Meet Me At St Pancras
Between that first encounter at Debbie’s and my planned meeting with Sandra, life plodded along as normal. I continued going to work, unwillingly, resentfully, and then it was back to Josie and the medievalists, with all the disillusionment and jealousy that entailed. Not a happy existence, but perhaps not untenable, with a tweak here, bit more therapy there, some good fortune elsewhere. But my mind was filled with thoughts of Sandra, and a second attempt at crack’s giddying summit.
Then, on an icy January night, there I was at the appointed place, waiting for Sandra on the concourse of St Pancras station. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was meant to stand, so I wandered around, trying to make myself obvious – she was far more likely to spot me than I her. The rush-hour thinned out, and a man in a fluorescent jacket asked if I was ok - I told him I was waiting for a friend. A woman with a Burger King bag wanted to know if I was looking for some company – I think she might have been in the same line of business as Sandra – I said I was fine, and she wandered off. Various foggy figures came into view, and I was hopeful that one of them would be Sandra, but no gruff tones greeted me as they neared. The fun you can have with partial sight is endless. So much is known, yet unknown. Most people make a judgment of someone from twenty, thirty yards away, a woman, youngish, with luggage, a man, silver-haired, with briefcase. But when an approaching figure is little more than a blurred figment, it’s hard to know what to prepare for, a threat, a friendly greeting, or just a fleeting encounter with a passing stranger. Things as well can seem what they’re not. Every so often you can find yourself reaching down to stroke a cat that turns out to be a discarded jumper, or a bin-bag, an embarrassment that’s heightened if you take the trouble to say ‘hello’ as you earnestly stoop to greet it. Yes, the fun you can have with partial sight is endless - so endless it’s without beginning. But in such situations, I’d developed a knack of not worrying what people might be thinking. If I couldn’t see them, it was as if I, too, couldn’t be seen, at least not in a suspicious way. I must have lingered there an hour, with a handful of well-wishers enquiring as to my welfare, doing their bit for the marginalised. A blind man’s cane seems to be seen as a declaration of no intent at all, the opposite of a threat. I find even ruffians go soft when they’re dealing with me. After all, what harm is a hapless-looking bloke with a white stick going to do - steal your glasses?
For a while, I wandered up and down outside the precincts of the station, but the world felt semi-populated, post-trauma, like a scene from Day Of The Triffids, except in this world the blind man was the exception rather than the norm. Cold and resentful by now, I went back to the payphones and called Debbie. ‘There’s obviously been some kind of mix-up,’ I gauchely surmised, as I thrust twenty pence into the slot. But, unsurprisingly, when Debbie answered the phone, she informed me that Sandra was there, and had been for the past few days. How green was I? Fresh as a still-screaming lettuce as torn from a Birdseye topsoil. Like she was likely to honour, even recall our flimsily made arrangement. Her shrunken life didn’t reach St Pancras, or anywhere more than a couple of miles either side of Westbourne Park. Why would it? Everything she needed and wanted, thought she needed and wanted, was there, all within a stone’s throw of the dreaded Droop Street. I could hear the gravelly tones of Sandra in the background, and Debbie handed her the phone. After a vague apology for not showing, she told me to get in a cab and come over, which I did with a consoled alacrity, going outside and sticking my arm out until a vacant black taxi came chugging to my rescue. I leaned into the window, trying to give the impression of a youngish executive on his way to clinch a deal in a wine-bar, but I can’t imagine it was very convincing, especially when I said my final destination was Droop Street, just off the Harrow Road. But at least I was on my way now - that soaring pinnacle was again in my sights. Twenty minutes later, I was scampering up the concrete rat-run that led to Debbie’s door, which Sandra opened like a soul in Hades, almost before my knuckles had touched the wood. Then I was back in that yellowy twilight I’d found so appealing a few nights before.
Debbie called the dealer on her still-extant landline, one of them went to collect, came back in what seemed like ages, but was actually only twenty minutes, and we fell upon the crack like vultures. Sandra and I ended up in the bedroom, leaving Debbie with a chunk of her own in the living-room. I just wanted to make sure I was close to the crack, and that, I thought, meant sticking with Sandra. We smoked some more, sitting on the bed, sporadically getting sexual, obediently returning to the pipe when the high subsided. Then Sandra, her face a dark mask of romance, said, ‘Let’s go to a hotel, just you and me…’ ‘Can we take something with us?’ I asked. ‘Of course we can, darling.’ We returned to the living-room and she rang a minicab. Debbie didn’t want us to go, presumably because she only had a few crumbs of crack left. But minutes later, Sandra and I were in the back of a cab, speeding in the general direction of Paddington. I passed her a clutch of notes, as she talked openly about who she was going to score from, and what she and I might get up to once we’d found a room for the night. It all felt dangerously indiscreet, which of course it was. She told the driver to park on a side-street she seemed to know, saying, ‘Look after the gentleman, I won’t be long.’ He grunted as she hauled herself onto the pavement, pressed a buzzer at the bottom of a tower-block, and waited. Then, bellowing into the intercom, she was granted access.
The radio wasn’t loud enough to ease the silence that had fallen in the car, and it felt excruciating. I cleared my throat, in an endeavour to at least indicate I had human attributes. I, the gentleman, felt sure the guy knew well the general gist of things. But because I didn’t want to worry him, or get into trouble, I told him casually that my friend and I had just moved into a flat, and were staying in a B’n’B while work was being done on the place. I can’t imagine he believed me, especially when Sandra reappeared and told him she and I had just come down from Hertfordshire for a party at a friend’s. If this wasn’t enough, she went on to say that we were going to spend much of tomorrow sightseeing on one of those topless buses (in January), and then get the train back to Stevenage, where apparently we lived, adding that she had an appointment at the mother-and-baby clinic in the afternoon. Something about this last detail didn’t sound as untrue as the rest. ‘Are you pregnant?’ I asked. ‘It’s my fourth, love,’ she said, a softer side of her coming momentarily to the fore. ‘I’ve got a son and daughter up in Stevenage.’ ‘But this is your fourth?’ I asked. ‘My eldest daughter committed suicide last year,’ she replied, accounting for the missing child. ‘She was only sixteen.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ was all I could think of to say, and I hardly was. I was much more concerned with getting some crack in my system, and I think she was too. Her face was stony, as if a true emotion hadn’t been expressed on it for years, and if she tried now, it might crack like granite. There was something in her tone that seemed maudlin, assumed. It was as if she was notching up a tally of sorrows, keeping me onside, guilty at any wish I might have to leave her. But of course I had no such wish - our lives were now, at least for the purposes of tonight, entangled. Casualties were accounted for very casually from hereon in.
So there we were, fizzing through the glistening mizzle of W2, down this street, up that one, vacancy-hunting, Sandra and I, an ill-conceived nativity in a world not yet mythologised enough to be comforting. A rookie in a raven’s world, I was now digging into those parts of me that had no interest in being responsible, reasonable, or compassionate. Sheer appetite and abandon held sway now. The social me was in thrall to the antisocial. The beast was still in a suit, but seams were tearing.
Like a child before Christmas, I was paralysed with anticipation. Colours seemed more vivid, even the traffic-lights had a peculiar liquidity to them, and the sense of relief when they turned green was palpable - another little door opened on the Advent calendar. Shop-windows had a luminescence of their own, almost as if my brain was experiencing a kind of pre-high, an overture to the sensory symphony to come. I even had my own personal Snow Queen in the guise of Sandra, the bringer of gifts, seductive by proxy, heart, broken and cold in equal measure. And I, the crippled child, against all safety-regulations, flew through the ice-black night beside her, as if in a darkside Disney animation, all on a sleigh-ride to moral decay – rated PG. Then Sandra tugged on the reins, and Blitzen came to a halt beside a row of cloned hotels. He drove off, and we entered the first tawdry doorway that offered a vacancy. A bell heralded our arrival, and out popped the proprietor from a side-room. Sandra did the introductions, but he was wary. Thirty quid seemed to soften him up, and he handed me some keys. We climbed a musty staircase, and then, door locked behind us, Sandra had a pipe. I had my go, and we got sexual in a vague and fleeting way. One thing about crack is that, though it might make you feel mentally sexual, the rest of the body doesn’t really want to know. Whilst the high is high, it’s like being at the top of a helter-skelter – the only viable way is down. There I was, ready to let go, to hurtle down that twisting tunnel back to ground, completely unaware there were nails sticking up at intervals from the floor of the chute, then splashdown in a pool of acid, where, undercarriage in shreds, I’d stagger to my feet, thinking, ‘I paid for this? Can I go again?’
Having used prostitutes as respite from the ravages of the world of normal relationships, I was now using prostitutes and crack. If I’d had a bit of a double-life before, it was beginning to seem quite tenable compared with my current circumstances. At least when I’d been with a prostitute, I wanted to get home as fast as possible, and knew with agonising clarity that I wanted something better. But this wasn’t to be the case with crack, for crack has no ending, no climax, no ‘well thanks for that’.
After a while, Sandra excused herself and went into the bathroom on the landing, pipe in hand, crack in pocket. Some people want to smoke in company, some on their own. Others crawl around the floor looking for more, even when they’ve still got some on the table in front of them. Some get horny, start talking fast, twitching the curtains, doing the housework. Sandra was a leave-me-aloner, which didn’t suit me at all. I could hear her coughing, spluttering and spitting, and was worried our antics might be discovered. What if one of the other ‘legitimate’ guests (if there were any) complained to the man downstairs? The police could be called, we could be arrested, thrown in a cell, maybe end up in jail. But none of that mattered. We had crack. Nothing matters when you’ve got crack, apart from the prospect of not having crack. I placed a piece on the foil, and lit it. As I did so, I was worried about the clamour from Sandra, afraid that a knock on the door would mark an ugly end to things. But once I’d sucked up that strangely tasteless smoke, who gave a shit? Utter euphoria swamped me. I stood there, acknowledging the blissful force of this all-too-easily ingested vapour, and thought two things almost simultaneously. The first was ‘where has this been all my life?’ The second was ‘this is going to be trouble.’ For once, I was right.
‘We can meet tonight if you like,’ said Sandra, returning with a clatter from the bathroom. She lay there on the bed, her top unbuttoned just enough to expose the bulge of her belly. ‘Yeah, we can meet up at Debbie’s - you can fuck me, suck me, anything you want me - no shit, I’ll wear a nice dress.’ My standards were so low that I probably found that quite enticing, but had no interest in the future. My nascent wisdom was telling me that promises made in this kind of setting were not likely to be kept. Moreover, I didn’t want to think about afterwards, because that meant this current binge would end, a possibility I didn’t want to entertain. Sandra gave me a pipe, and, as she burned the crack, began talking about how she wanted to quit, change her life – she didn’t want to lose another child, to suicide or social services. Perhaps, like me, she was seeking to compensate for things lost, or maybe things she never had but felt she deserved. Either way, crack is a great way to plug an emotional gap for a short time…ten minutes…ten years. After that, well, you’re even more on your own than you were to begin with, and your bank-account, if you still have one, has fallen through the floorboards…if you still have a floor.
Then Sandra decided she was hungry, and felt that I was just the person to go out and find her some food, a kebab preferably. I didn’t want to go, because I didn’t want to be parted from the drugs, so I made out my sight wasn’t good enough for night-trekking. This wasn’t strictly true, but I thought it just might staunch her raucousness. She made out she was ravenous and, of course, was now eating for two. I knew she wanted the drugs to herself, but her bluster, and the fact she’d now dragged the foetus into it, had me begging a pipe for the road, creaking my way downstairs, past our host, now asleep in his hovel, and out onto the slightly frightening main road a takeaway to locate, madam’s appetite to sate. After some time, passing garage, bus-stop, phone-box, the garage again, I came upon a place of light, with men inside, and the warming orange glow of hot-food cabinets defending the vendor. I went in, all very gauche and decent of course. ‘Er, good evening,’ I said, not being able to see what was on offer, let alone the menu high on the wall behind the counter, ‘do you do kebabs?’ They did, and the guy fixed me up a couple. I forgot the way back to the hotel. Wandering around Paddington at four in the morning, lost, clutching two kebabs, is not my idea of fun. But eventually, almost by accident, I stumbled on the right street, crept back in, made my way upstairs, and dinner, or breakfast, was served. She chomped on it like an urban fox that’s just found brunch in the rubble. I couldn’t eat when I was smoking – food felt such a letdown compared with crack.
We quibbled and quarrelled as the night drew on. I tried to get sexual, pleasure-centres blazing away like a compromised reactor-core, but she nudged me away with various vagaries and vows regarding what was to come. Then, after more smoking, and less conversation, she devoured the second kebab, as a dusty yellow blur rose over the rooftops. She belched up the chilli-gas as I sat there coming down, physically tense and wracked with regret, wishing I were either high or dead, but not sinking into quicksand somewhere in that grey hell in between. Maybe she took too big a pipe at some point, but it wasn’t long before a mangled kebab-and-a-half was scattered over the divan like a lamb Jackson Pollock. A little later, the bin was ablaze, thanks to a discarded cigarette igniting various tissues and kebab-wrappers. Then, at roughly eight o’clock, there was a rustling in the hallway. A sense of dread passed through me, fearing the cleaner might be about to come in. We sat there, frozen on the bed, in fear that the normal world was about to invade our privacy. A hoover howled in the hall, hitting our door as it crashed around. Bin-bags were rustled, throats cleared, and morning salutations exchanged, but somehow, our room wasn’t on the rota. The stress prompted Sandra to produce a wrap of crack from her top, hitherto held back, no doubt for personal use in the bathroom. She smoked it, even gracing me with a toke, but then it was back to griping and groaning, and the smell of sick, now wrapped in a sheet by the bin.
Shortly after this, I looked at my watch and noticed it was half-past eight, and suddenly thought, ‘I’ve got to go to work.’ When I made this announcement, however, Sandra was having none of it. I was in a state of mental exhaustion, and just wanted to get out, heart pounding in my chest, head in a whirl of anxiety and remorse. Then Sandra began pining, saying that if I was going then she’d have to go back to Debbie’s, and would need twenty quid for a cab. She threw in a reference to her being pregnant, and had me pinned a second time.
So I slid away into the chiding morning. By now there were staff and guests around, and I felt ghoulish passing through them. Outside, the traffic was heaving. People were pounding in droves up and down the pavements, and there I was in their midst, feeling like a phantom, doomed to walk the streets of Paddington for the rest of time. But I had to complete the mission. I found a cashpoint and made my way back to Sandra, gave her the note, and we said an unceremonious goodbye. Back through the rush-hour crowds, somehow I found my way to the station, and the platform that would take me to Regent’s Park.
This may all sound pretty cold. It was glacial. We were just each other’s gateway, or getaway, to oblivion. Everyone was happy, all short-term goals were met. And short-termism is what crack’s all about. It doesn’t matter if you’re knowingly spending your last twenty-quid. Who cares? You certainly won’t once you’ve had that first pipe. Well, not for ten minutes or so. Who cares if you should be buying food with it? There’s bread in the fridge, it’ll just have to be toast again. You could spend it on going out with a friend. Nah, they’ve probably got plans, and anyway, who wants to turn up somewhere with just twenty quid? That’s crack money. A score ain’t gonna save ya.
And the muffled witness to all this conjecture? The baby curled in Sandra’s swollen belly, listening in on Primal FM, the slows, the rushes of the heart, the rhythm of an irascible sea that can’t decide what the tide is doing. A couple of months later, Sandra, flat-stomached, during another distended encounter, told me that she’d given birth a few weeks before. Not sure she even saw the child before it was taken away. Said it was a girl. Didn’t name it. Jettisoned into the world, was she earmarked from day one to fail, the word ‘addict’ etched into one of her yet-to-be-activated genes? Is she now a confused, lost, unmanageable tearaway, bouncing from care-home to care-home, as if rehearsing for the role of the dissolute adult, following in her mother’s footsteps without even knowing what her mother’s footsteps were? Or does she lead a stable and untroubled life, mournful origins wiped out by the comfort of a loving environment, the adopted ward of a Guardian-reader alliance, who, for reasons of infertility, have decided to go the adoption route. There she sits, diligently doing her homework, in an actual house, in a pleasant, leafy part of town. Maybe she’ll grow up to be a counsellor, having been drawn by an unfathomable desire to help people with ‘issues’. Presumably, by then, someone will have named her.
TUNE INTO THE NEXT EPISODE THIS TIME TOMORROW...
Lambs To The Laughter
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