They had been found dead in cars, slumped in doorways, crouched on their haunches in telephone booths and flat out at the bottom of stairwells; men and women, young and experienced addicts alike. Eleven deaths in North London, seventeen in Scotland and multiple others dotted around the UK. Other addicts were turning up in Accident & Emergency rooms, often taxi'd in and dragged to the front desk, terribly ill and on the point of death. From the very early news reports it seemed that the only common denominator tying all the casualties together was that they were all intravenous heroin users and they had all shot up just prior to going over.
“Lucky fuckers,” said Thinman, reading the news report, his filthy stained index finger, which had been running under the words, now jabbing at a certain part in the story. “Says here it's a suspected pure batch that's doing it. Apparently some uncut gear has found its way onto the street. Un-fucking-cut! Wouldn't half mind getting me hands on a bit a that.”
I didn't respond. I sat watching Thinman as he read, as his eyes lit up and different expressions moved across his face like changing weather patterns. Heroin addiction had all but destroyed the man, eaten every morsel of fat from off his bones, bleached his skin a deathly yellowish grey hue and somehow faded his tattoos so as they looked liked processing stamps from the mortuary. There he was, sat in the lounge of the local needle exchange, looking like he'd been air-packaged, and still salivating over the thought of one last great fix, of something that would relieve him of the fear and knowledge of an impending and premature death.
In the cramped store cupboard of the exchange the key worker bagged up my usual fifty pack of 1ml needles along with a button bag of citric acid and a handful of sterile water bottles. “Now, be careful,” she said, “what with that bad batch going around. Take these guidelines and have a read through them on your way home.” She handed me a leaflet, a list of bullet-pointed directions. I cast an eye quickly over them, over the casual, childish font which had been used. “You're up,” I said to Thinman as I came out the supply cupboard, “I'll wait for you outside.”
Late morning, the air fresh and floral in the residential streets; the sky deep and blue and clear. From behind floated the subdued rumble of the high-street, the cogs of the day turning into lunchtime. I walked with Thinman up towards St Stephen's Church, to loiter hidden in the damp shade under her arch for Danny. Heroin was burning through our lives. I felt good in my habit, not yet tired and jaded and all shot out. As we walked I read Thinman the needle exchange's counsel to avoid dying that autumn.
“Smoke it!!!” Thinman yelled, repeating what I had read. “Well, they know that's not likely gonna happen, is it? I'd need two hundred dollars a day to smoke it. And how'd they figure that? Like the only time real serious shit hits the streets and we smoke it! Fuckin' jokers.”
“They're talking toxic gear here.... not pure. Says it's maybe laced with fucking anthrax or botulism. Advice for those hellbent on injecting is to make absolutely sure to vein it... under no circumstance go intra-muscular.”
Thinman laughed and flicked his hand out, as if batting away an annoying fly. “It's all just more anti-smack propaganda, more lies to scare the shit outta us, scare us into quitting. I've heard of bad gear... but toxic gear??? Do us a favour.” I balled up the leaflet and tossed it down in the street. Even accepting the reports were true, barely fifty addicts in the entire country had died and so you'd have to be pretty unlucky to come across the contaminated heroin. And anyway, Thinman was correct: no-one seemed to really know what was going on anyway – maybe it had nothing to do with the heroin at all.
A week later and the so-called toxic heroin was the main talk of the IV'ing community. More junkies had dropped dead up North and the first rumours of addicts round our way turning up in hospitals with sorely infected limbs and skin necrosis had surfaced. As is always the case, the rumours never concerned anyone who one knew personally. They were all mostly third hand reports, gossip blowing around in the waiting rooms of methadone clinics and needle exchanges, people with very little going on in their lives and wanting to fan the fires in their dying grates.
On the street, the talk and rumours affected little. All it did was add an extra ounce of danger to the practice of shooting up, supply us with another element to use to blackmail money out of anyone who cared. Nobody cared. And so we hobbled on as ever, taking our chances and hoping our chances were good, not having the luxury of playing it safe for a while. We shot first and dealt with any consequences later. We scored and used as ever, more tales that week reported of addicts blowing out and toppling over, others staggering into A&E and put in intensive care having bloated up with some kind of bacterial elephantitis.
That's when Thinman disappeared.
Thinman's disappearance was strange. I was in his debt for two rocks of crack and only something terribly serious would have had him not be home to collect. But he wasn't home, and neither had he returned when I did another pass later on that evening. On the second day when he still hadn't turned up I called in on his brother. Together we travelled over to Thinman's, spoke to the downstairs neighbour and then forced the door. Thinman's flat was a shithole, a mattress on the floor surrounded by syringes and shooting paraphernalia. But there was no Thinman, and no sign that anything untoward had happened. Thinman's brother left a handwritten note on the mattress and said if there was still no news by the following evening that he would report him as missing. He said his brother often laid low for days at a time. That was true, but never when in credit for crack.
Later that evening I received a call to my mobile, a soft female voice asking me if I knew a Mr Saul Messinger. That was Thinman's real name. I said I didn't think I knew anyone by such a name and asked why. She explained that she was calling from the hospital concerning a recent inpatient who had been admitted with no contact details and that my number had been found amongst his possessions. I thought for a moment before telling the hospital assistant that I didn't know him very well but knew his brother. I gave the details of Thinman's brother and put the phone down. It was late. From what I could gather Thinman was in a poor way but still alive. I pondered over all that may have happened to him. It was impossible to know.
- - -
“No Saul Messinger here,” said the fat receptionist, sat there in her XL mint hospital uniform. She returned back to her Sudoko puzzle, wishing me to go away and leave her alone.
“Will you look again, please” I asked. “He's definitely here. It was the hospital which phoned me saying so.” The receptionist froze with her pencil on her puzzle. When I didn't disappear she let out a little huff of air, snapped her pencil down and took up the mouse. She clicked the cursor into a blank field and started to type a name in. After no more than four letters she stopped and without raising her eyes to look at me, said, “What did you say the name was?”
“Messinger,” I said.
She hit the back space rapid-fire and typed in the correct name, giving her return key a good whack to show me how pissed off she was that she had to work. She sat staring at the screen with an expression of contempt on her face. A few clicks of the mouse later and she said, “He's in the infectious disease unit.”
“Infectious disease unit? Where's that?”
She pointed to a plan of the hospital on the wall over near the lifts. Then she raised her eyes and looked at me for the first time. She looked like a cow that had been interrupted while grazing.
“Are you family?” she asked, hoping I wasn't so as she could deny me access to the ward and possibly have the security come down and sling me out.
“Yes, I'm his brother,” I said.
She didn't believe me but had no way to say that I wasn't. She lowered her eyes, going back to her game of numbers, brooding all the while, knowing her fat arse would be disturbed again soon.
The infectious disease unit looked like any other ward. I had expected to see isolation rooms and quarantine units, but there was none of that here. I wandered down through the ward, poking my head in rooms, looking for Thinman. Just as I spotted him a nurse came rushing down the hallway, calling after me. Thinman looked up. He was lain back in a bed with the right sleeve cut off his hospital shirt and his upper arm heavily bandaged. He looked awful; worse than usual. He widened his eyes in greeting.
“Excuse me, sir, who are you looking for?” the nurse asked, stopping.
“Him,” I said, pointing to Thinman. “I'm his brother.” I said that a notch louder so as Thinman would hear and confirm it if asked. The nurse told me to wait just there. She entered the ward and spoke to Thinman. As she left she gave me the OK to see him.
“What the fuck happened?” I asked Thinman. “We all thought you were dead!”
“Nearly fucking was,” he replied, “got some of that fucking bad smack that's going around... almost had me. Wound botulism or some shite.”
“Fuck! How d'you know?”
“Fuck all else it could've been. Ate my arm away right where I struck up. Was that little cunt Jay's gear.” I thought of Jay and of his two cousins who also dealt and must be all holding the same stuff. I wondered how many more addicts in the area I knew would drop. It was a scary thought, and even more terrifying was the thought of how many unrelated dealers may have picked up from the same batch.
“Has your brother been around?” I asked.
“Passed by this morning. Was here when I fully came around. Was out of it for almost 36hrs. Not pleasant, mate... and was sick to boot. They dosed me up on methadone but still feel like crap.”
Thinman shuffled himself up in his bed. He had a catheter in his neck which was dripping saline and antibiotics into his system. He began picking at the bandage covering his upper arm, his face creasing up in pain as he slowly pulled the dressing free from the wound.
“What the fuck are you doing,” I asked.
“I wanna see what fucking damage I've done... ain't seen it yet. It stings and burns like fuckin' hell... I know that much.”
As Thinman pulled the bandage back it first revealed a sore red swelling. Then the first wound was exposed, a small drawing pin sized hole in the skin.
“Fuck,” Thinman said. He then pulled the bandage free, exposing the full extent of the damage beneath. It was a sight straight out of a medical book. His entire upper bicep was cratered in open wounds of various sizes, all through to the flesh and seeping a sticky, yellow, sap-like puss. The craters of the wound were raised and cracked. It looked like he had had sulphuric acid thrown over him. Thinman looked at his wound in horror. Then he looked at me. “All that from a fucking shot,” he said. “What the fuck!” He studied his wound some time more, his eyes searching out the most rotten parts of flesh and squinting in on them. Now accustomed to the horrific sight he seemed to take some kind of sadistic pleasure from exposing his injury, like it was the embodiment of a life that was eating him alive. After a moment he replaced his bandage, grimacing and wincing in pain as it settled down once more against his wound.
For a moment Thinman closed his eyes. I watched his sickly transparent lids, thin and taut over the balls and run through with purple threadlike veins. I had the distinct impression that he could see me looking at him through them. With his eyes still closed, he said: “Mate, you still good for those two rocks you owe me?”
“Of course,” I said. “Though I don't know anyone around here.” He opened his eyes and looked at me like he was in pain. “I need something right now. D'you have credit on your phone?”
I nodded. Thinman said that he knew a user called John Lacey who lived in the flats behind the hospital and as long as he was still alive and well that he'd be able to score. Thinman called out the number for me to key in and call. When I'd finished, I handed the phone to Thinman.
“You've got ten mins,” Thinman said to me, smiling. “He'll meet ya just round the back of the hospital... and try and be quick... I'm half fuckin' clucking here.”
* * *
I met John Lacey in the grounds behind the hospital. He was dressed in a loose woollen top and piss-stained nylon tracksuit bottoms, walking around holding his stomach and cursing.
“How's Thinman,” he asked, still partially buckled over.
“Not bad. Will be better after a shot, you know.”
“Sure. Sure I fucking know. God, so will I. ”
“Must we go far?”
“No, not far,” John said. “Come on.”
Barely had we been walking a minute when John stopped abruptly and said, “I need to shit... me guts are gonna fucking drop on me.” He reached out and rested his hand gently on my forearm. He paused there like that for a moment before giving a little squeeze and rushing off, ducking into the nearest bush. The foliage barely covered him. I saw John yank down his tracksuit bottoms and underwear and a flash of dirty white thigh as he crouched down in haste. I turned around, staring over at the back of the hospital in disbelief. And as I watched the air-conditioning units, observed the odd rags of tissue which hung from the vents and ruffled in the out-blowing warm air, the sickly sweet smell of excrement floated up over my shoulder, John Lacey squirting his rotten junkie guts out onto the ground behind the bushes. It was the smell of London; the smell of those days and that time. Illness, shit and decay. Soiled clothes and pale unwashed skin. Doing things on the fly. The filth of a generation, dragging something dead and decomposing into the new millennium. God, the world had changed. But in the back hangouts, in the shadows of impoverished estate-lands, where the buildings block out the sun and the mildew grows up the walls and moss stands in for grass, it could have been any time in the last thirty years. I turned back around to see if John had finished his business. Almost. Still crouched down the bush was now being tugged and leaves being yanked free. When he finally emerged from the bush he was pulling up and fixing his trousers, the smell of shit hanging to him like it were his soul peeping out.
“God, that was violent,” he said, smiling. I looked at his hands and didn't want them touching me. I thought of the bags of heroin he would have to soon hand over, and I didn't want to touch them either.
Back at the hospital I gave Thinman his four bags of smack. He was itching for a fix, only now he realised just what a chore it would be to cook one up in the open ward. As he lay there looking at me, his face miserable with sobriety, I knew what was coming.
“Mate, could ya do us a last big favour? Sneak in the bogs and cook us up a hit?”
I didn't want to, but I agreed. Thinman gave me a bag of his smack. He told me to cook the lot up and split it between two needles so as he had another fix for when I was gone.
In the toilet cubicle I went about doing as Thinman had asked. Halfway through mixing up his dose, just about to cook it down, I heard the main door of the restroom creak open and someone enter. I stopped what I was doing, the spoon in one hand and the un-struck lighter just beneath in the other, and listened. Whoever it was was just standing there, maybe listening too. I gently laid the spoon down on the top of the cistern and sat on the toilet. After a moment the person outside washed their hands, dried them and then the door creaked again and then creaked close. I wondered if the person was really gone or whether it was a bluff and they were still standing in silence in the bathroom, listening to what I was doing in the cubicle. I peeped under the door. No-one. I quickly sparked my lighter and finished cooking Thinman's shots. While sucking the second shot up the door squeaked open again and once more a presence entered and seemed to loiter in the room. So as to give the impression that I was just finishing up, I pulled some toilet paper free and then flushed the chain. Masked by the sound of the rushing water I hurriedly gathered up my cooking utensils, capped the syringes for Thinman and pocketed them. I composed myself and left the cubicle. There was no-one in the bathroom. As I made my way back down the ward the duty nurse surveyed me with narrow, suspicious eyes. I kept my casual. “Fuck You,” I thought, “you'll never stop this.”
Barely had I given Thinman his two capped and loaded needles and he had concealed them beneath his blanket, than the nurse came wandering in from behind. She acted as if she were there just to prop Thinman up and take care of his comfort. Thinman was anxious and flushed hot. He didn't want her messing about too much down besides him. The nurse didn't speak a word but it was obvious that she knew we were up to no good. When she finally left Thinman was eager to shoot himself up, bring himself back in from out the cold of the sober light. He told me to go and distract the nurse, ask in private about his infection. He was already sitting on the side of his bed, his hospital trouser leg pushed up and prodding for veins down his inner calf.
I left Thinman that afternoon when his brother came to visit. Thinman said that he was feeling much better; he could barely keep his lids open. His brother stood there watching him with a look of absolute disgust on his face. Thinman said that if he was not given the all-clear to leave by the following morning that he would sign himself out. I nodded in agreement. That was heroin. I would have done the same; just about every junkie would
It's a weird feeling arriving at a hospital and not expecting the person you are visiting to be there. But on that autumn morning, on my second visit to see Thinman, the form of the distant sun reflected in the murky waters of the fish pond in the hospital grounds, I somehow knew I would find his hospital bed empty and Thinman gone.
Thinman was gone. Only he hadn't shot through. The young ward nurse who I had located to ask about his whereabouts informed me that he was in intensive care. She said he had been found waxed out with a syringe under his bed cover and had gone down with septicemia. I stood looking at her in shock, my mouth unhinged and hanging open. In the past 18 months I'd known two junkies dead of blood poisoning and knew how serious it was – especially so with the contributing health factors, like hepatitis C, that which had affected Thinman's hue so visibly.
"Is he conscious?" I asked the nurse.
“I don't know his present condition,” she said, “you'll have to go on up to the intensive care unit and see the doctors there... they'll be able to tell you more.”
The intensive care unit was a place of death and detergent. You could smell and sense the empty spaces in wards where people who used to be no longer were. It was a kind of factory, where people were trolleyed out covered on their backs, taken down to the morgue and then divided up amongst the competing vultures of the funeral parlours who'd wheedle the last pounds of worth from the corpses and sell them back to the family for burial or cremation. I could see it all; the start of the clean-up operation at least. This was a place where you went from being of the utmost importance to that of utter worthlessness in a second. And this is where Thinman was. I guess it was pretty serious then.
It was a youngish looking blond doctor I found. He looked like he was just coming to the end of a 48hr shift, like chunks of his own existence had departed with each death he had called. He pulled a hand down his face in an attempt to liven himself up to my question, but it only served to make his eyes look even more tired and baggy. Just the concentration needed to retain and think of the name I had given him seemed to drain him some more. He walked on a few steps, the smell of cheap hand soap hanging in his slip stream. He poked his head into a small, badly lit room full of supplies. “Do we have a Mr Messinger with us?” he asked to whoever was in the room.
“Saul Messinger,” I reminded the doctor.
At those words there came a noise from a nearby ward and out came Thinman's brother. When he saw it was me who was asking after his brother he approached, shouting: “Get him the fuck outta here!” And then directing his words at me: “You here with more fucking heroin to finish him off? Come on, speak up you poisonous, selfish cunt!”
I had no words to reply to that and it would have been pointless besides. Thinman was in his mid 30's and if he wanted smack in the hospital then that was his call. As a friend and addict, knowing what withdrawals were like, I was obliged to do that for him if it was what he wanted. Seeing the anger rising in Thinman's brother, the young doctor stepped in front of me, blocking the route.
“Don't worry, I'm not gonna fucking hit him! But you need to get him the fuck outta here NOW. He's not family... he's not Saul's brother as he claims. He's just a low-life fucking junkie, out for his own gain and not fussed about who he helps kill in pursuit of it.”
“I came to make sure Saul was alright,” I said.
“Yeah, sure ya did. Alright for what? HEROIN? That stuff almost killed him, you imbecile.”
“Dunno what you're talking about,” I said, “I didn't bring him any heroin.”
“Well, there's only been two visitors and I sure as hell didn't bring it in to him! Now fuck off. You're not wanted here.”
I didn't argue. Sure, I was curious to know exactly what had happened to Thinman with the heroin I had brought him up, but the last thing I needed was the police turning up, shaking me down and pulling me in for half a day. And so I gave no response, just turned and left from the way in which I had come. Thinman had my number. If he needed me he would call.
Thinman never did call. It was almost a month before I saw him again. Even then I barely recognized him. Pacing around outside the Texaco garage, waiting on the same contact as I, he looked like he had shrunk in half. He had only been out three days.
“What the fuck happened?” I asked.
“Fuck knows. Feel like shit, like I'm dying. Got no appetite, fuck all and what I do manage to swallow I bring back up. Feels as if my bloods still sick or something.”
“And the arm?”
“What's left of it is Ok... doing better than me. Still infected but is on the mend at least.”
“And you're back on the gear then? You didn't think it was maybe better to not start up again after those weeks without?”
“You know how it is. I've done so much fuckin' damage now it seems pointless to stop. It won't save me any days now. At least it takes the world away.”
I looked out into the world that Thinman was talking about. It was a shit one, alright. Autumn was on us proper and the city was damp from rain, a mist of vapour hanging in the distance below drab skies. In times gone by they would have piled corpses up and carted them away on days like this. I breathed in the air, wanting to extract some freshness from it, some cool that would unclog me of the smog and pollution and poison for a moment. But all I could taste was petrol, that and Thinman, mixing together and making me feel sad and ill, cars with rain speckled windows crawling by every now and again. Thinman was dying, that was obvious. Whether it was the botulism and septicaemia that was the cause, his liver, or just the life we led, who knew? What I did know was that the world which turned Thinman's stomach also turned mine, and together, on a low-hung autumn day, we stood outside the Texaco garage, our eyes flitting about this way and that, waiting impatiently for the only cure we knew.
- - -
Thanks as ever for reading, Shane. X