As was written: the neighbourhood's heroin junkie community were all cooped up sick in Grace's apartment, laying out in the tawdry summer afternoon, moaning and groaning and vomiting and waiting for something to move. Some addicts were worse than others, some handled sickness better, some were not yet sick and had the added horror of watching what would become of them in the next few hours. It had begun as a din of panic, cursing, snivelling and dripping noses, but as the summer day wore on, as the dealers' phones remained off, as the sun settled in the west and the smell of kebabs and Greek vine leaves made their way down from the high-street, the room fell into a sick and deathly trance. And with the falling light came shadows and into those shadows the features of the ill receded, only the twisted outlines of their forms left visible, each man and woman suffering in their own hell, in their own darkness, their minds wandering over the battlefields' of their lives, a collective of tragic and disquieting thoughts and images filling the room in a tension of atmosphere that hung and buzzed in the air and became the sound of waiting and suffering itself.
The room was square with a bay front window facing out onto the street. Along the back-wall was a decomposing sofa-for-three, along the left-wall a sofa-for-two, and in the alcove, under the bay window, was a bean-bag and on the bean-bag was a dog. The windows were covered by a heavy brown blanket, and in the slatted light, of late afternoons, hung like a thick waterfall of dust. The only time light ever got in, in any decent measure, was when pushing the blanket aside to watch for the dealer coming into sight down the road. But there was no light coming in now, and no dealer was on his way.
Grace lay flopped out on her side, her head resting against the filthy arm of the eaten and mouldy three-seater, warm-sick-tears running constantly from her left-eye and over her cheek-bone. She didn't look at anyone and didn't care if anyone was looking at her. No-one was, of course, there was real suffering in the room and pain or tears had no gain here and so were muted and internal.
As with everyone Grace's mind was ambushed by thoughts completely out of her control. Terribly bleak images of the past and atmospheric hallucinations arrived as if from another place and seemed to have more to do with the present than anything else. Up in Grace's mindseye, drifting out into the room, were thoughts of her partner George, his mind shot through from years of substance abuse and trauma, laying on the bed in the adjacent room, as sick as anyone but completely unaware it was heroin withdrawals which were raging through his body. She wished that she could be that blissfully unaware of what the sickness was. That's the problem, she thought, knowing that this could all end with just a pathetic quids worth of pathetic smack. Her thoughts of George were clouded by a great sadness. Not for George, for herself, of how she had ended up with this man-sized-dead-weight attached to her and how he was the anchor of all her problems, and yet, how she needed the money his incapacity benefit brought in more than she didn't need him. She thought these thoughts as she lay there, her liver aching from hepatitis and no medication to soothe the pain. At times she wanted to break down entirely butshe knew it would only deprive her of more energy and she had no more to give. She thought of the best-of-the-bad-days, back in the seventies, when she'd had ounces of smack and was doing well and how useless life-lived and former success was now. And yet it seemed so close. Like there was some way back if only she could find it, like she could wake from sleep and rejoin those good moments of her old life, like that heroin and that youth and that flat in Leytonstone were somehow accessible through some as yet undiscovered science. It was hard to accept that all she once had was now gone, that even something that passed only a second ago was over for ever. It wasn't right. To Grace it felt more like she had stored her nuts in the past and was rich and well if only she could find her way back. The idea of time and space were lost in her, and now, all that was left was her ravaged body, suspended in the seemingly eternity of sickness, and memories drifting by as the sticky summer night wore on and brought more pain each moment. How things change so quickly, she thought. How one day you're young and healthy and the next you're 25 years into the future, a long-term-junkie-case with a bad liver and no energy reserves. And that's what Grace was thinking as she lay there sick in her flat that evening with hot tears leaking out her eye and not a score to be found in the entire fucking town.
David was on his back in the middle of the floor, his knees arched, his eyes scrunched shut in pain. Every now and again he would grimace, make a snivelling sound, and then go “Aaaaaaaahhhh” : it was the sound of absolute suffering itself. Sometimes David would shake, intentionally, as a way to pass time and keep his thoughts on the rhythm he shook to and not the illness working away inside him. The most important thing was to not let the present fall still around him, a place where time stops and the true hell of junk withdrawal begins. He was thinking of his phone, imagining it down by his head on the floor, joyfully lighting up and ringing and vibrating, his dealer's name shown across the screen. He was willing it to ring. He thought that by willing it hard enough he could make it happen. Illness was only a good half-a-day in him and already he was onto miracles. His muscles ached and he fidgeted. His spine was sore against the hard floor, but if he moved then his shoulder felt worn and bruised and the angling of his body upset his stomach and he'd then retch and have to rush to the toilet. Memories of his last serious bout of illness settled in his mind, how after a moment he'd given up and just let his body malfunction, but now, today, he figured he had at least another full night in him before his insides melted to mush and his sphincter gave way. At times David would roll his body gently from side to side, and to that lulling motion he would think the words: Ring.Riiing. Riiiiiiiing.
Tabatha sat on the edge of the two-seat-sofa clutching her terribly thin stomach and rocking back and forth with her eyes closed. Her head was down and her straggly blond hair, greasy with sweat, fell over her face in a mop. She was wearing a pair of grey leggings and a dark tube-top and with her flat-chest it looked like her torso was bandaged in black. She was plagued by thoughts of the day her husband was jailed, how she missed the trial from running from one end of the borough to the other on a wild goose-chase of scoring smack. She hadn't seen him since, had missed the two prison visits she had been reserved, but would love to see him now. She was onset by visions of the white handkerchief, held up and waggled in the air, then the same handkerchief taken away by the wind and an inexpressible sadness going with it as it rose and swooned in the blustery day. It was the dealer who had waggled the handkerchief, a black man who had appeared up at the corner of the road, stood there just long enough to be noticed, then held up the cloth and shook it like a dead rat caught by the tail, a sign to all the surreptitious junkie eyes watching that dinner was bagged and ready to be served. Tabatha didn't remember the score nor the dealer's name or face, just the handkerchief and how after conducting business it had escaped his hand and was taken away by the wind. That vision now made her cry. She twisted her face up in pain and anguish and rocked at an increase pace trying to block out and deny the image in her head. That cloth being torn away like that, puffed and sucked and flapped and battered, dropped and then picked back up again, somehow embodied a great tragedy. She didn't understand what she found so tragic in that struggle, or why such a barren memory had returned like this, but there seemed something greatly foreboding in it and her illness unfurled to that blustery day, back then, when scoring her rocks was more important than anything else, more important than her husbands plight and whether he was sent to prison or not. Now, in this position of junk withdrawal, just to have her husband back she felt she could be the most honest, the most trustworthy and self-sacrificing soul ever, that she could do anything just for him, just for the strength of him fending for her - physically rebelling against addiction - stealing and begging to keep them well. It was heroic. He was heroic. She was a miserable bad catch. She thought how lucky he was being in prison, warm and well and not addicted to anything. She wished she was in prison. She was crying inside. She told herself it all had to stop: all the pain, the lying, the cheating, the filth, the illness. But she knew, and her heart knew: this was only about pain, as even while she was in the very midst of cursing heroin and promising to get clean she was there waiting to score, to get better, and once better she knew that all these silly-sentimental-thoughts would end.
Nick sat slouched back leaning against the side of the mounted gas-fire on the right-side wall with his legs pushed out straight. He was a tall, broad, rangy addict with black hair and an olive coloured tint to his skin. He seemed to faintly glow in the dark. He had his shoes off and wore no socks and around his right ankle was dried blood from some old fix. He looked at the blood and as Grace had done with her past now he did the same: tried to figure out the route he had taken from that injection to here and wondering if he could have changed his fate with a few different choices. But something wasn't quite right. In the world of Nick's mind a forlorn omnipresent gloom hung in the heart of all memory, like a default recollection of some barren landscape he had known and which was hard-coded into the kernel of his brain. It felt like à memory from a time before he was born, from a former life, of another world to this one. Nick remembered the golf course on that early winter morning of the day his mother died, cutting across it on his way to score more crack. There was a low mist floating just above the dew on the grass and way over to where he had to get to the sky was pale blue with a small, distant, brittle sun straining useless against the frost. A lone flag rippled on a distant green. He didn't know it then but his mother was spasming and contracting in a hospital bed, suffering the first of two heart attacks she was to have that day without either of her two sons being there. She died alone that evening to the face of a strange doctor and Nick was now all crumpled up inside with guilt and empathy and pain, fixated on the terrible part he had played in her last hours, in her last ever moments in the history of everything. He would never see her again, never have her bail him out with money again, never apologise to her again or gouch out on the seat beside her again. He saw the distant flag flapping in the cold morning. A stray bird scattered like there had been a crack of a shotgun. The smell of the turf rose up from the dew and mist. His mother was gone forever-eternal and he whimpered when understanding the reality of that now and wishing he had realised it before.
And why hadn't Nick made it to the hospital? There had been time. His mother's death had been officially called at just gone 9pm that evening. Nick's mind did not approach this question directly, rather his brain went through the two contrasting fates: his evening, and the evening of his mother (or how his mind imagined it unfurled at any rate.) He had been warned she was gravely ill but he'd convinced himself that it was no longer a matter of life and death, that she'd survived the first attack and was now in the best place possible to be kept stable and calm. And anyway, he had reasoned, she's not conscious so even if I visit tonight she'll not benefit in any way. Junk sickness pawed at Nick's mind and tormented his inner-self. He saw a retracted image of himself, hunched over his crack pipe, like a classic conspirator, loading it up, bringing it to his mouth, lighting it, hearing the crackle of the crack... sucking in... Deeeeeeep... holding the smoke, then, release:...... ........ ........ ........ ........ ....... ....… Going silent as a few seconds of agitated and frenzied brain activity took place within him and he felt a pulsating excitement towards the world – or at least he should have. But Nick was troubled that afternoon, the early evening too. His promise of getting to the hospital had plagued his crack session and all along he cursed his obligation and cursed his mother for falling ill after all he had done to get the money. He told himself he could visit the next day and make up some excuse as to why he'd not been able to get down earlier. But there was no next day for his mother: she died some hours later and Nick missed the call and so received a text with the news instead. In Nick's mindseye now he could see himself stood in the light of a bus-stop, wailing with a face full of tears and grief and bringing up the message to show to his oldest dealer, using his mother's death to procure a free bag of brown. And it worked. He knew it would. It was a calculated decision to see that particular dealer with that particular news. He felt smart at the time, but now he felt like a rat and alongside his ever worsening junk sickness and the bleak and barren world that haunted his existence, he now felt a deep sense of shame, more than shame, because this feeling was internal and honest and connected to his abstract being by a thousand different threads, each one derived from some low or despicable act until now he needed drugs not to block out any pain but to block out himself, so as he didn't have to live with or face up to all he had done to survive. And the evening of his mother's passing, after he finally got his fix, he said it was the greatest fix of his life. Of course it was: he had spared himself one of the greatest and most important traumas a man must live through, and more, had convinced himself that his mother had somehow been embodied in the shot of smack, that she had come to him that way and soothed him and said she understood and forgave and loved him. But now, in this terrible dark light of sickness, in this sticky summer night, in this room of decay and disease, endings were not so neatly tied. In illness memories returned and the internal voice got loud. Nick beat himself up over his actions and grieved for his mother now. He cried, and he did make a sound, and he did say “mum”. But the truth was he wasn't crying for his mother but for comfort, for self-pity and redemption, for something to cure the pain. He was crying for heroin, and he knew it, and knowing it made him cry even harder still.
The dog was on the bean bag, beneath the bay windows, coiled up like a snake. It ressembled a Golden Retriever only with short bristly fur which gave away its mongrel breeding. The dog stank. It stank of tongue and arsehole and bad food and from licking the black resinous spots in the carpet where things had been spilt or thrown up and trodden in. It was hot on the bean bag but it dared not move. In the summer night it was thirsty and panted whenever it lifted its head to look around. There was water in the taps but noone had the strength to get up and fill the mutt's bowl. So it lay there, coiled up and sad, its large eyes, underlined with black, staring over at its owner who lay flopped out on the settee opposite. If there was a worldly sadness in the room, something seeing the greater tragedy, it came from the mutt. The dog understood it all: it understood the tawdry summer night, the passing of time, death and illness better than anyone else. The dog didn't know what was wrong, but it knew from procedural memory that when its owner was lethargic like this that its own stomach got empty, that it had to piss and shit in the hallway or kitchen and that things would only get better once Grace was again animated and talking as rapidly as she usually did. The dog was down. It could sense the weird desperate malaise in the room and didn't yap or whine or interact much at all. Quite unaware of it, the dog was waiting for the sound of its chain, for its empty bowl to be taken and replaced, for someone to beckon him over and allow him to lick the blood from off their fingers. It was lazing just now but it wished it was on a full belly. Hungry and dehydrated the dog couldn't find sleep in its rest. In the heat it would at times uncoil, push its front legs forward, kinda half lift its head and panting, look around at all the junkie bodies sprawled out. Then it would whimper lightly and lower the underside of its jaw flat against the floor. And like that it would remain, its large sad eyes to the world.
Mitsy was maybe more sick than any other addict. She was over a day and half in and hadn't slept and the sound of her dry retching, vomiting and snot bubbling in her nose would be one of the retaining memories of all the group. Mitsy was in her mid-forties, very small and nimble with dark medium length hair, threaded through with grey and pulled back into a dove-tail. Because of her slight size she was always treated more like a teenage girl than an adult female, and because she had always been seen and treated as such she had adapted herself to fit that image and would whore out her adolescent charm, talking in a dumb, babyish way, giving hugs and huge loud ultra-friendly THANK YOUs in exchange for free sprinkles of smack or crack or anything else which came her way. Everyone had a scam, worked some kind of angle, and that was hers. At certain intervals during her sickness she would crawl across the room, approach some addict like a cat sniffing at a face, whisper something like “I'm dying, babes” then take up a position besides him, her body tucked in, rocking in pain before giving up and moving onto the next. Her instinct for whoring dope would not desert her, even when she knew there was none to be had, even when the wells really were dry. So she'd crawl off and take up a place alongside someone else, trying to find a position that'd let her be comfortable for even just a few seconds.
As Mitsy lay on the floor, all the muscles in her stomach sore, she imagined the time before she was a junkie and how light the world now seemed – even with all the problems she thought she had then. Memories of the aftermath of her first real broken heart gripped her, how she wanted to die when that had finished and how she had met Scouse Wally not long after and tried to rediscover artificially in him all she had lost. But this time she would strive to become a part of his existence entirely, be indispensable, so as he'd need her all along his life. She remembered their early days together, in a flat only two streets down the road, how they had lived there with nothing but love, and how the bare walls and floors had held all the promise of a wonderful future together. Echoes of how their laughter used to ring out in that place came to her, how they'd arrive home freezing cold in winter and spring, and having no heating get into bed together and watch TV just to be warm. But these memories hurt now. It seemed the happiest recollections were the most awful and empty. In the dark space around herself she now trembled and retreated alone, her young life playing out in a series of memories in her head, a desperate sadness rebounding away into the forever of time. She remembered bare skin, smooth and soft and clean and unmarked. How they'd scamper naked from the bed to the bathroom and come rushing back, twice as fast, all goosepimply and making cold-sounding sounds FRRRRRRRRR while diving back into the bed and wriggling down into the warmth. But, then heroin came into the flat and that comfort and innocence was never the same again. Suddenly they didn't need each other to make themselves warm, and not long after that they didn't need one another at all. The bed became a pit of crumbs and ash and cigarette burns, both living off their side of it, Wally lent over one way smoking his smack and eating bowls of Weet-a-bix and her lent over the other way doing the same. Regardless, compared to what they would become, the early days of heroin still seemed fun and romantic – going out with unbrushed hair and crumpled clothes, both malnourished through youth and a militancy towards life, running around town grabbing bags of smack from dealers' hands, shopping cheap food and cereal and picking up little things from the market to attach to their hair or clothes. That was before the bite of addiction became lock-jawed and before Wally started borrowing her out to acquaintances for sexual favours.Then Wally got sick and lost all the weight and disappeared, and when she next had news he was back up in Liverpool and was suffering from some kind of cancer. Of course, she knew it wasn't cancer: Wally was HIV+. The doctor at the drug-clinic had told her as much when pushing her to get tested herself. She tested negative, but didn't care so much anyway. All these images and memories that came to Mitsy were blighted with the same bleak and hollow atmosphere, taking place in a weird, estranged space which was somehow her past and future too. I'm sick, Mitsy thought, I'm sick through heroin: I'm a heroin addict. Mitsy needed to vomit again, but there was nothing to vomit. For a moment she thought she was back in that old flat, the bed gone, the electricity disconnected, Wally gone, laying on the bare floor surrounded by all the losing players of addiction. The pain was immense. The pain was torture. Nothing like the flu at all. And for a moment, in the dark of the room, all that could be heard was dry retching and the terrible groaning and crying of a woman who had never grown up, who was trapped in the body of her tragic youth, growing pains splitting her open from inside out. Mitsy wasn't hurting or crying for heroin. Her tears were of her death, of an unrequited youth, for a life she could have had but never did. She had squandered it all and the losses had now come home to roost.
The body laying along the two-seater, on his back, behind Tabatha, was Portuguese Jo. He had been laying there like that, with his arm over his face, his eyes in the crux of the pit of his elbow, since early afternoon. Sometimes he'd unstick his arm from his face and squint out into the darkening room. He kept saying that he was going to leave, that there was “nothing but hurt tonight” but as he didn't have his own phone he was bound there eagerly waiting that news arrived from another source. Jo wasn't ill but would be by morning and didn't fancy being sick and alone and out of the loop on anyone who came thru with a score. In the dark pit of his arm it was humid and sweaty and he could see things, worlds and planets and solar explosions. Sometimes he saw comets too, and the craters on the moon, and sometimes he saw a city, his city, a hellish vision of Lisbon overrun with outside shooting galleries and feral looking junkies and discarded syringes leaking thick contaminated blood. He had died in Lisbon and would be buried in London. But London didn't interest him, not the London he had come to discover anyhow, and so his thoughts wandered through his home city, sometimes a fantastic version and sometimes the real thing – the warm continental nights, the street lights and bars and the mauve summer sky, close, humid evenings as he scored smack around the central station and rushed off to shoot up in the echoey underpass that smelled of piss and wine and the sea. Lisbon. He breathed in and tried to taste his home. Oh, to be back there now it'd be easy. He listened to the noises of the addicts already sick in the room and despised them for it, for showing him so brutally his fate. Or maybe he needed to despise them? Apart from the phone Jo had one other huge problem: he was penniless. No-one knew that of course, except maybe the dog who was staring at Jo suspiciously after seeing him stir and settle back down and who for no real reason wanted to bark. The world of junk is deeply calculating . As Jo lay there with his eyes covered, the heat spread across his forehead and his body moist, he again went through what he'd do and how he imagined it'd unfold. In his internal world, fuzzy empty visions in the depth of the black of his arm, he now saw himself cursing and swearing with the dealer in the apartment. All the sick addicts were uncrumpling their money and buying up what they could, biting open bags, cooking up fixes and taking out syringes. Jo saw himself in a panic in the middle of the room, patting down his pockets and searching under the cushions on the sofa, fucking and tutting and throwing his arms up in defeat and saying he'd left his wallet at home. He'd not ask anyone for cash but would instead play for honesty, asking the dealer if he could hang on at the flat for 15 minutes while he ran home and got his wallet. Of course he knew the dealer would never agree, at least he hoped not, and so from that point on he would be waiting on one of the other addicts to offer to stand him his score. Under normal conditions it would never work, but in this drought, where the dealers stock would be bought up almost immediately, where in 15 minutes the dealers phone would be turned off again, Jo had calculated that the camaraderie and empathy between addicts would be that much more solid and figured that there would be someone who would be uncharacteristically generous and offer him their trust. Illness touches the heart, he thought. Not even I would let someone else stay sick if I could help it. In the worst case Jo envisioned himself being given small pickings from each addict and getting his well-being that way. But for the moment it was all games in the mind and imagination, and for the moment Jo lay there feeling not too bad but better than the others. In the dark he huffed and blew, lit a cigarette and said, I'm gonna leave soon, there's nothing but hurt for us tonight.
George lay mentally bound to his bed, flat out and terrified, in just a pair of summer shorts. He was suffering just as bad as anyone but could not express his illness other than through absolute fear. Unlike the addicts in the front room he thought the sudden violence of the turbulence inside of him was a succubus, an evil spirit that had been tormenting his existence for years and had now finally induced itself within him, within the apartment. On his back, supine on the bed, George lay frozen in a physical and sensorial hell, seeing the world inside his head, hearing voices and frequencies and cringing up at strange alien rain, long thin invisible shards of light, coming down from a fiery sky, piercing him and pinning him down. It was Armageddon, the battle he'd been warned of for so long and which had left him picking holes in the plaster of the wall besides his bed in an effort to unveil the intruders of his mind.
George looked down lengthwise at his body on the bed. He saw himself not from a first-person perspective but in third-person, which is to say, not through his eyes but from a detached position somewhere over him. He was quite literally out his mind. George watched horrified as the succubus snaked and angled about beneath his skin, wormed its way into his muscles and around his joints before settling itself into every cell and atom of his body. At times George would double up with cramp and his legs would violently kick out straight, locking and straining the muscles behind and around his knees. At other times he'd suddenly tense and grip into hideous poses, resembling the contorted forms of the charcoaled corpses of Nagasaki or Hiroshima or Pompeii. At intervals, during the long sick evening, George would struggle to his feet and inch his way painfully down the corridor. In just his shorts he'd stand in the doorway of the main room, his shoulders dropped and rounded, his frail light brown legs bowed, his mouth hung open in the same cavernous shape, a world of dread and conspiracy and paranoia arched into him, looking at the suffering addicts lain out in the room. To George he was staring into a squalid dungeon in Hades, watching the condemned after the weighing of souls, the psychostasia. George would stand there like that, frozen in terror, the junk sickness seeping out of him. Then, without saying anything, he would emit an animalistic sound, a noise which seemed to originate from his entire being, a sound somewhere between a reverberation of fear and pain and that of a mother animal who has lost her young and is calling and grieving at the same time. After a moment the tortured figure of George would turn and slowly make its way back down the hall, a nausea in his stomach and bowels, having visions of snakes and spawn and blood, all tangled together and writhing about inside of him. He'd lay back on his bed, petrified in his own being, sweating and in agony, turning ice cold then raging hot, his shorts pushed down, cock erect, masturbating, muttering, crying. Terrified, George lay there like that, his pupils like saucers, waiting for the dawn and a day of clouds and blackness and the great armies of destruction to arrive. And that is what junk illness was like to George, the balding, schizophrenic, light-skinned Jamaican who wasn't aware that he was even dope sick at all.
For Three days and three nights the flat remained in a death of sickness and despair. Each junkie lay cocooned in his own dark and humid space, suffering not only the most grotesque physical trauma but an existential sickness too, a place where ones own Being is out-of-kilter with the world it should thrive in. It was by no sheer coincidence, as it is already said, that it was the dog who first sensed the changing tide. On the fourth day, just before noon, its ears pricked up and it looked inquisitively at something on the floor. It listened intently then cocked its head to the left and listened some more. And it was not mistaken; and it didn't know why: it just did. It sprang up, its mouth clamped tight shut, whimpering with excitement and turning circles around the floor as a phone lit up and rang out jubilantly. David scrambled for the phone, answered, but in his haste fumbled it like a bar of soap. The phone popped out his hand and went skidding across the floor. For just a moment the world stopped again. Grace held the dog by the collar, her bony pale arm trembling. The dog whimpered even harder still.
You got? You got? shouted David, the phone still on the floor, him reaching across to pick it up.
Yeah Bro, yeah... I got.. … I got
Everyone heard the reply and the room of heroin junkies started stirring and sitting up, their eyes open to the last dregs of their sickness. Grace let go off the dog, brought up something from her lungs and gobbed it out over the arm of the sofa.
George, she screamed, get in here with ya spoon.
From the room adjacent there came groaning and the sound of someone rising and rummaging around for something. A moment later George appeared and stood in the doorway holding his spoon out in front of him. He was dripping sweat and his arms and legs and face were picked to open sores.
Get over here, said Grace, it's over now. George entered the room and sat besides Grace. He looked awkward, rigid and held in, like he didn't want to touch anyone either side. His head was slightly lowered and his eyes stared straight ahead. He was trembling and muttering away furiously, gibberish, like some incantation to keep evil at bay.
He's here, said David letting the corner of the blanket fall back across the window. And for a moment the room descended into hazy darkness, though not for long, just until the dealer was in the room and then the lights in hell came on.
- - -
Please LIKE on FACEBOOK