For the next few months, I relied on Westbourne Park to fuel my iniquity, and Layla and I became if not friends, acquaintances, if not acquaintances, associates. But when the drugs had gone, she’d get surly and start mumbling insults. I’d just sit there, regretting, occasionally trying to fashion a roll-up from the charred remnants of six other joints, which in turn were the remnants of thirty-six previous ones, and she’d condemn my ashen fumblings as unseemly. But a Rubicon had been if not crossed, waded into. Crack with a heroin chaser was now the order of the day. Ah, those comforting heroin-spliffs, that allowed me to smoke crack with seeming impunity. I was like an acrobat using a bed of nails as a safety-net, but then I had no plans to let go of the trapeze.
If I called on Layla to find her out, I’d fall back on the nearly-always-in Mr Bingo, who’d faithfully summon up Sandra for me, for the usual fee of fags and fiver. But Sandra wouldn’t let me score heroin. She didn’t do that shit, and because she was the middleman between me and the dealer, there was no point asking. Besides, the promise of ‘crack soon’ overrode the possibility of ‘heroin later’. Once I was thrusting those scrunched-up notes into her waiting mitt, I was in the business of making sure she came back just as soon as possible. If that was with just white, so be it…I wouldn’t care about brown once I’d got that first bit of crack down my neck…well, not until it was gone. No, the white was Sandra’s thing, and she’d sneer at those who even touched the other. Heroin, even if just smoked in a spliff, or on foil, was the preserve of scumbags. As for people who injected, they were dropouts. She’d do the Lady of the Manor turning-up-of-the-nose at those losers, leer down like a mangy Margot Ledbetter at the needle-crew.
Some nights I’d get a cab to Westbourne Park, arriving outside the 24-hour shop where a loose collection of brethren would already be clustered in its light, hoping for a break in the context of ongoing despair. Some of them seemed so shady that even I, in my gullible rapacity, found myself not engaging and wandering away, trying to look to poor to mug. They were usually male, but sometimes a female would fall among them, and they’d gather about like dung-beetles under a jackal, a strange cross between scavenger and serenader, asking who’s she with, where’s she going, does she want to ‘come for a smoke’, but most offers were hollow, and the lady would shake ‘em awf like dandruff, flouncing into the night, leaving the beetles twitching their feelers in dismay at the thought of her smoking with someone further up the food-chain.
One night, alone in my cubicle, as I lay there lamenting the slope on my mattress, formed by only ever having one person on it, I was on the brink of booking my passage to Westbourne Park. It was two in the morning, and money had just gone into my account. Then it occurred to me it might be worth trying to score closer to home. My encounter with the reptilian pimp, only a few months before, was proof that drugs existed in Shepherd’s Bush as well as Westbourne Park, and the Bronx. It was now my mission to find them. All I had to do was wander down the right street, let myself be spotted by the right person. I might not be able to see them, but they may spot, then assail, me. ‘Shepherd’s Bush has 24-hour shops too,’ I mused, and felt myself becoming more London-savvy with every thought. Like a pig foraging for truffles, this time I’d root out the desired delicacy, even if it meant snuffling in the undergrowth half the night. So I got up, dressed, discreetly excited, discreetly exited, and made my way down to the Green, which lives up to its name inasmuch as parts of it are green.
It’s odd being a partially sighted spy. You go out in search of your quarry, knowing that contact won’t depend on you spotting it, but it spotting you. It’s more a putting-yourself-out-there exercise, a blurred reconnaissance, a fact-finding mission, but one where the facts find you.
Ten minutes later, I was trawling the broad pavements outside the Walkabout pub, the haunt of sexually active Australians, just by the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, where I’d seen Suzanne Vega, Cowboy Junkies, Richard Thompson, Divine Comedy, and a range of luminaries (during my crack sabbatical). Like most trawlers, my net went wide and deep. I pity the dolphins, those ever-smiling intellectuals in brine, getting all tangled up in dredge-nets, because Josh the geography student can’t think of anything but tuna to put in his bap. Even though I was the one doing the trawling, I felt like I’d been caught myself, some four years before, by Sandra, the professional fishwife. Her net was so holey you’d think even krill would get through. But if you’re looking to get hooked, it’s possible to become enmeshed in a threadbare net that’s barely there. I was fish turned fisherman.
I spied activity, portside. A drifting silhouette put out a mild distress call. It wanted a cigarette. Her sail was surely battered, and her hull well-punctured. But even though I couldn’t get a clear look at the spook, my cracked and fuzzy telescope told me this was contact. I dropped anchor, and she hailed me. 'What are you doing out this time of night?' she asked, probably prompted by the white cane I was hanging out like a fishing-rod before me. Less cagey in my old age, I replied, 'I was just looking to get something.' She leapt at this. 'What is it you want?' You could almost hear her adrenal gland kick in. ‘I was thinking of getting a smoke.’ 'What, white?' The strange game of reveal was over, and she'd declared first. Now we were on the same wavelength, talking the same language. No fear among plague-ships.
There was a cashpoint nearby, although it was the kind I couldn’t read so well, pale, with spindly blue lettering. But for the addict, delay-intolerant, a cashpoint, whether it be embedded in the wall of a bank, a shopping-mall, or jammed in a nook of a Budgens, is a thing of hope, a facilitator of dreams. When those notes are poured into that little metal tray, it’s as if the establishment itself wants you to get wrecked. ‘Yes,’ gleams the oracle, ‘you go and score, seize the day, or night...mind you, if you incur any charges while you’re at it, we’ll punish you, of course.’
So there we stood, at the oracle. We would have knelt, but for the gum and spit on the ground. My co-worshipper read aloud with reverence the sacred text, the blessèd buttons pressed at my behest. We petitioned it for eighty pounds, which it granted. This was the conduit, the tunnel to a new universe that we would never actually arrive in, but we didn’t care, for transfigurèd we were, sore fucking transfigurèd.
I stuffed the notes in my pocket and turned to my new associate. 'Who shall we try?' I asked, wanting her to think I knew a few dealers, which I thought might dilute her compulsion to fleece me. ‘This way,’ she said, and led me round the corner onto Uxbridge Road. Having established that neither of us had a mobile, she said she’d use a callbox. I’d just given her some change, when a skinny figure came scuttling across the road towards us, and Martha, my associate, called out to it. ‘Is Billy around?’ she asked. ‘Ring Colonel,’ the stranger delicately crowed, ‘he’s just on Loftus.’ Martha made the call. The phantom, now standing before me, introduced herself as Faith, and warned me to be careful of Martha (or Mel, as she knew her). She was bad news. But the world of crack is a backbiting one – when someone tells you someone’s a thief, they’re usually thinking about robbing you themselves. See, I told you I was London-savvy. Martha emerged with urgent instructions for us to get to the corner of Loftus. Mid-flight, I transplanted the notes into Faith’s waiting grasp, who’d by now convinced me that she was the one I could trust, and we could go back to hers just as soon as the crack was ours. Discovering I’d entrusted Faith with the money put Martha’s nose out of joint, or back in, I couldn’t tell. But, by now, all we could both do was hope that Faith, having disappeared down Loftus Road, would return with the relevant drugs.
As we stood there on the corner, me feeling like we were sure to get arrested, another of Martha's nocturnal playmates turned up, a girl called Belinda whose tits were on obvious show, for obvious reasons. Suddenly they were all coming out of the woodwork. I'd no idea I was living in such a hotbed. When Faith returned, all four of us went back to her place. She had the ground-floor flat of a house no more than a few minutes away. It couldn’t have been easier.
The living-room, for want of a better name, was dingy and cluttered, and felt like years of dust and grease had caked into every surface, apart from, of course, the shiny bathroom tile onto which Faith spat the saliva-clad parcels, just acquired from the elusive Colonel. Opening a tiny cling-film package that's covered in phlegm is a pretty slippery business, but I eventually managed to do it, and off we went again. It was all becoming dangerously easy, and dangerously close to home.
Martha seemed to have a lighter-fuel habit. She had a canister lodged in the inside-pocket of her crabby denim-jacket. Every so often, she’d bite down on the nozzle, releasing a blast of butane into her mouth, which she'd suck down into eager, perhaps bleeding lungs.
Belinda just sat there, wafting a really tangy BO. It smelt like someone had lifted the lid of a saucepan with three-day-old stew in it. She didn’t say much, but whenever someone put crack on a pipe she’d be sitting there drooling. After a while, though, she began to get paranoid, and started accusing Faith of hiding drugs in parts of the room she hadn’t even been, under the bed, on the windowsill, on top of the curtain-rail. Faith didn’t like this, and started getting nasty, threatening to take a knife to her if she carried on. When Belinda gave as good as she got, Faith called out for backup. ‘Gerald,’ she bellowed. Moments later, a bearded mental guy lumbered in. He didn’t look like he could follow even the simplest instruction, but she ordered him about like a dog, all the same. ‘Get that out,’ she sneered, as if pointing at a ready-meal gone mouldy. Belinda, though, jittery by now, and clearly not quite the ticket, was already making tracks. Gerald swivelled slowly as if to grab, but he was too late, and she was out the door before his pincer-like arms met. Belinda gone, Faith was satisfied, and she sent Gerald back into his lair. It wasn’t long before Martha left, too. Don’t know why…maybe Faith convinced her the drugs had all gone, threatened her with Gerald, or perhaps she ran out of butane, went to the shop and got serenaded by a local dung-beetle.
It allowed Faith and I to have a little get-to-know-each-other session, to bond in the dinginess. To me, she didn’t seem like a typical crack-smoker. She was about fifty-five, and spoke like an old-fashioned school-ma’am, clipped and oversure. She had a take on everyone and everything, and none of her opinions was good, like so many scalding school-reports from an establishment where corporal punishment was not a last resort, but a relished ritual. There was something sadistic about her, and it wasn’t long before stories of childhood maltreatment came up. She played the ‘it never did me any harm’ card to the hilt. Apparently she was grateful that her mother, a dissolute of sorts, had locked her in the cupboard under the stairs for hours on end. She was equally thankful that one of her mother’s fleeting boyfriends had taken a far keener interest in her, aged nine, than he ever seemed to take in her mother. These things had made her stronger, taught her about the foibles of human interaction, how to get ahead of the game, and on it, as soon as she left home, when fourteen.
Then, when it was light, and the white, along with all my money, had gone, it was time to resort to that arch-comforter, the brown. We’d been out a few times during the night, but I’d been bashful of asking for heroin, for fear of Sandra-style admonishments, but Faith had broached the subject early on, declaring herself to be a keen injector of both, with many a sunken vein and abscess to show for it.
We’d been talking about my sight-condition when it was time for her to cook up (i.e. prepare the heroin for injection). I gave her the usual spiel about getting ill when I was nine, that affecting my sight, but one adapts, especially when one’s a child, how things had been up and down over the years, but quite stable for about the last ten. It was a story I’d grown tired of telling, and mostly lazy spin and omissions, anyway. But Faith, having gained an impression of what I could and couldn’t see, found it useful, and decided it would be alright to inject in front of me. ‘I usually go into the bathroom to do this,’ she explained, ‘but if you can’t see me anyway, well, what’s the point?’ I didn’t really care what she did. ‘Fine,’ I replied, with my usual passivity.
I tried not to fixate on the ritual unfolding before me, even though my curiosity was growing. Although I couldn’t see exactly what cooking up involved, this was maybe no bad thing. There was a spoon with a bit of liquid in it, then a flame under the spoon. Then you’d draw the stuff up from the spoon into the barrel of the syringe. But it was like watching an alchemist turn lead into gold through frosted glass. I got the gist, but not the know-how.
I’d forgotten to buy tobacco and papers to make those, by now, very necessary post-crack heroin-spliffs. Faith, having drawn the elixir into the syringe, placed it down for a moment to help me in my hour of need, suggesting I tried snorting the heroin instead. She endorsed this method because it meant I wasn’t wasting any, whereas putting it in a spliff meant that most of it went, quite literally, up in smoke. ‘Drugs are expensive,’ she pointed out. ‘You’ve got to make the most of them when you’ve got them. You can’t let people fuck you around, like that Belinda bitch. People will take the piss if you let them.’ It was a moving motivational speech, and left me in no doubt that I was in the presence of an old, and somewhat withered, hand. She was kind enough to chop me out a little brown line, then fashion a tube for me to snort it through, from a leaflet that fell from a nearby TV guide. Positioning myself above the platter, being careful not to exhale and so blow it in every direction, I sucked up the bitter powder into a nostril, sniffing with gusto a few times more to knock it back into the recesses of my sinuses.
Then, it was Faith’s go. Picking her way through clutter, she settled on a big square cushion in the corner, as if a cat preparing to give birth. I could still see her, but not in detail. Down went her jeans, revealing skinny limbs. Her lamentations regarding the state of her legs brought to mind claylike flesh, flecked with scars and scratches, scabs and cysts, and the odd ripe boil on a rank, necrotic stretch of shin, all testimony to her decades-long dalliance with decay. She then began telling me how her legs were in such a bad way that she’d thought of offering herself up to schools to give talks to the children about the perils of drugs, using her legs as a visual prop to drive the point home…an ambition that seemed both worthy and macabre.
A fleeting question entered my mind as to what I might do if she had an overdose. I knew virtually no first aid, and wasn’t even sure if it applied in this setting. I felt like a toddler thrown in the deep end, except I hadn’t been thrown, I’d leapt in of my own accord. Then I realised that I didn’t even know what an overdose looked like. It was just a word I’d heard. Did the patient keel over and flop into a kind of coma? Did they quiver on their back, their limbs all fidgety like a dying fly? Would I call an ambulance? What would I tell them? ‘Oh, we were just having some crack, then she injected some heroin, and now she won’t say anything.’ What would my fate be in such an entanglement? Would the police be involved? Would I, the semi-innocent bystander, be drawn into the fray? Was I doomed to be grilled by the local Jessica Fletcher?
By the light of a precariously positioned lamp, and a few shreds of daylight seeping in from the street, Faith braced for revelation. Legs awkwardly akimbo, she twisted the snake-neck of the anglepoise to illuminate the relevant crater, to be located in the region of the groin. ‘I suppose you get a different kind of rush doing it that way,’ I surmised, hoping my interest would prompt her to do one for me. But instead she said, peering at my forearms, ‘You haven’t got the veins for it.’ I wondered was this her way of teasing my curiosity, provoking me to find a vein she could inspect, inject, and then say, ‘Ah well, if you insist,’ to exonerate herself from any accusations of enticement. Or maybe this scenario was being played out solely within the confines of my own needy, and possibly seedy mind.
She shushed me. The Eagle had landed. A sigh passed her lips, the kind you’d maybe get from pressing a freshly dead corpse in the ribcage. I was still in the business of trying to seduce her into seducing me into having a hit, but she just wouldn’t be coaxed. Half of me was glad of this, but the crack-addled half, still striving for a yet higher high, was resentful, and quietly vowed to make it happen, somehow, at some point. But, for now, all I could do was watch her swoon, a dirty kind of envy swilling in my gut.
Jeans up, she picked her way back to the sofa, sinking into the upholstery as if pulled by a sense of relief as irresistible as gravity. ‘Nice?’ I asked, colluding with the confidence-trick being played on us both. ‘Like a nun kissing God,’ she replied. Ghoulish though the interlude had been, my monkish aspirations to attain the serenity she had found, remained untarnished.
And here is a song for you: Snow Queen
See you soon.