Sunday, 17 March 2013

Come To Jesus, Junkie


Monday loomed again, and I rattled down the Central Line to another day of answering the telephone and sealing envelopes, posting out pamphlets on general wellbeing, as mine sank into the quicksand.  Then, after work, I was back at Debbie’s.  The usual things went on, and I was there all night, of course.  But this time, when it got to about half-past eight in the morning, I just couldn’t be bothered to go to work, so rang in with a vague excuse, and Debbie and I carried on scoring through the morning, and everything was fine and dandy, but, because of all the money I’d been spending, Debbie returned from the cashpoint with bad news, saying, as she slammed the door behind her, ‘There’s no more money available.’  I was gutted.  It felt like a landslide inside.


Within minutes, our fragile alliance was disintegrating.  Debbie said she needed to sleep, I had no choice but to haul myself across London back to the flat, where, on arrival, I gave a few polite words and disappeared into my bedroom.  My effigy in the window looked crooked, smug in its defeat, like I was jeering at my own downfall.  Below, in the car-park, the secretary of the Conservative Club was manoeuvring her jeep into the disabled spot.


Wednesday morning, back to work.  Emma rings.  Would I like to meet up on Friday?  Luckily, it was our week to be paid, so I’d have money in the bank, although money now had the glint of a double-edged sword.


Friday comes, I’ve recovered slightly from my indulgences, so I leave work and go to meet Emma.  She was there with a group of friends, which included her boyfriend, which was slightly disappointing, but again, Emma and I seemed to talk away in our usual intimate fashion.


But I was really messed up by this point, and I kind of knew it.  All I can recall is sitting there, chatting with Emma, and being very edgy and sombre.  I told her about the crack again, and I think she picked up that there was more of a problem than she first thought.  But what could she say?  What she did say was, ‘You’re my Ben.  Don’t worry.  You’ll be ok.’  Then, when I left early for no apparent reason, Emma followed me out.  In my pathetic way, I was pleased to have peeled her away from her boyfriend, who, I thought, would be sitting inside feeling jealous I had such a pull on his girlfriend.  Emma dragged me back inside, and we sat chatting at a separate table from the others.  I can’t remember what we said, but I think it was more of the same, mixed in with me not being able to tell her how I felt.  I was paralysed on the verge of making another desperate proclamation of love that would sound more like a confession.  But we couldn’t sit apart all evening, so she asked me if I wanted to come back and sit with the others.  I really couldn’t face that, so said instead I’d go home, promising to be ok, and in touch within a day or two.  Once free, I made a beeline for the tube and went straight to Debbie’s.


Memories now become something of a blur, a patchwork of frustrating days at work, and nights and days at Debbie’s.  Financially, I was spending far more than I was receiving, so I tried to find new ways of getting money in the short-term.  I can remember ringing my parents from the office, and asking for five hundred quid, which was a lot to ask for under any circumstances, making out I needed help with the rent, and had to buy a suit, probably for a non-existent job-interview.  As soon as it appeared in my account, I was off again.  Then, when I couldn’t justify any more requests for money from my parents, I rang the bank and asked them for an extension to my overdraft.  ‘No problem, sir, you’re working, you’ve been a reliable customer, how much would you like?’  And off I’d go again.


I’d been lucky so far.  On a couple of the days when I’d been otherwise occupied, Polly the manager had also been away.  She’d come in the following morning and there I’d be, perched at my desk, like I’d never been away.  She’d say, ‘Was everything ok yesterday?’  I’d say, ‘Yeah, pretty quiet.’  But soon, I was spending as much time at Debbie’s as I could.  A limit of two hundred and fifty pounds a day on my bankcard meant that, if you timed it right, it was quite easy to spend five hundred pounds over the space of two days, and then, money allowing, another two hundred and fifty on the third.  It became standard procedure, to borrow, blow, salvage, then savage my bank-account in monthly cycles.  I don’t know if the Natwest mainframe noticed my new spending patterns, but if it did, nobody rang.


Within a week or two, there came a point where I simply couldn’t conceal the trouble I was in any longer.  After another daylong or two-daylong session with Debbie, I was travelling back across London to the flat, and nearly passing out in my seat.  There was a couple sitting opposite me, and I felt like they knew exactly what I’d been up to.  They felt like my parallel life, travelling on the same train, but unobtainable.  I could barely keep my eyes open, and felt like a ghost.  Then, when I was walking down the high-street to the flat, I just burst into tears, dived into the nearest phone-box, and rang my sister.  I could barely talk for crying.  My whole world, such as it was, was collapsing around me.  I had no choice but to ask her to tell mum and dad.  I didn’t have the courage to tell them myself.  Then, when she’d managed to calm me down a bit, I made my way down the high-street to the flat, and once again had to pretend everything was fine.  I tried making hot-chocolate in a large pint-glass, which inevitably smashed when I poured in the boiling water.  Josie’s boyfriend came into the kitchen and tidied things up, lamenting the loss of one of his favourite glasses.  I just wandered off into my room, feeling very, very sorry for myself.


News of my downfall having reached my parents, it wasn’t more than a few days before I was being collected by my mum, dad, and sister, and taken down to the family home on the south coast.  Once there, I registered with a local GP, explained my predicament, and got signed off work for a month.  Someone, probably not me, rang Polly to say there was a sick-note in the post.  As far as she was concerned, I was suffering with depression, which, considering I worked in a ‘therapeutic environment’, was a bit like James Herriot catching foot-and-mouth.


I made out that I was using my time at my parents constructively, having a serious think about my situation.  But I had no idea as to the seriousness of things.  A week or two later, I insisted I felt a lot better about and went back up to London on the train, and straight to Debbie’s.  Two days later, I re-emerge, ring my parents, say I’m in too much of a state to get down on the train, so they come up and collect me again, this time at one in the morning, and we all drive down in the darkness, with me either sulking in the back or swearing and cursing like someone possessed.  At one point, we were parked in a service-station car-park.  My dad and sister had gone to get some food, leaving me and my mum in the car.  I’d said that I didn’t want anything to eat or drink.  When they were gone, my mum asked me if I wanted her to go and get me something, to which I very reasonably replied, ‘Fuck off.’  The character-shift between my normal self and the person I became in the few days after using was horrific.  No one was exempt from my rage.  In fact, the more I loved the person, the more likely they were to get it.


So I spend another smouldering fortnight with my parents.  A couple of weeks pass, in which I’ve had another serious think about things.  Back on the train I get, with a warning from my dad that I’m ‘entering a minefield’, and no doubt a concerned frown from my, by now, distraught mum.  Two hours later, whose door am I knocking on?  I think you know the answer to that.


But this time things got so bad that even I had to acknowledge the game was up.  It began at Debbie’s, but at some point Sandra turned up, and she and I ended up disappearing off to another guesthouse for the night.  I can’t even remember how we got there, but I do recall the odd look we got from the porter who gave us our keys.  Then we went upstairs and embarked upon another night’s smoking.  As on our previous overnighter, Sandra kept going back and forth to the bathroom to smoke in private.  I remained in the bedroom, dreading that her indiscretion might get us into trouble.  A couple of hours later, I noticed I was running out of my eye-drops, which were, and still are, my constant companion.  Without them, my eyes get very dry.  For about two hours, I was able to squeeze another drop out, but there came a point when nothing came, however I tilted the bottle.  Of course, I should have upped and left, gone home, somehow.  But that would involve departing from my dearly beloved.  So I filled the bottle with water from the tap, which stung, and as the night dragged on I could tell my eyes were beginning to go red.


Come nine in the morning, it was time to move on.  Somehow, we’d burned a hole in the pillowcase, and the bin was full of foil.  As on our previous stopover, we were convinced that any second the cleaner would be knocking.  This was an unfaceable prospect, so we pre-empted it by scarpering.  Downstairs, there were two women behind the reception-desk.  I paid for the room with cash, hoping to make a dash.  But they asked me to sign my name as well, which I did.  Turns out that Sandra had signed me in under a different name.  The women seemed suspicious.  I can’t blame them.


The morning was sickeningly bright, and already getting warm.  I think it was April, about four months down the road since my first encounter.  It seemed very busy, and I soon realised that we’d emerged on Portobello Road on market-day.  Sandra and I wandered about looking for the nearest cashpoint.  The plan was to get some more money out and go back to Debbie’s.  We had nowhere else to go.  We found a cashpoint and I tried to get some money out.  ‘Amount available to withdraw, nil,’ read the heartbreaking news on the screen.  A wave of dismay and helplessness passed through me.  I knew there was no way I could get any more, and I’d just used my last to pay for the room.  But Sandra kept insisting I should ring the bank and ask for an extension to my overdraft.  I told her there was no way this would happen.  Even if they said yes, I wouldn’t be able to access the money until the next working day.  Furthermore, it was Saturday, so the bank wouldn’t even be open.  We were fucked, and we stood there squabbling by a callbox for a few minutes, until, buckling under the weight of Sandra’s nagging, I found myself standing in the phone-box pretending to ring the bank.  Actually, I was just mouthing stuff with the dialling-tone in my ear, with Sandra scowling through the glass.  Then I re-emerged and told her they’d said no, at which point she began cursing and spluttering.  I couldn’t take anymore.  By now, my eyes were feeling really sore.  I was torn between remorse at what I’d done and a desperate desire to find a way to carry on.  But there was no way.  I had to get away from her, so I just started walking away.  She came after me, yelling, but the crowd was too thick.  I walked as fast as I could into the thickening crowd, her anguished voice behind me, calling and cursing my name.  Then some bloke decided to join in.  ‘Yo, Ben,’ he bellowed.  But it was too late.  I was gone.


But I had no idea where I was going.  I was penniless, eye-dropless, and even if I’d known the way to the nearest tube-station, I couldn’t have bought myself a ticket.  The best thing I could think of to do was ring my parents and reverse the charges.  When I eventually found a callbox, I rang the operator and gave her the number.  My dad answered, and she asked him if he’d accept a reverse-charge call from London.  I can’t imagine what palpitations that caused.  He was about sixty-eight at this point, had already had two heart-bypass operations, and took medication for angina and diabetes.  I was sweating beads by now, and can remember telling him I was dehydrated and I didn’t know where I was.  I don’t know if there was something wrong with the phone, but after about ten seconds, I could still hear my dad, but he couldn’t hear me.  I answered, telling him I was still there.  But he couldn’t hear me, so he called my name again.  I answered again, but it just wasn’t getting through.  For all he knew, I’d collapsed, or just walked away in a stupor.  I pushed open the glass door and went looking for another callbox.  It was about half an hour before I found one.  I found myself walking along a long residential road, stopping every hundred yards to sling more tap-water in my eye.  Eventually, I arrived at a tube-station.  I recognised it.  It was Ladbroke Grove.  There was a bunch of churchy people there, some of them singing, some of them collaring agnostics and asking them if they’d thought about letting Jesus into their life.


I went straight to the phones and rang my parents again.  This time, my mum answered.  I told her my situation.  In desperation, she called the local police and asked them to come and look after me, probably referring to her partially sighted son having run out of his medication, rather than her crack-smoking son who’d just been on a bender.  What else could she do?  I had no money for the train, no eye-drops, and was weak with hunger and thirst.  Then I tried to ring Emma.  She was staying at her boyfriend’s at the time.  Whoever answered told me she was out, but they’d let her know I’d called.  Then, for want of anything better to do, I slumped to the ground and waited for the police to turn up.


However, within a few minutes, a voice from above was asking me if I was ok.  I looked up to see a reasonably elderly couple standing benevolently above me.  ‘Are you alright?’ asked the female of the pair.  I can’t remember how I replied to that.  ‘Are you listening to the music?’ she asked, referring to the choir-angelic standing a little way off.  ‘Er, well…’  No doubt they sensed something was up.  People in the business of saving souls can spot a lost one a mile off.  I thought it only polite to stand up as I spoke to them.  Then, within moments, my hands were being gently clasped, and they were praying for me.  I must have given them the go-ahead, I suppose.  They didn’t seem the type to do it without at least asking.  I got the works.  They began by beseeching Jesus to come into my life, comfort my troubled heart, and so on.  They even broke into tongues, as a kind of finale.  I asked them what all that meant, and they said it was the holy spirit that made them do it.  Sometimes they might be speaking Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, or it could be the language of angels.  I kind of went along with it all.  I didn’t think I had anything to lose.  They said amen, I said amen, they asked me how I felt, and I replied, ‘A little better, thank you.’


Then they moved on, as if there was a quota for the hour.  They were from a charismatic, evangelical church in Notting Hill.  Well, I now know it to be that kind of church.  Years later, I would, in desperation, attend a service there.  I met someone quite nice there, and then went to another church with her, which was equally as literal in its interpretations.  Neither turned out to be a spiritual home.


Next thing I know, there’s a policeman and policewoman standing in front of me.  ‘Are you Ben?’ asked the female of the pair.  ‘Yes, I’m Ben,’ I admitted.  ‘Your mother rang, saying you’re in a bit of trouble.  Do you need taking to a hospital?’  I said I didn’t.  If I could just get on a train, I could make my way home, loosely referring to the flat.  The Christian woman obviously overheard me explaining I had no money, and very kindly gave me a fiver.  I think she also bought me a bottle of Lucozade in a nearby newsagent’s.  As it was, the police got me through the ticket-barrier, and I knew from that point on I’d be able to get home without having to show a ticket.  I thanked the relevant people, and went and got the train to Liverpool Street.


My mum had obviously rung ahead, because when I got there Josie presented me with a large plate of food.  I sat there eating it on the floor of my bedroom with her looking on concerned.  I thought I owed her some kind of explanation, so I told her that I’d been somewhere where people were taking cocaine, and even crack.  But I fell short of saying I was one of them.


It was decided that I’d hand my notice in at work.  I couldn’t keep sending in sick-notes.  So, one afternoon, I sat there at my sister’s computer, writing a letter to Polly, explaining I had a drug-problem, and that the drug in question was crack.  It felt like a dirty word.  Crack doesn’t get a very good press.  It doesn’t deserve one.  I wished I was an alcoholic, though.  At least that wouldn’t have implied the murky world that crack did.  Anyone could fall prey to alcohol, it’s everywhere, almost compulsory.  Try going out to the pub and having a non-alcoholic drink without at least one person raising an eyebrow.  But crack, that was off the map.  You had to go looking for that, in dens, dives, and dark, vice-ridden tenement-blocks, and that in itself implied a certain desperation.


Within a week or two, I was on my way back to London, but this time with my dad, to collect my things from work.  We parked near the office by virtue of stuffing copious change into a parking-meter.  Then my father and I went to pick up my reading-screen, a camera-monitor contraption that allowed me to read print, which had been standing unused on my desk for the best part of two months.  Natalie, Emma’s replacement, was vague and polite – she’d hardly met me anyway.  Anita, a little more inquisitive, drew a few half-truths from me.  I told her that I was depressed and had also been using cocaine, which seemed kind of true.  Then I had to go and say goodbye to Polly.  She’d received my letter, and all I can remember her saying, with reference to the crack, was that one really should be careful with these things.  How right she was.  Squirming with shame, I faked an attitude of penitence, said we had to get back to the car, and went.
...and here is a song for you, out of the goodness of my own heart...


Episode 8

Shoebox On Sea

I lived with my parents for a month or two, but the thought of staying there felt unnatural and I resented it...

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