If this is a dream holiday, I'm having a nightmare

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The Independent Culture
I'm wearing my Hawaiian shirt (because I'm on my holidays and having fun). Somewhere in the sticks. Calves, landscape, a heavy bullying sky, night falling like a hot dirty velvet curtain. Smells: the viscous reek of cattle-slurry, burnt meat, barbecue fluid, madness. Shrieks: owls killing things, stoats killing things, everything killing everything else. Groans: plentiful and continuous, from the world's most miserable man. He is going to pieces out here at the dinner-table, not only groaning but twitching, grinding his teeth, justifying his misery.

His girlfriend left him. Two years ago. Now she lives in a bender, or eco-sensitive igloo. Life has lost its meaning. He is trying to drive himself mad in public, lowering himself into the well of darkness on the end of his tether. His polo-shirt shoulder is befouled with spit and cobwebs. His baby done gone left him, and he done lost the will to live. It wasn't his fault. It wasn't him. It was time and fever, the fates, God, gevalt. Nothing to do with the games, the uniforms, the kit, the sweet nothings. "Let's play families. Spread 'em for Poppa." "Now I'm going to lend you to Geoffrey for two months. Put on your little gymslip and off you go."

Nothing to do with that, that she's now living in a bender, being horrible to him. Being horrible. Nothing to do with the fact that he's disintegrating, musty, awful, like somebody dug from a wet grave by opportunists. It's her, and he's ruined.

The psychotherapist leaps on him with a feral cry. The psychotherapist is blotto, and becoming more so as the Rioja-style Drinking Alcohol soaks in. "You are defining yourself totally in terms of this woman," he says, in a curious pedantic Estuarine whine, like E L Wisty on helium. "Isn't there anything good in your life?" The world's most miserable man grasps his neck in one hand, his head in the other, and twists. An anguished metallic creak echoes around the farmyard. A calf bellows. Somewhere out in the darkness a bat chokes.

"Ye-e-e-s," he says, grudgingly, the corner of his mouth twisting in a tetanic rictus. "I have offers. There are a number of attractive ladies who - "

"No, no, bollocks," says the psychotherapist. "What about you?"

Someone has put Ravi Shankar on the stereo. The Argentinean woman is doing an erotic temple dance under the plastic gazebo, watched by her grey-bearded lover.

"There's this Swedish woman," says the world's most miserable man, "very attractive. Always surrounded by men." The pauses between his sentences are big enough for a small family. "Like bees. Round a honey-pot. She gives me. Hugs. Would not be averse. To doing. The business. But. But."

"That's bollocks," says the psychotherapist. "You're bollocks. And what's wrong with your jaw? I mean, are you trying to hold your head on or what?"

"It's these drugs," says the world's most miserable man. "Powerful drugs," he adds; "I'm taking them. Drugs."

We stare at him. "Bollocks," says the psychotherapist. The world's most miserable man gives a final grind and trudges off to bed without a word, a spider winking from his shoulder.

Then it's my turn. The psychotherapist takes exception to something I haven't mentioned about proto-mythic creation stories, attacks me, tells me I'm talking bollocks, tells me I am bollocks. I make a mistake. "You seem very hostile," I say. "Why do you say I'm hostile? I'm not hostile," he says. "You're afraid of appearing hostile," I say. "Why are you talking about my fear?" the psychotherapist says. Deadlock, each of us mirroring the other. We shout and drink and drink and shout. The witty woman with the beautiful soprano voice goes to bed without a word. The red-lipped woman with the endless legs goes to bed without a word. I imagine them in their beds, snuggling up to their pillows, smelling of vanilla and that clean, dry nest-smell of sleeping women, but I am stuck with the psychotherapist, out here among the cries and the slurry-stench and the falling dew.

Eventually he stumbles off into the house and I crawl into my tent with my sleeping daughter because I am not allowed in the house. It is damp. The canvas is damp, my swag damp, my pillow so damp I can't even snuggle into it. I lie there, brooding. Something blunders into the side of the tent and dies, noisily, and I lose consciousness.

In the morning there is no breakfast, no lunch except crisps. The world's most miserable man has left in the night, without a word. Our host has taken this ruin for the month and hates us all. "No dinner tonight," he announces. "You had dinner last night. What do you bastards want?" The people with beds move around in the night, restlessly, like the undead. Our host sleeps by his bedroom door, his nose under the gap, detecting movement. "Someone put the light on," he complains. "Five am. I was watching an Elvis biopic on satellite, and the light went on. I'm not having it. There might be lunch on Tuesday but that's it."

It must have been like this in a medieval monastery, under the capricious rule of a misanthropic abbot, some boil-ridden peasant risen above the level of his social accomplishments, declaring feast-days and prolonged fasts with equal lack of reason. From time to time, people disappear without a word, and their bones are found months later in the woods, picked clean. Mealtimes are exercises in a frightfully collegiate form of rural lunacy, people staring wildly at each other across the empty table. The nights are disturbed. The lavatories do not work.

It occurs to me that this is a great commercial opportunity. People go away to get in touch with themselves, to meditate, to go on retreat, to find their inner selves. They don't want that. What they want is this. Despotism. Peculiar strangers. Insane food rules. The chance to dip a toe in the refreshing waters of madness. They'd pay. I suggest as much to my host. "I had you down for an actual bed, provisionally," he says, "but now I've changed my mind." He goes off to his room, to lie down by the crack under the door. I fold my bed, gather up my daughter and leave without a word, in my Hawaiian shirt (because I'm on my holidays and having fun). !