The First Cut
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.
And that is the end of episode 2, with a song for your entertainment: Revenge Of The Sirens
See you soon.