The Bastard Sea of Life - Part 1

Spring had come to London. From out the death and rot of winter came forth the fragile green beginnings of life, and from the tips of the hard, seemingly extinct branches of the city's trees appeared the first ugly knots of beautiful growth. I was down to the lunula of my fingernails, had been steadily eating myself away in an effort to survive and not bury myself in debt. I had buried myself in debt. Among the few people who cared I had relinquished my pride and accepted their generosity, had used it to paper over the ever-widening cracks of other, more pressing debts. But then, Came the Spring Came Hope. It showed in the broken plastic chairs that reappeared outside the cheap Chinese cafe, came with the far-off squinting sun and the blue and wet of fresh days. I didn't dream often just then, but when I did I dreamt of love and tenderness and loyalty; of light summer dresses and romance, of a square of room, any room, where we could retreat, lie together and talk out words into the night. And that was how it was in that year, when spring came to London, during my first spring back in town. 

A message emerged from out of that blue. It flashed through on my phone early one morning and sat there for three hours waiting for me to find it. I read the words and then I read them again. It didn't help. They made even less sense second time around. All that I could determine with any degree of certainty was that his name was Grayson and he was in some kind of trouble. 

Must be wriggling some bait to put the bite on me, I thought. Strangers were always doing that, imagining that I was doing well and would leap out of bed at the chance to wire them across some money. As I was deliberating over what to do, a second message buzzed through.

Soz 2 msg like this. not doin 2 good. Plz msg back.

So it is money, I thought. It's rarely anything else.

What'$ the problem? I sent back.

Grayson's response was immediate, this time emotionally cryptic and worrying: 

im just so angry m8. U no like so fuckin angry n i dont have any1 2 turn 2. feels like sumthing real bad is gonna happen. 

I understood that whoever this Grayson fella was, that he was certainly struggling to keep ahold of any beauty in life, was maybe floundering in the junk tank or was possibly even quite seriously ill. I quit messaging and called. He didn't answer. Then he messaged.

cant blieve u foned. fucka! was 2 spineless 2 answer. call again.

I did call. And from that call Grayson would be drawn out and pinned wide open, the old junk train would chug, loaded back into the station and, for another year, spring would be abandoned and the trees would bloom alone. 

I turned up to meet Grayson with a large kitchen knife stuffed down the band of my trousers. Too many psychos out there to rely on luck and intellectual reflexes. If he tried to pull any crazy shit on me, I'd vowed to pin his guts to the inside of his back. Over the years my words had secured quite a number of death threats. One guy, whose daughter had died from an overdose, had journeyed over to France to track me down and even up the score. In his penultimate email he wrote, 'People like you are a cancer on society.’ His mail included a picture of the apartment I had abandoned just a month previous and a warning that he'd find my new address within days. He never did, and I never heard from him again. And now, there I was, waiting to meet a stranger who had been saying some real weird stuff that made no real sense apart from "I'm just real fucking angry." It was that logical, almost placid acknowledgment that he was finding it difficult to cope which unnerved me. So, I stood waiting for him with a knife digging into my groin, purposely positioned on the opposite side of the road and a little way down from where I had arranged to meet him. I wanted to give myself as much room to manoeuvre as possible, be in a position to observe and weigh Grayson up before deciding whether or not to go through with the meet. 

It was a fine spring afternoon. The overground tube grabbed ahold of its track and lurched on over the iron railway bridge. It headed on down its line and left an echo of its entire history in the day. I could smell treated wood and boiled tarmac, dusty stones and the black engineering grease of faraway days. Surely this wasn't an afternoon that would be pierced through with psychotic melodrama. With the train then just a faint rumble in the distance, a man appeared outside the station. He wore red-framed shades and had wavy, greying hair which was finger-combed through with wet gel. His nose was very slightly upturned. He stood there holding a large bouquet of bright yellow daffodils. It was Grayson. I recognized him from the pictures I had seen online. I eyed him closely. He made a phone call. As he spoke he observed himself in a shop window, made an attempt to tidy himself up a little, like he cared what kind of an impression he would make. He didn't seem obviously troubled. I unfolded my own shades, placed them over my eyes, crossed the road and approached him from behind. “Grayson?” I said, gently touching his arm as I came around. For a moment he seemed taken aback, lost for words. Then he found himself. "Ya Fucka!" he said. I could smell alcohol off him. He was slightly taller than I and stood in front of me looking as awkward as I have ever seen any man look. Then he said: "Well, give us a hug then, ya Fucka!" He opened his arms and, being careful not to crush his daffodils, he embraced me and squeezed tight and he was full of warmth. 

Grayson seemed no more prone to violence than most people with borderline psychotic tendencies. If anything, he seemed kind of sorrowful and lost, reflective, still speaking in half riddles.

"I just bought these shades,” he said. “You know, had to cover my eyes to commute... To stop people looking in at me.” 

I didn't have a clue as to what the hell he was talking about. I nodded as if I did. That's when I noticed his shirt, yellow stains down the front and two large patches of perspiration spread out from under each armpit.

"Excuse the shirt, I didn't have anything clean."

"I've worn worse,” I said. “It's nothing. Right, shall we grab a coffee and talk? You can explain a little of what's been going on."

"A coffee? Er, we can, but I was thinking I could maybe shout you something a little stronger? I didn't want to ask over the phone. "

"Stronger? Like gear stronger? Can I score for ya?"

"Gear... Score… Yeah. Can you?"

"D'you even need to ask? How come, though? Is there some kind of blockage your end?”

“I wouldn't know, mate. I've not used for six years... Deleted all my numbers when I quit.”

“Six years?! Fuck. That's something. I've never even gone six weeks."

"I know. It's one of the things I admire about you. You seem to have accepted what you are. I wish I was more like that. I'm just fuckin' dishonest... An absolute fraud."

"Nothing to admire in me. I only burnt my bridges so as I could never sneak back across. Now, are you absolutely sure you want me to score? It's six years, don't forget."

"I'm sure. I'm more sure about that than just about anything else right now. Give your man a call and order like 300 quid's worth from him. What'll we get for that?”

"It's three for twenty... The white and brown. 300 would be 45 bits."

"Three for twenty? Fuck! Then order 200 in white and a 100 of brown... might as well make a proper day of it. Will it be cool to go back to yours?"

"It's right where we're headed,” I said. “Though I see you've already lost a yard of pace."

“I'll get it back, don't worry. I'm not all shot through just yet... And I won't slow you down."

- - -

Grayson looked uncomfortable sitting within the confines of a room. It was like the walls and ceiling were exerting an undue pressure on him. He was sweating, and his clothes appeared suddenly too tight. He sat there like that, on the edge of the sofa, counting out his money by dealing each note down onto the table in front of me. When he was done, he asked how long I'd be.

"Five minutes. You can come with me, if you like?"

"Nah, I trust ya, mate."

"You'll get badly stung trusting people round here. You may even get badly stung today!"

"I know the scene, don't worry. If I'm honest I'd expect nothing less. Worse, if it were me I'd probably fuck off with the cash myself. I've just about given up caring either way."

“O well, I guess we take our chances. Just don't steal the fucking windows while I'm gone.”


“The windows. Don't steal 'em or jump through 'em! I'll see you in five.”

- - -

45 bags.
3 extra. 
32 white. 
16 brown. 
A handful of holiday. 

I unclenched my fist and let the bags fall out on the table in front of Grayson. He barely even acknowledged them. Instead, he took a small puff on the cigarette he was smoking and after blowing out a little chortle of smoke, he said:

"Help yaself, mate. Go ahead. This is my treat.”

"Not how it works, I'm afraid. First pipe's yours. You look like you need it much more than I do."

I set up a pipe for Grayson. It was a little homemade number, a small plastic methadone bottle run through with the stem of a biro and crowned with a skin of tin foil. It looked like it was just about ready to go out jousting. Grayson raised the pipe to his mouth. I lit it for him. Through the wavering flame, Grayson trembled. And then he sucked, and the flame swamped over the crack and ash and was taken down through the perforations in the foil and disappeared into the top of the bottle. Grayson inhaled. When he'd taken his fill, he raised a hand to signal for me to cut the flame. He rested motionless for a second, holding the sweet smoke in his lungs. Then he exhaled, sending ghosts of smoke tumbling and expanding out into the room. I watched him with a tenderness of soul, took a strange pleasure in observing the effect that the pipe had on him. As the drug hit his brain he made a deep, low groaning sound, like he was being relieved of a tremendous burden. It made me sad. And, for a moment, before my turn on the pipe, I sat in the silent, smoky spectre of a life that had fallen into an unnamed tragedy. 

Alone like that, free from the distraction of the day turning on around us, it was the first proper look that I got of Grayson. Sat down and hunched over into himself, unwrapping a second rock of crack, he seemed much broader than he had appeared while standing outside the station. I also became aware of his facial stubble, at least a week's worth and a few years greyer than the hair on his head. Whether down to nerves or some kind of mental distraction, his eyes were fast and jittery. At times they lost focus and glassed over and seemed not to want to settle on anything in the past. Maybe the only constant was his sweating – an itchy uncomfortable perspiration of the type that rivers toxins out the body. I was still looking out for any sudden changes of mood or personality. There was nothing obvious, but there was something. Underneath, below the moist skin, it felt like his soul was wound like rope and knotted up. I let him drain his second pipe. As he tapped the dead ash clear from the bottle, I probed him for his story. 

“So, what was the problem this morning? You said you were angry?”

“I did. I am. But fuck... How to explain it? Like, you've never felt angry? Pissed with the world? The present? The past? It's like I'm tied in place, caught in a web and the fucking spider is creeping slowly in to finish me off. I've got a job. Oh, I'm so fucking dishonest. They think I'm Mr Grayson... Clean and tidy and responsible. Always telling others how to get back on track and I'm so far off mine that I no longer know which track it is. Everything's like that. Like I'm a fraud to everyone. This is me. This is me right here! Getting fucked up and enjoying it! I've been made an outcast. I became someone I'm not... Became ashamed of who I was and proud of the man I wasn't! That's fucked up. Real fucked up. And that's my life. That was my life. Things change. I've been drinking. I knew I really wanted junk, but I drank instead. It's OK to be a drunk. Except in the shop where you buy your liquid. There they look at you like shit. Treat you like it. Think that you can't see them through the fog of alcohol! They begrudge having to take 89p for their cheapest can. They sell it at that price! They price them up! And you know what? If you buy their weakest beer at twice the price they treat you differently... Even if your fingers are just as brown and your nails just as dirty. As they say: there's levels. There's even levels to being a drunk. I never got off the first level. That's why I'm angry. I lost myself in trying to be sober. I seethe as I talk, feeling that dishonesty inflating within me with every word. That's why I admire you. You just are what you are and rather than hide it you unhide it. I need to do that, but I can't. Small town mentality? Maybe. There it's so different. You've gotta keep secrets if you want a friend round there. Pull this shit with the curtains open and you'll come round to a very lonely world... If indeed you come round at all. “

I listened but never replied. In parts it made a kind of sense. But there was something dark surrounding his words, something dangerous. Like he said: something seething.

I must have been staring at Grayson, as I next became aware of him looking at me looking at him.

"Give us a hug then, ya Fucka!" he said. He always said that, 'fucka', whenever he expressed anything soft. It was as if I were such a Fucka that him feeling the need for a hug was my fault. "You're brilliant, you are,” he said as we unclinched. “I hope ya fucking know that? Fucking admire what you do so much."

"I write... That's all. Nine-tenths of the time I don't even do that."

“Nah... that's not all you do. You don't understand. Right now, the world needs great artists and writers more than ever. I work at the Southbank Centre, ticket manager. The performers – O God! Not one of them has anything to say. Either they're all 'darkly comic' to make up for any real depth to their work, or they're so middle of the road that they get mistaken for the fucking lines! It’s one of the reasons I wanted to meet you... Talk to you... Make a business proposal to you. Shit, ya Fucka, you're making me lose my words. The thing is this: I'd like to be your manager.”

“My manager??? Fuck. Where did that come from?”

“Well, you need a manager, don't you? Or you will do. That's my thing, what I'm good at: organizing stuff, meeting deadlines, getting the drugs in... convincing people they need things they really don't! I sold a bald guy a crate of shampoo once... anti-dandruff shit as well!”

“That certainly makes you something... But a manager? My manager??? I mean, let’s just weigh this up, soberly:

We've only just met.
You're in a bit of a state, freshly wired after six years on the wagon.
You say you're suffering from anger management issues. 
You've never managed an artist before.
And, maybe our biggest problem: ME... I've nothing to manage!

So, I really don't know what else to tell ya…. Of course you can be my fucking manager! Though there is one condition: No more shampoo to bald guys. We don't need that... Yet.”

And so, not even an hour in, Grayson had had something a little stronger than coffee, had fallen off the wagon and landed on the horse; I was stood opposite, sucking the entrails out of a dying pipe which I hadn't paid for. And, to cap everything off, I'd landed myself a manager. It was pretty decent going. Especially considering we'd only blasted down a couple of rocks apiece and the day had barely made it out of 2 o'clock.

Grayson stayed on late that night. By the time he eventually left, he was in much better spirits. Still not everything made sense, but enough made sense to know that he wasn't completely off the rails. I walked him back down to the tube station, said goodbye and listened to the tired chugging of the last westbound train as it clattered off like music into the night. 

- - -

I didn't hear from Grayson for three days. Then his face appeared in my messenger. This time he got straight to the heart of things:

not doing 2 good. u up 4 a sesh?

Come on down. It'll b fine.

And so Grayson travelled down once more, scored another £300 of gear, divided it in half and opened up a little more. He told me more about his ticket manager job at the Southbank Arts Centre and how it had led to him being signed off with acute mental stress and depression. He also mentioned that he was due up on a disciplinary for an unauthorised absence. That wasn't too serious in itself, though it transpired that it was the last in a long line of offences and had happened only weeks into a final written warning. The Centre seemed hesitant to take a decision while he was signed off sick. I asked Grayson if he had suffered a mental breakdown, to which he reluctantly answered 'no' and then even more reluctantly answered 'yes'. Then, with no reluctance at all, he called me a Fucka.

Aside from his work, the night revealed another part of the Grayson puzzle: Serena. It wasn't the first time that the name had been uttered, only now he spoke of her freely and did so as if I knew her. Yet every time he mentioned her name, revealed a new anecdote of conjugal hell, he would suck down a fresh pipeload of crack as if to force her right out the back of his mind.

"I'll always fucking love her, in some context," he said. "Only now it isn't really love... not like it was. It's different. She's more someone I'd protect with my life and never want to hurt. But I do hurt her... I am hurting her."

"Are you still together?"

Grayson trembled an outheld hand in the air, as if that status was somehow still in the balance. 

“Well, who left who? Who caused the rupture?” I asked.

“That was me.... Well, me by consequence of my behaviour. She said I either had to stop drinking or stop seeing her. I went for a walk to figure things out and returned home too drunk to talk. I told you, I'm a coward. I've not seen her since. But she's not in a good way. I'm worried she may hurt herself... I mean, seriously hurt herself."

After listening to some more details it was quite clear, at least to me, that this Serena defaulted to a position of self-harm and outlandish threats of suicide whenever she couldn't get her way with a lover. She seemed determined to get Grayson back by whatever means necessary. And like most people of that persuasion, the more desperate she became and the more frustrated she got, the more extreme her behaviour became until she finally lost all care and pride and would end hysterical, screaming down the phone with a knife to her own throat. 

"And, does she know you're back using?"

Grayson nodded as he sucked hard on a pipe and inhaled. He carried on nodding until he could speak.

"She knows. I told her first day."

"Did you enjoy telling her?”

“I did, yes.”

“How'd she take that?"

"She collapsed to her knees screaming and pulling her hair and cursing God. She's Italian."

"Fuck, I must be popular with her!"

Grayson wagged a negating finger. "Uh, no... She thinks nothing of you. She knows about addiction... knows about me. This is my choice."

"Well, I'll take your word for it. But if I know people half as well as I think I do, especially people predisposed to emotional blackmail who believe in God and learnt how to mourn in Italy, she'll blame me all right, and what's more: she'll be hellbent on clearing me outta your life."

Grayson froze staring at me with his mouth slightly ajar. His eyes were watery with a certain kind of universal dread which came through understanding and disappointment. He knew I knew, that blame had already been portioned out and I was the devil-in-the-wilderness.

- - -

Grayson started scoring on a daily basis soon after that. It wasn't so much a conscious decision, more a natural reaction to a life that suddenly seemed to be caught up in a retreating tide. Looking at it objectively, every aspect of his life that held any importance was in turmoil and heroin and crack cocaine were the only means he had of reining them in. And it wasn't even especially the effect of the drugs, but more how they totally occupied his every waking moment. Whether it was planning to buy them, getting ready to buy them, sorting out the finances to buy them, redialing dealers when they wouldn't answer, scrambling into clothes to leave that very second, sprint walking for the train station after scoring... It all combines to stop you thinking about life and whatever nasty trick it is halfway through at that moment. Our entire day was then, in some way or another, a direct result of making sure our evenings were full of the drugs we craved. Then even our habitual usage took on habits. It was like one long ritual devised to stave off falling back into the sewage of daily living and all the domestic and social problems which slowly screwed in against us. 

It was around that time that we stopped using my room at my mother's as a junk den. Instead, we crossed the length of the city and went back to Grayson's flat in Lambeth where we could get high in peace and not have to worry about hiding syringes or care about what time we woke the bathroom up to hit a late vein. 

Our evenings also merged into a kind of routine. On arriving back at Grayson's we'd divide up the drugs, steady ourselves with a shot of brown, and then get the crack pipes struck up and smoking away. Once we'd got our bearings Grayson would take up a position, cross-legged, on the floor, in the middle of the room. He'd sit like that with his pipe to his right and his little bags of crack laid out like pebbles to his left. I would stand, my pipe up on the mantlepiece alongside a glass of water. From my phone I'd narrate a single text to him each evening. At random moments Grayson would spring to his feet and duck out the room in tears. I understood so much more about him from the blankness he left behind in the room than from what I ever felt from his physical presence. When he returned he would invariably say, “Fucka!” He was ashamed of those tears, certainly ashamed of showing them in a man's arena. He couldn't cry and carry on, whereas I could. I could walk the streets crying or turn up for work in tears. And some part of Grayson wanted some of that too. Some honesty. Some way of being human without feeling like he had lost all self-respect in the process. 

After the storytelling, the conversation would invariably turn to Serena. Grayson remained adamant that the relationship was over and that it was now just a matter of disconnecting and untangling from a life together. But it was never that clear-cut, and from what I could make out, Serena was being pulled along on a chain of evaporating hope, kept at a safe distance while being soothed by the idea that things would one day be better. And with each passing day, as the different tensions in Grayson's life stretched ever tauter still, I could feel Serena's dark and brooding presence nearing closer and closer to our world. 

“About Serena, I need to ask you something and I'd like you to be honest.” 
“Ask away.”
“Are you sure you've not created this split just so as you can have a blowout on drugs in peace? Generally, when relationships end there is a coldness of detachment somewhere... at least for a while. But I hear you reassuring her, calming her... taking private calls... jittery if you miss a call. It doesn't sit true with many things you have told me.”

“I've thought the same. Maybe at first I did cause an argument because I wanted to get high, but things are really over now. Bt, I just can't be that cold a person... I'd die if she ever did anything stupid because of me being intentionally heartless.”

“The problem with that is that she then keeps an emotional hook in you. How could you ever really move on with your ex attached like that? But, even more serious: you're giving her hope and like that she blossoms and dies afresh each day. Hope is the worst in these situations... You're peddling dreams – dreams you tell me are dead.” 

He didn't respond, and I left it at that. Sometimes we hurt people more with our kindness than anything else. What Grayson was doing was either taking the easy way out or creating a situation that he could profit from, keeping tensions high so as he had the courage to tell Serena that she couldn't come home again, and like that his place was free for me to occupy and fill the air with the toxins of narcotics. But Grayson wasn't a terrible man. He had a certain honesty. At least around me he did. And there were things in him I greatly admired. Like his unwillingness to have anyone fuck with him or take away an inch of his personal space. No matter what shape or size, if someone encroached upon him he'd have none of it. That's when you'd get glimpses of his rage. He wasn't a brawler, had probably never learnt how to throw a punch in his life. But what he had was anger and rage, and it was that combination that would made him a very formidable and difficult opponent for anyone.

After a few weeks, Grayson asked if I'd like to move in with him. I told him I wouldn't move in as I had some concerns but that I'd stay there for an undisclosed amount of time.



“That's finished, I told you. I want some proper passion... not that... Not what I had with her. I love her, in a certain way, but we can't be together.”

“Grayson, I'm gonna tell you the blunt truth: I still think you have cleared Serena out just so as you can go on a mammoth drug binge. That's how it looks to me... Like you're being very selfish.”

“You're wrong. And you're even more wrong if you think I could be selfish like that. We're through... finished. I'm finished.”

“Well, time will tell. Nothing can be known here between two great fools.” 

Grayson didn't reply. Instead he gave me a spare set of keys to his flat and said the place was mine too.

The spring moved on and by. We hardly noticed it but did remark that the trees were starting to fill out and that the subway ride across town to score had become claustrophobic and muggy down in those deep tunnels. That subway ride, an hour each way, that constant and monotonous jerking and chugging, became synonymous with how our days had become. Hardcore daily addiction had crept back in and we were always now a step behind time – rushing to get to the bank, to score, to pick up clean rigs, to buy extra methadone and then to get back home and forget about everything but that which was in front of us. But some things just couldn't be swept aside so easily. Firstly, there was the question of Serena and then, quite out the blue, Grayson was passed fit to return to work and was then just a weekend away from full-time employment and the disciplinary hearing that would commence the moment he returned...

- - -

Part 2 coming very soon.. X