Death Of A Lab-Rat
Thursday afternoon, I was sitting at my desk, a black flame of resentment burning inside, and it suddenly struck me I could visit Debbie and Sandra again. It was about three o’clock, and the realisation hit like a sledgehammer in the brain, shattering any normal preoccupations that may otherwise have been forming. In a flash, normality was bulldozed away like so much rubble, and the ground was clear for a new edifice to be erected, part cultish shrine to my new compulsion, part mausoleum, housing the shrivelled remains of the first twenty-eight years of my life, and all those hopes and dreams that I still thought I had a chance of fulfilling, if only I could just make that leap of confidence, hack my way into a new mindset, stay there, consolidate, and flourish.
I now had a double-bolthole. As long as I had money, I had access to that new combination-high of crack-cocaine and the promise of sex – it was a heady mix. What’s more, it was all so easy. I was due to see Emma the next day, and crack seemed the perfect solution to the problem of anticipation, the crushing pressure of nerves, and the constant battle to keep my self-esteem afloat. Crack offered itself up as a quick fix to the slow fracture of my life.
A countdown began in my head. I’d leave work at five, be at Westbourne Park by half-past, at Debbie’s by quarter-to-six. Assuming one of them was in, which was likely, we’d probably have scored by six. So I barely had three hours to wait before that world-evading wave of euphoria would be swamping my brain with dopamine, and rocketing me into that veiled world where only appetite and self prevail. This was no passing thought that could be questioned, tempered, revised, gone back on, even. The deal was sealed. As soon as the idea entered my head, there was nothing that was going to stop me.
This all suited the way my life was going generally, at least when I looked at the negative bits, which I assiduously did. The glass always seemed half-empty. I knew, academically, intellectually, that it was always better to see it as half-full. On a good day, I might. But the glass never seemed to be getting any fuller. And that’s the problem with crack. It fills the glass like a torrent of soda in a Schweppes advert. Over the rim it gushes, down the sides, fizzing and brimming, ever-rising, ever-giving, the nearest to a cum-shot a drinks ad may ever be allowed to get. The only problem is the next time you look there’s only about an inch of stale poison left in the bottom, and suddenly it’s last orders, raining outside, and there’s a queue at the cab-rank.
So there I’d sit, day after day, nothing changing, mailing after mailing pouring from the printer. Of course, I could have applied for a new job. But apart from not having the confidence to move on, I resented the fact that, having done a day’s work, I’d then have to go home and spend time applying for another job I didn’t want. Besides, I wanted to be getting paid for my comedy, my music, or some other creative venture. But I had no real concept of doing the groundwork, taking the knocks, climbing the rickety ladder to fulfilment. I wanted it now, or at least soon. The fact that the Beatles had to work like dogs to get where they did meant nothing to me - couldn’t they see who I was?
I had no relief from work at the flat, with its in-house band of minstrels and barbarians, who, embedded in the past, had no future at all. Their Friday night violence in fibreglass armour seemed an inadequate vent for the more high-pressure, nuclear rage that I was incubating. The evenings would drag, the weekends torture, and I just couldn’t get on with them, and the ones I did get on with, I couldn’t get on with, because they got on with the ones I couldn’t get on with. I have very high standards – don’t want to be tarnished by association.
Of course, I can see now that I was really down in the dumps, to use a clinical term. I just couldn’t find the mental wherewithal to get my act together, even semi-together, except now I see it probably was semi-together all along. I at least had a job, a place to live, good friends, I’d done comedy, and maybe had the possibility of Emma becoming an even more significant other. But the spoiled child within wanted it all. A half-life wasn’t good enough for him. He had a particular and twisted take on the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. His motto was ‘if it ain’t perfect, break it’. I was on a low dose of antidepressants, but whether or not they were really helping, I’d kind of forgotten. I just took one each day and carried on. I had noticed a slight mood-lift in the first few weeks, but they certainly hadn’t acted as a springboard to better times. Maybe I was on too low a dose. Maybe I was on the right dose, but too weak to capitalise.
So there I sat at my desk, seeming to work, but actually marking each minute as one less to endure. I could go into a kind of dull trance, printing off lists, stuffing them in envelopes, answering the phone, helping a schizophrenic in Ipswich, and before I knew it, it would be time to bolt.
The landscape of addiction is a rugged and inhospitable place, like the quarry the TARDIS lands in when a barren moonscape is needed. The path to that first distant pinnacle is treacherous and slow. Minutes truncate, like when you’re going into a black hole, time slows…you spaghettify. Miserably, you surf the crest of each resented minute, carrying you closer to the longed-for summit. If ever you were determined to do anything, you’re determined now, even predetermined. For a time, time doesn’t feel like time at all. But, when you do finally arrive, the leeside of the mountaintop is steep, and hurls you down into murky, erratic waters. But I just wanted the view from that summit – didn’t give a shit about erratic waters, murky or no.
Five-to-five, and there I was, chomping at the bit – then, computer off, coat on, and I was gone. Even then, on what was only my third rush at crack, I shot from the office like a greyhound from a trap, or maybe into one. Within minutes, I was knocking on Debbie’s door, just like on debut, ten days earlier. This time, Debbie was in, but Sandra wasn’t about, and this suited us both. Sandra’s strange ways in a Paddington guesthouse had been hard going. I was glad not to have to contend with her bullying, blagging, and bucktoothed demands for kebab.
Debbie, seemingly the gentler of the two, was glad to have her flat, and me, to herself. I hadn’t been there long before she told me how ‘gutted’ she’d been at my impromptu departure with Sandra the week before. But this time she had me to herself, and my bank-account, that ever-giving fountain of facilitation, braced itself again for another nightlong ravishing. In fact, I’d already stopped off at the cashpoint, no doubt withdrawn forty quid or so, naively believing I’d spend just that. Then, after a few cursory niceties, I gave her the money, she rang the guy, and off she went to the designated meeting-point. I sat there on her partially collapsed sofa watching some porn she’d put on, and waited. Most of drugs is waiting, or regretting.
Then, twenty minutes later, footsteps on the walkway, the rattle of keys in the door, and in bustles Debbie. ‘Mission accomplished,’ she says, quickly throwing her coat down and spitting the wraps into her palm. No sooner in hand than unwrapped, no sooner unwrapped than on the foil, no sooner on the foil than being keenly drawn into our desperate, hungry lungs. Then I think we got vaguely sexual. But the problem with crack (one of a few) is that you have to keep going back to it, so, five minutes down the line, any intentions are supplanted by the need for another pipe. And the whispering tyrant must be heeded. This may all seem a little repetitive, but this is what crack’s like. It gets you like a lab-rat. As soon as that looming white-coated figure appears, make a dash for the waterspout, because you know that when temptation rattles your cage, your next drink’s gonna send you crazy, and you like that, don’t you? Climbing over cagemates, living and dead, doesn’t really matter, likewise the electrified floor that gives you the occasional jolt as you dangle on that nozzle, desperately suckling on that metal mother of a spout, hoping against hope that, this time, it’ll carry you to where you need to be. Guzzle away, knock it back my furry friend. I propose a toast! To absent friends, who lie about, mostly toasted.
My initial outlay of forty quid ran out fast, so we unanimously agreed that getting more would be a good idea. This time, Debbie would take my card to the cashpoint, and meet the guy on her way back, and ‘we may as well get eighty or a hundred out, to save going back and forth’. Green as broccoli, I thought this was a spiffing idea. Yes, that’ll take us up to about eleven o’clock, time enough for me to catch the train home. So there I sat, slumped yet tense, trying to fast-track Debbie’s return by means of willpower alone. When this failed, I prayed, and listened. Was that person coughing on the pavement her? No, not gruff enough. Were they her footsteps on the walkway? Damn, they’ve gone by. Is that her key in the door? No, it’s just the breeze…every sound, a taunt. Eventually, she returned, hurriedly unwrapped the stuff, slung a bit on a pipe, and there we sat, two lost souls in the half-light, smoking away, drinking from cans, porn flickering in the corner. Every so often one of us would embark on some sexual expedition, only to abort it five minutes later, as the high gave way to desperation.
In a while, we were in the bedroom, and Debbie began rummaging in the wardrobe, removed a dress, and suggested I should wear it. Minutes later, there I was, perched like a mannequin on the edge of the bed, in a nice floral number, wondering, amongst other things, how I got there at all. Then she decided it was time to take the makeover up a notch. Standing above me, unscrewing a lipstick, she then traced the uncertain curl of my lips with impeccable precision. I probably had stubble showing, but no one has it all. And we resumed our sporadic and slightly off-the-map liaison. Minutes later, there was a sudden and insistent pounding on the front-door. Debbie went into the hall, closing the door behind her. ‘Who is it?’ she called. ‘It’s Freddie,’ came the muffled reply. She unbuckled the various locks and opened up. In he clattered, they chatted in the hall, and she ushered him into the living-room, much to my intense relief. A few moments later, she came back into the bedroom and told me it was her brother, but reassured me he was ‘safe’. She then picked up the pipe and took it into the living-room. When you’re a crack-smoker, most of your visitors will be crack-smokers too, and Freddie was no exception – birds of a feather, I guess, or moths to a flame. As long as there’s plenty left, offering a visitor a pipe is just like putting the kettle on.
Can’t say I was looking forward to meeting Freddie, for a few reasons, the key one being I felt a little overdressed, sitting there like a half-iced Christmas cake. But some people get fidgety on crack, and soon Freddie was up and about, and I could hear his voice getting closer. ‘Who’ve you got in the bedroom?’ he bellowed at sis. ‘Leave it, Freddie,’ yelled Debbie in the background, ‘come and smoke your top-up.’ But her enticement wasn’t good enough to keep him in check, and the bedroom-door swung open. There was a moment of quiet. All I could see was a blurred head against the darkness of the unlit hall, and all I could hear was a cross between a chuckle and a jeer. I felt caged, a specimen in a world of specimens, but all I was wishing was that Debbie would come and sort things out, preferably with crack. Freddie and I exchanged no words, and he returned for his top-up. I felt ten years of awkwardness compressed into a handful of seconds. It was time to remove my glad-rags, and I went into the bathroom to wipe away the lipstick, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I did so, looking like a vampire who’d forgotten to use a napkin after a night of overindulgence. Then, back in the bedroom, Debbie came in and apologised for having let Freddie off the leash, who was now settled back down in the other room, content to sit there mumbling and gazing at porn.
Debbie and Freddie were originally from Manchester. I don’t know how long they’d been in London, but somehow that’s where they were. It’s hard enough knowing what truth there is in people’s autobiographies at the best of times, let alone when you’ve got something like crack fuelling and distorting the narrative. Sometimes she would tell me about her first experience as a working-girl, aged twelve, in the back of some bloke’s car in a Salford car-park. She would also furnish me with stories of having seen Myra Hindley and Ian Brady on the hunt in the area she grew up. Other little shards of her upbringing would come to the surface from time to time. Things like incest, drunk and violent male relations, not to mention punters, would all feature occasionally in the dark pantomime of her early years. Whether she came to London on the promise of streets paved with gold, I don’t know, but in Westbourne Park the only gold was the odd squashed Benson’n’Hedges packet.
Debbie spent the rest of the evening shuttling between me in the bedroom and Freddie in the living-room. Every half an hour or so she’d take a loaded pipe in for him, then return to me. I was surprised he didn’t keep coming in demanding more. Half an hour, for most people, is far too long an interval between pipes. But in future encounters with him I’d come to the conclusion he was heavily sedated. Whatever he was on, it seemed to go some way to overriding the desire to keep returning to the pipe, for which I was suitably and selfishly grateful.
A couple of hours passed, another trip to the cash-point for Debbie, and it was blatantly apparent I wouldn’t be getting the train back to Essex that night. But when you’re on a bender, you’re welcome to stay just as long as you’re able to pay your way. Somehow, I still had money in the bank, so there were several nocturnal journeys for Debbie to make as the night progressed. I wasn’t such a cad as to never offer to go with her, but she would always say it would be quicker if she went alone. She knew better than I what dodgy characters she might encounter, and how to deal with them. So I’d just sit there on the bed coming down and counting down until she reappeared. The fact I had work in the morning meant nothing, nor did the fact I was due to meet Emma that evening. The future, in all its forms, was like a separate world, and for as long as I could fend it off with crack, all was well.
The jackboots of another night marched on, Debbie and I in the bedroom, Freddie in the living-room, deep in the canyon of a chemically induced coma. Then, as the two birds left in Westbourne Park began to chirp, the obligatory milk-float skimmed past, and buses stopped being night-buses, it became clear that dawn was icily announcing the onset of another working day. Then, somehow, the day upon us, with immense reluctance, I faltered my way to the tube-station, and trundled unwillingly to another eight hours of mind-numbing drudgery. But it wasn’t long before, once again, I was picking my way through rat-cadavers to get a grip on that life-giving nozzle that the white-coated lady kept sticking through the mesh of my cage.
And, at last, I've written a new 'song', which you are welcome to watch/listen to on this safe youtube link: Thank You For Your Help In This Matter
See you soon.