ron showered and rested, then they went to bar called The Yeti Bar.

Sitting alfresco, they watched Italians taking post-prandial strolls. As their Proseccos took effect, they became a bit more daring. Bob suggested they play ‘Truth or Dare’. Spina went first. She chose dare. Bob dared her to call up a mutual friend and tell her she had always secretly loved her, and was still in love with her. She phoned the friend and, after some initial chatting, said, ‘Teamo.’

They went to a restaurant on Corso Vittorio. They sat outside. The oilcloth was dirty because it was nearing the end of the waitress’ shift. The plate was also a bit dirty. Ron noticed dirt now.

Back in Edinburgh, after finishing his Master’s, Ron applied for work, finally finding something at an Irish pub. On the first day, he cut his thumb moving a freezer, and felt an annoying fear that he would wet his pants.

Ron’s workmates treated him like a fool. The head kitchen porter asked Ron to crush boxes and fit them into a bin. Ron did this meticulously, packing boxes tightly into the little bin. Cooks from the hotel next door, which shared the same alley, sat on chairs near him and smoked. One gave Ron a dirty look and asked a friend disgustedly, ‘Who’s he?’ Ron carried on filling the bin with boxes, until they were all in, but then he couldn’t remember how to get back to the kitchen. He had to ask the floor manager to show him the way.

There were times when Ron thought he was a fool. There were times when he looked in the mirror and what he saw made him feel hopeless. He probably was a fool.

In the Italian restaurant, Ron looked at his watch, then realised it was the anniversary of his father’s death.

Just before his father died, Ron became friends with Bob. The two formed a band called The Birthday Boys. They made an album in their school’s recording studio. The album was called ‘Ode to a Narcissist’. Bob came up with the title and did most of the work. Ron didn’t mention the album to his parents.

One day, Ron came home and found his mum sitting in the conservatory, listening to the album. She was listening to a song called ‘The Elephant Song’. Ron was too embarrassed to say anything and withdrew to his room. Later, during dinner, she told him she was amazed by his voice.

Ron became highly introverted in his teenage years. When he was in his father’s jeep, he tended to keep totally silent. After a while, his father stopped trying to get through. One day, though, they were in the car, when he told Ron he had listened to the album; he really thought they had something. At the wake, Ron’s step-mother said his dad cried listening to the album.

Ron and Bob entered the school talent contest about a year later. Ron sang a song called ‘Parasite of Love’, written by Bob. Bob played the piano. The judges seemed confused. One, a DJ from Leeds Radio, said, ‘It takes balls to come up here and do what you did,’ seeming to think Ron was putting on a ‘serial-killer act’ for the purposes of the song, whose theme was stalking. In fact, Ron was just naturally like that, and his inability to make eye contact, or smile at anything the judges said, was no act.

At the Italian restaurant, Spina got a phone call from her mother. It turned out Spina’s brother had tried to kill himself.

A couple hours later, they met a drug-dealer at his flat. It was all surprisingly clean and tasteful. Everything was white, including a thin Labrador who barked as the drug-dealer let them in. He was a thin man with dreadlocks. His bedroom comprised a single bed on the right, a roll-up desk on the left, a drawing of Bob Marley, above the desk, a swivel chair in front of the desk, and a white butterfly chair by itself in the bottom right, in front of mirrored wardrobes. A shelf above the desk contained a book called Il Buddha e Mio. Ron picked this up and read, while others smoked.

Ron felt like a pariah. He didn’t know why he was alive. He refused to accept that life had to be the way it was. The drug-dealer asked if he was okay, and he said he was fine. ‘Like the book?’ said the drug-dealer. This embarrassed Ron too much and he put it away, asking if he could lie down on the bed for a bit. ‘Sure,’ said the drug-dealer. ‘You must still be tired after your flight.’

The drug-dealer talked about wishing he lived in America, then his love of Woody Allen. ‘What’s your favourite Woody Allen movie?’ said Bob.

‘Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ said the drug-dealer. He liked its blend of high Grecian drama and light comedy. He thought Allen’s best work was tragi-comic.

Then Ron decided to smoke some weed, and he found himself talking about a psychic blanket overlapping the physical world, experiencing it without interacting with it in any way, and that being the unnameable consciousness of reality, without which nothing would be in the first place. He spoke of the primum mobile and the need for a spirit to start everything off. A strange kind of certainty momentarily seized him and he expatiated on things that he didn’t understand. He mentioned non-local spaces, Bell’s Theorem, the influence of measuring device on the thing it measures, and then said his own inadequate faculties were probably the reason whyhe felt so confused.

Back in Edinburgh, Ron started usingTinder. Bob suggested he use it one day when they were eating burgers.

After some conversations that hit a dead-end, he started one with a girl called Kirsty, who was studying English as an undergraduate, and liked Dowson, Keats and Henry Miller. They discussed literature, Spinoza’s idea of naturanaturans, horse-riding, and Frank Zappa.

Ron talked about the Bildungsroman he was writing, mentioning an Italian critic called Franco Moretti, who claimed the genre was dead, since modern times were too heterogeneous, fragmented, and godless. However, Ron argued that the Bildungsroman was needed, in a time when the internet made everything overwhelming.

Ron wasn’t sure if the Bildungsroman could be revived, if it had ever stopped, and didn’t know what he was talking about. Sometimes he felt like he was simply talking nonsense that no one cared about.

‘I think people are getting sick of confusing art,’ wrote Ron.‘I don’t know. That’s too much of a generalisation. I guess I’ve just noticed a return to the Victorian Bildungsroman in writing. I think of people like Tao Lin and also I read a book by someone called Sally Rooney who just published something. That was kind of a Bildungsroman. It seems like it might be connected to those self-help gurus on YouTube.’

Ron often felt like he wasn’t making sense, conversation a struggle for elusive clarity. Messaging Kirsty on his laptop, he felt the need to re-read the dissertation he wrote on the Bildungsroman as an undergraduate. Then he got back to Kirsty, telling her the Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meister its archetype, emerged from ideals of German Enlightenment. It seemed to him Enlightenment ideals were making a comeback amidst a confused new generation, sick of French theorists and postmodernists.

Ron kept on talking about the Bildungsroman, claiming it was a teleological genre, one in which, as Moretti claimed, ‘an intentional design is realised’. Then he speculated that Jordan Peterson’s celebration of the goal-oriented life might bring the Hegelian, goal-oriented artwork back to the forefront, if it had even disappeared.

Ron and Kirsty went out a couple of times, before Kirsty invited him back to her flat. She had a six-pack of beer in the fridge, and Ron drank two as he sat at her kitchen table.

As the night wore on, Ron began to feel worried that nothing would happen, but even more worried that something would happen. The step of doing something felt vertiginous. Self-disgust kept him from doing anything too romantic, like he knew too much about his failings to force himself, failings and all, on another person.


Bob was on the laptop in the drug-dealer’s room. He was loading up their website so he could show the drug-dealer some of their songs. Ron, having smoked some weed, felt unmoored in the present,and clutched at it by saying things out loud, such as ‘dog’ and ‘music’.

‘I guess I’m an idiot,’ said Ron.

‘No,’ said Bob. ‘I don’t think you’re an idiot. I guess we’re all idiots in our own way. I guess I’m an idiot, too.’

Bob and Ron got some gigs in their final year of school. One of these was at a youth centre, where the audience consisted of elderly people. They had gotten the gig through a friend, who had been tasked with putting on a small concert for the elderly people. Bob and Ron practised in the basement of Bob’s house. They bought an MDF board, and a tall wooden pole. They stuck keys to the board, and during the performance, Ron shook it, saying, ‘And I’ll be playing the key board.’ Then they got someone from the audience to hold the tall pole with a hat on top, and Bob said, ‘The high hat, ladies and gentlemen.’

When Bob’s dad phoned after the show, Bob said the performance had gone alright, though the acoustics hadn’t been good.

‘What did he say?’ said Bob’s mum, when Bob hung up. ‘I just told him the acoustics weren’t that good,’ said Bob. ‘And he said, “Isn’t that the point?”’ Then he told Ron, in the back of the car, not to worry, as his dad was just an ‘asshole’.

As Bob’s mum drove them back, Ron felt like he was a small bar between Bob and the approval of his father. Or perhaps fathers, so long as they lived, were always supposed to be like Bob’s, fastidious with sons, and maybe Bob’s father had permitted himself the compliment, about their music,only because he knew he was dying.

They went back to Spina’s house.

Alone in his room, Ron texted his mother to say he had arrived safe, then checked his Facebook. It turned out he had a message from Kirsty, who had stopped messaging Ron, because she clearly didn’t like him, which had left him depressed.

The text said:

I don’t know if I have the right to your forgiveness, after the crummy way I acted, but I just wanted to apologise for the way I treated you. I’ve had some family difficulties over the last few months, but’s that’s no excuse for not texting back. I retreated into my shell, which isn’t good. I wish I had your own emotional honesty. Your texts about your dad and his death were really moving, and it was unforgivable of me not to say anything back. I guess you started talking to me as if I wasn’t there, thinking I wasn’t reading them, but I was. I read them and took them in. Thank you for being so open with me. I wish I could’ve been as open about my own problems, and I really hope I can be in the future.

Ron put away his phone and lay on his bed. He weighed things up in his head. He felt a driving fear course through him, taking him over and actuating his hand, as he seized the phone and, opening up the message box, typed ‘Maybe we should have sex sometime.’

Soon after, Kirsty got back to him saying ‘I’m not sure that’s the best idea.’

Ron put away his phone and closed his eyes. Suddenly, he found himself crying, like a storm had broken. He was depressed. He was just depressed.

Ralph Hipps (UK)

Ralph Hipps is a writer from Harrogate, England. He has a Master's in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. He has had a short story published in a collection called 'From Arthur's Seat'. He lives with his mother and is quite depressed.

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