The alarm clock's ring rattled around Jimmy's head, stirring him into the numbness between deep sleep and consciousness. He revelled in the sensation of giddiness and anesthetisation. It was like getting high, only without financial cost or side effects.
Full consciousness would only bring back the guilt over things he had done to sustain his habit, reinforcing the desperation to shoot up again and blot out the shame - a never-ending vicious circle.
The quilt felt like a cocoon shielding him from the harshness of the world. His bladder was fit to burst, but he intended to put off moving for as long as possible. Once the cocoon was breached and the cold air broke the spell, the dilemma would assail him with a vengeance. Every time he awoke it was like that, like reliving the trauma of birth over and again. He couldn't actually remember his birth, but from the way that babies wailed, on having to eventually face the world, he figured it must be a terrible experience. After all, who would rejoice about entering such a shitty place as this?
The sentiment made him think of the cocoon as his mother's womb. Perhaps that's what addiction is about, wishing you had never been born in the first place, a rejection of life, seeking to stay in the comfort of the womb. Heroin could do that for you, if only temporarily - just like the numbness between sleep and full awakening, before the spell was broken.
Keira was screaming her head off as usual. Danni placed hands over ears, trying to shut out the wailing, her head pounding, legs shaking.
'Shut the fuck up, Keira!' she screamed, but the baby responded by bawling with greater intensity.
Danni collected the small, metal waste-paper bin reserved for dog-ends and used foil. She removed some of the crumpled up balls of foil to open and smooth them out the best she could, searching for faint signs of glossy brown streaks among the charcoal veins. She placed a rolled-up Monopoly bank note in her mouth and ran a lighter underneath the foil; following its course with the end of the note, she sucked greedily at any sign of rising smoke. Danni was no expert at chasing, but at least it meant there were always some dregs to vacuum up, when things got desperate.
By the time she'd repeated the process on every piece of abandoned foil, the residual traces of smack had taken the edge off her craving - for the time being. Long gone were the days when a few draws depressed the nervous system sufficiently to grant the bliss every user desires. Keira was still exercising her lungs, but the sound had become dulled to the extent that it was almost bearable. Even the flat seemed less of a dump.
Danni lit a cigarette and considered her next move. Despite the respite from being haunted by the demon, she knew the relief would be short-lived - something had to be done.
She went to the mould-infested bathroom to stand before the mirror. Danni had forgotten how she'd looked before the dragon had possessed her, having become accustomed to the ghostly complexion, the lack of subcutaneous fat. The shiny raven locks she'd been so proud of had become dull and lank, tipped with split ends. The moderate acne, which had cleared up after she left school, had returned to afflict her - pustules of sebum-blocked pores erupting more frequently on chin and nose - a ripe, yellow pluke formed on the tip of her nose. She trapped the offending spot between her forefingers and squeezed. An immense satisfaction accompanied the sensation of skin popping, the discharge of built-up pressure. The brief sense of euphoria was followed by disgust at the sight of gunk splattered across the greasy mirror. Danni considered cleaning the mirror, but the very thought of the effort exhausted her.
She closed her eyes, recollecting the memories of a summer holiday in Bournemouth; eleven years old and about to start the transition from child to woman - the innocence, the dreams - of meeting someone like her father and having a family. Why did he have to leave them? Why did her mother have to be such a slag?
There was nothing for it but to swallow her pride and give the slapper a visit.
Linda looked around the sparsely furnished living room, remembering how it had looked full of antiques. The maroon carpet was threadbare and dappled with cigarette burns, as was the grey three-piece suite. It wasn't worth replacing things anymore, even if she could afford it. She resisted the urge to dwell on the absence of once prized possessions, to concentrate on watching TV instead.
The sound of feet descending the stairs made her tense. 'Please don't ask me for any money,' she whispered to herself.
The living room door swung open to reveal Jimmy, looking haunted and desperate. His denims were soiled, his shoulder-length black hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. He looks as pale and gaunt as me, Linda thought.
'Mam ...!' The urgency in his whining voice indicated what was coming next.
'I don't have a penny to spare, Jimmy - honest!'
'No! You don't understand this is different.' He paused, evidently unable to look her in the eye. 'This is a matter of life and death, Mam - honest! If you don't help me I'm gonna get knee-capped. There's no way I'd tell you about this if I wasn't desperate. You'll be coming to visit me in hospital if you don't help me out.'
'Oh, Jimmy ...' She shook her head and clutched the arms of the chair until her knuckles turned white. 'I've heard it all before. You've taken everything I had. You promised to stop this.'
'Listen!' He sat on the edge of the sofa and leant forward, elbows on knees, wringing his hands. 'I swear this is different - I'm in big trouble and I'm scared shitless. Unless you help me, you'll have to live with seeing me badly hurt. I promise if you help me out just one more time, it'll be the last, I'll get it together, Mam - honest! I can't go on living like this.'
'What kind of trouble?'
'I've gotten into debt with people who aren't the sort you mess with, and I owe 'em a lot of money. If I don't pay something tonight they're gonna do me. Mam, please,' he beseeched her, appealing to her maternal instinct, as usual. 'I've never been so scared in my life.'
'How much debt ...?' Linda asked, without really wishing to know the answer.
Jimmy eased back on the sofa, relaxing now that a line of negotiation had been opened. 'Seven hundred ...'
'Seven hundred quid ...?' Linda gasped. "How on earth did you get into that much debt?"
'It's since you started refusing to lend me money, the debts just spiralled out of control. I hoped I wouldn't have to involve you, but I don't know what else to do.'
'But … Jimmy, where the hell am I supposed to get that kinda money from?'
Jimmy was obviously trying to hide the irritation in his demeanour and voice. 'You must have something put away, I know you.'
'You've bled me dry, Jimmy. I've given you everything I own. What else do you want - blood?'
'Don't be so dramatic, Mother.' He shook his head violently. Linda waited for the inevitable outburst. 'You...! You brought me into this world - I'm living a nightmare because of you - you have an obligation to help me out.'
'Jimmy,' she implored him, 'you're a grown man, for God's sake; you're responsible for yourself. When are you gonna learn that the world doesn't owe you a living? All the bad things that happen in your life - they're never your fault, are they? It's always someone else's fault - usually mine. I don't believe you're in danger. I think you're just making it up to get money out of me. I'm sticking to what I said before. I'm not letting you use me as your personal bank anymore.'
Jimmy jumped up and kicked the living room door on his way out. 'You'll regret this,' he shouted over his shoulder. 'Don't forget, when I'm crippled, it'll be your fault.'
The front door slammed. Linda flinched. She leaned forward cradling face in hands and wept.
Lee collected a pair of scissors and opened the tobacco tin containing saved roaches. He selected those not smoked right down to the butt, and then began to cut the burnt ends off. Then he rolled each roach between his fingers, ejecting the small balls of compacted tobacco on to a magazine. After loosening up the tobacco between his fingertips, he began sticking rolling papers together.
The spliff tasted harsh with only a faint trace of cannabis resin flavouring the stale tobacco. He coughed and sipped some tepid tea, before taking another long drag. At least it settled his stomach.
Once the smoke was over, he set about demolishing a pack of chocolate digestive biscuits.
With his stomach no longer rumbling, Lee was able to recline on the bed and close his eyes, but the overriding problem still remained: three days until his benefit payment.
He considered hanging out until Saturday, bearing the lack of appetite, the mild diarrhoea and mind-numbing boredom. The withdrawal would soon pass, but it was the emotional stress he'd have to go through first. Since developing a psychological dependency on hash and weed, he'd lost the ability to appreciate the simple pleasures in life. Nothing else mattered except getting stoned and keeping it topped up.
The moderate high provided by the makeshift spliff allowed the problem of resupply to be put aside - if only temporarily. Once again, he was able to daydream about his aspirations: travel, a career he enjoyed, a cottage in the sticks with a Porsche parked outside.
He began reminiscing about Holly; her breasts, botty and legs - the memories aroused him. Cannabis was such a turn on, a great substitute for sex with someone else. He unzipped his jeans in response to the throbbing, and caressed his erection. The passion was soon spent in a hand towel, the sense of satisfaction replaced by self-loathing. She was gorgeous; she was a total bitch; why did she have to leave him for that wanker - leaving an enormous hole to fill?
Lee took the stairs three at a time and pushed open the living-room door. She was watching Dead-Enders, of course.
'Now then, strolling bones,' she said. 'What you up to?'
She didn't look old enough to be his mother; people always thought she must be his older sister.
'Your hair looks nice; have you had it done?'
'All right, Lee, what the fuck are you after?'
When he didn't reply, she threw him her purse. It was empty.
Lee paused before the hallway mirror, brushing back his blonde hair with fingers. He selected a hooded coat and headed out the door.
Once more into the breach, he thought.
Thankfully, Keira had fallen to sleep during the twenty minute walk to Fran's house. As Danni walked up the front garden path, she could hear the deep bass of reggae music booming from the house. She rapped on the door and stood swaying from side to side, rocking Keira in time to the skank of the rhythm guitar.
The door opened to reveal the surprised face of her mother. Fran wore her blonde hair short and was dressed in tight faded jeans; a low-cut top displayed her ample cleavage.
'All right, babe?' she managed to articulate. 'Surprise, surprise - come in.'
'She's only just gone to sleep; I can't bring her in there with that racket,' Danni protested.
Fran pushed the living room door open. 'Can you turn the music down, Greg?'
The pulsating rhythm faded. Danni walked past her mother and entered the smoke-filled room. A Rasta was slouched on the sofa, smoking a big conical spliff. A shaven-headed white lad, arms adorned with tattoos, was sprawled across an armchair, an all-white American Bulldog at his booted feet. They grinned at Danni, eyes heavily glazed.
Fran closed the door and made the introductions as she sat down next to the Rasta. 'Greg, Dobbin, this is my daughter, Danni.'
The youths mumbled: 'All right?' Danni responded with a curt nod, before sitting in the spare armchair.
'Can I hold her?' Fran pleaded as she stood again, approaching Danni.
Reluctantly, Danni got up to unclip the harness and hand over her daughter. If it helped her plan to emotionally blackmail Fran, so be it. She removed the worn leather coat, half-heartedly brushing the white bits from her black Gothic attire as she sat down.
Fran cooed and crooned to the sleeping baby, making Greg and Dobbin feel uncomfortable. The men grinned in embarrassment; the bulldog cocked its ears and watched the infant.
Greg leaned forward and passed the spliff to Danni. She dragged on it with indifference, and then passed it on to the skinhead.
'So, to what do I owe the honour of this visit?' Fran asked with a hint of sarcasm.
'Well …' Danni began, unable to look her mother in the eyes. 'Keira needs some nappies and baby food, but I'm hanging out for the Family Allowance. You couldn't lend us summat 'til Saturday, could you?'
Bad timing babe, I'm skint myself.' Fran looked at the Rasta. 'Have you got a tenner I can borrow, Greg?'
'Soz, chick; I spent up on this weed.'
'Don't look at me,' said Dobbin with a shrug.
'You're not still on the skag are you?' Fran turned an accusatory look on her. When no reply came, she continued. 'Why don't you stick to the weed? You can't go wrong with a bit of blow.'
'That shit does fuck all for me,' Danni retorted.
'You're not a bag-head, are you?' Greg asked with a smirk.
'Hey, you ...!' Fran turned on him, 'Wind your fucking neck in.'
Fran was reliable in one respect - no matter how much she criticised her daughter - nobody else could.
Keira came round with a splutter and an endearing cry. Fran seemed mesmerised by the granddaughter she rarely saw.
Danni was desperate to escape the environment she found so claustrophobic, but there was something else her mother could do for her, so she bided her time. She had to listen to her mother's over-sentimental reminiscing about the good old days, the post hippy era, when drug dealing was less mercenary - when dealers and users were friends and using was a social pastime, a shared experience. The skunk was strong, but did nothing to abate Danni's yearning for heroin - it simply made her self-conscious and paranoid.
Danni found the nerve to put forward the proposition and addressed her mother. 'Fran, how about looking after her tonight - there's some things I need to sort out.'
'Really ...?' Fran crushed Keira to her breast. Greg looked pissed off.
'Sure, so long as you look after her.' Danni handed her the bag.
'Well, if you don't mind; thanks, darling.'
'I'll be back for her tomorrow dinner-time.'
Normally, Fran was the last person she would leave her daughter with, but needs must in desperate circumstances. As she left the house, Danni was cursing inwardly; her mother had passed on fuck all to her, not even her big tits.
Another council house, another door. Danni knocked and waited. This time, it was Pink Floyd making the windows vibrate.
'Now then, Danni, entrez ...' Philbo grinned as he ushered her in.
The room was like a museum dedicated to drug taking paraphernalia. Posters obscured the walls: Legalize It, Bob Marley, Che Guevara, The Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd, along with centrefolds from Home Grown magazines and fantasy babes painted by Boris Vallejo. Every shelf and flat surface had been turned into a dust-trap: ornaments and statuettes huddled together; ethnic carvings from Africa mixed with witches and warlocks, Buddhas and dragons.
Philbo was in his forties, but he had never really left his youth behind, in Danni's opinion. He wore a black and white striped jellaba, from Morocco, and sandals. Philbo gathered his long, wavy ginger hair together, tying it back with an elastic band.
He dropped on to a bean bag. 'How many bags you after, Dan?'
Danni eased into a wickerwork chair, watching Philbo get a spliff together.
'Any chance of a lay on, mate?' she asked, optimistically.
'Come on, chick,' Philbo smirked. 'You know darn well that if I do you a lay on, when you get your gyro, you'll just go to Liam's or Spazza's instead.'
That's the problem with Philbo, Danni thought, he may be a dick-head, but he's not stupid.
'I'll do you a deal,' offered Philbo, with a grin, 'a bag for a shag; take it or leave it.'
'Fuck off!' spat Danni. 'A tenner bag ...! You'd pay forty down the industrial estate.'
'Yeah, but I'm not desperate, am I?' He smirked at her. 'You are. Besides, you haven't got any tits.'
'That's fucking rich coming from a pencil dick like you.'
'Oh, Danni, you've hurt my feelings. Take it or leave it.'
'Make it two bags, then.'
'Fair do, so long as I get a shag and a blow job.'
The sex was mechanical and non-sensual. Danni went through the motions, obligingly - she wouldn't have known good sex from bad, had it not been for a single one night stand - it had made her realise that women were supposed to enjoy sex as well. She was dreading the oral sex.
Jimmy splashed through the puddles, feeling wretched, his rage rising with the overwhelming need to score. On reaching his destination, he pounded on the front door. When no one answered he started throwing stones at the half-open bedroom window.
'Come on, Philbo, you twat. Get your arse down here.'
He could just make out the sound of excited voices coming through the open window above.
'You'd better let him in,' Danni's voice advised. 'You know what a nutter he is. Give us the gear before you go.'
'Fuck off! We haven't finished yet.'
'Hand it over or I'll scream rape.'
'You still owe me a blow job, remember. All right, Jimmy, give us a couple of minutes, for fuck's sake.'
Jimmy stopped kicking the doorstep and greeted Philbo as he opened the door. 'About fucking time, an' all ...'
Jimmy followed him into to the living room and paced anxiously. Philbo returned to his bean bag.
'Do us a lay on, Philbo, mate.'
'Can't do it, Jim; No more lay ons.'
'Come on, you twat!' Jimmy shouted with fists clenched. 'All the fucking favours I've done you.'
'Tom's orders, Jim; sorry, it's out of my hands.'
Jimmy sat down in a chair to crack his knuckles. Danni joined them and sat on a large cushion. She produced a spoon from her bag and began to cook-up. Jimmy watched the ritual, salivating.
'How about giving us a hit, gorgeous?' He attempted to charm her.
'Fuck off, Jimmy - what did you say, last time I asked you the same? If you can't afford it you shouldn't do it - not such a big shot dealer now - are you?'
'Gotta piss,' declared Jimmy. He headed upstairs.
Jimmy made sure he pissed all over the bathroom floor. Once he'd finished, he slapped the side of his head, repeatedly saying 'Fuckers.'
He took a safety pin from the windowsill, opened it and began gouging his gums till they bled. Then he picked up Philbo's toothbrush to rub the bristles against his gums. If he had to have hepatitis, the fucker who turned him on to drugs should have it as well. Just for good measure, he rubbed the brush against the side of the toilet bowl, before replacing it in its stand.
He stomped down the stairs, opened the front door, and paused on the doorstep. 'You're a twat, Philbo.'
'All right, Jim?' said Lee, as he approached the door.
'No, I'm fucking not.'
'You'd better see Tom, Jim,' Philbo shouted after him.
'Don't worry, I will.'
After a couple of citalopram tablets and a few glasses of sloe gin, Linda had calmed down and regained her composure. She reflected on the past, full of recriminations and perceived guilt. Was it all her fault? Jimmy had wanted for nothing as a child. Perhaps that was the problem, she'd spoilt him. And yet, she couldn't help it, she loved him so much. Jimmy was her world, especially since his father had died. All right, he was always mischievous, but a loving child, nonetheless. Her reminiscences were interrupted by a violent hammering on the front door; perhaps Jimmy had lost his key again.
As Linda moved along the hallway, the knocking continued incessantly. 'All right, I'm coming.'
She turned the latch and opened the door, to be faced by a tall man wearing a khaki parka with the hood up. The stranger pushed past her and slammed the door shut. He drew back the hood to reveal a cruel face with a faint scar running down the length of his left cheek. Before she could protest, he barked out in a deep voice, 'Where's Jimmy?'
'Who the hell are you? Get out of my house or I'll call the police.' Linda bravely tried to sustain the defiance, but she could hear the tremble in her voice. 'I ... I mean it.'
The man scowled at her. She moved to pick up the phone. The intruder grabbed her by the throat, pinning her against the wall, his pitiless dark eyes boring into her own.
'Where is he?' he hissed.
'I don't know...' she gasped. 'He went out.'
'Listen to me carefully, cos you only get one warning. If your son doesn't get me my money, you'll end up having to spoon-feed him for the rest of his life. And if I still don't get it, I'll be coming back to put you in a wheelchair. Do you understand me?'
'Yeah ... All right. I'll get the money, just leave us alone.' Linda was so terrified she'd have promised anything.
He released her, opened the door and glared at her once more. 'And don't even dream of calling the law, they can't protect you from me - be sensible.'
The door slammed shut. Linda slid down the wall, sobbing and shaking.
Lee was staring at Danni slumped on the cushion, belt wrapped loosely round her upper arm, needle still hanging from her skin. She seemed oblivious to everything. He got up from the chair to pass the spliff to Philbo.
'Have you really not got any weed to sell? Or do you not wanna do me a lay on?'
'Honest, Lee, I'm down to a bit of personal. I'd do you a lay on, if I had any. You're a good customer. Anyway, a few joints with me will tide you over.'
'It won't man, it's just a wind-up. I need one to go to bed with, and one in the morning.'
'You'll just have to hang out 'til tomorrow night; I should have scored by then.'
Lee whistled through his teeth and shook his head.
'Why don't you do a bag, Lee? A first timer like you could make it do a couple of days. It'd see you through 'til pay day.'
'Bollocks! I don't wanna get hooked on that shit,' Lee shook his head. 'Hanging out over weed's bad enough. And you know what they say about becoming a smackhead, it's the ultimate form of selfishness.'
Philbo laughed. 'You don't get hooked just like that, you know, it takes time.'
'Yeah, but you know what they say: you start off using it, but it ends up using you.'
'Lee, honest mate, I've been using for ages now and I can still take or leave it. You have to really hammer it to get addicted.'
'I don't know.' Lee stared at his feet. 'I'd love to have a good night's sleep.'
'So, what harm can it do to try it once? If you don't like it, you knock it on the head.'
'Will you show me how to chase it, like?'
Philbo produced a roll of baking foil; he tore off a narrow strip to roll into a tube, and another one to chase on. Lee grabbed a cushion and joined him on the floor. Philbo carefully opened a wrap and flicked a small amount of brown powder on to the foil. He set about teaching Lee the nuances of chasing.
'You won't need much the first time, so there'll be plenty left for later. Run the lighter lightly under the foil, 'til the powder liquefies, being careful not to burn it. Light up again, then, tilting the foil, make it run down the length of the foil with the lighter, chasing the rising smoke with the tube.'
Lee took over and copied what he'd been shown.
'Hang on, Lee. You see there where it's blackened in a thick lump? You're wasting it, burning too much at once. Get it to spread thinly using the full length of the foil - that's it - but don't hold the end of the tube so close, you're missing some of it. That's it, mate. See, you're a natural.'
'It don't half taste sickly,' Lee complained, with a smack of his lips.
'You'll get used to it, don't worry.'
Despite the acrid taste and smell, Lee felt the tension in his muscles ease off. The withdrawal symptoms from the cannabis disappeared, along with all his worries.
'You'll have to excuse me, mate,' said Philbo. 'I'm gonna have a dig.'
Lee returned to the chair with his foil and tube. 'Why don't you just chase it, Philbo?'
'It's all right when you first start, but you waste too much. Besides, nothing compares with shooting up. The first time you experience a rush is the most amazing thing you'll ever know. Pity it's never quite the same after the first dig.'
'How about shooting me up?' Lee's thinking was based on the philosophy of in for a penny, in for a pound.
'Are you sure? I mean … I wouldn't wanna twist your arm or owt.'
'Have you got some clean works, like?'
'All I have to do is heat the needle and it'll be safe as houses, mate.'
'Go on then. Well - you only live once, don't you?'
Lee felt like he was at the hospital having a blood test, while Philbo administered the injection.
The rush was sublime; the warm tingling sensation surged throughout his body, healing every stressed fibre of his being. It was so inexpressibly wonderful it was frightening - frightening to think what life would be like without such bliss.
Jimmy returned home to find his mother trembling and drinking gin. He took his place on the sofa and addressed her, voice full of concern.
'Mam, what's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost.' Linda began to sob again. Jimmy got up and went to her. 'Hey, what's up? Come on, come sit with me over here.' He helped her up and guided her to the sofa, and sat with his left arm across her shoulders. 'What's up, Mam? Tell me.'
'Oh, Jimmy,' she blurted out between sobs. 'I've had a visit from someone threatening to cabbage you and put me in a wheelchair. It was terrifying.'
'What did he look like? Did he have a scar on his cheek?'
'Yeah, a big ugly bloke ... He barged in and grabbed me by the throat.'
'The bastard ...!' Jimmy jumped up and paced the room with clenched fists. 'I'll kill him! I'll get a gun and shoot the bastard, I swear!'
'No, Jimmy!' Linda pleaded. 'I'll get the money. Just pay him and get him out of our lives.'
Jimmy sat down and embraced his mother - she rested her head on his shoulder - he rocked her gently.
'Oh, Mam, I swear I'll never let anything like this happen to you again. You mean the world to me. This is it, no more; I promise.'
'All right, Jimmy, but I can only get two hundred pounds tonight. I'll have to get the rest from the bank, tomorrow.'
'That's all right, Mam. So long as he gets something tonight, he won't bother us.'
'Right, let me tidy myself up and I'll go to the cash machine.' She wiped her cheeks with the sleeves of her cardigan and got up. Jimmy paced the room impatiently while his mother finished in the bathroom. She collected her car keys and left the house. Jimmy took his mobile phone from a pocket and sent a text message - then he settled down to watch TV.
Within ten minutes Linda was back with the money. Jimmy took the cash, gave his mother a kiss on the cheek, opened the door and stepped back into the rain. He walked along the pavement, avoiding puddles and dog shit, and turned a corner to approach a dark blue Ford Sierra parked beneath a street lamp. Jimmy opened the passenger door and climbed in - the driver turned toward him grinning.
'Did it work then, Jim?'
'Yeah, no worries, Tom, it's all sorted.' Jimmy pulled the bank notes from his pocket and handed them over. 'I'll have the rest tomorrow, mate.'
Tom took the money, reached inside his parka and pulled out two small foil-wrapped parcels. He handed them to Jimmy.
'What, only two bags after all that? I should've got a fucking Oscar for that performance.'
'This is what happens when you use what you're supposed to sell. You can have some more, when your old biddy comes up with the rest of the cash.'