It was my first morning to methadone clinic and a vile, hollow, depression hung in me then. The light hadn't yet reached the morning and outside the streets sat cold and black and frosted over. Blustery winds rattled the windows then swept off, angry, across the brick face. The only light in the room came from the television which had been on continuously for over seven months. It had served as some kind of comfort, but now it disturbed me, the breakfast show jingles and easy-listening media voices reminding me of a distant normality, something terribly sad, from a time before I knew what sickness was. My body ached from light junk withdrawals: runny nose; cavernous yawning; a coldness deep in the marrow of my bones. My head was plagued by a weird melancholic nostalgia which played havoc with my raw emotions. Memories of the people I had loved, echoes of the beautiful things we had said, the goodbyes, grieved me. I felt I could cry for just existing. I sat at the table by the window dreading the thought of having to confront this new winter day half sick. I stared at my reflection in the glass, superimposed over the darkness outside. I was pale and deathly. I felt withdrawn, yet at the same time, raw to the world. I pulled the little electric fan heater in close and hunched over it with a cigarette. Every few moments I'd turn a look up at the sky, praying that the light of day would never come. But the light was coming. Already the sky was a tone lighter than when I'd woken, and was thinning through even more. I finished my cigarette, and another besides, and when I next looked out a ghostly city was visible, rising up like ruins into the distance. In the sky the dark shapes of birds passed over, and then the stark, early light arrived proper. It was then, from the TV, that the news report first broke, of that awful crime – only I didn't hear it then.
With the coming of the morning light all peace in the world was broken. There was an emptiness, a harshness, something intangible which had crept its way into everything and made me feel forlorn and vacant. I looked over at the bed. It was barren and cold. I shuddered thinking of the uncomfortable night I'd spent in it, wrapped up in all my clothes, draughts still somehow finding their way in and across my skin. My stomach pained and was turbulent. I tried drinking a coffee but couldn't manage it. The warm river of liquid through my middle threw my body out of kilter even more. My fingers were brown and there was dirt and dried blood on my hands. I needed to wash but there was something deeply troubling about the sink and that whole area. I couldn't rid myself of the thought of the brown, slimy limescale around the bottoms of the taps, the rusty scissors and dirty razors on the side, the sludge that the soap bedded on. Over at the sink I turned the tap. The water came out like shards of steel. The few specks which hit me almost made me fit. To wash, even just my face and hands was too much. Instead, I flashed the corner of a flannel under the water, and with the damp edge, wiped down my fingers and gave my face the once over. It made me look even more wan and left red blotches around my nose and forehead. My stomach dropped loose once more and pained like I had diarrhea. The smell and taste of illness was up my nose and down my throat, something like being suffocated with crushed ice. Just to stand was an arduous enough task, the thought of having to brave the day and trek across town a hellish prospect.
I don't know why that morning, but before leaving, I had an urge to turn the TV off. It seemed it would close something that was open; somehow help balance my existence. As I reached across for the button there was that story again. Now a reporter was standing wrapped up and reporting live from the scene. The street behind him was cordoned off and policemen were stood around in the background breathing out mist. I killed the TV. The reporter remained for a moment, then closed shut from both ends, and was gone. Far from harmonising the room the place now seemed bare, uninhabited, like my friend's room that time after they had taken his body away. I buttoned my Duffell coat up to the last, wrapped a scarf around up to my nose, and then left – half sick and getting worse, down to my initiation meeting at the methadone clinic, to be dosed for the very first time.
It was a day with no body. The streets were wet but it had not been raining. The wind clipped at my ears and nose and made going on twice as hard as usual. The winter sneaked right in under my coat. The sky was at once too dull and too bright, and everything from dew in the grass, to wet on railings, ice capped puddles and mildew on walls disgusted and unnerved. My nose was constantly running and dripping into my scarf, and my skin felt so dry it was sore, whipped raw by the winds. On an almost deserted length of dual-carriageway I stood shivering at an unsheltered bus-stop. A thick mist had accumulated in the distance, the frozen central divide disappearing into it. My feet felt like slabs of ice, and inside my gloves I could feel the greasy dirt on my hands. The world seemed bereft of hope, the corrupt morning converging on me and attacking me from all sides, on all senses, whipping in, stinging, stabbing, piercing – my muscles stiff like meat out the deep freeze, the taste of smashed ice in my face, up my nose, inflating my sinuses. And under all that, a vile, cold-sweat, which trickled down and froze, creating valleys of draught all over my body. When the bus finally arrived I staggered on half-dead, cringing at the driver, my hands too cold to produce my pass. The driver waved me past and for a brief moment I thought I had found salvation.
Though it was but a light negligee of junk illness I wore, it was enough to make the world feel barren and bleak and to open me up fully to the rigours of existence. Without junk filtering life I was too sensitive to it. The wet bus floor with traces of mud and trodden leaves and newspaper, the umbrella in the luggage pen, the old woman with purple hands and weak watery eyes shaking in the front seat... it all disturbed me and brought forth an involuntary spasm of repulsion. I mooched along the bus and ached down into a seat alongside the radiator vent. I put a hand down to feel for the heat but there was none. I huddled up tight in the corner, pulling my coat and scarf in, the misery leaking out my dripping, frozen nose. An invisible sheet of cold came forth from the expanse of window. I cleared a small patch in the mist and stared out absently at the abject life. An immense sadness came over me, and yet I wasn't thinking, just looking. There was something bleak and dispirited out there, a hollowness that permeated the most mundane things. I sat there shivering and snivelling, staring out my little frost framed aperture, my ear suddenly wooed by the stern tones of the news report, that same story, now floating out the drivers cabin, the slaying of two teenage boys in Harlsedon, North London, shot dead in their car as they waited at a set of lights in the early hours of the morning. This time the report did register. It seeped in and filled me with terror and dread.
Nothing seemed quite real after that, not even the news report. It somehow seemed manufactured, maybe even a hoax, like it was deliberately broadcast just for me, for this doleful winter morning. There was at once something hallucinatory and yet hyper-real about it. And the report didn't run and disappear into the archives. It descended upon me, festered, got right into the weave of me, and left me with a creeping sense of unease and paranoia. It was as if I was in some way wrapped up in the crime, like it was fated to have consequences on my own day. It was the same nightmarish bent on reality that finds its way in on the back of a night terror, where dream and reality morph together for a moment and a sinister gateway to a violent and bloody dream-scape is left open. There existed the feeling that just about anything could happen... would happen... had already happened. I felt edgy, like this wasn't freewill but pre-determined, a prolonged sensation of déjà-vu. It felt like someone was watching me. I looked around the bus at the few other passengers. It was all quite unremarkable: too unremarkable; like it was staged, like the absolute sober normality that precedes a bomb blast. Now, on top of my increasing illness, alongside the melancholic drips of memory of a time just before the world turned sour, I had this very real and terrifying idea that a lone gunman would board the bus, or someone would randomly open fire in the streets, like that which had happened in Hungerford. I rose and moved myself to the other side of the bus, into the seat alongside the emergency window. It was up and across from the middle doors, and when I wasn't watching them I was surveying any movement outside, praying that the bus would get me to where I needed to be.
By the time I stepped off the bus into the thin brittle morning I was really starting to come down with the sweats and muscle aches. I still wasn't proper dope sick but I was bad enough to not have to feign it and hopefully be dosed properly for a first timer. The streets seemed more deserted than usual. A hostile crystal covering sat over everything. Blind corners threw my heart into panic. I tried to quicken my pace but found I couldn't. I was at that stage of junk need that time had a set scale, 1 to 5 or something, and could not be sped up nor lost. I could get nowhere faster than illness allowed. Down the road a postman in his summer work shorts passed me by but didn't seem real. I looked back, checking to make sure he was really there. He was, but then seemed too far down the road to have passed me when I thought he had. I looked at my feet as I walked, counting the steps, somehow, for a moment, not being able to comprehend their connection to my brain, that they were even my legs at all. As I chugged on I left a trail of mist behind me. My right eye watered constantly. I'd never felt more out of odds, or cut out and placed in the world. Everything that would usually inspire or is unique to winter horrified me and left me with desperate need to escape it.
On the first day of methadone clinic you are washed up on the inner bend of smack addiction. This is where the river deposits the big rocks. For the first time addiction is taken off the streets and placed in a closed environment where the shit and puke has no place else to go. It's often the place where the junkie turns up to make his final cameo in life. It's a harrowing place. You see not mostly addicts well while scoring, but the long term addicts, those who've lost their limbs, those whose stomachs are at bursting point with liver disease, those eaten away from HIV. Them same people, in the same place, with the same scars and abscesses as you. In their faces and deaths you can see yourself, and it's maybe the first time you've seen yourself in a while. This is the after-sales service of heroin. It's a side of addiction which you've caught glimpses off but up until then had had the freedom and good sense to steer well clear off.
Outside the death halls of the clinic were gathered three loyal methadone clients. They were dressed in a mish mash of grubby sportswear and wool and stood together smoking and holding little plastic cups of dispensed coffee. They were too chatty and alive to be ill or even suffering.
You 'ere fer juice? One asked, sounding like a raspy toothless woman.
Doctor, I groaned. It's my first morning.
Good luck, offered another, a tall thing in a filthy trappers hat with ear flaps. It seemed that because I'd walked in, and not crawled, it wasn't going to be enough.
The clinic was dull and empty, an ill lit corridor with no reception. This part of the service had been kept out of sight when I'd had my interview two months ago. Up on the walls were corny drug abuse posters, showing the young face of the addict that no-one here resembled. Down the corridor, on the left, was a doorless turning, and further down, on the right, two closed doors. The heating seemed to be on maximum. I could feel the cold smoking off my coat, an uncomfortable filthy, itchy sweat beneath it. I waited for a moment wondering if someone would come and greet me. The far end of the corridor descended into total darkness. A middle-aged woman with a harsh, serious face, and wearing a staff pass crossed the hall with files and bits of paper. She didn't acknowledge anything but the linoleum floor beneath her. Maybe you had to be down there, rattling on it, to get noticed? A human reception bell.
Excuse me... I said. But before I had even finished she had ignored me and was gone, leaving me to feel the place out myself.
The open entrance on the left was the waiting room. Along to the left, built into the main front wall, was a closed shutter with a message not to bang on it. Above the shutter was a sign reading 'DISPENSARY'. Only the sorriest addicts were here at this hour. They included new entrants who lay around sick; those here on court orders; those dying; and those who were still using smack – the early morning visits being the first step in bullying them off the scheme, making maintenance too much a hassle to continue. In the room now were four addicts and myself. Two, a couple, sat at the back. Another man was lain across five of the front chairs, sobbing and groaning. And the last, right over on the left, a man with his legs up on the tops of the chairs in front of him, reclining back with a small transistor radio held to his ear, his eyes scanning around for attention as if he was up on all the latest electrical gadgetry. On seeing me watching him he dropped his legs down and turned himself away to the wall, pressing the radio tighter to his ear as if the information was his. The radio was some flimsy piece of outmoded shit, probably what was all the rage at the cusp of his addiction where time and fashion had stood still. I watched him, the disgusting, hollow day making me feel deathly and not really there. The latest news of the morning's shooting crackled and rose from his hunched up form.
Police in Harlsedon, North London, say that the shootings represent a worrying escalation of gun crime in the area. They declined to speculate as to any apparent motive for the slayings, though did say that a gangland style execution could not be ruled out. The lone gunman, a Caucasian male, between 25 and... ...
… …and a medley of poorly picked up radio stations cut into the report, the addict tuning through the band waves and settling on a country music station before tuning through again. I took a seat at the back, away from the entrance. My face prickled as the cold in my flesh undid itself. Surrounded by depressing government health warnings I loosened my scarf and sat staring, repulsed, at the bowls of fresh fruit laid out on the tables upfront.
I hadn't been waiting long when the woman who had ignored me in the hall entered. She read my name from a small notebook and looked up and around to see which one of us would present themselves as me. Surprisingly it was the addict who'd been laying groaning across the five front seats. He staggered forward, reaching out, crying.
Please, I need something... PLEASE! I can't wait any longer. I'was 'ere first. I'm dying... really, I'M DYING!
He looked like he was gonna throw himself around her and clutch on as he collapsed. This was dope sickness and you can't fake such a loss of self-respect. I cringed just seeing his illness, remembering days I'd had those same pleading, outstretched arms and tears.
The nurse moved aside holding her arm out. Are you Mr Levene, she enquired, panicked, looking over at me.
I nodded. But he can go first, I offered. It was a huge mistake. Having a heart in this world often is.
The nurse gave me a peculiar, furrowed look. It was somewhere between hate and disgust. Follow me, she said. I moved as decrepitly as I could, but it was too late: I'd already blown my cover. As I passed the addict he was back sitting, his legs swung flimsily over the other, like a woman, jigging like he needed the loo and making painful, murmuring sounds. I wanted to touch his back, but I didn't want to touch him at all.
My doctor was a small, prudish, fifty year old Italian woman. Her sleek dark hair was pulled back and up and held each side with an elegant hair brooch. She greeted me in her three-quarter-length white overcoat, classy beige tights and flat, catholic, bumper-car shoes finishing her off. Well groomed, well-aged, well-scented. She was conservative to the marrow but may not have known it.
I hung my coat and scarf up and sat down. Rather than evaluate me from behind her desk she pulled her chair around and sat opposite – close enough so as I could see the tiny soft furry blond hairs on her face, but far away enough so as our knees could never touch. I got a weird hard-on, but nothing dangerous. As she looked over my file my eyes wandered off over her shoulder, fixing on the sink in the corner and the cylindrical metal boiler unit above it. I felt absolutely amputated from the moment, in a body which wasn't quite mine. The sterility and quiet of this place was of dope sick days, and never was I more an addict than then, in that moment, being kept half sick in front of officialdom as they slowly perused the meager information they had on me, deciding if I deserved a kind or wrathful God. I suddenly flushed hot, overcome with a prickling heat. My cock deflated. I considered breaking down too – weeping, apologizing for my tears, just to try and get this over with. It wouldn't have really been so fraudulent. I was that raw anyway. Still looking over my file she asked me questions to answers she already had.
After making sure I knew who I was, where I lived, how much I used and how I used it, the doctor handed me a sheet of paper with a list of common withdrawal symptoms on it. She told me to read through and tick the relevant boxes. Although I could only honestly say I was suffering from two of the options I nevertheless ticked them all, some not even bothering to read. It was maybe the best decision I had taken. What she took for nonchalance seemed to infuriate her. She turned wholeheartedly against me.
You've had hallucinations? She asked, incredulously. And fitted?
Not really fitted, more like severe muscle spasms and jerking, I replied. Audio hallucinations, not visual. A song, snippets of unmemorable conversations. Not unhappy memories, but terribly sad in the mood of today.
I wanted to tell her of the crime, how I couldn't rid the thought of it from my head, how it somehow felt entwined with my own, immediate existence and could gatecrash it at any moment. But I didn't. Stuff like that would likely only serve to get you a lifetime of 7am appointments with the psychologist. Instead I rolled my sleeve up ready to have my blood pressure taken, the doctor recoiling in horror on finding recent needle marks and streaks of dried, crusty blood trailing down my bicep and off, around my elbow. She gave me an alcohol wipe and stood there squinting at me out the side of her eyes as I wiped the blood clean. The chill of the alcohol on my skin unnerved me. As soon as I was done the doctor lashed the blood pressure band around my arm and began inflating it, squeezing the hand-pump like she was hyper stressed. My lower arm went hard, the skin blotchy like corned-beef. My head felt like it would explode. The doctor released the pressure and scribbled down the reading.
You're not withdrawing, she said immediately, ripping the velcro flap open and whipping the band away. You're not 24hrs clean!
I agreed I wasn't. I told her the truth that I was 14hrs down and feeling rough enough. I said I had to work and couldn't let myself get sick if it wasn't necessary. She seemed to take offense at logic. She gave the standard spiel that 40ml of methadone could be fatal in the wrong circumstances and she wasn't going to risk having a death on her hands. I asked her a few simple questions which she couldn't answer without indirectly admitting to talking crap. Her answer was a huff of silence as she rage wrote a prescription with such ferocity that her pen broke through the paper. She handed me the prescription. Scribbled in huge letters and then circled was '10ml', not even a tenth of what I'd need to be well. I scoffed at the prescription. I almost balled it up and dashed it in her face.
Come back tomorrow after not having used for 24 hours and you'll be treated properly, she said, smirking at my disgust. If not, if you can't, then this stabilization period will be a very slow, drawn out process.
You know 10ml won't do anything, I said. When I leave here I will go and score... I've no choice. I have to be in work this afternoon and will not get sick just to please you.
Well, if you do that you'll only get the same tomorrow. It's your decision. I can't properly asses you while you've heroin fresh in your system. There's guidelines and rules to follow, and you, like everyone else, will have to adhere to them.
I didn't reply. There was no point. The doctor was from a symmetrical, classic cut of cloth – a square from a square. She could never understand being out of sorts with your world – pinstripes against a paisley background. I put on my jacket and scarf, and prescription in hand hurried back into the waiting room and thumped as hard as I could on the shutter which you were not supposed to bang on. For my troubles I was kept waiting for over twenty five minutes, the proper sick junkie finally being dosed before me. It was a victory of sorts. Kind of. I swallowed my 10ml, showed an empty mouth, and left.
Back out in the harsh open the cold air burnt like menthol on my throat. I was really feeling like dog shit: snivelling, eyes running and burning as I cut through the highrise flats around the back. The day had come on a little. The wintry sky was now pale blue with a weak sun, the colour of sparkling wine, showing through. Underfoot was a sludge of earth and mashed leaves. Little huffed sparrows peppered the bare trees, waiting to scarper at the crack of the sniper's gun. As I hurried on a little white Scottish Terrier dog backed out of some undergrowth it's paws and legs all muddy and wet. It scampered off leaving the smell of slobber and tongue thick in the air. It was just after that that I came upon the most hideous sight imaginable. On this frozen, misty day, winds whipping the temperature below freezing, sickness steaming up off everything, an unshaven, half-dosser came my way, his jacket open and wearing only a light shirt underneath, the top three buttons undone, leaving his neck and lower chest exposed to the bare elements. In his hand he had a pear and he was munching on this thing as he walked, bits of fruit in his stubble, the freezing sticky juice streaming over and dripping off his hand. As I reached him a vile, glacial headwind whipped me to the bones and almost brought me to my knees. As I stooped into the wind I caught sight of him biting once again into the pear, a wintry tear leaking out his eye as he absorbed and celebrated life. My body spasmed involuntarily and my stomach felt frozen and missing. My scarf was wet against my nose and the warm air from my mouth burned my lips. The aura of half-sick visits to the clinic was with me, and little did I know, they would always feel like this.
The bus ride back was a warmer affair than going and with each revolution of the wheel Iat least had the comfort that my dealer was a meter closer. I sat at the very back, watching out for gunmen, now away from the window as my mind had fixed itself on the thought of a drive-by shooting. Horrified I imagined the thought of a car, sat lit up at the traffic lights, nothing extraordinary, except... two teenagers are slumped around with half their heads blown off and the CD still looping away, the green light meaning nothing to them any more. But it wasn't that. It wasn't the crime. It wasn't even the violence. It was the coldness of the night, the illness that was in me, the bad dreams, the tears, the shivering, the draughts, the stale cigarettes, the lonely bed, the Redemption Song, Bob Marley, in a bar, the last bar, on a night just like that, the jukebox, the fruit machine, waiting for love, for the door to open, bang bang, boom boom, through a cloud of smoke, red lips, black eyes, southern comfort, chewing gum, the misty heath of the pre-junk dawn. It was somewhere there, somewhere deep down in the melee of my mind which terrified me now and had terrified me always. It was the same feeling I'd had when they pulled the body out the river that day, when I'd sunk in the mud, when I'd lain there dying with pneumonia, when I'd cried because of how cruel I was. I was too raw to exist in the skin and the world I was born into. I thought all these things and for a moment I thought I was crying, but I wasn't, it was just the mist on the window was streaming down and the life was blurred and fuzzy through it.
I didn't go home. I was never intending to. Instead I got off near my mother's, scored, and then called on her so as I could get a shot. As I sat with the fix in the needle, flexing and tensing my arms to raise a vein, mum asked me how the clinic had been and who I had seen. I couldn't remember the doctor's name so described her.
God, everyone fucking has problems with her, mum said. D'ya know who your keyworker is yet?
I shook my head.
Did anyone ask about me? she asked. I told them you'd be down today and was my son! She said that with an air of pride then cursed me for dripping blood on the carpet. The next thing I knew was that the fire blazed like love, that I was looking at the cat as it slept curled up besides it, and how its fur looked like I felt. The cat opened an eye, looked at me, felt safe, then went under again. Mum put a cup of coffee down for me, took my needle and laid it out of harm's way on the table. She sat down over in the armchair, smoking and watching TV.
Did ya hear about that shooting? she asked.
I thought for a moment, then said I had... two teenagers weren't it?
Mum said Yeah like she was bored and blew out a cloud of smoke. It's been on every fucking channel non-stop, she said. I nodded, but I was already asleep, sinking warm into mum's couch. Outside the winter blew and raged about and menacing winds cut through the bare trees which lined the street. But now it wasn't hollow or cruel or hostile, it seemed kind of perfect, like the world was meant to be this way, like it could never be better than it was just then.
_ _ _
Thanks for sticking out the wait... Love and Respect as Always, Shane. X