It had been raining, but by then it had stopped. The night was in. Across the sky were vast expanse of cloud, smokey mauve on the deep purple of outer space. Along the damp walls snails slithered away in the dark. It was early summer, and aggravated by the wet, the concentrated scent of leaves and plants was thick in the air. The trees in front gardens were black silhouettes. The sound of dripping water and grit crunching underfoot were all that could be heard. There was noone on the road but me and but for the odd light, in the odd top floor room, the houses sat dead and still and stuffed full of creeping darkness. The road ahead was slick black; the street lights shimmering in the wet ground. Up ahead a traffic light rested on green and there the hightstreet, deserted, ran through. Nothing could possibly be going on now. These were the deathly hours. From over a high wall a pink drooping blossom hung. The garden smelled of rose and the next one along of cat's piss. It was getting on for 3am and I had sneaked out of bed and out the house to score my last three rocks of crack, leaving Mary sound asleep and none-the-wiser that I'd gone.
Turning onto the high street, heading for the old church, I could make out two figures up ahead. One was a man with his right leg locked straight and shot outwards at a 45 degree angle. He walked with a cane and in the effort to avoid his disabled leg his upper body was twisted and bent like John Merrick's. Besides him was a small woman with a ponytail and wearing a cheap matching sport's tracksuit a size too large. Her neck was sunken into her back and her arms swung stiffly, capped by forward facing clenched fists the weight of which seemed to help propel her forward. They crossed the high street, turned left and then disappeared down the side of the church.
I followed fifty metres behind. As I walked I discretely clocked everything on both sides of the road. At a lit up bus-stop, across from the church turning, was a man. There were no night buses on this route; he could be only one of two things: a junkie or a cop. I wandered casually passed him. Junkie - no doubt about it. I did a u-turn. As I repassed him again I checked my phone, letting him know I was on the score too.
"Oi, mate, dya just phone Ace? How longs he saying?"
"Said he's on his way. Sounded like he'd just woke up!"
"He dint say how long?"
"Cunt!" he said, jabbing his face forward and stopping bluntly before it'd even gone an inch, the force expelling the word with a seething violence.
"You shouldn't wait here," I said, "he doesn't like it."
"Fuck what he likes. I'm not his fucking slave. It's less suss here than down that fucking alley." I didn't try to convince him.
Across the road, from the opposite direction I'd arrived, a longhaired junkie known as Steggs was making his way down. He wore cut down military trousers and sandals and walked with a huge lumbering gait as though he was returning from 30 years of headbanging. The rain hadn't only brought the snails and slugs out.
"Ok, I'm off same place as him," I said, to the stranger at the bus-stop. "You staying here?" He nodded, looked annoyed and said, "Lanky black cunt!" I left. He would eventually come to his senses. He's not gonna wait 45 minutes and then fuck his score up by pissing off the dealer.
I didn't like the alley myself. One side was the church wall and the other was the high backwalls of residential gardens. The alley was just wide enough to allow a car to pass down. I entered. It was pitch black.
"Steggs," I whispered. "Steggs?" After a moment I hit an outstretched arm and Steggs pulled me in. That was the deal. The residential backwalls all had long wooden yard doors set a foot back in them and the church wall was pitted along with shallow alcoves. So as the alley appeared empty to any passers-by or cruising police cars everyone sidled into these recesses and stood as still as the Queen's guards. As we waited we whispered. Now and again the screen from a phone would light up as someone checked how long Ace had been or phoned him afresh.
"What you after, mate?" Asked Steggs. It's never a good idea to divulge that, especially concerning crack. A junkie scoring would never dream ask for a pinch of heroin, but crack is a different game and because it's not physically addictive is looked upon in a whole new light. It's seen as a luxury... a privilege.. a something you can score only once your heroin habit is secured. It's an extravagance someone could beg you a small rock of, especially someone with a crack habit as voracious as Stegg's.
"Just a couple of brown," I said. "Would love a white though."
"Me too," said Steggs. The lying cunt. It's 3am. You only ever score crack at 3am. If you've the cash your heroin addiction is taken care of well in advance of such criminal hours. The only users who may honestly be scoring smack at such a time are the prostitutes, returning home from their last punter and clucking. We stood silent for a while. Steggs pulled his hair back and banded it in a ponytail.
"Give him a bell," he said.
"No point, mate. It won't change anything. If we're the last ones he's waiting on he'll be here soon enough. He'll not come out multiple times at this hour. If he's still waiting for others to confirm their presence he'll not arrive until they do. "
"Yeah, but he don't know I'm here yet mate... Phone him and tell him Steggas has arrived!"
I phoned. Before I could tell Ace the quite ridiculous news that 'Steggas' was here he said, "Ten mins, bro," and closed the phone.
"Ten," I said to Steggs.
"Wots' E sayin?" asked a voice out the dark. "Ten," hissed Steggs from his toothless mouth.
A little way down I could see someone smoking. Each time the cigarette seared I could just about make out who it was. It was the woman in the tracksuit and pony tail, moving about in the centre of the alley as if desperate for the toilet. She wasn't desperate for the toilet. If it were the case she'd squat and piss without the slightest hesitation. What she was desperate for was crack cocaine, dancing through her comedown - pacing, fidgeting, turning in circles, keeping up rhythms which passed time and gave the jittery mind something to concentrate on.
"Wouldya look at her!" said John. "She'll av us all shook up carrying on like that."
She could, it was true. But there's always one and they're often a lot worse than that. And, if anyone thought for a second that the residents really didn't know what was going on behind their walls, then more fool them. They all knew. Had probably each phoned the police a half dozen times and learnt nothing gets done - nothing can be done. As long as we made an effort and didn't litter the place with needles and excrement they no longer bothered. Probably took some comfort from the fact that we were carrying out our debauchery directly under the wrathful and vengeful watch of God, delighting in the thought that we'd at least get punished once the drugs had taken their ultimate toll. Fatal OD or death from some blood born virus was neither the end nor an escape: it was merely the beginning: our real torture would begin only after we were dead. Fortunately, not many using addicts believe in such fairytales. For us the church is just the place where we score and the only saviour is a black West Indian yardie who snatches your money and spits bags of drugs at you in disgust. Our Jesus doesn't give a fuck and it's just the way we like it.
I could smell his cheap supermarket sports aftershave even though I couldn't see him. It was Adidas or some crap that he'd splashed on and was surely doing him more damage than the drugs. A new user. Young. Many start out like that. Using their high time to shower and mess about with their hair and skin, keeping up appearances. Slapping on some cheap splash and jumping into freshly pressed clothes just to go to score. That'll all soon stop. In a year he'll be like me, or worse, like Steggs - if he really lets himself go.
The young perfumed addict hung about alone. I could see his form but no more. The alley smelled like the shower gel aisle in a supermarket. Somene told him to get himself put away. New on the scene he apologised and thanked the anonymous junkie for the help and struck up a conversation with him, speaking too loudly and relating outrageous tales of the junkie life, of a thousand things which never happened. A natural born bullshitter - he was in good company here.
When Ace still hadn't arrived 20 minutes later I phoned him.
"I'm fuckin d'ere bro," he said, curtly. If he was here I'd be ale to see him and the only things I could see were Steggs and one or two cigarettes burning away in the distance.
"Steggs, did you see the fella I was with at the bus-stop when you arrived?"
"Glimpsed him. Seen him around a few times. He often gets off T's lot round the flats. Don't know him though."
"I'm gonna go and give him a shout. You know what Ace is like, he'll refuse to serve him for hotting the place up waiting there."
I left Steggs and exited the alley, making sure no-one was happening to be passing as I stole out. Up on the high street the junkie at the bus-stop was now with two other addicts - two middle aged women, one white and the other a golden colour. The fool! He was collaring people and telling them to wait there. I crossed the road and advised them to get in the alley, that Ace would refuse to serve them for waiting there.
"Serious?" Said the white woman. She was chewing gum.
"Serious," I said, "and he's on his way." The two women had no qualms about where to wait and were now with me ready to return. "You coming mate?" I said to the man. He cast his eyes up and gave a disinterested look around at the deserted highstreet. "Fuck it. If the cunts that funny about where we wait I'll come. It's him who'll be nabbed with all the gear when it comes on top." Together, the four of us headed the short distance back to the alley. I rejoined Steggs and the other three backed up church side into one of the alcoves. There were now at least 8 addicts waiting on Ace, at least, because I'd seen glowing cigarettes in the distance too which were from others who must have arrived before us.
"What the fucks that?" Steggs suddenly said, looking down the alley. I followed his gaze. At the top end a car had turned in, the headlights glaring in the distance.
"On top!" A voice cried. No-one budged.
"Is it moving?" Steggs asked.
"Can't tell," I said.
"If anyone's holding get rid of it," another unseen person said to everyone. A couple of sniggers broke out at that suggestion. I'm not sure if they found it humourous that anyone would drop their gear amongst an alley full of addicts, or funny the idea that any of us had any gear to offload. The best thing to do in any case would be for anyone holding to leave the alley and lurk about at a safe distance until sure if the car was friend or foe. No-one dumped anything and no-one left. The reason why no-one left was because it could very well be Ace in the car, the car which was clearly moving now, slowly so as not to scrape along either wall, the headlights getting bigger and brighter as it crawled its way down.
We were all tense. For most of us the police would be nothing but an inconvenience but there would be some amongst us who would have had warrants or been caught out on curfew. My biggest concern was that if it were the police then our meeting with Ace was buggered and there'd be no gear of any kind or colour for anyone. I was also thinking of what time I'd then finally make it home, and after the delay of a police stop Mary would surely have roused at some time in the night, figured I was not there and be sat, crying at my shooting table by the window when I returned. She was possibly already there. It was over an hour I'd been gone and I'd estimated on leaving that I'd have been back and sorted within forty five minutes. We stood as thin as we could in our recesses. All talking had stopped as the car now approached close enough to illuminate our world.
Good God! There must have been 20 plus addicts in the alley. As the car inched further along more junkies were lit up and picked out on either side, mostly in couples, men and women of varying unhealthy hues, stood like grotesque statues in their carrels, breath held and mouths closed as if in ready preparation to say nothing to the police. What the driver must have thought as his headlights picked out this secret life of vice, the dead and dying with widestruck eyes and missing limbs, scooped out junkie features, human sized praying mantis' dressed in an array of bizarre and mismatched clothes, each person a sight in their own right but looking twice as debauched and desperate alongside their scoring cohort. I watched the line of junkie faces. Steggs and I were in the last recess, nearest the entrance, but far enough down to be out of sight from the street.
"Fuck me, would ya take a look at the state of us lot!" Steggs said, laughing. "Talk about not wanting to meet us down a dark alley. Fuck." And that's when I saw her, stood there in her large black coat over her pyjama bottoms, cheap comfy trainers with Velcro straps across the fronts. I was startled and did a double take, the light reflecting off her large pale face, her lips devoured by her mouth where she didn't have her false teeth in, the huge granny gut and the slop of loose hung breasts. Her hair was brushed back and down and she wore a screwed up expression of annoyance as if pissed off the car had lit her up.
"MUM?" I cried, astonished, looking across at her in surprise. She turned and saw me and just shook her head obviously in a mood. Whoever was in the car had seen us now regardless. I rushed across its lights, over to my mother.
"What the fuck you doing here?" I asked. "Thought you had no cash?"
"Yeah, I thought you didnt!" She said, throwing the suggestion back at me in the petty way she had done all her life when caught out. "It's why ya left earlier innit?"
"That and to get home... You know how Mary is."
"Yeah, ya seem to care a lot about that Shane!" Then she looked over at the car. "Who the fuck is this in this car?" She said. We both looked down at the vehicle. It had come to a stop and Steggs was lit up blinded in the headlights. Whoever was inside was fixing to get out.
"Oi Oi... Eyes down for a full house!" someone shouted out the dark. But the car was not the police, it was a mini cab. The back door opened, crashed into the wall and Chelsea John got out.
"Fuck me, what do you lot fucking look like standing there doing ya best fucking impressions of death. They've buried healthier life in the fucking church graveyard!"
A concerted groan took up around the alley. A groan born out of everyone having held their breath, anti-climax but relief it wasn't the police and commiserations that of all the people it could have been it was Chelsea John who had stepped out. He was a well known addict on the scene, had robbed or cheated just about all of us at one time or another but was a generous enough fella when he had a touch.
"Alright Les," he said to my mum.
"Yeah, alright, John, " she replied not with the same warmth.
"John, tell that cunt to kill the lights!" Steggs said.
"Chill out, matey... We're only scoring. No-one gives a fuck. Anyway, we're straight off... Ace is on his way, passed the fucka as he peddled like a cunt along the high street. Gave him a blast of the horn... almost sent him into a fucking storefront window!"
A little buzz went through the junkies followed by a hive of activity as everyone got their money out and ready. At the near end of the alley a bike flashed by and stopped just out of distance. I could hear the peddles still spinning. Ace, well over 6ft, turned into the entrance backlit by the jaundiced lighting of the street behind him. He wore a summer sports top with the hood over his head. Chelsea John, last to arrive, was the first to push his way to him.
"Four W, Ace mate," he said.
"Bro, don't ever fucking whistle an beep me in the street, ya'ere, " Ace said, rifling through the notes John had handed him. Satisfied the cash wasn't short he pulled a clear bag from his tracksuit pocket and turned his back as he sorted out four rocks of crack for John. He gave John the rocks and came to his senses at the same time, banging on the windscreen of the car with the flat palm of his hand.
"Turn your fucking lights off!" he said.
"It's cool, boss .. It's cool," said Chelsea John, we're leaving." He slipped back into the back of the mini-cab and the car turned its engine over and gradually inched forward and away, the beautiful sound of gravel crunching under its tyres as it went.
"One and one," Steggs said, giving Ace his cash. He left without acknowledging me or saying goodbye. Lumbered out the alley with his head slightly stooped, shapeshifting into a socially moral member of the community as he hit the street and plodded docilely away into the night, looking like a man who liked a certain kind of music but no more.
Ace was now besieged by the waiting addicts. There were numbers and letters being thrown at him from all around and hands pushing cash his way. It was like watching a bookie at the racetrack taking last second bets just before the off. Every few seconds a new person or couple exited the alley and turned off to either direction. I stood with my mum, waiting for our opening to step in and get served.
"What you getting," she asked as we stood there. Ha! That again. Well, we know it's never a good thing to divulge such information but this was my mother asking... An even less incentive to do so.
"Three white," I said, "and you?"
"Can only afford one... And for that the poor cats have to go with no litter." I could feel her looking at me, hoping... Waiting. When I didn't respond, she said: "Give us one of ya rocks, Shane... We'll have two each then."
"Oh, go on!"
"No! If he's holding extra I'll buy you one. With so many people he's sure to have surplus. He's a capitalist... It's how it works."
Ace was holding extra. I was almost the last to be served. With our rocks of white clenched in our fists I walked my mother down the length of the alley and out into the dark quiet of the night at the other end. Out in the street she cast a look down the deserted road, the town all locked up and still and shadowy. "Hope I get home alright," she said. She had just spent an hour lingering about in a dark out-of-the-way alley with supposedly some of the boroughs most depraved souls and now she was worried about walking home along the sleeping residential streets. Of course, she was right. People who are out to cause harm don't hang about down dark uninhabited places; they linger around familiar and well lit streets. If you want to get home safely you should travel the darkest route. I looked down into the ghosttown of the walk home she had. An empty tin can rattled about in the gutter. "I'll walk you back," I said, "But if Mary's awake when I return you're getting the blame." She pulled a face but didn't say a thing.
With rocks of crack burning a hole in our palms, and on the wind of energy that the thought of the first pipe of a new rock gave us, our pace was at good speed, walking down the shiny wet road home. We made it to my mother's in no time. I followed her up the stairs, took a good lick of rock on her crack pipe, and prickling with existence and nervous energy I gathered myself up and left, leaving my mother alone with her rocks and pipe, hers the last light on in her street.
My journey home was now a good half hour trot at fair pace. I listened to my own footsteps and played counting games until I lost count. Oh, the loneliness of the city is a beautiful one. I couldn't get over thoughts of all the lives that were taking peace in sleep all around. Great trees reminded me of mysteries from childhood and the moon was a lonesome figure of light in the sky. My thoughts turned to Mary. She had recently blown up about my addiction and had forced me to lie to her about cutting down and weaning myself clean. I purposely told her it would be easy and I'd be drug-free in three weeks. The deal since then was she held my heroin and portioned it out to me three times a day. It allowed her some involvement in my addiction and gave her a modicum of active control in our life. She didn't have the slightest idea that I was also in the midst of a huge crack addiction -- that news would have cooked her clean off the bone.To have woken and found me missing would have meant one thing to her: heroin. And that betrayal, that crack in her dream of getting me clean, would have had her up and sobbing rivers by the window as she waited for me to appear out the dark.
"Don't let the light be on... Please, please, please!" I repeated over to myself turning onto my road. I kept my head down and on the count of five I looked up. Blackness... Beautiful-lucky-sleepytown-dreamy blackness. The light was off and the window looked like nothing could be living beyond it at all. It was gone 4am and the first birdcalls were ringing out through the fresh morning. I sucked in a last gulp of the fragrant night air, opened the front-door and crept up the unlit stairs. Outside the bedroom I undressed. I didn't want to risk all that good fortune only to wake Mary falling over while trying to pull a sock off. I removed all my clothes and naked, but for three rocks of crack, I entered the room.
Poor girl. Asleep to the world, her eyes closed over ever so gently, completely oblivious to the nightmare which was raging through her life as she slept. I felt terribly sad and guilty and kissed her and said sorry. I slipped in the bed besides her. She made a little noise of sleepy acknowledgement and turned and put her arm around me. I waited still for a moment. On her first snore I relaxed and felt under my side of the mattress for my crack pipe. In the dark I loaded it up and on my elbow, leaning off over the side of the bed, I lit my lighter, held the flame to the pipe and sucked. The room sparked and crackled and then died down. I inhaled and held and then blew out. The world and my mind came alive in the dark, my eyes pricked wide open and every hair on my body sensitive to life. I took Mary's hand and lowered it down on my cock. She gripped me lightly and I moved gently. And like that, dark and light, happy sad, wanted lonely, white brown, limp hard, soft erect, breathing in and blowing out, l lived through another turbulent night of life. I was there and if she woke and opened her eyes she would see me, a trick straight out the illusionist's handbook, for really, on this dark night into morning, I hadn't made it home at all.
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