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Chapter 1: The awakening

[20.07.2020]

Writhing around slowly with an unconscious economy of movement, Ben began to surface. Firing up slowly and with an empowering lethargy, his mind readied. Sluggish and clogged, syncing with the surroundings, subconscious turned to conscious with a restless tension. Still dark outside, light rays crept across his face. It was no normal day.

A chill shot across his leg emanating from a window behind. Searching for familiarity, his eyes darted under the lids as thoughts surfaced from his subconscious. Shut tight, they were interrupted only momentarily by the feelings of discontent sweeping across him.

With the sounds of the room beginning to register, his left eye opened cautiously. Desperately trying to focus through a bloodshot curtain, it was hastily joined by the right. Cranking his head forward, the surroundings began to sharpen, bringing startling validation to the situation. Awkwardly positioned, his hair was dishevelled and brittle. Lying spread-eagled, with a solitary sheet draped across his body, his clothes formed an uncomfortable barrier to acceptance.

Channelling his reserves, he began to sit up. Usually the simplest of processes, it was a mental assault course. What usually took a few seconds felt like an hour. Resting against the headboard, adrenaline perforated his spine. The room was lifeless, soulless, eerie, cold and oppressive. It was unlike anything he was accustomed to, or for that matter, knew existed. Qualifying only through a box-like formation, it went against any convention of what a room should feel like. A new reality, it put to shame his seemingly perfect middle class upbringing. At home, although messy at times, everything had its place. It had a warmth and a charm. This was different. Something was missing, as if only a hollow sadness had ever been present.

The room was comparable in size to his student halls, yet with some stark differences. A cream colour, dark patches invaded the corners, signposting a lack of care over what looked like decades. Sparsely decorated, the bed was the clear centrepiece, set off by a plain plywood wardrobe directly in front, in the corner of the room. A sink sat awkwardly next to it with a mirror above. Cloudy and smeared, the mirror's appearance was less concerning than the sink. Stained and dirty, it clearly deputised as a toilet more out of repression than necessity.

Odd markings scattered the walls in disconcerting places. In student rooms, there was a rationale to them resulting from the posters or pictures used to dress them. This was different. Dirt was present in unexpected places. Bits of newspaper left by previous inhabitants lay scattered as if to tell a story, while scrawled writings began to jump out.

Dragging himself across the bed towards the window, the activity was quickly accompanied by feelings of imprisonment. A bolt restricting its opening to a fist’s width looked out to grey and nondescript surroundings. Leaving nothing to the imagination, a short walkway was stifled by a concrete building roughly ten metres away.

Forcing his gaze back to the room, Ben focused slowly on the door. Drained, it was no easy challenge. The unconventional presence of his mind was pressing upon previously autonomic movements. Stumbling with every movement, nothing could be taken for granted.

Trying desperately to connect his memories, he panicked. A previously enriched pool of self-reflection was now filled with a suffocating black hole. With little comfort, he examined his body for clues. Devoid of possessions, his jeans weren't scuffed beyond surprise. His T-shirt was also only slightly muddied, as if before detergent testing.

Scanning his arms, small scratches could have easily been picked up playing football. Searching more closely however, his wrists started to pulse with a dull pain. Bringing them up to the light unmasked clearly defined handcuff marks. Having never been in trouble with the police, it was a major surprise. Frustratingly though, the shock did nothing to wake memories of the previous night’s events.

A wave of resignation began to pin him. It wasn’t a dream. A nightmare of the highest order, the room felt like a prop in an altogether more disconcerting story. Establishing rationality now went way beyond any compulsion to consult self-pity.

With his mental reserves depleting rapidly, a surge of tiredness engulfed him once again. A crashing weight on his mind, keeping his eyes open presented a hopeless challenge. Falling swiftly back to where he lay, they fluttered and then closed rhythmically to a point of no return. Awake for less than a minute, Ben was dragged restlessly back into deep sleep.

Chapter 2: The realisation

[20.07.2020]

After what seemed like an eternity, Ben came to his senses once again. This time however, he was in no doubt as to the tragic nature of the situation. The nightmare was very much a reality and the initial shock quickly turned to curiosity. With an urge to make sense of his surroundings and deciding upon a course of action, he forced himself up.  

Facing the room and unravelling his mind, he summoned his energy to decipher the previous night’s events. It was a tricky situation. The last memory he could make out was sitting quietly at home watching the TV. It just seemed so farfetched to think that it would lead him here.

Feeling the cold emanating from the window behind, he turned his attention to the room. The sheets revealed important clues. Not up to the standard of any hotel he had visited, they had clearly gone through thousands of wash cycles. Thin and strong, they provided little heat and warmth. His darkest fears surfacing, hospital writing was clearly evident. Making out faded words, there was no time to dwell however.

Focusing on the door left slightly ajar, he began tuning his ears to the noises emanating from just outside. Listening patiently for a short while, individuals were walking by in a regimented fashion. Although infrequent, they were peering in at regular intervals. Unable to distinguish words, their mutterings only added to a sense of bewilderment.

A need to engage swept across him. Kicking his brain into gear, he injected the meagre adrenaline left in his system and headed lethargically to the door. He didn’t make it far. Quickly stopped in his tracks, a figure was walking purposefully to the door. Initially startled, he retraced his movements, lying once again in the same position.

The door swung open and a burly individual announced his presence without crossing the threshold. Pulling a grim smile, and raising his voice assertively, he levelled at Ben:

“Meds! And then lunch!”

“What? Where am I and why am I here?” said Ben, recoiling from the bracing approach.

“The doctors will see you shortly,” said the figure, exhibiting a calm assurance.

Now fully aware that it was a mental facility, Ben was swiftly learning the rules. It was by no means a private hotel. The nature in which he was being addressed was as unsettling as his surroundings, quietening any eagerness to see a doctor. Instead, his imagination was now sifting through a wealth of scenarios about the torturous nature of any eventual meeting.

After half an hour and still cowering spread-eagled, the realisation was embedded. His family weren’t going to turn up and explain it away as a horrible mistake. He had no choice. He would have to gather the courage to leave the room.

Slowly bringing himself to his feet, he moved over to the mirror above the sink. Through the dirt and the cloudy smear marks, he could just about make out his reflection. It wasn’t what he was expecting. Unlike ever before, his face was eerily pale. Adding to it, his eyes were drawn and bloodshot, set off by heavy bags, which lay beneath.

Moving closer, he began to make out the veins drawing a pattern across his brow. Trying his best to make improvements, he began to brush through his hair. Greasy and dishevelled, it was wrestling for attention – out of shape and lifeless. Achieving only minor adjustments, he moved towards the door.

Grabbing his attention, a person was stationed just outside, sitting quietly in blue jeans and a black shirt. A man in his early forties, he was a perfect human statue barring the occasional twitch. Different to anyone Ben had ever met, he was like someone that time had forgotten – in fact, someone that time wouldn’t miss. An expert at blending in, he would be difficult to pick out in any social situation.

Without any desire to talk, Ben pushed the door a little and headed down the corridor towards where the activity had been coming from. Initially stumbling and with his brain clouded he could just about hear the murmurs of a group of voices.

Every step brought a new acceptance to the situation. The atmosphere was overpowering and unlike anything he had ever experienced. Fighting his fears and learning fast, everything seemed out of sorts – from the smears on the walls, to the possessions visible in each room. There was an intriguing balance. It was as if nothing ever happened, yet so much was thought about.

Adding to the inescapable tension, the corridor was claustrophobic and filled with earthy, stale air. Gliding along it like a runway, white strip lights were dimmed, adding a new level of intensity. With his only experience of institutionalised environments coming from a visit to his grandma, Ben was quickly realising exactly how privileged she was by comparison.

Having progressed only five metres and looking back to check on his room now sucking in air from the corridor, a restrictive feeling gripped hold like a straightjacket. There was something missing. It was as if love had never been present. Too quiet and painful, it seemed unsurprising that he had never come across it in a regular stream of TV documentaries. With not much to see, yet so much despair, it appeared only appropriate for individuals categorised as unacceptable for public life.

Continuing slowly and steadily, and with each piece of new information firmly filling his mind in a box marked ‘crazy’, a detailed picture of the ward was unfolding. Conventional in nature and far from spacious, it wasn’t too difficult to work out. The main corridor consisted of roughly twenty bedrooms, arranged on opposite sides. From what looked like a storeroom at one end, it then opened out to the common areas at the other.

A few steps further brought the first sight of a TV room, a kitchen, a staff office and a medication room. Poorly lit, each was characteristically smaller than expected. Like a TV set without the furnishings, the stale air circulating only added to a distinctive feeling of neglect.

Having noted the meagre layout, the other patients began to vie for his attention. Initially difficult to distinguish, they wore plain clothing similar to the staff. On closer inspection however, their behaviours could not have been more distinctive. The staff were calculating and poised. Moving economically, they were doing everything possible to become part of the furniture or sink into the walls.

The patients were much more striking. Blurry-eyed and moving with unusually slow gaits, they seemed lost in a place where getting lost was an impossible challenge. Staring through things and making sounds at times when no sound was needed, they were in a sorry state.

In a trance, Ben checked himself for similarities. Struggling in the same way, and shuffling along as if weighed down by an unjust world, he too was now part of the unfortunate group. Having decided not to put his shoes on, mainly due to the effort required, his heels were gliding along with the fabric of his trousers gathering dirt beneath them.

With his choices limited, he turned towards the TV room. Quickly thwarted, the male nurse ushered him towards the medication queue having crept up slowly from behind. The moment hit with a crushing anxiety flooding his mind before setting off to every edge of his body. Awake for roughly ten minutes, and experiencing the greatest rollercoaster of his life, it was about to get a whole lot worse.

He fell in line behind two patients already waiting patiently. Standing awkwardly, they both shared strange physical mannerisms and pale yellow skin. More worryingly however, they looked like they had not been outside the hospital walls for quite some time.

“Take this,” said a male nurse stationed behind a small cubbyhole.

Peering in, Ben could see a small room filled with boxes upon boxes of medication. Driven by curiosity and finding it difficult to focus, he did his best to read the labels. It wasn’t easy. Making out a letter or two on each packet, none seemed to trigger any familiarity.

“Do I have a choice?” said Ben, analysing the purple pill now rolling around his palm.

“No,” said the nurse, staring at him to ensure that it was swallowed correctly.

“Can you tell me what it is?” pressed Ben.

“No. You will have to discuss it with the doctors,” replied the nurse sternly.

Increasingly frustrated, it was clear that he had missed the briefing. Unaware of his reasons for being kept hostage, what he was being given or the benefit it would provide, he was being forced into a leap of faith. With the full consequences of the situation being unveiled, his self-esteem was quickly recalibrating new definitions for low.

Strongly anti-drugs all his life, it seemed nonsensical. Part of a previously unknown system and topping up his already perilous levels of anxiety, everything seemed wrong. Having never wanted to see his parents more than now, there was no sign of them. It was eerily quiet.

There was no chance to dwell however. Pointing assertively with a bracing efficiency, the nurse ushered him into the kitchen where food was being served. Desperately trying to make sense of the smells, it was an opportunity to fully profile the other patients for the first time.

Compared to the bedrooms, the kitchen was relatively large. Roughly fifteen seats were separated by tables more commonly found in school classrooms. Paintings strewn across the walls indicated its multiple uses, although any efforts at rehabilitation seemed noticeably limited.

Forcing his mind into conscious thought, Ben noted what was missing. Showing signs of talent, each painting only reinforced the soulless nature of the environment. They lacked purpose, like an artist doodling in search of meaning before committing to a subject.

Scanning the room once again, Ben counted ten patients. Five were sitting down, slowly tucking into their food without appreciation. The other five were still in the queue, shuffling along in expectation rather than excitement.

Each patient shared several characteristics. Seemingly beaten up by the elements, they appeared weathered with dishevelled hair, bloodshot eyes and yellow, thick skin. Despite individual differences, they also all shared awkward mannerisms, haircuts and gaits. Although they were mute for the most part, Ben could pick out a dark intensity in their voices.

Shuffling slowly forward, Ben noted further commonalities. Completely disconnected from their surroundings, those sitting down were notably equidistant from each other, as if predetermined in some way. An unwritten code, it provided a structure to an unconventional environment where the passing of time was nothing more than a meaningless coincidence.

Focusing on the patient in front, he began to pick out finer details. Slightly taller than him at about six foot, his hair was distinctly frizzy as if it hadn’t been washed for months. Pale in complexion, he could see the dark in his eyes for the first time. Difficult to pick out before, his eyes were bloodshot with an eerie black colour. Disengaged from his environment, and even less interested in the food, he showed no desire for conversation.

Shifting forward to the food counter, a selection of foil containers came into view. As expected, they weren’t anything that would prompt excitement. In keeping with the patients’ poor presentation, deciphering the difference between each was clearly a refined skill that came with time.

“What are these?” remarked Ben, raising his finger to point at each in turn.

“Bean stew, beef in gravy, chicken pie and vegetable bake,” replied the caterer with a quizzical look, noticeably unaccustomed to questions of any nature.

“And this?” he continued.

“Rice pudding,” she said again without any flinch of emotion. Service with a smile was clearly a luxury rather than a requirement. The patients wouldn’t have been able to notice anyway, thought Ben.

Selecting the beef in gravy along with the rice pudding, he followed the patient in front of him and sat down opposite. Seated and picking through each mouthful, Ben was struck by the room’s silence. It wasn’t a place to chat. Acknowledging his presence, the patient sat up slightly from a stooped position and sharpened his gaze without sharing a word. After what felt like an eternity, and fishing for anything edible, Ben turned his attentions to the room once again.

Acknowledging that bringing back the last night’s events was still too much for his fragile mind, he decided to zero in on the moment’s finer details. Readily apparent, Ben’s seating position seemed out of sorts. The only patient sitting directly opposite another, he was quickly aware of his error. The other patients had comfortably maintained their personal space, creating an awkward harmony to the room. Breaking it, Ben was now receiving several glancing looks causing yet another wave of paranoia.

Wrestling with his mind, he looked to the nurses for support. Having already noted their effortless ability to blend into the background, he counted four peering in carefully at proceedings. Indistinguishable in behaviour apart from body shape, they had a quiet resting state, set off perfectly by their blank stares. Having long severed any emotional connection to the environment, their empathy or compassion had been replaced with a steely determination to take note of any erratic movements or behaviours.

In many ways, having been clearly institutionalised, the staff’s coping mechanism was to reduce their activity and zone out. Any element of personality had to be carefully removed each day on entering.

Ben felt completely humbled. Having never been one to show off or take his life circumstances for granted, he was uncharacteristically embarrassed. It was just such a surprise to find out that places such as this existed and, further still, to become a patient within one. His privileged background was being pinned to him, burning a hole in his mind and opening him up to the judgements of the patients and nurses.

Fixating on his food, eating now provided a welcome distraction. It wasn’t an enjoyable meal however. Every bite was tasteless and flavourless in keeping with the setting. The process was also made all the more difficult by his hands shaking as a result of the drugs kicking in. Finding his lips brought a suffocating sense of helplessness. Overcome by a need to blend in as part of the patient fraternity, mimicking their movements only added additional pressure.

He was rapidly being introduced to the lay of the land. Through the dark intensity of their stares, he could feel exactly what the other patients were thinking. It wasn’t an all-inclusive bed and breakfast. There were no benefits, just practicalities. Each patient had been in his position before, with the same desire to leave – a feature that Ben was quickly being made aware of.

Judging by their individual attempts, the writing was on the wall. He would have to fight harder than ever before to avoid sinking into further oblivion. Unless he could find a way out, he was looking at mirrored versions of himself.

Shifting his gaze, Ben searched for the time. It wasn’t a surprise to find a clock missing. Adding to the timeless nature of the surroundings, events seemed to happen in their own time, yet with the staff very much in control. Unlike in work environments, clock watching was strictly prohibited.

After what felt like an age, and having picked through as much as he could, Ben pushed his plate away. Mimicking the behaviour of the patient opposite, he was rapidly learning the laboured, yet necessary, signals. Getting up, he maintained focus on the nurse in the doorway and murmured as if to communicate a desire to return to his room.

Moving sombrely back down the corridor, Ben was overcome by the weight of the drugs. Concentrating intensely, every effort was channelled into walking. Plodding one foot in front of the other allowed only enough time to note the scrawled names above each room. Etched in marker pen, multiple smears indicated a separation between those present and the long since departed. Peering into each also revealed a glaring emptiness. Belongings were scarce, along with any signs of visitors.

A conscious action, keeping his movements in check was one thing. His emotions on the other hand were more challenging. Naturally wanting to reach a solution, he was looking for answers in a place where new information simply added layers to an already baffling storyline. Set off by strange sounds and smells, it was an atmosphere, which tested the very definition of what a hospital represented.

Fighting off questions in his mind, he eventually reached his room. Noticing the number fifteen and his name scrawled above the door, he made his way inside. Following swiftly, the nurse sat quietly outside once again.

“Can I ask why you need to sit there?” said Ben, mustering up as calm a tone as possible.

“You are on 24 hour obs to ensure that you aren’t a risk to yourself or others,” said the nurse.

“But I don’t even know why I would be a risk. I don’t know what I have done, why I am here, or where here is!” said Ben frustrated. “Can’t you help me out? What am I doing here?”

The nurse looked at him blankly before providing a response, which had clearly been delivered many times before.

“It is for the doctors to explain that to you. Not for me.”

“Great!” muttered Ben, with a sense of irony. There was no point in carrying on the conversation.

Closing the door behind him, he headed for the bed. Lying down, and with his eyes firmly transfixed on the ceiling, he focused all his remaining energy into regrouping his memories. Aware of the scale of the challenge, he would have to navigate a black hole lodged firmly in his mind.

Deep in thought, he began to focus on the music coming from down the hallway. Breaking his concentration, he could make out two nurses talking quietly to each other. Whispering, it was just enough to register.

“Take me to the other side… Not heard that one before,” said one, trying not to be heard.

“Haha! Yeah I know,” replied the other.

Chapter 3: A rounded individual

Growing up in Farnham in Surrey, Ben had been instilled with typical middle class values. To the locals, his family fitted in perfectly. A trained accountant, his dad Peter had a relaxed work-life balance bookkeeping for local businesses, while his mother Sarah worked around the house. With time to spare, she enjoyed helping with local activities and get-togethers.

Over their twenty-five year stay, the family had developed a respectful bond across the community. Traditionally English, and treating people as they would like to be treated, they shared the same values with many in the area. Although they weren't religious, they enjoyed regular walks in the local countryside, often followed by a roast on Sundays.

At five foot ten, with an average build and a rugged completion, Ben was never likely to turn heads at a party. Following the crowd, he liked to keep his dark brown hair short and styled. A reflection on his life, he never strayed too far from the accepted norm in any facet of it.

At school, he would regularly defeat the odds with the most sought after girls by knowing the best way to present himself. This was evident in his clothing decisions, which revealed a shrewd sophistication in being able to look good without any apparent effort. He also stuck to a firmly held belief that meeting the right girl was simply a numbers game. To him, the notion of ‘love at first sight’ was nothing more than an over simplification of the most complex of human emotions.

Academically, Ben was more than competent. Moving swiftly through Burnham, his local grammar school, he easily gained the required grades to reach The University of Durham, his preferred choice. Deciding to study psychology along with many of his friends, and proud of an ability to keep lasting friendships, he was moving smoothly through life as part of the pack.

Ben had two siblings. His brother Jack was four years older, while his sister Sophie, was two years younger. Like him, they were a key part of the close-knit community in which they grew up and he loved them deeply.

At just under six foot and with a slim but muscular physique, Jack was particularly good looking. With a carefree smile, he could put anyone at ease, whatever the situation. He appeared effortlessly cool, managing to remain on trend at any point in time – whether it was wearing the right clothes, having the best friends or going to the trendiest places.

Jack was particularly gifted academically, finding it surprisingly easy to memorise and understand the trickiest of tasks. He was also a naturally talented sportsman, quickly becoming a minor celebrity in the local pubs and bars.

Aside from his visible talents, Jack’s popularity was based on an overall willingness to help anyone having a tough time. Whatever the challenge, he would take time out to listen intently and provide great advice. He had an uncanny ability to identify the relevant issues and remove the background noise.

Ben’s younger sister Sophie was the talk of the town in many social circles. Slightly shorter than him, she was extremely beautiful with a sleek, yet curvy figure. She had standout blonde hair, and a completely natural look, which regularly made her the centre of attention.

Behind Sophie’s physical beauty lay an equally enchanting personality. With effortless sophistication, she could flitter seamlessly between the ‘it’ girls and those on the periphery, resulting from a refreshingly positive outlook on life. Her ability to rise above the negatives in any situation put all but the most stubborn people at ease.

Chapter 4: Beneath the surface

Ben’s life wasn’t without its difficulties however. Part of a digital generation, an addiction to technology perpetrated an otherwise conventional family setup. Like Sophie and Jack, he would often retreat to the benefits of a virtual existence to keep on top of world developments and for social reinforcement.

A feature that was becoming increasingly prevalent throughout his secondary school, his generation was the first to be exposed to a powerful set of social media sites professing to keep him in contact with friends and family better than ever before.

In reality, this claim couldn’t be further from the truth. Creating a ‘perfect’ online persona was becoming an all-encompassing challenge. Everyone appeared to be lost in two worlds at any point in time. Every so often, the demands of an individual’s online existence would break through, dragging them back into their phone for a quick fix.

Ben prided himself on an ability to relate to people. He could quickly analyse a person or a setting in a way that went way beyond basic emotional intelligence. This was becoming tougher as he was getting older however. More and more, people were getting lost in a ‘filter bubble’ created by their unique online environment.

The algorithms at work across the internet, and particularly on social media sites, were creating hugely different representations of the world for each person. The way in which they operated was simple but also extremely powerful. Depending on an individual’s interests, they would be presented with relevant content, products and services. In doing so, they would then develop a completely unique view of the world.

On the face of it, there was nothing untoward, but the social impact was huge. Whenever they would meet up, Ben, Jack and Sophie would have less and less in common. At the same time, given the apparently limitless amounts of content available, they never felt satisfied. There was always a TV series they hadn’t seen or a viral video that they had missed.

This addiction to technology was not to be taken lightly. Like most addicts, Ben was constantly on the lookout for developments that would take things to the next level. It was perhaps the most significant conversational topic that he shared with Jack and Sophie. It was also the one area where they all tended to agree.

Despite living in different virtual worlds, they all knew exactly where technology was headed and what the next step would be. Making use of auditory technology, and exploiting a gap in the market, Tatio delivered it perfectly. Its operating system – Mowgli – seamlessly brought together every element required to power a person’s life.

Chapter 5: University life

[2013]

The university experience began well for Ben. Starting in September 2013, he had chosen to study psychology for two main reasons. The first was that it was ‘on trend’ and therefore good for subsequent job hunting. More to the point however, a surprisingly large number of women were notoriously drawn to the subject. As a red-blooded male, his mind was excited by the opportunity to play the probabilities in the pulling lottery, and meet a selection of beautiful young women.

There were just a couple of challenges to contend with. To begin with, he had a growing insecurity resulting from a belief that girls were better at recording information. His strength lay in the way that he analysed information rather than recalled it. Consequently, he was regularly beaten by most of the girls in his exams. In addition, Ben also had fewer ‘blokes’ to chat to whilst checking out the girls from the back of the lecture theatre.

As the first year came to a close, he began to struggle with the style of the teaching. He liked the subject matter and some of the theories, but had developed significant gripes about the way it was being taught. During a typical lecture, he would lose concentration and fall into a virtual world. Perched at the back of the theatre, he would bury his mind in his smartphone to escape the monotony. While his friends were scribbling frantically, he would comfort himself by reaching into another reality.

Despite struggling with the course’s ideology, he was good at making friends. Having met in fresher’s week, he had quickly built a core group of course mates; Tom, James, Jane and Verity. All four were from the Home Counties, and had common links across their school friends. Their key bond however, was to make the most of life, whatever the situation.

Compared to Ben, Tom had shorter hair and a strong, burly physique. James was slightly taller with a suave and sophisticated appearance. A pretty boy, he liked to look good at all times, and dressed to impress. Yet despite these differences, they shared many personality traits. They all loved to make the most of university life, particularly when it came to drinking and having a good time.

Jane and Verity behaved similarly to the guys. They were both of average build and similarly attractive, yet not to the level of being head turners. Jane was very much a true blonde, whereas Verity was a brunette, making their pairing an experiment in judging the effect of hair colour on attraction. They were always full of energy, up for new experiences and keen to meet people.

With such a strong group of friends, Ben would often spend much of his time carefully orchestrating his online profile either to reflect on a night out, or to plan one. On one occasion, lost in a series of status updates, he was interrupted by the general stampede at the end of the lecture.

“What a crap lecture… Another crap lecture, I should say really,” said Ben reacting grumpily to the shuffling of people and papers. “When are they going to tell us something that we don’t already know?”

“You’re right – same old! Bit rich coming from you though, considering all you do is spend time on your phone…” said Tom.

James jumped in, “We keep banging our heads against a brick wall. It seems that unique thinking is totally non-existent. It is just a version of mastermind to see who has the best memory whilst glorifying the academics in the field.”

“Why should we care about the people behind the studies rather than evaluating the ideas themselves? It’s so frustrating. I want to be challenged! I don’t think I have learnt anything I don’t already know yet,” continued Ben.

“Haha… The usual start to a week then! Who’s up for going out tonight? Let’s get smashed. That’s what this is about, right?” said Verity, as the group shared knowing looks in agreement.

Coming to the end of the first year, this statement summed up their academic experience. Succeeding seemed to constitute playing the game in lectures to then maximize the time for going out and having fun.

Putting this to one side, at just nineteen, the sense of freedom was amazing. Ben loved Durham, his groups of friends, and the opportunity to explore his personality. It was the first time he had been away from his family, and as much as he was missing them, he loved the emotional rollercoaster that university provided.

When he did report back to his family, Jack was always great for providing a male perspective, whereas Sophie provided a sounding board for his often-disastrous approaches to girls around campus. With friendships in the bag, Ben felt in a great position to make the most of the experience. In fact, he was regularly daydreaming about it being the best time of his life. He was made and had no interest in life’s bigger issues, which he saw as trivial for the most part.

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Ben’s room was reasonably spacious with an ensuite, a bed and a nice desk. He loved to have the latest gadgets, to add to his metrosexual appeal. Preparing for the night out, he was in good spirits. With music blaring, he danced his way into the shower and downed a few shots as chasers. He prided himself on an ability to get ‘up for it’, which meant letting everyone in his corridor know he was going out.

Placed carefully on the walls were selected pictures from home. Fleeting glimpses of Ben’s individuality, they took pride of place. Representing his persona, they were something he wanted people to notice. They were also carefully designed to make him appear popular to girls, rather like a venus fly trap carefully set for its prey. Of course, as with most people his age, most the entrapment happened online through time intensive social profiles. A social fingerprint, it was rare that anyone would build a solid friendship without first consulting them.

Drying himself and putting on a freshly ironed shirt, he checked his look in the mirror. The night’s destination – Utopia – was a regular fixture on the weekly calendar. With a parting spray of eau de toilette, he grabbed his wallet, keys and phone before confirming the location of the meeting point and heading out.

Most nights were the same. The group would usually find a nice bar with cut price drinks before heading to the club. U-Bar was tonight’s selection and everyone was in good spirits.

“This is going to be a big one. Hold onto your hats people!” said Tom stirring things up.

“Catch up guys… I’ve been drinking at home,” replied Ben, upping the ante.

“Alright then! Let’s hit it hard. Fireballs all round?” said Jane, joining the frivolities.

The shot selection was always a key moment. Companies fought and spent millions to be selected as the drink of choice. Having been heavily promoted, Fireballs were the current favourite. A vicious combination of a flaming shot of whisky doused with an energy drink – Verity was already on her way to the bar.

The four of them had a perfect group dynamic. Any angst or bickering, which surfaced in lectures, vanished instantly as soon as they were out. Conversations were much lighter, positive and uplifting. It was certainly not a time to bring up any frustrations about their course.

After an hour of drinking, they moved to the club. With the latest mix of progressive beats, they all knew what to expect: Solid drinking and dancing until 2am, at which point, they would say their goodbyes and go their separate ways.

The group shared a love of music. Keen not to follow the crowd, they would regularly search out talented producers who created atmospheric tracks seemingly at will. Noting a growing trend for music that was based on talent rather that marketing puppetry, they viewed music discovery as a vehicle to define their own personalities and tastes.

As well as the subtle introduction of new tracks, the main way to differentiate week by week was the way in which people would couple up, their selection process and the time at which they would make their move. On this occasion, it was just after eleven thirty and Ben decided to drag James and Tom to the dance floor.

Having danced robotically for a couple of songs, he spotted someone who caught his eye. A beautiful girl off his course was glancing regularly in his direction, roughly ten metres away. With nothing more than fleeting consciousness, he decided to make a move. Unsure of what to say, he was safe in the knowledge that, if conversation became awkward, he could hide behind not being able to hear.

“Hi, you having a good night?” said Ben.

“Yeah, loving it!” she replied.

“You been here long?” continued Ben.

“Only about half an hour.” Struggling to hear through the atmosphere surrounding him, Ben was aware of the need to speed up the approach.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

“Sure!”

At the bar, Ben was much more in his comfort zone, “My name’s Ben. You’re from psychology right? I am sure I have noticed you.”

“Yeah, I know. It is nice to put a name to a face. My name is Laura… You’re the guy who spends all his time on his phone and always looks grumpy aren’t you?” she said jokingly with an element of flirting.

“Yeah, that’s right. I am struggling with the course to be honest. I like the principles but not the way it is taught.”

“I see… I can understand that. How’s your night going anyway?” said Laura. It was clearly interesting conversation but simply not the time or place – a fact that Ben was also aware of.

“Yeah, good thanks. We’ve already had five Fireballs. Things are starting to get hazy.”

“Who’s we?”

“Oh, my course friends. If you look over my shoulder you can probably see them watching us. You might have crossed paths… Anyway, we are all a bit worse for wear,” said Ben, aware of a need to progress the conversation. He didn’t want to end up in the friend zone.

Meanwhile, the others were embarrassingly watching proceedings from against a railing less than ten metres away, overlooking the dancefloor.

“I see. I know what it’s like… you can probably see mine cowering over there,” said Laura to a couple of girls staring at them from across the bar. “We have been drinking since six.”

“I suppose I’d better make my move then before we both go over the edge,” said Ben, happy he had found a way to show his interest.

“Haha,” said Laura.

“You want to come back to mine?” It was the perfect opportunity to seal the deal.

“Alright then! No work chat though… I might actually want to keep things a little more exciting,” she said, mimicking his flirtatious banter.

Ben felt an overwhelming sense of exhilaration. Being emotionally intelligent meant he could regularly convert opportunities.

Before leaving, he glanced across at Tom and James. Having watched at distance, in sync they provided reinforcing looks. Jane and Verity were also looking pleased having moved to the dance floor.

The understanding between the group was priceless. It was empowering to think that his friends would always be there for him no matter what.

---

The next day, Ben woke up brimming with confidence and swagger. With Laura resting peacefully beside him, he moved carefully downstairs to the communal kitchen. Keen to make an impression, he put the kettle on and started to make his speciality – bacon sandwiches.

“Wow. You are a man of the house!” said Laura having made her way downstairs in one of his long sleeved T-shirts.

“I like to please!” replied Ben with a glowing smile.

“Last night was fantastic, but I feel I don’t really know you. How are you finding things?” said Laura.

“Well, I suppose I just don’t feel that psychology is really right for me, although I am not sure what is. I have always been interested in the way people think and act, but I want to challenge my beliefs rather than learn someone else’s. Does that make sense to you?”

“Yep, perfect sense. To be fair, I think most people feel the same way,” said Laura. “It’s just a course I’m afraid. I think everyone just has to play the game: attend class, get grades, get a job.”

“Hmmm… You’re right. I am just finding it difficult to do at the moment. Anyway, here you go. This should help you to feel a little better,” continued Ben, carefully handing her a bacon sandwich while overcoming the challenge of not dropping ketchup over the floor.

With breakfast successfully navigated and having showered, they decided on a plan of action. Neither had lectures until two, which was partly the reason going out the night before had become a weekly fixture. Even so, it was the first time that Ben had ended up with someone from his course. As she headed back to her halls to change, he began to process the night’s events. As well as the euphoria and feelings of achievement, it had triggered a sense of anxiety. It was the first time that he had openly realised his disengagement with the course.

In fact, it was the only element of university life that wasn’t quite right. Although he was trying to hide it, it was a big part – a very big part. The problem was that he felt directionless, unsure of what else to choose. This disillusionment was compounded when meeting other students whose course was living up to their expectations.

The main problem was that he felt it was too detached in many ways from real life. Most of the course was highly theoretical without moving with the times. The technological landscape and a dependence on screens had completely changed the way society worked and people achieved success. It was just not covered by the course sufficiently.

Many of the themes of the course looked at psychological papers and theories generated way before the introduction of smart technologies. It was therefore difficult to assess their value in a modern environment where every human desire was being tackled through technology. Ben would often joke about how Maslow's hierarchy of needs (food, shelter and water) was out-of-date, with Wi-Fi being more important.

In fact, it was increasingly difficult to see how anything he was learning would be applicable to the real world. He felt like he was being taught academia for the sake of it. Principles such as evolution were interesting, but they had no relevance in a time when technology was being designed to solve every problem. In many ways, the human physique was regressing as a result.

There wasn’t a clear solution however. A smartphone revolution was happening, caused by the increasing power of smartphones, and the apps designed to make use of them. People were subsequently spending more and more time on their devices, consuming more and more data. No one could accurately predict how these changes would impact society, or further still, build a course around them.

Presented with other choices such as computer science or philosophy, Ben felt like he had reached a dead end. He saw philosophy as being over engineered and disconnected from the real world. Having met a few students studying it, he had quickly branded them as ‘thought junkies’. Keen to highlight their ‘worldly knowledge’, they would regularly recite inane quotes from famous philosophers of days past.

Many of his friends, including his brother Jack, had foreseen the opportunities in digital development and decided to study computer science. Ben however, felt it was too prescribed to enable him to think creatively. The development and constant updating of programming languages also made him, perhaps lazily, decide against it. Taking a long-term view, his major desire was to understand technology’s overall picture in society. It was just he, like anyone else with the same passion, would have to create it in isolation.