One gram a day, more or less, depending on availability, or how much I sold to people I had once called friends. One gram a day was sufficient. It was enough to get me through the night shifts, before I could leave.
Chiselling off fragments of brown rock for those envious, doleful house guests whose doggish eyes followed my hands as I dropped fragments of smack into a Rizzla paper. Supplier, old friend; buyer, supplicant… old friend; we ruined our bonds. Something I think we thought could never happen.
“Can you do us a weight Sean, or three for twenty-five?” my customers would ask timidly, never certain the heroin was theirs until it was pressed into their hand. I felt empowered, the owner of their polite desperation. I stalled sometimes when sorting them out, just to exert my power over them; to watch them hang-on despairingly, hoping I might break off one more tiny rock. When I handed them a less than kind deal they’d take it begrudgingly, but not begrudged enough to complain, that they could not risk. I’m sure they’d walk away thinking “he’s a tight cunt”, but I also think they understood the importance of being selfish in those desperate times. They were aware the bonds were broken, and they’d have done the same to me.
The state we were in, the new grievous hierarchy that had occurred, it wasn’t pleasant. Still, I didn’t do weights. I took from my old friends as much as I could get. Disloyalty is pretty much taken for granted anyway, no matter how profound a relationship has been, when friends become drug addicts.
A scarce resource in high demand provided for us ample proof that good relationships were tenuous things, subject to change. These were extreme circumstances we’d found ourselves in. It turned out that I was a shrewder capitalist than most other addicts I knew. I could call upon cruelty if needed. This was as new to me as it was for them, my mates. My values had gone up in smoke when chasing the dragon had evolved from a careless and fun activity to an abject necessity. But that was going to change, I had a plan. I was going to be a better person soon, just as soon as I left England and landed in the Kibbutz, just as soon as I could live without heroin.
One gram a day, working the night shift in the photo-processing laboratory, seven nights a week, twelve hour shifts. I posted packets of photos into pigeon holes from where they would be picked up by men who would briefly look at me and said, “alright son” condescendingly, as if seniority might make better for them what was unofficially slavery. When the pigeon holes were empty they’d deliver the packages to shops in the cities. By the time they got to you we’d had our ink-stained, cynical hands all over them. I think we all hated the images we worked with, unless they were pictures of accidents, nudity, shots of scenes that were so private it felt perverse to look at them.
Stealing was a perk of the job. I stole photos of naked women, most of them professionally shot, but occasionally amateur, and I’d take them home and look at them with delayed, tepid gratification, unable to be meaningfully aroused because heroin addiction sequesters libido. I couldn’t wank over them. I took them anyway, for the future.
I’d looked at pictures of couples, happy couples, who it seemed were blessed with a delusion that love doesn’t erode. Love erodes. It had been years since I’d touched a woman. I couldn’t recall how it felt. Drugs had rubbed out memories of tenderness. I looked at pictures of couples with a kind of alien innocence, unable to locate a similar feeling of attachment that I had once experienced.
“Memories, “Alex would say to me smiling ironically, looking disdainfully at people’s holiday snaps; pictures of children who would one day grow up and squirrel away those precious moments. Moments, before the erosion, pretty lies held in the frame, enough to satisfy those laboring to rekindle the past.
“We have an important job Sean,” he’d say, “We are the custodians of people’s memories.”
And he would look down mordantly at a picture and then look at me, and I would nod my head, but unable to imitate his irony with much conviction. Irony is another thing that is lost with heroin addiction. Alex endured the twelve hours by making a mockery of himself. He was educated, and he was witty, and he didn’t suit the lab. He could complete The Times cryptic crossword puzzle in the space of a break time. He seemed less bothered than most people about doing a job he hated doing. The joke was on him, and he managed to find that amusing I think.
Sometimes the soot on the foil would end up on my face after I’d chased some lines in the toilet. I’d walk through the bright lab, under the prickly strip lights, and staff would stare at me. The boss, a heavy-set man who was jaunty and amiable because he earned more than everyone else, would sometimes follow me into the toilets to see where that soot had come from, but I was never caught in the act. The trick was to piss a lot, and pick the right time for my shits which, of course, there were very few real ones due to the constipation my habit had endowed me with. The smoke isn’t a problem, it dissipates quickly, but the soot, and the sound of the foil crinkling, these were problematic.
The night shift workers didn’t say much to me. I sat alone at break time while the other men played crash and talked mostly about cars. Temporary staff were disliked, temporary meant you had some place to go, while most of the staff would likely be doing this job or one like it until their names were wiped from the electoral register. The students who were temps took the job lightly, for them it was their bit of rough, and this made the full-timers bitter. Alex was the anomaly; grammar school. A degree from York University, and he was full-time.
I was treated with suspicion. I was neither a student, nor a proper temp, but I was young, and I sang a lot. I put those packets into the cages at the back of the lab and through the din of processors and pricing tills they could hear me singing. While they suffered hangovers, I was high on the job.
Occasionally another addict would join the staff and I’d know immediately because he’d whistle during the shift just as I did, he’d attempt conversation with people he should have known to ignore. He’d go to the toilet a lot. The addicts were chatty, which was obscene on the night shift.
One guy was on crack, not smack…He was mostly on crack, and partly on smack. He looked like a heavy metal fan who’d accidently fallen into the rave scene, a scene that had recently created a wasteland of junkies in northern England. He invited me to his house. He’d had me figured out, too. It hadn’t taken long to initiate a discussion about drugs, and expertly we both managed to weave heavy drugs into the conversation without incriminating or embarrassing ourselves.
We went back to his terraced house in Mirfield, a dank, gray place whose furniture looked like it had been surviving since the 1940s. Anachronistic teapots sat on stoves that were layered with cooking oil; doilies clumsily rested on armchairs that looked as though they had never been occupied by anyone but old people; a full ashtray sat on a table top. Four toasters, two too many, also sat on the table. Printed on them were old English ships being smacked by mucky waves. The guy’s mother was sat in the living room when we arrived, up, I bet, since the darkness. A monochrome figure that could have been dead in the chair. She said nothing to us and offered only a weak smile. She was wearing a thick burgundy night dress. She looked like the kind of woman that takes falls when the wind is strong. I doubted she knew her son was going to break his own heart with crack cocaine. We walked past her chair and into his bedroom. Rotten Britain, the working class hanging on to chipped mugs. It depressed me. Dressing gowns, the limp aged, the blight in all these run down streets. I have this thing about fragility, I despise people that look fragile. Maybe despise is the wrong word. I just don’t like seeing them, being near them. Old people, the sick, disabled people. One reason is the guilt I feel when some twisted chemical emission in my brain starts developing the thought of me hitting them, of knocking them down, and another reason is because they remind me everything that is pitiable about humanity. The fact that we are born diseased, and reluctantly we must accept we are programmed to die.
He fumbled under his bed, a bed that had no bedspread, and a stained duvet with no cover. After working in that lab and being exposed to families all night I couldn’t help but envisage him as a small child, with that lifeless mother who had once been young and excitable. They probably had photographs of better times. Historic pornography, whose function wasn’t to eject sperm from the glands, but to convince tears to leave their orifice and harden on your cheeks. I tried to think about the Kibbutz. He pulled out the pipe and grinned, a sincere smile. We were both excited. His crack, and my smack. A relationship more appealing than the spectre of just me and him. The relationship was a short one. He was fired for not turning up to work too often.
Alex was the only person who I might have called a friend at PhotoCare. Sat at his desk for 12 hours, attending to his negatives, Alex rarely spoke, but when he did he always impressed me with his wit. I never knew what he actually did with the negatives. We never talked about work. I’d invited Alex to go to the kibbutz with me and he’d changed his plans to go to South America. His plan was hardly cogent. “I’m going to South America,” he said, as if going to the continent was like going to the kitchen. He hadn’t even booked a ticket. I told him about the kibbutz, and informed him of the “research” I’d been doing. He needed to leave England, but he hadn’t thought his trip through, so it wasn’t difficult to convince him that a kibbutz was the right thing to do. Alex didn’t know about my addiction, it was better to hold out on the truth for as long as I could. When you’re an addict you should never count on someone’s understanding or sympathy…and they’d probably be right not to give you any.
One gram a day enabled me to stay awake most of the time. I slept maybe three hours a day. Scoring was time consuming, heroin addicts are always occupied. The sun was a reminder of something from the past. I didn’t like it much. It reminded me of school. Night work is self-imposed immurement from what people call life. It doesn’t involve buses, crowds, preparing meals, other people asking you how you feel. Working a night shift means as much as admitting you’re almost ready to pack it all in. Unless you’re an addict, then it’s just convenient. I could knock my dealers up first thing in the morning, when the nefarious crowds weren’t hanging about – most of them wanting something for free.
I said something unkind to a guy that worked next to me on one of my last nights at the lab. He’d been pestering me all the time I worked there, unable to accept my insouciance, and so he told me I was slow, or useless, a waste of space.
I said to him, “I’m leaving soon, and you’ll be here, unhappy, all your life, barely able to pay for that family you never see.”
He didn’t respond. I shouldn’t have said that. Although, it’s better to burn your bridges I guess, when you never want to go back.
Smoking it all to myself, ‘the recluse’ I had become to be known. I wasn’t a gregarious addict, or a friendly one. I didn’t share, but I exploited old friendships, I monopolized addiction within the milieu of my crestfallen friends. I’m not a bad person. I disliked myself. But hating myself had to be equalised with hating everyone else. It would have been unfair to me to be kind. It was a bind to shake hands with an old friend, and it brought on self-loathing.
A gram a day of heroin, my doctor told me, would induce a difficult withdrawal, enough to make me very ill. He told me this after I had troubled him for methadone; my black hands knotted in shame, unwashed, feral. I wanted to cry, in the doctor’s office, but I also knew I was partly acting. I told him my kibbutz plan. I wanted to persuade him I was a good person, I was ready to be better. I wanted to tell him I was well read, that I had interests outside of my addiction, but I said nothing.
“Withdrawal can kill,” he said, and he wrote me a script for the methadone. Methadone I never took while I was in England. I gave most of it away, to the beggars who came to my window, friends who I used to play football with who’d lost their home, their teeth, and their dignity as they lied and querulously held out their grubby hands at my parent’s bungalow window.
One gram a day is enough to maintain apathy towards an alcoholic mother who is dying slowly in your living room. It’s enough to prevent sadness because she is dying and she gets quieter all the time, each day she is perceptibly more dead. It’s enough not to scream at your father who pretends his family haven’t betrayed his idea of a normal life. It’s enough not to go into the bathroom and sit on the toilet, and think about killing yourself. Heroin is a fix-all, Bayer knew as much when they first marketed it; coughs, flu, aches and pains, depression, panic attacks, heartache, loneliness, the nearest chemists have come to creating a panacea. Without it 1995 and 1996 wouldn’t have been possible. Heroin saved my life.
Her stomach bloated, her shrunken head under her oversized glasses that painfully sat on her ears. I couldn’t look at her ears, her hands, those little body parts that had been insignificant up until now were the only parts of her that revealed some of her former self. Her face had lost all its youth, it was the sum of her discomfort. The soft pink bags under eyes looked like the membranes of little inflamed hearts. Her breasts looked like they had leaked under her clothes. She was going bald…and she’d so often bragged about being a real blonde. I find it hard now to think about her, her hair.
Liquids that couldn’t be absorbed by her liver distended her stomach so much she could hardly move. She was no longer angry most days, she knew she was going to die. Collapsed on the couch, subdued by what I thought was the opaque realisation of not being alive much longer. She hardly ever saw me, and I ignored her. I couldn’t stand the sight of her any longer. There wasn’t much holding her together and I thought if I touched her or even talked to her she might just pass away in front of me. She might want to be comforted, and I might be the last person of her fading life, which would have been too heavy even with my heroin. My mother was partly our fault, two crooked – in her version of the world – sons, and a barely conscious husband had driven her to excess. We were all complicit. We were addicts, mum and me, we were well heeled in avoidance, we knew how to be in the same room and not see each other. It was ironic though, that on the few days I was without heroin for enough hours to be encroached on by feelings, I actually missed the violent alcoholic that she had been prior to liver failure. Feeble didn’t wear her well; I’d grown use to the demon with dentures whose volatility was unsurpassed in the town. She had been a strong woman, splitting up fights in the pub, working behind bars, and now she was an insult to herself, not even capable of doing the rounds at the old folk’s home where she had once obsessively waited for various people to die. Petering out exposed a frailty in her that was harder to adjust to than any kind of violence. I didn’t want her to die, I wanted a different life, an alternate reality where we would all slap each other on the back and laugh at the pains and mistakes we’d endured in the other reality.
When I was at home in the day my mother often snaked off to the bedroom to drink whisky. She had never accepted her disposition: alcoholic. She was going to die in denial. My dad said she screamed at doctors when they mentioned her addiction. “I am NOT an alcoholic.” Right up until she was almost dead. Swshh, swssh, swssh, the indelible sound of the bottle top unscrewing. She’d sit lumpen on the couch with a bereft smile on her face, waiting it seemed, until she could shuffle into the bedroom to finish herself off. I’d go to my bedroom to unwrap my brick of heroin, chop it into pieces and start smoking. Dad at work and brother moved out, the only noise in the house, besides the television that mum contrived to watch, were the sounds of foil being ironed by my hands, and intermittently her bottle tops being moved by her arthritic fingers. A condition she blamed on working from a young age in Burnley’s textile mill
We’d sometimes sit together in front of the TV and watch Kilroy, after we’d smoked and imbibed what we needed. Both high, occasionally we felt comfortable together. Perhaps we were an indictment of everything that can go wrong, in terms of family, but this was the closest we’d come to equanimity since I had become an adult.
“I got home from being hypnotized, and then I don’t remember much else.”
“’e scratched me, ‘e was like a like a wild animal.”
It was no joke, being hypnotized in the local pub. I remember that particular episode, about people who had been drunk in pubs eating raw onions at the behest of a travelling hypnotist, and subsequently done something crazy at home. Weren’t we all hypnotized and doing crazy things at home? It seemed that way to me.
I stood in the middle of Burnley’s snicket, an alleyway that flanked the woollen textiles mill that had employed many of the people in the town, including my mother, from the age of thirteen, or so she often clamored. The flight left in the morning and my gram had not sufficed, so I was going to buy a last bag, .25 grams, enough I thought, to see me through to the airport. .25 with the bit I still had at home, because no addict would risk running out completely. I had the methadone as well, but I didn’t want to take it. My plan was to take one small shampoo bottle full of methadone. I didn’t have to conceal it due to me having a prescription, but I did anyway.
Burnley’s snicket, a criminal fracture in the town that ran through a council estate and into another council estate like a dead vein runs through a junkie’s arm. It flanked the giant mill, which lit up parts of the dark walk. Trees hung over from one side and spiked fences at the other side made it almost impossible to get out if you needed to in a hurry. It carried folk from the estates, grieving from winter cold, holding bags nervously, heads down, beleaguered and anxious, to their bad homes. It was a short cut that nobody wanted to take, but we all took it nonetheless, in desperation, to get inside.
I stopped in the snicket to watch the mouth of a loading bay open up and I saw men like stick figures pull on bales of wool while a forklift shifted around them. It looked warm in the mill and I could hear voices. I’d worked in a mill in the past. They couldn’t see me, the working men. It looked to me like they were all trapped in an industrial kind of LS Lowry painting. I realized I had to make the kibbutz a success, whatever that might be. I couldn’t go back to working in mills, and I wasn’t fit for a decade of addiction.
Mad Ian was able to sort me out. He’d just shot up and so was intentionally affable. “Good luck Sean, and I mean that,” he said insincerely. He always kept an axe by the fire, a hopeless three bar electric fire without a grill. We both knew it was a charade, wishing me well. Heroin at least affords you the will to act well. If there was enough heroin to go around, we addicts would all get along fine, in our own dull sort of way. Mad Ian had had thrombosis in his legs from whacking up. He told me he thought he’d lose one leg.
“Look at me Sean, I’m fucked. I’d do the same as you if I could. Not gonna happen though.”
Old addicts suffer from a plethora of diseases, they take them on willingly. But Ian wasn’t old, he was not even forty.
My dad offers to give me a lift to the airport.
“I’m going mum,” I say. She smiles, her mouth flexes as if fishing wire was slowly tugging at her cheeks. She only wears a dressing gown these days. She doesn’t bother with her false teeth much anymore.
“You be careful,” she says, “don’t get into any bother over there.”
She will probably die while I’m away. I kind of want something to happen, maybe an end to the cartoon that is our lives. “That’s all folks”…dera-ri-di-di-di-der-dera-ri-di-di-di-der-der…der-der-der…der-der-der…der-der-der-derrrr-derrrrrr…
But she’s still there, crippled on the couch.
I’m bothered by a morose thought that life is just a series of agonies you evade most of the time but can never escape, a long arduous game of chess we all play with each other which grows in intensity the older you get. My mother is almost check-mate. For a moment I remember her playing piano, playing me the Funeral March, my favouirte song when I was a kid. I realise for perhaps the first time that I habour a lot of regret, like I’ve just discovered a swollen lymph gland that will kill me. Maybe I’d like it to be the 80s again, and I’d try harder to adjust to her, to communicate with her. I pity her. What has happened here, in this house, the fucking house she wanted, and the house she received, and the house she will die in. But I have a plane to catch.
“Do they have Regals over there?” my aloof father asks as he drives me to the airport, expertly turning the wheel, which I have always been slightly envious of. Expertly threading the wheel though his hands, expertly cupping his smoke from the wind, expertly pulling the batter from the fish. He can do everything, but communicate. His wife is dying, I am going, and he asks about cigarettes.
“I’m not sure,” I tell him, occupied by his seeming lack of concern towards what is happening around him. What is he, some kind of Yorkshire Zen master? I feel an urge to grab the wheel and crash us both into the nearest car just to get a reaction.
“Well, you better buy some at the Duty Free then.”
He’d like to say something other than ask me about the availability of cigarette brands in Israel. That’s what I hope. It’s as if he’s not equipped with the soft machinery that would enable him to pierce through his disguise of nothing-being-wrong, as if he lives in an impenetrable trance, a lackadaisical self-belief that screens and subsequently rebuffs all matters of emotional disturbance. He will put up with my mother until she dies, and he will not mention a word about her after she dies. It’s not stoicism that enables him to cope. He’s just watching a different channel from me, and I assume everyone else. The most unimaginative man I’ve ever met has wonderfully created, and is living in, his own unbelievable world.
We shake hands at the airport. His giant fingers envelop mine, I feel the cold emanating from his wedding ring. “Good luck then,” he says. “Keep it in your pants.”
“What?” I reply, nonplussed at hearing his advice.
“I saw what you had in your bedroom, those nudey pictures.”
“I will,” I say.
“See yer then.”
“Cheers dad,” I say.
I’m not committed enough maybe. Nudey pictures, was this his moment of candour? Maybe I should have stayed a while longer.
I smoked the last bit of heroin in the toilets. The stalls were busy with repeated flushing and so I had no difficulty disguising the crinkling sound when maneuvering the foil in preparation for a line. A flush and I would nip the sheet between my thumb and forefinger. Another flush and I could crack the lighter. When I’d finished the blob of heroin I flushed the foil. Life without it for a second made me feel nostalgic. I had gotten used to it, it had become an impediment that was part of my routine for a long time. I watched it plunge into the bowl and disappear.
Alex was in the airport. We were alone together for the first time. Out of work we were strangers. I expect he was thinking the same as me: who is this guy? Fortunately airports diffuse anxiety because of all the obstacles that confront you. We checked our bags, we had a drink, we checked our hand luggage, we found a seat, we boarded.
“Are you going to read this?” Alex asked as he held an in-flight magazine.
“I might do,” I replied, wondering why he had asked me. That air of ironic seriousness he’d performed every day at the lab had not left him.
“I once had an article published in Vogue.”
“Vogue, that’s pretty good.”
“Not really. It wasn’t any good.”
The plane taxied towards the runway. It was dusk now. I looked out of the window and thought about my dad driving home, expertly winding the wheel through his hands, shifting the gear stick in the direction of my mother who would be taking advantage of an empty house and drinking more frequently from her stash than was normal.
The plane leaves the ground and through the window – I have window seat – Alex and I watch Leeds shrink beneath us. Rows of houses, semi-circles, cul-de-sacs, lose their reality the further we rise, and when we can no longer see them I feel relieved for the first time since I organised this escape from England.
“What was your story about…the one in Vogue?”
Alex was addicted to horse racing. Not gambling, just following the races, analyzing the performances of jockey and horse. He read the Racing Times every day at work. One time he invited me into his house. Racing newspapers were scattered everywhere. It was strange to me that this well-spoken – he did not have the same broad Yorkshire inflections that I had – thirty year old man worked a night shift in a photo lab with junkies and seemed interested in little other than horse racing. Alex with his rubber gloves, a surgeon, carefully handling his negatives, serious, but always I felt, contemptuous.
We were above the clouds. The dim lights in the plane made me feel relaxed. Alex and I close together under the light, like two boys in a tent lit by a torch.
“Did you bring a camera?” I asked Alex.
“No Sean. I didn’t bother,” he responds, still smiling, looking at me affectionately, as if I have just asked something outlandish.
Still looking at me he asks, “Have you ever thought about suicide Sean?”
I expected myself for a moment to be unable to answer his question, but the answer was easy.
“No,” he says, “they don’t.”
“Why do you…do you think about it?”
“I did. I think I thought about it every night in that lab.”
“I’m not taking a camera.”
“I was going to buy one, but I guess I won’t.”
I had been wrong about Alex, and I would be wrong again.
“Wake up in Israel,” he says curtly.
“Wake up in Israel,” I concur, but there’s not much chance of that. I never sleep right after smoking heroin.