Christmas tree card

It was 2am and now he was singing about Dwarf Porn. ‘Dwarf Porn, Dwarf Porn, it’s deep down in my soul. Dwarf Porn, Dwarf Porn, that’s my ultimate goal.’

The window was open. Reefer smoke drifted out onto the hillside. He was eight pints of snakebite into the night. I watched him sitting there in my cheap armchair, singing, laughing to himself, older. He’d talked almost without a breath for over an hour. Rambling, laughing, trying his best earnest dissection of the latest problems in both of our lives. The trouble lines on his face had eased from earlier in the night. I was glad to see the change. He’d swerved responsibility again – we both had – for the zillionth time. Just a few hours back in the good old bubble. Two old hands at this now, slowed down and world-weary, going over the same things we’d been chewing up for the past thirty years. Same, same, same. Someone told me it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become really good at something. We had those sorts of hours under our belts for sure. And the bruises.

He went to sleep on the sofa. I don’t know what time, because I was in bed while he was crashing around cursing, looking for ways to open the window again for one last bedtime smoke. Scared to sleep.

In the morning I cleared up the cans. Little ground particles of weed had worked into the rug by the low table we’d been using to roll joints on. I had a train to catch. He was mumbling about bus times and trying to help his brain through the ice of post-blow-out emotional deadness. If his head felt anything like mine then he’d need a couple of days to get back to some form of equilibrium. But we knew all this. You either accept the brain reset or you go hard against it and keep the momentum going. I knew what I’d be doing: the former. A post-binge hangover is a personal thing. You’re on your own. There is no guiding light and no patron Saint to calm the fractured synapses.

I hugged him goodbye at a lonely bus stop in the middle of nowhere – never seen anyone use it, let alone a bus drive past – and walked on to the train station. He sparked up a cigarette and stood leaning against the wind, eyes on the little road.




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The election was over. It was morning. Sunshine. I sat on a bench under the new green leaves of an ash tree in a plaza called ‘Place d’Arras’. Ipswich.

The day promised some heat. Hangovers walked slowly up past the Butter Market and into the precinct. Indistinct faces, mostly. Pastel shades of pensioners, young hipsters in converse sneakers, families rushing to do shopping so they could get back home and enjoy the two days of rest before the hell of school and two shitty jobs; jobs that pay for family shopping trips into town. A circular kind of hellish reasoning. Ingenious, entrapping, invisible treadmills. Tedious, pained, soulless expressions. The employed.

An old man wearing too many layers of clothes, walking slowly, headed towards my bench even though all the others were empty. I moved to give him space. He didn’t say thanks, just sat down and sighed.

‘I’m tired,’ he said.

He took two deep breaths, adjusted the rucksack on his back, then left, pausing to ogle a  young women as she tottered past a cafe.

By the side of the church, a group of four guys weaved along the pavement coming up towards the precinct. They were eating what looked like food donations. Almost fresh baguettes and cakes. One pushed a bike. They stopped right by me. The guy with the bike said he couldn’t push it any further. He swayed, dropping the bike on the floor.

‘I know, I know, mate,’ said his friend. ‘When you’ve been up for two days it’s a fucker, ain’t it.’

He took the bike from his friend and put the boxed CCTV home security kit he was carrying under his other arm.

‘We’ll score in a bit.’

By the marina – expensive yachts, sunshine on rippled water reflecting condos and waterfront bars – three homeless guys were in their sleeping bags. One had a huge pile of books. Couple of cans of cider, too. Two Police Officers were harassing them about a report they’d had of someone down there hassling the general public – you know, the safe, co-operative people who haven’t fallen on hard times. Nobody knew anything. It’s hard to be threatening when you’re in a sleeping bag, emaciated, gouching.

England had had an election. The papers were full of it. Big ideas. Hope. On the streets no-one cared. None of it made an ounce of difference. Things were the same as they’d always be; chemical dependence, hopelessness, tedium, futility, lack of direction, the savage feeling of the stone fall of reality on cool summer mornings. Waking up with a frantic sense of loss.

Trainspotting 2

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Trainspotting 2. The lucrative sequel.

I watched it at the weekend in a small ‘indie’ cinema in the next village to where I live. The first movie – a seminal work by all involved – was excellent. It described perfectly for me how opiate addiction felt. OK, so it blurred the lines on the acquaintances involved in a heroin habit (heavy drug use brings few friends), but by and large the overarching chaos was well represented. I enjoyed the first movie. I hoped the second would mirror my own change over the past twenty years. I wanted it to hold my hand.

Seeing any film about drug use in a small cinema in a middle-class area is a big mistake. I’m guessing, like I shouted at my partner half way through the film, I was the only opiate abuser in the whole cinema. They were so disconnected from the film and the sheer horror of what they were laughing at that the whole thing was just reduced to an exercise in middle-aged chic. There were guffaws when ‘Spud’ tries to kill himself because he’s just so sick of his shitty life and his unbreakable addiction. Hilarious… Thigh slapping from some people as they howled. Had they come to the wrong movie? Had I?

I left at the end feeling sorry for the characters – all of them – and for the twenty years I’ve wasted since the first years I wasted; lots of waste in my life. The film was ok, not accurate, but it left me feeling the sort of empathy with the characters that I had twenty years ago. We were all older, alive, and still grappling with the consequences of actions we’d taken back when Britpop had, thankfully, died. I expected a theatre full of fellow travellers on the path, but all I got were sneering voyeurs. Being poor, addicted, hopeless, is not something to be crammed into a fishbowl and pointed at, yet an entire audience managed to do just that.

I got drunk afterwards. And I tried hard to believe this is where my tie to the movie franchise ended. There will be no Trainspotting 3 for me in any form – empathetic, or otherwise.


The Rattle

The dark flat smelled of dust and damp at the same time. I’d cleaned the bastard enough but the smell just wouldn’t leave. Other people may have called to question the source but I didn’t, I knew. This tiny flat – with no central heating or hot water and a dilapidated electric shower that dribbled out lukewarm water when it felt like it – had been the residence of other single men like me going back down through the years. It was the property full-stop for the failed.

I’d recently been suspended from work, due to mental health (lack of), and even though it was the best summer weather for years I kept the blinds down and myself to myself. Everyone would know the truth out there. Out there was where people would talk to me, then laugh when I went up the high street. I was finished, washed up. Out there was dangerous.

I’d moved in to the flat with a pretty decent opiate habit. I had acquired it again after all those years as a result of a big codeine prescription on the back of some surgery. Then an ex had managed to supply the odd bit of oxycontin and an occasional fentanyl patch – chewed lightly, pressed against the inside of my cheek and under my tongue. It had all been enough, along with some tramadol, to get a half decent habit going without my knowledge. And that’s how it always happens: turn your back for a second from opiates and there you sit, reaching up from life towards them like a baby in a dirty cot. But one night in the flat I realised I hadn’t taken any that day.

I knew withdrawal, the little rattles from years ago, all the first signs without anyone having to explain anything to me: aches, runny nose, fidgeting, anxiety, the usual. That night I noticed the anxiety first, ignored it, then my nose started to run. I knew it’d all be ok though, no need to let the thing progress further, because I always had codeine around the house; god knows, I’d been prescribed enough of it over the past year. There were always a couple of stray tablets in an otherwise empty packet in a drawer somewhere. No worry; never any worry when I had opiates in the house back then. I went to the main med drawer, opened it, dug through the empty packets I hadn’t been bothered to throw away, and………. found nothing.

Ten minutes later the floor of the flat was covered in empty packets, thrown furniture, clothes, and a sobbing body: my body. There was nothing in the place. No opiate, not even a shitty synthetic opiate. I couldn’t believe it.

There is nothing so depraved as an addict in the grips of a withdrawal. A throwaway sentence, half stolen, but it resonates with absolute truth. Clear as a bell. Being denied something, some substance, that your body and mind needs is like suspending yourself above a volcano by the feet – you know how you got there, but it’s inconsequential compared to the peril you are about to find yourself in if circumstances don’t change. It is a vicious and unforgiving place to be. Withdrawal is like punching yourself in the stomach and then hating yourself for the pain. Actually, I’ve done that too, but there is an element of control in self-harm, and there is none in opiate withdrawal.

I went to bed, taking the only thing I could find in the blind rationale that something is better than nothing in a tight spot. They were only quinine tablets, but I reasoned they must have some effect somewhere. Desperation makes logic skewed, so I’ve found. They did absolutely nothing. In bed, my legs kicked, my bones ached, my nose ran, I sweated then shivered, I raged, wanked, puked, hurt, and I rode that hellish opiate bike as the synapses in my brain called out for more, but were denied. Detox equals hell. The whole thing only took four days but it felt like years. At the end of it I’d aged inside.

A week later, with a friendly GP in tow, I forgot every second of those four days as I bounced to the chemist with a fresh dihydrocodeine prescription in my hand. All problems solved. There’s always a next time, no matter what lies you tell yourself when the chips are down.

Old Friends

Spring 2013

Sitting with an old friend – a childhood friend I used to think was like an older brother, who’s now a recovering addict, recovering badly – in the May sunshine at a pub table next to an extractor fan dripping with grease. He’s happy because the beers are in, and the hot weather gives us both a legitimate excuse to suck up some alcohol.

I see his eyes dart towards the codeine packet as I pop one open, and his whole face becomes a yearning picture of need. He’s a flowerhead searching for the sun and something, anything, to pollinate the serotonin stamens of his fractured brain. Out of the empathy of one addict to another I popped another couple from the silver foil and offered them to him. He took them quickly and, as if to prove his familiarity with the vintage, stuck them on his tongue for a while, taking in the repulsive bitter taste full-flavour like a badge of honour: I’ve been there, my friend, I understand.

What slow rush there was, if any, wasn’t discernible over his manic chatter. He moved from subject to subject in a single sentence…to fill the air….to entertain. The hours pass like this, in sunburn and laughter.

In the end, when the jokes run dry and his heartache has left just a small residue of mirrored pain on both our faces, he lets me break in and speak. And, thoughtfully, he listens, even seeming to understand and accept my words. He’s the sinner to my jaded Priest. The sun starts to go down and we walk up the hill to my home. We drink more, smoke some Weed, then fall asleep in our respective rooms.

The next day I take him to the train station. He shakes my hand, sweating for another beer on the way back to Sheffield. The last view I have is of him rolling a smoke outside the glass doors of the ticket office, cutting it fine for the 11.08, calmer than before we had spoken both our words in the sunshine. He would relapse spectacularly a month later; was I and that one May day, and the sun, and the memories, and the tie we both have to getting high, responsible? Would we ever be ok?

Spring 2016

He’s been clean for nearly two years. We don’t see each other any more.