“You can turn your back on a knife, but never turn your back on a drug.” – HST
Despite having revelled in the pure madness and beauty of LSD, I figured that something would have to be paid back to the universe before I got too old. You can’t keep on pumping a substance into your brain that powerful without some serious consequences at some point. But, shit, what’s the point of worrying when you are 18 and embroiled in an accelerated growing up period accentuated with wild highs and hedonism, and girls. Very few would intentionally step off the good times bus when the destination is uncertain but the thrill of the journey is so intensely pleasurable. For some though, the end of the road is not where they expected to be.
Peter was known by a different name in jail – “Pedro”. He wasn’t Mexican. I thought at first that he was inside for a cocaine charge – hence the nickname – but he was simply a burglar with too much need for ready cash and too little sense. I don’t know where the nickname came from but people shouted it out of cell windows at Peter and laughed the laugh of people with the secret.
Peter was slim, tall, with a wild afro and large, goofy, teeth. I guess he was around 30 years old. The other lads would goad him in the free association periods and he’d jibber and jabber like some wild South American parrot and then break dance – badly – to screams of laughter. I could never get any sense out of him, even on his own and with a lot of prompting. Suddenly, mid sentence, Peter would break off and start swan diving onto the floor shouting things like “It’s the fucking sky maaaaaan”. He shouldn’t have been inside. He needed help, not the thousand-strong crowd of gawpers and fans.
His neighbour in the next cell – Shep – summed it up: “Pedro was famous round our way in Sheffield. He was a cool, cool, kid once but he just took too many mushrooms and that was it, his brain was fried. Next thing you knew he’d attack people for no reason and start yelling and screaming about aliens.” Pedro was the only person I knew who looked to be enjoying his time in there. There was no other proof I needed of mental illness than that, only the seriously damaged could get any joy or comfort from prison. But you couldn’t trust amateur prison diagnosis, from the inmates, and especially from the staff. But Shep wasn’t wide of the mark.
Shep hated the police, and I mean HATED them. I suspected that he hated every single person remotely connected with authority too, including me, even though I didn’t have an ounce of authority in my body. On the back of one of his hands was a tattoo of a severed pig’s head wearing a police helmet and the words “the only good pig is a dead pig”. One evening he sidled up to me and whispered hoarsely “I need a local map drawn on a silk handkerchief, a French phrasebook, and some peasants clothing. The tunnel is nearly complete,” then he walked slowly away giving theatrical shakes of his leg to simulate dirt falling from the bottoms of his trousers. He’d buddied up with a guy from Pakistan and they both planned to travel to Kashmir when they were released to fight against India. “I’m spiritually Pakistani,” Shep told me.
Eventually the prison doctor decided to section Shep, the irony being that Pedro still held his own breakdancing competition nightly, saliva spraying from his jabbering mouth, without anyone batting an eyelid. But, like Shep had predicted to me weeks before, Pedro wouldn’t last. About a week after Shep was led sheepishly away to the hospital Pedro attacked another prisoner for apparently no reason and was taken to places unknown. He never surfaced again.
For reasons that never became clear, prison was full of people who should have been afforded better mental health care. It was sad to see so many clearly ill people thrashing wildly about in the system. Nobody got treated with any degree of care. And most of the problems appeared to be from some psychotic reaction to something synthetic they’d taken in better times.
Buy the ticket, take the ride? Yeah, maybe, and I’d still encourage anyone to do whatever they felt they needed to just to get by, but the cost of a safer trip is sometimes more than you and I can afford. I still, to this day, debate whether my intake of hard drugs was responsible for the problems I faced in later life. But on warm summer evenings in the Caribbean, when the rum is flowing and tree frogs are calling, they all feel very, very, far away. Would I have changed it all, gone back and become something else? Nope. Would Pedro? Would you?