Before I tell you of that terrible day, with Pete sat in an armchair, in a squalid shit-filled room with death all around, I must first tell you of the man himself - before and during his complete mental collapse. As with regards to after, well, I'll tell you now: I do not know. I do not know what happened to him, where he went or was taken, nor where he is today. All I know is my ending, the ending of this text: Pete in a daze, walking into nowhere through the snow, the late winter sun cutting a melancholy air over his shoulder as I slowed, dropped behind, then stopped altogether, watching as he went on alone, into the frosty mouth of his own fate.
The first thing you must know is that Pete was a quite unremarkable man. He had no heroic qualities, not even in the diabolical eye of his madness. If anything he was a nasty piece of work, though not even honest or thorough enough in his villainy to define himself through it. There were odd occasions where one could have been excused for thinking he was a true dark soul, and it does seem that way now, but mostly, at the time, his darkness seemed contrived, not at all impulsive or something inside breaking out. It's why his madness came as such a shock, left him isolated. He didn't seem so much a victim as someone who had brought it on himself, or worse: deserved it.
A regular barfly, it's how I first became aware of him. Always perched on the same stool at the same end of the bar, hunched over with that navy soviet docker's cap on his slightly oversized head, his right arm outstretched, his hand around the waist of a whiskey, a cigarette burning away between his fingers and the smoke rising and mingling with the whiskey fumes above. He'd sit there like that, his upper torso rocking backwards and forwards at a constant rate, his legs tight together like they were fused and his worn pointed boots curling up from off the polished brass foot rail which ran low around the length of the bar. Now and again he'd raise a bid of two fingers and one of the bar-tenders would set him down a fresh double.
“Who is that?” I asked Rocky one evening, after seeing the barfly acknowledge him.
“That's Pete... Pete the Tick.”
“Tick as in them disease riddled parasites? Because he's attached to the bar like that?”
“No! Tick as in tick-tock... as in time … tempo... SPEED”
“Speed... Amphetamine? He's on speed?”
“On it? He sells it! His wraps are what keeps half the fucking nightclub personnel awake. Come on, I'll introduce you to him.”
A month later and I was one of Pete's regular customers. I'd park myself besides him at the bar and shout him a fresh scotch and ice. With the barman turned to measure out the shot, Pete would slide his hand, palmside down, over the bar towards me. My hand would replace Pete's and the deal was done. I'd back out, leaving a twenty pound note on the bar for Pete, another slipping in besides him as I left.
In addition to his little drug enterprise Pete also had his fingers in on the nightclub promotion game. He did not help to promote the clubs he was involved in, just fronted a percentage of the rent needed for the quarterly lease and let the other promoters worry about filling the place. In those times he could be found no place else: either sat at the bar in The George or upstairs in the dark of the Wag Club, his large moony face swivelling from side to side like a semi-revolving spotlight, looking out through the smoke and music for other stranded ships in the dark. More often than not he'd find one; or one would find him. Always female, always loose, and always drunk; always capable of all sorts. Falling off the stool besides him. Laughing as she lay there on the floor in the shape of a chaise longue, cackling laughter then struggling to rise before crashing back down grace to a skidding bar stool. Pete just stared forward – maybe watching in the mirror behind the bar; most likely not. They'd leave together. Seemingly joyous but always a seething air of violence within Pete. You avoided him at such moments. Maybe said a short 'good evening' before stepping quickly back into the shadows. They'd be holding each other up; Pete always smaller, always more fucked yet more in control. His stagger wasn't indie cool either, rather a real unstable footing in life.
A typical intellectual gone wrong. That's how many accounted for his madness, escaped any responsibility for the way he ended so isolated as he did. But I can tell you: he was no such thing. Pete had a half-decent brain but no more. It was a brain capable of taking in vast amounts of knowledge and equally capable of spitting it out all garbled up. His thinking was skewed. He had gotten embroiled and then entangled in just about every conspiracy theory imaginable – from the credible to the outright lunatic. And for all his enlightenment and research, for all the linking facts and proofs he provided, for all the rampant passionate assuredness of his convictions, his thought often missed a basic sense of logic. It was as if he was somehow in so deep that he had forgotten to stand back and ask himself simple questions like: is such a thing even possible? On the occasions when he would say something incisive, he'd try to prove his argument with such ludicrous means that it defunked his initial idea and made it something possibly true but happened upon by false reasoning. And it can be, that even if a man puts the correct figures at the end of an equation, he can still be totally wrong.
But to Pete, Pete was never wrong. As much as he believed, he was one of only a select few who had seen through the full corruption of the system, had spied the reptilian manifestations wriggling away beneath the skins of world leaders and Jews. He spoke of ancient symbols which revealed humans as having been placed on earth and cultivated like bacteria by an alien race. He belittled anyone who so much as questioned his beliefs, disregarded them as having been inculcated from the womb and brought up on a diet of fabricated history and reality. He navigated his way through life following suspect intellectual and spiritual guides, instinct, and a bizarre way of getting around which he referred to as R.A.T: Random Acts Technique. He said it was a strategy for evading the law and intelligence agencies based on a mathematical formula he had conceived. But from what I saw it was nothing more than pure brainless changes of direction, suddenly careering off some place as if guided by some omnipotent power. And I had seen that before in my step-father.
I must confess: I did not like Pete. I never liked Pete. Not even when I was the only person who was supposed to like Pete. He scared me and I had no respect for him in any context. He was a man who would turn suddenly angry and violent, see an enemy in someone he had only just had his arm around. And that was before he lost the plot; before snorting speed turned to shooting it. But it wasn't the drugs. God, no. They didn't help, that's true, may even have accelerated his decline, but he'd have lost his mind anyway. Of that I have absolutely no doubt.
Like any great and terrible storm there were signs. I saw them. So did Lea. So did anyone who knew Pete a little more substantially outside of a user/dealer relationship. In retrospect it's easy to see such a storm and predict its course of destruction. But in the vortex of the moment, when your own life is all preoccupying, it's not so easy having a clear head about anything. Even I dismissed many of Pete's wilder antics as drugged up debauchery. Like the time he took his cock out at the bar and tried to place my girlfriend's hand upon it. When I confronted him he pulled a move on me that left me with a busted nose and a bruised liver – his square, ground down teeth chattering up close to my cheekbone that next time he would kill me. Strangely, he seemed not to render count that it was me. It was as though when he lost it he no longer saw individuals but the face of a common enemy. Later, that same evening, he spoke to me like nothing had happened.
Over the next 18 months Pete's alcohol and amphetamine use steadily increased. It reached the point where he would get angry if you tried to score from him as he was keeping his supply for himself. At regular intervals he began going AWOL. Sometimes for days; sometimes weeks. Word got around of Pete's increasingly queer behaviour. His clothes started to stay the same and then rot, and each time you saw him his facial hair had grown an inch longer until finally he was just a grease filled upper face peering speedy-eyed from behind a full and filthy beard. He became known as someone edgy, nervous, paranoid. Strange stories began circulating about him – things he had said; that he had gone to Palestine to lay down in front of Jewish bulldozers; that the C.I.A were hunting him; that he had gone transvestite to avoid detection; had thrown his lot in with the cult religious group Jesus is an Alien. And then he'd turn back up, looking more or less like Pete, though with a little more of himself missing each time.
One autumn weekend, a year before the roof finally fell in on him, I unexpectedly bumped into Pete as I exited the Camden Town underground station. He was stood aback the street railing outside, huddled up in a full-length black felt coat with the collars turned up and his hands in his pockets. He looked as skittish as hell. His eyes darted about nervously over the faces of the crowds as we filed out the station. In spotting me he made a clandestine greeting with his eyes and motioned with his head for me to pursue him. It were as if he'd been waiting there just for me. Curious, I followed.
As it usually is, the Town was jam packed. With his head lowered, beard pressed into his breast, Pete forged briskly on through the crowds. I followed, at pains to keep up. After a moment he turned around, gave me a quick glance and then ducked into a bookshop. He hurried on through, towards the back-end of the store. He took a book from off a shelf and, looking more conspicuous than anyone else in the shop, pssstt me over as he feigned to read. When I arrived he turned and moved away as if he didn't know me. As I eyed the book spines in the section he gradually sidled his way back alongside me and in a hushed, raspy voice, he asked if anyone was watching him.
“No,” I whispered back.
“Well, they are watching,” he said. “They dress in grey.”
“Who dresses in grey?”
“They're on the roof.”
“Who? What roof?”
“Go and look outside. Quick. Check the windows on the opposite side of the street... and be discreet!”
When I looked at the book Pete was holding it was upside down. If anyone was watching him it would have been because of that.
“I'll go and check,” I said.
“No no NO! They're onto us. You're too fucking suss. Go to the first floor. I'll find you. Go! “
There was no point telling Pete that there wasn't anyone dressed in grey watching us. Saying something like that would have only put me in cahoots with them. I said nothing.
A shop assistant who had been surveying Pete now made her way over. Pete saw her coming. His eyes filled with terror and flitted about like a man cornered but still looking to run. He quickly pushed the book he was holding back onto the shelf, dropped his head, and bounded out the store. The shop assistant froze, unsure as to whether a crime had been committed or not. She stared at me with something that went past suspicion, like I were a rotten part of Pete left behind. I shrugged and threw my hands out. Then I rushed out too.
When I caught up with Pete he was furious and said, “I don't have any SPEED. No!” Then louder, for the benefit of those around, he yelled, “I don't sell DRUGS... FUCK OFF!” And with that he was gone, his mind walking him off into the crowds and further away from home.
* * *
It was a warm, mauve, floral night in Soho. Beer and perfume and the acrid smell of amphetamine were in the air. I was working the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue, outside Les Misérables, touting for that night's business in the club. From down the road came two, tall, scraggly types, dressed in black. One had the knee ripped out his tight gothic trousers. They were the club's DJs, and like most rock DJs they were pasty-faced pale things, bleached white through lack of light and run down to the bones from carting huge boxes of vinyl around with them.
“He's closed the club!” one said
“Pete! He literally threw us out, said we were working in cahoots with the Brotherhood of Christ. He's closed the club.”
“Pete can't close the club, he's barely anything to do with it anymore. He's not even twenty per cent in. Only Lea can close the club.”
“Well, Pete can too... he's just done it!”
“And those already inside? The bar staff? where are they?”
The DJ shrugged. The other did nothing.
“The punters must be ready to riot?”
“No. They we're scared more than anything. If you'd have seen Pete you'ld understand.”
“Was he fucked?”
“Well, no... That's what was so scary: he seemed sober.”
“Jesus! Come on,” I said. And with that we all headed back up to the club to see what the hell was going on.
Between 7 and 10pm Soho is maybe the most beautiful square mile of city anywhere in the world. There is something so healthy about the place, so vibrant and full of life and fun and an infinite variety of wonderful sleaze. But after 10pm, when the drink and drugs have settled in, when the piss and puke starts spraying, the place transforms into a combustible grid of cliques, bringing with them agro and violence. When we got to the club we were into the dark side of the night.
Outside the club there was a group of maybe fifty people. Lea was amongst them. The group seemed more mystified than anything else. They had been promised a refund in the event the club was closed and a free entry for another night. The manager had also been ejected and didn't dare re-enter. He said Pete had a machete.
“A machete? Did he threaten to use it?”
“He didn't need to. It was written all over his face.”
It was finally Lea who plucked up the courage to enter the club and confront Pete. No doubt the prospect of losing a night's business had over-ridden his fear barrier. He asked me to go in with him, but recalling the time Pete had head-butted my nose open, in this very place, I declined. Ten minutes later Lea was back. He looked kinda bemused.
“He wants to see you,” he said to me.
“Me? Are you fucking kidding?”
Lea shook his head.
“What the fuck is this man's obsession with me? “ I asked. Lea let out a little laugh and wished me an insincere 'Good luck'.
Reluctantly, I entered the club. After the various wild reports I'd heard I half-expected to find Pete calmly sat at his usual plot at the bar. He wasn't. The place was deserted. The primary coloured lighting swirled around the empty dance floor and criss-crossed over the ceiling. The bar sat lit up in white neon; it looked like the starboard side of a ghost ship appearing out of fog. Some stools had been overturned. I called for Pete but there came no reply. I walked around; checked the toilets. A door had been put through and there was water over the floor; a tap left running and the sink stuffed with paper hand towels. But there was no sign of Pete. I circled the club once more, searched behind the bar, under the DJ booth. As I pondered over where Pete could be I noticed that the security light to one of the fire exits was blinking, signalling that the door had been breached. I now breached the door myself. “Pete?” I called. Nothing. The exit was faintly lit by a single orange emergency light; a set of concrete stairs wound their way to the ground. I looked over the handrail. Down, in the near dark, there was a right angle of light cast across the floor of the stairwell. The door leading to the street was open. Pete had fled. Somewhere out in the glitzy, lit up night of Soho, amongst the club-goers and revellers, was a man half-crazed with a machete. I stared for a moment at the light below and then I pulled the emergency fire doors closed and reset the security light.
That Pete had fled was a huge relief. I told Lea who went around to inspect and close up the side exit. All doormen and club staff were put on strict alert in case Pete returned. He never did. That would be the last night that he would ever be seen inside the club. Weeks later, when I would ask Pete about that night, he gave some excuse about rival promoters chasing him down, threatening to kill him if he didn't close the club. Though he spoke like he believed what he was saying, it was nonsense. There were no other club promoters, and even if there were, they would not have had their beef with Pete.
During Pete's truancy from Soho, having a small amount of money invested in the club nights myself, it was put on me to travel to his flat once fortnightly and deliver him his cut of the takings and a printout of the entry numbers and bar receipts. Pete initially insisted on meeting downstairs in the foyer. For the first few visits he took the envelope without so much as leaving the lift. He looked awful, like death had hijacked his body and then decided to live. His paranoia now further increased. He whispered of a covert surveillance operation taking place within the tower block. He said it would be safer if the handover were made in the confines of his flat. There was, however, one condition: I was never to ride the lift directly to his floor. Pete said that the lift had an internal memory and that there was a scanning device fitted up alongside the door mechanics. My orders were to take the elevator to the 14th and then descend by foot to his flat on the 12th. On the next visit that's what I did, stepped right on in, a very real participant in the internal world of Pete's madness.
Square room. A single scarlet armchair towards the rear of it. Behind: windows painted over with a streaky layer of white emulsion paint. Below: uncarpeted, concrete floor; brownish-red with pages of newspaper spread out here and there. Pete: sat in the chair, still and rigid and wearing a dressing gown; no shoes or socks; pale hairy shins; full beard; grease swept back hair; face gaunt; wide speed struck eyes glaring straight out ahead. In front: a small makeshift table, littered with syringes, filters, a couple of cooking spoons, cigarette ends and ash. Piled up all around: books and notepads full of cuttings and text; yellow post-it notes of scribble everywhere. The place reeked of cooked speed, an acrid smell which prickled like metal in the mouth. Over that: the pissy, feral smell of animals: cats. They were everywhere. The adults laying around in furry piles licking themselves and yawning; the kittens squeaking and chasing about in play out in the hallway. Along the skirting of the walls were trays of food and litter, other bowls full of old water with hairs floating on the surface. In the bareness and disorder of the flat there was something disquieting, some kind of a hint of the terrible chaos raging away inside Pete's mind, something quite impossible to communicate without being that crazy oneself.
During these visits Pete sat in a shell-shocked speed coma, his mind plagued by hallucinations, caught in a permanent come-down which left a void of depression in his world. When he spoke it was a mess of subjects and revelations, from US warplanes in Israel to secret bombs pointed at North Korea; extra-terrestrial intelligence agencies and electronic parasites the size of dust mites. Between such blabbering he would damn the breeding cats, speak of them in terms of a worldwide epidemic, an expression of repulsion hijacking his face as he disclosed how newborn kittens were carriers of an unknown super-virus. Pete had descended further into the abyss, his grip on reality maintained by the finest of threads; an unmistakeable tinge of madness now like mildew on the epidermic layer of his sickly complexion.
On the day it all finally came down it was snowing in London. I had travelled halfway across the city on a bus, staring out the window as the flakes fluttered down with all the sad beauty of life and ruin. On the ground a good few inches had settled. Arriving at Pete's I buzzed to be let in but received no response. After the fourth or fifth attempt I gave up, opting to wander back and forth so as to keep myself from freezing and hopefully catch him returning home. When Pete still hadn't put in a show ten minutes later I rang up once more. This time the usually silent buzz was played back out the intercom. I rang again and the same happened. It could only mean one thing: Pete was up there listening. I bent in close to the intercom. Faint static crackled out the speaker.
"Pete, is that you?" I asked. "Let me in it's fucking freezing out here. Pete!!!” A voice said something but I couldn't make out the words. Then the main door unlocked and I entered.
Run-down high-rise blocks have an inherent feel of isolation and depression encased within them. Lights flicker and dim and die; winds nick in and circulate from unknown places and scrape and howl around the rubbish chute; huge concrete stairwells sit in permanent semi-darkness with predatory insects squatted upon the walls and fluffy birds feathers on the window sills; doors to the individual apartments darken the space immediately in front of them and sit in smells ranging from boiled cabbage to diarrhoea; and, from hundreds of little spy holes, fear and suspicion stare out and watch the nothingness which only reinforces the suspicion and fear The foyer, the grand welcoming hall of these warrens, always stinks of the lift and the lift always stinks so much worse. Now, with the snow from outside trodden in good, the ground was a sodden and slippery mess of black ice and mush. Urine and stale beer sloshed with the sludge in the lift. I stood awkwardly astride two relatively dry patches, holding my breath. At the 14th floor I left, cut out to the stairwell and made my way down.
I first got hint of the smell just as I came through onto the 12th floor landing. It provoked my senses so obscenely that I instinctively held my breath. But this wasn't your typical smell of refuse and rotting vegetables but something altogether more putrid. I had never smelled anything quite like it. As I made my way down the landing the odour intensified. And then I was outside Pete's, his door left ajar for me to enter, the stench undoubtedly emanating from within.
Pete was sat in his chair, as usual. He was highly agitated with amphetamine, nodding his head and tapping a foot at fast tempo without break. He was dressed in shades of worn black, skinny jeans and a hooded top with the hood up over his head. His hands were bloated and syringe marked; his fingers filthy, gripped to the side-arms of the chair. His face was shock white, the cheekbones protruding and the skin covered in dry, broken eczema. The room was freezing. Flies buzzed about, sat perched on objects on the table. The left side of the room was littered in cat shit. My eyes were smarting. I hooked my scarf up over my nose.
"You need to feed the cats, " Pete said. “They won't let me feed them. They've been got at. There's lights in their eyes.”
I stared at Pete with sadness and disgust. He must have known. Somewhere deep down he did know or he wouldn't have mentioned about feeding them. His brain may have been shot through and scattered but there was nothing wrong with his vision.
I cast my eyes around at the little kittens, sucked in thin and laid out dressed in death. Some were barely the size of my outstretched hand. There were at least two dead adults as well. The kitten nearest to me had had its back paw chewed away and eaten. It's eyes were crusted over like it had been crying in its sleep. The tip of its tongue, drained grey, poked out from between its small sharp teeth. Just one cat moved, an adult, creeping around the back wall with its fur hanging loose from its belly.
"Pete the cats are all dead," I said.
Pete looked at me; he looked horrified. For a moment I thought he understood, but it soon became clear that he understood nothing. He was staring straight through me as if I were a mirage.
Furious , at a loss to know what to do, I looked around once more. I counted seven dead cats in this room alone. Pete was muttering on about something and was trying to light an inch of a rolled cigarette he had found. I stepped over to him and bending down so as I was right in his face, I yelled:
“Pete!!! The cats are ALL fucking DEAD!!! They've been eating each other!” I tossed his envelope down hard in his lap. He continued trying to light his cigarette, a wide glaring madness flashing up in his eyes each time he struck the lighter.
It is a terrifying thing to see insanity close up in a man, to look into somebody's eyes and see nothing behind them at all. It is not the man that terrifies you but the lack of one - an understanding, a realisation of yourself, like meeting your own beast minus your personality – the pre-programmed animal in man. I looked in Pete's eyes that day and I felt like you do when staring at yourself in a mirror for too long and losing sight of which one is the real you. Pete was so far gone he could have been me, he could have been just about anyone at all.
In total there were 11 dead cats (mostly kittens) and 2 living adults. In the hallway, in two white plastics bags, was maybe the greatest tragedy of all: 16 tins of cat food. I cursed Pete. I took a tin in to him, held it up and yelled: Pete, you had fucking food here!!! Pete had just finished his latest shot of speed. He withdrew the needle from his clenched fist and looked up, but didn't say a word. I set out food and water for the two living cats. The second was curled up in the hallway on an old blanket. It was so weak that I had to place the food and water bowls right under its breast. It refused the food but, with its eyes almost closed over, lowered its head to the water. Its tongue took one slow lap of water and then another and then a third. As I watched the cat drink, eager to see if it would eat or not, I had the distinct feeling that someone was watching me. I turned around and caught a flash of black disappearing across the hall and out the front door – and it wasn't no cat.
Rushing out to follow the fleeing Pete , a neighbour, an old woman, was just letting herself in the flat opposite. “What is that smell?” She asked.
“Your neighbour's cats are dead,” I told her. “You need to phone the RSPCA.... and he needs some help too.” I didn't wait for a response . I took the stairs and chased after Pete.
Pete was at least four floors below me, winding his way down as quick as he could. “Pete, where are you going?” I called. “Your front door is wide open!” He didn't reply, just cast a look on upwards and then quickened his pace to escape me. Not wanting to corner Pete in the stairwell I kept at a distance. At the ground floor Pete exited. I bound down the stairs, through the foyer and out into the street. Up ahead, Pete was heading off, tramping through the snow.
"Pete, you can't be out like this... You'll freeze to death," I said, catching up alongside him. Under his hooded top he was bare-chested and under his shoes he wore no socks. He didn't respond, just carried on walking to wherever his skewed mind was leading him.
I followed him in silence. Now and again his eyes would slide my way, checking to see if I was still keeping up. He walked at a quick pace but was not trying to outwalk me. In his face I could see he was closed to the idea of talking, not of anything. I had somehow now became a part of whatever shadowy organizations he believed were pursuing him. The snow was still falling; a good 4 inches covering the city. Pete was fidgety, his eyes moving around nervously, frost coming out his mouth as he chugged on. His paranoia and delusions were now cut off even from me. They were all his now, barricaded in, twittering and scurrying about through his mind like thousands of newly hatched insects. As he strode on I noticed a foot long split in the outside seam of his trousers. With each step he took his pale thigh showed through. It made me shiver. Worse still, each time his foot trod down, the snow would rise up and fall in over the tops of his shoes. It didn't seem to bother him, nor the icy headwind that had me tucking my chin tight into my chest and which burned my ears sore. I asked Pete where he was going but he didn't respond. The truth was he was not going anywhere, that's how crazy he had become. He was walking with no destination, no motive in mind. I looked down the snow laden road, down the highstreet, but couldn't see no end. He will tramp on straight for as long as he can, I thought, and maybe only turn back once the road ends.
Pete remained dead silent, in his own jittery universe, and now, where the wind had driven into me it had dropped me a step back. I studied Pete. I thought of the two cats left in his apartment and felt a pang of guilt that I was about to let this man go on alone. But his problems, his and the cats' futures, were greater things than I could have been responsible for. I had told his neighbour and Pete's door was open and the obnoxious odours of death and putrefaction were leaking out unabated – that would conclude this saga better than I ever could.
When Pete next turned his head he would no longer have seen me besides him. I had let the wind slow me down a further foot and then another and then two more besides. From that distance, no longer able to see the side of his face, nor his pale exposed skin, neither his pockmarked hands or his skittish eyes, I was able to let myself break free. I slowed to a stop and my ties with Pete stretched and then snapped. In the snow, I turned around and began walking back in the direction from which I had came. At the bottom of the road, just prior to turning off, I cast a single look back. But Pete was gone, not even a speck on the horizon. All that remained were footsteps walking away, his and mine, intermingled, the new fresh snow already filling them in, and the world slowly turning, brutal, in the only way it knows.
- - -
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