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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.
- - -
My Thanks as Ever for reading, Shane. X
Love's Down Tango written and read by Shane Levene
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.
"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..."
While awaiting the results of an HIV test a young addict gets to discussing junk, disease, harm-reduction and the pitfalls of intravenous drug use with an older, dying in-patient.
(A fictional article written for the Australian harm-reduction magazine BLAST! )
The old clock in the hospital hung high up on the wall opposite. It made an audible tock with each second. 11.45 came and went and Pierre sat there, with a hollow feeling in his gut, looking at and listening to time.
"I'll tell you something now," said the in-patient who sat alongside him, his finger wagging with each syllable, "when history really looks back at the spread of HIV in the West the blame will not fall on the queers or the whores, it will be shown that it stemmed from the IV drug using community... That that group was more at risk, took fewer precautions to stem the spread, and was the real nucleus at the heart of this epidemic. You mark my words!"
Pierre watched the wagging finger, eyed the pale, bony veinless hand it was attached to. It scared him. The words scared him. The marks and the moles and the dry skin scared him. The clock looking down on them scared him. He wished he'd never heard what Jean-Paul had said. He wanted to argue against it, felt that Jean-Paul had no right or basis to say such a thing. But in his empty gut, in his communal memory of all the vile rooms and needles and stupidness he had seen and done, he heard in Jean-Paul’s words something he had often thought himself but had never dared mouth out aloud.
Jean-Paul carried on. He was a tall, junk worn man, no teeth, skull visible under his skin, cheeks pinched, the space around his bottom lip fatty like it had been injected with botox. Up top his torso was thin yet broad, his chest abnormally large like it was packed full of straw. Draped around his shoulders was an itchy looking red hospital blanket. He had lung and chest problems and the blanket rose and fell with each intake of breath.
"I don't know when or where I picked up the virus, nor the Hep C," Jean-Paul said. "It could've been any number of a thousand shots… Fuck knows! Not even any one to blame... And I can't really even blame myself, 'coz back in the day it was impossible not to share. There were no free needles like today. The best we could do was boil ours sterile, and that mostly entailed just flushing them through a few times with tepid water.And anyway, we were junkies not queers... Well, not all of us, so it wasn't really our nightmare. At least we didn't think so then."
Pierre could not conceive of a life of addiction without free clean sharp needles on tap. That would change everything. It would mean you couldn't manage an addiction alone without recourse to the junkie brotherhood. He also couldn't conceive of how anyone could risk their life for a hit, even though he was here for doing just that himself. He didn't want to speak, not of this, not now, but there was something lingering open in the wake of Jean-Paul's silence, something lingering open within himself.
"So how did you get needles?" He asked after a moment.
The older junkie laughed, as if remembering good times. "How did we get needles?" He repeated. "God...
...You could buy them.... But they weren't cheap. Mostly you'd buy singles or doubles, so you can imagine how far they went! We stole them from hospitals. I used to do that. Pretend I was visiting someone and then slip off into a room or ward somewhere and grab a handful. In Paris, when I was there, there was one charity you could get them from, but nothing major... Nothing national or greatly known in any case. And when the police began laying in wait and arresting addicts on leaving, paraphernalia charges, we were wary about going there. Works were highly prized back then. You looked after them, and tragically, only shared them with your nearest and dearest. Maybe the reason why we've all ended up alone."
Pierre looked to the clock. He listened for the ticking to make sure time hadn't stopped altogether. It hadn't. What it was doing was going by incredibly slowly. Pierre felt sad, felt that sitting in the HIV unit of the hospital, waiting on the results of blood tests, among sick people, with that smell, wasn't what drug addiction was promised to be about. Somehow it robbed smack injecting of all its dark romance and glory, brought it down to a clinical act, the focus on the blood not the gear, on the dangers of a slow viral death rather than the Russian roulette of a life blown out by the big bang of the overdose. More than ever he was now conscious of where he had ended up and why, his young life hanging in the balance. He was 24 and he figured this was a major point in his life. He looked around at the posters on the wall: campaigns urging addicts to get tested; others selling hope for those testing positive:
Living with HIV!
Life with HEP C!
It's not the end of the world.
5 reasons to keep hope!
Pierre felt antsy, his stomach empty. These were the posters which had disturbed his dreams after he'd first entered rehab. It was almost science fiction how he saw them, happy reformed getting on with life/work/family, looking all too healthy, like those people they airbrush into posters of new soon-to-be building complexes, smiling back as if they are already in paradise and suicide isn't the way to go with positive results.
"I'm going kill myself if I test positive," Pierre suddenly said, not really to Jean-Paul. "I wouldn't want to live with that!
"Ha! I've heard that before," said Jean-Paul, casual as if he'd been waiting for it. "But you'll come round... everyone does."
"Not me. You don't know me. I couldn't live with that, scared shitless of being taken out by a cold each day... waking up paranoid about skin or lymphatic cancer... Not being able to take a lover. I'd rather be dead already!"
"Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that. Though once.. IF you’re diagnosed you'll find that after a while HIV/AIDS no longer has the same impact: it loses its teeth, becomes just a disease that your body is at war against. And nowadays it's not the death sentence it once was, many live out full lifespans. I'd much rather be told I was HIV+ than be diagnosed with lung cancer... Or ANY cancer! It's hard to explain how your perception changes once you have it. I guess it's like HEROIN, how dangerous and illegal that all seemed the first times and then how normal it becomes once your well-being depends on it. But kill yourself? What the hell for? You've done all this to live just to kill yourself?"
Those last words got Pierre’s back up, though he didn’t quite know why. He felt belittled by something in them, like they weren’t at all true or relevant to him. It also prickled him that this dinosaur of the junk world, this dying junkie, had planted himself alongside him and during the most tenuous wait of his life was haunting his mind with such talk.
"What d'you fucking mean?" he quizzed, irate. "'All this to live’? All what to live? I didn't want to live... That was the fucking point! You think I'd have done this (rolling up his sleeves) because I wanted to embrace life?"
Pierre's arms were marked, scarred, bruised, carved, though nothing too extreme... No greater than almost any other injecting addict.
Jean-Paul didn't look. He didn't want to see Pierre's arms. He had junk arms of his own. "Think about it," he said, "you never used heroin to die! If you wanted to die: you’d be dead! You use heroin to live... To make life more acceptable, no?"
"Acceptable? I use heroin like a fucking sledgehammer to the head. I use to kill the pain... I use coz I don't give a fuck if I live or die!"
"Well, I don't buy that. I peddled that line for years too. But the truth is, if you want to ease the pain then it's another way of saying you want to make life more bearable, which means you use heroin because you want to live. You said it yourself: if you test positive you'll kill yourself, if not you'll carry on living. This is myth about self-destruction... It's a huge fucking myth which no-one wants to admit. Though I guess it's more cool to want to die... better to have people trying to save you than not have them acknowledge you at all. At the end of it, when the veins are blown and the smack is shot, all there is at the end of the fabled rainbow is a bucket load of golden shit. One day you’ll understand. It doesn't get better it gets worse."
The young addict didn't answer. That pissed him off. Preaching! He was too early into his addiction for such talk. His heroin fanaticism was still young. He still thought, believed it was about death, that he was rebelling against life, that whacking junk up into his veins, marking his body, was advertising total abandon. The truth was, like most of us, Pierre wasn't rebelling against life, but against death. Kidding himself on that he wanted to die so that for some moments he could live freely, in peace, without the fear of mortality impeding his every move.
The sound of the clock ticked in and then disappeared again. Pierre felt like a ghost in his own time.
"How much fuckin' longer is this gonna take?" he said. "My appointment was 25 minutes ago. My mum's waiting down in the cafeteria. She'll be out her mind with worry."
For a moment Pierre looked pensive, reflective, like how he did when scheming hard for junk. Then he said: "Maybe it's a good sign, huh? What d'you think? It's a good sign I'm being left waiting? There's no way they'd leave me to wait like this if I'm positive?"
Jean-Paul's reply was a not-so-sure downward turn of his mouth. They were in a part of the hospital connected with the drug substitution unit and logic had never played much of a role here. Maybe the patient before has had a bad result and cracked up, he thought. Maybe the doctor arrived late. It could be any number of things.
Pierre sat under the spectre of the clock, his feet parted, his hands clasped, looking at the space of floor between his legs. He took his phone out his pocket, rapidly
tapped a few buttons with his thumb then clicked it closed and let out a sigh.
Jean-Paul looked at him, a discreet sideways glance. He would never admit it but he felt a strange delight in this young man's predicament, sitting there tormented as he was. It wasn't his choice to feel like that, he just did. And worse, there was something inside of him that would take even greater pleasure if the young man were to be diagnosed positive. He had been here before, sat right besides others who had gotten lucky, and though he had acted pleased and relieved, beneath he had always felt a sharp stab of bitterness that they'd got the break he never had. He wanted to be the young addict, right down to the bone, that's what he really wanted: to have his time again. His voice changed, became harsher, cynical.
"So with all your free needles, your aluminium Cups, your vit C, alcohol swipes, sterile water, how come you're even here? Shouldn't you be circulating unpolluted blood?"
Pierre stopped what he was doing and stared at the floor in thought. He nodded slowly.
"You'd hope so," he said, sadly, "but the always having everything, all the time, isn't easy, even if it is free! Sometimes I think it'd be better, in some ways, if it wasn't free. At least then we would have the power of the consumer. When things are free we are left at another's whim and must be thankful for what's there not what's lacking. It's like you can't complain there's no vegetables in the broth at the soup kitchen, they'll say 'well it's free innit, so what you complaining about?' That's the attitude which prevails. There was this one day, I'd been working. I arrived 5 minutes late at the needle exchange and was refused needles. The exchange was still open as they had acupuncture classes that evening but they refused to open the needle cupboard and give me fresh works. They said that the recovering addicts upstairs - sat there with needles all stuck in their fucking faces - could fall off the wagon hearing the syringe cupboard opened. They knew all the chemists were closed and that without fresh spikes I either had to not use or share... And not using ain't gonna happen. The cunts sent me on my merry way! And that's just one example of many. There's a spitefullness which often prevails through many of the drug services, where insidiously you are made to pay."
"Spiteful, yeah. But get real about paying for needles.You should be bloody thankful, seriously. I saw what it was like before, am a victim of it. I only wish I'd have had free needles and maybe I'd not be here right now."
"I’m just saying is all. Not that we should pay but that there can be improvements. You asked me why I'm here despite all the free services nowadays and I’m trying to tell you."
"Yeah, but you're not here because needles are free! Come on."
"No, but it could be in part because of the consequences of how the user is treated because a certain service is free. But that’s a side issue, really. The real problem, from what I see, is getting word out about the dangers of injecting and safer practices to potential IV users before they've taken up the needle. Do you know, I didn't even know what hep C was until I was asked one day if I had it! My next visit at the needle exchange I asked and had a real scare learning about it and that we shouldn't even share a spoon. From then on I didn't, but those weeks prior I had, water too…. and had let other addicts whack me up. That there, nowadays, is the place where I think the disease thrives, around new IV'ers in those first few weeks. It's like myself, I'm a clean user. I still pick up new needles, still use safely, but there's been too many occasions where it wasn't possible... Where we had to share spoons, water... even a needle once, and the only precaution you can take when up against that is asking the other person if they're diseased or not... And noone's ever gonna own up, at least not in that moment there."
Jean-Paul knew that was true. He had never owned up, not while he was well anyway. Now he had moved into a circle of addicts who were all HIV+, people he'd met at the hospital, support group, or who lived in the same hostel. They'd all come together with the same ailments and concerns, the same worries which plagued their nights.
"But you can't blame others," said Jean-Paul, “you should use heroin as if EVERYONE has HIV. That way, whether they do or not, it becomes irrelevant. You have to take final responsibility if you've caught a disease, the onus isn't on anyone else to prevent you catching one. That's too easy!"
"Oh, I will take responsibility... You'll see alright! I'll make sure if I'm dying I'll not have the chance to help spread this disease. You watch..."
"But maybe you already have? Here you are talking about those who know they're positive putting others at risk, but that also goes for those who haven't been tested but know they may have been exposed... Like you. So these occasions where you talk about others maybe putting you at risk, maybe it was the other way around, you who was positive and putting them at risk?"
"Yes, but that's my point, I unintentionally took risk and risked others by not knowing just how dangerous sharing equipment was. I've only ever once intentionally shared a needle. And anyway, I don’t think the problem is actually sharing needles - most addicts I know wouldn’t do that anyway - it’s more the equipment, or needles getting muddled up when all using and living together. Fuck knows. All I know is that if the world was even a little more just we'd not need to use in any case! We'd maybe care a little more about ourselves, about life."
"Bullshit!" exclaimed Jean-Paul. “Bull-fucking-shit! Addiction is to do with so much more than just misery. That's not the problem. Why are you here? Answer that?"
"Here??? You mean in the hospital? Needing a blood test?"
"Well yeah, how you’ve risked maybe being exposed?"
"Well, I suppose it was through desperation, through a need to have my fix, to be well and because that was often out of my control it pushed me into the junkie fraternity, and it's there where the risks are. It's using in groups, even if you're not directly sharing needles."
"But why integrate into that lifestyle if you think it's so hazardous? What on earth would push you there?"
"I'll tell you why, quite simply because you don't know it's hazardous just then. As for why you need that fraternity, there are many different reasons. Sometimes it's financial: we must pool our money; sometimes it's because of supply; housing problems. Sometimes you just can't get needles, like on a Sunday or when you get gear unexpectedly... You can get caught short. In times like that you need the help of others to make it work. You know it: I have 25 euros; you have 25 euros. We can get nothing each with that and both be sick or we can pool our funds and score a gram. And imagine that with 5 addicts. You end up with a fix each, and the fairest way to divide that is to cook up a single 100ml shot and everyone draws up 20ml. It's simple: you can't contract hep C or HIV from yourself. We're exposed to disease the moment we use in groups... Even if we think we're using safely."
"Well that's most addicts isn't it?"
"I don't know about that. It’s me and most I know... We do rely on each other most days. But then a lot of us are clean... Most of us don't have HIV or hepatitis."
Jean-Paul looked at the younger addict, so naive, still so unaware of the truth of IV'ing drugs even if he now knew how contagious certain illnesses were. He thought of all the deaths he had seen, not ODs, hospital deaths, people suddenly wasting away, deaths from strange cancers, pneumonia, septacaemia, liver failure... They were all HIV deaths, some hepatitis.
"Mostly clean? You're fucking joking int ya? Give me an injecting addict over 45 in France and I'll give you someone with HIV, hep C (if not both), a liar, or someone very fucking lucky! And the future isn’t looking too hot for your generation when you really delve into it. Ask the nurse when you see her. Your statistics for coming out that room there with good news, on all scores, is slight. What is it? Something like 1 in 3 of every IV drug user is HIV+ and 7 outta 10 with hep C. That's fucking serious! I'm telling you, this is a hidden epidemic and everyone helps hide it. You’re sitting there like the odds are on your side, but they’re not… the moment syringes start going in the veins the only odds greatly on your side is that you’ll be dead before you’re 50... And not from an overdose!"
The young addict pulled a face. He didn't really believe the statistics Jean-Paul had rattled off, thought he was just bitter and trying to scare him. He squinted out the corner of his eye, down at Jean-Paul's white cotton in-patient trousers, the hems rolled up so when he sat they raised up past his bare ankles. His legs looked silver and he had what looked like an inline in his inside ankle, an ankle so bony and sharp it hurt the young addict to look at. He shivered in feeling, like the emphatic response to nails pulled down a chalkboard. Jean-Paul eyed him, with a look like he wanted eat him.
"You've had a lot to say for an apprentice," Said Jean-Paul, "now it's my turn. I'll tell you why addicts are so careless about contracting disease. It stems from the portrayal of heroin itself, how it's treated in the media and all the fear-mongering than goes on - us addicts as guilty of perpetrating it as anyone. But what happens, because of this myth that heroin is so deadly, that it destroys the user and fucks up lives regardless, that there's 'no way back from smack' it encourages addicts to use in careless ways, to risk their lives, because what they believe is that they're fucked anyway. So the addict has no conscious thoughts of his life after heroin because it's sold to us that their is no future after. So we use in a very negative, immediate and volatile way. So what if we risk hepatitis/HIV/heart or lung problems? Coz we'll be dead of the heroin long before we must suffer the health consequences left in its wake... Only we won't. And that's a huge problem. You don't see marijuana smokers or even coke heads taking the risks we do. No, because for all the bad press about those drugs they are still not peddled as hopeless... Users are sold a major hope of recovery and so subconsciously conserve themselves for the future, for a life after addiction. Not so for smackheads. We are sold and sell hopelessness and don't think past the tenure of our addictions. That's how it comes to me anyway, tell me if I'm wrong."
Pierre nodded, in a way that said it was an interesting new thought to him, something to think about... or not. He looked up at the clock, then down at nothing, then stared at nothing some more.
Jean-Paul looked frail and bony. He was sat there with his right leg folded flimsily over his left, slightly reclined, turned towards Pierre. Illness had somehow made him sprightly and flexible once more. From down the corridor another in-patient was walked past them helped by a nurse. The man walked slowly like he was in prison shackles. He held a transparent oxygen mask to his face. Jean-Paul nodded a greeting. The patient put his eyes to Jean-Paul but gave no other sign back. Jean-Paul looked away, like he didn’t want to see something. Immediately Pierre's eyes followed the patient from behind, staring dejectedly at the blood or shit stains in the back of his pants. He thought he didn't want to end up here, like that, but that it felt a lot nearer to the truth of heroin addiction than the street scoring points, the shooting galleries or the crazy days of desperation and illness. Somehow he had landed in the real dark heart of addiction, the final place of stay for many addicts. Pierre was suddenly gripped by fear and panic. He felt it: he felt this was his first visit of many to this hospital, that somehow it was already decided that this was his fate, that Jean-Paul would be a regular feature in his life. He thought of his mother downstairs, how worried she must be. Then Pierre stood up and strode about in thought. From out a nearby room a nurse arrived holding a clipboard.
"Mr Chevalier?" she asked. Pierre nodded. She ticked his presence. "The doctor will see you soon," she said softly.
Pierre looked at her, horrified. He was convinced he had seen something pitiful in her expression, and it was sure to him she had avoided eye contact. In his mind he went over every muscle which had moved in her face, the tone and cadence of her words, and without being aware of it he was then pacing back and forth, in front of Jean-Paul, weating an intense expression like a man half out his mind.
"Nervous?" asked the older addict.
"I'm gonna test positive," he suddenly said, panicked. "Did you hear the way she told me about the doctor? See her face? She knows the results. I'm gonna fucking test positive. It'll be that time with Alexandre, putting me on, insisting he had the first shot! It'd be that time, alright. I saw him walking around the clinic all wasted and fucked with a cane a couple of years later. Fuck!!!"
"The nurse doesn’t know!" spat Jean-Paul. "And what’s more she doesn't want to know, and even if she did, the doctor wouldn't tell her. You're imagining things. That's the fear that is. That's the fear of death right there. Try to calm down. You'll know soon enough, but you don't know now... You don't!"
Pierre paced around. He pulled his hand down his face and after he had done so he looked 20 years older. Drained. Ill.
"It was those first weeks," he said, still pacing. “Those first fucking weeks when I couldn't even inject myself. I didn't know you could pick up viruses from spoons or filters or water. I thought as long as u didn't share u was pretty much safe. And you know the worst thing? Not one veteran injecting addict warned me of the dangers... Not one! Oh they couldn't be shut up telling me about citric to smack ratios, hitting veins, cooking the perfect hit, not wasting the gear! But as regards to making sure I didn't catch the diseases they probably had they said nothing! Not a word. Not a single piece of useful fucking advice."
The veteran addict didn't get dragged in. It was as if Pierre was accusing him - or something he represented - of being to blame.
"Maybe go and get your mother," was all he said, "it can help having someone in there with you."
"My mother? Have her in the room with me? No chance. I've caused her enough pain. She doesn't need that as well. And I don't need the support. What good did moral support ever fucking do?"
Jean-Paul pulled the blanket down over his shoulders and clasped it closed like a shawl. He looked cold. He looked like he was dying. He watched Pierre's shoes moving about and then cast a look up to the wall. After a few seconds an inquisitive look came over him and he peered in more closely.
"Clocks stopped," he said, "The clock's stopped."
"I know," said Pierre, "yet before the fucking thing couldn't turn fast enough!"
"No, I mean it's really stopped. Look!"
And sure enough the old clock high on the wall had stopped and a weird timeless feeling now permeated the corridor, the hospital. It felt like a storm had moved in, like the sky outside had darkened, like that prickling, beautiful, terrifying sensation of nature taking flight, of dogs whimpering, before all hell breaks loose in the world. There was no doubt about it: history was upon them.
The two men sat in silence now. Not thinking, not doing anything, passive, at the mercy of things which had already been done. If he'd have had time Pierre would have well liked a shot, to push some calm through his veins. But he hadn't the time, as down the corridor there came the nurse, and playing nothing but her historical role, and as grave as she must be remembered, she told Pierre that the doctor was ready to see him.
The doctor seemed abnormally cheerful for such a moment. He was a large man, well groomed, who seemed to offer safety in the very stiffness and quality of his shirt cuffs and links. There was a cup of coffee on his desk and Pierre could smell the warm nutty odour from his mouth.
"Mr Chevalier, sit down and keep your hands away from my prescription pads," he said as an ice breaker. "Would you like a glass of water?" Pierre shook his head.
"Chevalier, hmm, now... where are you...." And he went through a small pile of letters and referrals on his desk.
Pierre's anxiety was barely under control. He wanted to stand, to move, to leave. He wanted a Get Out Of Jail Free card, to rejoin his life with no receipt for living.
"What's the news, Doctor?" he asked "What is it? Am I fucked?"
The doctor opened an initial envelope from the heptology unit. He unfolded the paper inside, lowered his glasses and peered at it, his eyes scanning for what was relevant. Not looking up he said:
"Mr. Chevalier, unfortunately you have tested positive for the hepatitis C virus. Now before ypu panic we'll discuss after exactly what that means and what the next steps will be. But you have tested positive."
Pierre didn't say anything. From what he had heard about how highly contagious hepC was he had half expected it. Just then it didnt seem so bad, his concerns were on the results of the HIV test. That seemed what he was really there for. Pierre sat there feeling culpable and nervous. He hadn't done much to contract the virus but in this moment he felt it'd be a let off if he tested negative . He could feel his flushed face, how young 24 years really was, how little he had done with his life. He suddenly wanted to live, wanted to grab the doctor and rattle the help right out off him. He could feel tears, they were ready to flow.
The doctor looked at him. "You're a young man, Mr Chevalier... You shouldn't even be here." Then he opened a further letter, looked over it, handed it over to Pierre and said. "You've tested positive for the HIV virus."
Pierre looked at the results but saw nothing, he couldnt make out a single word. It was as if the letter was in some language he had never learnt.
"What's going through your mind?" asked the doctor. "A counsellor will be on hand in a moment to talk you through and help with the diagnosis. What are you thinking?"
But Pierre wasn't thinking anything. He was up and gone, without taking the letter, without a word, out the door, past Jean-Paul, past the dead clock, down the corridor, through the swing doors, past the janitor's trolley, past the lift and out into the open stone staircase of the old hospital. The daylight now hit him like flash-blast, piercing in through his lashes. Pierre made a sound like an exhausted animal and then bashed himself in the side of the head with the clenched palm of his hand. The world didn't seem real for a moment. He breathed heavy and stood in the bright light of day trying to unscramble his mind. Instinctively he patted the little secret pocket of his jeans, felt for the couple of bumps he knew were there, and then went off in search of the toilets.
In the toilet, Pierre collapsed over the sink, his head bowed into the bowl. He stared at a line of cream and green limescale which had built up on the ceramic. Then he slowly raised his eyes to the mirror. He stared suspiciously at himself, at his face and into his eyes. Then he studied his hands, turned them over and stood in blank yet profound thought.
In the cubicle Pierre hurriedly ripped open his Steribox, set up the little metallic cup, emptied a bag of heroin out into it, and got to cooking up a shot. He drew up, tied his wrist off, and clenched and released his fist before sliding the syringe into a vein in the topside of his hand. "Work you bastard!" he seethed, "work!" And it did work. The smack coursed up his arm, through his shoulder, through his heart and then to his brain. His body closed down, his emotions numbed, the sounds and brightness off the day dulled and his heart calmed. It was like a star collapsing into itself.
Pierre withdrew the needle. For a moment he stared at the blood which came from his hand. He felt he should be scared of it, that somehow he should have a new relationship with his body. But he didn't. He looked at the blood and then like always licked it clean and rubbed the spot dry on his trousers. Straightened up he left the toilet and made his way down, slowly, to the canteen.
He saw his mother from a distance. She was sat there chatting to some old woman like she didn't have anything to do ever again. When she saw Pierre she said to the old woman "here he is". The old lady heaved herself up and left. Pierre forced a smile as she passed.
Pierre's mother stood up. She seemed small to Pierre. He could hardly look at her. She had given him this life and he had squandered it.
"Good? Bad? What?" she asked, nervously.
"It's good," said Pierre, through tears, "I got lucky, mum... I got fucking lucky." And he fell into her arms and wept into the maternal safety of her neck.
"So all this nonsense is over now, son?" She asked. "You'll quit all this?"
Pierre held on tight. She felt something scared in him, something she hadn't felt in her boy for many years. She clutched him tighter too. Pierre nodded and sobbed. "Mum... Mum," he said, but never finished.
He wished it was over, he wanted it to be over, but it wasn't over. In the hospital, in the canteen, on an afternoon like spring turned bad, the day blew hard and the day blew fast, and the clock had stopped and the clock ticked on, and son held mother like mother held son, and this wasn't the end, not by a long shot, this was only just, the beginning.
- - -
Thanks as ever for reading... One day we'll all be rewarded properly. Shane...X
Somebody will pay for what has happened here. Somebody always pays. That's for sure. It's the only sure thing.
He's not dealing any more. His phone's dead. He showed me the bullet wound; the gauze. Rolled down his sock and lifted his trouser leg as we waited at the lights. A hole right down low, by the ankle.
Fired seven shots, he said. Seven fucking shots! They'll kill a man for nothing today. They'll kill a man for nothing!
And I could tell by his voice: he would as well.
Somebody's gonna pay for what happened here. That's for sure. He's already scheming. Working a way out. Preparing to get more than just get even.
The Police are watching him now. Victim turned loose turned suspect. They want to know WHY? They ALWAYS want to know WHY?
People don't just get shot, he said they said to him.
I did, he said he said to them. I just got shot!
He's moved his garage; changed apartment; is laying low; biding his time. He's working a way out. I could see the cunning in his reptilian eyes, the knotted tension in his jaw. I watched him scheming as he drove; going through his options, the angles. Something eating away inside of him, something that only feeds on men, some loss of something that is hard to define.
Somebody’s gonna pay for what happened here. That's for sure. Somebody always pays.
Tailgating – following right up tight behind. His frame widened; pushed forward; looming large in his windscreen; his face twitching with anger.
The law of Increasing Returns: the debt of violence. On his upper lip a scar, like he's had a hook ripped up out his mouth. It glistens as he drives, as he schemes; it widens as he moistens his mouth, as he works a way out.
Comment ça va, mon ami? He suddenly asked. How are you, my friend?
I replied with a face like I was bored, like nothing ever changes. He nodded his head like he understood, only with a menacing air about his despondency.
Then he said:
The shooter’s in prison.
That's not justice; that's a reprieve!
I'll do all I can to have him released.
Staring ahead into nowhere he grimaced a smile at some sadistic ending he had in mind.
Somebody will pay for what happened here. Oh, somebody will definitely fucking pay!
He's completely turned now. It's like his face is on inside out. Nothing hidden. He really is what he is. And he always said he was an animal.
The first time I hooked up with him alone he told me that.
I'm an animal, he said, laughing. Then he made out like he was gonna punch me in the liver. He pulled up centimetres short, his wrist curled his fist clenched, and made a restrained, frustrated noise like he was biting down on rope.
He drove me miles out of town that day to one of his small illegal businesses. He showed off the Games Room, bounced a ball around the pool table. He showed me his office, nothing but a rickety partition room with a dusty desk and phone. He walked me around the garage, showed me the empty oil stained pits and two engines hanging from hoists. Then he opened a door right out back to reveal a man in an empty room, bound to a chair, beaten and bleeding and dribbling blood. He allowed me just a peek, a warning to play it straight with him, even if he wasn't to play straight with me. After showing me what he wanted me to see of his life he gave me five grams of the best heroin I'd had in France and then left me stranded miles from nowhere, loaded, to make it back alone.
But that was then, before he had been baptised by the bullet… before he had finally became what he was to become.
So we're in the car, now, three years later. He's driving me to some third party dealer. He's got money, he's successful, has property, eats out, but he's gonna rob me. I know because he does nothing for nothing. The old adage: Time is Money. He only moves for profit even if it's just a gram he would not otherwise have had.
He believes in the dollar. He lives by the dollar. He's been wowed by the dollar. He worships the dollar. He drives by the dollar. He's driven by the dollar. He's been claimed by the dollar; chained by the dollar; bent over by the dollar; fucked by the dollar. He took seven bullets for the dollar, and he'll take seven more.
His foot slams on the brake peddle and the wound in his ankle seeps through his sock which is over his tracksuit bottoms. He's all twisted up with hate, barely keeping it inside. He screams something in Bulgarian, gives an offensive hand gesture to a car behind which has horned at us. He slows to let the car overtake and as it does, he picks up the same speed, keeps alongside and leaning across me he forms his fingers into a gun and starts unloading imaginary bullets into the drivers face. Then he slows and lets the culprit car slide on past. The car's tail lights go on, it signals and then takes the first turning off the motorway.
Emil rips the gearstick back, slides it sideways, pulls it back again then shoves it forward hard. The car makes an horrendous grating sound, jolts, then catches the road and rockets forward the momentum pinning us back. Emil's face is crazy, like he's on a fairground ride, caught between enjoyment and fear. I can see his bottom teeth. He's holding the steering wheel straight with both arms; the muscles tensed and prominent. It's like he's heading for a wall and he's made his mind up not to stop. I think this may be the last time I see him. I think all business is just about done here.
Somebody will pay for what happened. That's for sure. Somebody always pays. I paid today. Two grams short of five. Robbed. The debt of yesterday at my door today. When he was done, in profit, he dropped me off home. I shook his hand for old time sake, and maybe for tomorrow. I clapped him around the shoulder, like how you'd pat a fine dog or horse.
Merci, Emmy, I said... Merci.
He smiled and resembled a memory of the summer to come, something that won't be here in the future. He looked up and around and nodded to the clear blue sky. Then he moved his shades from his head and dropped them down over his eyes.
The future from here looks dark, he said.
That's not the future it's the distance, I replied, and if the distance is anything it’s the past.
Whatever it is it's fucking dark, he said. And those are maybe the final words to be had from a man sunk down deep in debt to himself.
[Audio version to follow shortly]
In the spring, when the days first turn good, they sit outside under the Magnolia tree.
The bloom of the Magnolia is white and bulbous and drops like dead doves, weighted in the belly, each one making a little fump:
To this beautiful carnage they drink strong beer and watch the world and lay back in the cool of the blossom. From afar they look like an assortment of old discarded clothes.
11am. clear skies above. the lazy sound of traffic droning by. a haze out in the distant like there lies the sea.
This world proffers daydreams. A daydream that things could be just how they are only better. A daydream that we need no more than temperate days and fruit and water and the cool of streams and grass and fraternity and love. Over there, under the Magnolia, when the days are kind, when the time is right, when a breeze breezes through and tickles over the soul, the drunks and the bums and the waifs and the strays find solace in the low of the day. I too can be found under the Magnolia, drawn by historical forces. My being is light in strange moments in strange ways. Behind my closed lids there is orange dimming black then coming through to orange again. I hear the faint stirrings and mumblings of the others, feel an insect run over my hand, catch another little 'fump' and meditate in the floral fragrance of birth and death. I am close to somewhere I once was, to something lost; something missing; something gone. Under the Magnolia I am not who I am but who I was, simultaneously at peace in various moments of my life.
I was borne into this world by a drunk: a bad one. My mother did not drink to be saved but for revenge, to wage war against a life which had cast the first stone. I often find my mother under the Magnolia. She turns up in the guise of young women so completely ruined, abused and emotionally swollen that they are no longer sensitive to the human touch. To register at all one must hit hard. There ends no woman left; just broken bones where the soul got out. My mother never stays long. She sits there stewing in her drunkenness, shifting between drink laden faces, each look a pictogram of the hateful, bitter emotions chewing away inside of her. Then she is gone and there is left a melancholic tranquillity in the day, over the city, like I've stepped back in time.
The world around the Magnolia is full of ghosts. It's what brought me here. People turn up with missing parts, sometimes in flames, caught in existential screams between planes of life they cannot escape. They move in and out of this timeless place, appear for moments and then disappear again for weeks or years or lifetimes. I am here now, I was here before and I shall be here again in the future. On the trunk of the Magnolia I carve my name; on my body and on the page my words. This is my life and this is my time. I close my eyes and hope in some way to go on forever, but I know my heart will not hold out.
...like the only plan I have.
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,.