When my mother quit drinking and became a crack and heroin addict those were the start of the good times. Finally we had some common ground, a common plight, something which drew us together in a shared effort to feed the beast of addiction, adapt with what we had and survive. Through heroin and crack cocaine we were to suck and shoot and chase out the ghosts of the past, come full circle in our relationship and return to each other what had been lost through a bizarre and tragic event in our lives. In the midst of those days of addiction, what was gone or had happened in the past became unimportant. All we cared about was the present and maybe tomorrow. But yesterdays were out. Yesterdays were redundant. Nothing will ever happen yesterday.
A family tragedy can have one of two effects: it can blown a family wide apart or it can bind one together for life. Our family tragedy resulted in the former, in my mother going off the rails and becoming a chronic alcoholic and suicidalist. We lost her at that point. And although it was a family tragedy – it affected my brother and two sisters and stepfather – a small matter of biology, that which had not been so significant before, suddenly took on grave proportions and sent my mother and I careering off on converging orbits around twenty years of time.
It was the disappearance of my father which started it. He left one night after an argument with my mother when she refused to lend him money for heroin and never returned. And although this was not the first time he had disappeared, it was the first time he had done so without soon making some kind of contact – even if just to say he was once again in prison. After weeks and then months of receiving no news, my mother conceded to the inevitable that something tragic must have happened to him. She would later say that she imagined he had quietly overdosed and died somewhere, been marked down as one of the many unidentified young deaths in the capital each year.
It was some months after my father's disappearance, in the first half of the new year, that news started breaking across the country of a “House of Horrors” in north London. A man had been arrested after human remains were found clogging up the drains outside the house in which he resided. It transpired that over a five year period, between two houses, 16 young, mostly homosexual men, had been murdered, dismembered, and disposed of in various ways. As with the entire country my mother was gripped by this story and followed in shocked interest as the gruesome tale unfolded. The news broke, went from the front pages to the second, from the second to the third, and then faded away completely awaiting the big trial. It was one afternoon during this quiet period that my mother opened the door to two uniformed police officers and two detectives. Her life would never be the same again. On that humdrum day, with nothing going on but what was on the stove, my mother was informed that my father's skull had been discovered in the flat of Dennis Nilsen: The House of Horrors. My mother's world went silent. She did not hear her own screaming. I heard it, and it did not stop.
My mother changed after that; life changed. Post-murder she would lock herself away in her room, sobbing, drinking and threatening suicide. She became sexually promiscuous, taking lovers of the lowest order, of both sexes and all colours, shapes and sizes. The murder also had a great impact on my life: it greatly magnified my significance of being. I was no longer just my father's son (the only child of four born of him) but I was now the only physical thing left of him. As a consequence, I became my mother's favourite child, the one she would call on for everything and keep always by her side.
“You have your father's chest,” she would say, crying while fingering the indent below my sternum. Then she would lay her head on me and her tears would collect in the little well of my pectus excavatum. I would stare at the top of her head, at the dark roots which she no longer bothered to bleach. Her hair smelled of vomit. I was terrified to touch her.
My mother's slobbering and drunken affection was one thing, but there was something else going on below, something altogether darker and contradictory and all the more difficult to understand. As often as she would hold and bathe me in tears and alcohol fumes, she just as often rejected me – seemed to despise me. It was as if I were being punished for something. She would constantly call on me, only for me to find her sitting on the floor holding a carving knife and sporting cut and slashed wrists. On other occasions she would screech my name and sobbing, tell me she had cancer and was dying. Through evenings of drunken sex with multiple lovers she would have me remain in her room. At night I would be beckoned to sleep with her. Through the blackest hours, the dystopian hollow of late night radio crackling through the dark, she'd sit naked and sobbing on the edge of the bed, hurting herself and saying she wanted to die and that this life is a rotten life. I'd listen to the top being unscrewed from her bottle of vodka, the chink of glass against glass and the gulping sound of neat alcohol pouring free. Far from being a treasured remnant of my father it seemed that I was a constant reminder of him, never allowing my mother to forget him, or the murder, for a second. And so, with a special kind of hatred reserved in her face, my mother would tell me that she loved me, all the while glaring at me as if I were the murderer himself,
* * *
The feeling of love and hate was mutual: my mother was two different people. Her spectre after the murder attracted and repelled me; beguiled and haunted me. From behind – mid-length blonde hair, slim punkish figure – she held all the promise of the love, comfort and protection that I craved, only for her to turn around to be wearing the hideous made-up mask of chronic alcoholism. It hung lopsided over her real self, covering all my dreams and yearnings. It was in trying to prise away that mask, to get to the woman underneath, that I first began down the road in life I did.
Between that mental longing for my mother, being saddened by the carnage of her sexual life and yet conscious of the types of wild men she admired, a certain path of history was marked out for me. By the age of ten I was going to school with a mock tourniquet tied around my bicep. I'd sit at the back of class acting like I was drugged. My role models became the kind of men who could fuck my own mother, and more than just fuck her: keep her. I realised in that time that we are not only ourselves in life, that we have an historical destiny of being other people as well. I began head-butting brick walls and cast iron doors, cutting words into myself, emulating the psychotic behaviour of the Alan Bleasedale character Yosser Hughes who was so in vogue at the time and my mother's latest hero. I studied these people, incorporated them into my character. They were all leading to one person, a man I was destined to rival and replace: my father.
In the years that followed, as I grew and matured, I became ever more rebellious. I romanced my mother with a progressive descent into wild reckless living, passionate behaviours and self-harm. By the age of 12 I was smoking and from 14 I was a regular drug user – using in front of my mother as she filled her glass with vodka. She would condemn my behaviour, but in the way she spoke of me to friends and neighbours - or in the way she looked at me as I chopped up lines of speed - I could tell that in some ways it secretly thrilled her, reminded her of someone she had lost. For my part I guess I wanted to impress and hurt her. I was duelling for her heart but also pushing into her face the damage I felt she had caused. I was young and had not yet learnt that adulthood does not make one responsible, and even if it did, there are certain events which occur in life which make your own survival a matter of the greatest importance. And sometimes, to survive, it is necessary not to exist for a while, to block out the trauma and subdue the body to the point of being anaesthetized. In time I would learn that for myself. It would be the point where I understood my mother and where all blame and hatred began to disappear.
Soft, class C and B drugs were one thing, but the real spectre that had forever been in my life, romancing me, was that of heroin. It came from my father, from all the stories which existed of him:, from the memory of having found him after an overdose, waiting with my mother in the dark street while looking to the distance for the swirling lights of the ambulance to appear. It was a route I was someday sure to take, maybe even a route I needed to take. From the age of 15 on I began seriously enquiring about heroin amongst friends and other drug users I knew. But heroin was not part of their vocabulary and they all, without exception, damned the drug and told me to never touch that shit. It was finally, and quite surreptitiously, that a heroin-like opiate first entered our lives. It came via my mother's latest partner, Geoff, who she had met while he was serving a fifteen year prison sentence for firearms charges and hostage taking. He was up for parole and my mother had agreed that he could be bound over to our abode. He arrived one Friday with a single black Adidas sports bag, pin-prick pupils and strips of small white prescription pills called Temgesic. He said that they were morphine based, an active drug called buprenorphine. He crushed these pills, snorted them and would then sleep. Not long after his arrival my mother began sleeping inordinate amounts as well.
“Geoff, give us a couple of them pills,“ I asked him one afternoon. He gave a cautious look around and, satisfied that my mother wasn't coming down the hallway, popped two little pills free from the strip and gave them to me. “Half at a time,” he said. “And for Christ's sake don't tell ya fucking mother!” I did as Geoff had said. Within an hour I felt like a hero, like my body and soul were finally united. Instantaneously, all other drugs became irrelevant and obsolete.
Within months of Geoff's arrival we were all psychologically hooked on these pills. As our usage increased, so our immunity built up and we needed ever more for the same ends. We were soon in the position where we could no longer score enough to last us even a week. Each time we had to wait to the end of the month for our contact's prescription to be renewed. We would pass those dry weeks using amphetamines. As the speed dealer was my contact so I began not only scoring for myself but for my mother too. In a joint effort to subdue the opiate cravings we were starting to come together, use together and pass the days high together. It was the beginning of us transgressing the mother/son relationship. From there it was only a matter of time that I would one day arrive home with heroin and use it in front of my mother. And that's what was soon to happen... almost.
* * *
Buprenorphine was a dead duck. Our contact's mother finally died from the cancer which had been eating her alive during the past 18 months. In a single flat we now had three people with psychological opiate addictions and no opiates. For a while Geoff and I hit the streets and homeless shelters looking for a new contact. Buprenorphine was a very rare drug in them days, not yet used to treat heroin addiction. Our search was always fruitless. On occasion we managed to score methadone and a wide range of tranquillizers and anti-psychotics, but they either did nothing, or not enough, or just were not the same. Our collective attention now turned to heroin. We enquired about scoring at every opportunity. Geoff and I would take evening walk-throughs of what we thought were likely places we could score. Heroin is rampant in London, but it is a hidden, secretive world and not at all easy to find that first swing-door in. As complete novices to the scene we looked for it in all the wrong places, asked all the wrong people. We had no idea of the few obvious signs which cut heroin users out. Finding ones way into the world of smack is akin to one of those magic eye puzzles. You stare at the confusion of pattern and see nothing, but once you've cracked the code, revealed the image lying beneath, you can thereafter see nothing else. The world of heroin is like that. It is invisible until you are a part of it, and then it is everywhere and inescapable. It hangs about on every street corner; sits inauspiciously along the bench in the park. It stands waiting at bus-stops and takes no bus, is found pushed up, two at a time, in public telephone booths. It is the man with the army jacket and the limp and the swollen hands, is in the couple down the road who you think are mentally ill. It is the neighbour who begs to borrow five pounds, repays it and borrows it once more. It runs rampant through the old toothless woman who has nothing but a stinking husband with a missing leg. It is in the young man who walks hurriedly past your window six times a day, yabbering into his phone while quickening his pace some more. It is in the emaciated woman in cheap shapeless denim jeans with bloodstains down the inner thigh. It is the beggar who sits alongside the cash machine with two blankets, a bag and a dog, in the transvestite who waits outside the fruit market on warm summer nights like he's touting for last business. It is in 30 year old men with walking canes and crumbling bones and something grey and lost in the face and eyes. It comes hunched and snivelling out of the local hostels at 8am, hobbling off to methadone clinic in a commotion of disputes and disorder and stale smells. It is in the skeletal woman with pink shades and flip-flops, pulled down the high-street by five mongrel dogs off a single leash. It is everywhere and all around. And that is only the start, the illusion that comes forth out the puzzle. For the epidemic is worse than that. Heroin is in that man who just passed you by, in those who have nothing of which to be described. It is in the desk sergeant who books you in and in the lawyer who takes your case. It's in the good Samaritan's other life, the one where he is going under fast himself. It's in the shopkeeper and the taxi-driver and the sober television presenter. It is in the secretary and dental assistant and in the gynaecologist peering between your legs. It's in mansions and terraced houses and the family home, well fed and stable and without the slightest sign of malnutrition or disease. Domesticated and camouflaged, peeping out from behind white nets like any other dying neighbour on civvy street. It passed from the father to the son and now was in the mother too. The holy trinity of the nuclear family. Silver spoons and citric acid and 1ml insulin syringes. Filtering life and shooting away the ghosts of the past, heads bowed between the knees, supple spines and dribble hanging from the mouth. And just like that she came, Our Lady of the Flowers, heroin – brought home to exaltation: the cure to modern life.
It was Geoff who found the first dealer. His name was Mark, a white guy who served up across the other side of town. What began as a weekend thing soon progressed to us having a mid-week break out too. Three months further on and we were using every other evening. The fishy scent of smoked heroin gradually replaced the smell of the evening dinner, my mother and I anxiously awaiting Geoff's return home and then all of us rattling around squares of tin foil before slowly retracting into ourselves. It remained like that for some time and then one day, for no reason I can explain, it felt right to smoke what I had left from the previous evening on waking. And my crinkling foil and sparking lighter were soon not the only ones piercing the quiet of the still dark morning. Geoff and my mother were now doing the same. Once that started heroin then became a daily thing. And if for any reason we did not have our waking fix then we would take the morning off work, score, get ourselves mended and turn in for a half day with some fantastic excuse as to why we were so late. Then, one evening, after less than five months into the heroin scene, the first bizarre tragedy occurred: the police knocked us up and took Geoff away for questioning after the dealer Mark had been shot dead 25 minutes after serving him. Nothing came off it, but we had lost our main dealer and now the onus fell on me to supply the household.
By now my mother had not drank for the best part of a year. It was the longest she had been sober in almost 20 years. Alcohol had been replaced by heroin. Yet heroin was different. Under its influence my mother was not a nasty person, nor did it make her want to harm herself. She was as stable and caring as when she was sober. Finally, without her drunken binges blowing up and destroying any headway we had made during drink-free days, we were spending proper time together. But still, even with heroin as common denominator between us, we had not bonded. We soon would. Something would happen which would heighten the stakes, ensure that from then on we prioritized heroin and worked together to ensure that we were never without it.
It was sickness. It came creeping in like a poisoned, dying rat and shook us all to the core. Until then neither of us had understood what addiction really was. We thought that like the buprenorphine, when the drugs or cash ran out, we could just leave it until whenever and try in whatever way we could to pass the days. But heroin was different beast; one we hadn't encountered before. By the evening of the first day we were all bedridden and my mother was vomiting and crying and saying she couldn't take it. For three days we lay on our backs, sick through to the marrow of our bones, with all the poisons of the world breaking out through the pores in our skin. The clock ticked by in hour length seconds. We groaned and swore at invisible pains and cursed the day we were born and the world we born into. We damned the rich and the fortunate and we bellyached about not having a pittance between us. We cursed our employers and bemoaned the banking system that makes one wait four days for a cheque to either clear or bounce. We cursed almost everything, but we never cursed heroin: we prayed for that - each of us sending out silent messages to a God that none of us believed in. On the fourth day I managed to get hold of a friend who had been out of town. She bailed us out and sat and watched with tears in her eyes as a whole family recovered from heroin sickness within 2 minutes of ripping open our bags. From that day forward heroin changed and our relationships changed. For the first time in our lives my mother and I had the same agenda and were living an extreme life experience together - both in need of heroin to survive. Our relationship tightened. With debilitating junk sickness we found empathy with one another. From a single event years ago, for our own distinct reasons, we now suffered the same consequences and were fighting life together. And the bond would tighten further still. Firstly due to crack cocaine, and then grace to the syringe and finally from the departure of Geoff.
A year into our drug addictions and many things had changed. Geoff was taking on extra private work and I had landed myself a top paying job with a huge annual budget which could only get me into trouble. By now we were not only doing heroin but crack cocaine and my habit had evolved to the needle. I really had become my father, could feel his presence in myself as I lived his life. I took a strange delight in stabbing those first few weeks of injections into myself in front of my mother. She watched and it made her think of the man she had lost, and now here was his son, the same age as the father was when murdered, continuing on with exactly the same thing. With Geoff and I out working to earn the cash to supply our habits, my mother's job each day was to score the heroin and crack so as it would be waiting for us when we arrived home. My mother also had the added chores of picking me up fresh syringes and dropping my old ones off at the exchange, along with ensuring I always had Vit C and fresh filters.
As our drug use mounted Geoff, single-handedly trying to supply his and my mother's habit, ran into financial problems. I, on the other hand, for the most part, had only my own habit to supply and could cope quite well. This led to tensions within the house. On the nights where Geoff could not afford any crack (which was more and more often) I'd secretly supply my mother with rocks. Not that it was much of a secret. It's quite obvious when someone is bug-eyed and cracked up, and so Geoff was often left alone in the adjacent room, knowing what was going on, craving crack himself and becoming frustrated and angry. My mother had become a kind of drug whore, rushing between the two of us with her crack pipe and getting what she could from each. When Geoff's financial problems escalated further, and then after he fell 75ft from a roof and broke both ankles, his time besides my mother was coming to an end. Laid up in hospital following his operation, Geoff caught a superbug infection which eventually led to him having both legs amputated at the knee. Two months after the amputation he returned home, but in his absence things had changed and so had he. With no legs he used mum as a housemaid and nurse, and began shouted orders for crack cocaine at me from the bedroom, threatening to chuck me out the house if I didn't comply. Finally, we had all had enough... Geoff too. My mother was in no position to look after a disabled and demanding crack-head, and after months of incessant arguing and fighting, Geoff left. I carried him downstairs and wheeled him to the Social Security offices. I rolled him to the reception desk and left, putting two rocks of heroin and 100 pounds in his top pocket. With no handshake and no goodbye I left - though in all honesty I expected to see him later, hear some half-arsed story as to why he couldn't be re-housed and was back. But he never did come back. I, nor my mother would ever see him again.
Now it was just my mother and I. Our crack problem was enormous and getting worse and I had began pilfering money from the work budget to support our habits. Now we spent all our evenings together. We scored together, used together, rattled through the jitters and sickness together. When funds got low we concocted schemes together and pawned our belongings. It all made for a life of the intimacy that only drug fiends ever know, a total honesty of the condition amongst one another. We would get cracked up and speak of the past and of my father and growing up. But without alcohol violating her emotions my mother now seemed a victim and not the victimiser. I had by then experienced a tragic love-split myself and understood the great trauma that losing someone so important can bring. I understood my mother and I loved her. I expressed that love in rocks of crack and in ensuring that she didn't get ill. When she thought we were all out of gear for the night I'd call her and surprise her with bags I had bought and hidden just for that very moment. For her part she loved me through her total acceptance of my habit. She would not only ensure I always had clean needles and a safe place to use, but would extract dangling needles from my body as I nodded out and help with tricky injections when my venal system began fucking up. She almost certainly kept me alive and healthy. Even when she quit heroin herself she still allowed me to use in the house, in front of her, and still scored for me so as I could get to work. Not once did she bemoan my continued addiction and not once did she relapse herself. By living together through over 5 years of chronic heroin and crack addiction we gradually found ourselves in that oblivion of smack and smoke and dream states, helped one another through it and made the hardest times as least wearing on our bodies as possible. I've no doubt some will see it as perverse, will condemn and immoralize both our behaviours, but for me they were the greatest days of our lives and I look back on those desperate times with a fondness that rips my heart in two by the sheer fact that they are over now.
In 2014, having left London for France ten years earlier, my mother finally made the travel over. It was the first time I had seen her in nine years. By then she was 65, clean of all substances and doing remarkably well for the life she had led. On the second day I took her along with me as I scored and introduced her to my dealer. Back home I said to her:
“One for old times sake, mum?”
She looked at me, screweed her face up and shook her head: “I'm done with all that, Shane... I don't wanna start down that road again.”
I nodded and then excused myself and went in the bathroom and cried. It wasn't that she was done with it, nor that there was any real chance of her falling back into addiction. The truth was that she had gotten old and soon she would not be here at all. It was the cruelness of time, the terrible fate of ageing. Our joint heroin and crack days were over, lost to another time and gone forever. My mother was just my mother now, a little less wild, a lot less young but as beautiful as ever. I composed myself, dried my eyes and returned to the room. I cooked a fix and took an injection and lay down besides her. From behind me I could feel her breath and the heaving of her chest as she watched television. I watched the images too and after only moments felt a calmness descend upon me that I had not felt for many years. Soon my cigarette was being lightly lifted from my fingers.
"Shane, you're fucking burning yourself,” she said, chiding me. But before I could reply I was off again, my eyelids closing over on another evening of life, drifting off heavy now and dreaming of nothing in my graceless heroin state.
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