Thursday, 7 March 2013


The First Cut

As the months dragged on, feelings of isolation and inertia deepened.  My social life was pretty sketchy, and many an evening I’d spend stoned alone, and even though it was good to have George and Emma at work, the job itself was mind-numbing.  So, in a bout of self-respect, I decided I would see a counsellor.  After work, I had a look at our database and picked one out who was based in my neighbourhood.  There were therapists all over the place, so I narrowed it down to one whose name I liked, Louisette.  It had a Parisian feel to it, and conjured up bookish boulevards, Bohemians in conference outside cafés.  Her room was above an antique-shop in Notting Hill, and her profile said she’d worked with blind and partially sighted people.


So I hit the couch, except it was a folding canvas chair.  I spent most of my sessions regaling Louisette with tales of Emma, and my inability to get into a relationship.  I began talking about the effect of my sight-condition, the first time I’d really considered it a topic worth exploring.  I even touched on the subject of abuse experienced in my early teens, and the general direction my adult years had gone in as a result.  I also went to my GP asking for antidepressants.  After telling him I was unhappy, had no confidence, couldn’t move on, was lonely, and anxious all the time, he happily scribbled out a prescription.


After a week or two, the tablets began to help, but it wasn’t long before George and Emma moved on to new jobs, which marked a further downturn in my spirits.  There I was, forlorn and demotivated, alone in the office, with Sally talking in management-speak, and Polly coming and going, dumping a mailing on my desk, then swanning off for a three-hour lunch.  Whenever a counsellor came by, I’d put out as much good cheer as I could, hoping my chirpy demeanour would put them off the scent.  But one morning, an eminent psychiatrist gave me a bundle of papers to file.  I took them, and they fell all over the floor.  ‘Sorry,’ I said, shamefacedly scraping them up.  ‘There’s no need to be sorry,’ replied the urbane Hampstead shrink.  ‘Oh, I’m always sorry,’ I mumbled, prostrate before the filing-cabinet.  ‘I’m sorry to hear it,’ he quipped, in a way that felt like checkmate in a therapeutic game of chess.


Then, just to keep things interesting, I had to move out of my flat.  It was owned by a charity for blind and partially sighted people, and the deal was you could live there for three years.  My time was nearly up, but I’d made no plans to move on.  In the dying weeks of my tenancy, I did go and look at a flat in Notting Hill, a small room with a wardrobe, single-bed, and table and chair.  There was just enough room to enter and stand.  The landlord, who was about twelve, wanted more than I was already paying for my canal-view cell.  I asked him about cooking and washing, and he said the kitchen and bathroom were communal, shared with six other tenants.  I felt like throwing myself out the window, except I couldn’t get to it.  So it was vaguely fortunate when an old schoolmate, Josie, asked me if I wanted to move in with her, over in the wastelands between East London and Essex.  So this is what I did, for two main reasons, one, I had to move somewhere, and two, I fancied her.


One dazzling Saturday morning, two Australians rolled up in a removal-van and sped me across London, me perched precariously between them with no seatbelt.  They helped me unpack at the other end, which was no easy feat, as the flat was at the top of a rickety set of backstairs.  It was a struggle getting some things up, most notably my fridge, which, after a few attempts, we decided to leave downstairs.  Then, my Aussie friends having wished me well, I sat in the living-room and watched telly.  Nobody was in, but I knew from that moment I was not going to be happy there.  I think it was the swords and armour hanging in the hall, the skulls and aliens lined up on the bookcase, and the fact that within a matter of days I was being invited to mock-medieval banquets, where everyone dressed up and said ‘hail thee’ and ‘farewell’ to one another, for Josie and her friends were members of a historical re-enactment society.  I had Sally’s office-speak at work, and mock-medieval doggerel in the flat, and felt alienated from both.  Josie’s boyfriend resembled George Formby in a Robin Hood outfit, and the other flatmate, pallid as a vampire, looked like a Goth who hadn’t changed his t-shirt since 1988.  Josie, however, was a buxom Essex girl, whom I’d craved since school days, but never quite managed to ask out.  If they weren’t having a banquet, or out the back waving swords around, they might be scuttling around a derelict castle on a treasure-hunt, pitting their wits against bards from far-off leagues - but this at least meant they were out.


To make matters worse, the flat was above the local Conservative Club, and I had to pay rent to the miserable dogs.  It was not in good condition.  We were up in the attic, where parts of the floor were so warped that you couldn’t put anything down, else it would just roll away or fall over, and the place felt like a tinderbox waiting for a spark.  As for my stranded fridge, when the club secretary realised I couldn’t get it upstairs, her response was to drag it into their office to keep milk and biscuits in.  Reversing Robin Hood’s dictum, they seemed happy to take from the poor, and give to the rich, the rich in question being themselves.


My life had become a form of medieval torture.  The average weekend would be me in despair in my bedroom, the door of which wouldn’t close properly, listening to the vampire assembling a chain-mail vest in the living-room, a process which seemed to take months, week after week, the sound of pliers fastening one more silver hoop onto the bottom of his already lengthy metal smock.  I was also disillusioned with Josie.  I was jealous of her boyfriend, but unable to do anything about it, and bitter that she seemed to be in her element among these rapscallions.  Some of my happier moments were spent on the Central Line, because this meant I wasn’t bored at my desk, or brooding in the flat.  I felt isolated in both places, and just didn’t see an end to it, barring some kind of miracle, and there was no obvious sign of one of them.
One evening, after a day of sealing envelopes
for a forthcoming conference, I was languishing on my bed, listening to the sound of people having medieval fun in the living-room, and I just couldn’t take any more.  I sprang from the mattress, and picked my way through the living-room, telling Josie I was just off to see an old friend.  Actually, I was going to call on Debbie, who lived near my old flat by the canal.  She was a working-girl, with whom I’d had a couple of bleak encounters in the previous year or two.  I got the train across London to Westbourne Park and made my way to Droop Street, where Debbie lived (and yes, Droop Street is its real name).


It must have been about eight o’clock when I climbed the narrow concrete steps to her door, and knocked.  But unexpectedly, when I did, it wasn’t Debbie I heard from behind the woodwork, but a gruffer, more ebullient-sounding voice.  ‘Who is it?’ she bellowed.  ‘It’s Ben,’ I replied, completely inured to the desperate nature of my situation, ‘I’m a friend of Debbie.’  The door opened, and a woman who looked like a failed boxer in a copper-coloured wig stood in the hallway.  ‘Debbie’s just at the shops,’ she explained, but invited me in anyway.


The living-room was dim, and I could barely see the chair I’d been offered.  We were sitting either side of a rather cluttered coffee-table.  She told me her name was Sandra, and then, after the minimum of smalltalk, asked me, ‘Do you smoke?’  ‘Er, smoke what?’ I stumbled, not knowing if she meant cigarettes or joints.  ‘Shit,’ she said, ‘white…’  My vague response prompted her to be clearer still.  ‘Crack,’ she croaked.  She had a crackpipe on the table in front of her.  It was of the traditional style, a small, plastic mineral-water bottle, broken biro jammed in the side to suck through, and foil on the top to burn your crack on.  I could go into the intricacies of its construction, but this isn’t Blue Peter.


I’d heard of crack.  I knew it was addictive, but then so was nicotine, alcohol, gambling, sex, and god knows what else.  I’d tried all of them, but hadn’t got hooked.  I knew it was sometimes used in the same sentence as heroin, and had maybe featured in a Spike Lee film I’d seen.  This was the extent of my knowledge.  I didn’t know it was the concentrated, smokeable form of cocaine.  I didn’t know that you could find yourself on the scrapheap within weeks or even days of having your first taste of it.


So I, being of a curious disposition, not to mention depressed enough to turn to almost anything, said, ‘Yeah, I’ll try.’  She seemed darkly gleeful as she passed me the pipe and told me to suck on the biro, as she held a flame to the translucent white lump on the foil.  Her instructions I followed to the letter, and I can honestly say I barely noticed a thing, at least not consciously.  A lot of white smoke billowed from my mouth as I exhaled.  Then she asked, ‘Did you get it?’  I said something like, ‘It comes on quite slowly, doesn’t it?’  I was really just being polite, to mask what I thought was a bit of a non-event.  Or maybe that’s the insidious deceiver that is cocaine, infiltrating the brain with a spring-heeled assurance that it means you no harm.  Do you remember the song ‘Duel’ by Propaganda?  The chorus goes, ‘The first cut won’t hurt at all, the second only makes you wonder, the third will have you on your knees.’  It wasn’t long before Sandra gave me another.  This time I felt a sexual, almost orgasmic rush, and Sandra could see I was in the grip of euphoria.  I hugged her, as if in relief that finally someone had given me something to anaesthetise my state.  ‘Did you like that, love?’ she asked.  ‘Oh yeah,’ I said, head embedded in her leopard-print chest.


The front door slammed, and in clattered Debbie with chips and cans, bedraggled like a spaniel, and it wasn’t long before she realised something was amiss.  Perhaps she saw the crackpipe on the table before me, a furtive smirk on Sally’s face, or just sensed an awkward silence.  Dropping her shopping, she turned to her associate.  ‘Oh, you haven’t,’ she said, her tone a mixture of scorn and concern.  Sandra, however, appeared quite pleased with herself, saying, ‘He liked it, it turned him on.’  And there was I, pretty cocksure by now, oozing assurances, telling Debbie, ‘I’m ok, I’m fine.’  Well I would, wouldn’t I?  Depression, low self-esteem, and loneliness felt like things of the past, my miserable half-life little more than a figment.  Then Debbie, an imploring solemnity in her voice, began to give me the lowdown on crack.  ‘It’s very addictive,’ she warned, ‘but mentally, not physically, not like heroin.’  She interspersed her lecture with sideswipes and admonishments at Sandra, quietly gloating in the half-light, now munching on chips.  I received Debbie’s words like someone listening to a hurricane-warning who was still, nevertheless, determined to go up in his light-aircraft.  Actually, thinking about it, I was already airborne.


Next, Sandra’s inviting me into the bedroom.  By now I’m responding with, ‘Can we take the pipe with us?’  ‘Of course darling,’ she replies.  And so into the bedroom we swan.  Then a third pipe.  She loads it up, tells me to ‘suck hard on that’, which I obligingly do.  Then Debbie crashes in, and has a pipe herself, and minutes later there we are, the three of us, lolloping around on the bed, them with their tops off, and me, up in the clouds by now, from gauche to gangster in three simple steps, mistakenly believing myself transfigured.  My ego was soaring, intimating I was some kind of crack-debutant, gliding along the red-carpet, cameras fizzing and flashing, fans and paparazzi jostling for a piece of me, barriers buckling as adoring arms lunge across the divide.  What a honeymoon – the perfect product, all pleasure-centres in overload, with no discernible price to pay, like capitalism without the landfill.


Then, after a while, Sandra’s little supply ran dry, moods changed, sexual advances became retreats, a kind of normality kicked back in, and things began to fizzle like a wet firework.  So I announced to my companions that I really should go.  I was still, albeit tenuously, connected to the real world.  I was aware of the time, the fairly arduous journey back across London to Josie and the medievalists, and I had work in the morning.  Debbie and Sandra didn’t want me to go, and made a collective plea for me to stay.  When you can only get money by nicking stuff or selling sexual favours, a gullible depressive with a cash-card is always the preferred option.  So I made my way back to the affluent murkiness of the Essex borders.  My confidence in walking away, though, was tempered by the fact I’d arranged to meet Sandra the following week.  She’d seen the chink in my armour, or possibly gaping hole.  Crack ‘went’ with sex.  Sex ‘went’ with crack, and even though nothing too outrageous had occurred that night, the two things would now seem inextricably linked, like a double-helix of two bad things, entwined.


I arrived in the flat around midnight.  All was quiet, lights were low.  In the dimness, a luminous skull scowled from the bookcase, as if with an enquiry as to where exactly I’d been.  Josie and her boyfriend were in the kitchen, making hot chocolate.  ‘Did you have a nice time?’ she asked.  ‘Not bad, thanks,’ I said, ‘played a bit of scrabble.’  They made me a drink, and I retired to my bedroom, propping the door shut with a spare bayonet...

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