And so the Christmas period arrived. After approximately 4 minutes, the novelty of my presence in my parents’ household for the first time in 6 months had withered away like a dead pine tree covered in shiny bits of plastic.
Three weeks alone in the Welsh hills lay ahead of me. But rather than work on the novel I haven’t been writing for years walk to the orphanage to help the needy, I took a deep breath and set in to the usual Christmas housebound activities.
First there was eating. And I’m not talking about snaffling the odd mince pie. The trade-off for the luxury of living in a flea-ridden flat in the Big City is that I never have any food in the cupboards. So I set about demolishing the contents of my mother’s fridge like a heartbroken teenage girl. Scampi with noodles? Get in! Microwaved pavlova? Why thank you. Anchovies straight from the tin, not even bothering to take my head out of the cupboard before I devour them? Just watch me.
But soon enough I became bored with this Roman gorging and switched on the TV. Surely Rupert Murdoch and his chums at Sky could entertain me for a couple of weeks? Alas not. Nothing but 100 million channels of flickering bullshit. Live open heart surgery, deep sea fishing for gays, Russell Crowe playing a Nobel prize winning economist, Will Smith’s infant daughter gyrating and singing dreadful pop songs. No thanks.
And so it was, like an obese and technologically spoiled toddler, that I stumbled into the living room one night and cast a weary eye over at the Xbox 360, sitting in the corner, fluttering it’s lashes at me like Pandora herself. Well why not, I thought. It was either this or clean up the sardine tins I had left all over the kitchen. I chose a football game (soccer to you lot across the pond) and got down to giving myself arthritis.
After figuring out the buttons I was surprised to find myself actually having fun. I could pass the ball about, score goals from 30 yards (quite far away to you lot across the pond) kick the referee and loads of other good stuff you can’t really do if you go and play real sport. But something was missing.
I had by no means mastered the game, but after a while, no matter what level I set the difficulty, I never felt particularly challenged playing against the computer. Of course, setting the opposition level to Professional meant that the other team would run faster and do their own wonder goals and referee assaults, but it always seemed so, predicable. And that, my friends, is when I saw it. Xbox Live.
This game, like most of them these days I am told, can connect to the internet so that you can stay up all night, playing against other lonely people like yourself. Just one click and I would be thrown onto a roulette table with literally millions of other players, all waiting to kick my arse at an imaginary game. But who were these fuckers? Murderers in their underpants? Celebrities on yachts? Call girls at Puff Daddy’s mansion? Gay deep sea fisherman?
I began to feel nervous at the prospect of letting one of these freaks into my television set. But it was too late to back out now. I took another swig of Gentleman Jack and threw myself into the ring. I chose my team and than sat, memorised, as the other player, Prince Charles or Ted Bundy or Miley Cyrus or WORSE, flicked through the various divisions to choose their team. And then we were off.
I decided to take no chances and play it straight, unlike my opponent, who I have since decided was either Diana Ross or Oprah, tried to intimidate me with fancy tricks. Whilst she was pissing about with some double step-over, I charged in and took the ball, played it down the left and tucked a neat shot in at the far post. 1-0 after 3 minutes. Before half time I was 3 goals up. Perhaps I was really good at this game? I tried to image my faceless opponent, in a Persian tent or a Romanian tower block, squirming away trying to score back. The game ended 4-1. And I felt great.
My heart racing, I quickly started a new game. My next opponent, who I guess from his flawed brilliance was washed-up 80s actor Edward Furlong, would pose a much greater threat.
I should have guessed that old Ed was going to play well when he chose Wolves, who are currently languishing at the bottom of the English Premier League. Only a true master would choose a technically inferior team. Every ball he played was perfect, every run into the box inspired. I was lucky to lose 2-1, my only goal coming when Furlong put the controller down to reach for a crack pipe.
But I didn’t need crack. I was hooked. Game after game went by. Every goal I scored filled me with glory, every one conceded pure agony. But nothing could stop me playing. I had been sucked into a vortex, my mind at one with the collective conscience of the all-night gamer. Until I heard the birds.
Looking out of the window, I saw that the sun had risen and people outside were getting into their cars to go to work. My swollen fingers were clutching the controller. All I wanted was one more game. Just one more. But I couldn’t, no I WOULDN’T, become one of them. I turned off the machine and headed towards my room.
But as I went to switch off the light I saw an apparition in the mirror. A bleary eyed, dry lipped fiend stared back at me, wearing a baggy T-shirt, covered in anchovy stains, and faded tracksuit bottoms. Tracksuit bottoms that were both back-to-front and inside out. The transformation had happened. Dorian Gray had become the portrait.
Terrified, I climbed into bed, vowing never to touch the game again. As I drifted off to sleep, I saw tiny men on an imaginary playing field. Running and running.