The Nice Man Cometh
This is where I say, ‘I never looked back.’ I did though, a handful of times, mostly out of boredom rather than the old-style compulsion. A few months in, when life had ground to one of its halts, I sauntered down the road like Noel Coward in search of some fine ground coffee, really because I couldn’t think of anything else to do with my morning. Once I couldn’t get there fast enough, but now it was like wading through Starbucks latté-syrup. Addiction had atrophied my life, but now addiction itself was beginning to freeze up.
There I sat, in a vintage haunt, a squat several floors above Superdrug. It was nine in the morning, and my arrival was a thing of joy to those who’d money and charm had dried up in the night. You had to go up a fire-escape and clamber over the roof to get there, a forgotten little space, comprising a kitchen-table, couple of chairs, strewn blankets and a cat, archly monitoring proceedings from various vantage points. A girl I’d met somewhere down the line lit me up that first pipe, the one that lifts you to a place where all senses are sated, and librarians can be letches for as long as the high allows. I leaned back in the creaking wicker-chair, that smelt of cat-sick, but felt almost as wretched as when I’d arrived. I hurriedly had another, in case of any trickery. But even though the high had disappointed, the aftermath was as bitter and tense as ever, and the weak, groggy smudge of heroin I smoked did nothing to assuage it. This may have been one of the few times I left before the money ran out.
I no doubt tried again a few weeks later, but it was as if I’d arrived at a place of critical mass, where years of rage and stasis could no longer be safely contained. If I went on, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get back. I didn’t know if my mental health could take it. Like a man who’d maxed out on every possible card, I could barely move for all the furniture I’d ordered, and all I had to look forward to was a bevy of bailiffs banging beardedly on my not-yet-kicked-in door. And there was I, slumped, quiet below the windowline, gradually realising that the answer to damage was not more damage.
I’d stumbled on crack by accident. I didn’t want to graduate to crystal meth, just to work my way towards another certificate, ten years down the line. Tentatively, I began hanging onto money that months before I’d have squandered. Slowly, as if planted by elves, food began appearing in the fridge, jeans and t-shirts in the wardrobe, and I wanted, I needed, to keep going. Life felt like a frozen swamp I’d crawled from, but I had to know if I could stand, stagger, even walk, on dry land. I put my mind to working out what life might mean in this new, yet distantly familiar, wilderness.
For years, I’d been recoiling from the physical pain caused by my sight-condition. Crack alleviated some of this, albeit fleetingly, and heroin had its own slippery take on analgesia, the more you took, the more you needed, until it ended up taking you. The days in bed between binges were spent mostly with eyes closed, minimising my need to look at anything, apart from the TV glow in the corner. But now, up and about, and doing stuff, I found even a day’s worth of blinking could leave me jaded. There was the emotional aspect to consider also, the disconnection I felt from the world, through not seeing it, and not feeling seen by it, and the relationships I knew this had cost me.
Also, the crack seeped into the fracture-lines caused by the abuse I experienced in my early teens. In fact, the anatomy of my relationship with crack almost replicated that with my abuser. In both, I was tricked into believing I was being given something nice, good, but secret, illicit - and there was I, confused as to the rules and legal moves, riven with desire and fear, my own sexuality barely nascent, dammed before it even began to flow. The strange, stilted manoeuvres of that time were like playing chess in a minefield. But I’d rather lose honourably than win cynically, any day.
My CV, when I tried to put one together, looked like it had a page missing. Over the years, I’d frequently passed a local theatre, but never even been to see a play there. I sent an email to the manager, saying I’d done a bit of comedy, and would like to reconnect with a theatrical environment, deploying phrases like ‘keen interest’ and ‘reliable nature’, as recalled from days in the psychotherapy office. I didn’t even know if the world still had offices, but I thought some of the phrases might still apply. A reply came swiftly back, and I am, even now, a bit player in the workings of this lovely, ancient establishment. I’ve seen a handful of productions, and even been to a few opening-night parties…champagne all round, and the buzzy banter of actorly folk, some with personalities as precarious as mine. I’m going there today, as it happens, and it’s nice to have somewhere to go that doesn’t smell of cat-sick, or leave you wanting to die.
In my virtuousness, I contacted a local charity, volunteering to befriend an elderly blind person in Isleworth. Having had a few near misses with the police, I was relieved my CRB check came back free from arrests, cautions, and reprimands, which would have rendered me ineligible for almost anything but more crime. At first, things seemed the wrong way round, as Jimmy, retired abattoir-manager from Feltham, seemed to have a better social life than me, but at least he didn’t slaughter me, and you woudn’t believe the things you can do with a melted pig’s head.
I even re-engaged with my main love, writing music. Under the edgy guise of Benjamin Lo-Fi, I began leaving CDs (already an anachronism) on walls and hedges, at bus-stops, on the cistern in coffee-shop toilets. I cunningly tweaked my Youtube tagwords, and audience figures rose by anything up to three a week. I now have a small fan-base in Moldova.
As good things happen when you do good things, one day I spotted a banner opposite the theatre, for comedy-improvisation workshops. I’d dreamed, albeit with a degree of terror, of doing this kind of thing since watching ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ back in the 90s, with Josie Lawrence, Paul Merton, and other luminaries. It’s the best thing I’ve done in years, after escaping the merry-go-round of death, of course. I’ve even done a few bits of stand-up in local comedy clubs, although my fourteen-year-old script has needed a bit of an update. Baywatch was a pretty soft target, even in 1998.
But life’s no quarantine. Out and about, I still see some of the people I used to drag around with. A few have even got clean, via NA, the drug service, rehab, or a niggling desire for a life with some change in the pocket. Others have just become rumours, referred to whenever someone still living wants to reminisce or backbite. Jacob, last I heard, was in hiding in Hayes, wanted for a sexual assault in Shepherd’s Bush. Dennis was deported to Grenada, according to someone whose sofa he lived on for a while.
Others lie underground. Faith died on Christmas Eve, 2011, according to one of her neighbours. Suzie, Spike’s battered other half, went around the same time, as did Sam, their friend who came to see me in hospital when I overdosed. Debbie of Droop Street, as already mentioned, died just before my return to London, swiftly followed by her heavily sedated brother, Freddie. I could go on.
But what about Sandra, the spark that provided the catalyst for this little story? According to a mutual acquaintance, she was apparently homeless in Harlesden, probably sofa-hopping, plying her dying trade as and when, and with whom, she could, between the odd kebab and microwaved fish-pie. What you hear about people is often false, or at least imbued with some kind of grudge or vendetta. You might find some of them on Facebook, but then that’s just them lying rather than someone else.
Even my little flat, once a symbol of inertia and unshakeable memories, is a bit more shipshape now. I found a factory-second Turkish rug on eBay, which my feet now land on when I swivel out of bed. A solar-powered wind-chime hangs from the curtain-rail, which colour-shifts and gleams in the evening, if it’s been sunny enough. There are even a few plants around, sucking in the toxins, looking leafy, adding life to a slightly barren cube. I even managed to get my books up from my mum’s, which at least make me look a bit scholarly, and remind me of being at college, when smoking a joint was pushing the boat out. The walls, now dotted with various bits of art, are blueberry white in the living-room, and TARDIS blue in the hall. No more the smell of Lynx Singleman hanging in the air, but the mellow smoke of a sandalwood joss-stick, curling in from the windowsill. The place is just beginning to resemble the Marakesh grotto I envisaged, over a decade ago. Could be time for a housewarming. But don’t you just love a hippy ending?
A year or two ago, still in the thick of my drugs hell, a friend in a meeting handed me a cup of tea and asked, ‘How’s things?’ I said I was depressed, because I’d used. Then he asked, ‘How’s things apart from that?’ But there was no ‘apart from that’. That was all there was. I’d been frozen out of my own life, placed in some arctic ghost-world, with no landmarks, no relief, no Ray Mears, where desire and remorse roamed, conjoined, despising each other, their footprints a shrinking circle, icy itinerants, lost, longing for spring. And so, as the world warms up, I too, like an intransigent glacier, must crack, creak, thaw, and flow. I could go on, but I’m sure we both have things to do.
Or not do.
‘Moving liquid, yes, you are just as water,
You flow around all that comes in your way…’
(Kate Bush, Moving)
and here is another song for you...
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