A Letter to My Landlord 1
The Devil’s Pause 5
So Dog We Were 9
So Dog We Were Too
Love’s Down Tango 18
Love Me Tender in the Ghetto 25
On The Autumn Blows 27
The Last French Steps 30
Le Désespoir de La France 39
A Summer on the Cours Gambetta 44
The Dark Part of the Night 50
A Thousand Deaths of a Girl Named Katie 61
The Bay of Naples 84
The Consequences of Living 86
The Dry Season 91
Junk Sick Collective 96
Post Junk Dawn 106
Down on the Low 115
Dear Mr Piegay, my loyal and long-suffering landlord…
It is fast approaching seven years that I have occupied the room in Rue Laennec and it is not without a twinge of sadness that I hereby present you with my official notice of leave. In your last email you asked that if I did indeed decide on quitting the premises that I was to inform you of any small repairs or renovations that are needed so as you could make the room good for the next tenant. On this note I am pleased to inform you that apart from some minor and natural wear and tear the apartment is in pretty much the same condition as the day you let it to me. The one thing I feel I must bring to your attention is the outside shutter of the far window. As you are most likely aware, it is not of the highest quality and was bound to fail at some stage. Well, it has failed – almost certainly due to the mechanics in the pulley system. In fact, it is the mechanics in the pulley system. I know because in attempting to fix it I accidentally shattered the interior plastic cover and a spool of cord and a broken cog shot out – leaving it quite beyond repair. The box itself I managed to make good, albeit using half a roll of brown scotch tape covered over by an old cravat which serves to keep the whistling draught out. My intervention works sufficiently well, although I would imagine that a new tenant paying 400 plus euros a month may not be too enthused about such a remedial looking repair. The shutter on the nearside window however remains in good working order; it is only the graffiti sprayed upon its exterior that you may want to look at. Shutters aside I suppose I should take this opportunity to inform you about the two electric wall fires and how they blew out, one after the other, two winters ago. Though neither now works, it is the one in the bathroom which poses a more serious problem as it somehow detached itself from the crumbling plasterboard wall. It currently sits on the floor connected only by exposed electrical wiring. As a consequence I have had to remove the heating fuse from the main fuseboard so as to prevent any unwanted electric shocks. The bathroom itself, although in need of a new lick of paint, has stood the test of time pretty well. It is only the cracked sink which needs replacing and, of course, the shower unit, which came clean down one afternoon and with it pulled two fist-sized lumps out the wall. As it came down it caught me a good whack on the head, though, it seems, without imparting any permanent damage. So as to save you the cost of a new shower rail and curtain I salvaged what I could of the old one, dis-assembled it and stored it in a black bag behind the toilet. The cracked sink I must put my hands up to. One day, while nodding out in front of the mirror, I accidentally knocked one of my painted stones off the product shelf and it smashed with full force into the ceramic. The crack is not so bad as to leak and so you may be able to hide it from the view of the new tenant. At worst all you need is a new sink which, thankfully, are very inexpensive nowadays. What are not so inexpensive are water boilers. The cheapest one I have come across is over 500 euros and that is without the added cost of the engineer to fit it. I only mention this as the element packed up in ours almost three years ago and the apartment has been without hot water since. The toilet, although useable, is tremendously rocky on its base. In order to gain access to the u-bend (a quite unpleasant blockage which I’ll not go into) I had to unbolt it from the floor. Where I delayed in re-fixing it the two six-inch bolts somehow got wet and rusted and would not bolt back down as a consequence. The only worthwhile counsel I can give you on this issue is that you advise any new tenant to spread his weight out evenly when he plonks himself down on the throne. Failure to take care in doing so could possible upend the entire thing and then the bathroom really would need renovating.]
The main room. As mentioned above it stands in pretty much the same condition in which you rented it to me. The sole exceptions are the walls which are covered in coffee and blood and paint and have turned a septic yellow colour through years of confined chain-smoking. There also are what appears to be large cracks running up the sides of each window. Whether it is structural damage or not I am unqualified to say. What I am qualified to say is that, as with the bathroom, a good coat of paint will do the room a world of good. What paint will not fix is the broken door of the fuse box. As you’ll probably never have noticed the damn thing was installed too near to the main door, and the same day I removed the heating fuse I unwittingly knocked the fuse-box door clean off its hinges. There is also a problem with the lighting. The two Edison screw-type holders are at present unusable after the light-bulbs burnt and melted themselves into their fittings and now are impossible to remove. I did try removing one but the bulb, from the sheer force required to turn it, shattered in my hand leaving just a bare stalactite of tungsten element protruding from the fitting. The ceiling itself is more of a problem, half collapsing on the left side, victim of an upstairs flood which soaked through and nearly brought the place down last spring. Concerning the small kitchen area in the far corner of the room, one would suppose that not much could go wrong in such a tiny space, and indeed, not much can. Unfortunately, the little that could go wrong has. I am of course referring to the two electric plates. One does nothing but burn black smoke up the wall and the other short-circuits the instant it is turned on and not only blows its immediate fuse but that of the entire apartment. The light casing above the hob also needs changing after melting away one night as I slow-stewed a curry. It seems the heat from cooking and the natural heat emitted from the bulb was too much for it to handle. The only other minor problem in this part of the room is the fridge: it no longer works and is currently being used as a book cupboard. It looks like some idiot tried to defrost the small freezer compartment with a knife and hammer and has pierced the casing of the evaporator. As to any other damage, apart from the MDF cupboards which all warped in a small flood I had back here in 2010, I can’t think of anything else. The floor, as you know, is tiled and so apart from the two centre tiles (which have somehow cracked) is as polished and flat as ever. One good piece of news I can give you is that I have fixed the once lagging front door and it now closes. The repair was a simple case of heating and gradually sawing four inches off its bottom. The downside of the repair is that the door is no longer insect proof. As a result, for two months during the summer, the apartment falls foul of quite a severe ant problem. Rats are also prone to sneak in from time to time. There is a dead one somewhere in the storage cupboard as I type. I did my best to keep it fed and happy, each night consistently leaving it out handfuls of expensive handmade Italian egg pasta, but, alas, it seems the good life isn’t conducive to such rodents and there is now quite an horrendous stench lingering in the small square of hallway. I only tell you this as you’ll surely remark upon it during your visit next week, and I don’t want you thinking it is me. For the ten thousand used and uncapped syringes stored in the top cupboard, I was hoping that together we could maybe contact the environmental health department and have their hazardous waste disposal team come around and clear them out. It’s something I would greatly appreciate your help on.]
In regards to the rent; it is only right and fair that I give you warning now that it is highly unlikely that I’ll be able to make good on the three months of outstanding arrears. It is, of course, for such defaults of payment that all tenants in France are obliged to have a legal guarantor. All I can offer is my good luck with that: the guarantor I used appears not to actually exist. In fact, all the paperwork (barring my passport) was fake. The work contract was downloaded and adapted from online, and my last twelve months of payslips I created myself using Word and pasting and re-sizing the company logo up in the top left hand corner. Another quite interesting fact is that the day you met me outside my work to sign the contract, well, that wasn’t my place of work at all. Indeed, it was the first time I had ever been there, and I could only pray for divine intervention when you asked that we go inside to sign the paperwork so as to escape the spitting rain. Divine intervention indeed (or just sheer fucking luck) the warehouse was closed up for the evening. I remember sitting in the depressing dark of your car, that vile perfume of mint air-freshener making me think of all manor of depressing life events as I watched you go over and over the paperwork. How I fucking despised you and knew what you were from that first moment – a meticulous, risk-assessing, teetotal cunt. That stupid balding head of yours shining under the dull compartment light, the few front strands of hair looking like something one would blow away and make a wish upon. And oh, those cheap, ill-fitting, faded jeans that you wore and those large, padded sports shoes – which maybe allowed you to brake more easily but also had the effect of making you look like some kind of a fucking bum. It turned out that you was much worse than the honesty of a man with nothing. Six months down the line and you tried laying a three thousand pound electricity bill at my feet, worming your way out of what you had agreed when we signed the contract, blaming my intermediate French on misunderstanding the finer details. It was only when I bluffed you with a non-existent piece of paper which I said had your writing on with all the details that you backtracked again and said you did indeed remember saying such a thing and that it was your error. Still, you also said that you couldn’t afford to pay the bill and that unless I forfeited my guarantee that I would remain through the winter with no electricity – which meant no lighting or heating. I agreed and let you use my deposit. Well, now you can re-use the non-existent deposit to cover the costs of renovating the apartment. Not only was your rent exorbitantly high for a room measuring less than 18² meters but you made me suffer hours of checks and a two hour ‘state of the place’ walk-around. Even my fake guarantor, complete with a stolen identity card, was cursing your indecisiveness. Your forehead actually trickled sweat as I signed the contract! And do you recall the one time you came knocking at my door uninvited? Pushed your way in, and then stood staring at me in open-mouthed horror when you saw melted plastic tops from methadone bottles stuck to the electric rings and paintings nailed into every part of every wall? How you asked to use the bathroom and then I heard you scuttling around in there, looking through the cupboards and no doubt discovering my used needles in the lower cupboard. You returned looking like a ghost who had been told he would die again. You left pretty soon after, forgetting to have me sign the shitty piece of paper you had brought down for me. When you returned twenty five minutes later I was fresh from having taken a shot and shouting something out over a broken guitar. I signed the paper on the doorstep not quite sure if your re-appearance was real or not, or what the fuck I had even signed for. It was the rent increase. The increase you had so scrupulously thought up to cover your costs in the electricity fiasco. I guess that finally says more about you than anything else.]
In ending this letter I will not pretend that the damage caused to the apartment was a calculated response to your cunning, duplicitous nature, as the truth is that I would surely have been just as despicable a tenant to even the most honest of landlords. But the thing is this: I have never met an honest landlord and I seriously doubt that one exists. It’s the age old story of greed and profit, and how the two can only go hand-in-hand and do go hand-in-hand. And so, I will end this letter, not on a bitter or hateful or goading note, but to wish you well with yourself and all you are. Maybe people like you are the future and it is the fools like me who will die hideous economic deaths and fade away. For the sake of humanity I hope not.]
With all the sadness a man can have…
Yours sincerely, Shane Levene.
When the Devil came to rest I was a third through the good of my life and it was springtime.
God, it’s spring, I thought, pausing in the street and closing my eyes. I hadn’t felt the spring for many a season and now here it was. I sucked in the scents of the morning and held. I had forgotten just what a pleasure fresh air was. It felt good, like menthol or eucalyptus flowing through my respiratory system, flushing out all the gunk of sick living. I took in another deep lungful, let it seep down into my muscles and unclog my pores from the inside out. I wanted to be burst full of all the day had to offer, to be steeped in every poison and fragrance which travelled along on the whip of the season. I lowered the zip of my jacket and let the crisp cold have my neck and skin. A feint mist sat in the distance and seemed to clean the town. I walked with my arm out, my fingers trailing through hedgerow and foliage, disturbing the cold droplets from the night’s rain. I felt the wet on my hand, running cold beneath my sleeve. I could have wept in joy, a strange relief hitting me at being privy once again to such irritable sensations. The smell of dustbins and refuse drifted out the damp front yards. And even that was a pleasure.
On the high-street I followed the morning slew of people as they made their way down towards the market. I passed the early bird businesses: the butcher’s with its cutlets of meat laid out; the baker’s full of freshly risen dough; the newsagent’s, the ink of their gossip barely dry. A double-decker bus pulled out from its stop. As it passed by the hydraulics of the automatic door system let out a hiss, and a warm front of oil and diesel fumes accompanied me for a moment. I remembered days picking wild raspberries along the motorway, getting snagged and scratched on the bramble. It was years since I’d last had such memories, memories I could taste and feel as if they had happened only yesterday. What memories did come to me during addiction were hollow, forlorn things with Arctic winds scraping about around them and sad echoed voices drifting in empty out the expanse of time. I tried to recall the last time I had been freezing cold or tormented by the heat of summer. I couldn’t. Heroin, in numbing the required emotions, had numbed a lot else besides. It had created a calm constant, cocooned me safely within the centre of a place void of all extremes. But now, four days in on methadone, the longest I’d been without smack in three years, the world was a melting pot of sounds and smells and colours and sensations, all reminding me of a life I had once meditated in and thrived off, yet a life which in other ways had touched me so profoundly that such rawness had been unbearable. This morning it wasn’t unbearable. After such a hiatus I wanted to be around normal, everyday things, partake in a life that I had gladly abandoned for the hook of the heroin spike. As walked I listened to the clip of my heels on the paving, took a strange delight in the grit crunching beneath my soles as I crossed streets and roads.
In the market I wandered around looking at the cheap wares of faulty and imported goods. I passed by slowly, perusing in each stall like it were a book to be deciphered. There were stalls full of leatherware, and handbags; others selling luggage and travel packs. There were stalls of linen and bedding, and still more of nothing other than kitchen utensils: trays of plated stainless steel cutlery, tin-openers and egg whisks. At the top end I passed Sikh and Muslim fabric stores, caressed rolls of cotton and silk and roughed my hands over yarns of sequins. I found myself in strange African general stores, peering into deep freezers packed full of frozen bush meat and smoked snake. Making my way back down I followed the scents of dry-roasted Eastern breads, of hummus and falafel, feta cheese and marinated and pickled olives. I passed the fresh fish stands, eyed buckets of sloppy octopus and crates of dying crabs. I smelt the shit of rock oysters and the congealed black blood of shark, reflected on the fact that they were once living creatures with a fury for life as great any. I paused at the meat auction, stood staring at the butcher in his bloody white apron as he tied up bags of half rotten kidneys for pensioners chewing on their gums. Down onto the fruit and vegetable stalls, the musty smell of turned earth and leeks and onions. There was something in the things from the ground which beckoned me, some connection with root and growth and natural living. I had a queer desire to jump into the potato stall and roll around in the loose soil, get back to some place essential from where I had come. I must have been sunk in worlds of thought, as when I next looked up I had come full circle and was wandering aimlessly back around by where I had started. Only now it was the start of something else. From out of nowhere a terrible spring wind whistled through the marketplace. It gusted up the canvas covers of the stalls and blew boxes and rotten vegetables across the floor. My fellow market-goers seemed not to pay it any mind. They milled about just as before, only now they appeared terribly down, weather worn and life-beaten. An old woman passed me by with her head hunched into her chest. She carried a white plastic bag full of oranges. The bag seemed to contain a coldness, like it was full of ice. The handles cut into the soft of her fingers and cut off her circulation. Her presence irritated me. On a pitch to my left was a stall piled high with boxes of toys; the kind of cheap plastic rubbish which make children cry on opening them. Down on the ground, in a small inflated paddling pool full of water, swam half a dozen gaudy blue and orange battery operated deep-sea divers. They rattled and buzzed and crashed into one another, and in a very particular way, horrified me.
“THe waY Of all soRrow iS bY Here”
That was the last thing I saw on leaving the market. A crazed man in a faded suit, stamping around in circles of torment, those words on a banner, stuck to a broom handle and held aloft. I followed his directions, for so was my only way home.
I saw him from afar. Long-haired John making his miserable way down on the other side of the road. He raised a hand and beelined across to me. He was wearing his cut down brown military bottoms, his lower legs cratered in needle marks and sores. I eyed my way up his body and it only got worse. His lips were dry and cracked and flecked in black scabs; he had filth and dried saliva in his beard. Without even greeting me he said me that he was ‘as sick as a dog’ and asked if I could help him out with a small lend of cash. I couldn’t. I said that I was running on dry myself, that I was well only due to methadone. He stood there with a tortured expression on his face, as if he were hurting from some place deep inside his body.
“What about your bank card?” he asked. I shook my head, beginning to move on. I’m sick as a fucking dog, he said again, following besides me like some leprous mendicant, his grubby hand lightly upon me as if to slow me down to his sick gait. He told me that with my card I could withdraw cash I didn’t have. I told him that that was called an overdraft and that my bank had judged me too irresponsible to have one. I said that anything he could suggest I had surely already thought of. He went silent for a moment, trying to think up anything that maybe wasn’t so obvious. He came back with nothing.
“So what, you’ve not got a penny? Not enough for a single bag? Not even a fiver?” I repeated I was all out, as beaten as he was.
“And juice? You said ya’v got some juice. Ya got a bit for me?” I said that I didn’t even have enough for myself, that I couldn’t help him today. He didn’t believe me. A look of hatred flashed across his face, thinking that I was holding out on him. I pulled my arm free from his retaining hold and walked a pace faster, hoping he’d fall away and disappear out of sight. He didn’t. John remained there, a filthy, lingering presence, like a soiled rag fluttering about on the periphery of my vision. Making extra effort to put some distance between us I heard his last words. They slopped out his mouth like lumps of stodgy wet oatmeal. “Mate, I’m fuckin’ dying ‘ere… Gotta be summit’ you can do? I’m seriously fucking dying.”
I didn’t doubt it. After an awkward silence I shouted back: There’s fuck all I can do, John… I’m down to the same nothing as you. Then John did slow. Though, no matter how far behind he tailed off, I could still somehow sense his presence, his hand held out and a look of desperation on his ravaged face, hoping against all hope that I’d turn around and offer him a way out, save his rotten soul for one more day.
I circled the streets trying to rid my mind of John and of a certain cold, detachment which had first became apparent as I left the market. I tried consciously to reconnect with the season, feel its complete dominion over my soul as it had done not even two hours before. But there were now ghosts in the spring. I found them hidden in the blossom, in dark shadows behind the mulberry bush, whirring around like cirrus clouds in the sky, croaking with the Larks, and in the dead foetuses of pigeons jellied in the gutters. Imbued in the portrait of the new found spring was some terrible ill-boding left behind by the thaw of winter. Vague memories sat in the sparkling dew drops on leaves; the rot of turned compost beneath hedgerow now spoke of death and decomposition and not of birth and growth and nutrients. The slick wet roads and pavements glimmered with a damp depression. There were too many things in this world which the spring could not cleanse, things so unnatural and manufactured that they were beyond the touch of nature or weather fronts. I lit a cigarette and almost vomited. In the dull middle of my liver the last milligrams of methadone were being absorbed. For the first time since stepping out that morning a reckless twinge of disregard entered my thoughts. Fuck methadone! It had shown me the spring, had cleared my lungs out and had maybe allowed a vein to heal or my swollen hands to recover, but it had also delivered me back to a world which had an icy hollowness at its heart. I thought of the bank card in my inside pocket, how useless it was today but how tomorrow it would be my salvation.
At the end of Boscombe road I stopped and stood staring at half a dozen rubbish bags dumped besides the post box. One was ripped open, its contents spilt out onto the street: tins of tuna in brine and cat food; mouldy bread and soggy news’ headlines; wraps of soiled nappy and losing scratch cards; perfect home magazines and junk mail for pizza; strained tea-bags and empty packets of prescription drugs. It was like an anatomical study of modern life. I walked on, an abysmal sadness then provoked within me. Through the park a dog squatted on its haunches and squeezed out a slop of yellow turd, all the while watching me. When it had finished it sniffed the ground where its arse had been and then hoovered through the grass, the dew wetting the straggles on its lower legs. I had smelled such dogs throughout my entire lifetime, the burning carbon of excrement wafting over British bogland and drifting like smoke upon the river. A woman cut through the pathway in a white fur coat. Out in the distance sirens wailed. Somewhere a fire blazed, and in me, something was rising and burning too.
By the time I had circled back around and hit the crossroads of my own road the afternoon hung bleak all over. But the bleakness wasn’t in the day, it was in me. It bled out and induced itself in everything, even in inanimate objects. I strode, dark down my road, back home to wait out the wait. The sun broke through the day and I cursed it. I had not even 24 hours to go until I’d be able to score again. The Devil’s rest was all but over. I had seen the spring and I had seen the sun and had smelled life and it had smelled good for a moment. But now, all too soon, old sensations had come in with the season, sensations of which I had needed to escape and had wanted no part of so many years before.
I had nothing just now and the day would have me suffer in my rightful hell, but tomorrow things would change and fortunes would improve. Yes, tomorrow would be here so slow and so soon and with it, up on up, the Devil would rise in me again and spring upon the spring once more.
I’ve seen the animal in man. That beast that pisses in sinks, shits in plastic bags, has to soak and cut and prise the socks from off its feet, has become indifferent to the stench of its own arsehole, lays around wrapped up in filthy blankets snarling at life and rotting away by the pound. I’ve watched men regress into neo-savages, committing murder, rape and incest with no strategic end in mind. I’ve seen our species fight and bite and rip and fuck one another to pieces. I’ve watched the unloved become the unloving and the loveless become the lawless. I’ve seen beautiful people destroyed by the high cost of living, selling their bodies and organs for a moments respite from the daily grind. I’ve known streets of endless misery, city-sized slums full of the walking wounded, tower blocks used as human rubbish dumps: 300 ft of isolation and depression, whole families staring out and down, wondering what mark they’d leave if they hit the floor from there.
With fresh young eyes I watched life pass by, a certain freakshow interspersed with occasional views of purported normality. I stared lost at bare feet as pre-teen brother and sister put on peep sex-shows for an assortment of waifs and strays, dreamed nightmares over the amphibious leers and panting tongues visible through the gap in the door. I’ve seen women beaten senseless, dragged around by the hair, forced to lick the kitchen floor, locked in cupboards with broken noses, doused in petrol and set alight. I’ve seen men kicked half to death, hit with bricks, bars and mallets, faces and wrists slashed open, a false eye staring at me from the bottom of a glass of beer. In the hush of night I’ve watchd an old dreadlocked cancer patient hunting around in the dark for soiled panties to sniff, his emaciated thighs like violin bows, the silhouette of his long lank penis and swinging balls. I’ve seen that same man rot away to nothing in his chair, sat their stuffed full with death one morning while the rest of the house knocked back courage and cured themselves of the shakes.
In the back-end of nowhere I’ve known young girls who became mothers without ever having seen a cock. Fathers thrice over who thought the clitoris was a garden plant. I’ve known company directors escape the boardroom to dress up in nappies and bonnets, lay in a cot, bawling, wriggling their legs and faking innocence. I’ve seen orgies of pigs: incomprehensible gang-bangs strike up amongst chronic drunks; alcoholic women laying spread-eagled on highstreet benches, masturbating while screaming RAPE!
On screens, I’ve seen everything from armpit licking to shit-eating. I’ve seen Arabic looking girls, dressed in nothing but a hijab, crucified to railings and gagging on twelve inches of white cock with the Stars and Stripes tattooed along the shaft. In retaliation, I’ve seen fifteen of the dustiest Arabs gang-raping a small town beauty queen, close ups of her tears and suffering as one rams it in her arse without lubricant or warning. I’ve been sent links to videos of amputees, midgets, mongols and She-males. I’ve seen horses and pigs being sucked off, and dogs eating pussy. In HD I’ve seen sheep, cows and chickens get it – living props, perfect for web cams and Shock TV.
I’ve seen faceless erections poking through zippers, shoved through holes, men, women and beasts dancing jubilantly around them. I’ve seen cunts gang-banged out of all recognizable shape, laying spent around rooms, their only use then to help remove nicotine stains from filthy fingers. I’ve studied necks and faces, stretched taut and deformed during the climax of despicable acts. I’ve seen my own mother drink and fuck her way through 20 years of grief, falling out of taxis naked and crawling up the front yard with bloodied tits and bruised buttocks. I’ve made up the numbers in the most squalid dens and witnessed the human animal partake in the most debauched and intangible practices: groups hunched over spoons, each drawing up a measure of life before shuffling back to their individual hells. I’ve seen families brought up on grease and potatoes and tomato ketchup; parents in competition for Special Offers and fighting over reduced cuts of meat. I’ve seen teenage rent boys forced to deep throat podgy middle aged men; wrecks of humans crawling around the streets looking for scraps of food; amputees glued to skateboards in a desperate effort to adapt and survive. I’ve seen people riddled with body fungi and gangrene… abscesses and ulcers the size of tennis balls eating them alive. I’ve seen people lie, steal and cheat, and try to pass on awful diseases. I’ve seen junkies with AIDS cuddling up together through dark silent nights, sobbing over regrets and old memories and cancerous lumps and lesions. I’ve seen men of money turning squalor into a profit; supposedly reputable people crippling his brothers and sisters with financial strongholds, using the most ruthless tactics and schemes to extract from people what they haven’t got. I’ve seen banks play the long-term con, burying people in credit, gambling on them defaulting on loan payments: loans scrupulously worked out so as they’ll just about be repaid come the the average age of death. I’ve seen it all and joined in the feeding frenzy, eating as blindly and as heartily as anyone else. With the rest of the pack I’ve been left crying and growling at the moon, calling out and cursing unknown enemies. I’ve drank Starbucks coffee from the same place as you, taken your traces of lipstick off the beaker, and with a swallow of stale caffeine said, “The world is so beautiful now!”
I’ve stared into the distance and seen the old infrastructure of nature, the last of the trees and mountains and fields that haven’t yet been chopped down, drilled through or ploughed flat. I’ve seen man visit every remote inch of the planet, map it out in 3d and real time video. I’ve seen the cheerless kept alive on hope support machines, the downtrodden and completely-fucked-over still with ignorant faith in their fellow beings. I’ve seen the lowest and most despicable acts from just about everyone. Modern, sophisticated man is nothing more than a successful marketing campaign. Behind the pedicures, enemas, and PH neutral cunt juice is the animal we’ve tried so hard to tame. If in public we walk on hind legs, in private, we drop to all fours and eat off the floor. And I’m not alone. We all know what our species looks like stripped down, sprawled out naked on the mattress, folds of belly, flabby sex leaking piss and cum and sucking on antacids. That’s the horrific reality of it all… the sick dog we’ve become.
It was a mild summer evening. A cool breeze was bowling lightly through the Rhône valley. I gave up trying to write, showered, changed into light clothes and went out for a stroll. I needed cigarettes and so I climbed the small hill and then descended down towards the back end of town to catch the late night tobacconist.
It is a plain walk, though not unpleasant, culminating at Grange Blanche, the city’s largest easternmost transport interchange. Due to the sheer volume of commuters passing through each day the upper station and its surroundings is a magnet for the neighbourhood’s drunks, beggars, miscreants and pick thieves. Coming into that main hub the change is manifest: raised voices, drunken growls, car horns blaring at the insane, the monotonous pleas of beggars, beer cans and wine bottles left under the seats of the tramway stop, human shit dehydrating and turning black in dark corners, piss streaming across the sidewalk, men wandering around holding their trousers up, going through bins, harvesting cigarette ends. In this place that can deliver anyone to any corner of the city, it’s ironic just how many others have no place to go.
She was sat in the island in the middle of the road. She had legs only they were bent far back in the wrong direction at the knees and fixed there by some diabolical force of nature so as her back calves were facing the world. Her filthy toes were a tongue’s length from her mouth; her face looking out over the soles of her inward twisted feet. To her left was a little straw egg basket containing a cardboard sign asking for money, and alongside that a few coins were scattered about as encouragement to the world. Her arms were also affected: one full length and crippled with the hand frozen in a contortion of fear, and the other, shrivelled away to just a small wing like thing. I was horrified and curious. There was something in the young beggar girl’s deformity which repulsed me, and yet the freakiness of such a sight attracted me for the paragraph of literature I could exploit from it. Crossing the road I made my way to the tobacconist and then purposely took the same route back just so as I could pass her by once more.
I walked at a half pace. From behind I studied her form, her clothes, her hair. I could taste the grease, the dried skin and lice in it. Her backbone was surprisingly straight. I made my way past, crossed over the main road, then doubled back around the metro as if I’d gone to take the wrong entrance. From across the road I watched her, balanced on the axle of her arse. It made me cringe, imagining the angle of her lower pelvis bone crumbling away against the hard concrete ground. I crossed the road once more. She eyed me. She was a beggar exploiting her misfortune and was infinitely aware of everything moving on around her, every look of horror or sympathy, every hand going into every pocket and by movement alone knowing which hands would pull out a coin or two and which were going in just to rattle the cash and taunt her. On arriving at the island this time I decided to approach her. I asked if I could take her picture for 5 euros. She wasn’t French and didn’t understand. She looked at me lost, her eyes wide with fear and panic like I’d pulled chloroform around her mouth and nose. I mimicked taking a photo and then showed her five euros, holding it up like it would make sense of anything. She said something, some tragic noise that belonged to no language
He appeared out of nowhere like he’d been there all the time. A little man in a cheap white panama hat, thick skin the colour of tobacco spittle and hands covered in dark-blue self-inked tattoos. In very poor French he asked what I wanted with the girl.
“Photo,” I said, once again mimicking a camera clicking, “five euros.”
“No. No foto!” he said, waving his hands like it was completely out the question.
I didn’t argue. We had attracted a small crowd of onlookers and I’d have felt like a right scoundrel taking a photo of a severely handicapped beggar girl. I already did feel like a scoundrel. I made to walk away when I heard: “Ten euros.”
“Five” I said, stopping and turning back.
“No, not five, TEN!”
I shook my head.
Then he said: “Anglaizi? English?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Me, I live in Dublin for two years,” (holding up two fingers). “So you want foto of my daughter, yes?”
He said that with à bizarre look in his eyes, usually swapped only between males when referring to sex or illegal activity.
“No, it’s OK. No photo. Forget it.”
At that he lent in, a stub of a cigarettes in his mouth, the smoke curling up into my face. “You want fuck-fuck with my daughter? Foto too! 50 euros. Fuck-fuck clik-clik?” He gave a smile that revealed teeth as rotten as my own, though which repulsed me more. Sensing I was fixed to give a negative response, he said, “Look, she a good one, look”, pulling on one of the invalids upturned calves as if to demonstrate how flexible she was. The calf didn’t budge, just trembled like a short plank of wood but was otherwise locked in place. It was now apparent that the girl was also slightly mentally retarded. I wondered how many men had fucked her. I couldn’t possible know the answer to that, but I did. I knew because I know this world. Too many was the answer. I made quick to get away from this circus, the beggar man’s dark tanned and dirty tattooed hand clawing me back as he laughed and said “fuck-fuck clik-clik fuck-fuck clik-clik.”
It was gone 9pm when I arrived at the Place Ambroise-Courtois in Monplaisir . The tables from the bars and bistros were still out in the square, occupied by couples and friends. The distant sky was streaked through with bubblegum clouds and a light jovial atmosphere was in the air. In the middle of the square groups of middle aged and old men were playing pétanque. I listened to the metal balls dent and crunch on the pink gravel. I smoked a cigarette and thought of nothing. It was a tranquil moment but on a nostalgic wind blew in a feeling of melancholy which seemed general to the evening and even more general to the smell of beer, coffee and perfume.
I had been aware of music playing from since I had arrived, but it was only now that I took proper notice of it. It was some kind of modern salsa-pop coming from the octagonal pavilion in the middle of the square. Wandering closer I saw couples dancing and an effeminate male instructor going to and from each couple and adjusting body parts, straightening backs, pushing male legs apart with his foot. I stopped and stood watching the evening dance lessons alongside a small crowd of other onlookers. I watched each couple, my eyes leaving one pair for another, observing their movements, their faces, the tenderness or coldness of their embraces. Then in a move that seemed choreographed for me, the couples parted like they were on revolving platforms, and in the opening, right in the middle of the pavilion, was revealed a haggard ragged man, dressed in cheap black, dancing alone though feigning clutching a partner in a classic closed position.
His eyes were gritted shut and a look of tortured pain was creased across his face. Where he’d lost his teeth his lower lip overhung like an ornate ledge. It was the face and movements of a chronic drunk. I watched the man dancing alone, watched him imagining away his loneliness, watched his hands sensually holding his imaginary partner, maybe all the women or men of his life. He wasn’t dancing the salsa, but rather a waltz, living a classic romance, being the classic romancer in his drunken world.
It was while I stood fixed on the drunkard’s loneliness that I first made out the laughter and the gasps. I wasn’t the only one who had been drawn to this man; the better half of the square now watching him. With the laughter came fingers pointing, and following in turn, each table then moved around, the clientele of the bar straining to look his way as if it was an important part of life. Others in the square followed the fingers and eyes, all focused in with mocking at one man’s public torment and distress. That’s when the cheering, whistling and whoops of encouragement began. I didn’t understand. I was still intent on the drunkard’s face, the passion and sadness with which he waltzed with his memories. Then, under some strange spell of instinct, my eyes moved down, over the baggy black shirt tucked into trousers held closed by a thin belt, settling on the huge piss patch spread around the man’s crotch and soaked down his left leg, urine still couling out his trouser leg as he danced alone in his own piss. And as the world laughed and pointed and whistled, I watched along with a volcano of sadness bubbling away inside of me, reminded of my mother in the school playground that day, or queuing up, jiggling with her legs crossed while buying cigarettes, or crashed out in social services, and I was hit by waves of brutal and tragic emotion, sobbing along to the salsa and the jeers of the world. A man wasted and alone, cradling himself in his own lonely dance. Me or him? Separated and defined by the flimsiest of events.
It was past ten when I passed the Notre-Dame homeless shelter on Rue Sébastien Gryphe. There was a lot of activity in the street, the city’s down-and-outs making their way to the shelter before lockdown. One man was being carried like a wounded soldier by two mates either side, each one nearly out on his feet too. A battered woman stomped up past me, holding a can of beer, wobbling around as if walking on a pavement inflated with air, screaming obscenities at a man left behind at the gates of the shelter who was screaming back equally vulgar abuse. The street, now in the dark of evening, reeking of foulness, was full of bums, ex addicts and the mentally ill, all mooching slowly down, converging on the centre. The sidewalk and doorways were littered with the physical history of those who had almost made it but whose bodies had given out at the last. I poked my head in the entrance of the shelter glancing a quick look around for anyone I knew, anyone I’d scored methadone from in the past. From the dark of the grounds I saw someone’s raised hand. At first I wasn’t at all sure it was for me, but then I heard my name. I peered in more closely but couldn’t make out the face in the darkness. The man rose and came across. He seemed happy to see me. Pulling out from his embrace I weaved to escape the current of bad odour he gave out. He smelled of rottenness and sperm, like my bed one winter in London. Standing back I looked at him in the tattered leather jacket he was swamped in, the grubby off-white t-shirt underneath, ripped and soiled by god-knows-what. The face was familiarish, but unplaceable.
“You won’t get in tonight,” he said, “I was down at 7pm to be sure of a bed.”
“I’m not here for a room.. Just passing.”
I looked at him trying desperately to recall his name, if he was a user or not. He didn’t look like a user but I knew no-one outside of that. That’s when I spotted his shoes, large loafish trainers encased in thick mud, the mud caked over his trouser bottoms too.
“you don’t remember me, do you?” He asked.
“The face I do… but I’m not sure from where.”
“Olivier!” he cried, “It’s me from the Town Hall!”
And then I remembered and was shocked at the drastic change which had came over him. It was the same Olivier I had worked with for the City of Lyon, the same Olivier who had studied the Sexual History of Prostitution, who had a degree in Belle Lettres (which is literature), who had all his hair and sanity two years ago and now stood before me with not much left of either. He seemed hyper, but it wasn’t drugs. His eyes flitted about, looking over his shoulder back towards something in the darkness. Then he looked at me and gave a weak, watery smile. He gave the impression that if I hugged him he’d break down immediately and sob until he died. I didn’t hug him. That wasn’t my job. I thought of whose job it was and wondered why they hadn’t done something which was so evidently needed."And work??? Are you working?" I asked, knowing he wasn't, couldn't possibly be.
He shook his head, then turned around to look into the dark grounds of the shelter again.
“I must go, Olivier,” I said.
He turned back with a worried, confused look on his face, like he didn’t understand. I held my hand out and he shook it, all the while looking at me like I was to say something, clear some matter up. But I had nothing to say, nothing to clear up. Suddenly his eyes took on a lost look, like he didn’t know me, and without a word he turned around and was going, trudging off into the dark of the grounds, in his mud caked shoes, just an odious smell left in receipt of his presence.
By the time I made my way back to the metro station the city had mostly cleared out and was sunk in the full beauty and tragedy of night. The hordes of Romanians who congregate on the pavement outside the supermarket to sell their salvaged wares were all gone, just a few sex workers remaining, their pimps or fathers sitting on the low wall of the tram stop drinking beer and whispering “Monsieur? Monsieur?” to each passing male. Down along the row of kebab shops young Mahgrebian boys raised their eyebrows as I passed. Not responding, and walking slowly by, one left his little group, hastened to catch me up, and on doing so, slowed to my pace, and out the side of his mouth said: Hashish? Goood, gooood hashish, monsieur? When I took no notice of him he kissed his teeth, said something derogatory about America, and rejoining his little possé, shouted: “muvva fukka, bitch!” I smiled to myself and walked on, glad the world was so cowardly and cruel.In the metro I stood along the platform, staring into the vending machine without the slightest intention of buying anything. The driverless D metro arrived. I wanted to go home, was so tired for home, but my home was far from here and one euro seventy would not get me there. Stepping inside the carriage I was hit by the smell of alcohol and vomit and could sense a tension of violence in the air. It came from a young male at the far end of the carriage to my right. I watched him furtively. Early thirties; trim and lean; hunched over in his seat, spitting out the sodden husks of sunflower seeds. With the sudden torrid heat of the night, and the alcohol in him, he was sweating profusely and his face looked like it had been treated with anti- flame gel. Every now and again he would intentionally burp, letting out a new stench of bilious alcohol fumes, before glaring across my way. Something in him disgusted me. It was as if he had forced me inside his guts, a violation, the opening gambit of his domination over others. I avoided looking blatantly across. The métro pulled into its second stop. The man rose, ignored the doors closest to him, and made his way down the aisle between the seats, passing along the hand rails, swinging with the movements of the train, to exit via the doors opposite me. Letting go of the last handrail, he stood there drunkenly staring at me, swaying forward, a sunflower husk stuck on his bottom lip.
“Pardon, Monsieur!” he growled, meaning that I was in his way. I wasn’t. He could not have had any more room had I not been there. Still, I stepped a step back. As he exited he spat a last gob of damp husks out his mouth and then burped.
In the last weeks I’d had my dealer rob me three times, a so-called friend do sleight-of-hand magic with bags of gear, seen one too many people corrupted by smack habits blaming their behaviour on mental illness and unresolved emotional trauma, had people revising history so as to look the victim in it. I had smiled but the insults and corruption in people were becoming stale.
Angry. Upset. Alone. Wounded. Bitter. I watched the metro map despondently as if it held some answers. The stations came into view. Doors shuddered open. Orange lights beeped triple. The doors closed. And it went on. Standing looking out the frontal lobe of the driverless train I watched the track ahead. In the distance I could see the next station as a point of light in the dark: Grange Blanche.
There comes a time when we must all descend into the dark heart of life and unite with and become the enemy, take our frustrations out on the weak and become as ugly in our dominance as we feel under submission. I thought of the disabled deformed beggar girl, wondering if she was still there, if the offer was still open. I imagined her stripped to the skin, towering over her, angry and frothing at the mouth, speaking only with the force of my hands, her crippled legs forced wide apart, to have her be reviled by herself through the sheer greed and repulsion with which I fucked her with. I thought of stooping lower than any other man, eating her pussy and gagging on the filth of Europe’s immigration problem.
50 euros! Not even a meal in a half-decent restaurant.
50 euros! Half a pair of half-decent shoes.
50 euros! To possess someone entirely, to fuck and buck away with only my own orgasm to worry about.
I imagined her fear, her lack of desire, the pain that sex would cause her, the perverse light in which she’d view western sexual practices – ungodly acts which even at the height of her understanding she’d never be able to make sense of. I imagined fucking her with the hatred and sadness of an entire life, reimbursing myself of all the money I’d had robbed, really getting down to work, getting my full fifty euros worth out of her, mirroring all the horrors of our world in one brutal selfish barebacked violent fuck, a complete detox of all the rottenness of life.
I stood imagining that, wanting to abuse someone or something for all that I had seen and lived and become, somehow show in real criminal terms the hideous effect that this world does have upon us. I watched the open doors, disputing if I should alight or not. Beep beep Beep… And my chance was gone.
With no movement in the air the summer night was humid and sticky. I stared at my ghostly reflection in the dark window of the metro. I looked ravaged, life-worn. I thought of the father pimping out his handicap daughter, of thé drunk dancing alone and pissing himself, of the hordes of social shrapnel inching their wounded bodies and minds down to the homeless shelter, of the whores outside MacDonald’s sucking on straws and swallowing milkshake, of the violence consuming so many people and the bitterness and corruption which reigns. In the vile regurgitated odour of red wine and vomit, in a deserted carriage of the late night metro, I stood alone and thought of all these things.
I was almost home. I had almost made it. I stepped off the tube and made towards the exit. So Dog We Were; so dog we are; So dog I am. Fuck Fuck Clic Clic Beep beep beep, at the end of another beautiful, and foul, smelling night.
In Love’s Down Tango I found myself in a twirl. I wasn’t sure what was real or what was not. The city became a place of instant memories and nostalgia. Thoughts of what had passed only five minutes ago seemed idyllic and golden. In the freshness of those summer mornings I’d rise and feel joyous and alive. I’d smell my own skin because it reminded me of her, shower in cold water and sit at the window as the great heat made its way in. I prickled with existence, like I was a part of everything. The floral scents of parks and gardens that blew in on the early breeze cleansed me of something that soap couldn’t touch. I collapsed back on life and let it carry me away. Suddenly the cool, damp shade under pine trees, us alone, in huge lost parks, seemed like perfection… like nothing else could ever get better than that. In that time, every past pain and sorrow became a thing of celebration: a journey to salvation – to the very moment: staring across at someone so outrageously beautiful and have her stare back with eyes just as intense and needing as mine. In those eyes I could have sank and died and not have cared a damn. Sometimes I just laid back and let happy tears leak out, thinking of meadows and sunshine and water and sky, and all things free and wild.
In Love’s down tango I’d steal secret glimpses of her reflection. On subway trains, in blacked out windows, my gaze fixed on her neck. That’s when she’d drift, as if having mental orgasms, sensing my eyes on the tender of her prey. As we rocketed through tunnels I felt hollow, like I had no stomach at all. In less than two weeks in a dirty bed, a lifetime of hurt and pain had been fucked, cried and kissed away. What had only yesterday been a bleak world on the unlucky side of death, was now bursting with hope and promise. The entire place had been transformed. The factories billowing smoke over in the distance now inspired me, so too the river. The flats, which had towered up around the back all these years, no longer held dark connotations. Even the old disused power station took on a a kind of historic and abandoned beauty. Some days we’d walk under its shadow and talk of industry and poverty and love and death. All things were to be celebrated. All things had led to her.
In Love’s down tango I got swept away. Strange currents pulled at me and dragged me off. I became romantic to the point of gibberishness. I wandered the city, down tree-lined avenues of shade by the river, my head drunk on what was behind, all around and up ahead. I tore off leaves and rubbed them into my hands, sucked in the fragrant air like it was something healthy. The sounds of life and nature would bring me out in tears of joy. Poetry flowed out of me: sentimental nonsense trying desperately to express what I felt. I became humane. I fell in love with scabby mongrel dogs. I started saying things I didn’t mean, and other things I meant so much. One warm evening, with the dusk sitting on the horizon and the last echoes of day ringing out, I told her: “This city is of You now.” The moment was intense. We both felt it, a darkening overhead, as we stared at each other in terror.
In Love’s down tango I became a fool. I’d jump up on seats in packed public transport and declare how much I loved her. Other men cringed for me… seeing themselves in my madness. I felt no shame; only pride. I’d walk around town kissing and blessing the homeless. I’d gatecrash counselling sessions and tell the depressed that there was hope. I’d touch blind people on the forehead and tell them: “now you can see!” No one had to be poor if they could feel like this. I bought a writing desk and planned books and novels, films and radio plays. At work I sought out promotions. I Brushed my teeth twice a day and showered before and after sex. Then, one late morning, I washed my hair with washing-up liquid and dried it with a towel from off the floor. She called me a “disgusting dog!” and said that she was leaving. Sitting on the edge of the bed she re-did her scarlet lipstick, clicked her little mirror case shut, put on her blacked out sunglasses and warned me not to come looking for her or phone. She said she’d contact me when she was ready. I tried pleading with her, blocking her path. I smashed my head and fists off the door, screaming: “No! I’m sorry!” Then, facing her, I slid down the door until I was sitting flopped out on the floor. She remained on the bed, her legs crossed, clutching her handbag and turned the other way looking out the window. I shuffled aside and said: “So go then if you’re going.” I reached out for the culprit towel and draped it over my head so I couldn’t see. I heard her rise, heard her footsteps, heard the rattle of the door handle. In a desperate last attempt to stop her leaving I threw myself out and gripped a hold of her ankle, curling my entire body around her shoe. “Don’t leave!” I begged. “Please don’t go!” She just stopped and stood there, as calm as anything, staring forward and saying nothing. After a moment I saw what a tremendous fool I was being and let go. She lifted her leg and stepped free like I was a monstrous piece of dog shit. That was the first bust up. I lay in its aftermath shaking and sobbing and having panic attacks. My mind and body doing strange things.
In Love’s down tango I lost all notion of self-respect. Saving face seemed futile, and anyway, I was glad to break down because of her. It seemed to validate something. After each new bust-up I’d show up at old friends at crazy hours, frantic, dishevelled and without socks. From the public phone box at the top of her street I’d call my Mum in tears, begging for help and asking her to send a taxi to come and collect me. I lost control of my actions. Weird impulses would have me obsessively redialling her number, sometimes for hours, until she’d finally take it off the hook or smash it against the wall. I’d pay kids a quid a time to knock on her door and deliver love-letters and flowers. One time the kid returned with a bunch of stems where she’d gone crazy and ripped all the heads off. She’d told him to give them back to me. “I think she’s mad with you!” he said.
“Did she pay you?” I asked. He shook his head. I gave him another pound coin, took the stems and dumped them over her garden wall. Once I sat on the bench across from her house for three days until she finally came out and took me home. People became embarrassed watching me; my family ashamed to see tears in my eyes again, tears that I hadn’t even cried through a childhood of appalling emotional squalor. But this was different: it was my tragedy proper. I had fully invested in this one and was not just a kid hanging onto his mothers skirt and being dragged along to the next fiasco. I was struggling with new feelings and strains inside my body. Things that didn’t physically hurt but seemed to penetrate right to the core of my existence. I felt insane, sane, happy, sad, lost, found and dangerous. I was a man capable of marching off to war. I cared so much and I cared so little… both extremes at once, leaving me confused, unstable of mind and scared of myself.
In Love’s down tango the nights crackled and fizzed and deep songs drifted out the stereo. The room seemed like a square floating lost through space. It was just us now – astray in a universe of black where things carry on forever but get further away. The only light we had was two little red and green LEDs on the stereo. From the bed we’d stare at them. They became a point of sadness absolute, both of us sobbing away in the dark as it dawned on us just how useless it was and that no-one was really going to be saved. As the last song drifted off to nowhere and left a throbbing silence in its wake we’d hold each other tight, stare into each others eyes, and wait for Armageddon.
In Love’s down tango day was always night. Some kind of uninvited darkness now joined us in the room, its hanging presence causing silences and long, forlorn thoughts that were no good. We were a tragedy unravelling, a train heading for the buffers, and everyone was wondering what kind of impact we’d make. I started cutting love letters into my body, and she split herself up between multiple personalities – each as crazy as the next. Some nights she’d turn her head and when she turned back she was someone else: her eyes wide and glaring, covering up in shame and itching and shrieking like I had stripped and violated her. She’d run out the house, 3am, waking the street in just her knickers and vest, tugging at her hair as she collapsed to the floor, screaming: “I know what it is! I know what you are!” From the upstairs window I’d curse her, call her crazy, chuck her heels at her, tell her to “fuck off”, then I’d follow for four miles, trying to cover her with a blanket, saying “Sorry” and lying about other things as well. One night we ended in a park, alcoholics and bums cigarette glows and coughs on the distant benches. Under the same fig tree I had once found a dead cat hanging we cuddled up and went to sleep.
In Love’s down tango I was a dangerous man. I lost myself in films and books on crimes of passion and sat staring at my hands and wondering just what they could do. I discovered much about myself in those desperate times, and as the forces of love and hurt and jealousy and obsession converged I realized absolutely that one day the cure I had found to my past ills would be the same force that would blow my future apart. We started talking of death pacts, of going down together, dressing up for marriage and walking ourselves out to sea. Nights descended into pits of depraved perversity, the both of us making insane pledges and promises, and gripping on so tight so as madness didn’t drag us off completely. Sometimes it seemed like another morning would never arrive. And then, just in time, her face would show a little more clearly and her body would come out the dark and be shivering slightly in the thin early morning light. Somehow the early bird calls, with industry waking up over the rooftops, heralded yet another depression – something not ours, rather a general gloom that for a while we had escaped. We started putting blankets up against the windows. We slept through the mid summer days, the heat trapped in the dark of the room, a fan whirring but only circling hot air. We’d both writhe and sweat through separate nightmares, straining and reaching out for release. The descent was on. We closed our eyes and let it swallow us up.
Oh, the world was so delicate then. I was almost scared to walk for fear of going right through the ground. I clamped up and stuck, not wanting to twist and risk losing what I had. I sat through dark quiet nights watching intently, looking for early signs of the apocalypse. One night, out the silence, I told her she would destroy me. Her crazy eyes lit up and widened. She gripped me by the hair, pushed her face right up to mine and stared a universe deep into my soul. “You’ll destroy me too,” she said, through streams of tears, “I think I want to die.” On the first morning of autumn I woke up and she was gone. At first I panicked, then I surrendered, then I smoked two cigarettes, and then slept for thirty six hours straight.
In Love’s down tango she shaved off all her hair. I opened the door and stood staring at her in shocked disbelief, her eyes crazy as moons, tears welling up as she smiled and said “I’m back!” Later that night she became a familiar looking stranger and said she felt like a prisoner. She asked: “Are you sure you love me so much that you want me to be here even if I don’t want to be?” I meant to say “no” but instead I said “yes.” Then I said: “I saw Grace yesterday. She was sat in the park, under the old school shed, drinking and reading the old graffiti and looking out with such sadness.”
“Did you fuck her?” she screamed.
“Of course not. Would you be able to fuck with a broken heart?”
“That’s when I fuck the best!” she said.
“Then I suppose that goes to show how different we are.”
“If you ever fuck anyone else, EVER, I’ll kill you!”
“You’re crazier than me,” I told her. Then I said: “It’s all very sad, now.”
Without saying a word she rose, left the room, and went downstairs. When she returned she was holding a large kitchen knife. She laid it calmly down on the bedside cabinet then stepped out of her dress, and naked, climbed into bed.
I stared at that knife for three days. It sat alongside her cigarettes and lighter and ear-rings, and made me think of terrible things: of having to grab it first before her. Then she said: “I want you to cut me. While we make love I want you to cut my breasts. I want to bleed in this fucking bed!”
And so we fucked. So hard we almost became one. As I thrust she cried and looked at me with such intensity I thought I was a Devil or a God. She dug her nails into my back and clawed out trenches of flesh: slithers of my skin under her fingernails.
“The knife…” she whispered, “take the knife!”
Laying beneath her I stretched out and took the knife. I ran the tip of the blade down between her breasts. She closed her eyes and lent back, her arms splayed like she was about to be crucified. I stared at her, the tips of her milky front teeth behind her partly open mouth; her head tilted back and at an angle; her neck stuck out and taut in total trust. I thought of the knife, of pulling it straight across her breasts, of how ill it would make me if gaping wounds opened up and I saw the knotty flesh before the blood. She opened her eyes and looked at me all dreamy, her head swimming in a sea of eroticism. In that instant I chucked the knife down and told her I couldn’t do it, that I didn’t want to hurt her like that. She groaned and deflated in anti-climax, like I had finally delivered her the greatest disappointment imaginable. Then she collapsed down close, crazy passionate again. She bit hard into my neck, released, then hissed a vicious death threat into my ear. She said she wanted me to talk to her, call her all the whores under the sun… tell her of men, strangers, who’d rape her and force her to do hideous things in front of me or her parents. As I told her all she asked she squirmed and shivered and shuddered about on top of me, having orgasms that looked more like an exorcism. During the most intense pleasure I ever gave, I wasn’t even hard. When she was finished I rolled out from underneath her, terrified at what I had just seen. Later that same night she started up with real life horror stories, telling me about her and friends picking up men, following strangers on the metro, sucking them off in doorways and elevators… of being gang-banged in stairwells. When I begged “STOP!” she said I was wanting to revise her history, put her in chains and deny her her liberty and womanhood. She said she needed to tell me these things. That she wasn’t the pure angel which I had created of her in my head. September became an ill month, each day infected by some repulsive history that she needed to get out. Vile things would now come randomly from her mouth. One day, on the number 14 bus, as we were curled up together looking out at the passing shops, she told me that it was in just that very same position that she was first fucked in the arse by her best friend’s husband. I removed my arms from around her and watched the world alone. From that point on we took to dressing in black jumpers and dark shades and moping around town like two figures of doom.
In love’s down tango I stopped sleeping and stayed awake reading tragic poetry from people who had chucked themselves off bridges. I longed for those innocent days when she’d stood outside the train station, in a light red dress, the summer exuding directly from her. Now I sat there through the nights, watching her as she slept, seeing hideous shapes manifest in her body… her beauty now looking like a deformity. There were times when she’d open her eyes, still drunk on sleep, and for a moment, deprived of memory, she appeared beautiful again. She’d give a shy, dreamy smile, and then the data of her life would re-load and she’d look crazed and lost and sorrowful once more. When I slept, her body felt like a huge black negative presence besides me. The smell of her sticky summer skin and cropped unwashed hair infiltrated and plagued my dreams. I’d dream of the river and turbulent waters, and that furious space either side of the bridge supports where the water divides and rushes around and sucks and pulls down. I’d groan and fight off dream demons, her pushing me away, hitting and elbowing. “Fucking stop it!” she’d hiss. Our pains and torments were no longer endearing, but a burden. That insane obsession and fervour that we had promised to save each other with was now the same force turned inside out and set against us. She kept asking if I loved her, and I did, and I said “Yes!” During the last two months we tried to recreate the first, but the music didn’t work no more, nor the candles, nor the inspired verse that love had once forced out by pure overload of emotions.
In Love’s down tango I became ugly. Gaunt. Ill. Depressed. A stranger to myself. Inside I was even worse. Our love had turned rotten and unhealthy, but it was still love and it was still better than anything I’d known before. Just having someone I wanted seemed to fulfil a great need in me. When she wasn’t with me I’d start imaging what she was doing – who she was doing it with. I’d ring and kill the phone or just hang there silent. She knew it was me but couldn’t prove a damn thing. I knew it was crazy but couldn’t stop myself: love is a mental illness. In the evenings I started going down to the river, alone, staring over and off the bridge into the big black swirling eddies, or walking around town and picking out the tallest buildings which I could throw myself off. I was miserable in my own skin, and we hadn’t even crashed out yet. Now when we’d meet I’d sit around hung with gloom, somehow hoping that my distress would re-ignite something in her: even pity. But forces inside myself were working against each other. While one tiptoed around this house of ice the other took to it with a hammer. My mouth would just say things, and as soon as it had I was apologizing. I started asking questions, getting suspicious of her absences, interrogating her after she’d passed an evening out, accusing her of everything she was capable of and suspecting her of being capable of so much more. Then, in a sudden burst of toughness, I’d throw her out and tell her never to come back again, that she was “history!”. A few hours later I’d be at her door, standing in the garden in the rain, screaming that I couldn’t live without her. I started hinting at suicide, calling her up and saying “Goodbye” then, not taken at all seriously, blackmailing her outright with it. Those old tricks that I despised so much in my mother, that I’d promised I’d never repeat, I was now employing for the same ends. The few nights we did manage to spend together from then on were maybe the saddest memories of both our lives, lost somewhere between insanity, hatred, bitterness and base animal sex.
Just before the real cold British weather set in, before the trees were completely bare, before the last of the birds had migrated, before one of us was ticked off and zipped up, love was finally driven off the cliff: she left for foreign soils and booked herself into psycho-therapy. The only contact I had was for her father and he refused to speak to me. On Christmas day of that year, on my pleading, my sister made an international call, and through tears, gave news that the body of a young man had been dredged up from the river and it was almost certainly me. She still never phoned. And all her father said was: “pass on our condolences to your mother.”
In Love’s down tango the city smelled of Her. Walking around alone, in the winter of that year, I was tortured and mocked by memories. In specific places I saw our ghosts; heard echoes of time: us laughing, little things we had said, desperate promises we had made. In bars I saw us sitting in the corner, alone, secretive, withdrawn from the world outside. There wasn’t an inch of city anywhere which offered any respite. For a brief moment I’d lived joy under London’s sky and going back to the rot of yesterday was now punition too much. I became a prisoner of my city… of my memories. My own existence goaded and tortured me; I reminded myself of so much. In Love’s down tango I went on a pilgrimage of pain. I retraced my journey so far, crying and making no sound. Sadness and despair just poured out of me. People looked on me like I was a freak… like I’d just staggered away from a bomb blast, unaware that half my head was missing. Mothers would shield their kids eyes as I passed, hold them in tight and block out my vision. There is something about real grief and hurt in a man which terrifies people. It terrified me too. In Love’s down tango, in that fleeting, mystic twirl, I opened my eyes and for a moment I saw it all.
“No twos, no threes, no lugs!” That’s what we used to say when sparking up a cigarette and not wanting to share it. Thirteen years old and preparing our lungs for coughing up tar. Billy with his wonky eye, looking off-centre and smiling at things which didn’t exist. Beautiful, sad days… sun soaked west London with hopelessness spread out to the horizon. An eternity of orange tiled rooftops and the occasional spluttering chimney.
In the forecourt there’d be grubby gypsies stripped to the waist, banging and bashing away to give some worth to the worthless. Someone suddenly taking up an old fashioned boxing stance, sweat glistening off his chest as he jabbed and hooked away at unknown forces. The sun cooking pale Irish skin red, engine oil bubbling with the tarmac, the heat rising and the world wavering through it the other side.
A face over the balcony on the fourth floor. Darren Brown, eyes all pupil and jittery as hell, keeping dog of the non-existent police teams creeping up the stairs to bust him for his last remaining crumbs of crack. Two months later entering the only successful rehab clinic there is: the morgue. Flattened on the Westway. Splattered to death trying to get back home to his pipe quicker than humanly possibly.
I saw the blood. A dark shadow of scarlet which went nowhere in all directions. There were flowers too. A single bunch. “How Romantic the poor are,” I thought, “or maybe somebody got married?” I Laughed. The end of Darren Brown! That evil cunt who had taken me at knifepoint and forced me to commit robberies to fund his habit, sending me into a wild Africans home while he was still there. Me chucking half defrosted fish at him as he lunged towards me like a huge bear with yellow teeth. I made my escape: a 20ft drop from the back window, landing on Daniel Kinsella who was sucking the entrails out of a roach he had picked up from somewhere. A pair of Adidas Samba’s catching him in the bristle of his adolescence. An horrendous tough jaw, twisting out of shape and his fists instinctively clenching because something had hit him. A dull thud in my ear, the side of my head red, throbbing sounds from bust eardrums: “God, I’ll never hear the sea again!” I thought, as we legged it back to the relative safety of the Estate, pursued by a clucking, screaming, knife wielding crack head.
“Did you get the camera!” Darren hurled, collaring me in the underpass, the sharp end of his blade pushing to pop my eyeball. Oh, I was so glad he got splattered. No one deserved it more. I hope it was a Skoda that hit him. They were so uncool back then. For a moment I did believe in karma, then I thought about myself, blowing up frogs in the Greyhound Park, and hoped not.
Sometimes, as the sun went down, we’d sit around in the cool shade of the back, listening to insects and the sound of wind rustling through wild trees. We’d hand joints around and burn the dried grass down to stub. After a while we’d lay back and stare up at the slowly changing sky. Sometimes it’d be shot through with pink clouds, warning us that tomorrow may not be so great. Someone would always talk. A slow, stoned, drawl of hope and mystery. Some of us had dreams, but others were too clever for such things. I had no dreams. I wanted nothing but the very moment.
At around eight, or whenever dusk was, the dogs would come out. Thin, scabby things that looked like they’d been vacuum packed in their skin. Sniffing and pissing on dandelions, or crouched down and snarling amongst broken bin bags. As the day disappeared behind the flats the grass would tone dark and then go black. Faint breezes would start up and the grass would fan out and ripple like thousands of little legs. The city smelled like magic and would make us cry. With the right light and sounds behind it, life seemed so worth living. Not long after the illusion would be broken. Lightbulbs would flick on in the apartments and show up silhouettes of the despicable things living inside them. Thin straggly women with knives or bottles or both… beer bellied men raining punches down on unknown things. For many of us they were the shapes of things to come. It was bad, yet those often turned out to be the good years.
“What are you looking at, Billy?” I asked
“Time,” he said
“Can you see time?” I asked
“I can feel it,” he said, “time to go home.”
“Do you want to go home, Billy?” I asked
His wonky eye now settled on me and a feint, tragic smile spread across his lips.
“Do you?” he said, as a question to the question.
It was now just the two of us. Laying out in the dark of the back, the night bringing in a chill, and the milky summer grass then damp and cold beneath us. I emptied the last cigarette out the box. “No twos no threes no lugs!” I blurted, as my only answer to the long forgotten question. Then I struck a match and lit up the hell around us. Billy smiled anew, it was just something we said. The night was down upon us. Soon the bars would spill out and our lives would be ruined again. Love me tender in the Ghetto. Billy would get his ‘twos’. I could taste the sulphur in my mouth. The sweet end of the match.
Sometimes on the autumn blows, when it comes through like this, when the evening air has just a faint idea of chill about it and the first musty tangs whip up in the first of the fallen leaves, I remember a life entire and it makes me sad and ecstatic in turns. And on the autumn blows, when the colour of your greatest bruises are back in season, when the scars from old love re-open and weep, when childish tinklebells of happiness ring through from the lost of time, I am compelled to write because this is the parallel universe of which I inhabit and in which I see the flawed and tragic beauty of this world. It is on the autumn blows that I cry for life and all the pleasures and pain therein, thereof and theregone. It is on the autumn blows that death terrifies and offends me and remains something to avoid at all costs.
I dreamt of her again last night… And of her pharmacies. The neon green cross flickering on its last legs, a dying beacon of sickly light for the junkie to wash-up in before smashing into the rocks further on. Askew road. Opposite the public library. The chime of the bell as I enter. Standing there in that pharmaceutical smell of pomade, baby powder and surgical stockings; the evening dark and suspicious outside; the last of the days addicts blustering in with their sniffles, bad lungs and lack of time. And it ends the same: watching myself recede down Hadyn Park Road with my works, the street lights on but the sky not yet quite night above, my form becoming smaller and darker until finally I’m no longer there at all. That was London and that was the autumn there and it only exists in dreamscape now. On waking I am slow to emerge. I don’t move. Just lie there. A profound longing weighing me to the bed; the dream fresh in me for some moments yet. I am weeping but it’s not sadness. It’s a base emotion not contrived at all. I rise and I dress and the day is fresh to the cold outside. October is in me then.
I spent the better part of the morning sat alone outside the L’étoile brasserie watching the carousel turn in the square. The sky was dull full of clouds above, stretching off into the forever. Out across was the river, running parallel to me, huge sycamore trees potted along its course, leaves faded for the change in season, balding and baring through. I topped my coffee up with my morning dose of methadone and stirred it in good. The bartender saw me, made out he hadn’t, wiped his cloth across a couple of tables and then came and placed a round glass ashtray down in front of me. I thanked him a Merci and asked that he bring me another cafe au lait. He gave a nod, looking at me intently, determining if I was sober enough to stay, and if so, would I likely be topping up every coffee with controlled substances. I guess he ruled in my favour. Standing a way off to my left he took a long searing drag from his cigarette, inhaled, then blew the smoke out as he peered a painful look over towards the river and at something out there which only he could see. He seemed to ponder profoundly on life for a moment. Then he smirked and gently nodded, a sad despondency in him then, like he’d figured out that it was useless and nothing could be done about it anyway. I looked over to where he’d been focusing, at the same blankness. It was another day in our lives and the city rolled on, and in a thousand years time it’ll still be the same and out there I spied the insignificance of our lives when faced with the infinite spectre of history.
The methadone was coming on. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach, a warm hollowness stirring around, a sudden compulsion to be involved in life. I sat preoccupied by the carousel, lit up and turning around through the drabness of the morning, the wurlitzer music sounding so out of sorts with the yield of the day and yet so perfect in the discordant and contradictory spirit of the time. On the face of it the music was upbeat and carnival but drifting out in low tones, unfurling and seeping up through its heart was a timeless melancholy, some tragedy stewing away below. I watched the few people turning around the ride, the smiling faces, the waving and laughter as they passed their loved ones on the periphery, completely oblivious to the tragic spectacle they were making up a part of. And then it hit me, what that tragic spectacle was: it was what carouselled around the carousel: the timeless melancholy was life.
Morning the colour of cloud. A moistness in the air like very fine drizzle, but no rain to be had. I finished my second coffee and felt lonely but strangely suited for it. I imagined all the beautiful people I’d sat opposite to in cafés over the years, of the time I stole Mary’s cup as I wanted a memento of where her lips had been. That was autumn too. In the hotel that night, as we lay kissing on the bed, her suddenly shoving her hand into my pocket to feel out my cock.
“What’s that she cried?” Her face ruffled in surprise, looking ugly for the first time. I knew what it was and tried to squirm free. I gripped her wrist so as she couldn’t remove her hand.
“It’s nothing,” I said, looking ugly for the first time too. “Just a spoon!”“A spoon??? What?”
She was laughing without laughter, her face frozen on the brink of it… Or on the brink of crying. I was angry, trying to mask it; trying to think. How dare someone go for for my cock, especially in my left pocket! I held her wrist tight and stared without blinking into her eyes. She looked deceived for the first time. Then she looked sad, but that had happened before. Sensing she was never going to get the spoon out my pocket she let go. I pulled her hand out and began licking and kissing her fingers, passionately, removing all trace of the black carbon from them before she saw, before this turned into a real tragedy. As I kissed the last black soot off her fingers I said: “It’s your spoon… from the cafe. I stole it. I wanted to save the moment. I stole your cup too. Go look It’s in my bag! I collect mementos… I never wanted the day to end.”
Hope returned in her for the first time. That quick all consuming hope that only lovers of addicts, gamblers and the consistently unfaithful are ready to buy into. For a moment a nightmare had nearly shattered all her new dreams, like had happened to her/to me/to the entire world before. But that autumn night would not be the one where her world would collapse. It would be another full month later before she would learn I was an addict and didn’t really have gastro-digestive problems; that I was in the toilet so often and for so long as my needles and vit C and heroin were wrapped in a succession of plastic bags and stashed in the cistern.
I laughed now. It seemed sweet. I would live that again if I could, if it meant we could all be young and hopeful again. I looked out over past the carousel, past the river, over to the Fourviere Hill making up the backdrop of the city, the Basilica sat atop it, the huge gilded Virgin Mary looking out over us, breaking through the faint mist at just-past-eleven, protecting the city from pestilence. But the pestilence is here, thriving, only it looks nothing like the plague. It’s hard to believe I’m here, making up the history of this foreign town, walking a part of my legend around streets so alien to where I’m from. It’s hard to believe it’s 2013 and we’ve mostly all made it this far and the world hasn’t really changed at all.
It was time to go. The morning had warned up and lost its bite and other phantoms of life now blew in over from the river and called me off to some place else. I left a note and more change on the table for the two coffees. As I passed the door of the Brasserie I signalled to the bartender that the money was on the table. Taking no chances he rushed out to check before I was gone, out of sight. Taking advantage of not having rung the order through the till the bartender picked the note out the litter and saucered the change into his pocket. When I next looked back he was gone. He had cleared the table and it was hard to believe I had been there at all.
It’s true, sometimes when the sun breaks through, when great sheets of architectural yellow light escape between parting clouds, when the river gently laps on the turning tide, when a swan drifts by, we can disconnect from the dirt of living, from the epoch, from the constant fear of death, and for just a moment be equals in that wonder and awe; be equals in that fleeting understanding of mortality.
So once again the greatest season of all is breaking out across Europe. The light summerwear has been chucked back to the moths, the blithe fragrances replaced by scents much heavier and darker and obsessive. It’s the time for taking sanctuary in someone, rip undressing as you clatter through the door, the desperate and breathless fuck in the low of the corridor, sperm shot up the inside of a thigh, across coutured lace and woven trims, tears of joy and horror at the realisation of how far you could lose yourself in someone, entire days spent in bed, holding and healing and catching up on a lifetime of good sleep as the wind and skies growl wild outside.
And on and on the autumn blows and winter will be here real soon, and fuck me if I’m not still enamoured with this ghastly fucking world.
A new series of writings detailing my last 5 months of exile in France. As many will know I dislike daily diary/journal writing and the mundane nonsense which that usually circles around. I have never offered up that kind of garbage as literature here. This journal will therefore concentrate on very specific areas of my life which I have a passion to write about. The main themes will concern my continued drug addiction; my thoughts on writing and literature and the process around my life as a writer; the city of Lyon and a retrospective telling of my life and years here. As the sub-title suggests the majority of writing will be written during a series of walks around the city. All writing will be written on my smartphone during the actual walks. Walks do not represent days. Sometimes I will make multiple walks in the same day and other walks may be separated by days or a week. The objective is not to capture the last months of my time in France but to capture the city I have passed the last ten years of my life in. Texts obviously written at home I will for the moment refer to as LOT 1003.
[*The Last French Steps – a walking journal of a writer’s final days in France. *]
Laennec – Montchat
It’s quiet here now. There are only the birds left. I can’t see them but I hear them all around. Anne has left and this place isn’t the same without her. Too quiet. Too lonely. Nothing to get home to but syringes and the computer. Writing away through the night and deleting it because the darkness has gotten into my words. But out here, on these walks, I come down to the level of nature. I am sad with death and sad because I’ll be leaving this place in some months and that means leaving a part of myself behind and making the final break from the last lover to have fucked poetry into me and to have left an indelible mark on my existence.
From a window comes the sound of French evening TV. It always sounds like it’s reporting the aftermath of a tsunami. I remember walking around the little village of Belleville-sur-Soane the evening that Indonesia got hammered. News reports flashed windows up blue throughout the evening as local restaurants clattered and rang out with the crickets into the night. The television fades and the birds chirp back in. Floral scents abound.
Montchat. I used to work around here. It wasn’t really working but I got paid at least. I was charged with looking after the cultural centre from 3pm until 10. The only tasks I had were to open and close the building and be on hand inbetween. In the four months I was there my office door was only ever tapped on twice. On both occassions it was the same old lady asking for the key to the library. “It’s open,” I said.
“Open? Is it really? Good then.”
Aside from these rare intrusions I passed most my days sat in my office, mostly writing and sometimes reading and very occasionally with my shoes and socks removed, watching a film. Once the Montchat Orchestra had finished their rehearsals and packed up I’d make a tour of the building, lock up, set the alarm, and make the 30 minute walk home through the tawdry summer night. When I arrived home I’d be tired, in a good; in the way where taking the weight of your feet and walking barefoot across cool tiles is an absolute pleasure. There was always heroin in those days and it worked well on my body.
She left because of that. She never said so but in the things she did say, the reasons she gave months later, that’s what it came down to. Not the heroin in itself but the consequences of it and that she had used up all her savings to secure a hell that she ended up in alone. My life may have looked like hell to her, or anyone else looking in, but it didn’t feel like it to me.
I felt terribly guilty for what she ended up living. Even now, two years since she dropped bat and left, I get overcome at odd moments thinking of her counting out money from her purse and leaving it on the table. She had saved that money gradually over years, refusing herself treats but for occasionally, enjoying them immensely when she did. And then, all the guilty pleasures she had wanted but never would allow herself, money that could buy them thrice over, was being handed to me and by me to my dealer. The price is heartbreaking when it’s not your own money – it’s not easier: it’s harder. I had promised her success and she believed it, only she soon realised that there could be no success with me using heroin as I was doing. I ended every other night typing pages of the same letter with my face and that didn’t produce the kind of poetry you could hang dreams on. If you ask her now, or in some years, how she experienced the writing process, she will tell you it disgusted her. It never disgusted me; I never saw it. For me it was life. The two had to be, and were, one and the same thing.
It was disappointment and disillusionment. That’s what it was. She’d fantasized about the writing process, had eroticised it in her mind. She imagined being close to the poet, fucking through each great sentence, somehow inducing herself onto every page in every word. I’d allowed her too think such thoughts, had encouraged her. But unlike Anne I knew the process to be deeply private, the writer withdrawn from the interference of his immediate reality. Writers mostly write about what has passed – it’s the only way to know what road you’re on and how to depict and close it. Writing about the present is perilous and writing about the future fantasy. On the odd occasions when I did write of my life in the present, Anne did not figure in it at all. Until such a time as that chapter of my life with her was a closed one, or sufficient time had passed to conclude something of importance from it, she was obsolete in literary terms. I told her that not being in my texts was a privilege, that my writing is a wordyard of corpses and ghosts and that the time I wrote about her, condemned her to words in my work, it would almost certainly mean she was no longer of any significance in my life. She didn’t understand that. She didn’t understand that I would never exploit a love so loyal and honest for a few lines of poetry. She always saw it the other way around, like she didn’t mean enough to me to be written about. That accounted for the disappointment, not the disgust. The disgust came from the poet sitting there half naked, his penis small and shrivelled, blood down his legs, a syringe hanging from his inner thigh and experiencing god knows what in his state of sedation. I would raise my head and prepare to type again. She would stare at me from over her book, her legs open as she sat on the bed, no underwear, her sex aroused. I’d pretend I hadn’t seen. She’d remain like that, sometimes for hours, sometimes nudging me with her foot, before getting into bed and crying.
Boulevard Mermoz Pinel
Mermoz Pinel and her estatelands are separated from the east side of town by a dual-carriageway with a central divide. The carriageway is not wide but is sufficient to have isolated that section of the city and turned it into a lawless zone. The contrast is evident, even at a walk down the mermoz-side stretch of road, before turning right into one of Lyon’s worst ghettoes. Five storey low-rise blocks run along this side of the carriagway, the windows overlooking traffic and a run down supermarket. Directly below these flats is a two meter stretch of mostly dead, yellow grass. A high perimeter railing runs the grass off, prevents it from contaminating the conctete walkway. The dead grass is strewn with rags of fabric, small pieces of broken toys, fallen plastic plant pots, burnt pages from books, pieces of toilet paper, random playing cards, the odd crayon, and thousands of cigarette ends from ashtrays emptied straight out the window. Throughout this debris are sat little mounds of dehydrated dog and cat shit, maybe human too. Big black flies buzz around, the traffic flashes by, life trudges in out the supermarket opposite and Mermoz Pinel rots away in the wastelands of town.
Turning into the estate brings broken, hole-picked roads, oil spills and dead car batteries discarded alongside the curbing. A car is sat on its rusted metal wheel rims, its windows all out and the seating and interior torn and ripped to shreds. A little kid, no older than 8, is sat at the driver’s wheel pretending to drive. Loitering outside the small row of four shops which make up the estate’s high street are a small group of shaven headed and criminal looking adults. They stand, blocking the narrow path, forcing people to move around them and following them with their eyes as they do. I walk straight on through the group. When they see I don’t care a fuck they give an inch but it’s hostile surrender. I turn into the tobacconists. When I leave they’ve stepped back a foot. I stop and light my little cigar in front of them. They pull up phleghm and spit it out to the side. I leave slowly, back to the Boulevard and off towards home.
As I wait to cross the busy carriageway a Facebook message beeps and vibrates through on my phone. A little circle with Theo’s face in it appears on my screen alongside the words ‘ça va?’ When my dealer messages me asking how it’s going, it means come around. I would have usually replied immediately “45mins” and been straight off across town. It wasn’t possible today. Before replying I text’d Mary and asked if she could borrow me 30 euros. She said to meet her tomorrow at noon. I asked “not now?”
“I can’t,” she said. I understood what that meant but that’s her private life and not for me to write of here. I agreed to meet her tomorrow and messaged my dealer the word ‘2omorrow’.
‘That works’ he replied. I tramped slowly around my area for an extended period. I went home and an hour later took off again on the same route. At 7pm I cracked and messaged Mary again: “There’s no way you could pop out for two minutes to meet me?”
“OK. Sorry,” I replied.
Croix[_ ]Paquet[ ]- Place[ ]Rouville[ ]- Hotel[ ]de[ _]Ville
I visited Mary today. She had agreed to lend me 30 euros for tobacco. I wrote her a cheque for the money and asked her to wait a week before cashing it. She said she didn’t want the cheque. I insisted but she refused. She always refuses. Together we sat high up on the Croix Rouse hill, Place Rouville, overlooking the city and thinking. I told her I would be leaving Lyon this summer, returning home to London. We had arrived here together ten years ago. She, didnt reply. Just stared with a momentary sadness out into the distance. We both did. She has a baby daughter now, a month new in the world. Mary’s changed. Motherhood has changed her. For the better or worse I’m not sure. Maybe neither. Maybe she’s just changed.
I stayed with Mary and child for nigh on an hour. It’s the longest I’ve been in anyone’s company for over 5 months. We found a bar and each took a fruit juice with ice. Mary paid. As we sat out in the sun I asked her if she ever thought about heroin. She said no with such an honesty that it shocked me. “Never?” I asked, surprised, adding: “For me, on days like this, I am seduced by memories of walking up the Saxe Gambetta in the afternoon sun on our way to see Mamms… His dog scampering along and looking back with its tongue out as it slid in those boardings of the squat.”
Mary looked at me and seemed to change her mind. Now she said she did have memories. She told me not of summer but of winter. The days we’d wait for hours in the wet, deserted square with our noses dripping and feet turned to ice.
“But they’re sick memories,” I said. “They were days we were half ill.”
Whether or not she really remembers such days, outside of being asked about them, I doubt. I think her initial response was the truth. Its insightful nevertheless. It would take a huge tragedy in her life now to have her return to the needle. Her track marks are all healed. Her depression is gone. She quit her medication and stopped smoking when she found out she was pregnant. The only trace remaining of her heroin history is me, and soon I will be gone as well.
Alone, on my way back down the hill, I took some photos. I never take photos. I’ve learnt I should. Not of myself. Of the world and the places I’ve trodden and the places which have trodden on me. I never did of London and it haunted me, that gradual loss of true memory of my roots when I needed them the most. I will capture Lyon. In my literary memory and in photograph. It will be the Lyon of a Londonian, not the Lyon of the Lyonnaise. From my eyes their city may not even be recognisable to them. If I capture anywhere near the truth of my life here it most certainly will not be.
I was honest to my word and made sure to buy tobacco with the money Mary gave me. I purposely kept that 30 euros in my left pocket so as it wouldn’t get muddled up with the 48 euros 78 centimes in my right. That 48 euros was my very last drippings of physical cash. It was for my dealer, for one last gram of heroin to be used up slowly over three days. As I waited for him at the foot of the hill at Place Terreux I bought 3 pouches of rolling tobacco, 2 packets of cigarette papers, 4 small cigarillos and a one euro Numéro Fetiche scratch card.
“A vous aussi,” I said, collecting my purchases and leaving. I’m sure it’ll be a good day for the entire fucking town.
Outside I stared blankly at my losing scratch card. I never expected to win anyway and by the time I had bought it I had already lost. It was a strategic no hope gamble. Hope is a disappointing emotion. I ripped the losing game into quarters and popped it in a trash can. Barely had I done so when a car beeped and slowed and stopped down along the road. I ran to catch up and got in the passenger side, pulling the door closed towards me as it drove off.
I have no cash at all. My dealer dropped me off a mile from home in that state. I am overdrawn all my limit and more so will be living the next two weeks on cheques. For each cheque I cash I will incur a ridiculous charge. My major concern will be tobacco. I’ve enough for ten days. You cannot buy tobacco with cheques in France, and so once I’m all smoked out I will need to find someone scrupulous enough to want to make a twenty euro profit on a cheque for cash. We will see. For now I have heroin. It will be the last for the month. My fingers will get a well-deserved rest from typing.
Oh God, spring is here in the sullied air and France prejoices to the distant haze of her Rimbaud summer and I’m four days clean and feel so unhappy and vile. To all old lovers, and Lovers of Tragedy, I saw it this morning on white muslin cloth billowing gently from some early window. I was stopped in my tracks. Olfactory memories. Fresh linen pegged on the line in the damp back yard, me lost entangled within it, brief glimpses of the spinning, wonderous blue sky.
When I look up buildings begin to topple.
“Mum, why is the house falling down?”
“I don’t know,” she would say. I would look up again, and sure enough, the house was falling down. And not just ours, all tall buildings everywhere. It was no illusion. The eyes can only see what they see. No more and certainly no less.
I looked ahead down the length of the Avenue Rockefeller, through the bright clarity of the morning. In the far distance a ghostly shimmering, the last of the cold morning air meeting the heat and laying like mist along the horizon. Sunlight glinted off the traffic far and way up ahead. I had to return home. My head was full of words, terrible words, and that can become a curse. My phone was low on battery charge too and I didn’t want to fall into the fury of those words and be foiled by technology. Lost words like that will never return and its better to have never thought of them at all.
By the time I had gotten home and my phone had charged, the day had changed. Rain clouds had come over the afternoon and a wind rattled my door. I drank my methadone and went to sleep.
Albert Thomas[_ _]- Monplaisir
It’s the first day since seeing Theo that I feel well. I’ve not written much either but for a few emails and some scraps. The heroin was strong. I had argued with Theo the time before last I had seen him. I had left without buying anything which shocked him and I hadn’t phoned for a week. It was him who finally messaged me. He gives nothing away for nothing and his stubbornness (unlike mine) only extends to him losing money. When he is losing money he can be capable of the kindest behaviour imaginable. I know this, but even I have to remind myself at times that he doesn’t care a damn. The quality of the stuff he sold me was nothing more than good ol’ bait. You could be sure if I had made the call he had baited for the next batch would have been half the strength, rotting sardine left for me to make it on. And yet, for all my years of knowledge, I would have still made that call, hoping for some honesty somewhere in this fucking racket of death. I would still like to make that call now. I cannot. I’ve no cash not even credit. I can be extremely stubborn and exercise amazing self-control and willpower when I’m potless. You should see me in them fine moments.
It drizzles. The sky. It’s been a dull misty day, like sea spray. The road Albert Thomas runs on pretty much the same for miles. It’s one of those roads you hate to tramp as you can always see how little you have gotten on and how far left ahead. I turn off at Monplaisir and cross the square. My bank is on the corner. I eye it suspiciously remembering so many soul-shrinking moments where the cash machine refused me cash; walking off red in the face, my heart beating and my eyes intent on the ground in hope of a miracle to blow on by in the form of a wallet full of notes. It happened once. 190 Euros. I condemned the find to history in style, withdrawing the notes and tossing the black leather wallet back over my shoulder into the air. The thing caught the wind and flew, the poor fellas ID and bank cards spinning free and blowing away behind me. People were looking at me strangely but I was already on my phone, asking my man if he was at home and holding, my pace quickening and heading towards the metro.
Touches like that are rare. And usually, when they do occur, it is when you least need them. I recall some years ago, in London, having done all my wages and having to stick to methadone for the last ten days of the month. Every evening I took these 6hr long walks around my area, my eyes peeled on the ground. I surmised that doing that for ten days I would at some point stumble upon a ten pound note. I walked for ten evenings, for 60 hours, and didn’t find a penny. On the morning my wage finally went into my bank I crossed the road and entered the newsagents. With two thousand pounds fresh in my account I looked down and there staring up at me from the floor was a neatly folded twenty pound note. I picked it up between two crossed fingers, put it in my pocket, smiled and carried on with life.
The drizzle is now proper rain. It feels like there is a storm coming in. I cannot see the distance. Cars flash by and sound like sheeting being whipped and blown by heavy winds. I lower my head and with a shopping bag of cheap tinned food I make the walk back home.
It’s 9pm and the evening is in. There are some fantastic dark streets just over the way. It’s like being in a tiny country village. Silhouettes of large trees and conifers rise in the front gardens. The place smells of pine. I can hear my own heels clicking and I walk in a way so as to accentuate that. I walk these dark streets until gone 11pm and then head home. I am restless. I don’t want to sit and write. I enjoy writing as I walk, as I take in life. I think of heading back out again but don’t. I take a selection of authors I enjoy in order to look at sentence structure. I want to see how often other writers employ introductory clauses to open their sentences. I don’t like such sentences but they are often unavoidable. I’ve tried writing without them but it leads to very choppy paragraphs, like sliced ham. I end up masturbating but not over sentence structure.
I take long walks. I constantly tidy the apartment. I run on the spot for 20 minutes at a time. I write and swallow my methadone. I reply to emails. I watch pornography of women urinating. I cook pasta and butter and add pepper and sliced cherry tomatoes. I smoke. I hand wash my clothes and hang them around the apartment. The apartment looks like a campsite. I pretend I’m a sniper holed up in an outhouse. I cannot sleep without heroin. I am constantly wanting to do stuff, to a level where it is irritating. I never get the urge to want to hit the sack and relax back to a film. I put on films but it’s out of habit. 10 minutes in and I’m deliberating over what writing file to open, what book to read and take stylistic notes from. I pull up the shutter of the back window and stare out at the Silver Birch tree in the moonlight. It is what Tristram Spencer the hero of my novel Waiting for John does while waiting to have his skull bashed in. All my secrets are being revealed.
[* 7eme arrondissement - Rue *][_ _][*Jaboulay *]
Rue Jaboulay looks the same as ever. In whatever my head remembers the past I find it difficult to relate logically to time. There seems some magic loophole we must be able to exploit. I cannot comprehend how things are the same but life has moved on. I could turn into no. 47 now, climb the three flights of stairs and be mystified that my key doesn’t work and my life isn’t here anymore. I lived here for the first four years of my exile in Lyon. It was the apartment Mary and I took while we were in London. She travelled back and found it and laid a deposit down in preparation for our move. I remember the photos being emailed through to me as I was injecting in my leg in my office. An apartment in a foreign city I was now paying monthly rent on. It seemed absurd. How the hell would I ever really get there? It was the dream. Not my dream but hers. I went along with it because she was my dream. I’d later set fire to that apartment. Nothing too serious but a lot of smoke. I pass by here occasionally but more often than not I avoid it. It’s an emotional place. A crossroads of life and lovers or happiness and heartbreak. A lot went on in this street. A lot of fucked up heroin activity too. I don’t turn in and climb the stairs, of course not. I know I no longer live here, that my life is somewhere else. But I am dangerously on the threshold of insanity when I revisit old places. I guess that is why the past and time has so much to do with my literature. Memories are so sharp and feelings so fresh that its hard to comprehend that today isn’t yesterday and just where exactly time goes…
“Exskews me mate ‘av you got thuh time?” he would ask.
“Five forty five.”
“What year is it?”
“What happens to time? Where does time go? It must go somewhere. Everything goes somewhere?”
I look at Chris the retard, 50 plus then, same bulgy eyes, one lazing off into a world that only he inhabits. He stands there staring at me, waiting for an answer, his back slightly hunched, his arms low slung and his fists clenched like a baby. He wears a baggy, dirty white T-shirt, trousers pulled up to his tits and beetle crusher shoes that look like he’s been wandering the streets kicking along walls. For some reason he makes me terribly sad and in the same time he is a weird connection to a time which no longer exists.
He’d been on the scene all our young lives, 30 and playing with the neighbourhood kids… Riding bikes and making wild excited noises. I would blow into his large moon face and asked if it hurt. He would start crying and saying it hurt. I’d blow again, a blow that wouldn’t hurt a flower. He’d toss his bike away and lumber up the road bawling his eyes out and yelping in pain. A little later he’d come skulking back, his head low and his lazy eye looking sadly at me. I’d blow his face again and ask: “Does that hurt?”
“Yes,” he’d say collecting his bike and slowly peddling away for the evening. When he was far enough+h up the road he’d turn and pull a big ugly face at me, blow an horrendous wet noise from his mouth and then peddle for his life. I could have caught him on foot. His bike was childsized and he was a lumbering overweight adult whose burden flattened the tyres. Even at his fastest peddle he got nowhere. I always let him go.
How he recognised me after all those years is a mystery. I had changed so much that I could walk up and down my old street and not one of the neighbours knew who I was.
“I don’t know where time goes,” I tell Chris, after a moment .
“Muss go sumwhere,” he says, “evrything goes sumwhere.”
France. La France. O France. Comment tu es belle la France. Go fuck yourself in the arse, La France! It’s too late to start again now. I loved you once and then I arrived. In quick succession you ravaged my heart and ruined my health, made me too fat for my shirts and left me with just a single, sodden shoe. Va te faire enculer, La France! I had to walk home in the wet and, for the next nine months, tramp about like a clown wearing odd shoes and no socks. That winter of pneumonia and bronchitis when your dealers robbed me of everything but that which I didn’t have. You laughed at me in the cafes and mocked me in the unemployment offices. You sent me back and forth between despicable civil servants, all asking for different papers that they knew I didn’t have; didn’t need; some of which didn’t even exist. O with what joy did you run me around town? Send me to places on the very outskirts which no longer resembled Europe. O, fuck You La Belle France. I thought such thoughts and worse as you had me suffer entire days of remedial classes, listening to a government trained retard lecture on how to formulate the perfect CV. Curriculum Vitae. Mon dieu! Did you not see us? How the fuck could a CV have helped any? O La belle France. What have you done? You deserve everything that comes your way in these wicked times. You drag it all down upon yourself. Every shot; every bullet; every exploding belt. It’s all done beneath the shadows of your actions. The right-wing uprising and retaliation too. The bubbling conflicts in the suburbs. Peck out a man’s eyes and watch him go crazy to defend what’s left of him. A whirring, crazed, waltzer of indiscriminate violence. France, you pecked out my eyes. You harpy fucking scavenger!
France! My beautiful prison of diluted and overpriced joys. I weep desperately within your borders. I go to your marches and observe the left, divided up into a hundred factions, blowing whistles and lighting flares, beating drums and chanting and laughing to serious matters. Your squares bordered by the armoured ignorance of the Police Nationale. Their black, ruthless boots ready to stomp over anyone not draped in the tricolor. France, you told me, swore to me, lied to me that only the Arabs and Africans get ID checked. Go away with your falsehoods and propaganda. Pink skin doesn’t save one here. Five fucking hours I spent on my back in your rotten custody cell. Mary, half junk sick, having to journey out into the middle-of-nowhere to produce my ragged passport. Then, last autumn, in the Perrache train station, being marched off and strip-searched for standing too close behind three armed officers on the escalator. A bottle of unscripted methadone discovered in my bag . It’s a stupifiant! they kept shouting. I told them I wished it fucking were, that I’d love to be as stupidfied as them. I should have left you to rot without me then, but the prospect of dire poverty and heartache, a few years of dying in your third largest city wooed me. Lyon! Only Lyon! You were beautiful for a summer; the lap of your twin rivers calm and serene; the mist and fragrances rolling down your hills early morning; the spirit of european summer and fiesta wafting through your narrow streets. O France, is that your ruse: to beguile? You promise everything and deliver nothing but tax demands, obscure charges and rent increases. Then you close your banks on Monday and snip the electricity at its root. France, I never used your fucking electricity! How could I have? I only had one lightbulb and a mobile phone. Though, soon enough, you took them too.
France. I lost my teeth in your streets, marinated them in your methadone and coughed and spat them out in disgust through your lonesome nights. I spent years suffering from your toothache, woke in pain to each new day with my face swollen and the nerves in my temple raging away. France your toothbrushes are useless! Four for one euro sixty seven centimes. Red, blue, green and purple. The handles snap in half and the bristles fall out. Fuck you Carrefour® and the Part-dieu Commercial Centre. Fuck the whole rotten lot of you. Your doctors too. Kneading my liver each month as though it were pizza dough; the young interne with his specs and stethoscope so eager to diagnose his first death, asking: Is it swollen?Foie gras, Monsieur. Foie gras! The doctor giving an indifferent shake of his head, telling me to get dressed and, begrudgingly, giving me another month to live. Halle-fuckin’-lu-jah! How adept you are at relating bad news! Stop the drugs, you said. Get off the needle! Quit the cigarettes! Do some exercise! Lower your cholesterol intake! What kind of a fucking doctor would ever levy such a miserable tariff on a dying man? O, fuck You Dr Denis! Fuck you L’hôpital de la Croix Rousse! You gave me so little you didn’t even charge for it.
France. Monsieur the Mayor of the 3rd arrondissement: fuck fuck you! Your crooked, corporate socialism twists my stomach. Of the left? Sure you’re of the left. You’re so far too the left you’re on the fucking right! What with all the scandalous discrimination you lord over in your own house. Call it what you like, celebrate the PS coming into power after 18 years, I saw the same happen in Britain, the exact same idiots singing with joy and heralding in the new bandits and gangsters, clinking glasses and slurping down oysters together. Power is power and it always sounds like that. I moseyed around your office, listening, Monsieur The Mayor. I watched your advisors cutting out the day’s press clippings and political news; your personal assistant mailing off the video footage of your latest speech toLe Progrès. I saw you lumber around with your trousers unbuckled and your shirt hanging out, raging on about how cheap and acidic the wine was. I watched you, Monsieur the Mayor, heave on your heavy felt coat, have your sash pinned in place, clear your throat like a tenor and gob a lump of vile phlegm into your handkerchief, ready to lead the war veterans’ D-Day parade. O Sir, I eyed your staff, and the town hall gardiens, sweeping before you as you walked and wafting away at your behind as you went, fanning your wind to either side of the red carpet and scooping up your droppings as they came to bear. Monsieur the Mayor of the 3rd arrondissement. I had to clean your bureau every second evening, empty your bins and dust your plants. O, you should know better than to ever employ such a scoundrel. I pissed in your fire grate and masturbated in your leather chair. O Monsieur Thiery Philip, if only you could have seen how wildly I came, shooting sperm across your desk, over your diary and bullseying a picture of your wife and kids. I cleaned and polished your desk that evening, Sir! The next morning, first thing, to my horror, I was summoned by my immediate manager. Wearing a grave look he asked if it was I who had cleaned your office the previous evening. Guilty, I pleaded. Whereupon the wild reprobate took up an email and read me of your surprise and thanks, broke into a salacious smile as he disclosed ‘my desk and leather chair have never shone so splendidly’. Ha! How influence and importance garners special treatment. Don’t trust the silent ones, Monsieur the Mayor of the 3rd arrondisement. Don’t trust anyone your country has pecked at so much.
Mademoiselle La France. You contemptible beast of formations and concours and adjoints. How you sat glaring at me each time, blank and motionless, like there was nothing which could be done. I cleaned your toilets, Mademoiselle, and in return you shook your head in dismay. You told me that I had not undergone the required training needed to handle such cleaning products. I waved you away and you proceeded to grill me over my knowledge of glass polish and disinfectant cleaner, demanded that I state the dilute ratio of neat bleach to water when using it to disinfect public washrooms. I was set to say 10 to 1 part bleach but finally never bothered. Any answer would have been the wrong one. I apologised and swore to never scrub your crap again. Mademoiselle! I slogged out my soul for your pubic services and your minimum wage. For three years I worked myself too exhausted to write. You shoved me in a hole of a room, round the corner from the bins, and five years later hit me with a four thousand euro bill for unpaid residence tax! Four thousand euros. If I had four thousand fucking euros I’d be a resident some place else. Some place that functions. Mademoiselle La France, you do not function! You are ‘hors de service’: legs closed for business. Daily life is a succession of disasters and frustrations. Tobacconist closed. Pharmacy closed. Boulangerie sold out of everything but stale salmon baguettes. Fast food places shut until 7. Restaurants refusing to serve food. Supermarket closed for an impromptu stock check. Transport staff on strike. The corner store without change of a twenty euro note. The concierge on permanent sick leave. Mademoiselle, you insist on such a tiresome way of operating and then harp on about low foreign investment. Fuck you Mademoiselle La France. Fuck your 35 hr week. Fuck your unions who have become just another cog in the political machine. The supposedly hardline CGT, agreeing that I was illegally dismissed yet telling me that they have a policy of fighting common rather than individual struggles. They gave me the number of a lawyer they said would take my case for free, who though, quite unfortunately, was also three months deceased. When I called back, to give news of the poor man’s medical status, they abstained from answering the phone and ignored my various messages. Fuck You La République Française, I saw through you completely in that moment.
France . I know your whores and they suck. Too clean; too classy; too unwhorelike. You keep your own upstanding and legal, but what of the eastern European girls along the river, putting it out for all of 20 euros a trick? Not a single pin prick or crack pipe between them, a fact which bespeaks a real social tragedy. Oh, you know how to treat them. Drag them in for soliciting once a month or so, disturb their lives for a night while adding to the misery. First thing Monday morning, trot them out and stand them in the defence box, half naked and cuffed, their sordid misdemeanors and acts slowly read out to the judge and procureur. O madame La France, you sure as hell know how to look after your own alright, keep them from dribbling away at home! Your court rooms are full of criminals, La France, and most of them are being paid by the State.
France. The great romance you peddle is a myth. Romance never thrives under such hardship and drudgery. No-one kills themselves for love after that. All that happens is that people get worn down and out, and youth and beauty fades into early retirement. I’ve read your poets and I’ve watched your films. I crossed your bridges and I dreamed! I dreamed of fire-eaters and jugglers, street artists and musicians. I dreamed of song and death and fuck and absinthe, of opium and Gauloise cigarettes, sailors and show-girls. France, I stood on your terrain and I had hope, but even then I was looking way over yonder to God knows where beyond. Through your warm, subdued evenings I traipsed around with the poet prickling away inside of me. I saw all the wonder of life in your pink skies and said ‘La France, La France’ over and over like I was on the cusp of something great. O I tried my best. I sought out wild, psychotic affairs, fantasized about death pacts and leaving a bloody mess for your civil servants to clean up. I went to your parties and took part in your theater. I stripped naked and danced my birth and death in the Beaujolais valleys. I responded truthfully to the director when he asked:
Can You dance?
Can you sing?
Can you act?
No, I replied each time.
Perfect, he said, you’re exactly what I’m looking for!
Madame, Mademoiselle, La belle France, L’hexegone, La République: You have ruined me all you can. With minus 883 euros to my name there is no more you can take. Go ahead, sling me into jail for a month, recuperate my debts that way, deal me your last remaining blow. I will take it, La France. I will suck it up and enjoy it, thrive of the stinging pain and spit the blood back at you in defiance. I will eat your porridge and your mashed carrots and I will shit it out down your fucking u-bends. France, your bidets are broken and your eau de toilette is wearing thin. Down South the stench of your filthy cunt is overpowering. Madame de la République, I will fuck you no more! You’ve no disease worth having. With nothing left to protect or defend my integrity is way out of your bounds. It’s true, you took all that which I entered with, but that is hardly a victory. What? A broken suitcase? A pittance of cash? My final stay of youth and a mouthful of teeth? Come come La France, the spoils of war are not what they used to be. But me, O La France, me I leave with such words in my head – words so beautiful and vulgar and mine. And even on the journey out, on the last bus back home or for wherever it is destined, your nights will still sizzle and smell of fire and smoke and I will cry for all you are and all you were and all you still could be. France, from the Fourvière hill, looking down, on a day like today, I still shiver with life and love and passion. I become giddy and whimsical as the coming evening paddles your dark rivers towards the sea; inebriated by the lights from your harbours and river boats. France your skies still excite me like the first night of the first night of the first night. France, La France, O France. Comment tu es belle la France. Go fuck yourself in the arse La France. So impossible and hopeless, my France, La France.
In the summer when the trees are full the sunlight falls in mottled dabs upon the Cours Gambetta. The Cours Gambetta is a long straight road which runs the length of two entire boroughs. For some way along it is lined on both sides with tall Plane trees which branch out and meet in the middle overhead. Beneath this leafy canopy, cafés, patisseries and fabric stores lay open in the dank shade of day. If one walks far enough down the Cours Gambetta the road transforms: the ornate architecture of the 6 storey apartment buildings modernises; the cafes drop away; the people become less chic on less money, and the trees spare out until, after a moment, they are not there at all. Here the sun is always high and blisters down so fiercely that the further distance ripples through the waves of heat and looks like the white dusty home-front of a desert town. It was that walk I made, most days, to score heroin during my first summer in Lyon.
To enter you had to push forward the loose wooden hoardings and slip in through the scissored gap. There inside was another world: a forgotten courtyard strewn with debris under the husk of a condemned and partly demolished building. It looked like Nuremberg just after the second world war; like you could find body parts poking out the rubble. The air stank of ulcerated dogs and dried excrement. Just outside the back entrance of the building, where the shade kept the moisture, clouds of black midges hung about in the stagnant air.
It was Mamms who first pushed me through into that hidden world. He was a smack sculpted beggar I’d collared one afternoon as he left the Devil’s Rest needle exchange with a rucksack full of clean works on his naked back. Abdomen scooped out, round military cap on his head and a rag out his back pocket I followed, the musty smell of stale body odour drifting back my way. He pushed the boarding open and shoved me through so suddenly that I thought he was up to robbing me. Biscuit, his mongrel street hound, wriggled through behind, its large face and body emerging like it was materialising out a time-warp.
“Voilà!” said Mamms, throwing his arms out to present the derelict skeleton of the building in front of us. “La REAL France.”
“I hope so,” I said, looking up and nodding in approval, half an eye still on Mamms. But Mamms wasn’t out to rob me; he was too far below the poverty line for that to have helped any. Of greater significance, his shot of choice was subutex not heroin, and subutex came free, courtesy of the French state. Mamms beckoned me on, bouncing over a discarded mattress colonized by black spores. From the building two male junkies, both in their early twenties, came trundling out. They shoved and jostled one another in fun, getting rid of the surplus energy that flagrantly breaking laws and moral codes excites. They had just scored; I could tell. On seeing me they stopped. They were street addicts like Mamms – hair shaved and grown and coloured randomly, cut-down military bottoms, boots held together by various straps and laces and anarcho political messages on their t-Shirts. The first had arms covered in a thousand fresh needle marks and cutting tattoos. They slapped hands with Mamms and calmed down to a serious stance. They spoke words I didn’t understand but knew were against me. I’d been around the junk scene for so long that I didn’t need Mamms’ lies to convince me afterwards that it was nothing. They suspected me of being a cop, and if not a cop, certainly someone there under false pretences. As they left they shot me a squinted hostile look.
“Cest bon!” said Mamms, once they had gone. “It is good, my friend. Alors, one gram?”
“Oui… and une gram for toi, “ I said.
Mamms repositioned his rucksack on his back, slapped the outside of his thigh and whistled. Biscuit pulled its nose from out a bag of rubbish and shot up the stairs ahead of him. I was left to wait in what was once the back entrance, but had since been turned into a communal toilet. The space to the left of the staircase was full of turds in various stages of dehydration. Sticking out of random shits were old syringes. Flies buzzed around. I stared at the turds and the needles, and in my first French summer, so far away from the rotting bedsits and hostels and junkies of London, I waited for my score and knew that drugs and blood were back on the agenda
I woke in a panic. I had momentarily lost all notion of time and thought the half light outside was that of a new morning. God, Mary must be frantic with worry, I thought. The last thing I could remember was sitting on Mamms girlfriend’s sofa and unloading a shot into my ankle. After five months clean it had laid me out good. I squinted the room into focus. Mamms was across from me, on his knees, shooting his girlfriend in the crux of her arm as she sat on a wooden chair turned away from the table. Her face was gritted in a mixture of apprehension and fear. It told me she was new to the needle. On the wall was a clock. It was almost 9pm. The second hand ticked on incredibly slowly.
Mamms said something which I didn’t understand. Then he made a gesture of his eyes closing over and let his head slump forward. It meant I had gone out like that. It made him happy. His girl stirred besides him, itching the side of her face. The shot had worked its magic; she had acquired a delayed response to the world. She looked quizzically at Mamms, her eyes imploring him to understand what was going on. Then she somehow understood and turned slowly and gave me a weak smile. Where her pupils had shrunk I got the impression I was staring into a deep tunnel, at the distant point of a vanishing soul. Her smile flattened out and now her face looked traumatised, like she was trying to communicate an unspeakable horror. Her eyes closed over. Mamms stroked her back tenderly. I knew then that she had a huge tragedy lying host within her.
“Is that the correct time?” I asked, pointing to the clock. She tried to open her eyes but the heroin was too strong in her. She gave up and nodded, made some kind of a sound.
“I must go,” I said, “my girlfriend will be dying with worry.” I collected my affairs, slipped my shoe on and left.
When the evening comes down on the city and shadows stretch and fall in every direction it’s a beautiful thing. Some roads are a blur of red and blue and white neon signs, and others are tall and narrow and run along with tall, Haussmannesque style apartment buildings. There are smaller roads too with maisonettes and antique streetlamps and still others which turn and crawl off into holes of impenetrable blackness. To a dark sky and history’s echo I walked my way home, through the fragrances of the urban sprawl, back down the Cours Gambetta. On this return journey the world was suddenly alive. I once again felt the strong, unmistakeable presence of existence. In a foreign town, shot full of heroin, the streets were awash with drama and danger and sinister, toothless criminality.
The stairwell of my apartment block seemed lonely in its artificial light, like a cave with a single stalactite dripping water. I knew what likely awaited me. As I entered the apartment Mary came out the salon with a frantic look on her face and her phone to her ear. “Yes, yes it’s him,” she said, closing the phone. I lowered my head, so my eyes were hidden, and guided her back into the salon.
“Where have you been?” she asked. “I was worried and didn’t know what to do.” I laid my cards out straight, placing what was left of the smack on the table in front of her. It was in a bag much larger than what she was used to seeing in London. It took her a few seconds to realise what it was. She looked at me like it was a joke; hoping I’d save her. But I’m no saviour. I looked into her eyes and she looked at mine. What she saw was the conspicuous regard of heroin, the pinprick pupils and distraught look of love that sometimes creeps into the mask of heavy sedation. She put her hand over her mouth and her eyes widened.
I wasn’t going to fight. I had told her that this would happen. The only help I could give her now was to make the nightmare real. I sat down, my emotions steeled against hers. I took out my syringes and, like she had seen hundreds of times before, I cooked up a shot.
“Do you want one?” I asked.
She didn’t reply. Not in words anyway. She sat down besides me, looked at the heroin in the bag, then unpacked a little aluminium cooking cup, measured out a dose and cooked a hit up too. And like that the summer darkened over and our days took on a vitality that had been missing since we arrived.
We ended up on the Cours Gambetta most days, making the 30 minute walk from the mottled sunlight into the derelict end of town. Mary became friends with Mamms’ girlfriend, Céline, a young first year philosophy student. She had met Mamms during the fortnight he had spent begging outside her student lodgings. From a family with money, she spoke good English and in that first month was still going horse-riding in the country every weekend. Her father was American. He wrote cheques in place of love. Mamms was obviously her very real rebellion against that superficial way of life which had left her with everything yet wanting so much. What she was to him I have no idea. All I know is that he loved his dog and gave himself wholly to his canine confidante like I never saw him give to any human being.
As the summer wore on so the Cours Gambetta wore on through our lives. We woke and showered the sticky night from off our skins and fresh and spright we hit the streets, winding our way on to the Cours. For me there was an attachment to it that was more than just heroin. It was a road which called me, made me want to rise and be out on it as soon as possible. I felt at home on the Cours Gambetta, felt like it spanned nations and culture and language. It was one road that I needed no direction or translation on; a road in a foreign country which I knew more integrally than the locals themselves. And as the Cours Gambetta cut through my days so too it came boring through my dream world. In deep sleep I would have hallucinatory visions of it, a letterbox view of my feet, walking through a night that wriggled like a Van Gogh painting, all the people of the junk life coming and going, hanging about in dark doorways, coughing up black blood into handkerchiefs and laughing, having found some deeper understanding of the human condition through the sheer horror of it, through the harshness and the struggle for survival needed to sustain chronic addiction. It was a road where death and life shimmered atop of one another, where the two were quite indistinguishable. In the quiet hours of the night I would wake and see the moon out the window. I could feel the Cours Gambetta in the milky light, nothing going on, the sleeping squat and the dogs in the dark, curled up with their jaws on their haunches, ears pricked, eyes open to the static silence of the night.
Mamms became less reliable as his relationship with Céline deteriorated. She would no longer allow him to stay over and so we’d turn up at hers in the afternoon and wait for Mamms to put in a show. Céline would shoot a shot and become manic, enter into a strange fantasy world of theatre and personas, in and out her bedroom changing into different outfits. One moment she’d appear as a hippy chick in dress and bandanna, then as a cowgirl in tan suede skirt and jacket, then in ultra small denim shorts and a top cut just below her breasts, galloping around the room like a ballet dancer with coloured ribbons of fabric flailing from her wrists. It wasn’t madness, just another way of being somebody else for a while. When Mamms finally arrived she would greet him in the character of whoever she was dressed as. She thought that getting high and acting completely deranged was what drug people did.
Leaving Mary and Céline in the safety of the apartment, Mamms and I would head over to the squat. Scoring was rarely quick anymore. If we returned within an hour we were lucky. Most days we’d arrive to be told that the dealer (Julien) was out, somewhere across town reloading supplies. Mamms and I would divide our time between sitting in the shade of the stairwell, alongside the basement of excrement, or slowly circling the dusty yard like prisoners. We could be there for anything up to 6 hours and sometimes Julien never came back at all. On such occasions Mamms and I would return to Céline’s and inform the girls that we had nothing. Where the girls had shown a burst of excitement on our entrance we then had to slunk down, feeling guilty, as it registered in them that there would be no fix that night. Everyone’s nerves and patience would be exhausted. We’d sit around in the gloom of the bad news, staring at the floor and knowing it would be a long night into tomorrow. As this happened more and more Mary and I began heading into the city centre where I’d go junkie spotting amongst the homeless and find a score for some ridiculous price. Often we’d miss the last metro and have to walk 5 miles home.
After not even three months on the Cours Gambetta our finances were in ruins. The payments I’d been receiving from London got stopped and the small amount of money we had arrived in France with had dwindled away to nothing. My bank card hit zero and then minus 500 and then stopped working at all. I tossed it in the river like an old playing card. Mary took out a bank loan. To keep as much cash as possible for heroin we walked the roads poor, scrimped on food and tobacco and in just about every way imaginable. We began spacing the heroin out, limiting ourselves to just three shots per day. Sometimes, halfway through another long wait, knowing we didn’t have the finances to carry this on much longer anyway, we’d make a sudden and brash decision to cancel our order. With the money we had saved we’d buy fabulous cups of crushed ice drinks, bubblegum and raspberry flavour, and sit in the evening square sucking and munching on the sharp crystals so as our tongues turned bright blue and pink. Then we’d slope off home, proud of ourselves and feeling safe in the knowledge that we still had our bedtime shot to get us into tomorrow.
October. Trees still full; days shorter. With the evenings came fresh winds that cooled the colour out of the leaves. From all the heroin activity in the squat news started circling of an imminent police raid. We took such murmurs as overly cautious fears until one evening when the anti-crime police stopped and searched Mamms as he left the squat. Mamms had felt something untoward in the air and managed to dump the heroin. When he returned and told us what had happened I was highly suspicious, especially as it had occurred on one of the rare occasions I had not been with him. We waited an hour and then deemed it safe to go out and search for the smack. I was sure it would not be found. To my surprise we recovered it just where Mamms said he had dumped it. It was a relief but it proved to be the last. That evening the squat cleared out, a group of 15 new age punks with dogs and stereos and boxes of CDs, traipsing across town in search of a new place to set up. We watched them go, Julien tall and stooped, weighed down by multiple bags slung over each shoulder, a shredded armless t-shirt and silver bangles hanging loose around his heroin scarred arms. As he crossed the road he lowered his head to the side, pressed a thumb against his inner nostril and blew out a thick slob of mucus from the other. Where he stumbled doing that his dog got caught up around and under him and let out a wild yelp in through the dying evening. We stood watching the troupe cross the road and continue on straight, taking a little through road and leaving the Cours Gambetta behind.
“Where will they go?” I asked Mary to ask Mamms.
“They’ll find somewhere,” he said, “they always do.”
Far far down and away we could still make out the punks. It made me think of a scene from The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family with their loaded truck heading off to California. We watched the punks for a good few minutes more until suddenly they were out of sight and gone. “Voilà!” said Mamms like it was the end of an era. “Voilà!”
On the walk home that night the Cours Gambetta seemed sad and quiet. We walked without talking. The night was in and the cold breeze gave us skin bumps. As we approached the oncoming mottled end of the road and readied to turn left onto the Rue Marseille I turned and gave a look back down the Cours. “It’s goodbye to an old friend,” I said, sadly.
“No… The road.”
“The road? It’s just a dirty old road. There’s many more.”
“It’s autumn,” I said. “Can you feel it? Oh God.”
Mary looked up and around. It was like she was looking for autumn. But all she would have seen were the bright and gaudy lights of the Rue Marseille, the red signs of the Kebab houses, the flickering white windows of the five Euro Chinese buffet places and various small shops and neon lights advertising internet cafes and cheap international phone calls. It’s true, they are many and all over these dirty roads and none are as filthy as those full of commerce. I breathed in a lungful of poisonous air and lingering two steps behind, reeling on the fumes, I followed Mary home.
It had been raining, but by then it had stopped. The night was in. Across the sky were vast expanse of cloud, smokey mauve on the deep purple of outer space. Along the damp walls snails slithered away in the dark. It was early summer, and aggravated by the wet, the concentrated scent of leaves and plants was thick in the air. The trees in front gardens were black silhouettes. The sound of dripping water and grit crunching underfoot were all that could be heard. There was noone on the road but me and but for the odd light, in the odd top floor room, the houses sat dead and still and stuffed full of creeping darkness. The road ahead was slick black; the street lights shimmering in the wet ground. Up ahead a traffic light rested on green and there the hightstreet, deserted, ran through. Nothing could possibly be going on now. These were the deathly hours. From over a high wall a pink drooping blossom hung. The garden smelled of rose and the next one along of cat’s piss. It was getting on for 3am and I had sneaked out of bed and out the house to score my last three rocks of crack, leaving Mary sound asleep and none-the-wiser that I’d gone.
Turning onto the high street, heading for the old church, I could make out two figures up ahead. One was a man with his right leg locked straight and shot outwards at a 45 degree angle. He walked with a cane and in the effort to avoid his disabled leg his upper body was twisted and bent like John Merrick’s. Besides him was a small woman with a ponytail and wearing a cheap matching sport’s tracksuit a size too large. Her neck was sunken into her back and her arms swung stiffly, capped by forward facing clenched fists the weight of which seemed to help propel her forward. They crossed the high street, turned left and then disappeared down the side of the church.
I followed fifty metres behind. As I walked I discretely clocked everything on both sides of the road. At a lit up bus-stop, across from the church turning, was a man. There were no night buses on this route; he could be only one of two things: a junkie or a cop. I wandered casually passed him. Junkie – no doubt about it. I did a u-turn. As I repassed him again I checked my phone, letting him know I was on the score too.
“Oi, mate, dya just phone Ace? How longs he saying?”
“Said he’s on his way. Sounded like he’d just woke up!”
“He dint say how long?”
“Cunt!” he said, jabbing his face forward and stopping bluntly before it’d even gone an inch, the force expelling the word with a seething violence.
“You shouldn’t wait here,” I said, “he doesn’t like it.”
“Fuck what he likes. I’m not his fucking slave. It’s less suss here than down that fucking alley.” I didn’t try to convince him.
Across the road, from the opposite direction I’d arrived, a longhaired junkie known as Steggs was making his way down. He wore cut down military trousers and sandals and walked with a huge lumbering gait as though he was returning from 30 years of headbanging. The rain hadn’t only brought the snails and slugs out.
“Ok, I’m off same place as him,” I said, to the stranger at the bus-stop. “You staying here?” He nodded, looked annoyed and said, “Lanky black cunt!” I left. He would eventually come to his senses. He’s not gonna wait 45 minutes and then fuck his score up by pissing off the dealer.
I didn’t like the alley myself. One side was the church wall and the other was the high backwalls of residential gardens. The alley was just wide enough to allow a car to pass down. I entered. It was pitch black.
“Steggs,” I whispered. “Steggs?” After a moment I hit an outstretched arm and Steggs pulled me in. That was the deal. The residential backwalls all had long wooden yard doors set a foot back in them and the church wall was pitted along with shallow alcoves. So as the alley appeared empty to any passers-by or cruising police cars everyone sidled into these recesses and stood as still as the Queen’s guards. As we waited we whispered. Now and again the screen from a phone would light up as someone checked how long Ace had been or phoned him afresh.
“What you after, mate?” Asked Steggs. It’s never a good idea to divulge that, especially concerning crack. A junkie scoring would never dream ask for a pinch of heroin, but crack is a different game and because it’s not physically addictive is looked upon in a whole new light. It’s seen as a luxury… a privilege.. a something you can score only once your heroin habit is secured. It’s an extravagance someone could beg you a small rock of, especially someone with a crack habit as voracious as Stegg’s.
“Just a couple of brown,” I said. “Would love a white though.”
“Me too,” said Steggs. The lying cunt. It’s 3am. You only ever score crack at 3am. If you’ve the cash your heroin addiction is taken care of well in advance of such criminal hours. The only users who may honestly be scoring smack at such a time are the prostitutes, returning home from their last punter and clucking. We stood silent for a while. Steggs pulled his hair back and banded it in a ponytail.
“Give him a bell,” he said.
“No point, mate. It won’t change anything. If we’re the last ones he’s waiting on he’ll be here soon enough. He’ll not come out multiple times at this hour. If he’s still waiting for others to confirm their presence he’ll not arrive until they do. “
“Yeah, but he don’t know I’m here yet mate… Phone him and tell him Steggas has arrived!”
I phoned. Before I could tell Ace the quite ridiculous news that ‘Steggas’ was here he said, “Ten mins, bro,” and closed the phone.
“Ten,” I said to Steggs.
“Wots’ E sayin?” asked a voice out the dark. “Ten,” hissed Steggs from his toothless mouth.
A little way down I could see someone smoking. Each time the cigarette seared I could just about make out who it was. It was the woman in the tracksuit and pony tail, moving about in the centre of the alley as if desperate for the toilet. She wasn’t desperate for the toilet. If it were the case she’d squat and piss without the slightest hesitation. What she was desperate for was crack cocaine, dancing through her comedown – pacing, fidgeting, turning in circles, keeping up rhythms which passed time and gave the jittery mind something to concentrate on.
“Wouldya look at her!” said John. “She’ll av us all shook up carrying on like that.”
She could, it was true. But there’s always one and they’re often a lot worse than that. And, if anyone thought for a second that the residents really didn’t know what was going on behind their walls, then more fool them. They all knew. Had probably each phoned the police a half dozen times and learnt nothing gets done – nothing can be done. As long as we made an effort and didn’t litter the place with needles and excrement they no longer bothered. Probably took some comfort from the fact that we were carrying out our debauchery directly under the wrathful and vengeful watch of God, delighting in the thought that we’d at least get punished once the drugs had taken their ultimate toll. Fatal OD or death from some blood born virus was neither the end nor an escape: it was merely the beginning: our real torture would begin only after we were dead. Fortunately, not many using addicts believe in such fairytales. For us the church is just the place where we score and the only saviour is a black West Indian yardie who snatches your money and spits bags of drugs at you in disgust. Our Jesus doesn’t give a fuck and it’s just the way we like it.
I could smell his cheap supermarket sports aftershave even though I couldn’t see him. It was Adidas or some crap that he’d splashed on and was surely doing him more damage than the drugs. A new user. Young. Many start out like that. Using their high time to shower and mess about with their hair and skin, keeping up appearances. Slapping on some cheap splash and jumping into freshly pressed clothes just to go to score. That’ll all soon stop. In a year he’ll be like me, or worse, like Steggs – if he really lets himself go.
The young perfumed addict hung about alone. I could see his form but no more. The alley smelled like the shower gel aisle in a supermarket. Somene told him to get himself put away. New on the scene he apologised and thanked the anonymous junkie for the help and struck up a conversation with him, speaking too loudly and relating outrageous tales of the junkie life, of a thousand things which never happened. A natural born bullshitter – he was in good company here.
When Ace still hadn’t arrived 20 minutes later I phoned him.
“I’m fuckin d’ere bro,” he said, curtly. If he was here I’d be ale to see him and the only things I could see were Steggs and one or two cigarettes burning away in the distance.
“Steggs, did you see the fella I was with at the bus-stop when you arrived?”
“Glimpsed him. Seen him around a few times. He often gets off T’s lot round the flats. Don’t know him though.”
“I’m gonna go and give him a shout. You know what Ace is like, he’ll refuse to serve him for hotting the place up waiting there.”
I left Steggs and exited the alley, making sure no-one was happening to be passing as I stole out. Up on the high street the junkie at the bus-stop was now with two other addicts – two middle aged women, one white and the other a golden colour. The fool! He was collaring people and telling them to wait there. I crossed the road and advised them to get in the alley, that Ace would refuse to serve them for waiting there.
“Serious?” Said the white woman. She was chewing gum.
“Serious,” I said, “and he’s on his way.” The two women had no qualms about where to wait and were now with me ready to return. “You coming mate?” I said to the man. He cast his eyes up and gave a disinterested look around at the deserted highstreet. “Fuck it. If the cunts that funny about where we wait I’ll come. It’s him who’ll be nabbed with all the gear when it comes on top.” Together, the four of us headed the short distance back to the alley. I rejoined Steggs and the other three backed up church side into one of the alcoves. There were now at least 8 addicts waiting on Ace, at least, because I’d seen glowing cigarettes in the distance too which were from others who must have arrived before us.
“What the fucks that?” Steggs suddenly said, looking down the alley. I followed his gaze. At the top end a car had turned in, the headlights glaring in the distance.
“On top!” A voice cried. No-one budged.
“Is it moving?” Steggs asked.
“Can’t tell,” I said.
“If anyone’s holding get rid of it,” another unseen person said to everyone. A couple of sniggers broke out at that suggestion. I’m not sure if they found it humourous that anyone would drop their gear amongst an alley full of addicts, or funny the idea that any of us had any gear to offload. The best thing to do in any case would be for anyone holding to leave the alley and lurk about at a safe distance until sure if the car was friend or foe. No-one dumped anything and no-one left. The reason why no-one left was because it could very well be Ace in the car, the car which was clearly moving now, slowly so as not to scrape along either wall, the headlights getting bigger and brighter as it crawled its way down.
We were all tense. For most of us the police would be nothing but an inconvenience but there would be some amongst us who would have had warrants or been caught out on curfew. My biggest concern was that if it were the police then our meeting with Ace was buggered and there’d be no gear of any kind or colour for anyone. I was also thinking of what time I’d then finally make it home, and after the delay of a police stop Mary would surely have roused at some time in the night, figured I was not there and be sat, crying at my shooting table by the window when I returned. She was possibly already there. It was over an hour I’d been gone and I’d estimated on leaving that I’d have been back and sorted within forty five minutes. We stood as thin as we could in our recesses. All talking had stopped as the car now approached close enough to illuminate our world.
Good God! There must have been 20 plus addicts in the alley. As the car inched further along more junkies were lit up and picked out on either side, mostly in couples, men and women of varying unhealthy hues, stood like grotesque statues in their carrels, breath held and mouths closed as if in ready preparation to say nothing to the police. What the driver must have thought as his headlights picked out this secret life of vice, the dead and dying with widestruck eyes and missing limbs, scooped out junkie features, human sized praying mantis’ dressed in an array of bizarre and mismatched clothes, each person a sight in their own right but looking twice as debauched and desperate alongside their scoring cohort. I watched the line of junkie faces. Steggs and I were in the last recess, nearest the entrance, but far enough down to be out of sight from the street.
“Fuck me, would ya take a look at the state of us lot!” Steggs said, laughing. “Talk about not wanting to meet us down a dark alley. Fuck.” And that’s when I saw her, stood there in her large black coat over her pyjama bottoms, cheap comfy trainers with Velcro straps across the fronts. I was startled and did a double take, the light reflecting off her large pale face, her lips devoured by her mouth where she didn’t have her false teeth in, the huge granny gut and the slop of loose hung breasts. Her hair was brushed back and down and she wore a screwed up expression of annoyance as if pissed off the car had lit her up.
“MUM?” I cried, astonished, looking across at her in surprise. She turned and saw me and just shook her head obviously in a mood. Whoever was in the car had seen us now regardless. I rushed across its lights, over to my mother.
“What the fuck you doing here?” I asked. “Thought you had no cash?”
“Yeah, I thought you didnt!” She said, throwing the suggestion back at me in the petty way she had done all her life when caught out. “It’s why ya left earlier innit?”
“That and to get home… You know how Mary is.”
“Yeah, ya seem to care a lot about that Shane!” Then she looked over at the car. “Who the fuck is this in this car?” She said. We both looked down at the vehicle. It had come to a stop and Steggs was lit up blinded in the headlights. Whoever was inside was fixing to get out.
“Oi Oi… Eyes down for a full house!” someone shouted out the dark. But the car was not the police, it was a mini cab. The back door opened, crashed into the wall and Chelsea John got out.
“Fuck me, what do you lot fucking look like standing there doing ya best fucking impressions of death. They’ve buried healthier life in the fucking church graveyard!”
A concerted groan took up around the alley. A groan born out of everyone having held their breath, anti-climax but relief it wasn’t the police and commiserations that of all the people it could have been it was Chelsea John who had stepped out. He was a well known addict on the scene, had robbed or cheated just about all of us at one time or another but was a generous enough fella when he had a touch.
“Alright Les,” he said to my mum.
“Yeah, alright, John, “ she replied not with the same warmth.
“John, tell that cunt to kill the lights!” Steggs said.
“Chill out, matey… We’re only scoring. No-one gives a fuck. Anyway, we’re straight off… Ace is on his way, passed the fucka as he peddled like a cunt along the high street. Gave him a blast of the horn… almost sent him into a fucking storefront window!”
A little buzz went through the junkies followed by a hive of activity as everyone got their money out and ready. At the near end of the alley a bike flashed by and stopped just out of distance. I could hear the peddles still spinning. Ace, well over 6ft, turned into the entrance backlit by the jaundiced lighting of the street behind him. He wore a summer sports top with the hood over his head. Chelsea John, last to arrive, was the first to push his way to him.
“Four W, Ace mate,” he said.
“Bro, don’t ever fucking whistle an beep me in the street, ya’ere, “ Ace said, rifling through the notes John had handed him. Satisfied the cash wasn’t short he pulled a clear bag from his tracksuit pocket and turned his back as he sorted out four rocks of crack for John. He gave John the rocks and came to his senses at the same time, banging on the windscreen of the car with the flat palm of his hand.
“Turn your fucking lights off!” he said.
“It’s cool, boss .. It’s cool,” said Chelsea John, we’re leaving.” He slipped back into the back of the mini-cab and the car turned its engine over and gradually inched forward and away, the beautiful sound of gravel crunching under its tyres as it went.
“One and one,” Steggs said, giving Ace his cash. He left without acknowledging me or saying goodbye. Lumbered out the alley with his head slightly stooped, shapeshifting into a socially moral member of the community as he hit the street and plodded docilely away into the night, looking like a man who liked a certain kind of music but no more.
Ace was now besieged by the waiting addicts. There were numbers and letters being thrown at him from all around and hands pushing cash his way. It was like watching a bookie at the racetrack taking last second bets just before the off. Every few seconds a new person or couple exited the alley and turned off to either direction. I stood with my mum, waiting for our opening to step in and get served.
“What you getting,” she asked as we stood there. Ha! That again. Well, we know it’s never a good thing to divulge such information but this was my mother asking… An even less incentive to do so.
“Three white,” I said, “and you?”
“Can only afford one… And for that the poor cats have to go with no litter.” I could feel her looking at me, hoping… Waiting. When I didn’t respond, she said: “Give us one of ya rocks, Shane… We’ll have two each then.”
“Oh, go on!”
“No! If he’s holding extra I’ll buy you one. With so many people he’s sure to have surplus. He’s a capitalist… It’s how it works.”
Ace was holding extra. I was almost the last to be served. With our rocks of white clenched in our fists I walked my mother down the length of the alley and out into the dark quiet of the night at the other end. Out in the street she cast a look down the deserted road, the town all locked up and still and shadowy. “Hope I get home alright,” she said. She had just spent an hour lingering about in a dark out-of-the-way alley with supposedly some of the boroughs most depraved souls and now she was worried about walking home along the sleeping residential streets. Of course, she was right. People who are out to cause harm don’t hang about down dark uninhabited places; they linger around familiar and well lit streets. If you want to get home safely you should travel the darkest route. I looked down into the ghosttown of the walk home she had. An empty tin can rattled about in the gutter. “I’ll walk you back,” I said, “But if Mary’s awake when I return you’re getting the blame.” She pulled a face but didn’t say a thing.
With rocks of crack burning a hole in our palms, and on the wind of energy that the thought of the first pipe of a new rock gave us, our pace was at good speed, walking down the shiny wet road home. We made it to my mother’s in no time. I followed her up the stairs, took a good lick of rock on her crack pipe, and prickling with existence and nervous energy I gathered myself up and left, leaving my mother alone with her rocks and pipe, hers the last light on in her street.
My journey home was now a good half hour trot at fair pace. I listened to my own footsteps and played counting games until I lost count. Oh, the loneliness of the city is a beautiful one. I couldn't get over thoughts of all the lives that were taking peace in sleep all around. Great trees reminded me of mysteries from childhood and the moon was a lonesome figure of light in the sky. My thoughts turned to Mary. She had recently blown up about my addiction and had forced me to lie to her about cutting down and weaning myself clean. I purposely told her it would be easy and I'd be drug-free in three weeks. The deal since then was she held my heroin and portioned it out to me three times a day. It allowed her some involvement in my addiction and gave her a modicum of active control in our life. She didn't have the slightest idea that I was also in the midst of a huge crack addiction -- that news would have cooked her clean off the bone.To have woken and found me missing would have meant one thing to her: heroin. And that betrayal, that crack in her dream of getting me clean, would have had her up and sobbing rivers by the window as she waited for me to appear out the dark.
“Don’t let the light be on… Please, please, please!” I repeated over to myself turning onto my road. I kept my head down and on the count of five I looked up. Blackness… Beautiful-lucky-sleepytown-dreamy blackness. The light was off and the window looked like nothing could be living beyond it at all. It was gone 4am and the first birdcalls were ringing out through the fresh morning. I sucked in a last gulp of the fragrant night air, opened the front-door and crept up the unlit stairs. Outside the bedroom I undressed. I didn’t want to risk all that good fortune only to wake Mary falling over while trying to pull a sock off. I removed all my clothes and naked, but for three rocks of crack, I entered the room.
Poor girl. Asleep to the world, her eyes closed over ever so gently, completely oblivious to the nightmare which was raging through her life as she slept. I felt terribly sad and guilty and kissed her and said sorry. I slipped in the bed besides her. She made a little noise of sleepy acknowledgement and turned and put her arm around me. I waited still for a moment. On her first snore I relaxed and felt under my side of the mattress for my crack pipe. In the dark I loaded it up and on my elbow, leaning off over the side of the bed, I lit my lighter, held the flame to the pipe and sucked. The room sparked and crackled and then died down. I inhaled and held and then blew out. The world and my mind came alive in the dark, my eyes pricked wide open and every hair on my body sensitive to life. I took Mary’s hand and lowered it down on my cock. She gripped me lightly and I moved gently. And like that, dark and light, happy sad, wanted lonely, white brown, limp hard, soft erect, breathing in and blowing out, l lived through another turbulent night of life. I was there and if she woke and opened her eyes she would see me, a trick straight out the illusionist’s handbook, for really, on this dark night into morning, I hadn’t made it home at all.
Sick. We were sick. We lay in bed, wrapped up in filthy blankets, smoking, sometimes fucking, doing animal things, you know… like being sick.
Sick. We were sick. Sick in bed. Sick in life. Sick by life. Sick. And we made each other sick.
Sick. Watching TV for days on end, sweating furiously but too bored to pull the covers off. Filthy feet. Filthy legs. Separated by a valley of cigarette ends. Stuffing our faces full of fatty, greasy foods. Shutters down. Apartment crawling with bugs. Toilet blocked. Sick. We were so fucking sick.
Sick. Not dope sick. Life sick. Diseased by pasts and visions and sounds and leather belts and erect cocks and murder. Sick. We were made sick by all these things. Sick. Sickened by cunt. Wet mushy drunken gang-banged cunt. Sick. We were sick. I was Sick. She was sick.
Sick. Locked in the apartment, blankets up against the windows, dust in the sunbeams, Repulsion looping on the DVD player. Sick, the room smelled of sick. Two diseased lovers with open welts, leaking abscesses, strange bumps and sores and scars. Sick. The days made us sick. Fresh air made us sick. We stopped answering the door, muted the TV, and silently gagged when the buzzer rang. Sick. We looked at each other in terror, sick, a mirror of ourselves, sick. And in the bed we lay, puking up milk and yoghurt in our sleep, choking to death on the trauma of the life we had seen. Sick. That’s what we were: Sick.
And outside, the grimy, slick, lit up city became a hostile place. We concocted stories and plots, sick sick things, of a world of enemies encroaching upon us. Sick, we listened through the walls, eyed neighbours through the spy-hole: big, warped, looping faces, coming in, examining our door, the apartment bugged. Sick, the postman working for Interpol. Sick, police surveillance in the building opposite. Sick. We invented laws, sick laws, laws that said the flat couldn’t be raided between 3 and 5am. So we’d rise, sick, in the early hours, cracking eggs and frying sausages and bacon and cabbage and bread; stuffing our mouths full of sandwiches dripping oil and ketchup, then, climbing back into bed and pulling the blankets tight around our necks so as we couldn’t smell our own arseholes. Sick. The times were sick. We were sick. The hours were sick, and they dripped on by.
Sick. We slept like the sick: feverish, groaning and tensing up, our hair wet with sweat and stuck to our brows, mucus, dribble, crying through dreams, clenched fists and ugly faces. Sick. We were sick. Saying, “It hurts! It hurts so bad!” Drifting off into worlds of black, The Sins of our Fathers seeping out our skins. Sick. Ravaged by life. Sick. Sick to the bones. Turning grey. Fingers dark yellow. World shut out. TV on. Lines of bugs filing up the bin bags. Insane erections leaking watery cum. Tampons kicked to the bottom of the the bed with the socks. The flies gathering. Death getting near. Sick. We were so terribly sick.
Sick. 114 missed calls. 33 new messages, battery low, notes under the door, sick:
“Where R U?” [sic]
“Called to read lekky meter. return monday @ noon” [sic]
“Sis, Are You OK? Call me.” [sic]
“Your shower’s leaking into our apartment!” [sic]
“24/7 Plumbing emergency services: need access ASAP!” [sic]
“Whats happening? Please answer phone. Getting vry worried!” [sic]
“Monday noon. Called, no answer. Please leave meter reading on door.” [sic]
‘Domino’s Pizza Wednesday Special. Half-Price. Free home delivery’ [sic]
“Sis, I know your there. if you don’t give sign will call police!” [sic]
“Ceiling and bathroom carpet ruined. phoning agency. It’s raw sewage! PIGS!!!” [sic]
Sick. We did what we had to do: sent a text; pushed the notes back under the door; held our livers and crawled back into bed. Sick. We were made sick and we spewed it all out. On the floors, into bags, on the blankets, on each other, we were sick. Bright yellow bile, lumps of intestine, slithers of liver, black jellied blood. Sick, our kisses were sick. In the 69 position we were sick. Sucking and licking and bobbing like children, retching on each others pleasure. Sick.You tasted of curdled milk and fresh-smeared shit, and God knows what I was to you. Sick, our future was SICK. Our love was SICK. We were SICK, doing animal things, you know… like eating grass, getting better by being SICK.
She gave up and sat down on the lower steps of the Methodist Church. The drizzle had washed through her dress and streaks of dirt ran down her calves and into her boots. She crossed her forearms atop her knees and sunk her face in the crevice. Her dreadlocks hung over, an inch off the wet ground. The church bell gave eight solemn rings and some bellow throated bird regurgitated a sound that echoed through the morning mist and terrified the town. Katie sat there like that until all was quiet again and then lifted her head. Her left eye was horrendously swollen and bruised. She forced a smile through the tears, her smoker’s teeth matching the colour of her locks. Her bottom lip was split; the bridge of her nose too.
“You go on, I’ll be fine,” she said.
“You’re gonna score from this rabble in the soup kitchen, aint ya?”
“What does it matter? And I can’t miss Stuart. It’s his rattle days. He’ll not even be fit to graft without a morning bag. The poor sod would be in a panic if I’m not here when he arrives.”
“Well, make sure he sticks around tonight… just in case that other maniac shows up again.”
“He better not! Stew will kill him if he does… I hope the bastard turns up!”
“Hope for nothing. 24 hours without drama and you’ll be out of this fucking race for a while… doing your stir in rehab.”
“Oh, I need it. I couldn’t do even another week of this life. If they buried me now I’d not even try to dig myself free.”
“No-one’s gonna bury ya. It takes money to bury people. People like us get burned alive…. we have done for hundreds of years.”
Katie held her arms out. I reached down and hugged her. As I held her I told her that if she needed a last bag to get her into rehab to call around mine that evening. She made no sound and didn’t throb but I knew she was crying. The rain was a light mist which you could barely see. A musky smell rose from Katie, like she had been sleeping with cats. We detached and I left. A little ways down the road I cast a look back. She was 45 but from that distance had the air of a young girl. She gave a slow salute. As I turned around, back into the direction of my way, a tragic still of Katie became fixed in my mind.
Katie did not make a show that evening. When some weeks later I had not seen her return from rehab I took it she had in whatever way made it out. Stuart, her young Liverpudlian boyfriend, had shot through at the same time. I assumed they must have pooled their nothingness and took up a new start some place together, keeping their heads down while trying their best to ignore the lonesome calls released by junk town. I didn’t give it much thought. Occasionally another addict would ask about Katie, ask if I had received any news, but for the most part she was forgotten about and the scene turned on. It wasn’t that we didn’t care, it was that the junk life is a vagrant life and people come and go all the time. Sometimes they are there and sometimes they are not. Every junkie understands that the best way out is to make a clean break and those breaks are often made in an instant and are absolute – there is no leaving party or goodbye. As the months passed all thought of Katie and where she was fell from my mind. I was in the midst of my own life of heroin dependency and that was gruelling enough without the added burden of worrying where everyone else was at.
And so junk addiction ate the time away. I didn’t notice the days drawing into night nor the spring disappearing into the blazing mouth of summer, and I didn’t notice if Katie was three month missing or four. One week resembled the last and the last resembled the next and like that time moved on but life remained the same and still the next day was no different from the last. And then there I was, passing the old Methodist church on my way to score, a brief thought of Katie coming to me and a weird coincidence waiting in the wings.
I didn’t notice him there at first. It was only when I heard the familiar sound of butane gas hissing out its cannister that I turned and looked. There was Stuart, in his old begging spot outside the bank, his hair shaved off and his inside wrist held to his mouth, a tin of lighter gas concealed up his sleeve and the nozzle between his teeth. He took another blast, his eyes widening as he recognized me. When the gas had settled down in his brain he stood up, throwing his blanket off. He gave me a handshake, which fell into a hug, and a pat on the back.
“Alright, lad… been a long fucking time. So what’s cooking fella? Ya still running the tracks of the ol’ gravy train, like?”
I gave him a show of my needle pocked hands.
“Yer’on da kop now, lad?”
“Yeah, gotta meet at Sunrise. And you? You still using?”
“Fits n starts, lad … Fits n starts. My fucking devil’s this gas. The B I can take or leave… Quit a habit. But not this fuckin’ shite!”
“You gonna be around when I pass back?”
“I’ll be ‘ere till fuckin midnight if it carries on slow like this. The tight-ars’d fucks. At least back home folk have fuck all ta give, know what I mean.”
“What you short on?”
“ I’ve made me gas money, so need about another eight quid for a bag.”
“Stick a fiver in with me and he’ll do us three for 25.”
“Yeah? You sure? Sound, lad.” And with that Stuart was marching off with me while shovelling his begging blanket into his bag. As we strode on he took regular blasts from his gas can. He sounded like a deflating tyre walking besides me.
“So is Katie back with you then?”
“ Katie? Dint ya hear? Katie went over, lad. She’urz found dead in her room on the Lime Grove ev’ning ‘fore the silly lass was s’posed ter go ta fuckin’ rehab.”
“You gotta be kidding me?”
“Only wish I was. The old girl blew right out.”
“Jesus, fuck! I was with her that morning. She was waiting for you outside the church… Copping of Noel and his lot.”
"I was in cop shop. Nabbed by the bizzies, like. Almost two days they kept me there. Sicker n' fuckin sick when they turned me out. Crawled 'round tuh Katie's, dead selfish really, like, hoping she'd 'ave skipped on rehab an wuld 'ave a shot or a filter for me. No Katie and that scummy ponce, Ray the Gimp, tells me she'd gone under the previous evening an tuh be careful, like, as the bizzies were sniffin' about. That Nick, young kid she use'ta mother, was with her when it happened. 'Parently she was all busted up an' no-one quite knows why??? I reckon she were likely jumped while grafting or did it t'er self... you know how fuckin' mental she got."
“No, she was busted up when I saw her. Said it was some ex from North London. He’d tracked her down, gotten in past the security desk, forced his way in her door and then went mental on her. I can’t fucking believe she’s dead. It’s dampened the night a bit… I’m wishing I never bumped into you now! And you? where have you been? You left at exactly the same moment so I took it you’d both shot thru together.”
“When I heard about Katie it just did my ‘ead in, like. I went back home next day. She was all I had down this way. I’d pick’d up a habit, was on the streets, an so I thought ‘fuck ya’ an took a train home. I did my rattle in muh Ma’s an tried tuh get on up there. Was sound for a while… Going on pretty well. My Ma even managed to get custody of me littl’un… then things fell thru. I forgot how fuckin’ shite life was.”
I didn’t reply. I was momentarily displaced into a lonely world of sadness and reflection. I could see Katie sat on the steps of the church, the staggered last vision I had caught of her pasted up in my inner mind. Then I thought of the OD? That seemed strange. There was no way a seasoned user like Katie could have gone under on a ten bag… not even two… not even if it were a strong batch, which was impossible if it came from Noel. Maybe she was poisoned by some shit the smack was cut with.
“Don’t forget the booze and all the downers she use’ta swallow,” said Stuart, when I told him of my doubts. “She would go out strange that lass, like. I passed some scary fuckin horror nights with that girl. At least three times she went over on me. I remember walking her corpse around the fuckin’ Green one night at gone 2am, all her muscles having given out. She’d fix, be so far out of it that she’d forget she’d already hit home and be cooking up the next shot while nodding out in her spoon. Plenty a time the fuckin gear would end up in the carpet. She had problems, you know.”
With the news within me of Katie’s passing the night and life didn’t fit so comfortably within me. Something now scared me about what we were doing. For the first time since deciding to live by the needle a real fear had crept in and I wasn’t looking forward to my shot at all. We scored and Stuart said goodbye and cut off through to where he was staying. Alone, my pace slowed and I wandered home in a kind of reverie. The streets seemed eerie now, the night wavering with sad ghostly frequencies, the Lime Grove swamped in bilious yellow light, the overground train rocketing over the iron railway bridge and down towards Hammersmith. I looked at my hands and then up into the sky, as deep as I could into the immense purple of space. Katie’s dead, I thought, Katie’s fucking dead.
Outside the Kentucky on the Uxbridge Road was Sinbad’s favourite meeting haunt. It was early afternoon and the sky was the colour of marble. Standing just aways down was a woman, smoking. She held her cigarette awkwardly, like a novice. The way she scrunched her face up as she took each long drag said she had lived a hard life where femininity didn’t get you loved but battered. After a moment she came over.
“You’re waiting for Sinbad int ya?” she said.
“Yeah. He should be here soon, he’s usually pretty good.”
“I’m hanging on him too.”
“Thought so… Thought I’d seen you around.”
“What’s he holding, dya know?”
“Not sure. I got off him a few days ago and it wasn’t bad, but these smalltime dealers pick-up so often he may have crap now.”
“Gawd, don’t say that! I need something with a strong kick today… had some bad news this morning.”
“Most news that comes in the morning is bad.”
“Well today it was double bad. Fuckin found out me best friend Od’d, din I. Dead.”
“Fuck. That is bad.”
“Always the fucking good ones they take! As they say: only the good die young. Katie she was called. Never harmed or cheated a soul in her life.”
“ Katie from Lime Grove?”
“Yeah, mate. Did ya now her?”
“Not personally. But I know who you mean.”
“Fuck, me and Katie was like that,” she said, crossing her fore and middle fingers. “We go back years. I was the last person to see her alive… aside from her boyfriend that is. The poor girl was only hours away from rehab as well. Was her boyfriend who shot her up, killed her. Can you even imagine? He’s in a bad fucking way this morning… Just hope he doesn’t do anything stupid.”
“What she died recently?”
“Last night! I’d been with her all day. She must’ave gone over right after I left her. Weird as well. Not even an hour after I got home I took a real strange turn… went into a kind of trance and just began crying and shaking hysterically. Bob, that’s me old man, he said straight off, ‘Someone you knows died!’ I paid him no mind, don’t believe in stuff like that, me. But if he weren’t just about fuckin spot on. Weird hey?”
“Very weird,” I said.
“Mind you, I wouldn’t narf mind knowing who sold her the gear which did it! Ol’ Sinbad would be getting the fucking elbow if I did. That’s ‘arf the problem round ‘ere: there’s no middle ground. You go from getting utter crap to mind-blowing stuff. You get so used to dropping a full bag in the spoon that when some decent gear comes around everyone gets caught off guard. It’s why I never shoot first. Most junkies they wanna be the first to hit home; not me.Ya can’t be too careful when ya fuckin’ life’s at stake. But I’ve always been shrewd like that. Always watching, I am. As I said, poor old Katie was a luvly girl but not the shrewdest of users I’ve ever known. Though she din’t fuckin’ deserve that… no one does.”
“As I said, I didn’t know the girl personally but had seen her around. The last time was months ago.”
“Yeah, she kept herself pretty much to herself, not like these younger lot who want everyone to know their business, waving packs a fuckin needles about in the street. A lot of people knew Katie by sight, but only a select few were let in to her private life. I count meself honoured to have been one of ‘em, to have been there for her right up until the end. And I won’t stop there… won’t stop being a friend juss coz she’s passed. I’ve taken it on meself to arrange her funeral… make sure she gets a proper send off an burial and not bunged into a fuckin pauper’s grave!”
“Good luck with that. They say the average funeral is two grand or something nowadays.”
“Ain’t no price you can put on a friend. I’ll fuckin’ quit my habit if I have to, but that girl’s gonna go off in style. She woulda fuckin luved that… white horses and a nice carriage, trotted around the green where she used to score and every junkie this side of the river tooting an’ shooting on behind. In death I’m gonna give her what she never ‘ad in life.”
I didn’t say a word. This woman was probably here to ask Sinbad for heroin on credit and if she did have two grand there’s no way she’d spend it on anyone but herself. Not that I’d blame her. Only someone drugged up to the eyeballs could think it sensible to pay two grand just to bury someone… do the Borough’s dirtiest work for them. That Katie was already more than three months dead was a further problem I couldn’t quite see being resolved. I listened to the woman’s talk and commitment, her absolute determination to get her supposed friend buried. The white horses, the carriage, the hordes of addicts cheering and crying her off. This wasn’t Katie’s dream funeral it was the woman’s, a fantasy of a world that cared, that surely in the gravity of death, at that very extreme point, that surely someone somewhere would love you enough to do something. It was a deep dark lonely sadness she spilt, fears of her own treatment post-mortem when the drugs and cigarettes have finally taken their toll. I let her have her dream and her fantasy. I let her be the loyal comrade who’ll bury her friend at no matter what price or cost. If she believed it, even for a second, then good for her. Sinbad was running late and sobriety was entering me with a creeping sadness too.
* * *
Ray the Gimp was an odious little user with a violently bowed left leg. Stood still he looked like he was falling over. In his fifties he sported thick greasy grey hair speckled with dust and dry scalp and insect eggs. His eyes were deep set and shifty and always seemed to watch you when you wasn’t watching him. A man of vile habits he was forever turning around and clearing his nose and throat, bringing up all manner of gunk from his lungs and gobbing it out into the gutter. His thumb and forefingers were stained dark brown. When he talked he fired out specks of frothy saliva, always finishing his discourse by pulling the back of his hand across his mouth. Everyone knew him and everyone despised him a little more than the previous person. Not that it bothered him. Ray the Gimp thrived off such loathing. It allowed him to be ever more treacherous without the unnecessary emotions of guilt or empathy playing on his conscience. He hated the world and the world hated him, an uneasy truce which just about held.
My instinct was to avoid Ray. He was one of the petty bottom feeders which lurked the murky waters of heroin addiction, getting by on turning such lowly tricks that there wasn’t even any comeback when it was understood what he had done. This time, however, I let Ray run out his hustle, limping slowly over and lingering besides me like an unwanted shadow. I felt his cunning eyes on me and waited for his raspy, toothless patter.
“Ya waiting for Rico, mate? Shame, you’ve just missed him. Won’t be back for a good half an hour now. Not that cunt. I know his ways better than he fuckin knows ‘em his self: ‘Be d’ere in five, bro… Be d’ere in five!’ An the cunts never there! Fuck ‘im… ya just don’t need that! Listen I’ve a few ten bags on me right now if you wanna save yaself the hassle, mate? Top gear as well. Not these fucking footballs which that cunt sells, cut to fuck with manitol, but proper gear, mate… rock. Point two. ‘ere, ‘av a look?”
From his filthy mouth he spat a little blue bag into his palm. He showed me it, sitting in a little lake of his thick saliva, before popping it back into his gob.
“Point two bang on, an ya don’t need me to tell ya that you’ll not get better round ‘ere. Well, I’m using it meself in I, so ya know its gonna be a decent bit a kit. Don’t put no crap in my body, me.”
“I’ll pass, Ray. You know how funny these guys get calling them out and then not showing. Next time.”
“Your call, mate… it’s not me losing out: it’s you.”
Of course, I wasn’t losing out. Ray was waiting for Rico himself. Rico sold a gram for 25 and this nauseous little fuck would then divide it into five 10 bags and double his cash each time. Most were wise to his hustle, but there were just enough dope sick punters who would turn up and take the first deal on offer to get themselves back on their feet. Ray would sell his bags off like that and whenever Rico passed by next he would see him for another gram and do the same over again. It never made him a penny but it got him his junk each day and no junkie ever needs more than that.
Ray sat down on the narrow metal bench which ran the width of the bus-stop. He took the weight off his gammy leg and made some monstrous hunking noise in the back of his throat. I thought of the bags of heroin he had in his mouth and wondered how the hell he managed not to swallow them while performing such violent clearances of his airways.
“Ray, what’s this about Katie dying?”
“Katie? Don’t know no Katies me… alive or dead.”
“Dreadlocks… small bull-ring through the nose…”
“Ah, yer mean Kate! God, that’s goin’ back some. Carried out one evening, weren’t she… covered up. Caused a lotta fuckin’ grief for us wot was left. The management screwed right down tight on drug use… random room inspections, the lot. She dint do noone no favours clocking out like that. No. It was one of my bags which did it as well. Once word got around about that my phone was ringing hot… everyone wanted a bit a the action. And this stuff (opening his mouth and showing two bags under his tongue) is just about even fucking better. Anyway, next day the police cleared her room out and took her belongings away: a single black bin liner. Fuckin’ tragic really.”
“I heard Nick was with her when it happened?”
“Was him who shot her up! Said she went out in his arms. He was evicted after it came out he was with her. Silly fucka, admitting to that… lucky he dint end up on a fuckin manslaughter charge. He’s kipping in with Marge now, back to square one.”
“I was with Katie the morning it happened. Found her wandering in a daze down around the station, all beat up. She was waiting for the soup kitchen to open and I told her to come and I’d score for her. As we passed the Methodist Church she suddenly gave up and quit, deciding rather to hang about there and score off Noel and that lot.”
“Fuck, everyone was with Kate that morning. You’re at least the fifth fuckin person to av told me that. Evryone was wiv her just before she died, and just as many were wiv her when she scored the bags which killed her, and probably there’s just as many claiming to have hit her up with the fuckin fatal shot. But it’s like I said, she scored off a me that evening and was dead not even an hour later. Just goes to show: no one’s immune to good gear… no matter how experienced they think they are.”
When Ray stopped talking I checked my phone to see how long Rico had been. I felt Ray scrutinising me and shaking his head. He was about to say something, try to convince me that Rico would be a good while yet and make another offer to sell me his saliva marinated bags. But before he could form a word in his mouth a new junkie arrived on the scene with a face and posture shot through with suffering. Ray the Gimp noticed the pains of junk sickness immediately. He edged his way across the bench like some kind of a human crab, finishing up staring into the face of the latest length of misery which had arrived. The junkie looked at Ray and winced in pain.
“You waiting for Rico, mate?” Ray asked.
The junkie nodded; he was in too much discomfort to talk.
“You’re gonna have a long fuckin’ wait, then… he passed not even 5 minutes ago and din’t even have enough to serve evryone who was ‘ere. Said he’s off to reload and will be back in 45 minutes. 45 fuckin hours more like it… you know how long these piss-taking cunts take ta reload.”
“Oh, tell me you’re joking? He told me he was on his way. I’m dying ‘ere!”
“Ya will an all, waiting on that cunt. But if ya that poorly I’ve a couple a ten bags you can take off ma hands? Will get ya right outta stook? Ere, av a look…” Ray once again spat a bag out his mouth and showed it to the addict. The addict looked it over with a sharp, interested nose. His face didn’t look too impressed, but I could see in his eyes that he was sold.
“Fuck it, go on,” he said. He gave Ray ten quid, took the bag, and shuffled off as fast as he could. Barely had he been gone 30 seconds and Rico came along. He gave Ray the Gimp a searing, suspicious look and made his way past. To me he gave a solemn, almost indistinguishable, nod and carried straight on by. I waited a couple of seconds and then casually followed.
It was on my mind and I had nothing small to say and so I said, “Did ya hear about Katie dying?”
Tracy looked at me with a genuine expression of horror and sadness and said, “Oh no, not Katie… God no. How? When?”
“Few months back. OD. I’d been with her the morning it happened and the real sickener is that she had a two week residential rehab set up for the following day.”
“How have you only just found out?”
“Her ex-boyfriend, Stuart. I thought the two of them had gotten clean and shot the scene together, then, fast forward to last week, I’m passing the bank, and who do I see sat sown in his old spot? Stuart. I asked him if Katie was back with him and he said she was dead. Apparently, Nick, young tall kid, shot her up and she went out on him.”
“I can’t believe this! Only last week I was speaking about her with Mikey. He said she’d not scored off him for weeks and asked if I’d seen her. Of course I hadn’t, but never imagined anything untowards had happened… well you don’t, do you? People move on and most come back and some don’t. I’m in shock… seriously fucking shocked. But you know what we gotta do? We’ve gotta say a proper goodbye to the poor girl. We gotta have us a nice parting shot for Katie.”
“I’m really not into stuff like that, but we can score and share a thought privately. Since I found out last week I’ve not been able to rid my mind of it. How do these things happen as they do? After 25 years of shooting dope and she dies hours before getting to rehab. It’s unbelievable.”
Now Tracy was down. She paced about shaking her head and saying Katie’s name over, despairingly. Then she said, “We should phone Mikey… Let him know. He’ll bump us up a deal for Katie… I’m sure of it.”
And so from walking one way, all set to meet a dealer serving up out of Acton, we made a u-turn and I followed Tracy across the road and into a beat up phone box where she fed coins into its slot and tapped out a long series of numbers. I watched her face as she listened anxiously for Mikey to pick up. The moment he did I saw Tracy’s face crease up with the ugliness of grief.
“Mikey, it’s Trace darlin’. I need to see you… just had some real terrible news. Please say you’re holding… please! Yeah… I know it. Back of the flats? Ten mins, tops.”
As soon as Tracy put the phone down her tears stopped and she let out a big smile.
“10 mins. WestWay… We’re on.”
Mikey came wandering out the back of the flats and up to where we were waiting alongside the railings. He was a handsome, milk chocolate coloured West-indian, thin and light of gait and in fresh clean woollen sportswear. He had the muscular jowls of a herbavore. His hood was up and under it he wore a red rap bandana. Between his lips was a matchstick. With his head slightly lowered he slid his sober eyes from one side to the other, scanning for any suspicious cars or people hanging about. He touched fists with me.
“What’s all da stress for girl?” he asked Tracy.
Tracy was sobbing, albeit with no tears. She remained like that, as though if she were to speak she’d lose the concentration needed to hold herself together. When the tension peaked, she blubbered, “ Katie’s dead, Mikey… She went over on us! I need some help, darlin’… she was all I had.”
Mikey’s bottom lip dropped open; the match remained stuck to it. He couldn’t find a word.
Through her dry tears Tracy forced a smile and apologised. With her fingers pushed out to full length she presented both her trembling hands to Mikey, to show just how much she had been affected by the news. Mikey removed the match from his lip and stood there thinking. He looked at me and I nodded and then gave a morose look down.
“Mikey, we wanna say a proper goodbye, you know. Katie was our friend and one of your best customers. She was the one who first put me onto you, do you remember that? I need to say a last goodbye and calm myself down… only I don’t really have the means for such a gesture right now…”
“Wrong day, Trace,” said Mikey, “you caught me on a bad one. I’m almost out. I’ll be switching off right after we’re done. Not too sure I’ve even got what you want.”
“We want five brown, Mikey. Two for him and three for me.”
Mikey grimaced and shook his head. “Don’t think I’ve got it” he said. He turned around and cowered into his own space, inspecting what he had in his hand. “You know what,” he said, turning back, “you got luuh-key, sis. I’ve exactly five on me.”
“Just the five? You’ve not an extra bag or two… Not even for Katie?”
“Just got the five, Trace, nothing more. If I did I’d be only too happy to give you a touch.”
I watched Tracy deflate. Now she really did look like someone had died. “We’ll take the five then,” she said, disappointed. She nodded for me to give Mikey my cash. When he turned back to Tracy he found her patting her way through her pockets and cursing. “Fuck me, Mikey… I’ve left my purse at home! I’ve only cash on me for one.”
“I am,Yeah. Sorry.”
Mikey gave Tracy a bag and put the other two back in his pocket. He hadn’t realised what Tracy was up to. Just as he was on the verge of saying goodbye, Tracy suddenly had a thought:
“Fuck,” she said, “I’ve just realised, you’ve a couple of extra now… you can put them in for Katie.”
Mikey stammered. For a moment he was looking to try and worm his way out the situation before finally acknowledging he had been done. Reluctantly, he dipped his hand in his deep tracksuit pocket, the gold chain on his wrist rising as he searched around. Tracy held her hand out. Mikey unpinched his thumb and forefinger and let a bag fall in her palm. Tracy kept her hand open. He deliberated, sucked his bottom lip and then dropped the second bag in her palm too.
“She would have been proud of you, Mikey,” she said.
Mikey gave an all-knowing look, like now he even doubted if Katie was even dead. He tossed the wet match he was holding away, lowered his head and left, returning to the same place he had came from.
Tracy was ecstatically happy. She noticed me looking at her and fell back into a more sombre mood. “These are for Katie!” she said. “How she hated that tight-fisted fucker Mikey. I remember he refused her a bag on tick once and left her fucking sick and crying in the street!” As we walked on in silence a car hooted its horn and then pulled in at the curb a little way down. It was some acquaintance of Tracy’s. She rushed over. I lingered behind. Tracy was bent down leaning in the passenger window like a hooker. I couldn’t make out what she was saying but all became clear when she straightened up and then held out her trembling hands to the driver. The driver took something out from his inside jacket pocket and squeezed it into Tracy’s hand. He held the squeeze for a prolonged moment. Tracy closed her eyes as if his human contact was relieving her of her suffering on the spot. It was a miracle cure alright, and it had the Queens ugly face printed all over it.
“Shane, did you ever know that tall dreadlocked woman who used to beg outside the bank… always with the Liverpudlian fella?”
“Lovely girl she was. Crazy as batshit, but a good’un…. Well, was a good’un. Heard this morning she bailed on us. Only 40 odd. Dead.”
“Fuck. Who was she? Your best friend?”
“I wouldn’t go that far, not my best BEST friend, but we got on pretty close for a while back there. I introduced her to that artist guy who rides about on that fucking silly painted tricycle. She wern’t doing too well and he paid her a few quid twice a week to sit for him.”
“Well, she’s not really missing too much, is she? I don’t get how everyone cries about how shit and sadistic life is and then when someone actually makes it out everyone is all cut up about it. What happened to her anyway?”
“God, was fucking horrible from what I can make out. Lonely, found a week later when she didn’t sign on and her hostel fees weren’t paid. Half her face eaten away by flies when they finally got in. Needle in her neck too. Suicide. It turned out it happened just a few hours after she’d been beaten half to death by her latest fella. He’s in nick now. What a fucking life, hey? Can you believe half the crazy shit that happens the moment heroin is poured into the stir? They want a good film alls they need to do is pin a fucking camera to a junkies head for a week and tell him to do nothing but breathe. Chances are the last hours of film will be the fucking camera recording the ceiling until the battery dies… or some paramedic kneeling into shot and pronouncing him dead.”
“That all seems like bullshit to me. If everyone died like everyone says there’d be none of us left.”
“Eh? This shit is dangerous fucking business, man. No junkie is anymore than a shot away from death and don’t ever forget it. That was the fourth friend who’s toppled on me this year alone… Two right in front of me.”
“I’m not saying people don’t die, I’m just saying that one death turns into a hundred. It seems there’s a few staple stories that every junkie has to have or somehow they’ve not really experienced the cinematic ‘junkie’ horror story – a dead best friend is one of them. Go along to any NA meeting, read any addicts journals or poetry and not one of them doesn’t have their own personal take on the dead best friend theme. A lot of people just make shit up to give some drama to their lives. The truth is that someone dies every now and again and all deaths are put down to OD and every junkie who had even a passing acquaintance with that person was suddenly their best friend and was there. You could be sure, if my heart were to give out this evening and I were found dead tomorrow, I’d straight away be given a cause of death as ‘Heroin OD’ and instantly, post-mortem, become the most popular guy around. And everyone is happy to oblige the myth because it sounds much more personally tragic that a friend died from an OD rather than a heart attack. But really, when you think of it and what is going on, it is really someone not caring too much about the person who supposedly passed but rather wanting to put over just how recklessly dangerous their own life is. In any walk of life it’s mostly bullshit what goes on and the heroin scene is no different… it’s probably even worse.”
“Well, ya may have a point there mate, but I really have seen more deaths than I care to remember. Sure, there’s bullshit too but not from my mouth.”
“Forget it. I wasn’t having a go at you. Just sick of all the crap that goes around. It just seems that every addicts feels obliged to have stories of all kinds of crazy shit when the truth is many live holed up with their nan or mother and the most exciting thing which happens is news of a new colostomy bag or something… an amputation or DVT if they’re really lucky.”
“Fuck me, where does the cynicism come from, man? Remind me not to tell you next time some poor cunt goes under!”
“Next time some poor cunt goes over don’t tell me: I DON’T CARE!”
“Fair enough. Now, do you wanna take this methadone offa me or not?”
“I do if it’s not watered down.”
“I don’t fucking water my methadone down. No cunt would buy off me if I did. And there’s one fool proof way to know if the juice is watered or not: shake it. If it bubbles at the top there’s water in it. Proper juice is too thick to pick up a surf.”
“Nah, you’re OK. I trust you… just. Give us it here then.”
“I’ve another 250ml if you need any more. Buzz me.”
“What the fuck’s this? I’ve just shaken it like you said and its got a head on it like a fucking pint of Guiness!”
“Fuck off! Let me see that. Hmmm… yeah, it’s deffo got a bit of an afro. Probably the chemist over did it with the mix.”
“Well give it back to the chemist then. I don’t want this shit.”
“Nah, don’t do this to me mate, please. Can’t get meself a a couple of baggies if not. D’ya think I’d tell ya about how to check it if I had watered the shit down?”
“Yes… you probably would. How much is in there? I need to know? Be honest or I’ll leave it completely.”
“Ok, I took a gulp this morning. But seriously I just added water to cover what I took and it weren’t much.”
“But I thought you had plenty? Another 250ml? Why would you need to take a gulp of this?”
“Well, I took a gulp of the other too. Just incase I sold it and then couldn’t score or something. It’s not quite 250ml… maybe 220 or so.”
“You sure you didn’t only have 250ml and topped it up to 500 with water?”
“Naaaaah, mate,” he said laughing, in a way that let me know I was either spot on or very near to the truth. “Taste it. Go ahead.”
“You’ve probably added a shitload of sugar to it to, so there’s no point. I’ll take it, but I’ll know exactly what you’ve done to it by how long 90 will hold me. It better not be what I think.”
“You’re para, mate. Pure para.”
“I’m not para, Steve, though if I were, I’ve good reason to be: it’s shit trickery like yours which really kills people… Probably the same kind of trickery which killed Katie. Maybe deep down you even know it. Maybe that is why such a death cuts you up so much. Maybe it’s a guilty conscience?”
Steve gave me a curious look, like how one would look at an insane person.
“Guilty conscience? What the fuck are trippin’ on? It was suicide, you nutter… she fucking killed herself!”
Nick was a tall lanky user with unwashed black hair down to the end of his neck. He had large, far set, slightly bulged eyes, pinky red boils all over his face and a greenish tint to his skin. He had shot himself down to clothes from charity shops: huge misshapen woollen jumpers atop trousers he was forever hitching up at the waist. He never wore any socks and had black ankles. I happened upon him and Portuguese Joe pushing a shopping trolley down the high street with a large-backed TV sat in it.
“What trouble you pushing around there?” I asked.
“TV. Dual DVD,” Nick said. “You can have it for 25 squid?”
“Well, it was worth a try. It’s a decent bit of mediaware tho, innit? We’re gonna see if Trooper will take it for a 40’s worth a B. Wotcha think? He’ll take it, won’t he?”
“God Knows. Not if he’s on foot he won’t.”
“Fuck, Joe, did you hear that: what if T comes on foot?”
“He won’t be on foot! We already told him we’ve something for him to look at.”
“Where you meeting him?”
“I’ll tag along with ya, should be interesting.”
To get off the main road with their hot goods Nick and Portuguese Joe turned and cut through the smaller side streets. Joe pushed the trolley, limping while crashing recklessly over the uneven paving.
“Nick, what’s all this about Katie? What happened?” Nick pulled a kinda blank expression, as if finding his thoughts. He nodded gently.
“Yeah, she went over. Out just like that. She was already wasted and when her boyfriend never put in a show she went psycho and turned her attentions to his gear. She was in some state though… Physically. She’d been drinking all day and had taken a beating from someone or other. Not sure who she wouldn’t talk of it.”
“I heard it was you who shot her up?”
“Wot? Where jya hear that?”
“Gimpy Ray. He was boasting about how it was his gear that took her out.”
“I never fucking shot her up! Is he trying to have me nabbed or what! And it werent his shitty little bags a gear either. His stuff wouldn’t knock out a fucking dwarf.”
“But you was there? “
“I was there, but had fuck all to do with it and dint stick around. When I saw she’d gone over I gave her a quick check, took the half bag a gear she had left and scrammed. I phoned the ambulance though and most wouldn’t.”
“You’re probably right there.”
“The next day they cleared her room out. I took her gear as I figured she’d not need it where she was and she wouldn’t have wanted it to end up in the police incinerator. “
“You don’t need to explain. I’d have done the same… we all would. Gimpy Ray also said you got evicted for being there.”
“O don’t listen to that cunt! I wasn’t even a resident at the hostel so how the fuck could I be evicted? I stayed over a few nights here and there. Sometimes with Katie and sometimes with Peter below. When that all blew over with Katie they got so strict with room checks that no-one could risk having me there. It was fuck all to do with being with Katie though. These fucking people, Jesus.”
Nick now took the shopping trolley from Portuguese Joe and began pushing it himself. Joe said his leg hurt. He lit a cigarette and followed on behind. At the first turning on Wood Lane Nick stopped and rested with the trolley on the corner. He mentioned something about standing in the middle of the road with a stolen TV and laughed. Joe was laughing too. He was also asking passers by if they were interested in the TV. Trooper would be having a look at it but all the better if they could sell it before. A few people looked in at it, examined the plug, but no-one would risk buying it without being able to plug it in and test that it worked. Not long after a small blue car flew by with the passenger window down, music blaring and a big black happy head nodding away and singing out the window. He let out a special sound for Nick and Joe, a high-pitched animalistic scream/laugh as the car flew by. It was Trooper.
“He can’t be holding gear,” I said to Nick, “he wouldn’t be carrying on with that lark if he were.”
“He’s always holding. He wouldn’t turn up empty.”
A minute later and the same black guy who had been been hanging out the car window came strolling down the road. He had a weird way of rolling his shoulders as he walked.
“Fuck, bro!” he said to Nick, “You couldn’t be any more blatant?”
“Too heavy to carry; too big to hide, “ said Nick.
Trooper cast his eye over the TV. It looked new and was top of the range. Without saying whether he wanted it or not he made a call and said:
“It’s cool. Come and get me.” Nick held his dirty fist out for Trooper to bump.
“Get away wid dhat nonsense, bro! Wot you take me for?” Trooper said. “I’ll give you a gram for your goods… no more.”
Nick looked at Joe. Joe pulled a discrete, inert face, his eyes widening a touch like he was trying to breathe through them. He gave a very subtle shake of his head.
“Come on T,” said Nick, “don’t do us on a couple of bags?”
“Listen, bro, I said a gram. I’m not paying more for dhem tings. I’ll drop a white in too. Yes or no bro? Comes on. I’m a busy man.”
“You’re killing us T,” said Nick. “It’s the B we need. But if that’s what you’re offering then that’s it… we gotta accept, int we?”
“Dis ain’t no charity, bro. An not one other man round d’is manor would even trade for anything but pure dollar.”
The blue car arrived. Trooper told Nick and Joe to load the TV in the back. As they did Trooper got in the passenger seat and said, “10 mins, bro. Me gonna sort ya tings. An lose the fuckin trolley, bro.”
The car pulled off. Nick took the trolley and pushed it and let go. It freewheeled into the curb on the far side and fell over with a discordant rattling crash. When he turned back around he looked almighty pleased with himself.
“Told you he wouldn’t have gear on him, “ I said. Nick just nodded. The same nod he had made when thinking about Katie.
Fellow Edwards was working over already tilled ground. He told so many lies that he appeared to have a bad memory. He wasted no time in breaking down and sobbing out my memories to me. I watched him curiously as he told me how he had been with Katie at the Methodist Church the morning before she had died, how he hugged her goodbye and had told her that if she needed anything she was just to call around. He even went so far as to describe how young and tragic she seemed to him on his last look back “as if the sprite of youth had appeared in her for one last beautiful moment before the end of all suffering”.
He had mastered his art so well that his version was better than the original. And neither did it end there.
Coming back from a few seconds of deep, faraway thoughts, Fellow Edwards sighed. Then he looked up and stared straight at me, through me. From somewhere he had mustered up real tears. They did not break and roll but sat against the lip of his bottom eyelid like a clear ripple of shoreline. He did look incensed by grief.
Fellow Edwards explained how Katie had indeed called around his that evening and how he had scored of Ray the Gimp and had given Katie two bags. He said that it was his good will that had killed her. He spoke as if there were a great moral to be had from his story. He took all the tragedy away from Katie and filled his own soul with it. And yet, unlike Tracy, he had not done so to gain in any material way. It seemed his sole reward was in reinforcing the idea of just how hexed and luckless his existence was. I let him continue, let him tell me of the troubled evening he had passed the night Katie had died, how he was overcome with a strange urge to go back and see her, an urge he had ignored with the gravest of consequences. When he was quite finished, I said:
“You’ve not a very good memory, have you?” He gave me a ‘Huh?’ like look. He must have discerned something in my voice as he was on the defensive, ready to defend the bullshit he had just told me with a passion.
“Don’t you remember meeting me the other week? You was with that mate of yours… he had his foot in plaster?”
“Er… yeah… and???”
“Well, it was me who told you about Katie dying and how that morning I’d left her at the church. You’ve just told me the story I told you… And a whole lot more besides.”
Fellow Edwards kinda leaned back with a horrified look on his face, his regard was suddenly one of hostile distrust. His brain was working away furiously, searching for an out. Instinctive guilt reaction took over.
“Fuck off, mate… Fuck right off! You told me this story? You’re fucking aving a laugh, int ya? How the fuck could you tell me anything when it was me who was with her? A short memory! What the fuck do you take me for? A cunt?”
“Just telling you what happened. It was even you who asked me about her.”
“BullSHIT! You’ve got ya fucking wires crossed somewhere. You may have told someone but it wasn’t fucking me!”
“Then I couldn’t have told anyone… I would have only just now found out about it.”
“You taking me for a fucking mug? You’re sick. You need to cut the drugs out if they’re doing that to you. My fucking friend and you’re shitting on her memory? Is that what you’re doing? Shitting on her fucking memory? Come on, Muppet … speak up!”
Fellow Edwards had found his angle. Like many a liar before him, thinking it would be the reaction of an honest man, he first set about in a blaze of anger and indignation and then took it to its absolute extreme, threatening violence. But an honest man would never react like that; an honest man would do the opposite; an honest man would do absolutely nothing at all. Getting violent was Fellow Edwards’ way of discharging his humiliation – a way to regain his lost pride. It was a contrived, dominating behaviour, one designed to make amends, no different from the man who loses at chess only to want to settle it with a boxing match. And if, at the very least, all that happens is that the other fellow quits his boastful actions and retracts his accusations, then the threat of violence has served good purpose. Under the dishonourable mask of defending his friend’s honour Fellow Edwards was all het up and gunning for me. The last thing I was going to do was fight over what I knew to be the truth, and so, I backed down and said that I was sorry and must have been mistaken. It was a fairly ridiculous situation, one of reversed roles, though entirely possible, that by this time, Fellow Edwards had convinced himself that he really had lived through what he recounted. With my recantation of events the situation calmed to an uneasy truce. Fellow Edwards withdrew into himself, a sulky look of coiled anger retracting into his face. He refused to speak another word, took to pacing around like an embittered convict, mentally muttering and cursing to himself, working himself up afresh then calming himself down with measured steps and deep, slow intakes of air through his nostril. With a downcast sadness I watched him out the corner of my eye, sometimes just his lower legs and shoes, wondering what in the hell was wrong with this world.
Over the course of a month, since Stuart’s return, every other junkie I met had some story about Katie. Either they were there, had crossed her path that day, had scored the drugs which killed her, or, had intimate details of her death. Others said that they had heard and it was a shame, though what they had heard was often no more than pure fantasy. Some renderings of the death held that Katie had died months ago and others that it happened just days ago. There were those who said she was carried out still alive only to die in hospital; those who said she was found after some weeks, half decomposed; and some still who claimed her body was put in the lift of the hostel building and found by staff when the doors opened up on the ground floor. There were even a minority who looked at me aghast when I told of her death and said it was impossible because they had seen her only last week. One junkie, by the name of Grace, even went so far as saying she had Katie’s new telephone number, yet, quite predictably, couldn’t find it when asked for it.
Still, regardless of all the hearsay, for the most part I was able to unravel myth from truth. I was with her that morning and had gotten the initial story of her death from Stuart. Stuart’s account matched up with Nick’s and in part with Gimpy Ray’s. Aside from certain obvious embellishments, Ray’s rendition was quite an accurate telling of events. It was a telling which put him in the vortex of the drama, but the basic facts seemed reliable enough. Everyone else’s tales were borrowed from other people and slightly or highly adapted, each person inserting themselves into a prominent place in history, turning a second or third hand story into a first person perspective. For some months Katie’s death was the hot topic of conversation amongst the community’s junkies: on the day she died she must have crossed the path of just about every addict in the borough, of which, at least ten of them must have fixed her up with the fatal shot.
Katie’s death was only finally dethroned by the tragic news of Dumfries Billy, a middle-aged beggar who was hosed down out the doorway of Boots one morning only to be flooded out his flimsy cardboard abode stiff dead with a terribly dislocated jaw. Rumour was that his begging bowl had taken a bumper haul that night, that by some freak of chance death had deprived him of a once in a lifetime take. Even in death people were mythologizing the poor fellas awful luck. Whether Dumfries Billy ever existed or not I’ve no idea. All I know is that I had the good fortune never to have crossed his unlucky, dislocated path.
It was a good year after Katie’s death that the truth of what happened was finally revealed. It came via the most unlikeliest of sources, sat out on the steps of the West London magistrates Court during the afternoon recess.
“Hey hey, stranger!” she said, as I happened by. I looked down at the woman sat out on the steps, whiling her time away making little sketches of the coming and going court clerks and lawyers. I gave her a queer look, not able to quite place her face to a name. And then she smiled and I saw them long smoker’s teeth and the sculpted lips which must have served her well in younger days. Her dreadlocks were tied back and grown out in the front, and for the day she had replaced her hippy wear for smart and honest, black and white. I almost swallowed my tongue and the roof of my mouth. It was Katie.
“Well ain’t ya gonna say hello!” she said, standing up. For 12 months dead she was pretty steady on her feet and had a solid enough hold. Breaking out the clinch I said, “I heard you was ….”
“…dead,” she finished. “I know. You’re not the first. OD’d just prior to rehab and baa blah blah! Well, do I look too dead from where you’re standing?”
It turned out that Katie had mildly OD’d the night she was with Nick and he had made off with two and a half bags of her gear and her purse before phoning the emergency services. Unconscious, she was taken to hospital and released into her residential rehab the next day, where she stayed for two weeks before being reallocated to new digs in South east London. She told me how she had waited everyday in rehab for Stuart to arrive and when he never did she blew him out as just another heroin hanger on who didn’t give a fuck about anything but gear. That may have been true, but we were all like that in the midst of hardcore addiction. I told her that Stuart had been arrested and on his release had gone around to see her only to be told by a handful of people that she was dead. Depressed, he’d returned home. She pulled a face as if she didn’t believe that; maybe she was right. Regarding the police cleaning out her hostel room, Katie said it wasn’t the police but a couple of rehab personnel who had passsed by to pick up some personal belongings for her stay. After we had gone through all the details of her apparent death I then recovered my senses and realised I was talking to her outside a courthouse.
“What are you doing here?”
“Heroin traffic and possession,” she said. She had been busted for some very small time dealing, just enough to supply her own habit. She had been released on bail leading up to the case and so she was pretty confident she’d get off with a suspended sentence or maybe an imposed rehab or detox. As we were speaking her solicitor came down the courthouse steps and said they needed to get inside as theirs was the second hearing of the afternoon. Katie asked me if I’d stay and watch the hearing but I said I couldn’t as I had somewhere to be. She smiled that smile one last time and understood and accepted that one thing in our lives came before most other things. I asked her for her phone number but she didn’t have a phone and so I took the number of her solicitor and hugged her good luck.
On leaving Katie I imagined all the stories that had been circulating since her disappearance, all the repercussions her supposed death had had on people, all the extra bags the addicts had secured on the back of her demise and all the new stories of a best friend having gone under. Just because Katie had washed up alive and well wouldn’t kill peoples stories. Noone is going to relinquish their tales of personal tragedy and horror for something as fickle as the truth. Everyone retains their stories and will cry over them as genuinely as if they really happened. It seems that often people just want an excuse to cry about their own lives, to somehow have a genuine second hand reason to break down and sob without being told to stop the self-pitying bullshit.
The next day after seeing Katie I wondered how her court case had gone. I fetched out the piece of paper the solicitor had jotted his number down on and called. I introduced myself and asked how Katie had gotten on.
“Yes, we met yesterday on the steps… you gave me your number. The woman with the dreadlocks.”
“You mean Miranda?”
“No, I mean Katie.”
“Maybe she goes by Katie on the street, but the girl I defended yesterday was called Miranda… Ms Miranda Braithwaite.”
“Well, whatever her real name is, how did she get on?”
“Not too well, I’m afraid. She received a two year custodial sentence, Holloway. Was a pretty harsh verdict, but was always a possibility, what with her having such a sour history of failed and abandoned rehabs. Her initial plea of ‘not guilty’ didn’t help her case.”
“Two years? Fuck.”
“ Maybe it’ll do her good? A blessing in disguise?”
I put the phone down. Miranda Braithwaite, I thought, how apt. For all the years I knew Katie, it turned out that she wasn’t Katie at all; she was always someone else. I suppose I could have felt deceived, but I never did. It just made the last year of rumours and hearsay even more ridiculous. There never was no Katie and yet she died a thousand deaths.
And so it is, the junk scene lurches on, a world of stories and rumour, ghosts and shadows, scheming and deceit, comings and goings with the ever eternal promise that the real good gear is on its way. It turns in circles, just like the habit itself. Real friendship and intimacy are rare, as an arm that can go around your shoulder can so all too easily snake its way into your pocket; and a real name, a full legal name, can have you stalked and beaten up by a violent ex lover or tracked down by that dealer you ripped off years ago when you quit town. Katie was just another name on the scene, another rehab check in, another cheap trick, another statistic, another forgotten life on the junk road. She was a story for everyone and a tragedy for all. Two years, her solicitor said, maybe a blessing in disguise? For a 46 year old addict who had been on the needle for nearly 30 years, I doubt it. Stories like hers do not have happy endings. As for the ending she did have, well, that was it, for I never saw nor heard of her again.
It fails me now the quarter in which we were staying, Pedro and I, but we headed out from there. We passed the prostitutes under the flyover, cut through the throbbing perversity of the traffic, then slopped through the fish market. Into the ghetto Espagnolé, mothers scrubbing kids in tin baths in the street, toothless grandmas shelling peas on doorsteps, insults and curses and fights ricocheting from windows up and around: a poem of southern Italy. Past the concrete football pitch. Weeds growing up from the cracks. Bin bags and trash piled twelve foot high around the far perimeter. Refuge strikes. Rats strolling about freely. Cock-roaches the size of almonds. Out from the tall shaded third world into the sun baked thirder first world. Illegal Nigerians and Malians. Odd shoes, socks, rags, DVDs, video cassettes, saucepans, books, electrical gadgets, fabrics, blankets, broken toys, board games, cutlery… All splattered out along the pavement. Screaming pushing grabbing haggling fighting. The dribbling arsehole of the common market. Up Head, the bag snatchers on Vespers. Weaving in and out the traffic. Up on the pavement, whizzing by, arms reaching out, whether they’re making a snatch or not. Piazza Garibaldi. The junkies of the central station. Those who’ve copped marching off like snivelling storm-troopers. A junkie girl. Bare bruised legs and flip flop feet, holding onto her man. Laughing. Life is sweet and it’s just about to get sweeter. A poem of love in the South. Vacant stares on wastrel faces. A memory of the future. Down now, into the city proper. Syringes in the dustbins, packets of prescription drugs in the gutter, stains of human life in the doorways. The new wave punks sold on anarchy and printed slogans. Graffiti. Torn flapping posters. Leaflets. Flyers. A call to arms. Whistles and screams ringing out from manifestations. Police motorbikes parked outside cafés. Traffic cops staring out at the noise and heat and bustle over small espressos. Onto the main street. The sickening and universal smell of commerce turns out from revolving doors. Leather, perfume, polished floors, brass adornments, tailored shirts, fetish heels, gold trimmed bags, designer sunglasses, gold watches, rings and pearls and ground roasted coffee beans. The Vespas ever present. Smelling blood. Zipping by for the idiot girl who carries her bag road side. The homeless and the trash hosed away, back down to the station with the niggers and the whores and addicts. Up now. Climbing. The roads widen out and there’s a haze in the near distance. Palm trees plotted along the central divide. They shake and whisper through faint breezes in the baked day. Huge rectangular advertising boards. Sun cream, breasts and bikini lines. The sea front. Salt and sand and sex and slime. A host of gay bars along the front. Pushed out to the very edge of the city. High class men of a certain fashion with strong jaws and designer stubbles. They sit outside looking like they’re doing nothing but must be doing something. The weak lira smells strong. We climb now. The lira climbs with us. Up sea side inclines. Fantastic slanted houses and shops drunk on the hills. Transvestites and leather and sexual perversions in the safe damp of unfindable places. House whores. A Clandestine class. Studded motorbikes, piercings, industrial metal, open windows, reclusive artists working away in dark interiors. Paintings out in the street to dry. Streets getting so narrow now. Buildings trying to kiss as they lean forward. Mediterranean air. The roads wind up higher and become narrower. Little expensive cafés and bistros tucked away. A bar owner slops out a bucket of floor water for the sun to suck up. So hot. Humid. Condensation dripping from window sills. People in just shorts and sandals and sun glasses and cream. This is where they sigh all day and curse the world and heat. Where the evening arrives like a jewelled oasis. Up so high now and in front of me I can see the city, a steaming shit of ghettos and waste, of noise and pollution and history as as it eats itself up. Squalor, poverty, death, disease. It’s all down there, rotting away in the streets and doorways. And Pedro exists. And he’s running. His laugh is dreamy and it seems like he’s in one of those tragic videos that I’ll watch my entire life. And I watch him and he calls me, in Italian, soft contours. And this could be love and it should be love. I watch out from myself, drunk on the romance of a city of sadness and trash. And he’s in the cool now, past the last bar on the highest point of the city. He’s staring off over a wall and the air is rushing through his hair and I can smell the soap off his skin and something magic too. I climb the last step of hill and the shade and cool hits me like all of Italy is loving me at once. And for a moment the world goes quiet and the city behind me drifts silent and only the smell of the sun and of Pedro’s image remains. I join him. And he says nothing, just stands there like a ships head looking out and full of breeze and something more than joy. Out in front of us is the Bay of Naples, an expanse of deep green sea with Vesuvius smoking away to the left. On the water is a single fishing boat and we can see the shadows of fish from here. And I say nothing to Pedro’s silence. It’s all feeling. And it’s a great beautiful sad moment in our lives and our death talk of yesterday figures none. And we know, we both know, there is hope in this godforsaken world…. and in that moment, while the sea sat still and the city lay mute behind, we really and honestly had escaped the trappings of men.
God, we were cruel kids. But battered and beaten at such a young age in life, what else could we have been? What chance did we ever really have? When life tramps and kicks wearing 21up Steel toe-capped DM boots, what else can one do but kick back? And so we kicked back, but not at an invisible life that as yet we had no concept of, no, our return blows were directed against people, objects and possessions. We kicked, smashed and bottled our way through tender years, and in our wake we spilt blood, teeth and glass. More than just delinquency, vandalism and violence, this post is about friendship and escape. It is about what happens when young kids are united through abuse and face that world together. In a way it is about hope, in another about hopelessness. It is as much about death as it is of life, as in those days we died so much. This post is dedicated to the lost and the broken… to Simon an Shelley. As always, this is also one for for.
Simon & Shelley Maudlier were my best friends. It had been that way ever since I punched Darren Marsh in the throat for going “Urrrgghhh” when the Mayor kissed Shelley after she handed him a bouquet of flowers in front of full school assembly. In what should have been her proudest moment she stood there crying as the school jeered her presence – laughed as the Mayor kissed a greasy-haired girl who smelled of stale urine and burnt wood. As Shelley was led of the stage in tears, a pair of oversized brown corduroy trousers sat down beside me and a grubby nail bitten and scabby hand was placed upon my kneecap. That was Simon and it was the beginning of the first friendship of my life.
Like me, Simon & Shelley were the produce of alcoholic and drug addicted parents. For the first six years of their lives they had travelled Britain and Ireland going from flop house to flop house, from one social service unit to the next. Every time they were on the verge of being taken by the authorities the family would flee, until finally settling down in London. It seemed that from the womb all they knew were vile beatings, social services, alcohol and abuse. At least I had had half an hour of innocence before being hit by life. But not for them, they were born straight into the shit. It was all they knew and it had only ever gotten worse.At the age of eight they were forced by a drunken carer to have sex with each other. This practice had continued over and beyond that, and for the years I knew them they engaged in sexual activity together. It was in their bedroom one day, whilst we were playing, that they confided in me what they did together. I remember Simon touching Shelley, then Shelley kissing him almost as a token of acceptance for what he had done. They fell back on the bed laughing, both looking at me with dark brown eyes. They showed this to me. They were proud of it. Not proud of the sex, but of the adult behaviours they were mirroring. At the time I laughed along with them. I saw nothing wrong with it. It was almost the same as badly smoking a cigarette or knocking back a teacup full of vodka - it was that kind of naughtiness and nothing else. Now it’s a memory which I can’t ever forget, and it’s sad, because they showed me this and then Simon retook up his Space Invaders game which hung around his filthy neck and Shelley returned to playing imaginary families with her collection of cheap naked dolls which she'd pulled from dustbins. And that image of us on the bed, of the broken innocence that it relates, forever reminds me that this is a cruel and unrelenting world, and that our place within it is a hazardous one. But at the time, it meant nothing. Sure, we knew what sex was - the physics at least- we had seen it all our lives, but we didn’t understand the intimacy or the morals... we had no oversight. All we knew is that adults and animals did it and there seemed no laws concerning where or with whom. It was a reflection of innocence, that is all. But innocence cannot always be understood or accepted, and the events of those years would be a 10 year timebomb between brother and sister that would explode and blow them both off the edge of the world.
After Simon & Shelly’s confession and me realising that what was going on in their house was the backside of my own mirror, we became inseparable. Our days and evenings were spent together toughening ourselves up, bonding and preparing our offensive. Our first decision was to join a boxing club. We were weak targets for the bullies and in order to walk the streets and parks untroubled we needed to learn how to throw decent right hooks. So one Wednesday we joined Chelsea Boys Boxing Club and on Thursday we knocked each others teeth out. The three of us taking it in turns to square up to one another and direct our anger and pain towards a physical body. But we never hurt one another: we toughened each other up. And as we lay in the park, on the grassy hill with black eyes and busted noses, we joked and laughed as love and friendship throbbed and stung upon our young bodies. We felt tough not just against the other children, but against the adults too. The same adults who had heaped abuse upon us ever since we were born. We were fighting a force much more twisted and perverse than our immediate peers, we were fighting our homes and our histories. We were fighting ourselves.
Not many people realise just how violent Britain is. It’s a cruel, cruel place, especially for a kid in toeless shoes. There is no sympathy and little escape. If you can’t impress with a pair of £150 trainers and a half decent phone, then you’d better be able to impress with something else… and that ‘something else’ is usually violence. So violence became an everyday fixture for a while. Almost every evening we’d return home with some cut or other. Shelley as well. She kicked and punched and bit just as hard as any boy, and aftern when it was finished, we licked our wounds and celebrated our victories together.
Our friendship was an honest and equal one. It wasn’t based on toys or videos or clothes. It was based on understanding and comfort. Apart from that we didn’t have much else to trade. We had nothing alone and even less together. Between us we had half a parent, two pairs of trousers and a dress. My shoes were football boots with the studs removed, Simon’s were leather strapped sandals and Shelley went barefooted – soaking up all the piss, shit and spunk that South West London had to offer. On and off we would spend almost five years in each others company. Five years of escaping the hell which we were born into. With our six fists and our scarred and beaten bodies we used violence and delinquency as a means of escape… as a means to unprise life which had taken lockjaw around our necks. But in escaping one hell we started replicating another: stealing cigarettes and beer and vodka and imitating the actions of our elders. In a certain way we escaped our lives by joining it – we became a part of the hurt and the world that had made us. Instead of fleeing it we copied it, but in our replica world we were the kings of the castle… the abusers and not the abused. We became the enemy.
In the following year we took the beatings but fought back. We’d raise with bloody lips and swollen cheekbones and rally for more. We built up a reputation of recklessness, and if we couldn’t win with our fists, well, there were always cricket bats. There were kids stronger who hit harder, but our relentlessness scared them. When someone screams “Fucking stay down!” it means they’re scared, that they know eventually it will be them running. And we never stayed down. We had mouths and angers that could not be shut. Eventually we instilled fear and terror into those we saw as potential threats: those other cruel kids, with other problems, who were also looking for escape. If we were not strong we would be it, punching bags, the buffer that soaked up our peers domestic problems. We would have become the escape route not only of our parents and their problems but also of the other kids, and that would have been one hell too many. We were on the offensive from a very young age. The bottles and bricks which made up our homes now became objects to throw at the world. And my god, did we throw them.
We threw them at bus stops, policemen and ambulances. We chucked bricks on the motorway and through car windows. We vandalised vending machines, ticket machines and shop shutters. We set fire to post boxes, telephone booths and elevators. We pulled up parks and gardens and demolished garden gnomes. We roamed the streets inciting violence and bloodying the noses of anyone who so much as looked at us. We robbed the more fortunate kids and destroyed the toys of the rich. we done it all. Then we went to bed, woke up and done it all again. We didn’t care for nothing or no-one. Not the living, not the dying not the dead. Everyone and everything was fair game, and that is how we escaped our lives. That’s the exit we took. We were cruel kids preparing to die.
Our lives meandered on like that for the best part of two years and then one morning on going to see Simon & Shelley I received news that they had been carted off by the authorities and placed in a foster home.
“My kids… they’ve taken ma fucking kiz!!!” Bridgette slurred before throwing herself around me and breathing a mouthful of vomit and whisky fumes into my face. And that was it, they were gone, taken away by unknown and distant forces – the kind most children are only ever threatened with. I strolled back home alone and waited for news. I asked at school, I asked my mother and I asked Simon’s mother, but no one seemed to know anything. Yes, they would be coming back, but when? well, that was anyone’s guess. Three months later they were back, and the first thing we did was scheme escape plans in the event it ever happened again. And it did happen again. Later in that same year they disappeared once more.
Simon remembered our plan. Within the week a letter was delivered to my house carrying their new address. I was ten at that time and along with my brother we boarded a train to the address just outside London. On finding Simon and Shelley we skipped the wall and all made the journey back to London. We stayed missing for two days, passing the time at a friends house in Shepherds Bush. On the third day we were apprehended by the police on Uxbridge Road and were all taken into custody at Hammersmith Police Station. My brother and I had been reported missing by my stepfather and Simon and Shelley by their foster parents. I wasn’t beaten much by my stepfather as a child, but arriving home that day I took ten years in one sitting. I was so bruised they did not send me to school for over a week. I’ve only ever curled my body up to kicks once in my life, and that was it. But of course, in my family that was an expression of love. It was because he loved me that my stepfather kicked my ribs in.
In the following year Simon and Shelley returned, disappeared and returned again. They didn’t seem to mind too much as away from home they enjoyed proper meals, proper baths and proper clothes. We still remained friends but the separations took their toll and as I left lower school and approached my teenage years we slowly drifted apart and spent less and less time in each others company. The final break was when my own family split up and we left west London and was put in hiding from the hands of my stepfather. We were reallocated to the other side of London and Fulham was out of bounds. Contact with Simon or Shelley was impossible and it would be more than twelve years before I saw either of them again.
In that time we had all changed considerably. Our young accepting minds had started examining things, processing all those behaviours we saw, heard and done. Youthful innocence developed into an illness that plagued and ate away at us. We were all sick, suffering from memories and actions that had been forced upon us. With the end of youth and the coming of our real sexual awakenings we realised we had been corrupted… that certain fantasies and shames had been branded into our minds forever. We each tried to eject these, to vomit up our pasts, to reject history, but vomit leaves a very specific taste in the mouth and is a memory all of its own.
So it was, that the events that formed us also repulsed us, and when one cannot reconcile one’s history with ones present then the only option left is to split, and that’s what we done. But not just friendship and kinship, we split internally: we divided as people and as adults. Shelley became a young prostitute, Simon found his way in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and I ended up trailing them same old streets searching crack and smack and dreaming of the Black House. In the end our youthful hooliganism and cruelty had served for nothing. It was just a natural reaction to a life that was putting the boot in. All it did was deflect the blow – absorb the shock of the impact and delay the consequences for a later day.
More than anything else that is what my work is about. It’s not about heroin or addiction or murder or abuse, it’s about consequence. But not always consequence of a good or bad decision, more the consequences of independent and external forces which we have no control over. It’s about history and the equation of all our yesterdays… about who we are at this exact point in time. It’s about the consequences of living.
In far away places men were being killed. I watched it on the TV as I cooked up smack, fell asleep to journalists embedded in a war zone that was safer than their home streets. The biggest risk was friendly fire. It was 2001 and Afghanistan was smoking and choking on democracy.
In the streets of London there were marches every day. The mosques had become underground bunkers where rallies and demonstrations were organised. Inside, you could even keep your shoes on – that’s how pissed off Islam was. As I wormed my way through the crowds, en route to meet a dealer, I would read the banners: “Stop The Afghan war!” “Troops Home NOW!” Sometimes I’d even shout a cliché myself. But I didn’t really care, or had stopped. The Morning Star was then just a paper I held so as not to look too inconspicuous while standing at disused bus-stops. Politics had become a luxury, and came (if at all) at the end of a long line of other more pressing matters. Out of touch, my thoughts were not of black oil or corrupt foreign policy, but rather of a light brown rock that I knew only in ‘theory’ came from the same place.
During the first two weeks of bombing, as mighty Allied Forces took cities fighting back with catapults and stones, heroin on London’s streets was rampant. It was so rife that it was actually easier to score junk than to buy the Vit C needed to cook it down with. And then one day, without warning, I received a call from a friend asking if I had any numbers, that she was having problems scoring. That call was the first hint that the war was actually going to effect me, and by seven o’clock I was half sick, frantically redialling the numbers of the twenty or so dealers I had, only to find every phone turned off. The single response I received beeped through in text: No Bisto bro. Gravy drowt. shld b bk on in day or 2. He never was.
In a dingy, one bedroom flat, dark forms sat huddled against the walls, jittering and waiting for time. Every so often I would rise and answer the knocking on the front door. From out of the cold, in would crawl another sweating junkie, eyes struck wide open and cursing. They’d all ask the same: “Anyone on? Anything?” Murmurs and “fucks” would rise up around the room, and then sniffling and groaning. As phones clipped shut, the latest corpse would flop down and join in the aching. But apart from Grace none of us lived there. It was a flat that had turned into our own bunker, the place we had gathered to rack our brains and kill our phones – to try and find a score in London.
I never did get sick that night, though only thanks to two dirty tricks. One from me, and one from the person I scored from. It was another user, a user who hadn’t yet got wind of any supply problems. I phoned him and asked if he had a bag he could sell me, that I’d pay double. Seeing a quick profit he said he had two bags he could sell. I met him and he sold me the last of his stuff, unaware that the money I had given him may just as well have been fake, that he would make no profit this time, that there was no-one to score off. His trick was when I opened the bags they were triple wrapped and a third the size. But it was gear, and it was enough, just, until the next day.
The next day I was ill. We all were. Twelve of us laying around in Grace’s living room and kitchen, cursing the world and trying to find a comfortable second in the discomfort. There were junkies stripped naked and laying on the bathroom tiles, others wrapped up in blankets and huddled against the wall, Grace thrashing about on the bed, moaning and hurting and cursing how bad it was. The rooms were full of mucus, shit and tears… our disease was seeping out our bodies. We were all down with the same flu and the real fucker was this: our pockets were full of cash. It got so bad I even heard Portugese Jo praying, either that or cryng. There’s not so much difference.
“There must be one fucking dealer on!” someone would moan. On that we’d all try our phones again. “It’s ringing!!!… shssh!” another would start up excitedly. We’d all sit hushed, hanging on with bated breath. We’d hear: “What, just White? Ya got no B?” Then we’d all deflate and sink back into our own individual hells until a new thread of hope arrived. Ideas would come and fade and old names of old dealers would surface and become important for the first time in years. Even the rip-off merchants hawking light weights of God-knows-what were worth considering, but no one had anything, rainy old London was dry.
On the third day, three hundred mil of methadone between the lot of us, we got wind that there was smack knocking about in Ladbroke Grove. We put in together for a taxi and four of us hobbled into the back of a beaten up Ford Sierra, wiping our snot on our sleeves and pointing out the quickest way to get there. “It’s just a fucking red light!” we’d scream, “ignore it!’
On the way we passed the usual scoring haunts down Uxbridge Road and around Shepherds Bush Green. Far from being empty the meeting points were chock full of addicts, hanging around, all as sick as dogs. They were not waiting for their man though, just standing there because somehow it felt less hopeless – in and out of phone boxes, living to the redial button and the“We’re sorry but the mobile you have dialled is switched off.. please try ag…..” And then the receiver would be walloped into the cabinet as more money rattled down BT’s throat and clinked into the belly of the beast.
In Ladbroke Grove we were served by a small west Indian dealer with a violent kind of beauty carved into the left side of his face. He came cycling into view with a whistle and we followed his back wheel as he carried on past us and turned off into a small alley. The bags he was selling were half size, half heroin and twice the price, but it was something. Anything to get well – get well and give us eight hours of health to track down something better. That was the deal.
After scoring we didn’t return to Grace’s flat. It would have been too cruel, and the junkies who had wanted no part in the risk of the deal would soon change their minds once they saw our illness recede and heard our voices start to draaaaawwwwl. But then there would not have been enough, and there was no more from that source. What we had just bought off Ritchie had put his phone out the game too. So we split up and went off on our own to escape heroin sickness and have at least half an hour relief before the panic started again.
That evening Mikey phoned me. Everyone knew Mikey but I had a good relationship with him and so enjoyed the privilege of knowing he was holding first. Thinking only of myself, I told him immediately I would buy every bag he had. I did. He turned his phone off as I stood with him and said he didn’t know when he’d reload, that heroin into the country was not getting through. Other than that he didn’t know why, just his man higher up the chain was also on the sidelines, also waiting for the call. We were all waiting for the call…. just it never really came.
The gear Mikey sold me was the worst I’d ever had. It cooked up red and left a weird furry black residue in the spoon. It had no effect, but stopped me getting ill and so the teeniest quantity of heroin must have been in it. It got me through the next three days and I was sure by then phones would start coming back on. They didn’t.
Over the following days and weeks junkies and dealers interests were put into finding out the reason as to what was causing the heroin shortage on the streets. It turned out that US troops on the Iran and Pakistan borders had accidentally blocked off one of the main arteries of traffic, and so the smack due for England was kinda going through a heart bi-pass operation. There was heroin, tons of it, a ‘bountiful crop’, ‘huge surpluses’, but it was being rerouted around Asia and Europe and no-one really knew through where or how long it would take. It took more than three days, I know that, as on the fourth day I crawled home from work sick, found all my numbers off again and this time didn’t even have the reserves to go and join the junkie coalition who had pooled their nothingness and sat moaning and wailing around Grace’s. Instead, I crawled into bed and cried. I was ill and so out of sorts I just cried at the world, and for the first time really cursed the fucking war, and even more passionately than the humanitarians, I wanted an end to all the bombing and devastation. But my tears were not for humanity, they were for me. And personal tears are always more genuine than any others. All tears are personal. Really.
After discovering a possible cause of the drought and why my life had been so abruptly gatecrashed and turned over, I started paying much more attention to what was going on overseas – at least the part of overseas that affected me. I became a firm supporter to have the US troops out of Afghanistan… at least away from the fucking Pakistan border. These arseholes weren’t even blowing up the poppy fields, they were just loitering, fucking everything up without even trying. That’s how bad America had become: they could fuck the world up by just being in it.
During the proceeding month heroin was almost impossible to get. Now and again bits and pieces would filter through, but it was so inconsistent that one could not hang a proper habit on it. Sometimes the gear was rushed through and hit the streets at dangerous strengths, other times it got through cut with dangerous agents. But mostly gear got through because it was bash, no smack in it at all, and so was more or less legal traffic. It was a truly horrendous time. Junkies were scoring twenty four hours a day. Buying a bag here, finding it was shit, travelling there, making calls, receiving estimates, going to the next man: the same. The next: the same… and so on until we either found a gouch or bankruptcy. It was a time of huge frustrations and desperation, and was made even harder due to the hike in price that the fake dope was going for. Most dealers had tripled prices and cut the weights, and to top it all they were selling gear which we’d have returned at any other moment in history. But we couldn’t just stop and wait, that’s not an option when you’re full on smack. Waiting is illness, that is why the addict is very vulnerable in many ways. He is always against the clock and if someone holds out long enough they’ll get what they want for the price of a bag – because a bag can be worth as much as a man puts his health at. Bags are health. Bags are measures of life. That is a proper junkie fact.
Of course we tried to score methadone in that period, but that was hopeless also. All the addicts who usually sold theirs to fund heroin habits were now drinking it themselves. You could could buy green water or piss, but neither served any useful purpose, not even to cheat a urine test. We were all clean anyway. Some junkies tried desperately to harass the substitution clinics for methadone, but that was even more useless than phoning dealers. They’d fall in the clinics ill, cry, beg, vomit and shit themselves, but methadone maintenance clinics don’t care for defecating or dying addicts, they want redemption. They want you to walk in and dump your rotten soul on the table and tell them you’re giving up smack because it’s killing you, not because there’s none to kill yourself with. Even the most caring MMT nurse is unmoved by real junk sickness, unless it was brought on by their words – their sadistic means to have you proove you’re serious about quitting by forcing you to turn up sick. But the real option of walking in sick and being treated is not an option at all – not even for those addicts who found God when their last tenner went up their arm. Even if you turn up at hospital, in a condition that would put anyone else in intensive care, you’ll be kicked out. You would die before anyone in healthcare would give you so much as a fucking codeine pill. So you sit it out, and the tragedy is this: the dealers will always get to you before the system. They are better organised and certainly more caring. At least they gain something from you, and so stand to lose if they don’t kiss your pains better.
During the second month of serious drought the situation improved, though without ever returning to normal. Every other week there would be word of “drought.. drought” but at least one of my twenty or so dealers would then always be on, and holding half decent gear. There would be no more days spent laying around in Grace’s squalid flat, pooling resources with the sick and dying and muttering prayers to a God which none of us believed in. Once again, We were all flying solo.
It was almost a year later when things finally returned to normal. Afghanistan had been set up with a new dummy government – which wasn’t quite as westernized as everyone thought – and as military presence dropped in the area US forces accidentally unblocked old supply routes and once again Britain became swamped in smack. Prices returned to normal and then continued the pre-war trend and dropped to record lows. On the streets there were now more junkies than ever, and the bumper crop which the Foreign Office had told us about soon began arriving by air, sea and mail. Methadone maintenance clinics did not have any significant increase in enrollment, and the small rise which there was remained just a statistic, as once the streets were playing the correct tune again the addicts who had applied did not even turn up to their first initiation meeting.
And so it is, nothing ever really changes and certainly not by accident. Drug traffic and supply is a circle which turns and is just as monotonous and regular as heroin addiction itself. But it is in that habit, that monotonous revolution of the wheel, where lies its true strength. To stop anything we must change, and change is a very scary and destabilizing thing. When that change involves the loss of dollars and when the world is run by dollars, change is almost impossible. It’s not the junkie who needs rehab; it’s the world. A blue planet floating in an eternity of shit.
As was written: the neighbourhood’s heroin junkie community were all cooped up sick in Grace’s apartment, laying out in the tawdry summer afternoon, moaning and groaning and vomiting and waiting for something to move. Some addicts were worse than others, some handled sickness better, some were not yet sick and had the added horror of watching what would become of them in the next few hours. It had begun as a din of panic, cursing, snivelling and dripping noses, but as the summer day wore on, as the dealers’ phones remained off, as the sun settled in the west and the smell of kebabs and Greek vine leaves made their way down from the high-street, the room fell into a sick and deathly trance. And with the falling light came shadows and into those shadows the features of the ill receded, only the twisted outlines of their forms left visible, each man and woman suffering in their own hell, in their own darkness, their minds wandering over the battlefields’ of their lives, a collective of tragic and disquieting thoughts and images filling the room in a tension of atmosphere that hung and buzzed in the air and became the sound of waiting and suffering itself.
The room was square with a bay front window facing out onto the street. Along the back-wall was a decomposing sofa-for-three, along the left-wall a sofa-for-two, and in the alcove, under the bay window, was a bean-bag and on the bean-bag was a dog. The windows were covered by a heavy brown blanket, and in the slatted light, of late afternoons, hung like a thick waterfall of dust. The only time light ever got in, in any decent measure, was when pushing the blanket aside to watch for the dealer coming into sight down the road. But there was no light coming in now, and no dealer was on his way.
Grace lay flopped out on her side, her head resting against the filthy arm of the eaten and mouldy three-seater, warm-sick-tears running constantly from her left-eye and over her cheek-bone. She didn’t look at anyone and didn’t care if anyone was looking at her. No-one was, of course, there was real suffering in the room and pain or tears had no gain here and so were muted and internal.
As with everyone Grace’s mind was ambushed by thoughts completely out of her control. Terribly bleak images of the past and atmospheric hallucinations arrived as if from another place and seemed to have more to do with the present than anything else. Up in Grace’s mindseye, drifting out into the room, were thoughts of her partner George, his mind shot through from years of substance abuse and trauma, laying on the bed in the adjacent room, as sick as anyone but completely unaware it was heroin withdrawals which were raging through his body. She wished that she could be that blissfully unaware of what the sickness was. That’s the problem, she thought,knowing that this could all end with just a pathetic quids worth of pathetic smack. Her thoughts of George were clouded by a great sadness. Not for George, for herself, of how she had ended up with this man-sized-dead-weight attached to her and how he was the anchor of all her problems, and yet, how she needed the money his incapacity benefit brought in more than she didn’t need him. She thought these thoughts as she lay there, her liver aching from hepatitis and no medication to soothe the pain. At times she wanted to break down entirely butshe knew it would only deprive her of more energy and she had no more to give. She thought of the best-of-the-bad-days, back in the seventies, when she’d had ounces of smack and was doing well and how useless life-lived and former success was now. And yet it seemed so close. Like there was some way back if only she could find it, like she could wake from sleep and rejoin those good moments of her old life, like that heroin and that youth and that flat in Leytonstone were somehow accessible through some as yet undiscovered science. It was hard to accept that all she once had was now gone, that even something that passed only a second ago was over for ever. It wasn’t right. To Grace it felt more like she had stored her nuts in the past and was rich and well if only she could find her way back. The idea of time and space were lost in her, and now, all that was left was her ravaged body, suspended in the seemingly eternity of sickness, and memories drifting by as the sticky summer night wore on and brought more pain each moment. How things change so quickly, she thought.[_How one day you’re young and healthy and the next you’re 25 years into the future, a long-term-junkie-case with a bad liver and no energy reserves. _]And that’s what Grace was thinking as she lay there sick in her flat that evening with hot tears leaking out her eye and not a score to be found in the entire fucking town.
David was on his back in the middle of the floor, his knees arched, his eyes scrunched shut in pain. Every now and again he would grimace, make a snivelling sound, and then go “Aaaaaaaahhhh” : it was the sound of absolute suffering itself. Sometimes David would shake, intentionally, as a way to pass time and keep his thoughts on the rhythm he shook to and not the illness working away inside him. The most important thing was to not let the present fall still around him, a place where time stops and the true hell of junk withdrawal begins. He was thinking of his phone, imagining it down by his head on the floor, joyfully lighting up and ringing and vibrating, his dealer’s name shown across the screen. He was willing it to ring. He thought that by willing it hard enough he could make it happen. Illness was only a good half-a-day in him and already he was onto miracles. His muscles ached and he fidgeted. His spine was sore against the hard floor, but if he moved then his shoulder felt worn and bruised and the angling of his body upset his stomach and he’d then retch and have to rush to the toilet. Memories of his last serious bout of illness settled in his mind, how after a moment he’d given up and just let his body malfunction, but now, today, he figured he had at least another full night in him before his insides melted to mush and his sphincter gave way. At times David would roll his body gently from side to side, and to that lulling motion he would think the words: Ring.Riiing. Riiiiiiiing.
Tabatha sat on the edge of the two-seat-sofa clutching her terribly thin stomach and rocking back and forth with her eyes closed. Her head was down and her straggly blond hair, greasy with sweat, fell over her face in a mop. She was wearing a pair of grey leggings and a dark tube-top and with her flat-chest it looked like her torso was bandaged in black. She was plagued by thoughts of the day her husband was jailed, how she missed the trial from running from one end of the borough to the other on a wild goose-chase of scoring smack. She hadn’t seen him since, had missed the two prison visits she had been reserved, but would love to see him now. She was onset by visions of the white handkerchief, held up and waggled in the air, then the same handkerchief taken away by the wind and an inexpressible sadness going with it as it rose and swooned in the blustery day. It was the dealer who had waggled the handkerchief, a black man who had appeared up at the corner of the road, stood there just long enough to be noticed, then held up the cloth and shook it like a dead rat caught by the tail, a sign to all the surreptitious junkie eyes watching that dinner was bagged and ready to be served. Tabatha didn’t remember the score nor the dealer’s name or face, just the handkerchief and how after conducting business it had escaped his hand and was taken away by the wind. That vision now made her cry. She twisted her face up in pain and anguish and rocked at an increase pace trying to block out and deny the image in her head. That cloth being torn away like that, puffed and sucked and flapped and battered, dropped and then picked back up again, somehow embodied a great tragedy. She didn’t understand what she found so tragic in that struggle, or why such a barren memory had returned like this, but there seemed something greatly foreboding in it and her illness unfurled to that blustery day, back then, when scoring her rocks was more important than anything else, more important than her husbands plight and whether he was sent to prison or not. Now, in this position of junk withdrawal, just to have her husband back she felt she could be the most honest, the most trustworthy and self-sacrificing soul ever, that she could do anything just for him, just for the strength of him fending for her – physically rebelling against addiction – stealing and begging to keep them well. It was heroic. He was heroic. She was a miserable bad catch. She thought how lucky he was being in prison, warm and well and not addicted to anything. She wished she was in prison. She was crying inside. She told herself it all had to stop: all the pain, the lying, the cheating, the filth, the illness. But she knew, and her heart knew: this was only about pain, as even while she was in the very midst of cursing heroin and promising to get clean she was there waiting to score, to get better, and once better she knew that all these silly-sentimental-thoughts would end.
Nick sat slouched back leaning against the side of the mounted gas-fire on the right-side wall with his legs pushed out straight. He was a tall, broad, rangy addict with black hair and an olive coloured tint to his skin. He seemed to faintly glow in the dark. He had his shoes off and wore no socks and around his right ankle was dried blood from some old fix. He looked at the blood and as Grace had done with her past now he did the same: tried to figure out the route he had taken from that injection to here and wondering if he could have changed his fate with a few different choices. But something wasn’t quite right. In the world of Nick’s mind a forlorn omnipresent gloom hung in the heart of all memory, like a default recollection of some barren landscape he had known and which was hard-coded into the kernel of his brain. It felt like à memory from a time before he was born, from a former life, of another world to this one. Nick remembered the golf course on that early winter morning of the day his mother died, cutting across it on his way to score more crack. There was a low mist floating just above the dew on the grass and way over to where he had to get to the sky was pale blue with a small, distant, brittle sun straining useless against the frost. A lone flag rippled on a distant green. He didn’t know it then but his mother was spasming and contracting in a hospital bed, suffering the first of two heart attacks she was to have that day without either of her two sons being there. She died alone that evening to the face of a strange doctor and Nick was now all crumpled up inside with guilt and empathy and pain, fixated on the terrible part he had played in her last hours, in her last ever moments in the history of everything. He would never see her again, never have her bail him out with money again, never apologise to her again or gouch out on the seat beside her again. He saw the distant flag flapping in the cold morning. A stray bird scattered like there had been a crack of a shotgun. The smell of the turf rose up from the dew and mist. His mother was gone forever-eternal and he whimpered when understanding the reality of that now and wishing he had realised it before.
And why hadn’t Nick made it to the hospital? There had been time. His mother’s death had been officially called at just gone 9pm that evening. Nick’s mind did not approach this question directly, rather his brain went through the two contrasting fates: his evening, and the evening of his mother (or how his mind imagined it unfurled at any rate.) He had been warned she was gravely ill but he’d convinced himself that it was no longer a matter of life and death, that she’d survived the first attack and was now in the best place possible to be kept stable and calm. And anyway, he had reasoned, she’s not conscious so even if I visit tonight she’ll not benefit in any way. Junk sickness pawed at Nick’s mind and tormented his inner-self. He saw a retracted image of himself, hunched over his crack pipe, like a classic conspirator, loading it up, bringing it to his mouth, lighting it, hearing the crackle of the crack… sucking in… Deeeeeeep… holding the smoke, then, release:…… …….. …….. …….. …….. ……. ….… Going silent as a few seconds of agitated and frenzied brain activity took place within him and he felt a pulsating excitement towards the world – or at least he should have. But Nick was troubled that afternoon, the early evening too. His promise of getting to the hospital had plagued his crack session and all along he cursed his obligation and cursed his mother for falling ill after all he had done to get the money. He told himself he could visit the next day and make up some excuse as to why he’d not been able to get down earlier. But there was no next day for his mother: she died some hours later and Nick missed the call and so received a text with the news instead. In Nick’s mindseye now he could see himself stood in the light of a bus-stop, wailing with a face full of tears and grief and bringing up the message to show to his oldest dealer, using his mother’s death to procure a free bag of brown. And it worked. He knew it would. It was a calculated decision to see that particular dealer with that particular news. He felt smart at the time, but now he felt like a rat and alongside his ever worsening junk sickness and the bleak and barren world that haunted his existence, he now felt a deep sense of shame, more than shame, because this feeling was internal and honest and connected to his abstract being by a thousand different threads, each one derived from some low or despicable act until now he needed drugs not to block out any pain but to block out himself, so as he didn’t have to live with or face up to all he had done to survive. And the evening of his mother’s passing, after he finally got his fix, he said it was the greatest fix of his life. Of course it was: he had spared himself one of the greatest and most important traumas a man must live through, and more, had convinced himself that his mother had somehow been embodied in the shot of smack, that she had come to him that way and soothed him and said she understood and forgave and loved him. But now, in this terrible dark light of sickness, in this sticky summer night, in this room of decay and disease, endings were not so neatly tied. In illness memories returned and the internal voice got loud. Nick beat himself up over his actions and grieved for his mother now. He cried, and he did make a sound, and he did say “mum”. But the truth was he wasn’t crying for his mother but for comfort, for self-pity and redemption, for something to cure the pain. He was crying for heroin, and he knew it, and knowing it made him cry even harder still.
The dog was on the bean bag, beneath the bay windows, coiled up like a snake. It ressembled a Golden Retriever only with short bristly fur which gave away its mongrel breeding. The dog stank. It stank of tongue and arsehole and bad food and from licking the black resinous spots in the carpet where things had been spilt or thrown up and trodden in. It was hot on the bean bag but it dared not move. In the summer night it was thirsty and panted whenever it lifted its head to look around. There was water in the taps but noone had the strength to get up and fill the mutt’s bowl. So it lay there, coiled up and sad, its large eyes, underlined with black, staring over at its owner who lay flopped out on the settee opposite. If there was a worldly sadness in the room, something seeing the greater tragedy, it came from the mutt. The dog understood it all: it understood the tawdry summer night, the passing of time, death and illness better than anyone else. The dog didn’t know what was wrong, but it knew from procedural memory that when its owner was lethargic like this that its own stomach got empty, that it had to piss and shit in the hallway or kitchen and that things would only get better once Grace was again animated and talking as rapidly as she usually did. The dog was down. It could sense the weird desperate malaise in the room and didn’t yap or whine or interact much at all. Quite unaware of it, the dog was waiting for the sound of its chain, for its empty bowl to be taken and replaced, for someone to beckon him over and allow him to lick the blood from off their fingers. It was lazing just now but it wished it was on a full belly. Hungry and dehydrated the dog couldn’t find sleep in its rest. In the heat it would at times uncoil, push its front legs forward, kinda half lift its head and panting, look around at all the junkie bodies sprawled out. Then it would whimper lightly and lower the underside of its jaw flat against the floor. And like that it would remain, its large sad eyes to the world.
Mitsy was maybe more sick than any other addict. She was over a day and half in and hadn’t slept and the sound of her dry retching, vomiting and snot bubbling in her nose would be one of the retaining memories of all the group. Mitsy was in her mid-forties, very small and nimble with dark medium length hair, threaded through with grey and pulled back into a dove-tail. Because of her slight size she was always treated more like a teenage girl than an adult female, and because she had always been seen and treated as such she had adapted herself to fit that image and would whore out her adolescent charm, talking in a dumb, babyish way, giving hugs and huge loud ultra-friendly THANK YOUs in exchange for free sprinkles of smack or crack or anything else which came her way. Everyone had a scam, worked some kind of angle, and that was hers. At certain intervals during her sickness she would crawl across the room, approach some addict like a cat sniffing at a face, whisper something like “I’m dying, babes” then take up a position besides him, her body tucked in, rocking in pain before giving up and moving onto the next. Her instinct for whoring dope would not desert her, even when she knew there was none to be had, even when the wells really were dry. So she’d crawl off and take up a place alongside someone else, trying to find a position that’d let her be comfortable for even just a few seconds.
As Mitsy lay on the floor, all the muscles in her stomach sore, she imagined the time before she was a junkie and how light the world now seemed – even with all the problems she thought she had then. Memories of the aftermath of her first real broken heart gripped her, how she wanted to die when that had finished and how she had met Scouse Wally not long after and tried to rediscover artificially in him all she had lost. But this time she would strive to become a part of his existence entirely, be indispensable, so as he’d need her all along his life. She remembered their early days together, in a flat only two streets down the road, how they had lived there with nothing but love, and how the bare walls and floors had held all the promise of a wonderful future together. Echoes of how their laughter used to ring out in that place came to her, how they’d arrive home freezing cold in winter and spring, and having no heating get into bed together and watch TV just to be warm. But these memories hurt now. It seemed the happiest recollections were the most awful and empty. In the dark space around herself she now trembled and retreated alone, her young life playing out in a series of memories in her head, a desperate sadness rebounding away into the forever of time. She remembered bare skin, smooth and soft and clean and unmarked. How they’d scamper naked from the bed to the bathroom and come rushing back, twice as fast, all goosepimply and making cold-sounding sounds FRRRRRRRRR while diving back into the bed and wriggling down into the warmth. But, then heroin came into the flat and that comfort and innocence was never the same again. Suddenly they didn’t need each other to make themselves warm, and not long after that they didn’t need one another at all. The bed became a pit of crumbs and ash and cigarette burns, both living off their side of it, Wally lent over one way smoking his smack and eating bowls of Weet-a-bix and her lent over the other way doing the same. Regardless, compared to what they would become, the early days of heroin still seemed fun and romantic – going out with unbrushed hair and crumpled clothes, both malnourished through youth and a militancy towards life, running around town grabbing bags of smack from dealers’ hands, shopping cheap food and cereal and picking up little things from the market to attach to their hair or clothes. That was before the bite of addiction became lock-jawed and before Wally started borrowing her out to acquaintances for sexual favours.Then Wally got sick and lost all the weight and disappeared, and when she next had news he was back up in Liverpool and was suffering from some kind of cancer. Of course, she knew it wasn’t cancer: Wally was HIV+. The doctor at the drug-clinic had told her as much when pushing her to get tested herself. She tested negative, but didn’t care so much anyway. All these images and memories that came to Mitsy were blighted with the same bleak and hollow atmosphere, taking place in a weird, estranged space which was somehow her past and future too. I’m sick, Mitsy thought, I’m sick through heroin: I’m a heroin addict. Mitsy needed to vomit again, but there was nothing to vomit. For a moment she thought she was back in that old flat, the bed gone, the electricity disconnected, Wally gone, laying on the bare floor surrounded by all the losing players of addiction. The pain was immense. The pain was torture. Nothing like the flu at all. And for a moment, in the dark of the room, all that could be heard was dry retching and the terrible groaning and crying of a woman who had never grown up, who was trapped in the body of her tragic youth, growing pains splitting her open from inside out. Mitsy wasn’t hurting or crying for heroin. Her tears were of her death, of an unrequited youth, for a life she could have had but never did. She had squandered it all and the losses had now come home to roost.
The body laying along the two-seater, on his back, behind Tabatha, was Portuguese Jo. He had been laying there like that, with his arm over his face, his eyes in the crux of the pit of his elbow, since early afternoon. Sometimes he’d unstick his arm from his face and squint out into the darkening room. He kept saying that he was going to leave, that there was “nothing but hurt tonight” but as he didn’t have his own phone he was bound there eagerly waiting that news arrived from another source. Jo wasn’t ill but would be by morning and didn’t fancy being sick and alone and out of the loop on anyone who came thru with a score. In the dark pit of his arm it was humid and sweaty and he could see things, worlds and planets and solar explosions. Sometimes he saw comets too, and the craters on the moon, and sometimes he saw a city, his city, a hellish vision of Lisbon overrun with outside shooting galleries and feral looking junkies and discarded syringes leaking thick contaminated blood. He had died in Lisbon and would be buried in London. But London didn’t interest him, not the London he had come to discover anyhow, and so his thoughts wandered through his home city, sometimes a fantastic version and sometimes the real thing – the warm continental nights, the street lights and bars and the mauve summer sky, close, humid evenings as he scored smack around the central station and rushed off to shoot up in the echoey underpass that smelled of piss and wine and the sea. Lisbon. He breathed in and tried to taste his home. Oh, to be back there now it’d be easy. He listened to the noises of the addicts already sick in the room and despised them for it, for showing him so brutally his fate. Or maybe he needed to despise them? Apart from the phone Jo had one other huge problem: he was penniless. No-one knew that of course, except maybe the dog who was staring at Jo suspiciously after seeing him stir and settle back down and who for no real reason wanted to bark. The world of junk is deeply calculating . As Jo lay there with his eyes covered, the heat spread across his forehead and his body moist, he again went through what he’d do and how he imagined it’d unfold. In his internal world, fuzzy empty visions in the depth of the black of his arm, he now saw himself cursing and swearing with the dealer in the apartment. All the sick addicts were uncrumpling their money and buying up what they could, biting open bags, cooking up fixes and taking out syringes. Jo saw himself in a panic in the middle of the room, patting down his pockets and searching under the cushions on the sofa, fucking and tutting and throwing his arms up in defeat and saying he’d left his wallet at home. He’d not ask anyone for cash but would instead play for honesty, asking the dealer if he could hang on at the flat for 15 minutes while he ran home and got his wallet. Of course he knew the dealer would never agree, at least he hoped not, and so from that point on he would be waiting on one of the other addicts to offer to stand him his score. Under normal conditions it would never work, but in this drought, where the dealers stock would be bought up almost immediately, where in 15 minutes the dealers phone would be turned off again, Jo had calculated that the camaraderie and empathy between addicts would be that much more solid and figured that there would be someone who would be uncharacteristically generous and offer him their trust. Illness touches the heart, he thought. Not even I would let someone else stay sick if I could help it. In the worst case Jo envisioned himself being given small pickings from each addict and getting his well-being that way. But for the moment it was all games in the mind and imagination, and for the moment Jo lay there feeling not too bad but better than the others. In the dark he huffed and blew, lit a cigarette and said, I’m gonna leave soon, there’s nothing but hurt for us tonight.
George lay mentally bound to his bed, flat out and terrified, in just a pair of summer shorts. He was suffering just as bad as anyone but could not express his illness other than through absolute fear. Unlike the addicts in the front room he thought the sudden violence of the turbulence inside of him was a succubus, an evil spirit that had been tormenting his existence for years and had now finally induced itself within him, within the apartment. On his back, supine on the bed, George lay frozen in a physical and sensorial hell, seeing the world inside his head, hearing voices and frequencies and cringing up at strange alien rain, long thin invisible shards of light, coming down from a fiery sky, piercing him and pinning him down. It was Armageddon, the battle he’d been warned of for so long and which had left him picking holes in the plaster of the wall besides his bed in an effort to unveil the intruders of his mind.
George looked down lengthwise at his body on the bed. He saw himself not from a first-person perspective but in third-person, which is to say, not through his eyes but from a detached position somewhere over him. He was quite literally out his mind. George watched horrified as the succubus snaked and angled about beneath his skin, wormed its way into his muscles and around his joints before settling itself into every cell and atom of his body. At times George would double up with cramp and his legs would violently kick out straight, locking and straining the muscles behind and around his knees. At other times he’d suddenly tense and grip into hideous poses, resembling the contorted forms of the charcoaled corpses of Nagasaki or Hiroshima or Pompeii. At intervals, during the long sick evening, George would struggle to his feet and inch his way painfully down the corridor. In just his shorts he’d stand in the doorway of the main room, his shoulders dropped and rounded, his frail light brown legs bowed, his mouth hung open in the same cavernous shape, a world of dread and conspiracy and paranoia arched into him, looking at the suffering addicts lain out in the room. To George he was staring into a squalid dungeon in Hades, watching the condemned after the weighing of souls, the psychostasia. George would stand there like that, frozen in terror, the junk sickness seeping out of him. Then, without saying anything, he would emit an animalistic sound, a noise which seemed to originate from his entire being, a sound somewhere between a reverberation of fear and pain and that of a mother animal who has lost her young and is calling and grieving at the same time. After a moment the tortured figure of George would turn and slowly make its way back down the hall, a nausea in his stomach and bowels, having visions of snakes and spawn and blood, all tangled together and writhing about inside of him. He’d lay back on his bed, petrified in his own being, sweating and in agony, turning ice cold then raging hot, his shorts pushed down, cock erect, masturbating, muttering, crying. Terrified, George lay there like that, his pupils like saucers, waiting for the dawn and a day of clouds and blackness and the great armies of destruction to arrive. And that is what junk illness was like to George, the balding, schizophrenic, light-skinned Jamaican who wasn’t aware that he was even dope sick at all.
For Three days and three nights the flat remained in a death of sickness and despair. Each junkie lay cocooned in his own dark and humid space, suffering not only the most grotesque physical trauma but an existential sickness too, a place where ones own Being is out-of-kilter with the world it should thrive in. It was by no sheer coincidence, as it is already said, that it was the dog who first sensed the changing tide. On the fourth day, just before noon, its ears pricked up and it looked inquisitively at something on the floor. It listened intently then cocked its head to the left and listened some more. And it was not mistaken; and it didn’t know why: it just did. It sprang up, its mouth clamped tight shut, whimpering with excitement and turning circles around the floor as a phone lit up and rang out jubilantly. David scrambled for the phone, answered, but in his haste fumbled it like a bar of soap. The phone popped out his hand and went skidding across the floor. For just a moment the world stopped again. Grace held the dog by the collar, her bony pale arm trembling. The dog whimpered even harder still.
[_You got? You got? _]shouted David, the phone still on the floor, him reaching across to pick it up.
Yeah Bro, yeah… I got.. … I got
Everyone heard the reply and the room of heroin junkies started stirring and sitting up, their eyes open to the last dregs of their sickness. Grace let go off the dog, brought up something from her lungs and gobbed it out over the arm of the sofa.
George, she screamed, get in here with ya spoon.
From the room adjacent there came groaning and the sound of someone rising and rummaging around for something. A moment later George appeared and stood in the doorway holding his spoon out in front of him. He was dripping sweat and his arms and legs and face were picked to open sores.
Get over here, said Grace, [_it’s over now. _]George entered the room and sat besides Grace. He looked awkward, rigid and held in, like he didn’t want to touch anyone either side. His head was slightly lowered and his eyes stared straight ahead. He was trembling and muttering away furiously, gibberish, like some incantation to keep evil at bay.
He’s here, said David letting the corner of the blanket fall back across the window. And for a moment the room descended into hazy darkness, though not for long, just until the dealer was in the room and then the lights in hell came on.
It was my first morning to methadone clinic and a vile, hollow, depression hung in me then. The light hadn’t yet reached the morning and outside the streets sat cold and black and frosted over. Blustery winds rattled the windows then swept off, angry, across the brick face. The only light in the room came from the television which had been on continuously for over seven months. It had served as some kind of comfort, but now it disturbed me, the breakfast show jingles and easy-listening media voices reminding me of a distant normality, something terribly sad, from a time before I knew what sickness was. My body ached from light junk withdrawals: runny nose; cavernous yawning; a coldness deep in the marrow of my bones. My head was plagued by a weird melancholic nostalgia which played havoc with my raw emotions. Memories of the people I had loved, echoes of the beautiful things we had said, the goodbyes, grieved me. I felt I could cry for just existing. I sat at the table by the window dreading the thought of having to confront this new winter day half sick. I stared at my reflection in the glass, superimposed over the darkness outside. I was pale and deathly. I felt withdrawn, yet at the same time, raw to the world. I pulled the little electric fan heater in close and hunched over it with a cigarette. Every few moments I’d turn a look up at the sky, praying that the light of day would never come. But the light was coming. Already the sky was a tone lighter than when I’d woken, and was thinning through even more. I finished my cigarette, and another besides, and when I next looked out a ghostly city was visible, rising up like ruins into the distance. In the sky the dark shapes of birds passed over, and then the stark, early light arrived proper. It was then, from the TV, that the news report first broke, of that awful crime – only I didn’t hear it then.
With the coming of the morning light all peace in the world was broken. There was an emptiness, a harshness, something intangible which had crept its way into everything and made me feel forlorn and vacant. I looked over at the bed. It was barren and cold. I shuddered thinking of the uncomfortable night I’d spent in it, wrapped up in all my clothes, draughts still somehow finding their way in and across my skin. My stomach pained and was turbulent. I tried drinking a coffee but couldn’t manage it. The warm river of liquid through my middle threw my body out of kilter even more. My fingers were brown and there was dirt and dried blood on my hands. I needed to wash but there was something deeply troubling about the sink and that whole area. I couldn’t rid myself of the thought of the brown, slimy limescale around the bottoms of the taps, the rusty scissors and dirty razors on the side, the sludge that the soap bedded on. Over at the sink I turned the tap. The water came out like shards of steel. The few specks which hit me almost made me fit. To wash, even just my face and hands was too much. Instead, I flashed the corner of a flannel under the water, and with the damp edge, wiped down my fingers and gave my face the once over. It made me lookeven more wan and left red blotches around my nose and forehead. My stomach dropped loose once more and pained like I had diarrhea. The smell and taste of illness was up my nose and down my throat, something like being suffocated with crushed ice. Just to stand was an arduous enough task, the thought of having to brave the day and trek across town a hellish prospect.
I don’t know why that morning, but before leaving, I had an urge to turn the TV off. It seemed it would close something that was open; somehow help balance my existence. As I reached across for the button there was that story again. Now a reporter was standing wrapped up and reporting live from the scene. The street behind him was cordoned off and policemen were stood around in the background breathing out mist. I killed the TV. The reporter remained for a moment, then closed shut from both ends, and was gone. Far from harmonising the room the place now seemed bare, uninhabited, like my friend’s room that time after they had taken his body away. I buttoned my Duffell coat up to the last, wrapped a scarf around up to my nose, and then left – half sick and getting worse, down to my initiation meeting at the methadone clinic, to be dosed for the very first time.
It was a day with no body. The streets were wet but it had not been raining. The wind clipped at my ears and nose and made going on twice as hard as usual. The winter sneaked right in under my coat. The sky was at once too dull and too bright, and everything from dew in the grass, to wet on railings, ice capped puddles and mildew on walls disgusted and unnerved. My nose was constantly running and dripping into my scarf, and my skin felt so dry it was sore, whipped raw by the winds. On an almost deserted length of dual-carriageway I stood shivering at an unsheltered bus-stop. A thick mist had accumulated in the distance, the frozen central divide disappearing into it. My feet felt like slabs of ice, and inside my gloves I could feel the greasy dirt on my hands. The world seemed bereft of hope, the corrupt morning converging on me and attacking me from all sides, on all senses, whipping in, stinging, stabbing, piercing – my muscles stiff like meat out the deep freeze, the taste of smashed ice in my face, up my nose, inflating my sinuses. And under all that, a vile, cold-sweat, which trickled down and froze, creating valleys of draught all over my body. When the bus finally arrived I staggered on half-dead, cringing at the driver, my hands too cold to produce my pass. The driver waved me past and for a brief moment I thought I had found salvation.
Though it was but a light negligee of junk illness I wore, it was enough to make the world feel barren and bleak and to open me up fully to the rigours of existence. Without junk filtering life I was too sensitive to it. The wet bus floor with traces of mud and trodden leaves and newspaper, the umbrella in the luggage pen, the old woman with purple hands and weak watery eyes shaking in the front seat… it all disturbed me and brought forth an involuntary spasm of repulsion. I mooched along the bus and ached down into a seat alongside the radiator vent. I put a hand down to feel for the heat but there was none. I huddled up tight in the corner, pulling my coat and scarf in, the misery leaking out my dripping, frozen nose. An invisible sheet of cold came forth from the expanse of window. I cleared a small patch in the mist and stared out absently at the abject life. An immense sadness came over me, and yet I wasn’t thinking, just looking. There was something bleak and dispirited out there, a hollowness that permeated the most mundane things. I sat there shivering and snivelling, staring out my little frost framed aperture, my ear suddenly wooed by the stern tones of the news report, that same story, now floating out the drivers cabin, the slaying of two teenage boys in Harlsedon, North London, shot dead in their car as they waited at a set of lights in the early hours of the morning. This time the report did register. It seeped in and filled me with terror and dread.
Nothing seemed quite real after that, not even the news report. It somehow seemed manufactured, maybe even a hoax, like it was deliberately broadcast just for me, for this doleful winter morning. There was at once something hallucinatory and yet hyper-real about it. And the report didn’t run and disappear into the archives. It descended upon me, festered, got right into the weave of me, and left me with a creeping sense of unease and paranoia. It was as if I was in some way wrapped up in the crime, like it was fated to have consequences on my own day. It was the same nightmarish bent on reality that finds its way in on the back of a night terror, where dream and reality morph together for a moment and a sinister gateway to a violent and bloody dream-scape is left open. There existed the feeling that just about anything could happen… would happen… had already happened. I felt edgy, like this wasn’t freewill but pre-determined, a prolonged sensation of déjà-vu. It felt like someone was watching me. I looked around the bus at the few other passengers. It was all quite unremarkable: too unremarkable; like it was staged, like the absolute sober normality that precedes a bomb blast. Now, on top of my increasing illness, alongside the melancholic drips of memory of a time just before the world turned sour, I had this very real and terrifying idea that a lone gunman would board the bus, or someone would randomly open fire in the streets, like that which had happened in Hungerford. I rose and moved myself to the other side of the bus, into the seat alongside the emergency window. It was up and across from the middle doors, and when I wasn’t watching them I was surveying any movement outside, praying that the bus would get me to where I needed to be.
By the time I stepped off the bus into the thin brittle morning I was really starting to come down with the sweats and muscle aches. I still wasn’t proper dope sick but I was bad enough to not have to feign it and hopefully be dosed properly for a first timer. The streets seemed more deserted than usual. A hostile crystal covering sat over everything. Blind corners threw my heart into panic. I tried to quicken my pace but found I couldn’t. I was at that stage of junk need that time had a set scale, 1 to 5 or something, and could not be sped up nor lost. I could get nowhere faster than illness allowed. Down the road a postman in his summer work shorts passed me by but didn’t seem real. I looked back, checking to make sure he was really there. He was, but then seemed too far down the road to have passed me when I thought he had. I looked at my feet as I walked, counting the steps, somehow, for a moment, not being able to comprehend their connection to my brain, that they were even my legs at all. As I chugged on I left a trail of mist behind me. My right eye watered constantly. I’d never felt more out of odds, or cut out and placed in the world. Everything that would usually inspire or is unique to winter horrified me and left me with desperate need to escape it.
On the first day of methadone clinic you are washed up on the inner bend of smack addiction. This is where the river deposits the big rocks. For the first time addiction is taken off the streets and placed in a closed environment where the shit and puke has no place else to go. It’s often the place where the junkie turns up to make his final cameo in life. It’s a harrowing place. You see not mostly addicts well while scoring, but the long term addicts, those who’ve lost their limbs, those whose stomachs are at bursting point with liver disease, those eaten away from HIV. Them same people, in the same place, with the same scars and abscesses as you. In their faces and deaths you can see yourself, and it’s maybe the first time you’ve seen yourself in a while. This is the after-sales service of heroin. It’s a side of addiction which you’ve caught glimpses off but up until then had had the freedom and good sense to steer well clear off.
Outside the death halls of the clinic were gathered three loyal methadone clients. They were dressed in a mish mash of grubby sportswear and wool and stood together smoking and holding little plastic cups of dispensed coffee. They were too chatty and alive to be ill or even suffering.
[_You ‘ere fer juice? _]One asked, sounding like a raspy toothless woman.
Doctor, I groaned. It’s my first morning.
Good luck, offered another, a tall thing in a filthy trappers hat with ear flaps. It seemed that because I’d walked in, and not crawled, it wasn’t going to be enough.
The clinic was dull and empty, an ill lit corridor with no reception. This part of the service had been kept out of sight when I’d had my interview two months ago. Up on the walls were corny drug abuse posters, showing the young face of the addict that no-one here resembled. Down the corridor, on the left, was a doorless turning, and further down, on the right, two closed doors. The heating seemed to be on maximum. I could feel the cold smoking off my coat, an uncomfortable filthy, itchy sweat beneath it. I waited for a moment wondering if someone would come and greet me. The far end of the corridor descended into total darkness. A middle-aged woman with a harsh, serious face, and wearing a staff pass crossed the hall with files and bits of paper. She didn’t acknowledge anything but the linoleum floor beneath her. Maybe you had to be down there, rattling on it, to get noticed? A human reception bell.
Excuse me… I said. But before I had even finished she had ignored me and was gone, leaving me to feel the place out myself.
The open entrance on the left was the waiting room. Along to the left, built into the main front wall, was a closed shutter with a message not to bang on it. Above the shutter was a sign reading ‘DISPENSARY’. Only the sorriest addicts were here at this hour. They included new entrants who lay around sick; those here on court orders; those dying; and those who were still using smack – the early morning visits being the first step in bullying them off the scheme, making maintenance too much a hassle to continue. In the room now were four addicts and myself. Two, a couple, sat at the back. Another man was lain across five of the front chairs, sobbing and groaning. And the last, right over on the left, a man with his legs up on the tops of the chairs in front of him, reclining back with a small transistor radio held to his ear, his eyes scanning around for attention as if he was up on all the latest electrical gadgetry. On seeing me watching him he dropped his legs down and turned himself away to the wall, pressing the radio tighter to his ear as if the information was his. The radio was some flimsy piece of outmoded shit, probably what was all the rage at the cusp of his addiction where time and fashion had stood still. I watched him, the disgusting, hollow day making me feel deathly and not really there. The latest news of the morning’s shooting crackled and rose from his hunched up form.
Police in Harlsedon, North London, say that the shootings represent a worrying escalation of gun crime in the area. They declined to speculate as to any apparent motive for the slayings, though did say that a gangland style execution could not be ruled out. The lone gunman, a Caucasian male, between 25 and… …
… …and a medley of poorly picked up radio stations cut into the report, the addict tuning through the band waves and settling on a country music station before tuning through again. I took a seat at the back, away from the entrance. My face prickled as the cold in my flesh undid itself. Surrounded by depressing government health warnings I loosened my scarf and sat staring, repulsed, at the bowls of fresh fruit laid out on the tables upfront.
I hadn’t been waiting long when the woman who had ignored me in the hall entered. She read my name from a small notebook and looked up and around to see which one of us would present themselves as me. Surprisingly it was the addict who’d been laying groaning across the five front seats. He staggered forward, reaching out, crying.
Please, I need something… PLEASE! I can’t wait any longer. I’was ‘ere first. I’m dying… really, I’M DYING!
He looked like he was gonna throw himself around her and clutch on as he collapsed. This was dope sickness and you can’t fake such a loss of self-respect. I cringed just seeing his illness, remembering days I’d had those same pleading, outstretched arms and tears.
The nurse moved aside holding her arm out. [_Are you Mr Levene, _]she enquired, panicked, looking over at me.
I nodded. But he can go first, I offered. It was a huge mistake. Having a heart in this world often is.
The nurse gave me a peculiar, furrowed look. It was somewhere between hate and disgust. Follow me, she said. I moved as decrepitly as I could, but it was too late: I’d already blown my cover. As I passed the addict he was back sitting, his legs swung flimsily over the other, like a woman, jigging like he needed the loo and making painful, murmuring sounds. I wanted to touch his back, but I didn’t want to touch him at all.
My doctor was a small, prudish, fifty year old Italian woman. Her sleek dark hair was pulled back and up and held each side with an elegant hair brooch. She greeted me in her three-quarter-length white overcoat, classy beige tights and flat, catholic, bumper-car shoes finishing her off. Well groomed, well-aged, well-scented. She was conservative to the marrow but may not have known it.
I hung my coat and scarf up and sat down. Rather than evaluate me from behind her desk she pulled her chair around and sat opposite – close enough so as I could see the tiny soft furry blond hairs on her face, but far away enough so as our knees could never touch. I got a weird hard-on, but nothing dangerous. As she looked over my file my eyes wandered off over her shoulder, fixing on the sink in the corner and the cylindrical metal boiler unit above it. I felt absolutely amputated from the moment, in a body which wasn’t quite mine. The sterility and quiet of this place was of dope sick days, and never was I more an addict than then, in that moment, being kept half sick in front of officialdom as they slowly perused the meager information they had on me, deciding if I deserved a kind or wrathful God. I suddenly flushed hot, overcome with a prickling heat. My cock deflated. I considered breaking down too – weeping, apologizing for my tears, just to try and get this over with. It wouldn’t have really been so fraudulent. I was that raw anyway. Still looking over my file she asked me questions to answers she already had.
After making sure I knew who I was, where I lived, how much I used and how I used it, the doctor handed me a sheet of paper with a list of common withdrawal symptoms on it. She told me to read through and tick the relevant boxes. Although I could only honestly say I was suffering from two of the options I nevertheless ticked them all, some not even bothering to read. It was maybe the best decision I had taken. What she took for nonchalance seemed to infuriate her. She turned wholeheartedly against me.
You’ve had hallucinations? She asked, incredulously. And fitted?
Not really fitted, more like severe muscle spasms and jerking, _]I replied. [_Audio hallucinations, not visual. A song, snippets of unmemorable conversations. Not unhappy memories, but terribly sad in the mood of today.
I wanted to tell her of the crime, how I couldn’t rid the thought of it from my head, how it somehow felt entwined with my own, immediate existence and could gatecrash it at any moment. But I didn’t. Stuff like that would likely only serve to get you a lifetime of 7am appointments with the psychologist. Instead I rolled my sleeve up ready to have my blood pressure taken, the doctor recoiling in horror on finding recent needle marks and streaks of dried, crusty blood trailing down my bicep and off, around my elbow. She gave me an alcohol wipe and stood there squinting at me out the side of her eyes as I wiped the blood clean. The chill of the alcohol on my skin unnerved me. As soon as I was done the doctor lashed the blood pressure band around my arm and began inflating it, squeezing the hand-pump like she was hyper stressed. My lower arm went hard, the skin blotchy like corned-beef. My head felt like it would explode. The doctor released the pressure and scribbled down the reading.
You’re not withdrawing, she said immediately, ripping the velcro flap open and whipping the band away. You’re not 24hrs clean!
I agreed I wasn’t. I told her the truth that I was 14hrs down and feeling rough enough. I said I had to work and couldn’t let myself get sick if it wasn’t necessary. She seemed to take offense at logic. She gave the standard spiel that 40ml of methadone could be fatal in the wrong circumstances and she wasn’t going to risk having a death on her hands. I asked her a few simple questions which she couldn’t answer without indirectly admitting to talking crap. Her answer was a huff of silence as she rage wrote a prescription with such ferocity that her pen broke through the paper. She handed me the prescription. Scribbled in huge letters and then circled was ‘10ml’, not even a tenth of what I’d need to be well. I scoffed at the prescription. I almost balled it up and dashed it in her face.
Come back tomorrow after not having used for 24 hours and you’ll be treated properly, she said, smirking at my disgust. If not, if you can’t, then this stabilization period will be a very slow, drawn out process.
You know 10ml won’t do anything, I said. When I leave here I will go and score… I’ve no choice. I have to be in work this afternoon and will not get sick just to please you.
Well, if you do that you’ll only get the same tomorrow. It’s your decision. I can’t properly asses you while you’ve heroin fresh in your system. There’s guidelines and rules to follow, and you, like everyone else, will have to adhere to them.
I didn’t reply. There was no point. The doctor was from a symmetrical, classic cut of cloth – a square from a square. She could never understand being out of sorts with your world – pinstripes against a paisley background. I put on my jacket and scarf, and prescription in hand hurried back into the waiting room and thumped as hard as I could on the shutter which you were not supposed to bang on. For my troubles I was kept waiting for over twenty five minutes, the proper sick junkie finally being dosed before me. It was a victory of sorts. Kind of. I swallowed my 10ml, showed an empty mouth, and left.
Back out in the harsh open the cold air burnt like menthol on my throat. I was really feeling like dog shit: snivelling, eyes running and burning as I cut through the highrise flats around the back. The day had come on a little. The wintry sky was now pale blue with a weak sun, the colour of sparkling wine, showing through. Underfoot was a sludge of earth and mashed leaves. Little huffed sparrows peppered the bare trees, waiting to scarper at the crack of the sniper’s gun. As I hurried on a little white Scottish Terrier dog backed out of some undergrowth it’s paws and legs all muddy and wet. It scampered off leaving the smell of slobber and tongue thick in the air. It was just after that that I came upon the most hideous sight imaginable. On this frozen, misty day, winds whipping the temperature below freezing, sickness steaming up off everything, an unshaven, half-dosser came my way, his jacket open and wearing only a light shirt underneath, the top three buttons undone, leaving his neck and lower chest exposed to the bare elements. In his hand he had a pear and he was munching on this thing as he walked, bits of fruit in his stubble, the freezing sticky juice streaming over and dripping off his hand. As I reached him a vile, glacial headwind whipped me to the bones and almost brought me to my knees. As I stooped into the wind I caught sight of him biting once again into the pear, a wintry tear leaking out his eye as he absorbed and celebrated life. My body spasmed involuntarily and my stomach felt frozen and missing. My scarf was wet against my nose and the warm air from my mouth burned my lips. The aura of half-sick visits to the clinic was with me, and little did I know, they would always feel like this.
The bus ride back was a warmer affair than going and with each revolution of the wheel Iat least had the comfort that my dealer was a meter closer. I sat at the very back, watching out for gunmen, now away from the window as my mind had fixed itself on the thought of a drive-by shooting. Horrified I imagined the thought of a car, sat lit up at the traffic lights, nothing extraordinary, except… two teenagers are slumped around with half their heads blown off and the CD still looping away, the green light meaning nothing to them any more. But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t the crime. It wasn’t even the violence. It was the coldness of the night, the illness that was in me, the bad dreams, the tears, the shivering, the draughts, the stale cigarettes, the lonely bed, the Redemption Song, Bob Marley, in a bar, the last bar, on a night just like that, the jukebox, the fruit machine, waiting for love, for the door to open, bang bang, boom boom, through a cloud of smoke, red lips, black eyes, southern comfort, chewing gum, the misty heath of the pre-junk dawn. It was somewhere there, somewhere deep down in the melee of my mind which terrified me now and had terrified me always. It was the same feeling I’d had when they pulled the body out the river that day, when I’d sunk in the mud, when I’d lain there dying with pneumonia, when I’d cried because of how cruel I was. I was too raw to exist in the skin and the world I was born into. I thought all these things and for a moment I thought I was crying, but I wasn’t, it was just the mist on the window was streaming down and the life was blurred and fuzzy through it.
I didn’t go home. I was never intending to. Instead I got off near my mother’s, scored, and then called on her so as I could get a shot. As I sat with the fix in the needle, flexing and tensing my arms to raise a vein, mum asked me how the clinic had been and who I had seen. I couldn’t remember the doctor’s name so described her.
God, everyone fucking has problems with her, mum said. D’ya know who your keyworker is yet?
I shook my head.
Did anyone ask about me? _]she asked. [_I told them you’d be down today and was my son! She said that with an air of pride then cursed me for dripping blood on the carpet. The next thing I knew was that the fire blazed like love, that I was looking at the cat as it slept curled up besides it, and how its fur looked like I felt. The cat opened an eye, looked at me, felt safe, then went under again. Mum put a cup of coffee down for me, took my needle and laid it out of harm’s way on the table. She sat down over in the armchair, smoking and watching TV.
Did ya hear about that shooting? she asked.
I thought for a moment, then said I had… two teenagers weren’t it? Mum said Yeah like she was bored and blew out a cloud of smoke. It’s been on every fucking channel non-stop, she said. I nodded, but I was already asleep, sinking warm into mum’s couch. Outside the winter blew and raged about and menacing winds cut through the bare trees which lined the street. But now it wasn’t hollow or cruel or hostile, it seemed kind of perfect, like the world was meant to be this way, like it could never be better than it was just then.
Stooped over in the shelter of a shop doorway I vomited up a sickness from the very dull of my gut. I remained like that, vomit water burning in my sinuses and dripping out my nose. I thought of the little bundle of notes and how close I had been to salvation. How now, just a few metres on, I was back floundering in the most desperate of predicaments, once more facing sickness with my chance pardon gone. I dry retched and choked on life. I was nauseous from my stupidity, from an illogical pride which had so often plagued me. I was nauseous from the shame I would have felt in barging through that little crowd and picking up the notes on the ground; from the thought of scurrying away at pace while ignoring any shouts of suspicion. I had happened upon a rare slice of fortune and I had blown it. And now I was sick through such cowardice; fucked through such a lack of conviction. I flushed pale and filled with horror reliving the moment again. Perspiration broke and spread like mildew beneath my shirt and jacket. The adrenaline rendered me weak at the knees. I vomited once more, spewed up a nervous watery waste. And then I composed myself, wiped my mouth clear, turned and stepped back out into the day, a day that no longer felt quite real at all.
I decided to double back past the ATM machine once more. It was a crazy thought but I somehow imagined the notes still being there, and if not those same notes, then maybe some new ones. I told myself it was nigh on impossible and then reasoned that two people losing money, on the same day, in the same place, just moments apart, was so improbable that it could maybe just happen. I crept closer to the ATM machine. I visualized a new little bundle of notes on the ground, imagined the warmth and relief of picking them up. I walked by slowly, my eyes cast down upon the lower legs of more people queuing to use the machine. And then I looked: nothing. Just a large gob of yellowy-green phlegm. I cursed myself again, damned my rotten luck and rotten courage. What kind of a cretinous coward are you ? I asked myself. What kind of man, under such terrible conditions, would not have blundered in and picked up those notes regardless? I gave my being a harsh dressing down. The life around me moved; carried on as ever. Something so humdrum and fatigued, a world unaware of the drama and struggle playing out in thousands of surrounding lives. Rain spat down and the afternoon wore on. The cash machine beeped its yellow light and my sweats progressed as the last vestiges of heroin left my body. Without destination I tramped on. Disappointed and emotional, desperate to somehow make amends after my squandered opportunity.
I anguished over his black leather shoe. Saw it once again tread on the notes as he put his card in the machine. My soul lit up just then knowing he was concealing them, knowing that when he was done his natural turn away would leave them clear in my path. It was just a matter of moments. I would bend and scoop and I would be out of trouble, counting my find and calculating the drugs I would be able to buy and how they would help get me through the next couple of days. That fuck of a man. Maybe 30; maybe not. Spruced and well groomed. Money to spare in his account. Someone who never finds anything because he never has to; someone who’s life was safe beyond the need for luck, who wouldn’t want luck anyway as luck is always on the precipice. Oh that fucker. How he withdrew his cash, took that single step back and must have glimpsed my good fortune on the floor as he verified his own dispensed notes. Unbelievable! Checking his cash fresh out the dispenser. The cash machine doesn’t make errors you fuck-starved fool ! And, if you do insist on verifying your withdrawal, have some fucking decency and do so out of sight – in the secrecy of your own shade. I recalled again how his eyes had narrowed in curiosity, the vulgar, anxious way he had looked around before his knees bent and his coat lifted up at the back and revealed the clean pressed denim of his behind. I flirted with the idea of barging him aside, making the scoop before he did, of maybe even wrestling the notes clear out his hand. I imagined much, a swirling hurricane of thoughts going through my mind as he picked up the money and strode away. Approach him! I told myself. Tell him the money he had found was money I had dropped. That I had returned in the hope of finding it! But it was all too late. By the time a hand tapped me on the back, letting me know the ATM machine was free to use, the man was just a fading shadow down the road, a ghost, merging with the crowds and carrying with him the only chance I had. I stepped forward to the machine, my mind all askew. I pressed some buttons, any buttons, my heart racing and my stomach hollow with nausea. The machine flipped through its default screens, asking me to insert my card. I had no card to insert. I pretended to take a receipt of my transaction and I left, the colour having drained out of me and a vile pressurized heat shuddering through my face and brain.
I walked around cursing that man for over an hour. The only person I cursed and despised more was myself. I walked and I kept my eyes to the ground, somehow hoping that the day would bring an impossible second slice of luck, something not so grand but maybe enough to get me a consolatory bag of dope. The gutters held nothing of any good worth. My only find was a battered twenty pence piece, so misshapen that not even a telephone box would have accepted it. I held it for a moment, fingered its sharp edges and then dashed it away. When my cloud of disappointment finally cleared I found myself wandering around old roads, roads on which I had not passed down for many years. I racked my brain for some way to raise a meagre few quid. I looked around, at the street signs, the railings and curb stones. I looked at the buildings, their porch lights and doors and fittings, at all the riches that made up this city. It seemed incomprehensible that in one of the great financial capitals of the world one could do absolutely nothing legal to earn oneself a few bob. I was short on twenty quid and save for pimping out my arse, or a desperate theft, there seemed no possible way to raise it.
I kept to the main shopping routes. I figured that if any money had been lost it would, more than likely, have been lost there. As I walked and scanned the ground I went back over and re-evaluated all the people I could possibly borrow cash from. Of course, I had already played this game out, multiple times throughout the day. But now my desperation stakes were higher and maybe that would push me to consider asking someone I had earlier dismissed. But there was no-one. I couldn’t even think of anyone I could ask who would refuse me – that’s how bad things had gotten. And then there I was, my eyes on grit and pigeon shit, the iron railway bridge above taking away the light for a few strides, opposite the multi-storey car-park where years ago we had parked a stolen van. The Kinsellas, I thought, becoming more optimistic as I better considered the five brothers, all still living at home with their mother. True, it was a fair few years since I had last seen them, but surely on the whim of a surprise visit I could somehow coax twenty quid out of their collective coffers? Maybe, just maybe, they were the answer to get me out my jam? Through very light rain I picked up the pace, my stride becoming furious as I made my way down towards the White City Estate, to the only plan I had.
It was the heroin: all but gone from my body; my metabolism speeding up under my skin and pushing the perspiration out through my pores. I tried to compose myself, regulate my breathing and keep a dry air of calm about me – but it was no good. Through the grapevine the Kinsellas had gotten wind of my heroin problem, and as my plan was to spin them a story of being clean it was important that I arrived looking at least vaguely clean and sober. Of course, my visit would not be an obvious one for cash. I would turn up as if just calling around out the blue and, at some stage, work an opportunity to ask for a lend of money. It was a Sunday afternoon and so the chance of at least one of the brothers being home was good. I smoothed my hair down and ruffled my shirt to let in some cool air. The Kinsella name sounded like a winning ticket just now, and as I turned into the old block I felt sure that I’d be able to scratch them for a score, maybe even a little if more.
A young kid opened the door. He gave me a furrowed look, as if I wasn’t who I said I was. He closed the door over and called out the name of his brother Paul.
“What da fuck,” I heard Paul say as he came out his room and and made his way down the hallway. I took a step back. When the front door re-opened Paul stood there, as small and thin and as wiry as ever, in the same kind of ill fitting track-suit bottoms he had always worn, littered with burnholes from a thousand hot-rocks. “Fuckin’ hell, if It’s not da freak himself! Thought we’d got shot of you for good.” With my best smile, which felt more like a grimace of pain, I said, “Alright cunt? You gonna invite me in or what?”
Paul turned and led me in. As I closed the door he entered the living room and said, “You’ll never guess who’s just turned up?” Then he called and I stepped into view, stood there with another gritted smile, my clothes damp and my face moist and pasty. My eyes felt like fucking saucers. God, I could feel the junkie in me twitchy and on edge. The occupants of the room stared at me standing there and one of the two people I recognized, Paul’s mother, said something like, “You alright?” I nodded and mentioned something about the rain.
“Come on, Paul said. He asked me if I wanted a coffee. I didn’t. Coffee would make me vomit. I said yes anyway. I pulled a hand over my face and brow. Now I had stopped walking the sweat just poured out of me. I could feel the grime from the back of neck rubbing loose on the damp collar of my shirt. While Paul pottered about in the kitchen, I snuck off to the bathroom to wipe myself down. As I stared in the mirror at my sallow reflection I caught the slightest glimpse of Paul, stepping briefly into and out of view, his shadow then deadly still in the hallway, discretely checking up on what I was doing. I didn’t let on I had spotted him.
“So, what brings you round here after all this time?” he asked, once we were sat down and settled in his room.
“Nothing special. Just thought I’d pop in as I was passing. Not a crime is it?”
“Probably worse if it brings you here. And what’s with the fuckin’ sweating?”
“That. Yeah. Won’t fucking stop. Ran the entire length of Wood Lane in the rain. Thought I’d put in a few extra miles as we’re playing in the company league next week.”
“What, you playing football again?”
“Yes,” I lied, pleased that my ruse had worked. “We’re sat joint third in the division.” Paul took a sip of his coffee, flicked the TV channel over and began skinning up a joint.
“Still smoking that crap?” I said.
“Better than the shit you’ve been pumping into yer veins! You shoulda quit with this.”
“Shoulda,” I said. “I’ve stopped all that other crap now… been clean almost 18 months.” As I said that a bead of sweat ran down my brow as if to betray me some more. I sponged it away. As Paul twisted and harassed his spliff into shape he shot me a curious look. Then, eyes still on me, he ran the grey tip of his tongue along the length of the joint, wetting the gum of the papers. He looked like he was playing the fucking harmonica to my bullshit.
“I’m managing a warehouse just down in Greenford,” I said. That was true, though I had only said so for strategic reasons. Paul ignored me. He took a deep drag of his joint and lay back on his bed. The light was out in the room. I hunched forward pretending to take notice of what was on the TV, all the time thinking, conniving as to when best to put the bite on Paul.
I could feel it myself. The nervous, fleeting presence I gave off in the room. It was like I emitted some sense of not really wanting to be there, of being there for ulterior motives. I did my best to look relaxed. I settled down into my chair as if I had nowhere to go and that time was just something which needed to be passed. But no matter how hard I tried, some strange compulsion kept having me roll cigarettes, kept sliding my eyes over to Paul’s way. What I did manage to watch of the TV made no sense. My brain was awash with desperate thoughts of how to sponge cash out of Paul, deliberating over what was the most likely strategy to succeed. One thing for sure: under no circumstances was I to tell him the truth. He was one of the many people who ensure you lie to them, lie from a fore-knowledge of what their reaction will be to the truth. It’s not heroin that makes the junkie lie; it’s the person before them. I glanced again at Paul. Though I was desperate it wasn’t the right time. And so I said nothing; made no move. I pretend watched the late afternoon TV, all the while feeling worse and worse, fantasizing over what dealers would be on on Sunday and which one I should call if ever I got the chance.
It was maybe an hour in when there first sounded the ring of the door-bell and then a double knock on Paul’s bedroom door. Paul strained across from where he was lying, unbolted the lock and opened the door. There stood Lawrence, one of his younger brothers, looking at me with a smile. “Well look who it ain’t!” he said. Then, before I had time to answer, he added, “Jesus fuck, you look worse than death man!”
My sweating had stopped but I was still damp and pale. I rose and shook his hand. My palm felt slimy in his. He smelled of beer and had a slight tipsy look in his face. He made a pretend punch to my liver. I hunched up as if to protect myself and felt my guts squelch in my stomach. I had barely moved and the sweat broke out under my clothes again. So now there were two brothers. All the better, I thought. Double the chance of one of them lending me a note.
Lawrence sat staring at me. He wore the same tipsy smile with which he had arrived. Whether he understood I wasn’t doing too great or whether he had had one too many beers, I couldn’t quite figure.
“So what brings you here?” he asked.
“Just a friendly visit… wondered if you guys were still around.”
“Wish you’d fuck off,” Paul said humorously, turning the volume up on the TV. He handed Lawrence the joint. Lawrence took a long drag, held in the smoke and then emptied his lungs, making the sound of a light calm wind.
“You working? He asked. I nodded. “Doing well,” I said. “Managing my own place now.”
He nodded like that impressed him. It was supposed to. It was said so as when I eventually asked for cash they’d be confident that I had the means to repay it. I tried once more to watch TV, now with the two brothers stoned, staring at the screen as if hypnotized by it. In my mind I played around with thoughts of asking them for money, thought up various excuses as to why and tried to figure out the perfect moment to ask. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. The heroin was all but out of my system. I was running on dry as I sat there, each moment becoming more and more uncomfortable.
“What you up to tonight?” Lawrence asked.
“Nothing planned. Will head off home in a while.”
“What, you don’t fancy coming out for a pint with us?”
“Not for me, thanks. It’s been fucking years since I had a drink.”
“Ya boring cunt!”
I stared at Lawrence, his eyes challenging me to change my mind. And in that look, that offer, I saw my chance.
“Nah, I can’t. It’d mean going home, getting my cash and then returning… can’t be fucked with all that. And I must be up early tomorrow.”
“Always was a fucking lightweight, “ Paul said.
“Fuck off… I Drank you to your bed many a night.”
Paul darted a scrunched up piece of cardboard at me. “Come on ta fuck! We’ll only be going for a few and a game of pool.”
“Nah. I would but I’ve no cash on me and I’m not running home and back at this time.” I left it at that, hoping one of the brothers would take the hint and offer me a loan of money. When neither one did I made the bite. “I’ll tell ya what, if someone can drop us in for a score I’ll tag along. Twenty quid would be enough… a couple of rounds and a few games. I’d be up for that… if someone will stand me the cash until tomorrow?”
Paul flicked his lighter and re-lit his joint. For a moment the dark room lit up. As it fell back into darkness I caught Paul’s eye curl my way. But he said nothing. Lawrence neither.
“Come on lads,” I said, “who’s gonna put us in for a score?”
Paul made a scoffing, choking sound as if he’d inhaled a little too much smoke. He looked at Lawrence. Lawrence sat there with the same stupid smile plastered across his lips, only now there seemed something quite knowing in it. I could feel the heroin withdrawals burning through my eyes and a feeling of restlessness jittering away in my muscles. Sickness was taking to the stage. The familiar moist feel of breaking sweat came over me again.
“Oi, Paul. Put us in for a score mate? I’ll bring it around first thing tomorrow evening.”
Paul shook his head. “Ain’t got a score,” he said. “It’s the end of the week and I’m on weekly pay.
Just got enough for myself and my fares for the week.”
“Fuck off… You must have a score?”
“Fuck all, mate. Ask Lawrence… he’s rolling in money!”
I turned my attention to Lawrence. He didn’t look much like salvation to me. Then he said, “I would, but I’d need to pass the bank and they’re all closed today.”
“Oh, come on guys. Twenty fucking quid… you ain’t got a score between you and you’re going out? What about ten? Give us ten each?”
Now the brothers looked at each other. I waited eagerly for a response, my well-being hanging in the balance. If one would give the other would too. Lawrence shook his head, and then Paul did the same. “Seriously, we ain’t got it,” he said.
“Fuck. Then maybe I’ll have to go home and come back after all. Not a bad thing, I suppose… means I can get changed and scrubbed up as well.”
Of course, I had no intention of going to the bar with the Kinsella brothers. If they’d have been stupid enough to lend me the cash I would have wandered off and disappeared at the first opportunity, crept into a phone booth and dialed my dealer. As it was neither brother seemed up for lending me even a tenner each. I dropped my stakes, my pride dropping with it. “What about a fiver?” I asked. “Five quid each would get me a few pints. Come on guys…. for fuck’s sake. Don’t make me go home.”
Paul shook his head. He mocked me for begging for a tenner. He didn’t realise just what ten pound would do for me, that he would also beg for it if it was attached to his entire well-being.
I looked at the brothers, thinking. “What about your mother?” I said.
Paul pulled a face and shook his head.
“Well, is it OK if I at least ask?”
Paul nodded for Lawrence to unbolt the door. With the door open Paul shouted for his mother.
I heard Paul’s mum, Veronica, come trundling down the hallway. She was a pleasant enough woman with a blunt honesty, a died blonde bob and the figure of a church bell.
“What the fuck d’ya want? Calling me like that?”
“The Freak wants to ask you something.”
Veronica looked at me. Whether I imagined it or not she seemed to have a look of horror on her face. I felt like I was glowing green or something. I began to explain about the bar and Paul and Lawrence, but before I was even halfway through she cut me off and asked, “What the fuck d’ya want?”
I played it straight. “Twenty quid, Vee… I’ll pop it straight back around tomorrow evening.”
Veronica looked over at Paul who was staring straight ahead at the TV. I could see her brain doing the arithmetic, understanding that I must have asked both brothers first and they must have refused me, even though she must have known they had money. “TWENNY QWID! You’ve narf got a fuckin’ cheek, int ya? Not even here five minutes and already on the ponce! Nothing ever changes. No I ain’t got twenty fucking quid to lend ya! Piss off home and get yer own!” I laughed, but Veronica wasn’t laughing. She wasn’t as rude as she was making out, but she was deadly serious about not lending me the money nonetheless. I smiled it off, sat there like it didn’t matter. But it did matter, a lot. It felt like my soul was beating inside my body. I could feel myself reddening, secretly cursing the Kinsellas. I considered falling to my knees, crying and begging them. Melting down in any pride I had left so as to make them feel so embarrassed for me that they’d lend me the cash just so as they didn’t have to witness such a pathetic sight. Veronica pulled the door close and went off back down the hall. From in the room we heard her saying to her partner: “He only fucking wanted that I lend him some money! What a fucking cheek. It’d be another 5 years we wouldn’t see him if I did!”
I raised my head and looked at Lawrence. His smile had gone, now replaced by two quite serious eyes, scrutinizing me, as if observing every drop of perspiration I expelled. He very slightly nodded and pulled a sad face. I knew what it meant and looked away.
So, the Kinsellas had blown me out. I wanted to leave but didn’t want to make it so obvious that I was in dire-straits. And so I remained, sat there where I was, cursing the whole lot of them, the entire clan, all the while hoping against hope that someone had bought my story and would come good if I only stayed long enough. When the bedroom door knocked only minutes later I secretly harbored hopes that it was Veronica, that she had changed her mind and was back with a score. But it wasn’t Veronica, it was the young kid who had originally opened the door to me, Patrick, the Kinsellas’ youngest brother.
He came and plonked himself down on the bed alongside Paul. Paul pushed him away. He was a podgy little kid, kinda looked like a midget version of his mother and had the expressions of a grown man. He wore a pair of shorts beneath a grubby T-shirt, and had a stick of candy in his hand which he was all sticky on. He looked at me, mischievously.
“I remember you! Freaky Shane,” he said, laughing. “My mum said that you and Alan used to dress like girls.”
He sat there, his back against the wall and his bare feet hanging off the bed. “I could kick you from here,” he said. “I’m doing karate and I could kick you if I wanted to.”
“Well, don’t kick me,” I said. “Go and kick a sack or something. I’m not up for being kicked today.”
“I’m not gonna kick you,” he said, “just saying I could if I wanted to.” Paul suddenly shot out a hand and gripped the small boys thigh, just above the knee cap. Whatever grip he had him in Patrick began squirming and screaming , all the while laughing in playful pain.
“You’re not gonna fucking kick anyone,” Paul told him. “Say it! Repeat after me: I’m not gonna kick anyone!”
“I’M NOT GONNA KICK ANYONE!” Patrick screamed.
Paul squeezed his leg with his claw grip a little harder. Patrick wriggled as if electricity were going through him. “Mercy! Mercy!” he cried. As he tried to wriggle free from Paul’s grip he let out a loud, ripping fart.
“You dirty little bastard,” Paul screamed, throwing Patrick’s legs to the side and slapping them as they fell together. Patrick laughed, and while trying to catch his breath he farted again. He moved down away from his brother’s reach and sat there with his hair all scruffed and a bright red face.
After a moment he said to me: “Do you know what Tae kwando pads are?”
“No,” I said. Just the thought of Tae kwando and physical assertion made me feel weak. A chill went through me; the evening was coming in.
I was desperate. Sunday’s were depressing alright. There was something so sad in the clouds outside, the silence, the shutdown of the city as everyone passed their last few hours of the weekend with a communal dread hanging over everyone of monday being on them again so soon. I could feel it, could hear it, as if the last sounds from the river were traveling through the evening sky and everything was getting ready to camp down for the night. I needed to do something. Get some cash or not get some cash and get out of here. It hurt me more being around slight hope than being alone with none at all. At least with no hope I could quickly come to terms with and could start counting down the hours, days, until hope and health would be back. But here, in the Kinsellas, wherein survived even the most meagre thread of hope, it was impossible to get on at all. It was even more impossible to leave. Leaving was defeat and defeat was a long walk home with the wolf of heroin sickness clamped upon my back.
I pulled the sweat down my face, pulled the skin down with it.
“I’m getting new shoes next week,” Patrick said. “The new Nike Airs, white with the red tick. You wanna see them?”
“Go on then,” I said. I wasn’t really interested but shoes cost money and that fact registered with me immediately.
“Hang on,” Patrick said, “I’ll show you.” He slid off the bed. As I moved to let him by I caught a whiff of the musty smell of moisture and rain and damp in the space my body was occupying. As Patrick left, Lawrence also rose and announced he was getting ready. Paul nodded.
A moment later and Patrick returned with a crumpled, well used, sports catalogue. It was full of all the latest trainers and prices. He pointed to a pair. “That’s them,” he said, “but mine are white and red. Neat, huh?”
They didn’t look neat to me, but I said they were anyway. Then I saw the price: almost seventy quid.
“So, when you hoping to get them?” I asked, now very interested.
“Next weekend,” Patrick said. “Paul’s gonna give me the rest of the money to add to what I’ve saved.”
“I might,” Paul chirped in, “but not if you continue with your fucking around.”
I sat staring at Patrick. He was looking again at the sports catologue, the light from the TV flitting across his face and illuminating his dreams of his new trainers. His eyes positively thrilled at the prospect of going to get them. I stared at his bare feet. He had no idea what a world this was, how predators were everywhere, scheming and scamming for their own ends, smiling when necessary and often within touching distance. No, he had no idea at all.
I didn’t want to ask; I couldn’t. Don’t do it, I told myself. Save your pride. Keep your respect. Go home and suffer out two days and bank such desperate measures for when they’re really needed. My thought processes and internal debates, trying my damnedest to see them off, had me rocking where I sat. It was only a very light movement but enough for Paul to notice. What with that, and the sweats, and the red under my eyes and I must have looked in a much poorer state than I imagined. My next conscious realization was staring dead, dull ahead at Patrick. The room had seemed to disappear around him, as if it was just us. He looked a fair child, trusting. I never made the decision to speak but found words coming out my mouth regardless.
“Hey Patrick,” I said.
“Those trainers… how about getting them tomorrow?”
He looked at me, intrigued. “Tomorrow? Serious? How?”
“An investment,” I said. “You lend me twenty quid so as I can go for a drink with your brothers, and I’ll pop it back around to you tomorrow with an extra twenty quid bunged in as a thank you?”
My heart was racing. Out the corner of my eye I had seen Paul spring tight to attention on hearing what I had asked.
Patrick wore a bemused smile. He stared at me, his naive head trying to figure out the catch, his young instinct sensing something wasn’t quite right about the offer.
“Really? You’d pay me twenty pounds for borrowing you twenty? Tomorrow?”
“Yeah, tomorrow,” I lied. And depending on what time we finish I may even be able to pop it around tonight. I mean, whether tonight or tomorrow, by Tuesday you could be wearing your new Nike Airs to school.”
God, this was low. Not only could I not repay the money tomorrow, but I sure as hell would never pay double on the lend either.
“So, whatdya say, Patrick? You gonna lend us it or not?”
Patrick thought it over. I could see he was totally confused. I was an adult, should be trustworthy, ut something in him was fighting over some other instinct, an instinct he was too young to comprehend I sat staring at him in the semi-dark of the room. But Patrick couldn’t muster up an answer. He was somehow frozen in deliberation, unsure as to what to do in maybe the first real gamble of his life. That’s when I saw his eyes very slightly shift and widen, obviously trying to communicate with Paul; Paul who was sat up rigid, his eyes pinned open, very subtly shaking his head to tell Patrick ‘NO!’. Patrick seemed to have problems understanding his brother’s message. His brow furrowed, demanding more information than Paul could give him discretely. But, sure as hell is sold as a hot place, Patrick was soon mimicking the stiff actions of his older brother, his head then very lightly shaking and his mouth saying “No… No” denying me a lend of the cash.
“What Patrick? No? You can’t do it?”
“ I… er… can’t…” he said.
“You can’t lend me just twenty pounds? Not even for a few hours?”
I watched Patrick’s eyes slide to Paul once more and now his older brother came to his rescue.
“Hey, leave him alone for fuck sake! Dint you hear? He said ‘no’! That money’s for his trainers.”
“Oh come on! Jesus,” I cried. “It’s just twenty quid! Paul, guarantee me. If I don’t come through with the cash that you’ll pay him back. Come one… I’m not gonna do a fucking runner!”
“I’m not standing a debt of yours,” Paul said.
I turned to Patrick again, all pride and care for how I looked gone. I begged that he lend me money, tried convincing him in as many ways as possible that I was good for it. I pleaded with Paul, said “Come on, man… have a heart.” I said way too much and the more I said the more sure it became that I would not get the money as it was now quite obvious to everyone that it couldn’t be to go for a drink with the brothers. Patrick sat before me, shaking his head and repeating over and over the words “I can’t… I can’t.” Then Paul really did end it. He warned me to leave Patrick alone and said that no-one was going to lend me any money. He told me to go home and get my own and come back or don’t… as I wanted. The way in which he said that told me he knew that I had no intention of returning, that he understood that I had no money nor wallet at home… that maybe I didn’t even have a home. His words brought me out of my trance and now, absolutely despondent, my ailing body seemed a hundred times worse than it had done just moments before.
“You mean cunts,” I said. And then I thankfully accepted the out Paul had given me and said I was gonna shoot off to get my cash and then return. I asked Paul what bar they were going to and he said he didn’t know. I guess he didn’t want to waste the breath in his body. As I gathered my things together and put on my jacket, without looking at me, Patrick left the room. I felt drained . There was a weird smell in my nostrils and the yawns were coming on strong and aching out my jaw muscles. I said goodbye to Paul. He refused to say a word of goodbye but nodded. Down the hallway the living room door was open. Inside Patrick was laying on the sofa alongside his mother, watching the early evening entertainment and guffawing along to the canned laughter. He looked at me. I couldn’t leave it. I beckoned with my head for him to come. He mouthed the word ‘wot’ and raised me a fed up looking look.
“Patrick, come here… I want to talk to you,’ I said. With the dirty sole of his little foot he flicked out a karate kick and pushed the door over, closing me out and leaving me alone in the darkness of the bare hallway. I stood there for a moment, the sound of pumping blood gushing through my head. From Paul’s room I heard him coughing on another lungful of joint and then the TV channels flip through once more.
I opened the front door. It was dark outside. I barely felt I had the legs to walk home and only took the first step because those last steps, that journey home to collapse down in defeat on my sick bed represented the last sliver of any hope of salvation I had. Maybe I’d bump into another junkie? A dealer? A work colleague? Come across someone, anyone, a familiar person I could beseech for help, slide down and beg to hold my weight for a day? Jesus, there were enough people who I’d done good turns for, who owed me at least a small favour in return. And so I made my way home, through the dark, gaudy evening, my eyes pinned and primed and my wits about me, treading down hope, step by step, until there was no more left at all.