The Void Ratio

The Void Ratio by Shane Levene (text) and Karolina Urbaniak (photography), with a foreword by Martin Bladh.

To be released December 2014 by Infinity Land Press

"Levene's words are something like when you find a long lost old faithful, a throbber on the shin, aaaaah.....
The Void Ratio left me dreaming again of the fucking nightmare...” 
       Peter Doherty – musician/poet

“In the Void Ratio Karolina Urbaniak collects, isolates, lays out and records the forensics of a 'lifescene' (here being the author's own drug paraphernalia) at times discovering a breathtaking beauty emitted by the objects: a light which is found coming from places we'd expect to find no light at all. Through Urbaniak's lens the otherwise inanimate objects become landscapes, monuments, horizons, etc, some revealing the universal blackness of history and time while others take on the corporeal qualities of the user in the traces of blood and carbon left behind. What may have been obscenely voyeuristic in someone else's hands becomes an intimate portrait in Urbaniak's. Due to the boundaries crossed in friendship and life with Levene, Urbaniak has not only photographed the world her associate frequents but by association has become a part of that world. 
Once again Urbaniak slips through the aperture of her own shutter and finishes with her subject in front of the camera, all borders breached, all truth revealed, the lens no longer a safe/secure filter separating life and art.”

"I've been a huge admirer of Shane Levene's work ever since the day I stumbled upon his writing at Memoires of a Heroinhead. Shane's writing is by turns beautiful, scabrous, funny, heartbreaking and dangerous. In my opinion, Shane is one of the few, actual honest-to-God poets we still have writing today. " 
Tony O'neillDown & Out on Murder Mile; Digging the Vein; Sick City & Black Neon.

THE VOID RATIO an Urbaniak/Levene collaboration 

(Anyone who makes up a part of any drug, literary or art forums and who would like to help push the book's existence, please PM me: Shane. X

Into the Mind...

The wheel spins forward and then it looks like it is spinning back. Crouched down, looking at me through the spokes of an upturned bike, Simon says that not everything is how it appears. I spin the wheel again and try to work out what the hell is going on. Simon just stares through at me, his eyes imploring me to understand. Something unspeakably bad is going on in his life.

Into the Mind... a new season of writing coming to Memoires of a Heroinhead.

Into the Mind...

Into the mind of the addict, the dealers, the whores and the rent-boys, the abuser and the abused. Into the mind of society, the family, the healthcare system, the government, the church, the self-help groups, the substitution clinics, NA. 

Into the Mind...

A season of writing that will focus on the psychological, reveal the reasons why and debunk certain falsehoods of addiction and drug use. Into the mind: the heinous myth of rock bottom. Why the parents, friends and loved ones of addicts are not only urged to isolate and disown their addicted offspring but are also encouraged to hasten their descent to rock bottom in the false belief that by sheer design it's a place where the worm can only turn. Into the mind of chasing the first high, why it's a myth and why so many (even veteran) addicts will spout this horse-shit as the fuel which kept their junk carts going for so many years. Into the mind. Into the cheating, the lying, the selfishness, the self-harm and crime. Into the real influence of popular culture on drug use, libertinism and decadence. Into the mind, the mindset of redemption: recovering addicts force-fed bullshit, brainwashed as to why they are such fuck-ups and then blackmailed to publicly vomit back up all those false failings to a church hall full of teary-eyed hypocritical ex-dope fiends screaming “hallelujah” while flapping their hands together in spastic ecstasy to welcome another lost sheep back into the flock. Into the mind. The myth of the fatal overdose, the self-destruction and the deaths. The one-upmanship: the common stock of junkie mayhem that many addicts feel obliged to have experienced: dumping dead friends out in the street; of being pronounced clinically dead on multiple occasions; of ending on ones knees in a vile public toilet, cooking up ones last ill-gotten bag of smack in diarrhoea water drawn straight from the filthy bowl. Into the mind of heroin porn and what drives the desire for it. The attraction of the needle and how that idea plays out to our internal hero, that vainglorious fool who stoops about inside of us and falsely imagines how we are perceived by the world. Into the mind of the diseased and ill, the amputees and dying, those rotting away in dark doorways and the myriads of statistical successes sat at home, sober, but suffering from the insidious effects of post-junk depression.

Into the mind.... Coming soon...

a new season of writing by Shane Levene.

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Venison Wild

It was a dark, wet, shiny night. I lay on a mattress in the back of a stolen van, a cold wind seeping in and annoying me from the loose back doors tied close with string. The driver was Lee Laws, a wiry blond crook. In the double-spread passenger seat besides him was Paul, and to Paul's left, Alan. All three boys were in their late teens or early twenties, and all three were repeat criminal offenders. I was too, only I was much younger and my crimes much less serious. Barely a week ever passed in which one of us wasn't up in court on some misdemeanor or other, and for the two years I'd known Lee he had spent over half that time in Feltham Young Offenders Institute. In the back of the van, partitioned off from the others by a metal grille, I lay on my back, smoking the roach end of a joint and looking past the ends of my feet at the uniform motorway lights as they filed by. I was fifteen and we were heading out of London, into the black of the country, to rob a house which Lee had previously cased and promised was a safe, straightforward job.

Bored watching the lights and the purple sky I closed my eyes and listened to the stories of the older boys. They talked about girls and crimes, recent arrests and upcoming court appearances. They mimicked and laughed at how they had responded 'No reply' to three hours of brutal police questioning and had kept their cool while being rough-housed by the station staff.  Lee Laws was especially shrewd in that way - or so his stories led everyone to believe;  though there were others who said he was "the biggest grass in West London" and that "being caught with Lee was like being caught red-handed and bang-to-rights". Whether there was any truth to such rumours  or not I had no idea. What I did know was that Lee Laws sure did look and talk the part, and I also knew that I had visited him in prison that summer, had sat there feeling terribly out of place as his girlfriend kissed a sixteenth of hash into his mouth. I also knew it was Lee who had spun into the estate two weeks prior, in this same white van, the wires ripped loose under the steering wheel  and twisted back together. The truth on nights like these doesn't really matter. Stories float in and are as true and as real as the places they carry you away to. Sometimes, when the van slowed down, I'd raise myself from the mattress and on my knees make my way over towards the partition. From behind the grille I'd stare out at the rain and watch the windscreen wipers working away. In other moments I'd focus on the motorway, miles and miles of dotted lights with black fields either side, stretching off through wherever. Occasionally we would overtake the red rear lights of another vehicle, Lee remaining in the same lane until the very last moment before pulling out to the right and cruising past in a classic manoeuvre. But, mostly on this black wet night it was just us, driving out of town in a stolen Sherpa van and telling stories as we mowed down the road. I often wished we had no destination, that we could just drive – drive and never stop and the sun would never rise again.

“Right, now listen up, boys,” said Lee, a good inch of a joint poking out his mouth. “When we're there and inside don't be going all fucking doolally and grabbing just anything. Most the antiques are shite reproductions and worth fuck all. What we want is the silver, the two carved bone ornaments in the hall, and the large painting above the fireplace. Any jewellery, money, cameras, small things like that, take 'em. But remember, leave the pots and the vases alone.”

Alan and Paul nodded away to Lee's instructions. I lay on the mattress in the back, more than blissfully stoned, smiling and thinking about taking the pots and vases anyway – struggling out into the night with a huge fake Ming vase that was no good to anyone. I began laughing out loud at the mad world of thoughts and craziness that was playing out in my mind.

“Oi!!! Shit for brains, r'ya listening?!” Lee shouted, darting a roach of the joint at me. “No fucking around, OK, or it'll be ya first an' last time out wiv us. Got it?”

Sucking the last bit of death out of the roach and holding the smoke, I nodded. Then I exhaled and the van was  suddenly deathly quiet, Lee and the others in a trance like state, their eyes intent on the road. It was hard to imagine they had just been extremely animated. I wondered if the conversation had ever really occurred or not.

By now we had been driving for maybe ninety minutes, maybe longer. The City was an unimaginable length of distance behind us. In my stoned mind I imagined it as resembling something like Bethlehem, only without a saviour. Even the big green motorway reflector boards were not out this far; the lighting on the motorway had changed too – was duller, darker, creepy – a row of thinly dispersed twin lamps down the central divide. Sometimes a little square of light would glow out in the black of a field, a lone country house or cottage and nothing else.

For a moment the stories and talking had ended and the joints had stopped circling. We were all heavily stoned, sat or lain out in the hash-smoke filled van, withdrawn into our own individual existences. In moments like that the only reality we all had in common, the only thread which tied us into the same physical existence, was the shiny wet road ahead. Without that road we would have all surely floated off into our own worlds of madness and despair. In the back of the van I now concentrated on the sound and the feel of the wheels, understanding atmosphere and terrain from  the most subtle changes. Shortly after that I heard a dislocated noise beneath the van, felt us slow and drift to the left, and made out the lonely night time click-clicking of the van's indicator. It made me feel sad and forlorn – I could have willingly laid in the back of that van, like that, forever. The van turned and my insides and brain seemed to turn with it. What light there had once been from outside was suddenly quenched and the road beneath was slippery, bumpy and uneven. Trees and bushes scraped and beat on the sides of the van, and for the first time  all evening I became aware of the rain pelting down on the roof. I got on my knees and took myself to the partition, looking out the window from over Paul's shoulder. From what I could make out we were on a well travelled country lane, that may or may not have been an official route. What was clear was that the way had surely been cut out by smaller vehicles. The van had a difficult time passing through, and the added weight caused our wheels to sink and spin and go nowhere. The only light we had  was from our left headlight. We'd knocked the right one out hurtling over speed bumps in the city. The van dipped and jerked and bumped and made awful grating sounds. The few tools we had in the back jumped up and crashed down on the metal floor. We all peered out, looking for something to show up ahead.

It was the sound of gravel under tread that let us know we were approaching some place. It at first came in little spurts and then a constant scrunching - pestle and mortar. Up ahead, picked out by our headlight, the road widened and a few black shapes came into view. The air smelled and filtered into the van. It wasn't unpleasant, just different, like a hamster's cage or rabbit hutch or muesli. It was a farm. The van crunched into the opening and turned right, and there, as if it had just materialized from nowhere, stood a house – perfectly still and black and empty in the night. Lee slowed the van, turned it around so as the back doors were facing the house and then stopped. With the engine still running he sat there with a huge thin grin scarred across his face. I started up to say something but my voice seemed so loud in the cut of night. Lee shussed me with a raised finger and a pained expression, as if even though there was nobody around they still might hear. That's what living in the city does to you. It's a very certain kind of paranoia. After that we all spoke in whispers, and tried to act as silent as the fields.

Up in the front, with the small overhead cabin light on, Lee and Paul slipped into black gloves. Lee shot Alan a quizzical look and held his hands up and wiggled his fingers. Alan shook his head. Lee scowled, before screwing his face up in suppressed laughter at Alan's amateurish mistake of not bringing any gloves. He turned my way.

“Give Alan your gloves,” he said.
“What? No, they're mine. I need'em. The police have my prints!”
“Give 'em over ya plum! You're not coming in with us. I want you here... keeping dog. And if you hear so much as a ghost's fart you're to hit the fucking horn, OK.”
“But you said I could come in with you!”
“Next time. Give Alan your gloves. While we're gone get the doors open and skin up a zoobie... but don't cane the fucking thing!”

Begrudgingly I fed my gloves through the grate to Alan. He yanked them from me and was soon spreading and wriggling his thick, stubby fingers in them. “Perfect! Just a right good perfect fit!” he said, knowing it would wind me up, as if my gloves fitted him better than they fit me. I didn't really care. My heart was beating furiously thinking of entering a stranger's house and rummaging around  taking things. I'd really only wanted to go in with the boys so as I wouldn't be left outside alone. Finally it was the prospect of being allowed to roll a joint which won me over – the chance of having first smoke on one I had rolled myself and purposely top-loaded. It was a novelty too novel to turn down. The only other time I was given anything other to smoke than cardboard was on the rare occasions where I had a note of my own and bought a ten pound draw myself.

 Down under the steering wheel Lee turned a torch on and off and handed it to Paul. Paul took it and then did the same. Lee took out a second torch, flashed that too, turned it off, and kept it for himself.

“Ok,” he said, very seriously, “we can get in around the back. All we have to do is put a small pane of glass through. There's no alarm and no dogs. Let's go.”  The boys filed out the van. I unstrung the back doors and then went around the front and sat in the driver's seat.
“Lee,” I whispered, “can you turn the van around so as I can see better?”
“No. Never. Just incase we need to make a quick getaway.”
“Oh, Ok,” I said. Then, “Lee?”
“Where's the hash?”

A huge grin spread out across his face. “Don't miss a fucking trick this one,” he said, taking his kit out his back pocket and handing it me. “Hash is behind the rizlas... and don't take the fucking piss!”

I took Lee's kit, fondling the Rizlas to make sure the hash was really there. It was. I closed the door and watched in the wing mirror as the boys headed across the gravel courtyard, made their way to the right of the house and then disappeared. Alone in the dark I felt half terrified, the whole of Britain black and wet and deadly silent around me. How in such blackness I'd ever see anyone before it was too late I didn't know, but I was dog; so dog I was.

In the front of the van,  crumbling a good pinch of hash into the head of a joint that was perched up on the dashboard, I heard the sound of breaking glass. I stopped what I was doing and concentrated on the noises outside. Another little pop rang out and a thin piece of glass shattered on the ground and tinkled like a Chinese wind chime. I continued on with my joint, one eye on the wing mirror all the while. And that's when I saw it, to my horror, a dim light flitting about high up in one of the attic windows. At first I wondered if it was the boys already in the house and up top, but no, it was too quick - the last shard of falling glass had barely stopped singing out. I jumped out the van and sprinted off in pursuit of my friends. When I arrived around the back Lee was sidled right up tight against the backdoor with a strained look on his face, his hand the other side trying desperately to locate the door latch and release it.

“There's someone inside,” I hissed, “There's a light upstairs!”
“Fuck off , Shane,” said Paul, who'd never really liked me, “you're just shitting it!”
“I'm telling you's, there's someone inside! Lee, there's someone up in the fucking attic.” Lee withdrew his arm out the door. “Where?” he asked. I led the way.

Back around the front of the house I pointed up to the window where the light had come from. Of course, now it was black and as indifferent as any other, but still, I sensed someone looking down at us.

“Lee, I swear there was a fucking light on up there. I din't imagine it!”

Lee stood looking up, figuring whether to take me seriously or not. He seemed to have pretty good information that the house would be empty but something was niggling him. While we were all stood looking up a feint light then showed itself anew, this time visible through the middle windows. Whatever it was, it originated from somewhere deep in the thick of the house. This time we all saw it and went sprinting for the van. As we bundled in I warned Lee and Paul to be careful as my joint was sitting unrolled up on the dash. Then I regretted top-loading it, as with the boys back it'd be nothing more than roach supper for me again.

Lee started up the van and put his foot down. Desperate to get up some speed he kinda pushed and urged the van forward like he was giddying on a horse. Then we were up and running, skidding back through the soft wet path, me holding the doors closed where there had been no moment to slam and tie them shut. I watched Alan take my half prepared joint and twist and screw it into a cigarette. Secretly I still harboured hopes that he'd hand it back for me to spark up, but he didn't. He lit it himself, took five or six huge holding drags and then passed it on to Paul. All the while Lee was speeding in the wet, through black roads that led to God knows where. I sat there in the back, waiting for the joint to be tossed my way, my heart pounding and thinking of blow-outs and 100ft drops into blackness.

* * *
It felt like we had been in the black an eternity, driving around dangerous country drops. The joint had left me completely wrecked, spaced out in a universe where time and space held no meaning. I was lain back on the mattress, my mind chasing a million different inter-connected thoughts which I had visualized in my head. In one instance I even imagined that I was in my bedroom, it somehow being driven around Britain. Every now and again I'd hear Lee droning on about joining a different motorway home as the police may be waiting for us along the expected route. He said that over and over. I gave a look up and out the front window. God, it was really black out there. Visibility was reduced to maybe a metre ahead by the power of one fading headlight. It felt like a film, or a video game. Everyone had that sensation, I think. No one was talking. We were all staring straight ahead, tuned into the moment, focussed on the single sabre of light we illuminated in the dark, all in the zone, hypnotized by the road ahead as we drove on an endless spot.

I saw as little as anyone else, though being in the back I felt and heard it more. Lee was suddenly shot up straight in his seat with his foot hard pressed on the brake. His arms were out straight, gripping the steering wheel and fighting desperately to keep control of the van. Something big bounced of the driver's side and made a god-awful sound doing so. As it had happened I was hurled back on my arse on the mattress. The van skidded, trying to take a grip in the wet. And then it stopped, the pit-pit-patta of rain on the roof and steam converging from all sides.

“What in da Jesus!” screamed Alan. “We fecking hit summin... we hit summin!”
“What was it?”asked Lee. “Did anyone see it?” We  gave a collective shake of our heads.

I scurried over to the back of the van, pushed the doors open a foot and peered out. Nothing, just darkness, the smell of wet bark, and exhaust fumes.

“Maybe it was an animal,” Alan said.
“What kinda animal?” said Paul, “This is England! D'ya think it was a six foot badger?”
“Ya never know what lives out here in black country, boy-yo. Back home there's an all manner of unknown tings... live out in da forest at night which no-one dares or wuld want to know about.”
“Maybe it was a scarecrow,” I said, seriously.
“A fucking Scarecrow!!!! Fuck off back to LaaLaa land, Shane. A scarecrow!”

That's when all but the very palest colours suddenly drained from Lee's face. “But you know what, though,“ he said, ominously, “I think he's not so far off. Only I don't think it was a scarecrow but a man... I think we've just fucking hit someone.”
“A man? Who would be out here? Walking the rain, going nowhere?” asked Paul.
“A tramp. A local,” I said. “There must be some people who live around here and these carrot-crunchers love nothing better than a ten mile walk in the freezing rain. It's kinda like how they water themselves.”

Paul turned round and darted something vicious at me. It wasn't the roach of a joint, but a cigarette filter or something. It meant, shut it! It was the peak of all our nerves before the tension set in, before the van fell deathly silent for a moment. Then Lee spoke. His face was sucked in, withdrawn and shock white, cut out against the black backdrop of the window,  the windscreen wipers ever so mechanically squeaking away.

“I think we've killed someone,” he said, like in a trance, “I saw the head.... An eye. It took a second out of its tragedy to look at me, like one of those weird flashed messages they're not allowed to advertise with. I really think we've killed someone.” Now finished, he looked at each of us in turn, an expression of great foreboding in his regard, as if this were a night in which our lives would be irrevocably changed.

We all sat staring back into Lee's handsome but ghostly chiselled face of fear, the mystic buzz from the hashish prickling through our minds and skin. Lee's eyes were now universally wide, the pupils huge and agitated and full of dark night tales. Carried along in the moment we were all thinking the same thought: the gravity of murder. And even though it was an accident, we were nevertheless in a stolen van, stoned, riding the night with only a single working headlight, no driving licence between  us, and each with a long history of repeat criminal offences. Aside from that there was the small matter of the house we had attempted to burglarize. God, we'd be fried -  even if it were only a carrot-cruncher we had mown down. It was Alan who finally broke the silence, a calming pragmatic Southern Irish voice:

“T'is where it's at, boys. We'll  hafta ged'dowt an take a look. It'll  not be doing us a single bit a good sitting here, sure, imaging the worst of what we've maybe done and scaring the bejesus outta us. And sposing if we're roight, if it tis indeed a fellow a ways back d'ere, well, maybe he's not dead? Maybe we can help him, boys?”
Lee shook his head. “And what if he's not dead? He'll have seen our faces. I think we should just go... drive on and not look back.”
“We can't just drive away, Man! To do such a wicked ting as that'ud  make it ten times worse, so it would. We'd be tried for being evil, man.” And then Lee was nodding. And then we were all nodding. Lee chucked Alan a torch. “Lead the way,” he said, “I don't wanna see it.”

The three older boys slipped out of the van and into the wet. I opened the backdoors and joined them as they came around the sides. Alan and Paul led the way; I was just behind, and Lee Laws just behind me – though not so much so as to be alone in the dark. We cut a long diagonal line across the road to where whatever it was we had hit would have landed. Alan shone the light around, showing up thick, inaccessible bush and tree to either side. The road really had no right to be here at all. And then without quite realizing it I was jogging, and then pushing on between Alan and Paul who had  now stopped. The torch light had caught something, the beam stopped a short meter ahead and the light opening up. And there it was, in the wet mud of the road, a head and a large sad eye, the rain running off it's face, so tragic and sad: we'd hooked ourselves a deer.


The animal wasn't dead. Close to it, but not quite. It lay there subdued, its eye staring out through the gathering swamp flies, a slow and drowsy heave and fall of its chest; a composed exhaustion of life. From its underside came blood, deep red in the yellow light, streaming across the road in rivulets with the rain. There was also blood and mud on the bedraggled fur near its front hoof. Lee, who had all but melted at the thought of having killed a human, now reformed and once more took the lead. He strode in and, without a single word, knelt down besides the deer and clenched its nose and mouth tight shut. In a loving, two minute long embrace, he snuffed the remaining life out of it and then laid its head gently down. He rested there like that for a moment, his eyes closed.

“Can't let the poor thing suffer on like that,” he eventually said. “That'd be the same as driving off.” And just when we thought Lee maybe had some kind of a deep, soft humanity, he added: “Ok, now let's get the fucker in van.”
“What?” I, or one of the others, said. Maybe all of us.
“The van,” repeated Lee, walking off.  “I'll back her up. Let's get it inside. I know a South African butcher who'll take this off our hands.”

Downcast, replete with an indescribable strain of sadness, I looked to Paul and Alan. Paul and Alan were stood in silence looking at the deer; and the deer was looking at something which no man can ever see.

Lee backed the van up. On rejoining us he climbed in the back and stood the mattress up against the side, then hopped down. With Paul's help the two dragged the deer around so as it was positioned longways with its head by the exhaust pipe. With Lee and Paul at the top end of the animal, and Alan and I either side of its middle, we tried lifting, but weighed down by death the deer was having none of it. It sagged and got heavy in all the wrong places, making it impossible to lift. Lee said we should lift it by the legs. Somehow that idea seemed too grievous and no-one was very keen on so doing it. Instead, in a clumsy, awkward fashion, we all lifted the deer by its top end and set it down half inside the van. Then, with Lee pulling, Alan, Paul and I heaved and pushed, slowly inching the beast into the back. When it was finally inside we all slumped down, wet and exhausted, staring at this thing which we had somehow happened across. The three older boys  were laughing in amazement, and between heavy breaths talked excitedly about its size and weight, and about how unreal it all was. Alan grabbed an old A-Z from off the floor. He laid it on his lap, took out his spliff rolling kit and began skinning up a joint. I watched Lee who was poking a twig into the deer's ear.


The laughing had been going on for a while before it dawned on me that the guffawing and snorting concerned me. I turned around, heavily stoned and confused. I could feel a bemused, childish grin across my face, the grin I always elicited when I was stoned and baffled, when I was fifteen and not sure if anything at all was actually happening. I tried to figure out what the joke was. “What?” I asked. “What?” When they saw my face, my stinging red eyes, they laughed even harder.

“Would ya look at the state of that cunt,” said Lee, pointing at me, “he's out his fucking tree... fucking wrecked! D'you think the Deer'll be safe back here with him?”
“Will it me bollix,” said Paul. “You seen the ways he's been eyeing it up! Oi, Sicko, no fucking dodgy business when ya think no one's watching, OK? If your hands start wandering or you try and mount the thing you'll be walking back to London!”
“Yeah Shane, go easy on her she's had a rough night!” was Alan's quip. The three older boys were in hysterics, their laughter echoing in my stoned and cushioned head. That in turn set off a chain of visions in my own mind and then I too was bursting red and laughing like a madman at the bizarre images which were playing out in my mind. And then I blinked, or breathed, or something and it was suddenly like nothing had ever happened. In my mind I began doubting reality. Had I just started cracking up laughing while the others were talking serious? I looked at each of them for a moment, confused, but now they were with grave faces and surely they couldn't have been laughing hysterically as I had seen.  Only they had been. And then their words hit me. Not what they had said, but what they had implied.

“You must be fucking joking,” I suddenly cried, “I'm not getting in the back with that thing!”
“No?” said Lee, “then I suppose we'll see you back in London in about three days, 'cause you'll be trotting home.”
“I fucking will. I don't give a fuck!”

Lee looked at me like you would a kid who won't go to bed. Then the harshness in his eyes gave way and he said I could budge in with Paul and Alan on the way home.


I slammed the back doors shut, tied them as tight as I could from the outside and joined Paul and Alan in the double passenger seat. Naturally, I was on the far left, squashed right up against the cold metal door and the leaking, draughty window - last in line for the joint as usual. I didn't mind. I was sitting wasted anyway. They could keep their hash, I just didn't want to lay in the back with a dead deer.

Lee turned the engine over and pulled off. We sat mostly silent, like we were grieving. Out the radio floated the voice of a weird talk-show host called Caesar The Boogieman. It gave a fantastic, hallucinatory feel to the journey but brought with it a disjointed aura of loneliness. The van drove on. We sat hypnotized by the road and the light from our single headlight. We stared at the blackness out the window, watched  a sign float by, and then there it was, the motor way – a huge concrete river that would take us all on home.

The ride back down the long stretch of motorway was monotonous and sleepy. All that changed was the occasional passing on of a joint and then we'd zone into the road again, pondering over the stars and the universe and how lost we all really are. Now crammed in the front, with the widows closed, the smoke went to my head and made me feel hollow and strange. I didn't know whether to laugh or be petrified, or if reality was a fantastic dream or a hideous nightmare. I was wasted and didn't want to sit on it in silence as it crept up and turned me insane from the inside out. Solely to have the occasion to speak, escape my interior world, I began  getting a little brazen with my older friends, talking crazy, stoned nonsense. The boys laughed along, though not at what I was saying.

“Skin up, ya tight cunt,” I said, staring at Paul. I got a slap around the head for that. Everyone laughed.
“I'm second on the zoot!” I declared. “Don't want no skinny little roach end this time!” They all laughed and the joint bypassed me anyway. Sucking on the roach, of the joint I had said I didn't want, Lee looked across with pink rabbit eyes and said, “You given up inhaling or what?” They all cracked up again. The truth was I had given up inhaling. I was far too high already. But now I'd been caught and I was embarrassed.
“I could smoke the lotta you cunts under the table," I said. "I'm not even stoned, just nice and mellow.” The van erupted once more in shrieks of laughter. Everything I said was one huge joke.
“Alan, you got any speed?” I suddenly asked. That final daft question sent the boys into such a fit of hysterics that Lee had to pull the van over so he didn't drive it off the road. Now at a stop they all creased up in uncontrollable fits of laughter, squealing like a mini litter of pigs. I sat in my chair feeling hot and flustered, staring ahead with my childish smirk, feeling immature and completely out my depth. And that's when it flushed over me – came rattling down like a shutter; my mouth and back of my throat suddenly as dry as a desert. I thought I was gonna choke on my tongue. My colour and strength drained like a bath of water with the plug removed. I was throwing a whitey, terrified and wanting to be sick. And everyone laughed that little harder still.

After vomiting out the side door, I sat in silence, squashed back into my little hovel, sweating and praying a joint wouldn't be passed my way. Of course one was, a huge fat-headed special for me to spark up. As they all knew I would, I waved it away. Lee lit it himself, and with it sticking out his mouth like a parsnip he pulled out and drove on, soon joining the city ring road and looking for the correct exit off.

By now the best part of night had fallen. It was still dark but the sky no longer had the depth of colour that it had done an hour previous, and way over in the distance, with the city beneath it, was the breaking light. By the time we came off the A road and landed in the city proper the joints had stopped passing and everyone was tired, depressed by the weak light and anxious to know what we would do with the deer. Lee spoke again of a South African butcher he knew in Hammersmith. He said that he'd be there now, preparing cutlets of meat for the day's trade. Lee said we'd go there, unload the deer, get paid and then get home. It all seemed like a bit of a tall story, and from the look that Alan and Paul swapped I suspected that they were with me, secretly wondering if the animal in the back could even be eaten (let alone sold). And so we went along. Lee certainly knew some pretty bizarre people. And if the worst came to the worst, if the sale fell through, well, we'd dump the dead deer and be home in just about the same time anyway.

Inside the city the rain had long stopped but the air was still wet. It was almost 6am and the light had properly broken, but the kind of early morning light that still holds a memory of darkness within it, makes one think of hospital visits, work and other bad things. Far over town there hung a drizzly mist; the street lights were on their last minutes of time. Lone people jittered away at bus-stops and steam poured from the tops of certain buildings and drifted on out. Lee rolled up to the lights on Chiswick Highstreet. We sat there, all drowsy, looking out at the depressing morning which had forced out the night. And that's when all hell broke loose.

With no warning whatsoever the van erupted into a crazed violence of rocking and banging and thumping, horrendous animal noises screeching out from behind us. Alan was thrown forward into the dashboard. Then, what sounded like a team of panel beaters began simultaneously working the sides of the van, angry and grunting and crying in pain, as they hammered out the frustrations of their existence. I turned around and the head of the deer came smashing against the grilled partition, the crazed retarded eye of a trapped animal looking through. The deer must have only been badly stunned, unconscious, and had now come around and was trying it's damnedest to smash its way to freedom. This was its buckaroo for life.

Aside from the crazed deer, our major concern was of the police being called. It was 6am, in a decent neighbourhood, on the highstreet, and our van was sat alone at the lights, thumping and crashing away while emitting monstrous noises of rage that not even the damp in the air could muffle. Alarmed, we clambered to get out the van. The deer seemed hellbent on getting through the partition and stamping us all to death. Out in the street Paul reckoned we should just leg it and leave the van. That would have been the easiest and wisest option were it not for the fact that our finger prints were all over the place, and in the van's two week tenure, under Lee's charge, had been involved in a plethora of local crimes and robberies. Running away would beat the immediate problem, but come 10am, once the police would have had time to apply for arrest and search warrants, we'd all be hiding low, fucked. So we didn't flee. For a moment we didn't do anything. Just stood around in a panic as the van rocked and thumped and the back doors bounced to the tune of the enraged beast inside.

Lee rushed back to the driver's side door and searched behind the seat for something. He returned holding a handy length of lead piping. “Come on,” he said to me, “Come on!!!”

At the rear of the van he handed me the lead pipe. “Take that,” he said, “and when I open the doors get ready and crack the fucker on the head!”
“Fuck off! You're crazy! That thing will be all over me before I've even swung!”
“Will it fuck! It'll take it a moment to even realize there's an escape. Now quit the stalling and get ready to whack the thing or we'll all be fucked!”
Bludgeon the deer to death? After all it had already been through? I couldn't, and I told Lee as much. There was no way the animal was getting its skull bashed in by my hand; it was maybe just about the most innocent thing in the world at that moment. I didn't have it in me. Death in such a beast of that size is something real and serious. And when it isn't quick, or doesn't work first whack, then it is something brutal and horrific too. My hand held the lead pipe; but my arm would never swing it

“You fucking pussy!” Lee said. “Give me the fucking bar and I'll do it. You open the doors.”
Ok, I could do that. I did not want to, but I could. Anyway, I thought that not Lee, or anyone else, had a chance in hell of felling the deer as was suggested. As I moved myself in front of the doors Alan arrived alongside Lee wielding a small handled mallet. Terrible thoughts of cracked skulls, shattered bone and animal yelps went through my mind. I thought of the deer; of rodeo ponies; of great racehorses rearing up in the stalls. On the count of three I untied the double back doors and in the same movement flung them wide open and run out the way. And in that moment, in the shrill misty morning with London waking up and rubbing her eyes, there was a moment of sheer, unadulterated, natural beauty:

   the deer burst forth, out the back of the van – a desperate leap to life and freedom, a sleek tan flash that filled the world with hope and victory and beauty. It landed in the road, skidded, turned real low to the ground and then came up straight, its great breast pushed forward and its head back. It found its hooves, found the road, and shot bolt off, away down the high-street. Lee hadn't even time to think of swinging the lead pipe in his hands and Alan looked pathetic and weak, the mallet so small and insignificant compared to the fury and passion of the life that had just shot out the van. The boys had shot right out the way with me, had too seen the full stretch of beast as it bolted. We all saw the utter beauty in that leap, and in the same moment we understood that the deer had more right than just about anything to live, and we were all glad and rooting for it.

“Fuuuuckiiing hell!!!!” was all anyone could say. "Fuuucking hell!!!"

For a moment we had lost concern about the police, forgotten the city and the morning and the skinning up and passing around of joints. In exact contrast to the deer, we were grounded to the spot, all staring in wonder down the road as the animal galloped through a red light, went up onto the pavement, back out into the road, zig-zagged through the early morning cars, flared up and then ran on some more in its mad pursuit of freedom. The lights on the high-street went from amber to green, from green to red, and back again. Still we didn't budge, just stood there awestruck, staring. And, when finally the deer was out of sight, we stared a little more, then at the calm of the empty road, at the lifting mist, at each other, something glorious having passed our terrible, youthful way.

- - -
Thanks as ever for reading, Shane. X


So Dog We Were Too

It was a mild summer evening. A cool breeze was bowling lightly through the Rhône valley. I gave up trying to write, showered, changed into light clothes and went out for a stroll. I needed cigarettes and so I climbed the small hill and then descended down towards the back end of town to catch the late night tobacconist.

It is a plain walk, though not unpleasant, culminating at Grange Blanche, the city's largest easternmost transport interchange. Due to the sheer volume of commuters passing through each day the upper station and its surroundings is a magnet for the neighbourhood’s drunks, beggars, miscreants and pick thieves. Coming into that main hub the change is manifest: raised voices, drunken growls, car horns blaring at the insane, the monotonous pleas of beggars, beer cans and wine bottles left under the seats of the tramway stop, human shit dehydrating and turning black in dark corners, piss streaming across the sidewalk, men wandering around holding their trousers up, going through bins, harvesting cigarette ends. In this place that can deliver anyone to any corner of the city, it's ironic just how many others have no place to go.

She was sat in the island in the middle of the road. She had legs only they were bent far back in the wrong direction at the knees and fixed there by some diabolical force of nature so as her back calves were facing the world. Her filthy toes were a tongue's length from her mouth; her face looking out over the soles of her inward twisted feet. To her left was a little straw egg basket containing a cardboard sign asking for money, and alongside that a few coins were scattered about as encouragement to the world. Her arms were also affected: one full length and crippled with the hand frozen in a contortion of fear, and the other, shrivelled away to just a small wing like thing. I was horrified and curious. There was something in the young beggar girl's deformity which repulsed me, and yet the freakiness of such a sight attracted me for the paragraph of literature I could exploit from it. Crossing the road I made my way to the tobacconist and then purposely took the same route back just so as I could pass her by once more.

I walked at a half pace. From behind I studied her form, her clothes, her hair. I could taste the grease, the dried skin and lice in it. Her backbone was surprisingly straight. I made my way past, crossed over the main road, then doubled back around the metro as if I'd gone to take the wrong entrance. From across the road I watched her, balanced on the axle of her arse. It made me cringe, imagining the angle of her lower pelvis bone crumbling away against the hard concrete ground. I crossed the road once more. She eyed me. She was a beggar exploiting her misfortune and was infinitely aware of everything moving on around her, every look of horror or sympathy, every hand going into every pocket and by movement alone knowing which hands would pull out a coin or two and which were going in just to rattle the cash and taunt her. On arriving at the island this time I decided to approach her. I asked if I could take her picture for 5 euros. She wasn't French and didn't understand. She looked at me lost, her eyes wide with fear and panic like I'd pulled chloroform around her mouth and nose. I mimicked taking a photo and then showed her five euros, holding it up like it would make sense of anything. She said something, some tragic noise that belonged to no language

He appeared out of nowhere like he'd been there all the time. A little man in a cheap white panama hat, thick skin the colour of tobacco spittle and hands covered in dark-blue self-inked tattoos. In very poor French he asked what I wanted with the girl.

"Photo," I said, once again mimicking a camera clicking, "five euros."

"No. No foto!" he said, waving his hands like it was completely out the question.

I didn't argue. We had attracted a small crowd of onlookers and I'd have felt like a right scoundrel taking a photo of a severely handicapped beggar girl. I already did feel like a scoundrel. I made to walk away when I heard: "Ten euros."

"Five" I said, stopping and turning back.

"No, not five, TEN!"

I shook my head.

Then he said: "Anglaizi? English?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Me, I live in Dublin for two years,” (holding up two fingers). "So you want foto of my daughter, yes?"

He said that with à bizarre look in his eyes, usually swapped only between males when referring to sex or illegal activity.

"No, it's OK. No photo. Forget it."

At that he lent in, a stub of a cigarettes in his mouth, the smoke curling up into my face. "You want fuck-fuck with my daughter? Foto too! 50 euros. Fuck-fuck clik-clik?" He gave a smile that revealed teeth as rotten as my own, though which repulsed me more. Sensing I was fixed to give a negative response, he said, "Look, she a good one, look", pulling on one of the invalids upturned calves as if to demonstrate how flexible she was. The calf didn't budge, just trembled like a short plank of wood but was otherwise locked in place. It was now apparent that the girl was also slightly mentally retarded. I wondered how many men had fucked her. I couldn't possible know the answer to that, but I did. I knew because I know this world. Too many was the answer. I made quick to get away from this circus, the beggar man's dark tanned and dirty tattooed hand clawing me back as he laughed and said "fuck-fuck clik-clik fuck-fuck clik-clik."

It was gone 9pm when I arrived at the Place Ambroise-Courtois in Monplaisir . The tables from the bars and bistros were still out in the square, occupied by couples and friends. The distant sky was streaked through with bubblegum clouds and a light jovial atmosphere was in the air. In the middle of the square groups of middle aged and old men were playing pétanque. I listened to the metal balls dent and crunch on the pink gravel. I smoked a cigarette and thought of nothing. It was a tranquil moment but on a nostalgic wind blew in a feeling of melancholy which seemed general to the evening and even more general to the smell of beer, coffee and perfume.

I had been aware of music playing from since I had arrived, but it was only now that I took proper notice of it. It was some kind of modern salsa-pop coming from the octagonal pavilion in the middle of the square. Wandering closer I saw couples dancing and an effeminate male instructor going to and from each couple and adjusting body parts, straightening backs, pushing male legs apart with his foot. I stopped and stood watching the evening dance lessons alongside a small crowd of other onlookers. I watched each couple, my eyes leaving one pair for another, observing their movements, their faces, the tenderness or coldness of their embraces. Then in a move that seemed choreographed for me, the couples parted like they were on revolving platforms, and in the opening, right in the middle of the pavilion, was revealed a haggard ragged man, dressed in cheap black, dancing alone though feigning clutching a partner in a classic closed position.

His eyes were gritted shut and a look of tortured pain was creased across his face. Where he'd lost his teeth his lower lip overhung like an ornate ledge. It was the face and movements of a chronic drunk. I watched the man dancing alone, watched him imagining away his loneliness, watched his hands sensually holding his imaginary partner, maybe all the women or men of his life. He wasn't dancing the salsa, but rather a waltz, living a classic romance, being the classic romancer in his drunken world.

It was while I stood fixed on the drunkard's loneliness that I first made out the laughter and the gasps. I wasn't the only one who had been drawn to this man; the better half of the square now watching him. With the laughter came fingers pointing, and following in turn, each table then moved around, the clientele of the bar straining to look his way as if it was an important part of life. Others in the square followed the fingers and eyes, all focused in with mocking at one man's public torment and distress. That's when the cheering, whistling and whoops of encouragement began. I didn't understand. I was still intent on the drunkard's face, the passion and sadness with which he waltzed with his memories. Then, under some strange spell of instinct, my eyes moved down, over the baggy black shirt tucked into trousers held closed by a thin belt, settling on the huge piss patch spread around the man's crotch and soaked down his left leg, urine still couling out his trouser leg as he danced alone in his own piss. And as the world laughed and pointed and whistled, I watched along with a volcano of sadness bubbling away inside of me, reminded of my mother in the school playground that day, or queuing up, jiggling with her legs crossed while buying cigarettes, or crashed out in social services, and I was hit by waves of brutal and tragic emotion, sobbing along to the salsa and the jeers of the world. A man wasted and alone, cradling himself in his own lonely dance. Me or him? Separated and defined by the flimsiest of events.

It was past ten when I passed the Notre-Dame homeless shelter on Rue Sébastien Gryphe. There was a lot of activity in the street, the city's down-and-outs making their way to the shelter before lockdown. One man was being carried like a wounded soldier by two mates either side, each one nearly out on his feet too. A battered woman stomped up past me, holding a can of beer, wobbling around as if walking on a pavement inflated with air, screaming obscenities at a man left behind at the gates of the shelter who was screaming back equally vulgar abuse. The street, now in the dark of evening, reeking of foulness, was full of bums, ex addicts and the mentally ill, all mooching slowly down, converging on the centre. The sidewalk and doorways were littered with the physical history of those who had almost made it but whose bodies had given out at the last. I poked my head in the entrance of the shelter glancing a quick look around for anyone I knew, anyone I'd scored methadone from in the past. From the dark of the grounds I saw someone's raised hand. At first I wasn't at all sure it was for me, but then I heard my name. I peered in more closely but couldn't make out the face in the darkness. The man rose and came across. He seemed happy to see me. Pulling out from his embrace I weaved to escape the current of bad odour he gave out. He smelled of rottenness and sperm, like my bed one winter in London. Standing back I looked at him in the tattered leather jacket he was swamped in, the grubby off-white t-shirt underneath, ripped and soiled by god-knows-what. The face was familiarish, but unplaceable.

"You won't get in tonight," he said, "I was down at 7pm to be sure of a bed."

"I'm not here for a room.. Just passing."

I looked at him trying desperately to recall his name, if he was a user or not. He didn't look like a user but I knew no-one outside of that. That's when I spotted his shoes, large loafish trainers encased in thick mud, the mud caked over his trouser bottoms too.

"you don't remember me, do you?" He asked.

"The face I do... but I'm not sure from where."

"Olivier!" he cried, "It's me from the Town Hall!"

And then I remembered and was shocked at the drastic change which had came over him. It was the same Olivier I had worked with for the City of Lyon, the same Olivier who had studied the Sexual History of Prostitution, who had a degree in Belle Lettres (which is literature), who had all his hair and sanity two years ago and now stood before me with not much left of either. He seemed hyper, but it wasn't drugs. His eyes flitted about, looking over his shoulder back towards something in the darkness. Then he looked at me and gave a weak, watery smile. He gave the impression that if I hugged him he'd break down immediately and sob until he died. I didn't hug him. That wasn't my job. I thought of whose job it was and wondered why they hadn't done something which was so evidently needed.

"And work??? Are you working?" I asked, knowing he wasn't, couldn't possibly be.

He shook his head, then turned around to look into the dark grounds of the shelter again.

"I must go, Olivier," I said.

He turned back with a worried, confused look on his face, like he didn't understand. I held my hand out and he shook it, all the while looking at me like I was to say something, clear some matter up. But I had nothing to say, nothing to clear up. Suddenly his eyes took on a lost look, like he didn't know me, and without a word he turned around and was going, trudging off into the dark of the grounds, in his mud caked shoes, just an odious smell left in receipt of his presence.

By the time I made my way back to the metro station the city had mostly cleared out and was sunk in the full beauty and tragedy of night. The hordes of Romanians who congregate on the pavement outside the supermarket to sell their salvaged wares were all gone, just a few sex workers remaining, their pimps or fathers sitting on the low wall of the tram stop drinking beer and whispering "Monsieur? Monsieur?" to each passing male. Down along the row of kebab shops young Mahgrebian boys raised their eyebrows as I passed. Not responding, and walking slowly by, one left his little group, hastened to catch me up, and on doing so, slowed to my pace, and out the side of his mouth said: Hashish? Goood, gooood hashish, monsieur? When I took no notice of him he kissed his teeth, said something derogatory about America, and rejoining his little possé, shouted: "muvva fukka, bitch!" I smiled to myself and walked on, glad the world was so cowardly and cruel.

In the metro I stood along the platform, staring into the vending machine without the slightest intention of buying anything. The driverless D metro arrived. I wanted to go home, was so tired for home, but my home was far from here and one euro seventy would not get me there. Stepping inside the carriage I was hit by the smell of alcohol and vomit and could sense a tension of violence in the air. It came from a young male at the far end of the carriage to my right. I watched him furtively. Early thirties; trim and lean; hunched over in his seat, spitting out the sodden husks of sunflower seeds. With the sudden torrid heat of the night, and the alcohol in him, he was sweating profusely and his face looked like it had been treated with anti- flame gel. Every now and again he would intentionally burp, letting out a new stench of bilious alcohol fumes, before glaring across my way. Something in him disgusted me. It was as if he had forced me inside his guts, a violation, the opening gambit of his domination over others. I avoided looking blatantly across. The métro pulled into its second stop. The man rose, ignored the doors closest to him, and made his way down the aisle between the seats, passing along the hand rails, swinging with the movements of the train, to exit via the doors opposite me. Letting go of the last handrail, he stood there drunkenly staring at me, swaying forward, a sunflower husk stuck on his bottom lip.

"Pardon, Monsieur!" he growled, meaning that I was in his way. I wasn't. He could not have had any more room had I not been there. Still, I stepped a step back. As he exited he spat a last gob of damp husks out his mouth and then burped.

In the last weeks I'd had my dealer rob me three times, a so-called friend do sleight-of-hand magic with bags of gear, seen one too many people corrupted by smack habits blaming their behaviour on mental illness and unresolved emotional trauma, had people revising history so as to look the victim in it. I had smiled but the insults and corruption in people were becoming stale.

Angry. Upset. Alone. Wounded. Bitter. I watched the metro map despondently as if it held some answers. The stations came into view. Doors shuddered open. Orange lights beeped triple. The doors closed. And it went on. Standing looking out the frontal lobe of the driverless train I watched the track ahead. In the distance I could see the next station as a point of light in the dark: Grange Blanche.

There comes a time when we must all descend into the dark heart of life and unite with and become the enemy, take our frustrations out on the weak and become as ugly in our dominance as we feel under submission. I thought of the disabled deformed beggar girl, wondering if she was still there, if the offer was still open. I imagined her stripped to the skin, towering over her, angry and frothing at the mouth, speaking only with the force of my hands, her crippled legs forced wide apart, to have her be reviled by herself through the sheer greed and repulsion with which I fucked her with. I thought of stooping lower than any other man, eating her pussy and gagging on the filth of Europe's immigration problem.

50 euros! Not even a meal in a half-decent restaurant.

50 euros! Half a pair of half-decent shoes.

50 euros! To possess someone entirely, to fuck and buck away with only my own orgasm to worry about.

I imagined her fear, her lack of desire, the pain that sex would cause her, the perverse light in which she'd view western sexual practices - ungodly acts which even at the height of her understanding she'd never be able to make sense of. I imagined fucking her with the hatred and sadness of an entire life, reimbursing myself of all the money I'd had robbed, really getting down to work, getting my full fifty euros worth out of her, mirroring all the horrors of our world in one brutal selfish barebacked violent fuck, a complete detox of all the rottenness of life.

I stood imagining that, wanting to abuse someone or something for all that I had seen and lived and become, somehow show in real criminal terms the hideous effect that this world does have upon us. I watched the open doors, disputing if I should alight or not. Beep beep Beep... And my chance was gone.

With no movement in the air the summer night was humid and sticky. I stared at my ghostly reflection in the dark window of the metro. I looked ravaged, life-worn. I thought of the father pimping out his handicap daughter, of thé drunk dancing alone and pissing himself, of the hordes of social shrapnel inching their wounded bodies and minds down to the homeless shelter, of the whores outside MacDonald's sucking on straws and swallowing milkshake, of the violence consuming so many people and the bitterness and corruption which reigns. In the vile regurgitated odour of red wine and vomit, in a deserted carriage of the late night metro, I stood alone and thought of all these things.

I was almost home. I had almost made it. I stepped off the tube and made towards the exit. So Dog We Were; so dog we are; So dog I am. Fuck Fuck Clic Clic Beep beep beep, at the end of another beautiful, and foul, smelling night.

- - -

My Thanks as Ever for reading, Shane. X

- - -


Love's Down Tango

Love's Down Tango written and read by Shane Levene

In Love's Down Tango I found myself in a twirl. I wasn't sure what was real or what was not. The city became a place of instant memories and nostalgia. Thoughts of what had passed only five minutes ago seemed idyllic and golden. In the freshness of those summer mornings I'd rise and feel joyous and alive. I'd smell my own skin because it reminded me of her, shower in cold water and sit at the window as the great heat made its way in. I prickled with existence, like I was a part of everything. The floral scents of parks and gardens that blew in on the early breeze cleansed me of something that soap couldn't touch. I collapsed back on life and let it carry me away. Suddenly the cool, damp shade under pine trees, us alone, in huge lost parks, seemed like perfection... like nothing else could ever get better than that. In that time, every past pain and sorrow became a thing of celebration: a journey to salvation – to the very moment: staring across at someone so outrageously beautiful and have her stare back with eyes just as intense and needing as mine. In those eyes I could have sank and died and not have cared a damn. Sometimes I just laid back and let happy tears leak out, thinking of meadows and sunshine and water and sky, and all things free and wild.

In Love's down tango I'd steal secret glimpses of her reflection. On subway trains, in blacked out windows, my gaze fixed on her neck. That's when she'd drift, as if having mental orgasms, sensing my eyes on the tender of her prey. As we rocketed through tunnels I felt hollow, like I had no stomach at all. In less than two weeks in a dirty bed, a lifetime of hurt and pain had been fucked, cried and kissed away. What had only yesterday been a bleak world on the unlucky side of death, was now bursting with hope and promise. The entire place had been transformed. The factories billowing smoke over in the distance now inspired me, so too the river. The flats, which had towered up around the back all these years, no longer held dark connotations. Even the old disused power station took on a a kind of historic and abandoned beauty. Some days we'd walk under its shadow and talk of industry and poverty and love and death. All things were to be celebrated. All things had led to her.

In Love's down tango I got swept away. Strange currents pulled at me and dragged me off. I became romantic to the point of gibberishness. I wandered the city, down tree-lined avenues of shade by the river, my head drunk on what was behind, all around and up ahead. I tore off leaves and rubbed them into my hands, sucked in the fragrant air like it was something healthy. The sounds of life and nature would bring me out in tears of joy. Poetry flowed out of me: sentimental nonsense trying desperately to express what I felt. I became humane. I fell in love with scabby mongrel dogs. I started saying things I didn't mean, and other things I meant so much. One warm evening, with the dusk sitting on the horizon and the last echoes of day ringing out, I told her: “This city is of You now.” The moment was intense. We both felt it, a darkening overhead, as we stared at each other in terror.

In Love's down tango I became a fool. I'd jump up on seats in packed public transport and declare how much I loved her. Other men cringed for me... seeing themselves in my madness. I felt no shame; only pride. I'd walk around town kissing and blessing the homeless. I'd gatecrash counselling sessions and tell the depressed that there was hope. I'd touch blind people on the forehead and tell them: “now you can see!” No one had to be poor if they could feel like this. I bought a writing desk and planned books and novels, films and radio plays. At work I sought out promotions. I Brushed my teeth twice a day and showered before and after sex. Then, one late morning, I washed my hair with washing-up liquid and dried it with a towel from off the floor. She called me a “disgusting dog!” and said that she was leaving. Sitting on the edge of the bed she re-did her scarlet lipstick, clicked her little mirror case shut, put on her blacked out sunglasses and warned me not to come looking for her or phone. She said she'd contact me when she was ready. I tried pleading with her, blocking her path. I smashed my head and fists off the door, screaming: “No! I'm sorry!” Then, facing her, I slid down the door until I was sitting flopped out on the floor. She remained on the bed, her legs crossed, clutching her handbag and turned the other way looking out the window. I shuffled aside and said: “So go then if you're going.” I reached out for the culprit towel and draped it over my head so I couldn't see. I heard her rise, heard her footsteps, heard the rattle of the door handle. In a desperate last attempt to stop her leaving I threw myself out and gripped a hold of her ankle, curling my entire body around her shoe. “Don't leave!” I begged. “Please don't go!” She just stopped and stood there, as calm as anything, staring forward and saying nothing. After a moment I saw what a tremendous fool I was being and let go. She lifted her leg and stepped free like I was a monstrous piece of dog shit. That was the first bust up. I lay in its aftermath shaking and sobbing and having panic attacks. My mind and body doing strange things.

In Love's down tango I lost all notion of self-respect. Saving face seemed futile, and anyway, I was glad to break down because of her. It seemed to validate something. After each new bust-up I'd show up at old friends at crazy hours, frantic, dishevelled and without socks. From the public phone box at the top of her street I'd call my Mum in tears, begging for help and asking her to send a taxi to come and collect me. I lost control of my actions. Weird impulses would have me obsessively redialling her number, sometimes for hours, until she'd finally take it off the hook or smash it against the wall. I'd pay kids a quid a time to knock on her door and deliver love-letters and flowers. One time the kid returned with a bunch of stems where she'd gone crazy and ripped all the heads off. She'd told him to give them back to me. “I think she's mad with you!” he said.
“Did she pay you?” I asked. He shook his head. I gave him another pound coin, took the stems and dumped them over her garden wall. Once I sat on the bench across from her house for three days until she finally came out and took me home. People became embarrassed watching me; my family ashamed to see tears in my eyes again, tears that I hadn't even cried through a childhood of appalling emotional squalor. But this was different: it was my tragedy proper. I had fully invested in this one and was not just a kid hanging onto his mothers skirt and being dragged along to the next fiasco. I was struggling with new feelings and strains inside my body. Things that didn't physically hurt but seemed to penetrate right to the core of my existence. I felt insane, sane, happy, sad, lost, found and dangerous. I was a man capable of marching off to war. I cared so much and I cared so little... both extremes at once, leaving me confused, unstable of mind and scared of myself.

In Love's down tango the nights crackled and fizzed and deep songs drifted out the stereo. The room seemed like a square floating lost through space. It was just us now – astray in a universe of black where things carry on forever but get further away. The only light we had was two little red and green LEDs on the stereo. From the bed we'd stare at them. They became a point of sadness absolute, both of us sobbing away in the dark as it dawned on us just how useless it was and that no-one was really going to be saved. As the last song drifted off to nowhere and left a throbbing silence in its wake we'd hold each other tight, stare into each others eyes, and wait for Armageddon.

In Love's down tango day was always night. Some kind of uninvited darkness now joined us in the room, its hanging presence causing silences and long, forlorn thoughts that were no good. We were a tragedy unravelling, a train heading for the buffers, and everyone was wondering what kind of impact we'd make. I started cutting love letters into my body, and she split herself up between multiple personalities – each as crazy as the next. Some nights she'd turn her head and when she turned back she was someone else: her eyes wide and glaring, covering up in shame and itching and shrieking like I had stripped and violated her. She'd run out the house, 3am, waking the street in just her knickers and vest, tugging at her hair as she collapsed to the floor, screaming: “I know what it is! I know what you are!” From the upstairs window I'd curse her, call her crazy, chuck her heels at her, tell her to “fuck off”, then I'd follow for four miles, trying to cover her with a blanket, saying “Sorry” and lying about other things as well. One night we ended in a park, alcoholics and bums cigarette glows and coughs on the distant benches. Under the same fig tree I had once found a dead cat hanging we cuddled up and went to sleep.

In Love's down tango I was a dangerous man. I lost myself in films and books on crimes of passion and sat staring at my hands and wondering just what they could do. I discovered much about myself in those desperate times, and as the forces of love and hurt and jealousy and obsession converged I realized absolutely that one day the cure I had found to my past ills would be the same force that would blow my future apart. We started talking of death pacts, of going down together, dressing up for marriage and walking ourselves out to sea. Nights descended into pits of depraved perversity, the both of us making insane pledges and promises, and gripping on so tight so as madness didn't drag us off completely. Sometimes it seemed like another morning would never arrive. And then, just in time, her face would show a little more clearly and her body would come out the dark and be shivering slightly in the thin early morning light. Somehow the early bird calls, with industry waking up over the rooftops, heralded yet another depression – something not ours, rather a general gloom that for a while we had escaped. We started putting blankets up against the windows. We slept through the mid summer days, the heat trapped in the dark of the room, a fan whirring but only circling hot air. We'd both writhe and sweat through separate nightmares, straining and reaching out for release. The descent was on. We closed our eyes and let it swallow us up.

Oh, the world was so delicate then. I was almost scared to walk for fear of going right through the ground. I clamped up and stuck, not wanting to twist and risk losing what I had. I sat through dark quiet nights watching intently, looking for early signs of the apocalypse. One night, out the silence, I told her she would destroy me. Her crazy eyes lit up and widened. She gripped me by the hair, pushed her face right up to mine and stared a universe deep into my soul. “You'll destroy me too,” she said, through streams of tears, “I think I want to die.” On the first morning of autumn I woke up and she was gone. At first I panicked, then I surrendered, then I smoked two cigarettes, and then slept for thirty six hours straight.

In Love's down tango she shaved off all her hair. I opened the door and stood staring at her in shocked disbelief, her eyes crazy as moons, tears welling up as she smiled and said “I'm back!” Later that night she became a familiar looking stranger and said she felt like a prisoner. She asked: “Are you sure you love me so much that you want me to be here even if I don't want to be?” I meant to say “no” but instead I said “yes.” Then I said: “I saw Grace yesterday. She was sat in the park, under the old school shed, drinking and reading the old graffiti and looking out with such sadness.”
“Did you fuck her?” she screamed.
“Of course not. Would you be able to fuck with a broken heart?”
“That's when I fuck the best!” she said.
“Then I suppose that goes to show how different we are.”
“If you ever fuck anyone else, EVER, I'll kill you!”
“You're crazier than me,” I told her. Then I said: “It's all very sad, now.”
Without saying a word she rose, left the room, and went downstairs. When she returned she was holding a large kitchen knife. She laid it calmly down on the bedside cabinet then stepped out of her dress, and naked, climbed into bed.

I stared at that knife for three days. It sat alongside her cigarettes and lighter and ear-rings, and made me think of terrible things: of having to grab it first before her. Then she said: “I want you to cut me. While we make love I want you to cut my breasts. I want to bleed in this fucking bed!”

And so we fucked. So hard we almost became one. As I thrust she cried and looked at me with such intensity I thought I was a Devil or a God. She dug her nails into my back and clawed out trenches of flesh: slithers of my skin under her fingernails.
“The knife...” she whispered, “take the knife!” Laying beneath her I stretched out and took the knife. I ran the tip of the blade down between her breasts. She closed her eyes and lent back, her arms splayed like she was about to be crucified. I stared at her, the tips of her milky front teeth behind her partly open mouth; her head tilted back and at an angle; her neck stuck out and taut in total trust. I thought of the knife, of pulling it straight across her breasts, of how ill it would make me if gaping wounds opened up and I saw the knotty flesh before the blood. She opened her eyes and looked at me all dreamy, her head swimming in a sea of eroticism. In that instant I chucked the knife down and told her I couldn't do it, that I didn't want to hurt her like that. She groaned and deflated in anti-climax, like I had finally delivered her the greatest disappointment imaginable. Then she collapsed down close, crazy passionate again. She bit hard into my neck, released, then hissed a vicious death threat into my ear. She said she wanted me to talk to her, call her all the whores under the sun... tell her of men, strangers, who'd rape her and force her to do hideous things in front of me or her parents. As I told her all she asked she squirmed and shivered and shuddered about on top of me, having orgasms that looked more like an exorcism. During the most intense pleasure I ever gave, I wasn't even hard. When she was finished I rolled out from underneath her, terrified at what I had just seen. Later that same night she started up with real life horror stories, telling me about her and friends picking up men, following strangers on the metro, sucking them off in doorways and elevators... of being gang-banged in stairwells. When I begged “STOP!” she said I was wanting to revise her history, put her in chains and deny her her liberty and womanhood. She said she needed to tell me these things. That she wasn't the pure angel which I had created of her in my head. September became an ill month, each day infected by some repulsive history that she needed to get out. Vile things would now come randomly from her mouth. One day, on the number 14 bus, as we were curled up together looking out at the passing shops, she told me that it was in just that very same position that she was first fucked in the arse by her best friend's husband. I removed my arms from around her and watched the world alone. From that point on we took to dressing in black jumpers and dark shades and moping around town like two figures of doom.

In love's down tango I stopped sleeping and stayed awake reading tragic poetry from people who had chucked themselves off bridges. I longed for those innocent days when she'd stood outside the train station, in a light red dress, the summer exuding directly from her. Now I sat there through the nights, watching her as she slept, seeing hideous shapes manifest in her body... her beauty now looking like a deformity. There were times when she'd open her eyes, still drunk on sleep, and for a moment, deprived of memory, she appeared beautiful again. She'd give a shy, dreamy smile, and then the data of her life would re-load and she'd look crazed and lost and sorrowful once more. When I slept, her body felt like a huge black negative presence besides me. The smell of her sticky summer skin and cropped unwashed hair infiltrated and plagued my dreams. I'd dream of the river and turbulent waters, and that furious space either side of the bridge supports where the water divides and rushes around and sucks and pulls down. I'd groan and fight off dream demons, her pushing me away, hitting and elbowing. “Fucking stop it!” she'd hiss. Our pains and torments were no longer endearing, but a burden. That insane obsession and fervour that we had promised to save each other with was now the same force turned inside out and set against us. She kept asking if I loved her, and I did, and I said “Yes!” During the last two months we tried to recreate the first, but the music didn't work no more, nor the candles, nor the inspired verse that love had once forced out by pure overload of emotions.

In Love's down tango I became ugly. Gaunt. Ill. Depressed. A stranger to myself. Inside I was even worse. Our love had turned rotten and unhealthy, but it was still love and it was still better than anything I'd known before. Just having someone I wanted seemed to fulfil a great need in me. When she wasn't with me I'd start imaging what she was doing - who she was doing it with. I'd ring and kill the phone or just hang there silent. She knew it was me but couldn't prove a damn thing. I knew it was crazy but couldn't stop myself: love is a mental illness. In the evenings I started going down to the river, alone, staring over and off the bridge into the big black swirling eddies, or walking around town and picking out the tallest buildings which I could throw myself off. I was miserable in my own skin, and we hadn't even crashed out yet. Now when we'd meet I'd sit around hung with gloom, somehow hoping that my distress would re-ignite something in her: even pity. But forces inside myself were working against each other. While one tiptoed around this house of ice the other took to it with a hammer. My mouth would just say things, and as soon as it had I was apologizing. I started asking questions, getting suspicious of her absences, interrogating her after she'd passed an evening out, accusing her of everything she was capable of and suspecting her of being capable of so much more. Then, in a sudden burst of toughness, I'd throw her out and tell her never to come back again, that she was “history!”. A few hours later I'd be at her door, standing in the garden in the rain, screaming that I couldn't live without her. I started hinting at suicide, calling her up and saying “Goodbye” then, not taken at all seriously, blackmailing her outright with it. Those old tricks that I despised so much in my mother, that I'd promised I'd never repeat, I was now employing for the same ends. The few nights we did manage to spend together from then on were maybe the saddest memories of both our lives, lost somewhere between insanity, hatred, bitterness and base animal sex.

Just before the real cold British weather set in, before the trees were completely bare, before the last of the birds had migrated, before one of us was ticked off and zipped up, love was finally driven off the cliff: she left for foreign soils and booked herself into psycho-therapy. The only contact I had was for her father and he refused to speak to me. On Christmas day of that year, on my pleading, my sister made an international call, and through tears, gave news that the body of a young man had been dredged up from the river and it was almost certainly me. She still never phoned. And all her father said was: “pass on our condolences to your mother.”

In Love's down tango the city smelled of Her. Walking around alone, in the winter of that year, I was tortured and mocked by memories. In specific places I saw our ghosts; heard echoes of time: us laughing, little things we had said, desperate promises we had made. In bars I saw us sitting in the corner, alone, secretive, withdrawn from the world outside. There wasn't an inch of city anywhere which offered any respite. For a brief moment I'd lived joy under London's sky and going back to the rot of yesterday was now punition too much. I became a prisoner of my city... of my memories. My own existence goaded and tortured me; I reminded myself of so much. In Love's down tango I went on a pilgrimage of pain. I retraced my journey so far, crying and making no sound. Sadness and despair just poured out of me. People looked on me like I was a freak... like I'd just staggered away from a bomb blast, unaware that half my head was missing. Mothers would shield their kids eyes as I passed, hold them in tight and block out my vision. There is something about real grief and hurt in a man which terrifies people. It terrified me too. In Love's down tango, in that fleeting, mystic twirl, I opened my eyes and for a moment I saw it all.

- - -


Audio - The Consequence of Living

Read by Soc Priapist

"Our days and evenings were spent together toughening ourselves up, bonding and preparing our offensive. Our first decision was to join a boxing club. We were weak targets for the bullies and in order to walk the streets and parks untroubled we needed to learn how to throw decent right hooks. So one Wednesday we joined Chelsea Boys Boxing Club and on Thursday we knocked each others teeth out. The three of us taking it in turns to square up to one another and direct our anger and pain towards a physical body. But we never hurt one another: we toughened each other up. And as we lay in the park, on the grassy hill with black eyes and busted noses, we joked and laughed as love and friendship throbbed and stung upon our young bodies..."

A Test of Time

While awaiting the results of an HIV test a young addict gets to discussing junk, disease, harm-reduction and the pitfalls of intravenous drug use with an older, dying in-patient. 

(A fictional article written for the Australian harm-reduction magazine BLAST! )

The old clock in the hospital hung high up on the wall opposite. It made an audible tock with each second. 11.45 came and went and Pierre sat there, with a hollow feeling in his gut, looking at and listening to time.

"I'll tell you something now," said the in-patient who sat alongside him, his finger wagging with each syllable, "when history really looks back at the spread of HIV in the West the blame will not fall on the queers or the whores, it will be shown that it stemmed from the IV drug using community... That that group was more at risk, took fewer precautions to stem the spread, and was the real nucleus at the heart of this epidemic. You mark my words!"

Pierre watched the wagging finger, eyed the pale, bony veinless hand it was attached to. It scared him. The words scared him. The marks and the moles and the dry skin scared him. The clock looking down on them scared him. He wished he'd never heard what Jean-Paul had said. He wanted to argue against it, felt that Jean-Paul had no right or basis to say such a thing. But in his empty gut, in his communal memory of all the vile rooms and needles and stupidness he had seen and done, he heard in Jean-Paul’s words something he had often thought himself but had never dared mouth out aloud.

Jean-Paul carried on. He was a tall, junk worn man, no teeth, skull visible under his skin, cheeks pinched, the space around his bottom lip fatty like it had been injected with botox. Up top his torso was thin yet broad, his chest abnormally large like it was packed full of straw. Draped around his shoulders was an itchy looking red hospital blanket. He had lung and chest problems and the blanket rose and fell with each intake of breath.

"I don't know when or where I picked up the virus, nor the Hep C," Jean-Paul said. "It could've been any number of a thousand shots… Fuck knows! Not even any one to blame... And I can't really even blame myself, 'coz back in the day it was impossible not to share. There were no free needles like today. The best we could do was boil ours sterile, and that mostly entailed just flushing them through a few times with tepid water.And anyway, we were junkies not queers... Well, not all of us, so it wasn't really our nightmare. At least we didn't think so then."

Pierre could not conceive of a life of addiction without free clean sharp needles on tap. That would change everything. It would mean you couldn't manage an addiction alone without recourse to the junkie brotherhood. He also couldn't conceive of how anyone could risk their life for a hit, even though he was here for doing just that himself. He didn't want to speak, not of this, not now, but there was something lingering open in the wake of Jean-Paul's silence, something lingering open within himself.

"So how did you get needles?" He asked after a moment.

The older junkie laughed, as if remembering good times. "How did we get needles?" He repeated. "God...

...You could buy them.... But they weren't cheap. Mostly you'd buy singles or doubles, so you can imagine how far they went! We stole them from hospitals. I used to do that. Pretend I was visiting someone and then slip off into a room or ward somewhere and grab a handful. In Paris, when I was there, there was one charity you could get them from, but nothing major... Nothing national or greatly known in any case. And when the police began laying in wait and arresting addicts on leaving, paraphernalia charges, we were wary about going there. Works were highly prized back then. You looked after them, and tragically, only shared them with your nearest and dearest. Maybe the reason why we've all ended up alone."

Pierre looked to the clock. He listened for the ticking to make sure time hadn't stopped altogether. It hadn't. What it was doing was going by incredibly slowly. Pierre felt sad, felt that sitting in the HIV unit of the hospital, waiting on the results of blood tests, among sick people, with that smell, wasn't what drug addiction was promised to be about. Somehow it robbed smack injecting of all its dark romance and glory, brought it down to a clinical act, the focus on the blood not the gear, on the dangers of a slow viral death rather than the Russian roulette of a life blown out by the big bang of the overdose. More than ever he was now conscious of where he had ended up and why, his young life hanging in the balance. He was 24 and he figured this was a major point in his life. He looked around at the posters on the wall: campaigns urging addicts to get tested; others selling hope for those testing positive:

Living with HIV!

Life with HEP C!

It's not the end of the world.

5 reasons to keep hope!

Pierre felt antsy, his stomach empty. These were the posters which had disturbed his dreams after he'd first entered rehab. It was almost science fiction how he saw them, happy reformed getting on with life/work/family, looking all too healthy, like those people they airbrush into posters of new soon-to-be building complexes, smiling back as if they are already in paradise and suicide isn't the way to go with positive results.

"I'm going kill myself if I test positive," Pierre suddenly said, not really to Jean-Paul. "I wouldn't want to live with that!

"Ha! I've heard that before," said Jean-Paul, casual as if he'd been waiting for it. "But you'll come round... everyone does."

"Not me. You don't know me. I couldn't live with that, scared shitless of being taken out by a cold each day... waking up paranoid about skin or lymphatic cancer... Not being able to take a lover. I'd rather be dead already!"

"Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that. Though once.. IF you’re diagnosed you'll find that after a while HIV/AIDS no longer has the same impact: it loses its teeth, becomes just a disease that your body is at war against. And nowadays it's not the death sentence it once was, many live out full lifespans. I'd much rather be told I was HIV+ than be diagnosed with lung cancer... Or ANY cancer! It's hard to explain how your perception changes once you have it. I guess it's like HEROIN, how dangerous and illegal that all seemed the first times and then how normal it becomes once your well-being depends on it. But kill yourself? What the hell for? You've done all this to live just to kill yourself?"

Those last words got Pierre’s back up, though he didn’t quite know why. He felt belittled by something in them, like they weren’t at all true or relevant to him. It also prickled him that this dinosaur of the junk world, this dying junkie, had planted himself alongside him and during the most tenuous wait of his life was haunting his mind with such talk.

"What d'you fucking mean?" he quizzed, irate. "'All this to live’? All what to live? I didn't want to live... That was the fucking point! You think I'd have done this (rolling up his sleeves) because I wanted to embrace life?"

Pierre's arms were marked, scarred, bruised, carved, though nothing too extreme... No greater than almost any other injecting addict.

Jean-Paul didn't look. He didn't want to see Pierre's arms. He had junk arms of his own. "Think about it," he said, "you never used heroin to die! If you wanted to die: you’d be dead! You use heroin to live... To make life more acceptable, no?"

"Acceptable? I use heroin like a fucking sledgehammer to the head. I use to kill the pain... I use coz I don't give a fuck if I live or die!"

"Well, I don't buy that. I peddled that line for years too. But the truth is, if you want to ease the pain then it's another way of saying you want to make life more bearable, which means you use heroin because you want to live. You said it yourself: if you test positive you'll kill yourself, if not you'll carry on living. This is myth about self-destruction... It's a huge fucking myth which no-one wants to admit. Though I guess it's more cool to want to die... better to have people trying to save you than not have them acknowledge you at all. At the end of it, when the veins are blown and the smack is shot, all there is at the end of the fabled rainbow is a bucket load of golden shit. One day you’ll understand. It doesn't get better it gets worse."

The young addict didn't answer. That pissed him off. Preaching! He was too early into his addiction for such talk. His heroin fanaticism was still young. He still thought, believed it was about death, that he was rebelling against life, that whacking junk up into his veins, marking his body, was advertising total abandon. The truth was, like most of us, Pierre wasn't rebelling against life, but against death. Kidding himself on that he wanted to die so that for some moments he could live freely, in peace, without the fear of mortality impeding his every move.

The sound of the clock ticked in and then disappeared again. Pierre felt like a ghost in his own time.

"How much fuckin' longer is this gonna take?" he said. "My appointment was 25 minutes ago. My mum's waiting down in the cafeteria. She'll be out her mind with worry."

For a moment Pierre looked pensive, reflective, like how he did when scheming hard for junk. Then he said: "Maybe it's a good sign, huh? What d'you think? It's a good sign I'm being left waiting? There's no way they'd leave me to wait like this if I'm positive?"

Jean-Paul's reply was a not-so-sure downward turn of his mouth. They were in a part of the hospital connected with the drug substitution unit and logic had never played much of a role here. Maybe the patient before has had a bad result and cracked up, he thought. Maybe the doctor arrived late. It could be any number of things.

Pierre sat under the spectre of the clock, his feet parted, his hands clasped, looking at the space of floor between his legs. He took his phone out his pocket, rapidly
tapped a few buttons with his thumb then clicked it closed and let out a sigh.

Jean-Paul looked at him, a discreet sideways glance. He would never admit it but he felt a strange delight in this young man's predicament, sitting there tormented as he was. It wasn't his choice to feel like that, he just did. And worse, there was something inside of him that would take even greater pleasure if the young man were to be diagnosed positive. He had been here before, sat right besides others who had gotten lucky, and though he had acted pleased and relieved, beneath he had always felt a sharp stab of bitterness that they'd got the break he never had. He wanted to be the young addict, right down to the bone, that's what he really wanted: to have his time again. His voice changed, became harsher, cynical.

"So with all your free needles, your aluminium Cups, your vit C, alcohol swipes, sterile water, how come you're even here? Shouldn't you be circulating unpolluted blood?"

Pierre stopped what he was doing and stared at the floor in thought. He nodded slowly.
"You'd hope so," he said, sadly, "but the always having everything, all the time, isn't easy, even if it is free! Sometimes I think it'd be better, in some ways, if it wasn't free. At least then we would have the power of the consumer. When things are free we are left at another's whim and must be thankful for what's there not what's lacking. It's like you can't complain there's no vegetables in the broth at the soup kitchen, they'll say 'well it's free innit, so what you complaining about?' That's the attitude which prevails. There was this one day, I'd been working. I arrived 5 minutes late at the needle exchange and was refused needles. The exchange was still open as they had acupuncture classes that evening but they refused to open the needle cupboard and give me fresh works. They said that the recovering addicts upstairs - sat there with needles all stuck in their fucking faces - could fall off the wagon hearing the syringe cupboard opened. They knew all the chemists were closed and that without fresh spikes I either had to not use or share... And not using ain't gonna happen. The cunts sent me on my merry way! And that's just one example of many. There's a spitefullness which often prevails through many of the drug services, where insidiously you are made to pay."

"Spiteful, yeah. But get real about paying for needles.You should be bloody thankful, seriously. I saw what it was like before, am a victim of it. I only wish I'd have had free needles and maybe I'd not be here right now."

"I’m just saying is all. Not that we should pay but that there can be improvements. You asked me why I'm here despite all the free services nowadays and I’m trying to tell you."

"Yeah, but you're not here because needles are free! Come on."

"No, but it could be in part because of the consequences of how the user is treated because a certain service is free. But that’s a side issue, really. The real problem, from what I see, is getting word out about the dangers of injecting and safer practices to potential IV users before they've taken up the needle. Do you know, I didn't even know what hep C was until I was asked one day if I had it! My next visit at the needle exchange I asked and had a real scare learning about it and that we shouldn't even share a spoon. From then on I didn't, but those weeks prior I had, water too…. and had let other addicts whack me up. That there, nowadays, is the place where I think the disease thrives, around new IV'ers in those first few weeks. It's like myself, I'm a clean user. I still pick up new needles, still use safely, but there's been too many occasions where it wasn't possible... Where we had to share spoons, water... even a needle once, and the only precaution you can take when up against that is asking the other person if they're diseased or not... And noone's ever gonna own up, at least not in that moment there."

Jean-Paul knew that was true. He had never owned up, not while he was well anyway. Now he had moved into a circle of addicts who were all HIV+, people he'd met at the hospital, support group, or who lived in the same hostel. They'd all come together with the same ailments and concerns, the same worries which plagued their nights.

"But you can't blame others," said Jean-Paul, “you should use heroin as if EVERYONE has HIV. That way, whether they do or not, it becomes irrelevant. You have to take final responsibility if you've caught a disease, the onus isn't on anyone else to prevent you catching one. That's too easy!"

"Oh, I will take responsibility... You'll see alright! I'll make sure if I'm dying I'll not have the chance to help spread this disease. You watch..."

"But maybe you already have? Here you are talking about those who know they're positive putting others at risk, but that also goes for those who haven't been tested but know they may have been exposed... Like you. So these occasions where you talk about others maybe putting you at risk, maybe it was the other way around, you who was positive and putting them at risk?"

"Yes, but that's my point, I unintentionally took risk and risked others by not knowing just how dangerous sharing equipment was. I've only ever once intentionally shared a needle. And anyway, I don’t think the problem is actually sharing needles - most addicts I know wouldn’t do that anyway - it’s more the equipment, or needles getting muddled up when all using and living together. Fuck knows. All I know is that if the world was even a little more just we'd not need to use in any case! We'd maybe care a little more about ourselves, about life."

"Bullshit!" exclaimed Jean-Paul. “Bull-fucking-shit! Addiction is to do with so much more than just misery. That's not the problem. Why are you here? Answer that?"

"Here??? You mean in the hospital? Needing a blood test?"

"Well yeah, how you’ve risked maybe being exposed?"

"Well, I suppose it was through desperation, through a need to have my fix, to be well and because that was often out of my control it pushed me into the junkie fraternity, and it's there where the risks are. It's using in groups, even if you're not directly sharing needles."

"But why integrate into that lifestyle if you think it's so hazardous? What on earth would push you there?"

"I'll tell you why, quite simply because you don't know it's hazardous just then. As for why you need that fraternity, there are many different reasons. Sometimes it's financial: we must pool our money; sometimes it's because of supply; housing problems. Sometimes you just can't get needles, like on a Sunday or when you get gear unexpectedly... You can get caught short. In times like that you need the help of others to make it work. You know it: I have 25 euros; you have 25 euros. We can get nothing each with that and both be sick or we can pool our funds and score a gram. And imagine that with 5 addicts. You end up with a fix each, and the fairest way to divide that is to cook up a single 100ml shot and everyone draws up 20ml. It's simple: you can't contract hep C or HIV from yourself. We're exposed to disease the moment we use in groups... Even if we think we're using safely."

"Well that's most addicts isn't it?"

"I don't know about that. It’s me and most I know... We do rely on each other most days. But then a lot of us are clean... Most of us don't have HIV or hepatitis."

Jean-Paul looked at the younger addict, so naive, still so unaware of the truth of IV'ing drugs even if he now knew how contagious certain illnesses were. He thought of all the deaths he had seen, not ODs, hospital deaths, people suddenly wasting away, deaths from strange cancers, pneumonia, septacaemia, liver failure... They were all HIV deaths, some hepatitis.

"Mostly clean? You're fucking joking int ya? Give me an injecting addict over 45 in France and I'll give you someone with HIV, hep C (if not both), a liar, or someone very fucking lucky! And the future isn’t looking too hot for your generation when you really delve into it. Ask the nurse when you see her. Your statistics for coming out that room there with good news, on all scores, is slight. What is it? Something like 1 in 3 of every IV drug user is HIV+ and 7 outta 10 with hep C. That's fucking serious! I'm telling you, this is a hidden epidemic and everyone helps hide it. You’re sitting there like the odds are on your side, but they’re not… the moment syringes start going in the veins the only odds greatly on your side is that you’ll be dead before you’re 50... And not from an overdose!"

The young addict pulled a face. He didn't really believe the statistics Jean-Paul had rattled off, thought he was just bitter and trying to scare him. He squinted out the corner of his eye, down at Jean-Paul's white cotton in-patient trousers, the hems rolled up so when he sat they raised up past his bare ankles. His legs looked silver and he had what looked like an inline in his inside ankle, an ankle so bony and sharp it hurt the young addict to look at. He shivered in feeling, like the emphatic response to nails pulled down a chalkboard. Jean-Paul eyed him, with a look like he wanted eat him.

"You've had a lot to say for an apprentice," Said Jean-Paul, "now it's my turn. I'll tell you why addicts are so careless about contracting disease. It stems from the portrayal of heroin itself, how it's treated in the media and all the fear-mongering than goes on - us addicts as guilty of perpetrating it as anyone. But what happens, because of this myth that heroin is so deadly, that it destroys the user and fucks up lives regardless, that there's 'no way back from smack' it encourages addicts to use in careless ways, to risk their lives, because what they believe is that they're fucked anyway. So the addict has no conscious thoughts of his life after heroin because it's sold to us that their is no future after. So we use in a very negative, immediate and volatile way. So what if we risk hepatitis/HIV/heart or lung problems? Coz we'll be dead of the heroin long before we must suffer the health consequences left in its wake... Only we won't. And that's a huge problem. You don't see marijuana smokers or even coke heads taking the risks we do. No, because for all the bad press about those drugs they are still not peddled as hopeless... Users are sold a major hope of recovery and so subconsciously conserve themselves for the future, for a life after addiction. Not so for smackheads. We are sold and sell hopelessness and don't think past the tenure of our addictions. That's how it comes to me anyway, tell me if I'm wrong."

Pierre nodded, in a way that said it was an interesting new thought to him, something to think about... or not. He looked up at the clock, then down at nothing, then stared at nothing some more.

Jean-Paul looked frail and bony. He was sat there with his right leg folded flimsily over his left, slightly reclined, turned towards Pierre. Illness had somehow made him sprightly and flexible once more. From down the corridor another in-patient was walked past them helped by a nurse. The man walked slowly like he was in prison shackles. He held a transparent oxygen mask to his face. Jean-Paul nodded a greeting. The patient put his eyes to Jean-Paul but gave no other sign back. Jean-Paul looked away, like he didn’t want to see something. Immediately Pierre's eyes followed the patient from behind, staring dejectedly at the blood or shit stains in the back of his pants. He thought he didn't want to end up here, like that, but that it felt a lot nearer to the truth of heroin addiction than the street scoring points, the shooting galleries or the crazy days of desperation and illness. Somehow he had landed in the real dark heart of addiction, the final place of stay for many addicts. Pierre was suddenly gripped by fear and panic. He felt it: he felt this was his first visit of many to this hospital, that somehow it was already decided that this was his fate, that Jean-Paul would be a regular feature in his life. He thought of his mother downstairs, how worried she must be. Then Pierre stood up and strode about in thought. From out a nearby room a nurse arrived holding a clipboard.

"Mr Chevalier?" she asked. Pierre nodded. She ticked his presence. "The doctor will see you soon," she said softly.

Pierre looked at her, horrified. He was convinced he had seen something pitiful in her expression, and it was sure to him she had avoided eye contact. In his mind he went over every muscle which had moved in her face, the tone and cadence of her words, and without being aware of it he was then pacing back and forth, in front of Jean-Paul, weating an intense expression like a man half out his mind.

"Nervous?" asked the older addict.

"I'm gonna test positive," he suddenly said, panicked. "Did you hear the way she told me about the doctor? See her face? She knows the results. I'm gonna fucking test positive. It'll be that time with Alexandre, putting me on, insisting he had the first shot! It'd be that time, alright. I saw him walking around the clinic all wasted and fucked with a cane a couple of years later. Fuck!!!"

"The nurse doesn’t know!" spat Jean-Paul. "And what’s more she doesn't want to know, and even if she did, the doctor wouldn't tell her. You're imagining things. That's the fear that is. That's the fear of death right there. Try to calm down. You'll know soon enough, but you don't know now... You don't!"

Pierre paced around. He pulled his hand down his face and after he had done so he looked 20 years older. Drained. Ill.

"It was those first weeks," he said, still pacing. “Those first fucking weeks when I couldn't even inject myself. I didn't know you could pick up viruses from spoons or filters or water. I thought as long as u didn't share u was pretty much safe. And you know the worst thing? Not one veteran injecting addict warned me of the dangers... Not one! Oh they couldn't be shut up telling me about citric to smack ratios, hitting veins, cooking the perfect hit, not wasting the gear! But as regards to making sure I didn't catch the diseases they probably had they said nothing! Not a word. Not a single piece of useful fucking advice."

The veteran addict didn't get dragged in. It was as if Pierre was accusing him - or something he represented - of being to blame.

"Maybe go and get your mother," was all he said, "it can help having someone in there with you."

"My mother? Have her in the room with me? No chance. I've caused her enough pain. She doesn't need that as well. And I don't need the support. What good did moral support ever fucking do?"

Jean-Paul pulled the blanket down over his shoulders and clasped it closed like a shawl. He looked cold. He looked like he was dying. He watched Pierre's shoes moving about and then cast a look up to the wall. After a few seconds an inquisitive look came over him and he peered in more closely.

"Clocks stopped," he said, "The clock's stopped."

"I know," said Pierre, "yet before the fucking thing couldn't turn fast enough!"

"No, I mean it's really stopped. Look!"

And sure enough the old clock high on the wall had stopped and a weird timeless feeling now permeated the corridor, the hospital. It felt like a storm had moved in, like the sky outside had darkened, like that prickling, beautiful, terrifying sensation of nature taking flight, of dogs whimpering, before all hell breaks loose in the world. There was no doubt about it: history was upon them.

The two men sat in silence now. Not thinking, not doing anything, passive, at the mercy of things which had already been done. If he'd have had time Pierre would have well liked a shot, to push some calm through his veins. But he hadn't the time, as down the corridor there came the nurse, and playing nothing but her historical role, and as grave as she must be remembered, she told Pierre that the doctor was ready to see him.


The doctor seemed abnormally cheerful for such a moment. He was a large man, well groomed, who seemed to offer safety in the very stiffness and quality of his shirt cuffs and links. There was a cup of coffee on his desk and Pierre could smell the warm nutty odour from his mouth.

"Mr Chevalier, sit down and keep your hands away from my prescription pads," he said as an ice breaker. "Would you like a glass of water?" Pierre shook his head.
"Chevalier, hmm, now... where are you...." And he went through a small pile of letters and referrals on his desk.

Pierre's anxiety was barely under control. He wanted to stand, to move, to leave. He wanted a Get Out Of Jail Free card, to rejoin his life with no receipt for living.

"What's the news, Doctor?" he asked "What is it? Am I fucked?"

The doctor opened an initial envelope from the heptology unit. He unfolded the paper inside, lowered his glasses and peered at it, his eyes scanning for what was relevant. Not looking up he said:
"Mr. Chevalier, unfortunately you have tested positive for the hepatitis C virus. Now before ypu panic we'll discuss after exactly what that means and what the next steps will be. But you have tested positive."

Pierre didn't say anything. From what he had heard about how highly contagious hepC was he had half expected it. Just then it didnt seem so bad, his concerns were on the results of the HIV test. That seemed what he was really there for. Pierre sat there feeling culpable and nervous. He hadn't done much to contract the virus but in this moment he felt it'd be a let off if he tested negative . He could feel his flushed face, how young 24 years really was, how little he had done with his life. He suddenly wanted to live, wanted to grab the doctor and rattle the help right out off him. He could feel tears, they were ready to flow.

The doctor looked at him. "You're a young man, Mr Chevalier... You shouldn't even be here." Then he opened a further letter, looked over it, handed it over to Pierre and said. "You've tested positive for the HIV virus."

Pierre looked at the results but saw nothing, he couldnt make out a single word. It was as if the letter was in some language he had never learnt.

"What's going through your mind?" asked the doctor. "A counsellor will be on hand in a moment to talk you through and help with the diagnosis. What are you thinking?"

But Pierre wasn't thinking anything. He was up and gone, without taking the letter, without a word, out the door, past Jean-Paul, past the dead clock, down the corridor, through the swing doors, past the janitor's trolley, past the lift and out into the open stone staircase of the old hospital. The daylight now hit him like flash-blast, piercing in through his lashes. Pierre made a sound like an exhausted animal and then bashed himself in the side of the head with the clenched palm of his hand. The world didn't seem real for a moment. He breathed heavy and stood in the bright light of day trying to unscramble his mind. Instinctively he patted the little secret pocket of his jeans, felt for the couple of bumps he knew were there, and then went off in search of the toilets.

In the toilet, Pierre collapsed over the sink, his head bowed into the bowl. He stared at a line of cream and green limescale which had built up on the ceramic. Then he slowly raised his eyes to the mirror. He stared suspiciously at himself, at his face and into his eyes. Then he studied his hands, turned them over and stood in blank yet profound thought.

In the cubicle Pierre hurriedly ripped open his Steribox, set up the little metallic cup, emptied a bag of heroin out into it, and got to cooking up a shot. He drew up, tied his wrist off, and clenched and released his fist before sliding the syringe into a vein in the topside of his hand. "Work you bastard!" he seethed, "work!" And it did work. The smack coursed up his arm, through his shoulder, through his heart and then to his brain. His body closed down, his emotions numbed, the sounds and brightness off the day dulled and his heart calmed. It was like a star collapsing into itself.

Pierre withdrew the needle. For a moment he stared at the blood which came from his hand. He felt he should be scared of it, that somehow he should have a new relationship with his body. But he didn't. He looked at the blood and then like always licked it clean and rubbed the spot dry on his trousers. Straightened up he left the toilet and made his way down, slowly, to the canteen.

He saw his mother from a distance. She was sat there chatting to some old woman like she didn't have anything to do ever again. When she saw Pierre she said to the old woman "here he is". The old lady heaved herself up and left. Pierre forced a smile as she passed.

Pierre's mother stood up. She seemed small to Pierre. He could hardly look at her. She had given him this life and he had squandered it.

"Good? Bad? What?" she asked, nervously.

"It's good," said Pierre, through tears, "I got lucky, mum... I got fucking lucky." And he fell into her arms and wept into the maternal safety of her neck.

"So all this nonsense is over now, son?" She asked. "You'll quit all this?"

Pierre held on tight. She felt something scared in him, something she hadn't felt in her boy for many years. She clutched him tighter too. Pierre nodded and sobbed. "Mum... Mum," he said, but never finished.

He wished it was over, he wanted it to be over, but it wasn't over. In the hospital, in the canteen, on an afternoon like spring turned bad, the day blew hard and the day blew fast, and the clock had stopped and the clock ticked on, and son held mother like mother held son, and this wasn't the end, not by a long shot, this was only just, the beginning.

- - -

Thanks as ever for reading... One day we'll all be rewarded properly. Shane...X