Down on the Low


Stooped over in the shelter of a shop doorway I vomited up a sickness from the very dull of my gut. I remained like that, vomit water burning in my sinuses and dripping out my nose. I thought of the little bundle of notes and how close I had been to salvation. How now, just a few metres on, I was back floundering in the most desperate of predicaments, once more facing sickness with my chance pardon gone. I dry retched and choked on life. I was nauseous from my stupidity, from an illogical pride which had so often plagued me. I was nauseous from the shame I would have felt in barging through that little crowd and picking up the notes on the ground; from the thought of scurrying away at pace while ignoring any shouts of suspicion. I had happened upon a rare slice of fortune and I had blown it. And now I was sick through such cowardice; fucked through such a lack of conviction. I flushed pale and filled with horror reliving the moment again. Perspiration broke and spread like mildew beneath my shirt and jacket. The adrenaline rendered me weak at the knees. I vomited once more, spewed up a nervous watery waste. And then I composed myself, wiped my mouth clear, turned and stepped back out into the day, a day that no longer felt quite real at all.

I decided to double back past the ATM machine once more. It was a crazy thought but I somehow imagined the notes still being there, and if not those same notes, then maybe some new ones. I told myself it was nigh on impossible and then reasoned that two people losing money, on the same day, in the same place, just moments apart, was so improbable that it could maybe just happen. I crept closer to the ATM machine. I visualized a new little bundle of notes on the ground, imagined the warmth and relief of picking them up. I walked by slowly, my eyes cast down upon the lower legs of more people queuing to use the machine. And then I looked: nothing. Just a large gob of yellowy-green phlegm. I cursed myself again, damned my rotten luck and rotten courage. What kind of a cretinous coward are you ? I asked myself. What kind of man, under such terrible conditions, would not have blundered in and picked up those notes regardless? I gave my being a harsh dressing down. The life around me moved; carried on as ever. Something so humdrum and fatigued, a world unaware of the drama and struggle playing out in thousands of surrounding lives. Rain spat down and the afternoon wore on. The cash machine beeped its yellow light and my sweats progressed as the last vestiges of heroin left my body. Without destination I tramped on. Disappointed and emotional, desperate to somehow make amends after my squandered opportunity.

I anguished over his black leather shoe. Saw it once again tread on the notes as he put his card in the machine. My soul lit up just then knowing he was concealing them, knowing that when he was done his natural turn away would leave them clear in my path. It was just a matter of moments. I would bend and scoop and I would be out of trouble, counting my find and calculating the drugs I would be able to buy and how they would help get me through the next couple of days. That fuck of a man. Maybe 30; maybe not. Spruced and well groomed. Money to spare in his account. Someone who never finds anything because he never has to; someone who's life was safe beyond the need for luck, who wouldn't want luck anyway as luck is always on the precipice. Oh that fucker. How he withdrew his cash, took that single step back and must have glimpsed my good fortune on the floor as he verified his own dispensed notes. Unbelievable! Checking his cash fresh out the dispenser. The cash machine doesn't make errors you fuck-starved fool ! And, if you do insist on verifying your withdrawal, have some fucking decency and do so out of sight - in the secrecy of your own shade. I recalled again how his eyes had narrowed in curiosity, the vulgar, anxious way he had looked around before his knees bent and his coat lifted up at the back and revealed the clean pressed denim of his behind. I flirted with the idea of barging him aside, making the scoop before he did, of maybe even wrestling the notes clear out his hand. I imagined much, a swirling hurricane of thoughts going through my mind as he picked up the money and strode away. Approach him! I told myself. Tell him the money he had found was money I had dropped. That I had returned in the hope of finding it! But it was all too late. By the time a hand tapped me on the back, letting me know the ATM machine was free to use, the man was just a fading shadow down the road, a ghost, merging with the crowds and carrying with him the only chance I had. I stepped forward to the machine, my mind all askew. I pressed some buttons, any buttons, my heart racing and my stomach hollow with nausea. The machine flipped through its default screens, asking me to insert my card. I had no card to insert. I pretended to take a receipt of my transaction and I left, the colour having drained out of me and a vile pressurized heat shuddering through my face and brain.

I walked around cursing that man for over an hour. The only person I cursed and despised more was myself. I walked and I kept my eyes to the ground, somehow hoping that the day would bring an impossible second slice of luck, something not so grand but maybe enough to get me a consolatory bag of dope. The gutters held nothing of any good worth. My only find was a battered twenty pence piece, so misshapen that not even a telephone box would have accepted it. I held it for a moment, fingered its sharp edges and then dashed it away. When my cloud of disappointment finally cleared I found myself wandering around old roads, roads on which I had not passed down for many years. I racked my brain for some way to raise a meagre few quid. I looked around, at the street signs, the railings and curb stones. I looked at the buildings, their porch lights and doors and fittings, at all the riches that made up this city. It seemed incomprehensible that in one of the great financial capitals of the world one could do absolutely nothing legal to earn oneself a few bob. I was short on twenty quid and save for pimping out my arse, or a desperate theft, there seemed no possible way to raise it.

I kept to the main shopping routes. I figured that if any money had been lost it would, more than likely, have been lost there. As I walked and scanned the ground I went back over and re-evaluated all the people I could possibly borrow cash from. Of course, I had already played this game out, multiple times throughout the day. But now my desperation stakes were higher and maybe that would push me to consider asking someone I had earlier dismissed. But there was no-one. I couldn't even think of anyone I could ask who would refuse me – that's how bad things had gotten. And then there I was, my eyes on grit and pigeon shit, the iron railway bridge above taking away the light for a few strides, opposite the multi-storey car-park where years ago we had parked a stolen van. The Kinsellas, I thought, becoming more optimistic as I better considered the five brothers, all still living at home with their mother. True, it was a fair few years since I had last seen them, but surely on the whim of a surprise visit I could somehow coax twenty quid out of their collective coffers? Maybe, just maybe, they were the answer to get me out my jam? Through very light rain I picked up the pace, my stride becoming furious as I made my way down towards the White City Estate, to the only plan I had.

It was the heroin: all but gone from my body; my metabolism speeding up under my skin and pushing the perspiration out through my pores. I tried to compose myself, regulate my breathing and keep a dry air of calm about me – but it was no good. Through the grapevine the Kinsellas had gotten wind of my heroin problem, and as my plan was to spin them a story of being clean it was important that I arrived looking at least vaguely clean and sober. Of course, my visit would not be an obvious one for cash. I would turn up as if just calling around out the blue and, at some stage, work an opportunity to ask for a lend of money. It was a Sunday afternoon and so the chance of at least one of the brothers being home was good. I smoothed my hair down and ruffled my shirt to let in some cool air. The Kinsella name sounded like a winning ticket just now, and as I turned into the old block I felt sure that I'd be able to scratch them for a score, maybe even a little if more.
A young kid opened the door. He gave me a furrowed look, as if I wasn't who I said I was. He closed the door over and called out the name of his brother Paul.

“What da fuck,” I heard Paul say as he came out his room and and made his way down the hallway. I took a step back. When the front door re-opened Paul stood there, as small and thin and as wiry as ever, in the same kind of ill fitting track-suit bottoms he had always worn, littered with burnholes from a thousand hot-rocks. “Fuckin' hell, if It's not da freak himself! Thought we'd got shot of you for good.” With my best smile, which felt more like a grimace of pain, I said, “Alright cunt? You gonna invite me in or what?”

Paul turned and led me in. As I closed the door he entered the living room and said, “You'll never guess who's just turned up?” Then he called and I stepped into view, stood there with another gritted smile, my clothes damp and my face moist and pasty. My eyes felt like fucking saucers. God, I could feel the junkie in me twitchy and on edge. The occupants of the room stared at me standing there and one of the two people I recognized, Paul's mother, said something like, “You alright?” I nodded and mentioned something about the rain.

“Come on, Paul said. He asked me if I wanted a coffee. I didn't. Coffee would make me vomit. I said yes anyway. I pulled a hand over my face and brow. Now I had stopped walking the sweat just poured out of me. I could feel the grime from the back of neck rubbing loose on the damp collar of my shirt. While Paul pottered about in the kitchen, I snuck off to the bathroom to wipe myself down. As I stared in the mirror at my sallow reflection I caught the slightest glimpse of Paul, stepping briefly into and out of view, his shadow then deadly still in the hallway, discretely checking up on what I was doing. I didn't let on I had spotted him.

“So, what brings you round here after all this time?” he asked, once we were sat down and settled in his room.

“Nothing special. Just thought I'd pop in as I was passing. Not a crime is it?”

“Probably worse if it brings you here. And what's with the fuckin' sweating?”

“That. Yeah. Won't fucking stop. Ran the entire length of Wood Lane in the rain. Thought I'd put in a few extra miles as we're playing in the company league next week.”

“What, you playing football again?”

“Yes,” I lied, pleased that my ruse had worked. “We're sat joint third in the division.” Paul took a sip of his coffee, flicked the TV channel over and began skinning up a joint.

“Still smoking that crap?” I said.

“Better than the shit you've been pumping into yer veins! You shoulda quit with this.”

“Shoulda,” I said. “I've stopped all that other crap now... been clean almost 18 months.” As I said that a bead of sweat ran down my brow as if to betray me some more. I sponged it away. As Paul twisted and harassed his spliff into shape he shot me a curious look. Then, eyes still on me, he ran the grey tip of his tongue along the length of the joint, wetting the gum of the papers. He looked like he was playing the fucking harmonica to my bullshit.

“I'm managing a warehouse just down in Greenford,” I said. That was true, though I had only said so for strategic reasons. Paul ignored me. He took a deep drag of his joint and lay back on his bed. The light was out in the room. I hunched forward pretending to take notice of what was on the TV, all the time thinking, conniving as to when best to put the bite on Paul.

I could feel it myself. The nervous, fleeting presence I gave off in the room. It was like I emitted some sense of not really wanting to be there, of being there for ulterior motives. I did my best to look relaxed. I settled down into my chair as if I had nowhere to go and that time was just something which needed to be passed. But no matter how hard I tried, some strange compulsion kept having me roll cigarettes, kept sliding my eyes over to Paul's way. What I did manage to watch of the TV made no sense. My brain was awash with desperate thoughts of how to sponge cash out of Paul, deliberating over what was the most likely strategy to succeed. One thing for sure: under no circumstances was I to tell him the truth. He was one of the many people who ensure you lie to them, lie from a fore-knowledge of what their reaction will be to the truth. It's not heroin that makes the junkie lie; it's the person before them. I glanced again at Paul. Though I was desperate it wasn't the right time. And so I said nothing; made no move. I pretend watched the late afternoon TV, all the while feeling worse and worse, fantasizing over what dealers would be on on Sunday and which one I should call if ever I got the chance.

It was maybe an hour in when there first sounded the ring of the door-bell and then a double knock on Paul's bedroom door. Paul strained across from where he was lying, unbolted the lock and opened the door. There stood Lawrence, one of his younger brothers, looking at me with a smile. “Well look who it ain't!” he said. Then, before I had time to answer, he added, “Jesus fuck, you look worse than death man!”

My sweating had stopped but I was still damp and pale. I rose and shook his hand. My palm felt slimy in his. He smelled of beer and had a slight tipsy look in his face. He made a pretend punch to my liver. I hunched up as if to protect myself and felt my guts squelch in my stomach. I had barely moved and the sweat broke out under my clothes again. So now there were two brothers. All the better, I thought. Double the chance of one of them lending me a note.

Lawrence sat staring at me. He wore the same tipsy smile with which he had arrived. Whether he understood I wasn't doing too great or whether he had had one too many beers, I couldn't quite figure.

“So what brings you here?” he asked.

“Just a friendly visit... wondered if you guys were still around.”

“Wish you'd fuck off,” Paul said humorously, turning the volume up on the TV. He handed Lawrence the joint. Lawrence took a long drag, held in the smoke and then emptied his lungs, making the sound of a light calm wind.

“You working? He asked. I nodded. “Doing well,” I said. “Managing my own place now.”

He nodded like that impressed him. It was supposed to. It was said so as when I eventually asked for cash they'd be confident that I had the means to repay it. I tried once more to watch TV, now with the two brothers stoned, staring at the screen as if hypnotized by it. In my mind I played around with thoughts of asking them for money, thought up various excuses as to why and tried to figure out the perfect moment to ask. I couldn't concentrate on anything else. The heroin was all but out of my system. I was running on dry as I sat there, each moment becoming more and more uncomfortable.

“What you up to tonight?” Lawrence asked.

“Nothing planned. Will head off home in a while.”

“What, you don't fancy coming out for a pint with us?”

“Not for me, thanks. It's been fucking years since I had a drink.”

“Ya boring cunt!”

I stared at Lawrence, his eyes challenging me to change my mind. And in that look, that offer, I saw my chance.
“Nah, I can't. It'd mean going home, getting my cash and then returning... can't be fucked with all that. And I must be up early tomorrow.”

“Always was a fucking lightweight, “ Paul said.

“Fuck off... I Drank you to your bed many a night.”

Paul darted a scrunched up piece of cardboard at me. “Come on ta fuck! We'll only be going for a few and a game of pool.”
“Nah. I would but I've no cash on me and I'm not running home and back at this time.” I left it at that, hoping one of the brothers would take the hint and offer me a loan of money. When neither one did I made the bite. “I'll tell ya what, if someone can drop us in for a score I'll tag along. Twenty quid would be enough... a couple of rounds and a few games. I'd be up for that... if someone will stand me the cash until tomorrow?”

Paul flicked his lighter and re-lit his joint. For a moment the dark room lit up. As it fell back into darkness I caught Paul's eye curl my way. But he said nothing. Lawrence neither.

“Come on lads,” I said, “who's gonna put us in for a score?”

Paul made a scoffing, choking sound as if he'd inhaled a little too much smoke. He looked at Lawrence. Lawrence sat there with the same stupid smile plastered across his lips, only now there seemed something quite knowing in it. I could feel the heroin withdrawals burning through my eyes and a feeling of restlessness jittering away in my muscles. Sickness was taking to the stage. The familiar moist feel of breaking sweat came over me again.

“Oi, Paul. Put us in for a score mate? I'll bring it around first thing tomorrow evening.”

Paul shook his head. “Ain't got a score,” he said. “It's the end of the week and I'm on weekly pay. Just got enough for myself and my fares for the week.”

“Fuck off... You must have a score?”

“Fuck all, mate. Ask Lawrence... he's rolling in money!”

I turned my attention to Lawrence. He didn't look much like salvation to me. Then he said, “I would, but I'd need to pass the bank and they're all closed today.”

“Oh, come on guys. Twenty fucking quid... you ain't got a score between you and you're going out? What about ten? Give us ten each?”
Now the brothers looked at each other. I waited eagerly for a response, my well-being hanging in the balance. If one would give the other would too. Lawrence shook his head, and then Paul did the same. “Seriously, we ain't got it,” he said.

“Fuck. Then maybe I'll have to go home and come back after all. Not a bad thing, I suppose... means I can get changed and scrubbed up as well.”
Of course, I had no intention of going to the bar with the Kinsella brothers. If they'd have been stupid enough to lend me the cash I would have wandered off and disappeared at the first opportunity, crept into a phone booth and dialed my dealer. As it was neither brother seemed up for lending me even a tenner each. I dropped my stakes, my pride dropping with it. “What about a fiver?” I asked. “Five quid each would get me a few pints. Come on guys.... for fuck's sake. Don't make me go home.”

Paul shook his head. He mocked me for begging for a tenner. He didn't realise just what ten pound would do for me, that he would also beg for it if it was attached to his entire well-being.

I looked at the brothers, thinking. “What about your mother?” I said.

Paul pulled a face and shook his head.

“Well, is it OK if I at least ask?”

Paul nodded for Lawrence to unbolt the door. With the door open Paul shouted for his mother.

I heard Paul's mum, Veronica, come trundling down the hallway. She was a pleasant enough woman with a blunt honesty, a died blonde bob and the figure of a church bell.

“What the fuck d'ya want? Calling me like that?”

“The Freak wants to ask you something.”

Veronica looked at me. Whether I imagined it or not she seemed to have a look of horror on her face. I felt like I was glowing green or something. I began to explain about the bar and Paul and Lawrence, but before I was even halfway through she cut me off and asked, “What the fuck d'ya want?”

I played it straight. “Twenty quid, Vee... I'll pop it straight back around tomorrow evening.”

Veronica looked over at Paul who was staring straight ahead at the TV. I could see her brain doing the arithmetic, understanding that I must have asked both brothers first and they must have refused me, even though she must have known they had money. “TWENNY QWID! You've narf got a fuckin' cheek, int ya? Not even here five minutes and already on the ponce! Nothing ever changes. No I ain't got twenty fucking quid to lend ya! Piss off home and get yer own!” I laughed, but Veronica wasn't laughing. She wasn't as rude as she was making out, but she was deadly serious about not lending me the money nonetheless. I smiled it off, sat there like it didn't matter. But it did matter, a lot. It felt like my soul was beating inside my body. I could feel myself reddening, secretly cursing the Kinsellas. I considered falling to my knees, crying and begging them. Melting down in any pride I had left so as to make them feel so embarrassed for me that they'd lend me the cash just so as they didn't have to witness such a pathetic sight. Veronica pulled the door close and went off back down the hall. From in the room we heard her saying to her partner: “He only fucking wanted that I lend him some money! What a fucking cheek. It'd be another 5 years we wouldn't see him if I did!”

I raised my head and looked at Lawrence. His smile had gone, now replaced by two quite serious eyes, scrutinizing me, as if observing every drop of perspiration I expelled. He very slightly nodded and pulled a sad face. I knew what it meant and looked away.

So, the Kinsellas had blown me out. I wanted to leave but didn't want to make it so obvious that I was in dire-straits. And so I remained, sat there where I was, cursing the whole lot of them, the entire clan, all the while hoping against hope that someone had bought my story and would come good if I only stayed long enough. When the bedroom door knocked only minutes later I secretly harbored hopes that it was Veronica, that she had changed her mind and was back with a score. But it wasn't Veronica, it was the young kid who had originally opened the door to me, Patrick, the Kinsellas' youngest brother.

He came and plonked himself down on the bed alongside Paul. Paul pushed him away. He was a podgy little kid, kinda looked like a midget version of his mother and had the expressions of a grown man. He wore a pair of shorts beneath a grubby T-shirt, and had a stick of candy in his hand which he was all sticky on. He looked at me, mischievously.

“I remember you! Freaky Shane,” he said, laughing. “My mum said that you and Alan used to dress like girls.”

He sat there, his back against the wall and his bare feet hanging off the bed. “I could kick you from here,” he said. “I'm doing karate and I could kick you if I wanted to.”

“Well, don't kick me,” I said. “Go and kick a sack or something. I'm not up for being kicked today.”

“I'm not gonna kick you,” he said, “just saying I could if I wanted to.” Paul suddenly shot out a hand and gripped the small boys thigh, just above the knee cap. Whatever grip he had him in Patrick began squirming and screaming , all the while laughing in playful pain.

“You're not gonna fucking kick anyone,” Paul told him. “Say it! Repeat after me: I'm not gonna kick anyone!”

“I'M NOT GONNA KICK ANYONE!” Patrick screamed.

Paul squeezed his leg with his claw grip a little harder. Patrick wriggled as if electricity were going through him. “Mercy! Mercy!” he cried. As he tried to wriggle free from Paul's grip he let out a loud, ripping fart.

“You dirty little bastard,” Paul screamed, throwing Patrick's legs to the side and slapping them as they fell together. Patrick laughed, and while trying to catch his breath he farted again. He moved down away from his brother's reach and sat there with his hair all scruffed and a bright red face.

After a moment he said to me: “Do you know what Tae kwando pads are?”

“No,” I said. Just the thought of Tae kwando and physical assertion made me feel weak. A chill went through me; the evening was coming in.

I was desperate. Sunday's were depressing alright. There was something so sad in the clouds outside, the silence, the shutdown of the city as everyone passed their last few hours of the weekend with a communal dread hanging over everyone of monday being on them again so soon. I could feel it, could hear it, as if the last sounds from the river were traveling through the evening sky and everything was getting ready to camp down for the night. I needed to do something. Get some cash or not get some cash and get out of here. It hurt me more being around slight hope than being alone with none at all. At least with no hope I could quickly come to terms with and could start counting down the hours, days, until hope and health would be back. But here, in the Kinsellas, wherein survived even the most meagre thread of hope, it was impossible to get on at all. It was even more impossible to leave. Leaving was defeat and defeat was a long walk home with the wolf of heroin sickness clamped upon my back.

I pulled the sweat down my face, pulled the skin down with it.

“I'm getting new shoes next week,” Patrick said. “The new Nike Airs, white with the red tick. You wanna see them?”

“Go on then,” I said. I wasn't really interested but shoes cost money and that fact registered with me immediately.

“Hang on,” Patrick said, “I'll show you.” He slid off the bed. As I moved to let him by I caught a whiff of the musty smell of moisture and rain and damp in the space my body was occupying. As Patrick left, Lawrence also rose and announced he was getting ready. Paul nodded.

A moment later and Patrick returned with a crumpled, well used, sports catalogue. It was full of all the latest trainers and prices. He pointed to a pair. “That's them,” he said, “but mine are white and red. Neat, huh?”

They didn't look neat to me, but I said they were anyway. Then I saw the price: almost seventy quid.

“So, when you hoping to get them?” I asked, now very interested.

“Next weekend,” Patrick said. “Paul's gonna give me the rest of the money to add to what I've saved.”

“I might,” Paul chirped in, “but not if you continue with your fucking around.”

I sat staring at Patrick. He was looking again at the sports catologue, the light from the TV flitting across his face and illuminating his dreams of his new trainers. His eyes positively thrilled at the prospect of going to get them. I stared at his bare feet. He had no idea what a world this was, how predators were everywhere, scheming and scamming for their own ends, smiling when necessary and often within touching distance. No, he had no idea at all.

I didn't want to ask; I couldn't. Don't do it, I told myself. Save your pride. Keep your respect. Go home and suffer out two days and bank such desperate measures for when they're really needed. My thought processes and internal debates, trying my damnedest to see them off, had me rocking where I sat. It was only a very light movement but enough for Paul to notice. What with that, and the sweats, and the red under my eyes and I must have looked in a much poorer state than I imagined. My next conscious realization was staring dead, dull ahead at Patrick. The room had seemed to disappear around him, as if it was just us. He looked a fair child, trusting. I never made the decision to speak but found words coming out my mouth regardless.

“Hey Patrick,” I said.

“Huh?”

“Those trainers... how about getting them tomorrow?”

He looked at me, intrigued. “Tomorrow? Serious? How?”

“An investment,” I said. “You lend me twenty quid so as I can go for a drink with your brothers, and I'll pop it back around to you tomorrow with an extra twenty quid bunged in as a thank you?”

My heart was racing. Out the corner of my eye I had seen Paul spring tight to attention on hearing what I had asked.

Patrick wore a bemused smile. He stared at me, his naive head trying to figure out the catch, his young instinct sensing something wasn't quite right about the offer.

“Really? You'd pay me twenty pounds for borrowing you twenty? Tomorrow?”

“Yeah, tomorrow,” I lied. And depending on what time we finish I may even be able to pop it around tonight. I mean, whether tonight or tomorrow, by Tuesday you could be wearing your new Nike Airs to school.”

God, this was low. Not only could I not repay the money tomorrow, but I sure as hell would never pay double on the lend either.

“So, whatdya say, Patrick? You gonna lend us it or not?”

Patrick thought it over. I could see he was totally confused. I was an adult, should be trustworthy, ut something in him was fighting over some other instinct, an instinct he was too young to comprehend I sat staring at him in the semi-dark of the room. But Patrick couldn't muster up an answer. He was somehow frozen in deliberation, unsure as to what to do in maybe the first real gamble of his life. That's when I saw his eyes very slightly shift and widen, obviously trying to communicate with Paul; Paul who was sat up rigid, his eyes pinned open, very subtly shaking his head to tell Patrick 'NO!'. Patrick seemed to have problems understanding his brother's message. His brow furrowed, demanding more information than Paul could give him discretely. But, sure as hell is sold as a hot place, Patrick was soon mimicking the stiff actions of his older brother, his head then very lightly shaking and his mouth saying “No... No” denying me a lend of the cash.

“What Patrick? No? You can't do it?”

“ I... er... can't...” he said.

“You can't lend me just twenty pounds? Not even for a few hours?”

I watched Patrick's eyes slide to Paul once more and now his older brother came to his rescue.

“Hey, leave him alone for fuck sake! Dint you hear? He said 'no'! That money's for his trainers.”

“Oh come on! Jesus,” I cried. “It's just twenty quid! Paul, guarantee me. If I don't come through with the cash that you'll pay him back. Come one... I'm not gonna do a fucking runner!”

“I'm not standing a debt of yours,” Paul said.

I turned to Patrick again, all pride and care for how I looked gone. I begged that he lend me money, tried convincing him in as many ways as possible that I was good for it. I pleaded with Paul, said “Come on, man... have a heart.” I said way too much and the more I said the more sure it became that I would not get the money as it was now quite obvious to everyone that it couldn't be to go for a drink with the brothers. Patrick sat before me, shaking his head and repeating over and over the words “I can't... I can't.” Then Paul really did end it. He warned me to leave Patrick alone and said that no-one was going to lend me any money. He told me to go home and get my own and come back or don't... as I wanted. The way in which he said that told me he knew that I had no intention of returning, that he understood that I had no money nor wallet at home... that maybe I didn't even have a home. His words brought me out of my trance and now, absolutely despondent, my ailing body seemed a hundred times worse than it had done just moments before.

“You mean cunts,” I said. And then I thankfully accepted the out Paul had given me and said I was gonna shoot off to get my cash and then return. I asked Paul what bar they were going to and he said he didn't know. I guess he didn't want to waste the breath in his body. As I gathered my things together and put on my jacket, without looking at me, Patrick left the room. I felt drained . There was a weird smell in my nostrils and the yawns were coming on strong and aching out my jaw muscles. I said goodbye to Paul. He refused to say a word of goodbye but nodded. Down the hallway the living room door was open. Inside Patrick was laying on the sofa alongside his mother, watching the early evening entertainment and guffawing along to the canned laughter. He looked at me. I couldn't leave it. I beckoned with my head for him to come. He mouthed the word 'wot' and raised me a fed up looking look.

“Patrick, come here... I want to talk to you,' I said. With the dirty sole of his little foot he flicked out a karate kick and pushed the door over, closing me out and leaving me alone in the darkness of the bare hallway. I stood there for a moment, the sound of pumping blood gushing through my head. From Paul's room I heard him coughing on another lungful of joint and then the TV channels flip through once more.

I opened the front door. It was dark outside. I barely felt I had the legs to walk home and only took the first step because those last steps, that journey home to collapse down in defeat on my sick bed represented the last sliver of any hope of salvation I had. Maybe I'd bump into another junkie? A dealer? A work colleague? Come across someone, anyone, a familiar person I could beseech for help, slide down and beg to hold my weight for a day? Jesus, there were enough people who I'd done good turns for, who owed me at least a small favour in return. And so I made my way home, through the dark, gaudy evening, my eyes pinned and primed and my wits about me, treading down hope, step by step, until there was no more left at all.

- - -

Thanks as Ever for reading... all My Thoughts Shane. X

Lines for Joe M

A Letter to My Landlord...

Dear Mr Piegay, my loyal and long-suffering landlord...


It is fast approaching seven years that I have occupied the room in Rue Laennec and it is not without a twinge of sadness that I hereby present you with my official notice of leave. In your last email you asked that if I did indeed decide on quitting the premises that I was to inform you of any small repairs or renovations that are needed so as you could make the room good for the next tenant. On this note I am pleased to inform you that apart from some minor and natural wear and tear the apartment is in pretty much the same condition as the day you let it to me. The one thing I feel I must bring to your attention is the outside shutter of the far window. As you are most likely aware, it is not of the highest quality and was bound to fail at some stage. Well, it has failed - almost certainly due to the mechanics in the pulley system. In fact, it is the mechanics in the pulley system. I know because in attempting to fix it I accidentally shattered the interior plastic cover and a spool of cord and a broken cog shot out – leaving it quite beyond repair. The box itself I managed to make good, albeit using half a roll of brown scotch tape covered over by an old cravat which serves to keep the whistling draught out. My intervention works sufficiently well, although I would imagine that a new tenant paying 400 plus euros a month may not be too enthused about such a remedial looking repair. The shutter on the nearside window however remains in good working order; it is only the graffiti sprayed upon its exterior that you may want to look at. Shutters aside I suppose I should take this opportunity to inform you about the two electric wall fires and how they blew out, one after the other, two winters ago. Though neither now works, it is the one in the bathroom which poses a more serious problem as it somehow detached itself from the crumbling plasterboard wall. It currently sits on the floor connected only by exposed electrical wiring. As a consequence I have had to remove the heating fuse from the main fuseboard so as to prevent any unwanted electric shocks. The bathroom itself, although in need of a new lick of paint, has stood the test of time pretty well. It is only the cracked sink which needs replacing and, of course, the shower unit, which came clean down one afternoon and with it pulled two fist-sized lumps out the wall. As it came down it caught me a good whack on the head, though, it seems, without imparting any permanent damage. So as to save you the cost of a new shower rail and curtain I salvaged what I could of the old one, dis-assembled it and stored it in a black bag behind the toilet. The cracked sink I must put my hands up to. One day, while nodding out in front of the mirror, I accidentally knocked one of my painted stones off the product shelf and it smashed with full force into the ceramic. The crack is not so bad as to leak and so you may be able to hide it from the view of the new tenant. At worst all you need is a new sink which, thankfully, are very inexpensive nowadays. What are not so inexpensive are water boilers. The cheapest one I have come across is over 500 euros and that is without the added cost of the engineer to fit it. I only mention this as the element packed up in ours almost three years ago and the apartment has been without hot water since. The toilet, although useable, is tremendously rocky on its base. In order to gain access to the u-bend (a quite unpleasant blockage which I'll not go into) I had to unbolt it from the floor. Where I delayed in re-fixing it the two six-inch bolts somehow got wet and rusted and would not bolt back down as a consequence. The only worthwhile counsel I can give you on this issue is that you advise any new tenant to spread his weight out evenly when he plonks himself down on the throne. Failure to take care in doing so could possible upend the entire thing and then the bathroom really would need renovating.


The main room. As mentioned above it stands in pretty much the same condition in which you rented it to me. The sole exceptions are the walls which are covered in coffee and blood and paint and have turned a septic yellow colour through years of confined chain-smoking. There also are what appears to be large cracks running up the sides of each window. Whether it is structural damage or not I am unqualified to say. What I am qualified to say is that, as with the bathroom, a good coat of paint will do the room a world of good. What paint will not fix is the broken door of the fuse box. As you'll probably never have noticed the damn thing was installed too near to the main door, and the same day I removed the heating fuse I unwittingly knocked the fuse-box door clean off its hinges. There is also a problem with the lighting. The two Edison screw-type holders are at present unusable after the light-bulbs burnt and melted themselves into their fittings and now are impossible to remove. I did try removing one but the bulb, from the sheer force required to turn it, shattered in my hand leaving just a bare stalactite of tungsten element protruding from the fitting. The ceiling itself is more of a problem, half collapsing on the left side, victim of an upstairs flood which soaked through and nearly brought the place down last spring. Concerning the small kitchen area in the far corner of the room, one would suppose that not much could go wrong in such a tiny space, and indeed, not much can. Unfortunately, the little that could go wrong has. I am of course referring to the two electric plates. One does nothing but burn black smoke up the wall and the other short-circuits the instant it is turned on and not only blows its immediate fuse but that of the entire apartment. The light casing above the hob also needs changing after melting away one night as I slow-stewed a curry. It seems the heat from cooking and the natural heat emitted from the bulb was too much for it to handle. The only other minor problem in this part of the room is the fridge: it no longer works and is currently being used as a book cupboard. It looks like some idiot tried to defrost the small freezer compartment with a knife and hammer and has pierced the casing of the evaporator. As to any other damage, apart from the MDF cupboards which all warped in a small flood I had back here in 2010, I can't think of anything else. The floor, as you know, is tiled and so apart from the two centre tiles (which have somehow cracked) is as polished and flat as ever. One good piece of news I can give you is that I have fixed the once lagging front door and it now closes. The repair was a simple case of heating and gradually sawing four inches off its bottom. The downside of the repair is that the door is no longer insect proof. As a result, for two months during the summer, the apartment falls foul of quite a severe ant problem. Rats are also prone to sneak in from time to time. There is a dead one somewhere in the storage cupboard as I type. I did my best to keep it fed and happy, each night consistently leaving it out handfuls of expensive handmade Italian egg pasta, but, alas, it seems the good life isn't conducive to such rodents and there is now quite an horrendous stench lingering in the small square of hallway. I only tell you this as you'll surely remark upon it during your visit next week, and I don't want you thinking it is me. For the ten thousand used and uncapped syringes stored in the top cupboard, I was hoping that together we could maybe contact the environmental health department and have their hazardous waste disposal team come around and clear them out. It's something I would greatly appreciate your help on.


In regards to the rent; it is only right and fair that I give you warning now that it is highly unlikely that I'll be able to make good on the three months of outstanding arrears. It is, of course, for such defaults of payment that all tenants in France are obliged to have a legal guarantor. All I can offer is my good luck with that: the guarantor I used appears not to actually exist. In fact, all the paperwork (barring my passport) was fake. The work contract was downloaded and adapted from online, and my last twelve months of payslips I created myself using Word and pasting and re-sizing the company logo up in the top left hand corner. Another quite interesting fact is that the day you met me outside my work to sign the contract, well, that wasn't my place of work at all. Indeed, it was the first time I had ever been there, and I could only pray for divine intervention when you asked that we go inside to sign the paperwork so as to escape the spitting rain. Divine intervention indeed (or just sheer fucking luck) the warehouse was closed up for the evening. I remember sitting in the depressing dark of your car, that vile perfume of mint air-freshener making me think of all manor of depressing life events as I watched you go over and over the paperwork. How I fucking despised you and knew what you were from that first moment – a meticulous, risk-assessing, teetotal cunt. That stupid balding head of yours shining under the dull compartment light, the few front strands of hair looking like something one would blow away and make a wish upon. And oh, those cheap, ill-fitting, faded jeans that you wore and those large, padded sports shoes - which maybe allowed you to brake more easily but also had the effect of making you look like some kind of a fucking bum. It turned out that you was much worse than the honesty of a man with nothing. Six months down the line and you tried laying a three thousand pound electricity bill at my feet, worming your way out of what you had agreed when we signed the contract, blaming my intermediate French on misunderstanding the finer details. It was only when I bluffed you with a non-existent piece of paper which I said had your writing on with all the details that you backtracked again and said you did indeed remember saying such a thing and that it was your error. Still, you also said that you couldn't afford to pay the bill and that unless I forfeited my guarantee that I would remain through the winter with no electricity – which meant no lighting or heating. I agreed and let you use my deposit. Well, now you can re-use the non-existent deposit to cover the costs of renovating the apartment. Not only was your rent exorbitantly high for a room measuring less than 18² meters but you made me suffer hours of checks and a two hour 'state of the place' walk-around. Even my fake guarantor, complete with a stolen identity card, was cursing your indecisiveness. Your forehead actually trickled sweat as I signed the contract! And do you recall the one time you came knocking at my door uninvited? Pushed your way in, and then stood staring at me in open-mouthed horror when you saw melted plastic tops from methadone bottles stuck to the electric rings and paintings nailed into every part of every wall? How you asked to use the bathroom and then I heard you scuttling around in there, looking through the cupboards and no doubt discovering my used needles in the lower cupboard. You returned looking like a ghost who had been told he would die again. You left pretty soon after, forgetting to have me sign the shitty piece of paper you had brought down for me. When you returned twenty five minutes later I was fresh from having taken a shot and shouting something out over a broken guitar. I signed the paper on the doorstep not quite sure if your re-appearance was real or not, or what the fuck I had even signed for. It was the rent increase. The increase you had so scrupulously thought up to cover your costs in the electricity fiasco. I guess that finally says more about you than anything else.


In ending this letter I will not pretend that the damage caused to the apartment was a calculated response to your cunning, duplicitous nature, as the truth is that I would surely have been just as despicable a tenant to even the most honest of landlords. But the thing is this: I have never met an honest landlord and I seriously doubt that one exists. It's the age old story of greed and profit, and how the two can only go hand-in-hand and do go hand-in-hand. And so, I will end this letter, not on a bitter or hateful or goading note, but to wish you well with yourself and all you are. Maybe people like you are the future and it is the fools like me who will die hideous economic deaths and fade away. For the sake of humanity I hope not.


With all the sadness a man can have...

Yours sincerely, Shane Levene.

- - -

The Devil's Pause


When the Devil came to rest I was a third through the good of my life and it was springtime. 

God, it's spring, I thought, pausing in the street and closing my eyes. I hadn't felt the spring for many a season and now here it was. I sucked in the scents of the morning and held. I had forgotten just what a pleasure fresh air was. It felt good, like menthol or eucalyptus flowing through my respiratory system, flushing out all the gunk of sick living. I took in another deep lungful, let it seep down into my muscles and unclog my pores from the inside out. I wanted to be burst full of all the day had to offer, to be steeped in every poison and fragrance which travelled along on the whip of the season. I lowered the zip of my jacket and let the crisp cold have my neck and skin. A feint mist sat in the distance and seemed to clean the town. I walked with my arm out, my fingers trailing through hedgerow and foliage, disturbing the cold droplets from the night's rain. I felt the wet on my hand, running cold beneath my sleeve. I could have wept in joy, a strange relief hitting me at being privy once again to such irritable sensations. The smell of dustbins and refuse drifted out the damp front yards. And even that was a pleasure. 


On the high-street I followed the morning slew of people as they made their way down towards the market. I passed the early bird businesses: the butcher's with its cutlets of meat laid out; the baker's full of freshly risen dough; the newsagent's, the ink of their gossip barely dry. A double-decker bus pulled out from its stop. As it passed by the hydraulics of the automatic door system let out a hiss, and a warm front of oil and diesel fumes accompanied me for a moment. I remembered days picking wild raspberries along the motorway, getting snagged and scratched on the bramble. It was years since I'd last had such memories, memories I could taste and feel as if they had happened only yesterday. What memories did come to me during addiction were hollow, forlorn things with Arctic winds scraping about around them and sad echoed voices drifting in empty out the expanse of time. I tried to recall the last time I had been freezing cold or tormented by the heat of summer. I couldn't. Heroin, in numbing the required emotions, had numbed a lot else besides. It had created a calm constant, cocooned me safely within the centre of a place void of all extremes. But now, four days in on methadone, the longest I'd been without smack in three years, the world was a melting pot of sounds and smells and colours and sensations, all reminding me of a life I had once meditated in and thrived off, yet a life which in other ways had touched me so profoundly that such rawness had been unbearable. This morning it wasn't unbearable. After such a hiatus I wanted to be around normal, everyday things, partake in a life that I had gladly abandoned for the hook of the heroin spike. As walked I listened to the clip of my heels on the paving, took a strange delight in the grit crunching beneath my soles as I crossed streets and roads. 

In the market I wandered around looking at the cheap wares of faulty and imported goods. I passed by slowly, perusing in each stall like it were a book to be deciphered. There were stalls full of leatherware, and handbags; others selling luggage and travel packs. There were stalls of linen and bedding, and still more of nothing other than kitchen utensils: trays of plated stainless steel cutlery, tin-openers and egg whisks. At the top end I passed Sikh and Muslim fabric stores, caressed rolls of cotton and silk and roughed my hands over yarns of sequins. I found myself in strange African general stores, peering into deep freezers packed full of frozen bush meat and smoked snake. Making my way back down I followed the scents of dry-roasted Eastern breads, of hummus and falafel, feta cheese and marinated and pickled olives. I passed the fresh fish stands, eyed buckets of sloppy octopus and crates of dying crabs. I smelt the shit of rock oysters and the congealed black blood of shark, reflected on the fact that they were once living creatures with a fury for life as great any. I paused at the meat auction, stood staring at the butcher in his bloody white apron as he tied up bags of half rotten kidneys for pensioners chewing on their gums. Down onto the fruit and vegetable stalls, the musty smell of turned earth and leeks and onions. There was something in the things from the ground which beckoned me, some connection with root and growth and natural living. I had a queer desire to jump into the potato stall and roll around in the loose soil, get back to some place essential from where I had come. I must have been sunk in worlds of thought, as when I next looked up I had come full circle and was wandering aimlessly back around by where I had started. Only now it was the start of something else. From out of nowhere a terrible spring wind whistled through the marketplace. It gusted up the canvas covers of the stalls and blew boxes and rotten vegetables across the floor. My fellow market-goers seemed not to pay it any mind. They milled about just as before, only now they appeared terribly down, weather worn and life-beaten. An old woman passed me by with her head hunched into her chest. She carried a white plastic bag full of oranges. The bag seemed to contain a coldness, like it was full of ice. The handles cut into the soft of her fingers and cut off her circulation. Her presence irritated me. On a pitch to my left was a stall piled high with boxes of toys; the kind of cheap plastic rubbish which make children cry on opening them. Down on the ground, in a small inflated paddling pool full of water, swam half a dozen gaudy blue and orange battery operated deep-sea divers. They rattled and buzzed and crashed into one another, and in a very particular way, horrified me. 

“THe waY Of all soRrow iS bY Here”

That was the last thing I saw on leaving the market. A crazed man in a faded suit, stamping around in circles of torment, those words on a banner, stuck to a broom handle and held aloft. I followed his directions, for so was my only way home.

* * *
I saw him from afar. Long-haired John making his miserable way down on the other side of the road. He raised a hand and beelined across to me. He was wearing his cut down brown military bottoms, his lower legs cratered in needle marks and sores. I eyed my way up his body and it only got worse. His lips were dry and cracked and flecked in black scabs; he had filth and dried saliva in his beard. Without even greeting me he said me that he was 'as sick as a dog' and asked if I could help him out with a small lend of cash. I couldn't. I said that I was running on dry myself, that I was well only due to methadone. He stood there with a tortured expression on his face, as if he were hurting from some place deep inside his body. 

“What about your bank card?” he asked. I shook my head, beginning to move on. I'm sick as a fucking dog, he said again, following besides me like some leprous mendicant, his grubby hand lightly upon me as if to slow me down to his sick gait. He told me that with my card I could withdraw cash I didn't have. I told him that that was called an overdraft and that my bank had judged me too irresponsible to have one. I said that anything he could suggest I had surely already thought of. He went silent for a moment, trying to think up anything that maybe wasn't so obvious. He came back with nothing. 

“So what, you've not got a penny? Not enough for a single bag? Not even a fiver?” I repeated I was all out, as beaten as he was.

“And juice? You said ya'v got some juice. Ya got a bit for me?” I said that I didn't even have enough for myself, that I couldn't help him today. He didn't believe me. A look of hatred flashed across his face, thinking that I was holding out on him. I pulled my arm free from his retaining hold and walked a pace faster, hoping he'd fall away and disappear out of sight. He didn't. John remained there, a filthy, lingering presence, like a soiled rag fluttering about on the periphery of my vision. Making extra effort to put some distance between us I heard his last words. They slopped out his mouth like lumps of stodgy wet oatmeal. “Mate, I'm fuckin' dying 'ere... Gotta be summit' you can do? I'm seriously fucking dying.”

I didn't doubt it. After an awkward silence I shouted back: There's fuck all I can do, John... I'm down to the same nothing as you. Then John did slow. Though, no matter how far behind he tailed off, I could still somehow sense his presence, his hand held out and a look of desperation on his ravaged face, hoping against all hope that I'd turn around and offer him a way out, save his rotten soul for one more day. 

I circled the streets trying to rid my mind of John and of a certain cold, detachment which had first became apparent as I left the market. I tried consciously to reconnect with the season, feel its complete dominion over my soul as it had done not even two hours before. But there were now ghosts in the spring. I found them hidden in the blossom, in dark shadows behind the mulberry bush, whirring around like cirrus clouds in the sky, croaking with the Larks, and in the dead foetuses of pigeons jellied in the gutters. Imbued in the portrait of the new found spring was some terrible ill-boding left behind by the thaw of winter. Vague memories sat in the sparkling dew drops on leaves; the rot of turned compost beneath hedgerow now spoke of death and decomposition and not of birth and growth and nutrients. The slick wet roads and pavements glimmered with a damp depression. There were too many things in this world which the spring could not cleanse, things so unnatural and manufactured that they were beyond the touch of nature or weather fronts. I lit a cigarette and almost vomited. In the dull middle of my liver the last milligrams of methadone were being absorbed. For the first time since stepping out that morning a reckless twinge of disregard entered my thoughts. Fuck methadone! It had shown me the spring, had cleared my lungs out and had maybe allowed a vein to heal or my swollen hands to recover, but it had also delivered me back to a world which had an icy hollowness at its heart. I thought of the bank card in my inside pocket, how useless it was today but how tomorrow it would be my salvation. 

At the end of Boscombe road I stopped and stood staring at half a dozen rubbish bags dumped besides the post box. One was ripped open, its contents spilt out onto the street: tins of tuna in brine and cat food; mouldy bread and soggy news' headlines; wraps of soiled nappy and losing scratch cards; perfect home magazines and junk mail for pizza; strained tea-bags and empty packets of prescription drugs. It was like an anatomical study of modern life. I walked on, an abysmal sadness then provoked within me. Through the park a dog squatted on its haunches and squeezed out a slop of yellow turd, all the while watching me. When it had finished it sniffed the ground where its arse had been and then hoovered through the grass, the dew wetting the straggles on its lower legs. I had smelled such dogs throughout my entire lifetime, the burning carbon of excrement wafting over British bogland and drifting like smoke upon the river. A woman cut through the pathway in a white fur coat. Out in the distance sirens wailed. Somewhere a fire blazed, and in me, something was rising and burning too. 

By the time I had circled back around and hit the crossroads of my own road the afternoon hung bleak all over. But the bleakness wasn't in the day, it was in me. It bled out and induced itself in everything, even in inanimate objects. I strode, dark down my road, back home to wait out the wait. The sun broke through the day and I cursed it. I had not even 24 hours to go until I'd be able to score again. The Devil's rest was all but over. I had seen the spring and I had seen the sun and had smelled life and it had smelled good for a moment. But now, all too soon, old sensations had come in with the season, sensations of which I had needed to escape and had wanted no part of so many years before. 
I had nothing just now and the day would have me suffer in my rightful hell, but tomorrow things would change and fortunes would improve. Yes, tomorrow would be here so slow and so soon and with it, up on up, the Devil would rise in me again and spring upon the spring once more.

- - -

Thanks as ever for reading... next post will be a little lighter: a leaving letter to my landlord. 

Shane. X

The Thinman Affair


They had been found dead in cars, slumped in doorways, crouched on their haunches in telephone booths and flat out at the bottom of stairwells; men and women, young and experienced addicts alike. Eleven deaths in North London, seventeen in Scotland and multiple others dotted around the UK. Other addicts were turning up in Accident & Emergency rooms, often taxi'd in and dragged to the front desk, terribly ill and on the point of death. From the very early news reports it seemed that the only common denominator tying all the casualties together was that they were all intravenous heroin users and they had all shot up just prior to going over.

“Lucky fuckers,” said Thinman, reading the news report, his filthy stained index finger, which had been running under the words, now jabbing at a certain part in the story. “Says here it's a suspected pure batch that's doing it. Apparently some uncut gear has found its way onto the street. Un-fucking-cut! Wouldn't half mind getting me hands on a bit a that.”

I didn't respond. I sat watching Thinman as he read, as his eyes lit up and different expressions moved across his face like changing weather patterns. Heroin addiction had all but destroyed the man, eaten every morsel of fat from off his bones, bleached his skin a deathly yellowish grey hue and somehow faded his tattoos so as they looked liked processing stamps from the mortuary. There he was, sat in the lounge of the local needle exchange, looking like he'd been air-packaged, and still salivating over the thought of one last great fix, of something that would relieve him of the fear and knowledge of an impending and premature death.

In the cramped store cupboard of the exchange the key worker bagged up my usual fifty pack of 1ml needles along with a button bag of citric acid and a handful of sterile water bottles. “Now, be careful,” she said, “what with that bad batch going around. Take these guidelines and have a read through them on your way home.” She handed me a leaflet, a list of bullet-pointed directions. I cast an eye quickly over them, over the casual, childish font which had been used. “You're up,” I said to Thinman as I came out the supply cupboard, “I'll wait for you outside.”

Late morning, the air fresh and floral in the residential streets; the sky deep and blue and clear. From behind floated the subdued rumble of the high-street, the cogs of the day turning into lunchtime. I walked with Thinman up towards St Stephen's Church, to loiter hidden in the damp shade under her arch for Danny. Heroin was burning through our lives. I felt good in my habit, not yet tired and jaded and all shot out. As we walked I read Thinman the needle exchange's counsel to avoid dying that autumn.
“Smoke it!!!” Thinman yelled, repeating what I had read. “Well, they know that's not likely gonna happen, is it? I'd need two hundred dollars a day to smoke it. And how'd they figure that? Like the only time real serious shit hits the streets and we smoke it! Fuckin' jokers.”
“They're talking toxic gear here.... not pure. Says it's maybe laced with fucking anthrax or botulism. Advice for those hellbent on injecting is to make absolutely sure to vein it... under no circumstance go intra-muscular.”
Thinman laughed and flicked his hand out, as if batting away an annoying fly. “It's all just more anti-smack propaganda, more lies to scare the shit outta us, scare us into quitting. I've heard of bad gear... but toxic gear??? Do us a favour.” I balled up the leaflet and tossed it down in the street. Even accepting the reports were true, barely fifty addicts in the entire country had died and so you'd have to be pretty unlucky to come across the contaminated heroin. And anyway, Thinman was correct: no-one seemed to really know what was going on anyway – maybe it had nothing to do with the heroin at all.

A week later and the so-called toxic heroin was the main talk of the IV'ing community. More junkies had dropped dead up North and the first rumours of addicts round our way turning up in hospitals with sorely infected limbs and skin necrosis had surfaced. As is always the case, the rumours never concerned anyone who one knew personally. They were all mostly third hand reports, gossip blowing around in the waiting rooms of methadone clinics and needle exchanges, people with very little going on in their lives and wanting to fan the fires in their dying grates.
On the street, the talk and rumours affected little. All it did was add an extra ounce of danger to the practice of shooting up, supply us with another element to use to blackmail money out of anyone who cared. Nobody cared. And so we hobbled on as ever, taking our chances and hoping our chances were good, not having the luxury of playing it safe for a while. We shot first and dealt with any consequences later. We scored and used as ever, more tales that week reported of addicts blowing out and toppling over, others staggering into A&E and put in intensive care having bloated up with some kind of bacterial elephantitis.
That's when Thinman disappeared.
Thinman's disappearance was strange. I was in his debt for two rocks of crack and only something terribly serious would have had him not be home to collect. But he wasn't home, and neither had he returned when I did another pass later on that evening. On the second day when he still hadn't turned up I called in on his brother. Together we travelled over to Thinman's, spoke to the downstairs neighbour and then forced the door. Thinman's flat was a shithole, a mattress on the floor surrounded by syringes and shooting paraphernalia. But there was no Thinman, and no sign that anything untoward had happened. Thinman's brother left a handwritten note on the mattress and said if there was still no news by the following evening that he would report him as missing. He said his brother often laid low for days at a time. That was true, but never when in credit for crack.
Later that evening I received a call to my mobile, a soft female voice asking me if I knew a Mr Saul Messinger. That was Thinman's real name. I said I didn't think I knew anyone by such a name and asked why. She explained that she was calling from the hospital concerning a recent inpatient who had been admitted with no contact details and that my number had been found amongst his possessions. I thought for a moment before telling the hospital assistant that I didn't know him very well but knew his brother. I gave the details of Thinman's brother and put the phone down. It was late. From what I could gather Thinman was in a poor way but still alive. I pondered over all that may have happened to him. It was impossible to know.

- - -

“No Saul Messinger here,” said the fat receptionist, sat there in her XL mint hospital uniform. She returned back to her Sudoko puzzle, wishing me to go away and leave her alone.
“Will you look again, please” I asked. “He's definitely here. It was the hospital which phoned me saying so.” The receptionist froze with her pencil on her puzzle. When I didn't disappear she let out a little huff of air, snapped her pencil down and took up the mouse. She clicked the cursor into a blank field and started to type a name in. After no more than four letters she stopped and without raising her eyes to look at me, said, “What did you say the name was?”
“Messinger,” I said.
She hit the back space rapid-fire and typed in the correct name, giving her return key a good whack to show me how pissed off she was that she had to work. She sat staring at the screen with an expression of contempt on her face. A few clicks of the mouse later and she said, “He's in the infectious disease unit.”
“Infectious disease unit? Where's that?”
She pointed to a plan of the hospital on the wall over near the lifts. Then she raised her eyes and looked at me for the first time. She looked like a cow that had been interrupted while grazing.
“Are you family?” she asked, hoping I wasn't so as she could deny me access to the ward and possibly have the security come down and sling me out.
“Yes, I'm his brother,” I said.
She didn't believe me but had no way to say that I wasn't. She lowered her eyes, going back to her game of numbers, brooding all the while, knowing her fat arse would be disturbed again soon.

The infectious disease unit looked like any other ward. I had expected to see isolation rooms and quarantine units, but there was none of that here. I wandered down through the ward, poking my head in rooms, looking for Thinman. Just as I spotted him a nurse came rushing down the hallway, calling after me. Thinman looked up. He was lain back in a bed with the right sleeve cut off his hospital shirt and his upper arm heavily bandaged. He looked awful; worse than usual. He widened his eyes in greeting.
“Excuse me, sir, who are you looking for?” the nurse asked, stopping.
“Him,” I said, pointing to Thinman. “I'm his brother.” I said that a notch louder so as Thinman would hear and confirm it if asked. The nurse told me to wait just there. She entered the ward and spoke to Thinman. As she left she gave me the OK to see him.
“What the fuck happened?” I asked Thinman. “We all thought you were dead!”
“Nearly fucking was,” he replied, “got some of that fucking bad smack that's going around... almost had me. Wound botulism or some shite.”
“Fuck! How d'you know?”
“Fuck all else it could've been. Ate my arm away right where I struck up. Was that little cunt Jay's gear.” I thought of Jay and of his two cousins who also dealt and must be all holding the same stuff. I wondered how many more addicts in the area I knew would drop. It was a scary thought, and even more terrifying was the thought of how many unrelated dealers may have picked up from the same batch.
“Has your brother been around?” I asked.
“Passed by this morning. Was here when I fully came around. Was out of it for almost 36hrs. Not pleasant, mate... and was sick to boot. They dosed me up on methadone but still feel like crap.”
Thinman shuffled himself up in his bed. He had a catheter in his neck which was dripping saline and antibiotics into his system. He began picking at the bandage covering his upper arm, his face creasing up in pain as he slowly pulled the dressing free from the wound.
“What the fuck are you doing,” I asked.
“I wanna see what fucking damage I've done... ain't seen it yet. It stings and burns like fuckin' hell... I know that much.”
As Thinman pulled the bandage back it first revealed a sore red swelling. Then the first wound was exposed, a small drawing pin sized hole in the skin.
“Fuck,” Thinman said. He then pulled the bandage free, exposing the full extent of the damage beneath. It was a sight straight out of a medical book. His entire upper bicep was cratered in open wounds of various sizes, all through to the flesh and seeping a sticky, yellow, sap-like puss. The craters of the wound were raised and cracked. It looked like he had had sulphuric acid thrown over him. Thinman looked at his wound in horror. Then he looked at me. “All that from a fucking shot,” he said. “What the fuck!” He studied his wound some time more, his eyes searching out the most rotten parts of flesh and squinting in on them. Now accustomed to the horrific sight he seemed to take some kind of sadistic pleasure from exposing his injury, like it was the embodiment of a life that was eating him alive. After a moment he replaced his bandage, grimacing and wincing in pain as it settled down once more against his wound.
For a moment Thinman closed his eyes. I watched his sickly transparent lids, thin and taut over the balls and run through with purple threadlike veins. I had the distinct impression that he could see me looking at him through them. With his eyes still closed, he said: “Mate, you still good for those two rocks you owe me?”
“Of course,” I said. “Though I don't know anyone around here.” He opened his eyes and looked at me like he was in pain. “I need something right now. D'you have credit on your phone?”
I nodded. Thinman said that he knew a user called John Lacey who lived in the flats behind the hospital and as long as he was still alive and well that he'd be able to score. Thinman called out the number for me to key in and call. When I'd finished, I handed the phone to Thinman.
“You've got ten mins,” Thinman said to me, smiling. “He'll meet ya just round the back of the hospital... and try and be quick... I'm half fuckin' clucking here.”

* * *

I met John Lacey in the grounds behind the hospital. He was dressed in a loose woollen top and piss-stained nylon tracksuit bottoms, walking around holding his stomach and cursing.
“How's Thinman,” he asked, still partially buckled over.
“Not bad. Will be better after a shot, you know.”
“Sure. Sure I fucking know. God, so will I. ”
“Must we go far?”
“No, not far,” John said. “Come on.”
Barely had we been walking a minute when John stopped abruptly and said, “I need to shit... me guts are gonna fucking drop on me.” He reached out and rested his hand gently on my forearm. He paused there like that for a moment before giving a little squeeze and rushing off, ducking into the nearest bush. The foliage barely covered him. I saw John yank down his tracksuit bottoms and underwear and a flash of dirty white thigh as he crouched down in haste. I turned around, staring over at the back of the hospital in disbelief. And as I watched the air-conditioning units, observed the odd rags of tissue which hung from the vents and ruffled in the out-blowing warm air, the sickly sweet smell of excrement floated up over my shoulder, John Lacey squirting his rotten junkie guts out onto the ground behind the bushes. It was the smell of London; the smell of those days and that time. Illness, shit and decay. Soiled clothes and pale unwashed skin. Doing things on the fly. The filth of a generation, dragging something dead and decomposing into the new millennium. God, the world had changed. But in the back hangouts, in the shadows of impoverished estate-lands, where the buildings block out the sun and the mildew grows up the walls and moss stands in for grass, it could have been any time in the last thirty years. I turned back around to see if John had finished his business. Almost. Still crouched down the bush was now being tugged and leaves being yanked free. When he finally emerged from the bush he was pulling up and fixing his trousers, the smell of shit hanging to him like it were his soul peeping out.
“God, that was violent,” he said, smiling. I looked at his hands and didn't want them touching me. I thought of the bags of heroin he would have to soon hand over, and I didn't want to touch them either.

Back at the hospital I gave Thinman his four bags of smack. He was itching for a fix, only now he realised just what a chore it would be to cook one up in the open ward. As he lay there looking at me, his face miserable with sobriety, I knew what was coming.
“Mate, could ya do us a last big favour? Sneak in the bogs and cook us up a hit?”
I didn't want to, but I agreed. Thinman gave me a bag of his smack. He told me to cook the lot up and split it between two needles so as he had another fix for when I was gone.
In the toilet cubicle I went about doing as Thinman had asked. Halfway through mixing up his dose, just about to cook it down, I heard the main door of the restroom creak open and someone enter. I stopped what I was doing, the spoon in one hand and the un-struck lighter just beneath in the other, and listened. Whoever it was was just standing there, maybe listening too. I gently laid the spoon down on the top of the cistern and sat on the toilet. After a moment the person outside washed their hands, dried them and then the door creaked again and then creaked close. I wondered if the person was really gone or whether it was a bluff and they were still standing in silence in the bathroom, listening to what I was doing in the cubicle. I peeped under the door. No-one. I quickly sparked my lighter and finished cooking Thinman's shots. While sucking the second shot up the door squeaked open again and once more a presence entered and seemed to loiter in the room. So as to give the impression that I was just finishing up, I pulled some toilet paper free and then flushed the chain. Masked by the sound of the rushing water I hurriedly gathered up my cooking utensils, capped the syringes for Thinman and pocketed them. I composed myself and left the cubicle. There was no-one in the bathroom. As I made my way back down the ward the duty nurse surveyed me with narrow, suspicious eyes. I kept my casual. “Fuck You,” I thought, “you'll never stop this.”

Barely had I given Thinman his two capped and loaded needles and he had concealed them beneath his blanket, than the nurse came wandering in from behind. She acted as if she were there just to prop Thinman up and take care of his comfort. Thinman was anxious and flushed hot. He didn't want her messing about too much down besides him. The nurse didn't speak a word but it was obvious that she knew we were up to no good. When she finally left Thinman was eager to shoot himself up, bring himself back in from out the cold of the sober light. He told me to go and distract the nurse, ask in private about his infection. He was already sitting on the side of his bed, his hospital trouser leg pushed up and prodding for veins down his inner calf.
I left Thinman that afternoon when his brother came to visit. Thinman said that he was feeling much better; he could barely keep his lids open. His brother stood there watching him with a look of absolute disgust on his face. Thinman said that if he was not given the all-clear to leave by the following morning that he would sign himself out. I nodded in agreement. That was heroin. I would have done the same; just about every junkie would

It's a weird feeling arriving at a hospital and not expecting the person you are visiting to be there. But on that autumn morning, on my second visit to see Thinman, the form of the distant sun reflected in the murky waters of the fish pond in the hospital grounds, I somehow knew I would find his hospital bed empty and Thinman gone.
Thinman was gone. Only he hadn't shot through. The young ward nurse who I had located to ask about his whereabouts informed me that he was in intensive care. She said he had been found waxed out with a syringe under his bed cover and had gone down with septicemia. I stood looking at her in shock, my mouth unhinged and hanging open. In the past 18 months I'd known two junkies dead of blood poisoning and knew how serious it was – especially so with the contributing health factors, like hepatitis C, that which had affected Thinman's hue so visibly.
"Is he conscious?" I asked the nurse.
“I don't know his present condition,” she said, “you'll have to go on up to the intensive care unit and see the doctors there... they'll be able to tell you more.”
The intensive care unit was a place of death and detergent. You could smell and sense the empty spaces in wards where people who used to be no longer were. It was a kind of factory, where people were trolleyed out covered on their backs, taken down to the morgue and then divided up amongst the competing vultures of the funeral parlours who'd wheedle the last pounds of worth from the corpses and sell them back to the family for burial or cremation. I could see it all; the start of the clean-up operation at least. This was a place where you went from being of the utmost importance to that of utter worthlessness in a second. And this is where Thinman was. I guess it was pretty serious then.
It was a youngish looking blond doctor I found. He looked like he was just coming to the end of a 48hr shift, like chunks of his own existence had departed with each death he had called. He pulled a hand down his face in an attempt to liven himself up to my question, but it only served to make his eyes look even more tired and baggy. Just the concentration needed to retain and think of the name I had given him seemed to drain him some more. He walked on a few steps, the smell of cheap hand soap hanging in his slip stream. He poked his head into a small, badly lit room full of supplies. “Do we have a Mr Messinger with us?” he asked to whoever was in the room.
“Saul Messinger,” I reminded the doctor.
At those words there came a noise from a nearby ward and out came Thinman's brother. When he saw it was me who was asking after his brother he approached, shouting: “Get him the fuck outta here!” And then directing his words at me: “You here with more fucking heroin to finish him off? Come on, speak up you poisonous, selfish cunt!”
I had no words to reply to that and it would have been pointless besides. Thinman was in his mid 30's and if he wanted smack in the hospital then that was his call. As a friend and addict, knowing what withdrawals were like, I was obliged to do that for him if it was what he wanted. Seeing the anger rising in Thinman's brother, the young doctor stepped in front of me, blocking the route.
“Don't worry, I'm not gonna fucking hit him! But you need to get him the fuck outta here NOW. He's not family... he's not Saul's brother as he claims. He's just a low-life fucking junkie, out for his own gain and not fussed about who he helps kill in pursuit of it.”
“I came to make sure Saul was alright,” I said.
“Yeah, sure ya did. Alright for what? HEROIN? That stuff almost killed him, you imbecile.”
“Dunno what you're talking about,” I said, “I didn't bring him any heroin.”
“Well, there's only been two visitors and I sure as hell didn't bring it in to him! Now fuck off. You're not wanted here.”
I didn't argue. Sure, I was curious to know exactly what had happened to Thinman with the heroin I had brought him up, but the last thing I needed was the police turning up, shaking me down and pulling me in for half a day. And so I gave no response, just turned and left from the way in which I had come. Thinman had my number. If he needed me he would call.
Thinman never did call. It was almost a month before I saw him again. Even then I barely recognized him. Pacing around outside the Texaco garage, waiting on the same contact as I, he looked like he had shrunk in half. He had only been out three days.
“What the fuck happened?” I asked.
“Fuck knows. Feel like shit, like I'm dying. Got no appetite, fuck all and what I do manage to swallow I bring back up. Feels as if my bloods still sick or something.”
“And the arm?”
“What's left of it is Ok... doing better than me. Still infected but is on the mend at least.”
“And you're back on the gear then? You didn't think it was maybe better to not start up again after those weeks without?”
“You know how it is. I've done so much fuckin' damage now it seems pointless to stop. It won't save me any days now. At least it takes the world away.”
I looked out into the world that Thinman was talking about. It was a shit one, alright. Autumn was on us proper and the city was damp from rain, a mist of vapour hanging in the distance below drab skies. In times gone by they would have piled corpses up and carted them away on days like this. I breathed in the air, wanting to extract some freshness from it, some cool that would unclog me of the smog and pollution and poison for a moment. But all I could taste was petrol, that and Thinman, mixing together and making me feel sad and ill, cars with rain speckled windows crawling by every now and again. Thinman was dying, that was obvious. Whether it was the botulism and septicaemia that was the cause, his liver, or just the life we led, who knew? What I did know was that the world which turned Thinman's stomach also turned mine, and together, on a low-hung autumn day, we stood outside the Texaco garage, our eyes flitting about this way and that, waiting impatiently for the only cure we knew.

- - -

Thanks as ever for reading, Shane. X


Audio Recording - So Dog We Were Too


Exclusive recording of my text So Dog We Were Too. Narrated by Tulip. Music courtesy of Zbigniew Preisner.
 

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.

- - -
A new Memoires text 'The Devil's Pause' coming very soon... Shane. X

Carry On up to Cuire Street


Write us a little something as we drive, Peter says. I think he means with a pen and paper, but then he is turned around and stretching off somewhere into the back of the old camper van. I watch the road as the van moves on with no driver, Peter's swollen feet in flipflops on the pedals. Before re-taking the wheel he dumps an old typewriter down into my lap.

"What the fuck?" I say, staring at it in terror. "I've never used a typewriter."

"Whaa? Never used a typewriter? Every writer needs a typewriter!"


"Not this one," I say. "But I'll give it a bash, as long as it doesn't fucking come to life on me."


"Paper," Peter says to Katia who is sat in the back.


"We don't have any."


Peter turns, looks around and points. "Rip a page outta that."


I hear a page being torn out from some book. An aged yellowed leaf is handed through to Peter. Peter is smoking and driving and is now also feeding the paper into the typewriter. When he's done he lifts the front cover and redresses the ink spools, winds them back some. Then he adjusts the carriage and sends it sliding along with a rattle to a fresh paragraph. A little bell tinkles. I briefly consider Peter's sanity and prepare to type. I sincerely hope he is not sane. Sane drivers are just about more dangerous than any others – especially in France; especially in the rain. With the loaded typewriter sat on my lap I loosen my fingers and concentrate over how to start this thing. I decide to open up with a line that we could both relate to – travelling and writing. I type the opening letter of the opening word and four typebars spring forward and jam together. Without taking his eyes off the road Peter's right hand leaves the gearstick, unclogs the bars and knocks them back down into their beds. He must be used to having fools besides him doing that, I think. I tell myself to slow down and type with a little more care. Outside it is raining - plump, healthy splodges from a dirty afternoon sky. The rain soaks the city in seconds. We cross the first of the city's rivers. The water is green and beautiful. "Look how green and beautiful the river is," Peter says. "Waa." I nod. I know those waters very well, better than Peter and they now flow with time and loss and make me sad. Across the bridge lies traffic and the city square. Way up over is the hill. There is a feint mist rising up from its face. We are closed in against the world, condensation around the rim of the windows. Peter wants me to write and so I write. I stare at the typewriter and I look at the page and I am not thinking of anything but the words which come. In my concentration Peter disappears and Katia disappears and the van disappears. The city and all its tragedy and filth snakes right into my soul. I feel a familiar shade of darkness descend upon me. The rain lashes down outside. I am alone; we are all alone. I take a drag of my cigarette and I write...


* * *


Peter only wanted a paragraph. Something to capture that small moment. He collects mementoes and makes them. He reads what I have written. "You must read it," he says. "I'll accompany you and Katia will record." I nod. In an old clapped out Citroen Challenger camper van, in the centre of Lyon, illegally parked, Peter climbs over into the back and straps on a guitar. Katia takes up her phone and records, the opening close up of the drizzle on the windowscreen directed by Peter. I set my small text up on the dash and set the voice recorder on my phone. Peter plays his unmistakeable scratchy jangle of notes. I hear his nails slap down the strings and rap the body of his guitar as he strums. I stare out into the rain and await my cue.







We write as we go, paper in the ready and loaded. Lyon cries her heart out through the middle of summer. Up on the hill there's a creeping sadness. People are lonely; we're all lonely – and the loneliest man of them all awaits us. We drive and we drive and it just goes on. Peter says that sometimes it is better to hoot and steam through rather than to stop. It's true. Sometimes to stop is to never be able to start again. God, I hope I never stop. Death terrifies me still. There are three people as I write and we all want to live with a passion. It rains and the city smells like an old ulcerated dog has just crept by and is off some place to die. The French rain streams down the gutter and takes our Gauloises cigerette ends wtth it. The Bureau de Change will save our souls today but God only knows for how much longer. Just keep going, Peter says. This is and always was our mantra. We drive on through the rain, going nowhere very fast. 


*    *    *

Peter sings an improvised tune using the title of my book as his inspiration as Katia de Vidas recites some text from The Body of Ewan Salt. Lyon, Rue de Cuire (Queer Street!) .




Thanks as ever for reading/watching this one of audio/visual post. A new Memoires text will be put up very soon... Shane. X

A Thousand Deaths of a Girl Named Katie


She gave up and sat down on the lower steps of the Methodist Church. The drizzle had washed through her dress and streaks of dirt ran down her calves and into her boots. She crossed her forearms atop her knees and sunk her face in the crevice. Her dreadlocks hung over, an inch off the wet ground. The church bell gave eight solemn rings and some bellow throated bird regurgitated a sound that echoed through the morning mist and terrified the town. Katie sat there like that until all was quiet again and then lifted her head. Her left eye was horrendously swollen and bruised. She forced a smile through the tears, her smoker's teeth matching the colour of her locks. Her bottom lip was split; the bridge of her nose too.

"You go on, I'll be fine," she said.
"You're gonna score from this rabble in the soup kitchen, aint ya?"
"What does it matter? And I can't miss Stuart. It's his rattle days. He'll not even be fit to graft without a morning bag. The poor sod would be in a panic if I'm not here when he arrives."
"Well, make sure he sticks around tonight... just in case that other maniac shows up again."
"He better not! Stew will kill him if he does... I hope the bastard turns up!"
"Hope for nothing. 24 hours without drama and you'll be out of this fucking race for a while... doing your stir in rehab."
"Oh, I need it. I couldn't do even another week of this life. If they buried me now I'd not even try to dig myself free."
"No-one's gonna bury ya. It takes money to bury people. People like us get burned alive.... we have done for hundreds of years."

Katie held her arms out. I reached down and hugged her. As I held her I told her that if she needed a last bag to get her into rehab to call around mine that evening. She made no sound and didn't throb but I knew she was crying. The rain was a light mist which you could barely see. A musky smell rose from Katie, like she had been sleeping with cats. We detached and I left. A little ways down the road I cast a look back. She was 45 but from that distance had the air of a young girl. She gave a slow salute. As I turned around, back into the direction of my way, a tragic still of Katie became fixed in my mind.
Katie did not make a show that evening. When some weeks later I had not seen her return from rehab I took it she had in whatever way made it out. Stuart, her young Liverpudlian boyfriend, had shot through at the same time. I assumed they must have pooled their nothingness and took up a new start some place together, keeping their heads down while trying their best to ignore the lonesome calls released by junk town. I didn't give it much thought. Occasionally another addict would ask about Katie, ask if I had received any news, but for the most part she was forgotten about and the scene turned on. It wasn't that we didn't care, it was that the junk life is a vagrant life and people come and go all the time. Sometimes they are there and sometimes they are not. Every junkie understands that the best way out is to make a clean break and those breaks are often made in an instant and are absolute – there is no leaving party or goodbye. As the months passed all thought of Katie and where she was fell from my mind. I was in the midst of my own life of heroin dependency and that was gruelling enough without the added burden of worrying where everyone else was at.

And so junk addiction ate the time away. I didn't notice the days drawing into night nor the spring disappearing into the blazing mouth of summer, and I didn't notice if Katie was three month missing or four. One week resembled the last and the last resembled the next and like that time moved on but life remained the same and still the next day was no different from the last. And then there I was, passing the old Methodist church on my way to score, a brief thought of Katie coming to me and a weird coincidence waiting in the wings.

I didn't notice him there at first. It was only when I heard the familiar sound of butane gas hissing out its cannister that I turned and looked. There was Stuart, in his old begging spot outside the bank, his hair shaved off and his inside wrist held to his mouth, a tin of lighter gas concealed up his sleeve and the nozzle between his teeth. He took another blast, his eyes widening as he recognized me. When the gas had settled down in his brain he stood up, throwing his blanket off. He gave me a handshake, which fell into a hug, and a pat on the back.

"Alright, lad... been a long fucking time. So what's cooking fella? Ya still running the tracks of the ol' gravy train, like?"
I gave him a show of my needle pocked hands.
"Yer'on da kop now, lad?"
"Yeah, gotta meet at Sunrise. And you? You still using?"
"Fits n starts, lad ... Fits n starts. My fucking devil's this gas. The B I can take or leave... Quit a habit. But not this fuckin' shite!"
"You gonna be around when I pass back?"
"I'll be 'ere till fuckin midnight if it carries on slow like this. The tight-ars'd fucks. At least back home folk have fuck all ta give, know what I mean."
"What you short on?"
" I've made me gas money, so need about another eight quid for a bag."
"Stick a fiver in with me and he'll do us three for 25."
"Yeah? You sure? Sound, lad." And with that Stuart was marching off with me while shovelling his begging blanket into his bag. As we strode on he took regular blasts from his gas can. He sounded like a deflating tyre walking besides me.

"So is Katie back with you then?"
" Katie? Dint ya hear? Katie went over, lad. She'urz found dead in her room on the Lime Grove ev'ning 'fore the silly lass was s'posed ter go ta fuckin' rehab."
"No, you gotta be kidding me?"
"Only wish I was. The old girl blew right out."
"Jesus, fuck! I was with her that morning. she was waiting for you outside the church... Copping of Noel and his lot."
"I was in cop shop. Nabbed by the bizzies, like. Almost two days they kept me there. Sicker n' fuckin sick when they turned me out. Crawled 'round tuh Katie's, dead selfish really, like, hoping she'd 'ave skipped on rehab an wuld 'ave a shot or a filter for me. No Katie and that scummy ponce, Ray the Gimp, tells me she'd gone under the previous evening an tuh be careful, like, as the bizzies were sniffin' about. That Nick, young kid she use'ta mother, was with her when it happened. 'Parently she was all busted up an' no-one quite knows why??? I reckon she were likely jumped while grafting or did it t'er self... you know how fuckin' mental she got."
"No, she was busted up when I saw her. Said it was some ex from North London. He'd tracked her down, gotten in past the security desk, forced his way in her door and then went mental on her. I can't fucking believe she's dead. It's dampened the night a bit... I'm wishing I never bumped into you now! And you? where have you been? You left at exactly the same moment so I took it you'd both shot thru together."
"When I heard about Katie it just did my 'ead in, like. I went back home next day. She was all I had down this way. I'd pick'd up a habit, was on the streets, an so I thought 'fuck ya' an took a train home. I did my rattle in muh Ma's an tried tuh get on up there. Was sound for a while... Going on pretty well. My Ma even managed to get custody of me littl'un... then things fell thru. I forgot how fuckin' shite life was."
I didn't reply. I was momentarily displaced into a lonely world of sadness and reflection. I could see Katie sat on the steps of the church, and the staggered last vision I had caught of her was pasted up in my inner mind. Then I thought of the OD? That seemed strange. There was no way a seasoned user like Katie could have gone under on a ten bag... not even two... not even if it were a strong batch, which was impossible if it came from Noel. Maybe she was poisoned by some shit the smack was cut with.
"Don't forget the booze and all the downers she use'ta swallow," said Stuart, when I told him of my fears. "She would go out strange that lass, like. I passed some scary fuckin horror nights with that girl. At least three times she went over on me. I remember walking her corpse around the fuckin' Green one night at gone 2am, all her muscles having given out. She'd fix, be so far out of it that she'd forget she'd already hit home and be cooking up the next shot while nodding out in her spoon. Plenty a time the fuckin gear would end up in the carpet. She had problems, you know."

With the news within me of Katie's passing the night and life didn't fit so comfortably within me. Something now scared me about what we were doing. For the first time since deciding to live by the needle a real fear had crept in and I wasn't looking forward to my shot at all. We scored and Stuart said goodbye and cut off through to where he was staying. Alone, my pace slowed and I wandered home in a kind of reverie. The streets seemed eerie now, the night wavering with sad ghostly frequencies, the Lime Grove swamped in bilious yellow light, and the overground train rocketing over the iron railway bridge and down towards Hammersmith. I looked at my hands and then up into the sky, as deep as I could into the immense purple of space. Katie's dead, I thought, Katie's fucking dead.

*     *     *

Outside the Kentucky on the Uxbridge Road was Sinbad's favourite meeting haunt. It was early afternoon and the sky was the colour of marble. Standing just aways down was a woman, smoking. She held her cigarette awkwardly, like a novice. The way she scrunched her face up as she took each long drag said she had lived a hard life where femininity didn't get you loved but battered. After a moment she came over.
"You're waiting for Sinbad int ya?" she said.
"Yeah. He should be here soon, he's usually pretty good."
"I'm hanging on him too."
"Thought so... Thought I'd seen you around."
"What's he holding, dya know?"
"Not sure. I got off him a few days ago and it wasn't bad, but these smalltime dealers pick-up so often he may have crap now."
"Gawd, don't say that! I need something with a strong kick today... had some bad news this morning."
"Most news that comes in the morning is bad."
"Well today it was double bad. Fuckin found out me best friend Od'd, din I. Dead."
"Fuck. That is bad."
"Always the fucking good ones they take! As they say: only the good die young. Katie she was called. Never harmed or cheated a soul in her life."
" Katie from Lime Grove?"
"Yeah, mate. Did ya now her?"
"Not personally. But I know who you mean."
"Fuck, me and Katie was like that," she said, crossing her fore and middle fingers. "We go back years. I was the last person to see her alive... aside from her boyfriend that is. The poor girl was only hours away from rehab as well. Was her boyfriend who shot her up, killed her. Can you even imagine? He's in a bad fucking way this morning... Just hope he doesn't do anything stupid."
"What she died recently?"
"Last night! I'd been with her all day. She must'ave gone over right after I left her. Weird as well. Not even an hour after I got home I took a real strange turn... went into a kind of trance and just began crying and shaking hysterically. Bob, that's me old man, he said straight off, 'Someone you knows died!' I paid him no mind, don't believe in stuff like that, me. But if he weren't just about fuckin spot on. Weird hey?"
"Very weird," I said.
"Mind you, I wouldn't narf mind knowing who sold her the gear which did it! Ol' Sinbad would be getting the fucking elbow if I did. That's 'arf the problem round 'ere: there's no middle ground. You go from getting utter crap to mind-blowing stuff. You get so used to dropping a full bag in the spoon that when some decent gear comes around everyone gets caught off guard. It's why I never shoot first. Most junkies they wanna be the first to hit home; not me.Ya can't be too careful when ya fuckin' life's at stake. But I've always been shrewd like that. Always watching, I am. As I said, poor old Katie was a luvly girl but not the shrewdest of users I've ever known. Though she din't fuckin' deserve that... no one does."
"As I said, I didn't know the girl personally but had seen her around. Though the last time was months ago."
"Yeah, she kept herself pretty much to herself, not like these younger lot who want everyone to know their business, waving packs a fuckin needles about in the street. A lot of people knew Katie by sight, but only a select few were let in to her private life. I count meself honoured to have been one of 'em, to have been there for her right up until the end. And I won't stop there... won't stop being a friend juss coz she's passed. I've taken it on meself to arrange her funeral... make sure she gets a proper send off an burial, not bunged into a fuckin pauper's grave!"
"Good luck with that. They say the average funeral is two grand or something nowadays."
"Ain't no price you can put on a friend. I'll fuckin' quit my habit if I have to, but that girl's gonna go off in style; She woulda fuckin luved that... white horses and a nice carriage, trotted around the green where she used to score and every junkie this side of the river tooting an' shooting on behind. In death I'm gonna give her what she never 'ad in life."

I didn't say a word. This woman was probably here to ask Sinbad for heroin on credit and if she did have two grand there's no way she'd spend it on anyone but herself. Not that I'd blame her. Only someone drugged up to the eyeballs could think it sensible to pay two grand just to bury someone... do the Borough's dirtiest work for them. That Katie was already more than three months dead was a further problem I couldn't quite see being resolved. I listened to the woman's talk and commitment, her absolute determination to get her supposed friend buried. The white horses, the carriage, the hordes of addicts cheering and crying her off. This wasn't Katie's dream funeral it was the woman's, a fantasy of a world that cared, that surely in the gravity of death , at that very extreme point, that surely someone somewhere would love you enough to do something. It was a deep dark lonely sadness she spilt, fears of her own treatment post-mortem when the drugs and cigarettes have finally taken their inevitable toll. I let her have her dream and her fantasy. I let her be the loyal comrade who'll bury her friend no matter at what price or cost. If she believed it, even for a second, then good for her. Sinbad was running late and sobriety was entering me with a creeping sadness too.


*     *     * 

Ray the Gimp was an odious little user with a violently bowed left leg. Stood still he looked like he was falling over. In his fifties he had thick greasy grey hair, speckled with dust and dry scalp and insect eggs. His eyes were deep set and shifty and always seemed to watch you when you wasn't watching him. A man of vile habits he was forever turning around and clearing his nose and throat, bringing up all manner of gunk from his lungs and gobbing it out into the gutter. His thumb and forefingers were stained dark brown. When he talked he fired out specks of frothy saliva, always finishing his discourse by pulling the back of his hand across his mouth. Everyone knew him and everyone despised him a little more than the previous person. Not that it bothered him. Ray the Gimp thrived off such loathing. It allowed him to be ever more treacherous without the unnecessary emotions of guilt or empathy playing on his conscience. He hated the world and the world hated him, an uneasy truce which just about held.

My instinct was to avoid Ray. He was one of the petty bottom feeders which lurked the murky waters of heroin addiction, getting by on turning such lowly tricks that there wasn't even a comeback on him when it was understood what he'd done. This time, however, I let Ray run out his hustle, limping slowly over and lingering besides me like an unwanted shadow. I felt his cunning eyes on me and waited for his raspy, toothless patter.

"Ya waiting for Rico, mate? Shame, you've just missed him. Won't be back for a good half an hour now. Not that cunt. I know his ways better than he fuckin knows 'em his self: 'Be d'ere in five, bro... Be d'ere in five!' An the cunts never there! Fuck 'im... ya just don't need that! Listen I've a few ten bags on me right now if you wanna save yaself the hassle, mate? Top gear as well. Not these fucking footballs which that cunt sells, cut to fuck with manitol, but proper gear, mate... rock. Point two. 'ere, 'av a look?"
From his filthy mouth he spat out a little blue bag into his palm. He showed me it, sitting in a little lake of his thick saliva, before popping it back into his gob.
"Point two bang on, an ya don't need me to tell ya that you'll not get better round 'ere. Well, I'm using it meself in I, so ya know its gonna be a decent bit a kit. Don't put no crap in my body, me."
"I'll pass, Ray. You know how funny these guys get calling them out and then not showing. Next time."
"Your call, mate... it's not me losing out: it's you."

Of course, I wasn't losing out at all. Ray was waiting for Rico himself. Rico sold a gram for 25 and this nauseous little fuck would then divide it into five 10 bags and double his cash each time. Most were wise to his hustle, but there were just enough dope sick punters who would turn up and take the first deal on offer to get themselves back on their feet. Ray would sell his bags off like that and whenever Rico passed by next he would see him for another gram and do the same over again. It never made him a penny but it got him his junk each day and no junkie ever needs more than that.

Ray sat down on the narrow metal bench which ran the width of the bus-stop. He took the weight off his gammy leg and made some monstrous hunking noise in the back of his throat. I thought of the bags of heroin he had in his mouth and wondered how the hell he managed not to swallow them while performing such violent clearances of his airways.

"Ray, what's this about Katie dying?"
"Katie? Don't know no Katies... alive or dead."
"Dreadlocks... small bull-ring through the nose..."
"Ah, yer mean Kate! God, that's goin' back some. Carried out one evening, weren't she... covered up. Caused a lotta fuckin' grief for us wot was left. The management screwed right down tight on drug use... random room inspections, the lot. She dint do noone no favours clocking out like that. No. It was one of my bags which did it as well. Once word got around about that my phone was ringing hot... everyone wanted a bit a the action. And this stuff (opening his mouth and showing two bags under his tongue) is just about even fucking better. Anyway, next day the police cleared her room out and took her belongings away: a single black bin liner. Fuckin' tragic really."
"I heard Nick was with her when it happened?"
"Was him who shot her up! Said she went out in his arms. He was evicted after it came out he was with her. Silly fucka, admitting to that... lucky he dint end up on a fuckin manslaughter charge. He's kipping in with Marge now, back to square one."
"I was with Katie the morning it happened. Found her wandering in a daze down around the station, all beat up. She was waiting for the soup kitchen to open and I told her to come and I'd score for her. As we passed the Methodist Church she suddenly gave up and quit, deciding rather to hang about there and score off Noel and that lot."
"Fuck, everyone was with Kate that morning. You're at least the fifth fuckin person to av told me that. Evryone was wiv her just before she died, and just as many were wiv her when she scored the bags which killed her, and probably there's just as many claiming to have hit her up with the fuckin fatal shot. But it's like I said, she scored off a me that evening and was dead not even an hour later. Just goes to show: no one's immune to good gear... no matter how experienced they think they are."

When Ray stopped talking I checked my phone to see how long Rico had been. I felt Ray scrutinising me and shaking his head. He was about to say something, try to convince me that Rico would be a good while yet and make another offer to sell me his saliva marinated bags. But before he could form a word in his mouth, a new junkie arrived on the scene with a face and posture shot through with suffering. Ray the Gimp noticed the pains of junk sickness immediately. He edged his way across the bench like some kind of a human crab, finishing up staring into the face of the latest length of misery which had arrived. The junkie looked at Ray and winced in pain.
"You waiting for Rico, mate?" Ray asked.
The junkie nodded; he was in too much discomfort to talk.
"You're gonna have a long fuckin' wait, then... he passed not even 5 minutes ago and din't even have enough to serve evryone who was 'ere. Said he's off to reload and will be back in 45 minutes. 45 fuckin hours more like it... you know how long these piss-taking cunts take ta reload."
"Oh, you are joking? He told me he was on his way. I'm dying 'ere!"
"Ya will an all, waiting on that cunt. But if ya that poorly I've a couple a ten bags you can take off ma hands? Will get ya right outta stook? Ere, av a look..." Ray once again spat a bag out his mouth and showed it to the addict. The addict looked it over with a sharp, interested nose. His face didn't look too impressed, but I could see in his eyes he was sold.
"Fuck it, go on," he said. He gave Ray ten quid, took the bag, and shuffled off as fast as he could. Barely had he been gone 30 seconds and Rico came along. He gave Ray the Gimp a searing, suspicious look and made his way past. To me he gave one solemn, almost indistinguishable nod as he carried straight on by. I waited a couple of seconds and then casually followed.

*     *     *

It was on my mind and I had nothing small to say and so I said, "Did ya hear about Katie dying?"
Tracy looked at me with a genuine expression of horror and sadness and said, "Oh no, not Katie... God no. How? When?"
"Few months back. OD. I'd been with her the morning it happened and the real sickener is that she had a two week residential rehab set up for the following day."
"How have you only just found out?"
"Her ex-boyfriend, Stuart. I thought the two of them had gotten clean and shot the scene together, then, fast forward to last week, I'm passing the bank, and who do I see sat sown in his old spot? Stuart. I asked him if Katie was back with him and he said she was dead. Apparently, Nick, young tall kid, shot her up and she went out on him."
"I can't believe this! Only last week I was speaking about her with Mikey. He said she'd not scored off him for weeks and asked if I'd seen her. Of course I hadn't, but never imagined anything untowards had happened... well you don't, do you? People move on and most come back and some don't. I'm in shock... seriously fucking shocked. But you know what we gotta do? We've gotta say a proper goodbye to the poor girl. We gotta have us a nice parting shot for Katie."
"I'm really not into stuff like that, but we can score and share a thought privately. Since I found out last week I've not been able to rid my mind of it. How do these things happen as they do? After 25 years of shooting dope and she dies hours before getting to rehab. It's unbelievable."

Now Tracy was down. She paced about shaking her head and saying Katie's name over, despairingly. Then she said, "We should phone Mikey... Let him know. He'll bump us up a deal for Katie... I'm sure of it."
And so from walking one way, all set to meet a dealer serving up out of Acton, we made a u-turn and I followed Tracy across the road and into a beat up phone box where she fed coins into its slot and tapped out a long series of numbers. I watched her face as she listened anxiously for Mikey to pick up. The moment he did I saw Tracy's face crease up with the ugliness of grief.
"Mikey, it's Trace darlin'. I need to see you... just had some real terrible news. Please say you're holding... please! Yeah... I know it. Back of the flats? Ten mins, tops."
As soon as Tracy put the phone down her tears stopped and she let out a big smile.
"10 mins. WestWay... We're on."

Mikey came wandering out the back of the flats up to where we were waiting alongside the railings. He was a handsome, milk chocolate coloured West-indian, thin and light of gait and in fresh clean woollen sportswear. He had the muscular jowls of a herbavore. His hood was up and under it he wore a red rap bandana. Between his lips was a matchstick. With his head slightly lowered he slid his sober eyes from one side to the other, scanning for any suspicious cars or people hanging about. He touched fists with me.

"What's all da stress for girl?" he asked Tracy.
Tracy was sobbing, albeit with no tears. She remained like that, as though if she were to speak she'd lose the concentration needed to hold herself together. When the tension peaked, she blubbered, " Katie's dead, Mikey... She went over on us! I need some help, darlin'... she was all I had."

Mikey's bottom lip dropped open; the match remained stuck to it. He couldn't find a word.

Through her dry tears Tracy forced a smile and apologised. With her fingers pushed out to full length she presented both her trembling hands to Mikey, to show just how much she had been affected by the news. Mikey removed the match from his lip and stood there thinking. He looked at me and I nodded and then gave a morose look down.

"Mikey, we wanna say a proper goodbye, you know. Katie was our friend and one of your best customers. She was the one who first put me onto you, do you remember that? I need to say a last goodbye and calm myself down... only I don't really have the means for such a gesture right now..."
"Wrong day, Trace," said Mikey, "you caught me on a bad one. I'm almost out. I'll be switching off right after we're done. Not too sure I've even got what you want?"
"We want five brown, Mikey. Two for him and three for me."

Mikey grimaced and shook his head. "Don't think I've got it" he said. He turned around and cowered into his own space, inspecting what he had in his hand. "You know what," he said, turning back, "you got luuh-key, sis. I've exactly five on me."
"Just the five? You've not an extra bag or two... Not even for Katie?"
"Just got the five, Trace, nothing more. If I did I'd be only too happy to give you a touch."

I watched Tracy deflate. Now she really did look like someone had died. "We'll take the five then," she said, disappointed. She nodded for me to give Mikey my cash for two. When he turned back to Tracy he found her patting her way through her pockets and cursing. "Fuck me, Mikey... I've left my purse at home! I've only cash on me for one."
"Serious?"
"I am,Yeah. Sorry."

Mikey gave Tracy a bag and put the other two back in his pocket. He hadn't realised what Tracy was up to. Just as he was on the verge of saying goodbye, Tracy suddenly had a thought:

"Fuck," she said, "I've just realised, you've a couple of extra now... you can put them in for Katie."

Mikey stammered. For a moment he was looking to try and worm his way out the situation before finally acknowledging he had been done. Reluctantly, he dipped his hand in his deep tracksuit pocket, the gold chain on his wrist rising as he searched around. Tracy held her hand out. Mikey unpinched his thumb and forefinger and let a bag fall in her palm. Tracy kept her hand open. He deliberated, sucked his bottom lip and then dropped the second bag in her palm too.

"She would have been proud of you, Mikey," she said.

Mikey gave an all-knowing look, like now he even doubted if Katie was really dead. He tossed the wet match he was holding away, lowered his head and left, returning to the same place he had came from.

Tracy was ecstatically happy. She noticed me looking at her and fell back into a more sombre mood. "These are for Katie!" she said. "How she hated that tight-fisted fucker Mikey. I remember he refused her a bag on tick once and left her fucking sick and crying in the street!" As we walked on in silence a car hooted its horn and then pulled in at the curb a little way down. It was some acquaintance of Tracy's. She rushed over. I lingered behind. Tracy was bent down leaning in the passenger window like a hooker. I couldn't make out what she was saying but all became clear when she straightened up and then held out her trembling hands to the driver. The driver took something out from his inside jacket pocket and squeezed it into Tracy's hand. He held the squeeze for a prolonged moment. Tracy closed her eyes as if his human contact was relieving her of her suffering on the spot. It was a miracle cure alright, and it had the Queens ugly face printed all over it.

*     *     *

"Shane, did you ever know that tall dreadlocked woman who used to beg outside the bank... always with the Liverpudlian fella?"
"No."
"Lovely girl she was. Crazy as batshit, but a good'un.... Well, was a good'un. Heard this morning she bailed on us. Only 40 odd. Dead."
"Fuck. Who was she? Your best friend?"
"I wouldn't go that far, not my best BEST friend, but we got on pretty close for a while back there. I introduced her to that artist guy who rides about on that fucking silly painted tricycle. She wern't doing too well and he paid her a few quid twice a week to sit for him."
"Well, she's not really missing too much, is she? I don't get how everyone cries about how shit and sadistic life is and then when someone actually makes it out everyone is all cut up about it. What happened to her anyway?"
"God, was fucking horrible from what I can make out. Lonely, found a week later when she didn't sign on and her hostel fees weren't paid. Half her face eaten away by flies when they finally got in. Needle in her neck too. Suicide. It turned out it happened just a few hours after she'd been beaten half to death by her latest fella. He's in nick now. What a fucking life, hey? Can you believe half the crazy shit that happens the moment heroin is poured into the stir? They want a good film alls they need to do is pin a fucking camera to a junkies head for a week and tell him to do nothing but breathe. Chances are the last hours of film will be the fucking camera recording the ceiling until the battery dies... or some paramedic kneeling into shot and pronouncing him dead."
"That all seems like bullshit to me. If everyone died like everyone says there'd be none of us left."
"Eh? This shit is dangerous fucking business, man. No junkie is anymore than a shot away from death and don't ever forget it. That was the fourth friend who's toppled on me this year alone... Two right in front of me."
"I'm not saying people don't die, I'm just saying that one death turns into a hundred. It seems there's a few staple stories that every junkie has to have or somehow they've not really experienced the cinematic 'junkie' horror story - a dead best friend is one of them. Go along to any NA meeting, read any addicts journals or poetry and not one of them doesn't have their own personal take on the dead best friend theme. A lot of people just make shit up to give some drama to their lives. The truth is that someone dies every now and again and all deaths are put down to OD and every junkie who had even a passing acquaintance with that person was suddenly their best friend and was there. You could be sure, if my heart were to give out this evening and I were found dead tomorrow, I'd straight away be given a cause of death as 'Heroin OD' and instantly, post-mortem, become the most popular guy around. And everyone is happy to oblige the myth because it sounds much more personally tragic that a friend died from an OD rather than a heart attack. But really, when you think of it and what is going on, it is really someone not caring too much about the person who supposedly passed but rather wanting to put over just how recklessly dangerous their own life is. In any walk of life it's mostly bullshit what goes on and the heroin scene is no different... it's probably even worse."
"Well, ya may have a point there mate, but I really have seen more deaths than I care to remember. Sure, there's bullshit too but not from my mouth."
"Forget it. I wasn't having a go at you. Just sick of all the crap that goes around. It just seems that every addicts feels obliged to have stories of all kinds of crazy shit when the truth is many live holed up with their nan or mother and the most exciting thing which happens is news of a new colostomy bag or something... an amputation or DVT if they're really lucky."
"Fuck me, where does the cynicism come from, man? Remind me not to tell you next time some poor cunt goes under!"
"Next time some poor cunt goes over don't tell me: I DON'T CARE!"
"Fair enough. Now, do you wanna take this methadone offa me or not?"
"I do if it's not watered down."
"I don't fucking water my methadone down. No cunt would buy off me if I did. And there's one fool proof way to know if the juice is watered or not: shake it. If it bubbles at the top there's water in it. Proper juice is too thick to pick up a surf."
"Nah, you're OK. I trust you... just. Give us it here then."
"I've another 250ml if you need any more. Buzz me."
"Er, Steve?"
"Yeah?"
"What the fuck's this? I've just shaken it like you said and its got a head on it like a fucking pint of Guiness!"
"Fuck off! Let me see that. Hmmm... yeah, it's deffo got a bit of an afro. Probably the chemist over did it with the mix."
"Well give it back to the chemist then. I don't want this shit."
"Nah, don't do this to me mate, please. Can't get meself a a couple of baggies if not. D'ya think I'd tell ya about how to check it if I had watered the shit down?"
"Yes... you probably would. How much is in there? I need to know? Be honest or I'll leave it completely."
"Ok, I took a gulp this morning. But seriously I just added water to cover what I took and it weren't much."
"But I thought you had plenty? Another 250ml? Why would you need to take a gulp of this?"
"Well, I took a gulp of the other too. Just incase I sold it and then couldn't score or something. It's not quite 250ml... maybe 220 or so."
"You sure you didn't only have 250ml and topped it up to 500 with water?"
"Naaaaah, mate," he said laughing, in a way that let me know I was either spot on or very near to the truth. "Taste it. Go ahead."
"You've probably added a shitload of sugar to it to, so there's no point. I'll take it, but I'll know exactly what you've done to it by how long 90 will hold me. It better not be what I think."
"You're para, mate. Pure para."
"I'm not para, Steve, though if I were, I've good reason to be: it's shit trickery like yours which really kills people... Probably the same kind of trickery which killed Katie. Maybe deep down you even know it. Maybe that is why such a death cuts you up so much. Maybe it's a guilty conscience?”
Steve gave me a curious look, like how one would look at an insane person.
Guilty conscience? What the fuck are trippin' on? It was suicide, you nutter... she fucking killed herself!”

*     *     *

Nick was a tall lanky user with unwashed black hair down to the end of his neck. He had large, far set, slightly bulged eyes, pinky red boils all over his face and a greenish tint to his skin. He had shot himself down to clothes from charity shops: huge misshapen woollen jumpers atop trousers he was forever hitching up at the waist. He never wore any socks and had black ankles. I happened upon him and Portuguese Joe pushing a shopping trolley down the high street with a large-backed TV sat in it.

"What trouble you pushing around there?" I asked.
"TV. Dual DVD," Nick said. "You can have it for 25 squid?"
"No thanks."
"Well, it was worth a try. It's a decent bit of mediaware tho, innit? We're gonna see if Trooper will take it for a 40's worth a B. Wotcha think? He'll take it, won't he?"
"God Knows. Not if he's on foot he won't."
"Fuck, Joe, did you hear that: what if T comes on foot?"
"He won't be on foot! We already told him we've something for him to look at."
"O yeah."
"Where you meeting him?"
"Wood Lane."
"I'll tag along with ya, should be interesting."

To get off the main road with their hot goods Nick and Portuguese Joe turned and cut through the smaller side streets. Joe pushed the trolley, limping while crashing recklessly over the uneven paving.

"Nick, what's all this about Katie? What happened?" Nick pulled a kinda blank expression, as if finding his thoughts. He nodded gently.
"Yeah, she went over. Out just like that. She was already wasted and when her boyfriend never put in a show she went psycho and turned her attentions to his gear. She was in some state though... Physically. She'd been drinking all day and had taken a beating from someone or other. Not sure who she wouldn't talk of it."
"I heard it was you who shot her up?"
"Wot? Where jya hear that?"
"Gimpy Ray. He was boasting about how it was his gear that took her out."
"I never fucking shot her up! Is he trying to have me nabbed or what! And it werent his shitty little bags a gear either. His stuff wouldn't knock out a fucking dwarf."
"But you was there? "
"I was there, but had fuck all to do with it and dint stick around. When I saw she'd gone over I gave her a quick check, took the half bag a gear she had left and scrammed. I phoned the ambulance though and most wouldn't."
"You're probably right there."
"The next day they cleared her room out. I took her gear as I figured she'd not need it where she was and she wouldn't have wanted it to end up in the police incinerator. "
"You don't need to explain. I'd have done the same... we all would. Gimpy Ray also said you got evicted for being there."
"O don't listen to that cunt! I wasn't even a resident at the hostel so how the fuck could I be evicted? I stayed over a few nights here and there. Sometimes with Katie and sometimes with Peter below. When that all blew over with Katie they got so strict with room checks that no-one could risk having me there. It was fuck all to do with being with Katie though. These fucking people, Jesus."

Nick now took the shopping trolley from Portuguese Joe and began pushing it himself. Joe said his leg hurt. He lit a cigarette and followed on behind. At the first turning on Wood Lane Nick stopped and rested with the trolley on the corner. He mentioned something about standing in the middle of the road with a stolen TV and laughed. Joe was laughing too. He was also asking passers by if they were interested in the TV. Trooper would be having a look at it but all the better if they could sell it before. A few people looked in at it, examined the plug, but no-one would risk buying it without being able to plug it in and test that it worked. Not long after a small blue car flew by with the passenger window down, music blaring and a big black happy head nodding away and singing out the window. He let out a special sound for Nick and Joe, a high-pitched animalistic scream/laugh as the car flew by. It was Trooper.

"He can't be holding gear," I said to Nick, "he wouldn't be carrying on with that lark if he were."
"He's always holding. He wouldn't turn up empty."

A minute later and the same black guy who had been been hanging out the car window came strolling down the road. He had a weird way of rolling his shoulders as he walked.

"Fuck, bro!" he said to Nick, "You couldn't be any more blatant?"
"Too heavy to carry; too big to hide, " said Nick.

Trooper cast his eye over the TV. It looked new and was top of the range. Without saying whether he wanted it or not he made a call and said:
"It's cool. Come and get me." Nick held his dirty fist out for Trooper to bump.
"Get away wid dhat nonsense, bro! Wot you take me for?" Trooper said. "I'll give you a gram for your goods... no more."

Nick looked at Joe. Joe pulled a discrete, inert face, his eyes widening a touch like he was trying to breathe through them. He gave a very subtle shake of his head.
"Come on T," said Nick, "don't do us on a couple of bags?"
"Listen, bro, I said a gram. I'm not paying more for dhem tings. I'll drop a white in too. Yes or no bro? Comes on. I'm a busy man."
"You're killing us T," said Nick. "It's the B we need. But if that's what you're offering then that's it... we gotta accept, int we?"
"Dis ain't no charity, bro. An not one other man round d'is manor would even trade for anything but pure dollar."
The blue car arrived. Trooper told Nick and Joe to load the TV in the back. As they did Trooper got in the passenger seat and said, "10 mins, bro. Me gonna sort ya tings. An lose the fuckin trolley, bro."

The car pulled off. Nick took the trolley and pushed it and let go. It freewheeled into the curb on the far side and fell over with a discordant rattling crash. When he turned back around he looked almighty pleased with himself.

"Told you he wouldn't have gear on him, " I said. Nick just nodded. The same nod he had made when thinking about Katie.

*     *     *

Fellow Edwards was working over already tilled ground. He told so many lies that he appeared to have a bad memory. He wasted no time in breaking down and sobbing out my memories to me. I watched him curiously as he told me how he had been with Katie at the Methodist Church the morning before she had died, how he hugged her goodbye and had told her that if she needed anything she was just to call around. He even went so far as to describe how young and tragic she seemed to him on his last look back "as if the sprite of youth had appeared in her for one last beautiful moment before the end of all suffering". He had mastered his art so well that his version was better than the original. And neither did it end there.

Coming back from a few seconds of deep, faraway thoughts, Fellow Edwards sighed. Then he looked up and stared straight at me, through me. From somewhere he had mustered up real tears. They did not break and roll but sat against the lip of his bottom eyelid like a clear ripple of shoreline. He did look incensed by grief.

Fellow Edwards explained how Katie had indeed called around his that evening and how he had scored of Ray the Gimp and had given Katie two bags. He said that it was his good will that had killed her. He spoke as if there were a great moral to be had from his story. He took all the tragedy away from Katie and filled his own soul with it. And yet, unlike Tracy, he had not done so to gain in any material way. It seemed his sole reward was in reinforcing the idea of just how hexed and luckless his existence was. I let him continue, let him tell me of the troubled evening he had passed the night Katie had died, how he was overcome with a strange urge to go back and see her, an urge he had ignored with the gravest of consequences. When he was quite finished, I said:

"You've not a very good memory, have you?" He gave me a 'Huh?' like look. He must have discerned something in my voice as he was on the defensive, ready to defend the bullshit he had just told me with a passion.
"Don't you remember meeting me the other week? You was with that mate of yours... he had his foot in plaster?"
"Er... yeah... and???"
"Well, it was me who told you about Katie dying and how that morning I'd left her at the church. You've just told me the story I told you... And a whole lot more besides."
Fellow Edwards kinda leaned back with a horrified look on his face, his regard was suddenly one of hostile distrust. His brain was working away furiously, searching for an out. Instinctive guilt reaction took over.

"Fuck off, mate... Fuck right off! You told me this story? You're fucking aving a laugh, int ya? How the fuck could you tell me anything when it was me who was with her? A short memory! What the fuck do you take me for? A cunt?"
"Just telling you what happened. It was even you who asked me about her."
"BullSHIT! You've got ya fucking wires crossed somewhere. You may have told someone but it wasn't fucking me!"
"Then I couldn't have told anyone... I would have only just now found out about it."
"You taking me for a fucking mug? You're sick. You need to cut the drugs out if they're doing that to you. My fucking friend and you're shitting on her memory? Is that what you're doing? Shitting on her fucking memory? Come on, Muppet ... speak up!"

Fellow Edwards had found his angle. Like many a liar before him, thinking it would be the reaction of an honest man, he first set about in a blaze of anger and indignation and then took it to its absolute extreme, threatening violence. But an honest man would never react like that; an honest man would do the opposite; an honest man would do absolutely nothing at all. Getting violent was Fellow Edwards' way of discharging his humiliation - a way to regain his lost pride. It was a contrived, dominating behaviour, one designed to make amends, no different from the man who loses at chess only to want to settle it with a boxing match. And if, at the very least, all that happens is that the other fellow quits his boastful actions and retracts his accusations, then the threat of violence has served good purpose. Under the dishonourable mask of defending his friend's honour Fellow Edwards was all het up and gunning for me. The last thing I was going to do was fight over what I knew to be the truth, and so, I backed down and said that I was sorry and must have been mistaken. It was a fairly ridiculous situation, one of reversed roles, though entirely possible, that by this time, Fellow Edwards had convinced himself that he really had lived through what he recounted. With my recantation of events the situation calmed to an uneasy truce. Fellow Edwards withdrew into himself, a sulky look of coiled anger retracting into his face. He refused to speak another word, took to pacing around like an embittered convict, mentally muttering and cursing to himself, working himself up afresh then calming himself down with measured steps and deep, slow intakes of air through his nostril. With a downcast sadness I watched him out the corner of my eye, sometimes just his lower legs and shoes, wondering what in the hell was wrong with this world.

Over the course of a month, since Stuart's return, every other junkie I met had some story about Katie. Either they were there, had crossed her path that day, had scored the drugs which killed her, or, had intimate details of her death. Others said that they had heard and it was a shame, though what they had heard was often no more than pure fantasy. Some renderings of the death held that Katie had died months ago and others that it happened just days ago. There were those who said she was carried out still alive only to die in hospital; those who said she was found after some weeks, half decomposed; and some still who claimed her body was put in the lift of the hostel building and found by staff when the doors opened up on the ground floor. There were even a minority who looked at me aghast when I told of her death and said it was impossible because they had seen her only last week. One junkie, by the name of Grace, even went so far as saying she had Katie's new telephone number, yet, quite predictably, couldn't find it when asked for it.

Still, regardless of all the hearsay, for the most part I was able to unravel myth from truth. I was with her that morning and had gotten the initial story of her death from Stuart. Stuart's account matched up with Nick's and in part with Gimpy Ray's. Aside from certain obvious embellishments, Ray's rendition was quite an accurate telling of events. It was a telling which put him in the vortex of the drama, but the basic facts seemed reliable enough. Everyone else's tales were borrowed from other people and slightly or highly adapted, each person inserting themselves into a prominent place in history, turning a second or third hand story into a first person perspective. For some months Katie's death was the hot topic of conversation amongst the community's junkies: on the day she died she must have crossed the path of just about every addict in the borough, of which, at least ten of them must have fixed her up with the fatal shot.
Katie's death was only finally dethroned by the tragic news of Dumfries Billy, a middle-aged beggar who was hosed down out the doorway of Boots one morning only to be flooded out his flimsy cardboard abode stiff dead with a terribly dislocated jaw. Rumour was that his begging bowl had taken a bumper haul that night, that by some freak of chance death had deprived him of a once in a lifetime take. Even in death people were mythologizing the poor fellas awful luck. Whether Dumfries Billy ever existed or not I've no idea. All I know is that I had the good fortune never to have crossed his unlucky, dislocated path.

*     *     *

It was a good year after Katie's death that the truth of what happened was finally revealed. It came via the most unlikeliest of sources, sat out on the steps of the West London magistrates Court during the afternoon recess.

"Hey hey, stranger!" she said, as I happened by. I looked down at the woman sat out on the steps, whiling her time away making little sketches of the coming and going court clerks and lawyers. I gave her a queer look, not able to quite place her face to a name. And then she smiled and I saw them long smoker's teeth and the sculpted lips which must have served her well in younger days. Her dreadlocks were tied back and grown out in the front, and for the day she had replaced her hippy wear for smart and honest, black and white. I almost swallowed my tongue and the roof of my mouth. It was Katie.

"Well ain't ya gonna say hello!" she said, standing up. For 12 months dead she was pretty steady on her feet and had a solid enough hold. Breaking out the clinch I said, "I heard you was …."
"...dead," she finished. "I know. You're not the first. OD'd just prior to rehab and baa blah blah! Well, do I look too dead from where you're standing?"

It turned out that Katie had mildly OD'd the night she was with Nick and he had made off with two and a half bags of her gear and her purse before phoning the emergency services. Unconscious, she was taken to hospital and released into her residential rehab the next day, where she stayed for two weeks before being reallocated to new digs in South east London. She told me how she had waited everyday in rehab for Stuart to arrive and when he never did she blew him out as just another heroin hanger on who didn't give a fuck about anything but gear. That may have been true, but we were all like that in the midst of hardcore addiction. I told her that Stuart had been arrested and on his release had gone around to see her only to be told by a handful of people that she was dead. Depressed, he'd returned home. She pulled a face as if she didn't believe that; maybe she was right. Regarding the police cleaning out her hostel room, Katie said it wasn't the police but a couple of rehab personnel who had passsed by to pick up some personal belongings for her stay. After we had gone through all the details of her apparent death I then recovered my senses and realised I was talking to her outside a courthouse.
"What are you doing here?"
"Heroin traffic and possession," she said. She had been busted for some very small time dealing, just enough to supply her own habit. She had been released on bail leading up to the case and so she was pretty confident she'd get off with a suspended sentence or maybe an imposed rehab or detox. As we were speaking her solicitor came down the courthouse steps and said they needed to get inside as theirs was the second hearing of the afternoon. Katie asked me if I'd stay and watch the hearing but I said I couldn't as I had somewhere to be. She smiled that smile one last time and understood and accepted that one thing in our lives came before most other things. I asked her for her phone number but she didn't have a phone and so I took the number of her solicitor and hugged her good luck.

 On leaving Katie I imagined all the stories that had been circulating since her disappearance, all the repercussions her supposed death had had on people, all the extra bags the addicts had secured on the back of her demise and all the new stories of a best friend having gone under. Just because Katie had washed up alive and well wouldn't kill peoples stories. Noone is going to relinquish their tales of personal tragedy and horror for something as fickle as the truth. Everyone retains their stories and will cry over them as genuinely as if they really happened. It seems that often people just want an excuse to cry about their own lives, to somehow have a genuine second hand reason to break down and sob without being told to stop the self-pitying bullshit.

The next day after seeing Katie I wondered how her court case had gone. I fetched out the piece of paper the solicitor had jotted his number down on and called. I introduced myself and asked how Katie had gotten on.

"Katie???"
"Yes, we met yesterday on the steps... you gave me your number. The woman with the dreadlocks."
"You mean Miranda?"
"No, I mean Katie."
"Maybe she goes by Katie on the street, but the girl I defended yesterday was called Miranda... Ms Miranda Braithwaite."
"Well, whatever her real name is, how did she get on?"
"Not too well, I'm afraid. She received a two year custodial sentence, Holloway. Was a pretty harsh verdict, but was always a possibility, what with her having such a sour history of failed and abandoned rehabs. Her initial plea of 'not guilty' didn't help her case."
"Two years? Fuck."
" Maybe it'll do her good? A blessing in disguise?"
" Maybe."
I put the phone down. Miranda Braithwaite, I thought, how apt. For all the years I knew Katie, it turned out that she wasn't Katie at all; she was always someone else. I suppose I could have felt deceived, but I never did. It just made the last year of rumours and hearsay even more ridiculous. There never was no Katie and yet she died a thousand deaths.
And so it is, the junk scene lurches on, a world of stories and rumour, ghosts and shadows, scheming and deceit, comings and goings with the ever eternal promise that the real good gear is on its way. It turns in circles, just like the habit itself. Real friendship and intimacy are rare, as an arm that can go around your shoulder can so all too easily snake its way into your pocket; and a real name, a full legal name, can have you stalked and beaten up by a violent ex lover or tracked down by that dealer you ripped off years ago when you quit town. Katie was just another name on the scene, another rehab check in, another cheap trick, another statistic, another forgotten life on the junk road. She was a story for everyone and a tragedy for all. Two years, her solicitor said, maybe a blessing in disguise? For a 46 year old addict who had been on the needle for nearly 30 years, I doubt it. Stories like hers do not have happy endings. As for the ending she did have, well, that was it, for I never saw nor heard of her again.

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