As the days passed, and my spirits slowly rallied, I was on my way to visit a friend over in my old stomping-ground of Westbourne Park when another chance encounter occurred. It was a risky place to be, admittedly, considering my history there, and this time the throw of the dice went against me. I'd just crossed Harrow Road when I was spotted. 'Hi,' came a gravelly female voice from behind me. 'It can't be,' I thought, 'Debbie died.' I turned around, but the figure was surrounded by the glare of a low sun, and I still couldn't make them out. 'Do you remember me?' she asked. 'It's Sandra.' Since my attempt to rekindle things with Debbie, I'd visited Westbourne Park a few times. It's a tricky business, walking the streets you used to use on, especially when you're desire to stay away from things is, at best, sporadic. And, as the phrase goes, if you keep going to the barber's, you're eventually going to get a haircut. And I was about to get the short-back-and-sides of a lifetime. 'How are you?' she asked, indulging in a little preliminary small-talk, that we both knew would last a maximum of a minute. 'Oh, not so bad,' I replied. I knew what was coming. 'Do you still smoke?' she asked, a little more coyly. 'Oh yeah,' I said, casual as you like, phoenix-eye gleaming.
Minutes later, we were in this ancient Jamaican guy's flat, Mr Bingo, a keen chainsmoker and wrinkled as a fig. Sandra said he wouldn't mind us smoking there, as long as I made a suitable contribution, a tenner or the equivalent in fags. I gave him a note, and he disappeared into the bedroom with twenty B&H and an ashtray. Sandra and I went into the living-room and made ourselves at home. She rummaged in her bag for her pipe, rummaged somewhere else for the stone, and within a matter of seconds was solemnly sucking on the carcass of a broken Bic biro, jammed into the side of a small plastic baths-salts bottle. I knelt in silence beside her, leaning forward, transparently keen, like a hungry child waiting for cake. There was something sadly seminal about my relationship with Sandra. It was the relationship that the impatient invalid had been waiting for. A woman offering herself was really something to someone who thought he was worthy of no one, and drugs too. It was like the perfect cocktail of nurse and narcotic. I'd tried in my early teens to get hooked on something, so as I'd always have something to lean on. Tipex, drink, cigarettes, had all been auditioned. Then sex, masturbation, pornography, prostitutes, strange midnight walks to places where I thought I might meet ‘someone’, someone who'd either never been part of the mainstream, or who'd been thrown out of it like wot I had, a partner in exile, a bird, similarly feathered, albeit caked in ash.
Nursey gave me a pipe, and I exhaled the smoke like an angry Ivor the Engine, bracing myself for a one-track journey through the peaks and troughs of an increasingly polluted landscape, first stop Cashpoint Central, of course. Can't say either of us had changed much in the three-odd years since our last encounter. The afternoon turned into evening, with the usual vague sexual shenanigans, the moaning and squabbling, the trips to the cash-machine, or to the shop for fags. Once or twice, one of Mr Bingo's other transient tenants would drop by, have a smoke, then go back out to grind another tenner out of humanity. One guy turned up with a pile of change and wanted to buy a pipe's worth from Sandra. She wouldn't have it. She gave him the usual blather about, 'I'd give you one, but I only have a pipe or two left. Honestly, I would if I could. If you'd come earlier…' It was all lies. She had plenty on her. She was concealing stuff from me, let alone from this hapless traveller. 'No, I understand,' he said, no doubt smouldering with resentment. Moments later, he started trying to butter me up. 'Mate, I don't suppose there's any chance of a pipe. I don't like to ask, but…' So I took a leaf out of Sandra's book. 'Honestly,' I began (always good to get the lie out the way first), ‘what I have is my last, I would if I could, but…' Instead of acquiescing there, and resigning himself to the fact that he just wasn’t going to get a pipe, he then offered me his phone, proposing, 'I mean, what if I give you this for a couple of pipes. It's not flashy, but it's got a fiver's credit.' But there was no way he was going to prize a pipe out of me, and I clung to my little chunk of bliss like a feral dog a bone. You can't smoke a phone.
Crack is not a noble drug. It's not like cannabis can be. There's no passing the peace-pipe in this wigwam. His plight meant nothing to me. Whether he was after his first pipe of the day, or had just come from a smoke and was now gagging for a pick-me-up, I didn't care. But now I knew he had his peepers on my stuff, I took extra care to keep an eye on things. That's crack for you. You might be quite a generous person under normal circumstances, but get a pipe down your neck and you'll be the slyest, greediest, and most manipulative creature under the sun. I certainly was, and more often than not so were the people I hung out with. But I’ve been in his shoes many times, and my god they chafe. But today, I was the big chief. Today, I could lord it over allcomers…give, deny, toy with…I was, at least for the time, a miniature crack-baron, weighing up the petitions of the less well-off, and deciding, by using entirely selfish criteria, whether or not I would be gracious and give out.
It's an ugly game. If it had been a girl asking, I'd most likely have given her something. The invalid within was a sucker for a lady's lament. The seedy, coked-up fiend would probably have revelled in the power of it all. Even though crack could fuel all sorts of lechery in me, it nearly always remained mental, and when things did become sexual, it was always fairly vague and noncommittal, and trumped within minutes by the need for a pick-me-up. There was a part of me that wanted to go further, wanted to know that control, to tease her with drugs 'til she did my bidding. But a nagging morality, that couldn't be shaken, wouldn't have it. Many's the time I've been smoking, felt like getting sexual, but then, after another foray down that very predictable cul-de-sac, thought, 'Mmm, this is all very well, but drugs are my muse now.’
It wasn't until about three in the morning that I ran out of money. Sandra had sent me out to get more cash, with an additional order for a can of Fanta and a microwaved pie, to be obtained from the 24-hour shop on Harrow Road. That place was like the Broadmoor tuck-shop. Even buying a Mars bar there felt somehow illicit. There were always at least two pairs of eyes on you, whether you were standing at the counter or skulking in the back trying to stuff a pastie down your trousers. Proprietor-customer trust levels were low. At any given time, especially in the depths of the night, there would always be about six people seeming to work there, two behind the counter, two flanking the counter, and two on general duty, like floating sentries, keeping an eye on the constant flow of weirdoes who wandered through, wanting out-of-hours drink, ten cheap fags, or a can of Fanta and a microwaved pie. You had to ask if you wanted something microwaved. You couldn't just go and shove it in yourself. And the privilege of using it put an extra ten pence on the bill. Everything got a minute, from a sausage-roll to a ready-meal. You could end up with a samosa hotter than the sun, or a chicken tikka as tepid as baby-sick. Things might be different now, but at the time I think it was still working towards its first Michelin star.
The cashpoint was just across the road, and not a safe place to have your back turned on the world. The stubbly bevy who loitered in the doorway had a good view of anyone foolhardy enough to get money out. So there I stood, hunched and anxious, only to have my card spat out and the words 'cash available to withdraw = nil' flash up on the screen in green. It may as well have read 'game over’. I knew then that I was in for a truly miserable few hours. This was the bust after the boom, the casino doorman turfing you out when you've run out of chips, the end of the 80s.
So I went back to the flat and 'fessed up. Sandra was in the bathroom, doing her usual smoking in private routine. I then realised, probably a little late, that she'd only sent me out so she could have the place to herself. I went into the living-room, feeling desolate and dreading the comedown. Once again, I had to reluctantly and resentfully acknowledge it was over. And I knew that anything Sandra might have hidden away wouldn't be going towards my party funds.
She came through into the living-room and I told her the bad news. 'Oh Ben, why do you always do this?' she complained. I thought the choice of the word 'always' was unusual, considering the last time we'd met was about three years ago. She started getting her things together. The coalition was over. But then there's about as much honour in a crack-alliance as there was between Hitler and Stalin when they divvied up Poland. She began jemmying herself into her jacket. I dared to ask where she was going. Much as I found her company traumatic, the thought of being left alone, with just cravings for company, had no appeal. 'Where do you think I'm going?' she spat. I didn't answer. She lit a cigarette and shoved it in her mouth. It jigged around as she scalded me some more. I didn't dare ask for one, even though I'd bought them. 'I'm going to suck a fucking punter's dick, aren't I?' she said. 'How else do you think I'm going to get money?' Short of flagging up welfare-to-work initiatives, a viable answer evaded me. So I just sat there feeling wretched and mournful, ruing the well into which I'd, once again, hurled myself headlong. She swept out the room in a slow kind of tantrum. 'I'll be back in an hour,' she said. She wasn't.
I sat there, head in hands. Probably prompted by the commotion, it wasn't long before Mr Bingo shuffled in. He sat himself down in front of the electric fire, put the telly on, and stared at pages from Ceefax, all the while dragging and wheezing himself into the grave he'd managed, so far, not to fall in. He really chainsmoked. He'd light the next before the last was out. When he dragged, he really dragged. There seemed to be a love verging on desperation in every pull he took on those poisonous packeted fags. Then, having expelled a slow cone of thick, grey tumescence, a croak of satisfaction would emanate from that dry-as-straw throat. I pictured a wicker larynx inside that wizened neck, drowning in treacle, gurgling into action whenever words were called for, which wasn’t often. So there we sat, at dawn, me feeling dismal, waiting for the trains to start, and Mr Bingo, gleefully guzzling on his beloved B&H's, occasionally saying something I couldn't make out, to which I'd respond with vague politeness.
So, a couple of hours later, I said goodbye, he croaked a response, and I left. Outside, I observed the colour of the door, pillar-box red, and logged the fact the place was fronted by a low white fence. I couldn't make out the number of the house because it was small, and high on the door. But I had all I needed. It's amazing how the disabled adapt in a world not tailored to their needs. As I walked down the street, I noted my exact location, pre-satnav. I would be coming back here, so I had to be absolutely certain I had the place circled in my mental A to Z. Sandra and I had parted without exchanging numbers, and I hadn't thought to ask Mr Bingo for it. Often, when I'd crawl out from under the stone, I'd be vowing never to make the same mistake again. By not asking for the number, I was playacting at having learned my lesson, making out that a future of serene abstinence lay ahead. But I knew I’d be back. How torn the mind of the soul that's hooked. You could almost see the fracture-line.
And here is the song that was playing on Ceefax: Run Out Of Drugs Again