In the summer when the trees are full the sunlight falls in mottled dabs upon the Cours Gambetta. The Cours Gambetta is a long straight road which runs the length of two entire boroughs. For some way along it is lined on both sides with tall Plane trees which branch out and meet in the middle overhead. Beneath this leafy canopy, cafés, patisseries and fabric stores lay open in the dank shade of day. If one walks far enough down the Cours Gambetta the road transforms: the ornate architecture of the 6 storey apartment buildings modernises; the cafes drop away; the people become less chic on less money, and the trees spare out until, after a moment, they are not there at all. Here the sun is always high and blisters down so fiercely that the further distance ripples through the waves of heat and looks like the white dusty home-front of a desert town. It was that walk I made, most days, to score heroin during my first summer in Lyon.
To enter you had to push forward the loose wooden hoardings and slip in through the scissored gap. There inside was another world: a forgotten courtyard strewn with debris under the husk of a condemned and partly demolished building. It looked like Nuremberg just after the second world war; like you could find body parts poking out the rubble. The air stank of ulcerated dogs and dried excrement. Just outside the back entrance of the building, where the shade kept the moisture, clouds of black midges hung about in the stagnant air.
It was Mamms who first pushed me through into that hidden world. He was a smack sculpted beggar I'd collared one afternoon as he left the Devil's Rest needle exchange with a rucksack full of clean works on his naked back. Abdomen scooped out, round military cap on his head and a rag out his back pocket I followed, the musty smell of stale body odour drifting back my way. He pushed the boarding open and shoved me through so suddenly that I thought he was up to robbing me. Biscuit, his mongrel street hound, wriggled through behind, its large face and body emerging like it was materialising out a time-warp.
“Voilà!” said Mamms, throwing his arms out to present the derelict skeleton of the building in front of us. "La REAL France."
"I hope so," I said, looking up and nodding in approval, half an eye still on Mamms. But Mamms wasn't out to rob me; he was too far below the poverty line for that to have helped any. Of greater significance, his shot of choice was subutex not heroin, and subutex came free, courtesy of the French state. Mamms beckoned me on, bouncing over a discarded mattress colonized by black spores. From the building two male junkies, both in their early twenties, came trundling out. They shoved and jostled one another in fun, getting rid of the surplus energy that flagrantly breaking laws and moral codes excites. They had just scored; I could tell. On seeing me they stopped. They were street addicts like Mamms - hair shaved and grown and coloured randomly, cut-down military bottoms, boots held together by various straps and laces and anarcho political messages on their t-Shirts. The first had arms covered in a thousand fresh needle marks and cutting tattoos. They slapped hands with Mamms and calmed down to a serious stance. They spoke words I didn't understand but knew were against me. I'd been around the junk scene for so long that I didn't need Mamms' lies to convince me afterwards that it was nothing. They suspected me of being a cop, and if not a cop, certainly someone there under false pretences. As they left they shot me a squinted hostile look.
"Cest bon!" said Mamms, once they had gone. "It is good, my friend. Alors, one gram?"
"Oui... and une gram for toi, " I said.
Mamms repositioned his rucksack on his back, slapped the outside of his thigh and whistled. Biscuit pulled its nose from out a bag of rubbish and shot up the stairs ahead of him. I was left to wait in what was once the back entrance, but had since been turned into a communal toilet. The space to the left of the staircase was full of turds in various stages of dehydration. Sticking out of random shits were old syringes. Flies buzzed around. I stared at the turds and the needles, and in my first French summer, so far away from the rotting bedsits and hostels and junkies of London, I waited for my score and knew that drugs and blood were back on the agenda
I woke in a panic. I had momentarily lost all notion of time and thought the half light outside was that of a new morning. God, Mary must be frantic with worry, I thought. The last thing I could remember was sitting on Mamms girlfriend's sofa and unloading a shot into my ankle. After five months clean it had laid me out good. I squinted the room into focus. Mamms was across from me, on his knees, shooting his girlfriend in the crux of her arm as she sat on a wooden chair turned away from the table. Her face was gritted in a mixture of apprehension and fear. It told me she was new to the needle. On the wall was a clock. It was almost 9pm. The second hand ticked on incredibly slowly.
Mamms said something which I didn't understand. Then he made a gesture of his eyes closing over and let his head slump forward. It meant I had gone out like that. It made him happy. His girl stirred besides him, itching the side of her face. The shot had worked its magic; she had acquired a delayed response to the world. She looked quizzically at Mamms, her eyes imploring him to understand what was going on. Then she somehow understood and turned slowly and gave me a weak smile. Where her pupils had shrunk I got the impression I was staring into a deep tunnel, at the distant point of a vanishing soul. Her smile flattened out and now her face looked traumatised, like she was trying to communicate an unspeakable horror. Her eyes closed over. Mamms stroked her back tenderly. I knew then that she had a huge tragedy lying host within her.
“Is that the correct time?” I asked, pointing to the clock. She tried to open her eyes but the heroin was too strong in her. She gave up and nodded, made some kind of a sound.
“I must go,” I said, “my girlfriend will be dying with worry.” I collected my affairs, slipped my shoe on and left.
When the evening comes down on the city and shadows stretch and fall in every direction it's a beautiful thing. Some roads are a blur of red and blue and white neon signs, and others are tall and narrow and run along with tall, Haussmannesque style apartment buildings. There are smaller roads too with maisonettes and antique streetlamps and still others which turn and crawl off into holes of impenetrable blackness. To a dark sky and history's echo I walked my way home, through the fragrances of the urban sprawl, back down the Cours Gambetta. On this return journey the world was suddenly alive. I once again felt the strong, unmistakeable presence of existence. In a foreign town, shot full of heroin, the streets were awash with drama and danger and sinister, toothless criminality.
The stairwell of my apartment block seemed lonely in its artificial light, like a cave with a single stalactite dripping water. I knew what likely awaited me. As I entered the apartment Mary came out the salon with a frantic look on her face and her phone to her ear. "Yes, yes it's him," she said, closing the phone. I lowered my head, so my eyes were hidden, and guided her back into the salon.
"Where have you been?" she asked. “I was worried and didn't know what to do." I laid my cards out straight, placing what was left of the smack on the table in front of her. It was in a bag much larger than what she was used to seeing in London. It took her a few seconds to realise what it was. She looked at me like it was a joke; hoping I'd save her. But I'm no saviour. I looked into her eyes and she looked at mine. What she saw was the conspicuous regard of heroin, the pinprick pupils and distraught look of love that sometimes creeps into the mask of heavy sedation. She put her hand over her mouth and her eyes widened.
I wasn't going to fight. I had told her that this would happen. The only help I could give her now was to make the nightmare real. I sat down, my emotions steeled against hers. I took out my syringes and, like she had seen hundreds of times before, I cooked up a shot.
“Do you want one?” I asked.
She didn't reply. Not in words anyway. She sat down besides me, looked at the heroin in the bag, then unpacked a little aluminium cooking cup, measured out a dose and cooked a hit up too. And like that the summer darkened over and our days took on a vitality that had been missing since we arrived.
We ended up on the Cours Gambetta most days, making the 30 minute walk from the mottled sunlight into the derelict end of town. Mary became friends with Mamms' girlfriend, Céline, a young first year philosophy student. She had met Mamms during the fortnight he had spent begging outside her student lodgings. From a family with money, she spoke good English and in that first month was still going horse-riding in the country every weekend. Her father was American. He wrote cheques in place of love. Mamms was obviously her very real rebellion against that superficial way of life which had left her with everything yet wanting so much. What she was to him I have no idea. All I know is that he loved his dog and gave himself wholly to his canine confidante like I never saw him give to any human being.
As the summer wore on so the Cours Gambetta wore on through our lives. We woke and showered the sticky night from off our skins and fresh and spright we hit the streets, winding our way on to the Cours. For me there was an attachment to it that was more than just heroin. It was a road which called me, made me want to rise and be out on it as soon as possible. I felt at home on the Cours Gambetta, felt like it spanned nations and culture and language. It was one road that I needed no direction or translation on; a road in a foreign country which I knew more integrally than the locals themselves. And as the Cours Gambetta cut through my days so too it came boring through my dream world. In deep sleep I would have hallucinatory visions of it, a letterbox view of my feet, walking through a night that wriggled like a Van Gogh painting, all the people of the junk life coming and going, hanging about in dark doorways, coughing up black blood into handkerchiefs and laughing, having found some deeper understanding of the human condition through the sheer horror of it, through the harshness and the struggle for survival needed to sustain chronic addiction. It was a road where death and life shimmered atop of one another, where the two were quite indistinguishable. In the quiet hours of the night I would wake and see the moon out the window. I could feel the Cours Gambetta in the milky light, nothing going on, the sleeping squat and the dogs in the dark, curled up with their jaws on their haunches, ears pricked, eyes open to the static silence of the night.
Mamms became less reliable as his relationship with Céline deteriorated. She would no longer allow him to stay over and so we'd turn up at hers in the afternoon and wait for Mamms to put in a show. Céline would shoot a shot and become manic, enter into a strange fantasy world of theatre and personas, in and out her bedroom changing into different outfits. One moment she'd appear as a hippy chick in dress and bandanna, then as a cowgirl in tan suede skirt and jacket, then in ultra small denim shorts and a top cut just below her breasts, galloping around the room like a ballet dancer with coloured ribbons of fabric flailing from her wrists. It wasn't madness, just another way of being somebody else for a while. When Mamms finally arrived she would greet him in the character of whoever she was dressed as. She thought that getting high and acting completely deranged was what drug people did.
Leaving Mary and Céline in the safety of the apartment, Mamms and I would head over to the squat. Scoring was rarely quick anymore. If we returned within an hour we were lucky. Most days we'd arrive to be told that the dealer (Julien) was out, somewhere across town reloading supplies. Mamms and I would divide our time between sitting in the shade of the stairwell, alongside the basement of excrement, or slowly circling the dusty yard like prisoners. We could be there for anything up to 6 hours and sometimes Julien never came back at all. On such occasions Mamms and I would return to Céline's and inform the girls that we had nothing. Where the girls had shown a burst of excitement on our entrance we then had to slunk down, feeling guilty, as it registered in them that there would be no fix that night. Everyone's nerves and patience would be exhausted. We'd sit around in the gloom of the bad news, staring at the floor and knowing it would be a long night into tomorrow. As this happened more and more Mary and I began heading into the city centre where I'd go junkie spotting amongst the homeless and find a score for some ridiculous price. Often we'd miss the last metro and have to walk 5 miles home.
After not even three months on the Cours Gambetta our finances were in ruins. The payments I'd been receiving from London got stopped and the small amount of money we had arrived in France with had dwindled away to nothing. My bank card hit zero and then minus 500 and then stopped working at all. I tossed it in the river like an old playing card. Mary took out a bank loan. To keep as much cash as possible for heroin we walked the roads poor, scrimped on food and tobacco and in just about every way imaginable. We began spacing the heroin out, limiting ourselves to just three shots per day. Sometimes, halfway through another long wait, knowing we didn't have the finances to carry this on much longer anyway, we'd make a sudden and brash decision to cancel our order. With the money we had saved we'd buy fabulous cups of crushed ice drinks, bubblegum and raspberry flavour, and sit in the evening square sucking and munching on the sharp crystals so as our tongues turned bright blue and pink. Then we'd slope off home, proud of ourselves and feeling safe in the knowledge that we still had our bedtime shot to get us into tomorrow.
October. Trees still full; days shorter. With the evenings came fresh winds that cooled the colour out of the leaves. From all the heroin activity in the squat news started circling of an imminent police raid. We took such murmurs as overly cautious fears until one evening when the anti-crime police stopped and searched Mamms as he left the squat. Mamms had felt something untoward in the air and managed to dump the heroin. When he returned and told us what had happened I was highly suspicious, especially as it had occurred on one of the rare occasions I had not been with him. We waited an hour and then deemed it safe to go out and search for the smack. I was sure it would not be found. To my surprise we recovered it just where Mamms said he had dumped it. It was a relief but it proved to be the last. That evening the squat cleared out, a group of 15 new age punks with dogs and stereos and boxes of CDs, traipsing across town in search of a new place to set up. We watched them go, Julien tall and stooped, weighed down by multiple bags slung over each shoulder, a shredded armless t-shirt and silver bangles hanging loose around his heroin scarred arms. As he crossed the road he lowered his head to the side, pressed a thumb against his inner nostril and blew out a thick slob of mucus from the other. Where he stumbled doing that his dog got caught up around and under him and let out a wild yelp in through the dying evening. We stood watching the troupe cross the road and continue on straight, taking a little through road and leaving the Cours Gambetta behind.
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Thanks as ever for reading, Shane. X
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