Opium Is The Religion Of The Massive
I now felt, perhaps with a degree of trepidation, but also excitement, that I was back in the game. So, bank-account recovered, courtesy of the ever-giving nipple of state, I was ready for another go. It was always exciting finding, then refinding a new hideaway, and it couldn't have been more than a week before I was sniffing around Westbourne Park again, like a dog, looking for where it last pissed. I popped into the 24-hour shop to get some fags for Mr Bingo, then over the road to the cash-machine. I was never a scout, but crack had taught me to always be well prepared. Reversing the map in my mind, to affect a speedy return to that pillar-box red door, I soon found the right turnoff, and within moments was pressing the buzzer for my wheezing, antique go-between. Would he be in? Yes he would. 'Ah Ben, how are you?' came his tinny tones over the intercom.
Up in the gloom of his hallway, we shook hands like old friends. I handed him twenty B&H and a fiver, which he received with thanks. I asked him if he could call Sandra for me. He obligingly tried, but to no avail. 'It's gone straight to her answer-phone,' he told me. 'Can I try one of my other friends for you?' He cited another member of his little coterie as a potential introduction, crooning, 'I can ring Layla. She is a nice girl. Likes a smoke.' He flicked through a ragged book of contacts. 'Would you like to meet her?' Ask a silly question. Call over, he told me she wouldn't be long, and we went into the living-room to wait. He sat there smoking and watching Channel 4 Racing, whilst I sat wondering what Layla would be like, what new avenues of pleasure this meeting might open.
It wasn't long before the buzzer went. Moments later, Layla was standing in a long red coat in the half-light. We chatted for a while, then Layla asked me if I wanted to go back to hers. She lived opposite the 24-hour shop. So off we went, me revving myself up for another dopamine-drenched stroll around the shrubbery of sensory delight.
Layla was quiet and quite reserved. She seemed more normal than Sandra, less likely to fly off the handle, be sneaky, or chastise me quite as freely. She rang the dealer from a callbox, and we hung around by a cemetery until some kid on a chopper showed up across the churchyard. He picked a sinuous path through the headstones to get to us. Skirting the skeletons could have put another half a minute on our wait, and that's a long time when you're virtually shitting yourself with desire. God rest their souls.
She lived in a tall, mostly empty townhouse, tucked away in a block of buildings that someone had optimistically called a mews. It was mostly empty because she had two kids who'd moved out, leaving her in an echoing shell. We made our way up the rickety and ramshackle staircase, which spiralled up three floors, where a skylight threw down light onto unvarnished banisters and bare wooden floorboards. This is where she spent most of her time, like a shorthaired Rapunzel.
We sat in the bedroom, perched at the top of the house, and hurriedly unwrapped our little white parcels. She'd also got some heroin, or 'brown' if you want to be really street. This came in blue plastic as opposed to white, for punter-convenience. Having cajoled one open with the aid of sharpened fingernails and a razorblade, she sprinkled what looked like brick-dust into a roll-up she'd prepared earlier. I feigned a purely intellectual interest, asking something like, 'What does that actually do for you?' 'It helps with the comedown,’ she replied. Richard Branson couldn’t have pitched it better. If there was one thing I wanted a cure for in the field of crack, it was the comedown. The product seemed both enticing, and deeply worrying. I ignored the deeply worrying part. 'Do you wanna drag?' she asked, half-passing me the long, glowing spliff, which was giving off a thick, sickly smoke. 'You won't get hooked.’ I think she meant it wouldn’t grab me almost instantly like crack had. Admittedly, her language could have done with some clarification regarding my long-term chances, but then she’d just had some crack, which doesn't exactly lend itself to measured, considered speaking. Anyway, I knew, as everyone surely knows, that 'heroin' is one of those words like murder, cancer, or rom-com…best avoided.
Whilst it's true to say that crack and heroin are both 'addictive', it's also desperately inadequate. Addiction's just another word for liking stuff. Crack's more like an infatuation. You try it. You like it. The attraction is instant. You can spend ages hating the fact you want it so much, but you keep running back into that beguiling, betraying embrace. Heroin, however, is more like a long-term relationship. You might be unsure at first, but then, after a few weeks, months even, you find you miss it when you don't have it. Other relationships still seem appealing, but disentwining from this one seems pretty tricky. You're as good as married. And divorce can be a messy and protracted business.
So there I was, on the brink of yet another choice that could mark a further dip in my fortunes. I could hear the cast of Grange Hill screaming in my ear the title of their early 80s hit, 'Just Say No’. The ghost of Zammo hovered before me, in his hand a shred of foil, his haggard chops bulldog-like and baleful, a warning in his sallow eyes. 'Friend, don't do it. Look what happened to me.' As far as I could recall, he keeled over in a toilet-cubicle, but was ok in the end, having come to realise that drugs betray, and leave you looking drawn in your teens. But the memory was foggy. The cast of Grange Hill had done what they could. None of my real-world schools had done anything regarding warning me against the perils of drugs. Further back, when I was about eight, discussing John Lennon with my mum, I was informed that heroin was a bad thing. I think the gist was that using it could kill you, and so could coming off it. So, twenty-two years later, I delved into this extensive archive, weighed up the pros and cons, and accepted the spliff. My initial drag on it was cautious, by way of a nod to Zammo’s plight, and the wisdom of my mum.
But I noticed very little. It just seemed like a sickly-sweet roll-up. I handed it back and we carried on chatting, having the odd pipe, and probably thinking we were both quite lucky…me, by having found a new way of getting crack…her, by having found a new way of getting crack. It was the perfect reciprocal arrangement. We sat there in the twilight of her bedroom as rain splashed down on the skylight in the hall. She'd not taken the plastic covering off the mattress, which I found slightly odd, because it made the bed creak like a crisp-packet whenever you moved about. In fact, it was as if everything had to remain as pristine as possible. Whenever she had a pipe, a ten or twenty minute bout of domesticity would ensue. One minute she’d be pulling stuff out of the wardrobe, laying it on the floor, putting different clothes on different hangers, then shoving it all back on the rail. Next she’d be filling a bucket with water and mopping the bathroom-floor. At one point, a pair of rubber-gloves were donned and various cluttered surfaces cleared and polished. I just sat there, rustling on the bed, feeling unsettled by all the commotion.
But in the midst of this madness, something new was happening. Having been handed the spliff a handful of times, it occurred to me that I wasn't gagging for crack in quite the usual way. Normally, especially in new or unsettling company, I'd be doing one every ten minutes or so. Now a new ingredient had been thrown into the mix, that was softening the comedown I’d come to loathe.
A little while later, the room by now a fog of Mr Sheen and bucket-steam, Layla took a break from her duties, rolled us both a spliff, and switched the telly on. Apparently it was time for ‘Murder, She Wrote’. Coked-up, I’d look for sex in anything. I sat there on the edge of her crinkly bed gawking at the screen, waiting for a woman worth lusting over to appear, but suitable candidates were thin on the ground. I even began imagining myself in various scenarios with senior sleuth Jessica Fletcher herself. Yes, crack can take you to some dark places.
But even though I was in a state of never-dissipated lust, there was a new glassy tranquillity about things, and I sat there quietly mesmerised by this faux realm of high-falutin’ felony. You don’t need me to tell you, anything that makes ‘Murder, She Wrote’ seem tolerable is an arch-deceiver. But all that mattered to me was how I felt, not why I felt it. In the desert of my affairs, I wasn’t one for trudging about looking under stones. Who could tell which one was hiding a scorpion, waiting to spring, and, if necessary, sting?
Crack’s swift elevation was like jumping from a cliff wearing a jetpack with low batteries. You’d shoot up twenty feet, hover for a moment, then go plummeting into the ravine below. Heroin seemed to offer a safe descent, kick in like an emergency parachute. It didn’t land you in the river that ran through the gorge, or even on its dusty bank. There was a bouncy castle down there, and heroin placed you gently upon it, as a caring parent might a child.
It was a world within a world. If it could protect me from the ravages of crack, it could shield me from anything. It was like being sat before a gladdening fire on a rainy afternoon, with a cup of tea and blackberry jam on toast. No prospect of trouble from anyone or anything…mellow music, joss-stick on the windowsill, probably sandalwood, and problems, still real, seemed distant, copeable with, putoffable. This was a goldfish-bowl I was content to dream and drift in. The world outside went on in its usual, concave way. Let it, I could now say. Anything that took the edge of coming down from crack was worth looking into.
I’ve since learned that a lot of people get a heroin habit off the back of their crack use. Like me, they began with the crack, couldn’t take the comedown, so turned to a comforter. Like me, they’d probably been at least paying lip-service to the idea of quitting crack, when they suddenly discovered that heroin could help put off that decision for months, years, a lifetime even. The brown, so often sold from the very same pocket as the white, always seemed to be around, and was usually half the price of its flighty white cousin, so why not? The successful drug-user knows which drugs to combine for best effect. Still not comfortable? Take a Valium, some alcohol, whatever you can find. Any beta-blockers? Sling ‘em in. Yes, the successful drug-user is a veritable amateur apothecary, knowing not only what to administer, but how, how much, and when. This also describes the unsuccessful drug-user.
It wasn’t long before our languishings were curtailed by the sound of a slamming door. Layla began tidying again, but this time it was all the paraphernalia that had to go, not clothes or bottles of lotion. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked, worried there might be some unfriendly male on the prowl. ‘My son,’ she said, half-closing the bedroom-door. The crack, and a few other bits and pieces, were lying on an open TV guide, which she folded shut and shoved in a drawer. The pipes, made in the traditional way, plastic bottles with broken biros jutting out, were too bulky to follow, so were placed in the now perfectly ordered wardrobe. Spliffs remained in ashtrays - these could parade as normal roll-ups if required. She called out, and her son, about sixteen, replied as he climbed the lighthouse-like staircase. Eventually he arrived on the landing, but didn’t come in, making a beeline for the bathroom. It felt kind of odd, being a grown-up hiding drugs from a child. I thought it was meant to be the other way round. But at least he had a clean toilet to use.
And here is today's Christmas song, just for you: I Control The Snow
See you soon.