Second chapter of Deadbeat, from 1999. Amazing that twenty odd years ago I could manage to get so many words to all play nicely with each other when all I can manage nowadays is a few jumbled paragraphs and the odd clumsy poem. Not that this is very good. Adolescent, mean-spirited, indulgent and clunky. Must try harder. Or give up. Either will do.
The old woman sitting in front of me on the bus – the back of her neck looks like a croissant, all doughy wrinkles and flaky pastry. Candy floss hair white as snow sprays finely from a scrubbed pink scalp, crisscrossed with wriggly, wormy blue veins. She makes me feel ill. The ride is making me feel ill. The congealing mass of masticated crunchy pancake soughs against my clenched gullet with every steaming lurch of the bus. Through grey, empty streets, between misty fields bordered by straggling black hawthorn bushes, over the bridge and into the town. The bus shudders to a halt, vomits its cargo onto the pavement. The bus stop is outside a public lavatory. These particular toilets once got a mention in some local gay newspaper as being a prime location for a spot of cottaging – a friend of mine once got offered a stranger’s dick through a hole in a cubicle wall here when he was a kid. He slammed it with a video he was carrying and ran away. Nobody cottaging here this evening though. Nobody around at all. I walk through the darkening streets to Ed’s Pot Emporium. Down the narrow, cobbled alleyway that always stinks of piss and into the communal garden area that Ed and his house full of doleites and dope heads and dropouts share with the guy who used to be my best friend, who I never see any more. I knock on Ed’s door. A bloodless girl with dreadlocks and a nose ring answers the door. I know her, vaguely. She’s one of the hangers on who float around this house like the brides of Dracula, pale and lethargic in the perpetual smog.
“Ed in?” I ask.
“Yeah. Come on in.”
Through the kitchen. Scarred lino and a gas cooker heaped with pots and pans, all of which contain a few inches of something garishly orange, into the front room. The curtains are drawn against the world outside. The gas fire is on full. The air is scorched and thick with the fumes from years of spliffs being passed, bongs being huffed, cider being spilled. Lots of people, some familiar, some not so. Music playing quietly, a few people nodding their heads in time with it. Nobody talking. Nobody acknowledges me. The girl who let me in melts against a wall somewhere. I find a vacant patch of carpet, by the corner of a coffee table and lower myself to the floor, squatting, wobbling uncomfortable. Ed is sat in his chair like a king at his court, weighing out some gear. His bushy black eyebrows nudge up his heavy, neanderthal forehead and bright black eyes peer up from between a mess of thick black hair. Most of the other males in the room have short hair, shaved heads, listen to Eat Static, The Chemical Brothers. Ed looks like a hippy, wears a denim cut off over a greasy leather jacket reeking of Patchouli oil and listens to the Ozrics.
“Alright. Was wondering if you could sort us out with an eighth.”
“I should think so. What d’you want?”
“What’ve you got?”
“Got some wicked skunk. Some nice slate. Bit of shitty soap.”
I consider . “I’ll have some of your soap,” I decide. I like the buzz from a nice bit of chemically interfered with, hideously impure soap, the sickly smoke curling from its sticky black flesh, the way it mongs you out completely, renders you incapable of speech or movement. Just what I need at the moment.
He roots around with long, dirty fingers in the bottom of a dented Fungus the Bogeyman tin and fishes me out a lump of dope, wrapped in cling film. I have to stand up and lean over a sea of people to hand him the fifteen pounds and take the pot. I then fold myself back into my space on the floor. A conversation begins somewhere about someone I don’t know. I ask the guy next to me if I can cadge a couple of skins. He obliges. I drag a magazine out from under the coffee table to use as a flat surface and begin constructing the obligatory spliff you have to smoke with your dealer after scoring. A rather ridiculous and archaic ritual, I feel. You wouldn’t buy a pint in a pub and then insist on the landlord drinking half of it for you. Halfway through rolling it, someone murmurs ‘Incoming’. I take the proffered spliff. It’s been a while since I’ve indulged, so I know the smoke’s going to hit me. My mouth dries up in expectation. The roach is damp. I pop it between my lips and inhale, feel the smoke ooze through my lungs and into my bloodstream. My heartbeat speeds up a little. My skin cools, prickles. All the knots and agonized convolutions in my mind begin to melt away. I smile for the first time in days. My nausea begins to recede. These silent, stunned strangers slumped against each other in the arid, gassy crush of Ed’s front room are my friends. I take a few more hits and pass on the crumpled, smouldering packet of instant serenity and finish rolling my own, taking care to ensure that the end I’m about to light has more hash in it than the portion that’ll be smoked by everyone else after I’ve gone home. I light it. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Make vacuous small talk, notice the time, stagger to my feet and leave.
Paranoid as fuck now. Town is dark. Cars rush by on the wet roads, gangs of well built youths with long arms and hands like shovels straggle raucously between pubs. Cop cars cruise past like deep sea predators. The chunk of hash in my pocket glows like a beacon, the hash in my system strips away all the barriers against sensation. The floodgates are gone, too much gets in, too much stimulation. Hyper aware. Thinking about everything. Walking. Lift this foot, move it forward, put it down, pick up the other one. Remember to breath. Fight the dizziness. Try to stay on top of that rampaging piston thundering away in my icy chest. Try to haul my head back down onto my shoulders, at the moment it’s floating somewhere above the rooftops. Sickening vertigo.
I make it to the bus stop. It’s 10 pm. By the time I get home it’ll be close to 11 and I have to get up at 5.30 in the morning to go to work again. I begin to feel that perhaps I won’t be going to work tomorrow. Perhaps I’ll ring in sick and then go back to bed, spend a day beneath the sheets being soothed by dreams, get up in the afternoon, get stoned, chill out, listen to some music, make some decisions about what I’m going to do with my life.
When the bus arrives I’m the only one on it and sit in silence on my own, being transported through the darkness and the drizzle, safe in the sodium yellow rumbling bowels of the machine, all the way home.
Strange dreams. I’m a journalist or something, standing in a pub somewhere on the Yorkshire moors, pint in hand, leaning at the bar chatting with the landlord. Suspicious locals huddle around their drinks, dour faces stony cliff faces beneath the peaks of their damp flat caps. The pub is crowded, even though it’s the middle of a grey afternoon.
“Does nobody round here work during the day?” I enquire. The landlord continues polishing a glass. “Are you all vampires or something?” I joke. The distant rumbling of dozens of muted conversations stops. Absolute silence.
“Come on,” the landlord says, “I’d better drive you home.”
In his car, over the moors. A grey rain drifts like mist over the heather and the stone. We reach the crest of a hill. Down below, by the side of the road, the only structure for as far as the eye can see, a squat, stone, mausoleum. I turn to the landlord to ask him about it, but he’s staring straight ahead, frantically pumping the brakes. All I hear is the squealing of stalled metal, the slither of rubber on wet tarmac, the bumping of windscreen wipers, and then the car slithers off the road and crashes into the mausoleum. Bricks and crumbled mortar shower over the windscreen and everything is blackness. I wake up. The landlord has been thrown from the car and lies to one side, broken and bloody. I rub my aching temples, shake my head, squint around me in the gloom. In the centre of the dusty room, a stone table upon which lies a rotting corpse. I find myself standing over it, lowering my face to its leathery belly. I open my mouth, close my teeth on its putrid flesh, swallow a bolus of putrescent meat, feel it cold, greasy as the oily mush sinks into my belly. I have an erection, pounding painfully in my trousers. I take another bite, worrying at the cadaver’s liquefied entrails through the ragged hole, chew, swallow, suck, swallow. Wiping my mouth I stagger away, reeling, sink to my knees by the corpse of the landlord. He’s been badly burned, his flesh is still hot. I shove my fingers into his guts. Ejaculate.
It’s 4 am and I’m laid in the darkness with a puddle of cooling, congealing spunk oozing out of my navel.
It’s physically uncomfortable, but worse than that. I feel violated, as though some grotesque succubus has been interfering with me while I slept. I feel disturbed, oddly frightened laying alone here in the gloom. Floorboards creak above me, outside the wind moans. I’m not stoned anymore but my heart is still beating like fuck and I feel fuzzy headed, dizzy. I climb out of bed. When my feet touch the thin, cold carpet a sudden bloom of pain blossoms in my face, a nascent toothache alerting me to its imminent arrival. I wipe the jism off my belly and drag some clothes on, lace up my boots, stomp down to the phone box at the end of the road, stand there shivering while I tell lies about how I’m too ill to go to work. The street is dead. Streetlights buzz. Skeletal trolleys jingle, shivering, in the abandoned supermarket car park. No light on in the houses. I replace the receiver, go home, climb back into bed. Stare at the ceiling feeling sad and anxious until the dawn begins to break, the sun seeping like insipid yellow plasma through the ragged grey bandages of the sky, then drift back into sleep. No dreams this time.
Wake again, my heart hammering, my body paralysed. Try to calm down. Deep breaths. Lost in the hypnagogic borderland between sleep and consciousness, wandering through disparate half thoughts and unformed ideas, pale phantoms, headless, transparent, melting to elusive, evaporating gossamer as I clutch at them. I am reminded of mornings from my childhood. I would usually wake up early – unless my father had crept out before me into the dawn with the gun and the dogs I would wake into a house of the dead. Stertorous breathing from my parents’ warm, dark room, raspy little murmurings and snuffling from my little sister’s room. Sun. There seemed to be so much sun when I was young, so many bright and hopeful mornings. I would lie in bed and read or get dressed and go out. We lived in the countryside when I was a kid, our house a solitary square brick lump in the middle of flat fields ringed by hawthorn and drainage ditches. A couple of farms on the horizons, a few lonely trees. Nothing else. It was glorious. So many square miles to be alone with my thoughts, poking around in the hard, harrowed mud for interesting shards of pottery and strange stones. Water fleas and freshwater snails in the ditches, bird song all around, larks in the barley, crows like smuts wheeling in the cornflower blue heavens. Thick, pure white snow in the winter, hard frosts, the occasional flood. Sun baked mud and dusty roads in the summer – roads upon which you infrequently saw traffic. The odd tractor, at harvest it would be combines. Harvest times. Harvest time was something else. They would burn the stubble off at night and it would seem like our house was an island in an ocean of flame – crazy tongues of orange and red lashing the country dark skies. Now, here, this fucking town, the eternal mumbling of traffic, living boxed between strangers, subjected to all their noises, privy to every scrape of their furniture, every cough and toilet flush and drunken bellow. Pubs belching out their roaring drunks, the rusty, ugly ships clanking and clattering up the filthy, bloated river, supermarket shoppers and the limping elderly, screaming kids, aggressive teenage gangs. We were never meant to live like this. I was never meant to live like this. My heartbeat slows down, the panic I felt at waking slowly subsides and is usurped by a leaden misery, an amorphous despair that can’t be paid off because I’m not sure what currency it trades in. I don’t really know why I’m unhappy, only that life makes me unhappy, that is just doesn’t satisfy me, that there don’t seem to be any options. I scratch idly at the scaly patch of dried semen on my belly, stare at the ceiling. Get up and roll a spliff for breakfast. It is 10.30 am.
Pot on an empty stomach is a divine way to start the day. It doesn’t have to filter itself through fats and carbohydrates or complex sugars or any of that boring nutritional shit which clogs up your sluggish guts and arteries, it just lurches straight into your system and kicks in, painting a big shit eating grin on your face and stowing your legs away somewhere safe and comfortable – after all, you won’t be needing them for a while. Days can just disappear like this, and it’s not a bad way for them to go. I could tolerate my continuing existence with a plentiful supply of hash close to hand, I could feel like this forever. But already the sticky little lump of condensed heaven is dwindling, and already, through the haze of its beatific smoke, I’m mourning its premature departure from my life. It’ll be a while before I can afford any more. I finish the spliff, put the stuff away (for later). Brush my teeth. Right. Three days. I’ve got three days all to myself now before I have to go back to work. So… what am I going to do? I don’t actually have enough money to go anywhere or do anything, so that kind of restricts me to staying in the flat and doing nothing, but… I could go and see some friends. I don’t actually have any friends anymore, but I could go and hang out at Ed’s for the day, blag some free drugs, maybe get him to lay me on another eighth till pay-day. While I’m there, I could even pop around and see the guy who used to be my best friend. Surprise him. Renew our bonds of comradeship. Start anew. I’m feeling vaguely positive, optimistic. I know it’s just the pot, but what the fuck? If I can scrounge up a little bit of motivation out of this, and use it to make changes that might last and make a difference, then so what?
I pick out some clothes. The ensemble I choose has to meet certain criteria: The hem of all T-shirts must be free of spunk stains, jeans must not smell too stale or have toothpaste around the flies, tops must not be drizzled with dried spatters of baked beans, socks must not be too stinky and must not have been used as surrogate vaginas. I only have one pair of boots, a battered pair of Doc Martens whose soles are beginning to come apart from the uppers, and I only have one jacket, a black canvas thing. I put my costume on, check myself in the mirror. For once, I actually feel quite chuffed with what I see. I’m not as hideous as I usually tell myself. So my hair could be a little cleaner and it could conform a little closer to something approaching a deliberate style, my blue eyes could be a little less bloodshot and a little less sunken into my sallow skin, but hey – great cheekbones, and a mouth lent a somewhat voluptuous look by being framed by skin stretched so tautly over skeleton. It’s Friday. I do have a few quid left over, maybe I should spend the day socializing and getting stoned, then have a night out in town, have a crack at getting laid. That’s a measure of how optimistic I’m feeling, thinking like that. And that’s a measure of how stoned I am.
I get round to Ed’s house and nobody wants to go into town. Shit. Also, double shit, Ed has gone away for a couple of days and nobody is skinning up while I’m around. I sit about in the front room for a while, shuffling around like a drunken Cossack in front of the gas fire, trying to get warmed without scorching my only decent clothes, while the assorted druggies look uncomfortable and make halting mumbling conversation around me. It occurs to me, not for the first time, that all these people are kids, teenagers playing at being dropouts from a society to which they have yet to ascend in any meaningful sense. I on the other hand, am old enough to be fulfilling some useful role in the community, and I aren’t. And despite their affected alienation, these youngsters know that and dislike me for it. In their little world of bongs and trance music and raves and fuck the police, they still recognize the true loser, and just like straight society, they ostracize and condemn and sneer. I catch them looking at me from the corners of hooded, slitted eyes, waiting for me to leave, to remove the taint of my stale clothes and my genuine, soul deep despair so they can resume their pot smoking and talk of a better world. I pretend to look at my watch and notice the time, straighten my limbs and stand up. The relief is palpable – the tumour has decided to leave of its own volition.
Outside it is cold. Snow on the way, maybe. For a minute I can’t remember what season it is, or what time of day, or where I am or what I’m doing. I stand in the street. Cars go past, sidelights anaemic in the fading daylight, angry children writhing like nicotine orange phantoms behind mud specked windows. On their way back from school, to meals of burgers and chips in front of the TV, steamy kitchens and tired parents, hissing gas fires and chilly bedrooms. The thought of children reminds me once again of my own childhood. I was a child, right here, in this very town. I grew up a few miles away, on the flat, barren plains of some North Yorkshire prairie, attended the sprawling comprehensive school on the other side of town. Got into fights. Was ill, Failed to hand in homework. Sat and watched the hands of ancient, yellowed clocks drag their weary way round to 3.30 while in serried rows of temporary classrooms out on the muddy grass, hundreds of others did the same, pale, bored kids in tatty uniforms, ghostly behind the misty rain bejewelled windows. French, physics, RE, all that useless shit which stole away so many hours I could have been doing something that made me happy instead. I shiver, stuff my hands deep into my pockets. I decide not to pop in and see my ex best friend for the moment, but to go for a walk, to have a wander down those cracked and narrow lanes and have a look at the house where I was born.
The dogs that rush out from the farmyards to bark at me look like the same dogs that used to do so when I was a child – wall eyed collies with lunatic grins and fat, shuffling Labradors with steaming jowls and wagging tails. I ignore them, keeping my hands in my pockets, and keep on walking. The roads are narrow, flanked by overgrown drainage ditches. When I was young, a drunken Irishman called John McGuinness would clear these ditches during the summer. Now it looks as though nobody bothers. After about 45 minutes, I reach the house. I’m surprised to be here so soon – it always used to seem further away. It’s changed since I last was here, but not much. Fucking bastard leyllandi planted along the drive, a couple of trees hacked down from the front. My stomach churns. This place should have been my birthright. For fuck’s sake, I helped build the fucking place. My dad’s a bricklayer – three of the house’s five bedrooms were built by him with my eager, clumsy, messy assistance, as was the upstairs bathroom, the lounge, the porch, the kitchen extension and conservatory and the garage, outside which a gleaming BMW now stood. You cunts, I find myself thinking, you fucking cunts. I live in a fucking shitty flat in the worst part of a nasty town, sleeping and cooking in the same room, taking a crap in a toilet which is sinking through the rotten boards, no friends, no family, no fucking prospects, and you live here, in the house where I was born and brought up, where I had every single one of the few happy moments of my fucking life, where I enjoyed Christmas and had a loving family, where my sister was born upstairs, where I was feted at birthday parties, and you, you fucking live here now, and you don’t even know me, you don’t know the child that helped lay the foundations of the place you now call home, who built snowmen on the lawn, who stood and cried in the front bedroom when his mother told him they were leaving, leaving the beautiful home in the peaceful country to go live on a fucking council estate in town. Bastards. I want to kill them, whoever they are, to drive them from this place. It was a mistake coming back here. All it does is hurt. The rotten present is tortured by gleeful ghosts of a happy past – the future flees into the bleak, darkening heavens. Someone moves past the front window, a young woman, well dressed. I notice smoke curling from the chimney and am surprised to feel a gristly lump swell in my throat and my vision slip as scalding tears rush my eyes. I loved this place so much. I loved my life so much. It’s all gone so horribly fucking wrong and I don’t know what to do. I just stand around, a dark stranger on the road, gazing across my lawns, wondering what kind of a world it is that lets these people live here while I have to live in a shit hole. It isn’t fair. I feel cheated, robbed, betrayed. Someone will have to pay. Someone must be made accountable, or the whole world really is as arbitrary and casual and mindlessly, pointlessly cruel as I have always suspected. I walk back into town.