Chapter 1: 30th of September
A toast to oblivion, plastic people,
and the wonderful promise of blood
It being a cloudy moonless midnight, my victims and I were in near-complete darkness as I led them through the graveyard. The only light came from my torch, as well as the occasional scratching flicker of cigarette lighters from one of the four, presumably to get their bearings. Which was a course of action I saw as almost monumentally fuckheaded, seeing as the lighters would soon get too hot to hold and therefore be extinguished, immediately after which the darkness would leap into their vision with renewed intensity and they would have to spend dangerous moments groping round with outstretched hands until their eyes became accustomed to it. By which time they probably thought their lighter sufficiently cooled off, as the whole idiotic process began again. I prayed that their generation’s stupidity was an anomaly, a blip in the graph, for if it in fact signified a trend, then we are all truly, unstylishly damned. We had on our persons 200 units of alcohol, 27 Temazepam, fifteen ecstasy tablets, 2 grams of coke, a bottle of amyl nitrate and an eighth of skunk. Matt carried a guitar; I, the torch and my ‘pigsticker’, a flick-knife the manufacture, distribution and possession of which was almost certainly illegal (and which would, moreover, before the night was through, shine darkly with blood). The small pool of light trembled and danced over broken gravestones: I was looking forward to this.
“Nearly there yet?” whined Naomi.
“Nearly,” I said. “All I ask is patience.” And to remember your age, bitch. “You know it’d be easier if you stopped flicking those lighters on and off. Let your eyes get accustomed.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” said Bob, pointing at my torch.
Whereas, of course, spouting clichés like that is incredibly difficult and worthwhile, you rat-faced dick-witted son of a cunt.
It had been my idea -that, in itself, accounted for its brilliance- and one that after a small amount of nebbish humming and hawing, they had agreed to. Agreed to- the very notion made me want to laugh, as if it was their choice, as if someone agreeing to their fate has, in doing so, some form of control over it. Already, at this early stage, illusions that had to be destroyed. (These youngsters had a lot to learn, I was the one to teach them, and sometimes the only way to build something is to smash it to smithereens and start again: these are simply the facts that I place before you.) As I say, my idea, and, I suppose, phase one of my nine-month plan. The evening had, until that point, been as depressingly nullish as I had feared: a ‘few beers’ and a ‘chat’ in what they had already dubbed, with pathetically premature chumminess, ‘the local’. The Packhorse- and please excuse me while I weep tears of gratitude at having such a rancid, old-man-smelling dump practically on my doorstep: probably a stone’s throw away, something I shall be verifying in the near future with great enthusiasm and accuracy. But still better than nothing, which is what I almost got, nothing: Lucy said she had some reading to do, Naomi said she had to unpack, and Bob wanted to watch a film that was about to start. That, and of course, they had all had a ‘long day’ and were ‘well knackered’. The only one warming to my popping-out-for-a-few idea was Matt, until he too remembered that he had had a ‘long day’ as well, and was also ‘well knackered’. So depressing when one’s youngers show such reckless signs of moral fibre in the face of temptation. I remember their gestalt expression: regretful yet resolute, as if their not coming out was a terrible blow to me I would simply have to get over, a grim but necessary fact of life that I would one day, with time and luck, understand and come to terms with.
I’d been tempted to pepper the air with obscenities and flounce out into the night to get drunk and rape something (mainly to spite them, by way of me depriving them of my company), but I manfully rose above it. I informed Lucy that recommended reading lists were no more than a cheap alternative to toilet-paper; Naomi, that unless her suitcases contained some form of vital organ or bag of blood whose transfusion was due, her unpacking could surely wait; and Bob, that video-recorders had been invented in the early 80s, alongside the happy discovery of people having a social life. Then, drawing Matt in and addressing them as a unit, I said that if a tired old soul such as myself -whose day had been no less ‘long’ or ‘well knackering’ than theirs, a bunch of teenagers- if I was the only one in any shape for a night of hedonistic abandonment, then well, things had reached a pretty pass and rock and roll was indeed dead. The aforementioned nebbishness began, each one of them looking at each other unsurely, waiting for one to crack: as if it was a diving expedition to find the lost city of Atlantis I was suggesting instead of just going to the fucking pub. My mind screamed So GET YOUR COATS ON! as I smiled at them and said that besides, what better way for us to get to know each other?
They got their coats on.
The Packhorse had been my choice, and had represented a bit of a gamble: situated on the same block as St Mark’s (university flats), there was always the risk it would be full of other friendly firstyears who would drunkenly initiate those fresher conversations -where from, what course, A-levels, pet peeves and turnons- and in doing so befriend them and totally ruin my evening. But it was a Sunday evening the week before freshers’ week, most people hadn’t arrived yet, and The Packhorse had lots of little rooms for little groups. We found one empty, and so we settled down for the evening, with me sitting facing the door giving anyone who stuck their head round it a look that said Sure, come in- if you want your throat cut (and, by virtue of this, nearly getting into trouble with various members of staff). I got every round in, tapping my nose conspiratorially whenever one of them asked me how I could afford to do so. Their reactions to my nosetapping were, in all of them, the archetype of naive youth: first puzzlement, then recognition, then a moment of shock quickly masked with a sly insouciance that said yes I know all about ‘dodgy dealings’, say no more... Yes I got every round in, the reason behind my generosity being I wanted them to instantly like me, and was loathe for one of them to leave the table and bump into some unknown friendly face. I had even arranged for our little room to be just opposite the toilets, just in case: my foresight and attention to detail are amongst the reasons nothing has ever gone wrong in my life and I get pretty much whatever I want. Anyway, the evening followed, we all got pretty drunk, and we all got to know each other.
Just as I had planned, talk turned, as it will on Sunday night student piss-ups, to what we should do at chucking-out time. Matt said he had a bottle of vodka back at the house we could all share, an offer Bob supplemented with his bag of grass, but the girls (bless em) wanted to stay out: were there, they asked this grizzled old Leeds veteran, any good clubs open? I put my head to one side, and said “Yeah there’s a few on Sundays, not really that good, and wouldn’t it be more fun if we-” and then I laughed, shaking my head at what could only be my own folly, and said “No” to myself. “No, doesn’t matter.” Immediately they were curious, snapping at the bait, saying things like “No come on Alex- what?”
I looked at them with what I believe is called ‘sheepishness’, as if embarrassed by my uncontainable candour, as if inwardly weighing up the pros and cons of taking these near strangers into my confidence. Eventually I made it clear that in saying what I was about to say, I was putting my reputation on the line, but they were my friends, so hey, here goes. “It’s just that when I’ve had a few, I like to... well, go to a graveyard, do some drugs, drink a few bottles, sing a few songs, get naked and dance around. You know.”
And then I had added, as if the possibility had only just occurred: “Is that weird?”
“Here we are!” I stopped suddenly, and felt Lucy’s excellent breasts on my shoulderblades as she bumped into me. I then felt the transferred kinetic energy of the person behind her doing likewise, then again, fainter, and then finally again with surprising force (I figured that to be Matt, who was a bit of a chubby lad, and a lagger to boot). We were standing in what amounted, in masonry terms, to a clearing: a roughly circular arrangement of gravestones, roughly twenty feet in diameter, and closed by a curved mausoleum or cenotaph, which was about the size of a church altar and gave the impression of being something upon which one could have a really enjoyable fuck. Plenty of space. I stuck the flashlight into the ground and pressed the button that intensified the beam, getting the first real view of ‘the gang’ since we had left the pub. Lucy looked cold, Naomi looked scared, Bob looked pissed off and Matt seemed to be in the middle of setting fire to himself: hardly ideal for what was about to commence, but not completely unworkable. I drew breath.
“You didn’t say your torch could, err, facilitate that!” said Bob.
“You didn’t arse-kiss,” I said. “Anyway, don’t worry, we’re here now. Tell you what, we’ll build a fire in a bit, give those zippos and clippers of yours something constructive to do as opposed to just burning your thumbs. That’ll stop you being cold,” -I pointed to Lucy- “stop you” -Naomi- “being frightened, and’ll give your jumper” -Matt- “something to be jealous about. Okay?” I saw the hurt start to materialise on Bob’s face, the resentment at being the one left out, and was almost shocked at how quickly and easily I had been granted the role of leader. One of the many benefts of being a mature student. Very well: gather him up into the fold. “And then you can play with my torch to your heart’s content. Okay?” Bob’s smile indicated that yes, this was fine by him. “Anyway, now,” I clapped my hands together, “time for drink and drugs!”
The weed was Bob’s, everything else -the coke, the poppers, the Es, the temazzies- were mine, a small chunk of my massive and constantly-updated personal stash. Under my bed was a small box in the style of a treasure chest with a strong lock, divided into various compartments. There were two divisions of ecstasy, one being practically pure MDMA, the other having an almost negligible amount of the lovedrug, being mostly crammed with ketamine, strychnine, barbiturates, washing-powder, ground glass, brick-dust and all manner of nasty little toxins. I called them ‘nice’ and ‘naughty’. I took two nices for myself, as the naughtys (horribly) made me feel wonderful and happy and loving, whereas the nices turned me into a (much more appropriate) demented sociopath and eight naughtys for my eager young charges. Now you may think that I chose to poison them in order to ensure their last night as real people was a hellish one, but the truth is almost the opposite- I didn’t want them to enjoy themselves too much, it would only give them further to fall. (I may be so evil I would go well out of my way just to even slightly upset someone, and draw a strength from doing so that far outweighs any trouble taken, but I do have some standards.)
I’d been generous when it came to the drink too. When we’d went back to the house for the weed and the guitar, Matt’s bottle of vodka, the intended subject of his ‘sharing’ idea, had turned out on closer inspection to be a 35cl bottle of cheap 35% bullshit that was furthermore about three-fifths full, and was declared by me to be woefully inadequate. A trip to the allnight garage had saved us though. (Right in the middle of studentland, there is a guy I know quite well, Rajif, who works the weekend night shift at a chain he’d rather I didn’t name: he supplements his wage by flogging alcohol to people coming out of pubs and clubs, plonking the bottles into the small reminds-you-of-a-bank compartments under the bulletproof glass the minute he’s snuffled up your cash. His prices are reasonable, and he’ll sell to anyone who doesn’t look like ‘undercover plod’ as he puts it: the trick is to not try to radiate normality, don’t act strenuously casual, keep 15 year-old street-slang to a minimum.) I’d insisted we have a bottle each, assuring them I would pay: Lucy, Matt and Bob were happy with vodka; Naomi, who was not much of a drinker, eventually plumped for Southern Comfort (sweet and easily potable, a woman’s drink, and one that to this day I am convinced is distilled from essence of Fruit Pastille). As for me, Rajif said he had some tequila in: there being no fouler, more evil-smelling potion I have ever projectile-vomited, I absolutely adore the stuff and had snapped up a bottle pronto.
We were sitting in a circle round the torch, crosslegged. I put my hands together, as if in prayer. “For what we are about to receive, may the lord make us truly grateful. Amen.” I then put the two nices in my mouth and sloshed them down with some tequila, my head involuntarily jerking to one side as the liquid scorched my innards. “Well come on then!” I said, holding out the eight naughtys in my hand.
“What- we’re gonna double-bang them?” said Lucy, thus marking herself out as someone with drug-knowledge: a worrying intelligence, the girl could prove difficult.
“’Double-bang?’ What’s that?” said Naomi, thus marking herself out as drug-naive, and therefore most pleasingly malleable: suitable for my purposes, then.
“Yeah sure Lucy,” I said. “Don’t worry, the come-up’s pretty mild, y’know a gradual build-up, not one minute you’re straight then whoosh, none of that, trust me.” I turned to Naomi. “Means taking two at once.”
“Whatever.” Lucy took two pills and studied them in the gloom. “The fuck’s this symbol?”
“A rhino. S’what they’re called- rhinos. Practically pure MDMA. Really beautiful.”
Bob looked at me with disbelief as he took two. “Why on earth are they called rhinos?”
“I don’t know- maybe cos they make you feel horny?”
Lucy laughed. “That’s good enough for me!” she said as she double-banged them with a glug of vodka.
Now this had an immediate effect on the boys: though I had already given the impression as being the sort of charmingly dark eccentric who like dancing naked in graveyards, Lucy had emerged as a rather sensible lass. Friendly and lively and fun (if you like that sort of thing- apparently some people do), but nevertheless worldlywise, one with a good head on her shoulders who only took the most calculated of risks. The kind of person you suspect has their life very much sorted, and to whom bad things simply failed to happen. Not a bad role-model. The internal reasoning was practically etched on Matt and Bob’s faces: well if she could take them... They both shrugged and downed the pills. I held the remaining two out to Naomi.
“I don’t know...” she whined. She on the other hand had emerged as almost the polar opposite of Lucy, a whinging worrier who nibbled at every choice or opportunity and still managed to fuck it up, all due, I suspected, to an innate medical condition known as ‘being thick as pigshit’. “I’ve never had ecstasy before.”
“Then you are in for a treat, m’dear,” I said. “First time’s always the best.”
“Yeah but you like, hear such stories.”
“Yeah, you know, overdoses and that. Leah Betts.”
I looked up at an imaginary waiter hovering over me. “Err, no need for the winelist thanks, I’ll just have a glass of water with my meal, don’t want alcohol poisoning, now do I?” The others tittered a bit, but Naomi just looked at me blankly. “Look Naomi, what the press weren’t allowed to say about Leah Betts was the exact cause of her death. They said she drank too much water and drowned internally, but the actual truth is...”
“She died of happiness.”
They all laughed in a way they already had a couple of times at things I’d said this evening: a shocked smile, amusement against one’s better nature. Standard sick joke procedure. Well actually, they didn’t all laugh...
“That’s not funny Alex, actually,” said Naomi.“And it’s also in very very poor-”
“Okay, sorry, nasty joke, I know. But to be honest and realistic, Leah Betts was one unlucky girl, just as unlucky as the thousands of motorists who die every year behind the wheel. No reason to hand in your driving license though, is it? Look, you’re here, you’re with friends, you’re safe. Okay?” I was, by now, practically shoving the pills up her nose.
She looked at the others. “Friends?” They all nodded. She took the pills and sighed, all resistance gone. “Oh all right then.” Down they went.
“A toast!” I cried, holding my bottle aloft. “To oblivion!”
We all shouted Oblivion! and clinked.
We then sat for a bit in silence. I enjoyed it, just sitting there pondering the meaning of oblivion, its etymology (Latin- being forgotten), but knew that one of them would find it awkward and feel the need to say something, no matter how inane. A bit of a shame that, as I thought it rather nice to just sit there sipping my drink, casually waiting for the drugs to kick in and take us all to a dark and dangerous place. My money was on Naomi.
My money wasn’t wrong.“Err, how long do these things take to work?”
“An hour or so,” I said. “Actually, no, double-banging so, half an hour.”
“So what do we do in the meantime?”
“Yeah,” said Lucy. “We just gonna sit here in silence till they kick in?”
“Fine by me,” I said. Which it was.
Lucy shook her head and exhaled in pretty exasperation. Naomi looked worried and was fidgeting with her chewed-up nails: probably thought any form of activity would help counteract or at least delay the effects of the pills she already regretted taking. Bob was skinning up on the back of the guitar. Matt looked lost in thought.
“What you thinking about mister?” said Lucy to him.
“It’s just- something we used to do back home...” He trailed off, smiling. The girls’ attention was grabbed, and I pretended mine was too, fearing a nauseating episode of nostalgia or homesickness. Even Bob looked distracted from his duties. Sensing this, Matt continued. “Got these two mates, Steve and Pete, drinking partners I suppose. We had this idea that when we went to the pub, none of us said anything until we’d had five pints. Well it started off as two, then grew. Just sitting there in silence, drinking. Not a word till number six was there on the table.”
“Well that sounds like great fun,” said Lucy.
I nodded vigorously at this until I realised she was being sarcastic. “Why exactly Matt?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know really, and there’s no need to take the piss Lucy, cos it was fun. We’d be sitting there getting more and more drunk, and by like the fourth or fifth pint we’d be having all these crazy funny half-pissed thoughts, but we wouldn’t be allowed to say anything until the fifth pint was gone. When it was -and it’d have to be all three of us finished, yeah?- we’d all start laughing and shouting. Fucking brilliant, every time. Kind of like, some sort of valve opening, y’know, after like a build-up of pressure.”
“Delayed gratification,” I hissed, my eyes probably twinkling in the torchlight. “Excellent.”
“S’pose it encourages you to drink quickly,” said Lucy grudgingly, as if doing Matt a massive favour in giving his fantastic idea what is known as ‘head-room’.
“Not just that,” I said, “but to keep up with each other, no lagging behind or the whole group suffers.” I felt like clapping: the thought of fat Matt and his cronies sitting in grim determined silence in some shoddy little boozer, suspiciously eyeing up each others’ pints, desperate to avoid the shame of being last, was all too exquisite. “And the ritualistic element, the pact of silence, trappist drinking, oh that’s wonderful Matt, really it is.”
“Trappist out of our fucking heads,” he said, smiling.
“You saying we do that now?” said Lucy.
“Might be a laugh,” he said with a distinct lack of conviction.
“But it’ll take me hours to finish this,” moaned Naomi, holding up her bottle, which contained at a guess 749 mls of fluid out of a possible 750. “I said I don’t really drink that much. I did say that.”
Lucy leaned over to her. “I think the idea is we wait for the E to take effect honey. Like Alex said, it’ll be half an hour tops.”
“Oh. Oh. Oh,” said Naomi. Let me go through that with you: Oh 1 was understanding, Oh 2 was remembering the chemicals currently running through her body, and Oh 3 was resignation and fear.
“Oh oh oh indeed,” I said. “Well I think it’s an excellent idea and I for one am all for it. What say we have our first house vote- who’s for the pact of silence?” I raised my arm high.
“Well it was my idea, and it’s pretty funny with beer, so... yeah.” Matt was in.
“Try anything once, that’s my motto,” said Lucy, putting her hand up. It was a motto I would make sure she would come to regret, or at the very least, question the wisdom of deeply. “How about you Bob?”
Bob looked up from the spliff he had just built. “Huh?”
“Bearing in mind,” I said, “that we’ve already got three out of five, so a negative vote would only be a waste of arm-power.”
“Yeah sure, whatever,” he said, limply raising one hand as the other searched in a pocket for his lighter. “But we can smoke though, yeah?”
“I wouldn’t have it otherwise,” said Lucy, “which in other words means I’ll have second dibs on that j.” She turned to Naomi. “How about you hun?”
Naomi looked nervous and unsure. Well no, that’s not true, or rather it’s not particularly informative: by then I had realised that Naomi always looked nervous and unsure, it was just a matter of degree, a sliding scale of crapness. So, Naomi looked like Naomi, but even more so. (And I have no doubt whatsoever that you’re getting about as sick of the wretched girl as I was at that point.) “Well I’m all for house democracy, but...” She looked around into the still quiet darkness. “I mean, complete silence, it’s just, ooh dear, it’s a bit creepy round here...”
I sighed. “We’re in a bloody graveyard woman. It’s about as safe as you can get- everyone here’s dead!” She jumped at my last word, as if only just alarmingly realising what all these stone tablets growing out of the ground actually signified. “Anyway, you said you’re all for house democracy, so the vote is closed regardless of your dithering. There’ll be no talking until twenty-five minutes from...” I looked at my watch, “now!” Everyone then took a big gulp of breath and held it between sealed lips, as if it was a suspension on living I had suggested. Then I broke the silence (see them all gratefully gasping in air), which I regretted, but I had to, it was important. “Sorry, but Lucy and anyone else who’s never done this before?” Neither Bob nor Matt looked at me, not in any significant way, so I turned my attention to Naomi. “Naomi. You may feel the need to vomit.” A suggestible girl, I could imagine her mouth filling with squirts of portentous saliva as I broke this unfortunate news. “Not necessarily, just maybe. It’s not a given- okay? If you do, erm, ‘Naomi’, you must try to fight the urge. At least until the pills’ve kicked in. Otherwise it’ll be six quid of my money you’re spewing, and I think I’ve spent enough this evening. You with me?” She nodded furiously, gulping, looking like Naomi by now to an extraordinary degree. “So if, if, if you feel the need, try to hold it in for fifteen or twenty minutes, let the E get absorbed into your bloodstream, then by all means puke, it’ll be a moment of discomfort and you’ll have a wonderful evening. Okay? Can you do that?” She carried on nodding, one hand massaging her stomach. “And don’t touch yourself there- it’ll only agitate your insides. Okay? Good.” I turned to the others. “Sorry everyone.” They smiled indulgently: hey no worries Alex, the kid’s just green. Bob in particular seemed to be overdoing the men-of-the-world thing, hamming up his embarrassment at Naomi’s naivety. “Right, sorry about that, no more interruptions, and no more talking till twenty-five minutes from... now.”
We sat in silence for about three or four minutes, until Bob threw up. He had the good grace to warn us of this at least twenty seconds prior to the event, which was ample time for me to grab a plastic bag. “Don’t know what it is, usually fine with these things,” he said queasily before spewing into the bag, and I instantly realised (I think Lucy did too, I caught her glance and it spoke volumes) that in spite of his earlier casual manner, this was his first experience with ecstasy. He vomited a small amount of liquid, mostly dark red- I caught the lot.
“You okay Naomi?” I said, looking at her, fearful of how fearful this turn of events would make her. But she seemed fine: in fact, she seemed most unNaomi-ish, eyes closed, gently swaying, taking surprisingly deep tugs on the joint that had now passed to her. I rootled with one finger through Bob’s blood in the Texaco carrier-bag, and found what I was looking for, two little fragmented and semi-dissolved tablets. I rinsed most of the visceral muck off them with tequila, popped them back in Bob’s mouth and poured vodka down his neck as I held his nose. (And God it felt good: I couldn’t wait to really get things going with him...) He was in no mood or position to call such a sequence of events into question. The others were about to offer advice or dissuasion or... well who cares what, I silenced them all by pointing at my watch and holding a finger to my lips. Bob wiped sweat from his brow and resumed his position, indicating with both a thumbs-up and grimace that he respectively felt a lot better now and was sorry to have been such a nuisance. The twenty-five minutes resumed themselves, this time uninterrupted, and I studied the four closely.
Bob first, having now resumed his skinning-up duties. Bob- the name didn’t fool me for one minute. He was clearly a Robert trying to slum it (like a middleclass Gareth trying to palm himself off as a Gary or, even worse, ‘Gaz’), and had probably chosen the monosyllabically blokeish alternative in the manner of many firstyear students- a new town, new friends, new life, so why not, therefore, a new me? That was my bet, anyway. Accent rather refined –home counties at a guess- but littered with mockney matiness and sweary attempts at epigrams: probably thought of himself as one of those people who embrace both the high- and the low-brow upon their own terms. You know- ‘a fascinating bundle of contradictions’. Hair down around his shoulders, but too fluffy to look good with it. Or, for that matter, heterosexual. Fine features that, due to a too-pointy nose, unconvincing chin and eyes too small, tired and far apart, could not be called pretty. Short and skinny, in clothes that are occasionally fashionable amongst certain students, and never stylish amongst anyone with any sense ever. Yes velvet smoking-jacket, yes tatty flares, yes Open University shirt, I’m talking about you. A peg or two too high for my liking, he probably thought he was the bee’s knees, the dog’s bollocks and the cat’s flaps: it would be interesting to see him his ego destroyed, and what - if anything- was left.
Matt, sitting there smoking a roll-up and steadily knocking back the vod. Most definitely no Matthew, anyone could see that, and this was probably something to his chagrin, given the scope for playground-style rhyming (Matt is fat, Matt is a prat, Matt the twat shat in his hat etc). Fat, yes, in every sense, even his movements and speech seeming dense and lardy, but with a nice face. Not, by any means, an attractive one (and why should that be a criterion? where’s the correlation?), but open and friendly and honest: unlike the rather shiftylooking Bob, he seemed to lack any guile. Terrible teeth. Stereotypical rotund joviality, likes a drink, probably loves his food (I reckoned the drugs were the only thing stopping him from getting a kebab right now), an easygoing salt-of-the-earth Northerner -think he mentioned Salford earlier- who dressed like shit and didn’t really seem to care. In short, a rather nice chap- pity, that.
Lucy next, offering me the joint which I decline, then shrugging and finishing it. An alarmingly well put-together girl. Big green eyes, glowing with impudence and intelligence; cheekbones and mouth pointy and pouty; creamily pale skin; face both round and delicate, not unlike a doll’s BUT, in the ‘stylisation of beauty’ way, not the ‘sinister horror-film chick’ way; funkily cropped reddish-purple hair (dyed? I do hope so- always love it when people aren’t happy with what nature gives them, such potential for fun); big white tablets of teeth with a pleasingly snaggly hint of indented front retractors, like Bowie had when he still had it; slim yet also curvy figure topped off with -and let’s not be coy here- lovely great big huge fat tits. (Yes I am a breast man, simply by dint of not being a gay man, or one in pretty serious denial about the way the world works. And a man furthermore chockful of rising sick concerning his male peers whinging on about the virtues of ‘pertness’ or ‘more than a handful’ being ‘a waste’... Mmyeahright. Such saddoes either think, mistakenly, that they’re being urbane and sophisticated, or are saddled with an ironing-board of a girlfriend and feel they have to defend their choice, and have in any event probably never clamped their dick between a pair of whopping great gazungas). She wore a long black velvet jacket, under which the many roundnesses of her body moved, clad tightly with a sparkly sequin-rimmed top and short leather skirt, which forced her to sit with her long legs curled primly under her. Yes, altogether most easy on the eye, but, as I said earlier, with an infectious sense of joie de vivre, an unflappable air of fun and capability, which I must say rather lets the whole package down, in my eyes. But it would soon go- oh my God yes.
Naomi, on the other hand, was a much more promising prospect. Quite unrealistically unattractive in every physical sense, I grant you (bashed-in gummy-smiling witch’s face, mousy hair dry as dust, concave chest and fer-labby arse), but with a haunted look about her. Every gesture and tic spoke of a horrible past, of bullyings, ritual humiliation, evil parents, a world full of lovelessness and empty of anything else. She looked as if life had constantly dealt her a bad hand and then went on to stamp on her foot and slap her round the face, and the fear and paranoia and resignation that lived in her eyes showed that life, as far she was aware, was in no real hurry to let up on such arbitrary cruelty. A deformed and much-experimented-on lab-rabbit in cheap and ill-fitting charity-shop clothes, forever staring into horrible headlights. My kinda gal.
Plastic people- all would melt.
I sat there, my jaw working itself up into a nice crunchy grind, repeating this phrase over and again to myself, until I was rudely jerked back into the present by Naomi pointing at her watchless wrist and mugging frantically. An odd thought bubbled up -you want me to slash that for you?- until I realised and checked.
“Well that’s twenty-five minutes friends.” There was a collective sigh of relief, and then, oddly, silence. “Well?”
“I feel fucking weird,” said Matt.
“Yeah me too,” said Bob.
“Yeah me three,” said Lucy. “But, y’know, good weird. How about you Naomi?”
“No, bad weird.”
“How about you Alex or should I say Mr Bullshitter?”
I looked at Lucy, puzzled, worried. “Mr..?”
She laughed. “Pure MDMA my arse. I’ve taken enough ketamine in my time to recognise it, you big fraud.”
“Oh don’t worry, I like it, but, y’know, some people...” She drifted off, letting the image of people with whom the horse-tranquilizer didn’t quite agree -people sweating, people puking, people overdosing, people freezing up and screaming at loved ones don’t come NEAR me!- hang in the air between us. The others turned to her, looking worried.
“The fuck’s keta-majig?” said Bob to both me and her.
“Oh God it’s not something bad, is it?” wailed Naomi.
“What’s she going on about Alex?” said Matt levelly.
Now you, in similar circumstances, might have been worried at this point, sure that the ‘game was up’ and in any minute you’d be ‘rumbled’. But not me- I diffused the situation using Lucy , and it was a piece of piss, almost embarrassingly so. I gave her a sly secret look, conspiratorial, from one seasoned pillhead to another: it said hey, now don’t let’s get these kids upset with information that doesn’t necessarily concern them. I would have prayed that it worked, if not for the fact that in knew in my black heart it definitely would.
“Lucy, Lucy,” Naomi was actually, I KID YOU NOT, tugging on her sleeve. “What are you going on about?”
“Oh nothing honey. Nothing at all guys. Everyone relax- I’ve tried these before and they’re well nice.” And so everyone relaxed. It really is that easy with most people- they’ll let you get away with anything as long as you convince them it’s all part of a delicious secret you’ll let them in on. An upright citizen, for example, calling your grannybashing into question? Just tell them behind your hand that it’s this big hilarious prank the old biddy couldn’t possibly hope to understand, and they’ll wink knowingly and hold her down for you. I smiled at Lucy and she returned the compliment. Already, a bond had been forged, and she seemed pleased at this: she may have had bucketfuls of self-sufficiency and independence, but everyone likes an alliance with the leader, everyone loves a secret. “Why how d’you feel Alex?”
Good question- how did I feel? Sitting there, I felt like- well, not a very nice person, really. In the most wonderful way. “I feel splendid- absolutely splendid! Anyway- shall we have a song?”
This idea got a warm reception from everyone (except Naomi, who was studying her fingers, probably checking they were all still there, no worrying subtractions or additions). Bob scraped the tobacco and shreds of grass from off the back of the guitar into his little polythene bag, and held it up. “Well does anybody know how to play this thing, as I lack the, err, requisite skill sadly.”
Lucy shook her head.
“I used to play violin, but I, I, I...” said Naomi, a simple ‘no’ obviously being far too much trouble.
Matt took the guitar from Bob and gently strummed it with his fingernails. “I can play a few songs, but they’re mostly, err...”
“Let me guess,” I said. “The Beatles?”
He looked surprised, as if knowing the three-and-a-half chords to Hey fucking Jude was a rare and secret trait that I had been most percipient in identifying. “Well yeah, but, hey, like, I mean…”
Realising that that was it, the extent of his argument, I reached over and plucked the guitar from his sausage fingers. “I don’t know any Beatles’ tunes, which I think means I should play.”
Lucy looked shocked. “You don’t like The Beatles?” (Incidentally, she was a scouser, with a soft sing-song voice that instantly put me in mind of good lazy aromatic sex.)
“No I do fucking not like them, and there’s no need to look at me as if I’ve just defecated into my hand and showed it to you for approval Lucy, I’m not the only one.”
“You probably are, mister!” she said, snorting.
“I like their later stuff,” said Bob. “Not the poppy stuff, the later stuff, y’know, well trippy.”
“Oh yes!” I cried, holding my hands up in sarcastic horror. “A submarine that’s also yellow! A man who’s also a walrus! Help me doctor- such concepts are too odd for my tiny mind, they won’t fit!”
“But everyone likes The Beatles, don’t they?” said Naomi. “I mean, everyone. Don’t they?” That the opposite might be true was clearly giving her ‘belief-systems’ (as I believe they’re called) a bit of a battering.
“It may alarm you to learn that there is a growing movement, Naomi, everyone. It is called ‘The New Orthodoxy’, our principles are aesthetic common sense, and our demand is revolution by whatever means necessary. We will show the world that not only is the emperor stark bollockarse naked, he is also fat and ugly and impotent, and is an impostor with no real sovereignty over anything or anyone.” Sorry- sometimes drugs make me talk like this.
Lucy scoffed again. “Oh come on Alex, don’t you think John Lennon was a genius?”
“No Lucy, I think John Lennon was just about the biggest fraud of the twentieth century, and he makes me want to vomit. I genuinely resent, no but I really do,” -I was starting to receive under-collar heating by now- “I resent a junky wifebeater telling me that ‘all I need is love’. I resent a bloated expat millionaire with a fleet of Rolls Royces challenging me to ‘imagine no possessions’. A man worshipped the world over, whose every predictable whim could be instantly satisfied by the legions of grovelling lackeys on his beck and call and who only had to snap his fingers for women to take off their knickers, making the brave and bold assertion that ‘nothings gonna change his world’. I resent a man -no, I resent a society- a society where a drugaddled semi-literate failed artstudent spews halfbaked gibberish into a microphone about ‘crackalacker dingdong’ and ‘goo-googa-choo’ and is hailed as the next James Joyce.” The volume and intensity of my voice had risen quite sharply, and when my rant stopped everything seemed more silent than ever, if that’s possible (and I know it’s not, but you’ll permit the odd figure of speech, I trust). Then Lucy said something about his death being ‘such a tragedy’, and I was off on one again. “And most of all, I resent that sad little psychopath -no, sociopath- who hated himself and what he had become so much he had to convince himself he was the world’s biggest rockstar in order to give his shabby little life some meaning, and in doing so thought there wasn’t enough room on the planet for him and the real fake he so desperately needed to be, I resent that fat pathetic little shit Mark Chapman firing those bullets in 1980, and in doing so forever canonising a man who was steadily losing whatever spurious ‘talent’ he may have had almost daily. I resent the fact that John fucking Lennon isn’t alive today and making an absolute fucking prick out of himself doing duets with Phil Collins and Bryan Adams, like the middleaged middleclass middle-of-the-road wanker he always was underneath that risible avant-garde exterior. Fucking phony cunt.” Lucy was looking at me with a mixture of anger and indulgence, about to say something along the lines of now steady on Alex old chap, but it was too late: the evilness was flowing through my blood like poisonous lead. “Or no, even worse, even more horribly believable, making a right tosser out of himself by trying to embrace youth culture, a 60-year old man attempting to understand dance music with all the conviction and credibility of a Granddad breakdancing, rereleasing that shiteawful song ‘Imagine’ with a techno backbeat, doing collaborations with other dance sellouts like Goldie or LL Cool J. Fuck.”
“Yeah I know,” said Bob. “You mean like David Bowie doing that jungle thing, yeah?”
Not wise words.
I looked at Bob murderously: not in the usual jokily hyperbolic sense of ooh, I should kill you!, but in the unitalicised, no-exclamation-mark-necessary blandness of a true murderer, one who, on the few occasions he uses his voice, never feels the pulish need to raise it. Sure, the Duke had committed some indiscretions, but he was still Bowie, still needed some respect, or at least for eighteen-year old stoner pillocks whose earliest memory of him was the unfortunate appearance in Labyrinth, alongside other jerking puppets, and who thought ‘The Man who Sold The World’ was actually written by that dickhead Kurt Cobain, for people like Bob to actually pronounce his surname correctly, so that it rhymed with showy, not wow-wee. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” I said to him, fingering the pigsticker in my pocket, at that point quite tempted to slit his scrawny throat to the actual point of decapitation and hand his head in at the nearest police station to claim my reward.
“Hey,” said Matt, in a manner that was no doubt engineered to calm me down- nice try, fatman. “Okay, the man likes Bowie. Sure then Alex, play us some of that. I got some of his stuff- s’pretty cool.” At least he pronounced it correctly.
“Is one to take it,” said Bob, poncily extending his hand along with the query, as if we were philosophers in Ancient Greece conducting an interloculatory exploration of a rarefied point of metaphysics, instead of five pissed-up students taking drugs in a graveyard, “that you’re not the biggest fan of Mr McCartney either?”
“Paul Mc-fucking-Cartney? Jesus, I can’t believe you’d even ask me that Bob. The man is a joke, an absolute joke- inherently ridiculous and absurd to the point of sheer incredulity, both as a man and a concept. And as for George ‘oh-I-wish-I-was-a-paki’ Harrison, well... Just point me to his grave, then hand me my dancing shoes.”
Lucy laughed. She laughed because that’s what she does when faced with something she doesn’t understand. Go on, giggle it up you little whore, one day you’ll never laugh again, but by fuck you’ll UNDERSTAND. “You’re fucking mad Alex.”
“Which of course isn’t the kneejerk reaction of the unimaginative to the innovative,” I replied with a bitterness I instantly regretted, seeing the previous and precious allegiance I had forged with her melting in the hot blast of my E’d-up rudeness. “Oscar Wilde,” I lied. That seemed to satisfy her. Well of course, it would: oh right yeah- ‘e’s full of funny little quotes, innit?
“Would one be right in assuming then,” said Bob, “that Mr Ringo Starr is also not one of your, err-”
“Ah now Ringo,” I said with relish (don’t believe me? Well try it yourself- truly a most satisfying word to say). “Now that man at least had a certain style.”
They looked at me as if I was mad. Why not: it’s the kneejerk reaction of the crap to the credible, the trite to the truth.
“Fucking hell,” said Lucy , shaking her head in bemused wonder at my ‘world-view’. “I love The Beatles, right, everything they’ve done? But I still feel Ringo was a bit of a-”
“A bit of a visionary, no, a lot,” I said, with feeling. “He carried those three untalented runts.” They all started laughing, which had never been my intention: if I had wanted them to laugh I would have said something I thought was funny, something I didn’t believe in. “Right, anyway,” I said, once the laughter had died down, “a song.”
“What you got in mind?” said Matt.
“’My Death’- heard of it?” Come to think of it- have you? Written by Jacques Brel- quite beautiful.
“Is that Bowie?”
“Well he covered it, yes. Scott Walker, too. Anyway, I bid silence people.”
I started strumming the intro. Could really have done with Bowie’s buddy Mike Garson and his creeping, jittery piano accompaniment, or maybe the lush textured orchestra so suited to Walker’s velvety baritone, but we can’t always get what we want, as people are so wont to thoughtprovokingly remark. The torch had been angled by me so as to underlight my face, the shadows of my superb cheekbones creating hollows in my eyesockets: a rather juvenile trick instinctively mastered by any five year old fucking about with a lamp on Halloween, but still, eerie enough. I started singing the song I hoped they’d remember, the song that if all went according to plan, would, in nine months’ time, mean more to them than they would know how to deal with:
My death waits like an old roué
so confident I’ll go his way
whistle to him, and the passing time
My death waits like a bible truth
at the funeral of my youth
oh look out for that, and the passing time
My death waits like a witched night
as surely as our love is bright
lets not think about the passing time
The sound animated the stillness, illuminated the darkness, unNaomied the Naominess: my guitar is expensive and my voice like Bowie’s since he lost it, rich, deep and honeyed (and I didn’t need to smoke half a million cigarettes over forty years for the privilege).
But whatever lies behind the door
there is nothing much to do
angel or devil
I don’t care
for in front of that door
there is you
And at that final word I managed to look at all four of them in a way that suggested my loving (!) gaze was directed exclusively at each one of them and each one alone, and they all smiled back at me, so glad to have been singled out by the troubadour.
My death waits like a beggar blind
who sees the world through an unlit mind
throw him a dime, for the passing time
My death waits there between your thighs
I looked at Lucy: not, you understand, for any effect or to achieve some calculated purpose, but solely because at that moment I genuinely and reflexively wanted to get between her thighs and fuck her into paraplegia. Calm down Alex.
your cool fingers will close my eyes
lets think of that, and the passing time
My death waits to allow my friends
And here I took all of them in as a unit, and they looked at each other, again smiling: yes, we are friends, aren’t we? (The fucking moribund morons.)
a few good times
before it ends
so lets drink to that, and the passing time
My strumming hand dropped to the bottle on the ground and lifted it before me. They all raised theirs and we nodded them towards each other, five spokes in the wheel of the stone circle.
But whatever lies behind the door
there is nothing much to do
angel or devil
I don’t care
for in front of that door
there is you
The looking trick on that last word again, this time more intense. Then my playing, my voice, and Naomi leapt up histrionically for the last verse.
My death waits there among the leaves
in magicians mysterious sleeves
rabbits and dogs, and the passing time
My death waits there among the flowers
where the blackest shadow cowers
lets pick lilacs for the passing time
My death waits there in a double-bed
sails of oblivion and my head
so pull up your sheets against the passing time But whatever lies behind the door
there is nothing much to do
angel or devil
I don’t care
for in front of that door
I looked at each one of them in turn, as if carefully considering yes now just who does lie behind that door? The anticipation on their faces was gorgeously pathetic. After the optimum pause had elapsed, me maximising the tension but not quite reaching the point where they lost interest and someone said hey what about Eastenders this afternoon eh?, I put down the guitar and smiled at the ground. “Thank you.” (And if you know where I lifted that rather prickteasish coda from, then give yourself a pat on the back, friend. If not, then you and I may not have sufficent things in common for us to ‘gel’ and I’m not into spoonfeeding, so you can feel free to fuck off right now.)
“Wow,” said Lucy.
“Blimey,” said Matt.
“Err, wow,” said Bob.
“Naomi?” I said.
“I feel weird.”
“Never mind. So that’s it- ‘wow’ and ‘blimey’?”
Lucy was shaking her head, of which she looked pretty off. “No erm, I mean... blimey. You know, wow.” They all laughed at this -except Naomi- and I tried to join in, which wasn’t easy. I honestly couldn’t see what was funny.
“I feel weird. Not good weird. Bad weird. Not good.Y’know, like-”
“You’ll be all right hun.” Lucy put her arm around Naomi’s shoulder, which seemed to mollify her slightly. “You’ve got a lovely voice Alex.”
“Yeah, s’beautiful mate.”
“You know like, wow.”
“Yeah like, blimey.”
“Not good weird. Bad.”
I pushed the torch forward a bit, towards them, and scrutinised. Even with the light shining more or less into their faces, their irises had all been devoured by pupils. They were there- good.
“That’s talent,” said Matt. “Hey, what did you say you studied again Alex?”
“Sorry, what Matt?”
“What do you study?”
“I study people. I study them in the way a botanist studies a flower, or a physicist a molecule: only by dissecting, by taking the subject to pieces, can one appreciate the true cold beauty therein.”
They all frowned, looking puzzled and worried, and I realised that I had stupidly said the bit I had meant to think and thought the bit I had meant to say. They were there all right: trouble was, so was I... “Just a joke, don’t worry. Philosophy, I study philosophy. Who wants some coke?”
Apart from Lucy, who claimed that coke made her ‘a dead mardy-arsed cow’, we each did a line or two off the back of the guitar. For once in Leeds, as in deference to this unholy evening, there was no wind to make this difficult. That done, I quickly got out the poppers and passed them round, taking a huge snort myself first. (Oh and by the way, the only one with any experience of either drug was Lucy, and between us we had to give the other three a little lesson in the partaking thereof, one taken straight out of the Ladybird book ‘My First Substance Abuse’. I mean, just what exactly is wrong with kids these days?) I then sank about a quarter of the tequila in one, and looked at the others questioningly with an inane grin. As did we all.
You know the drill: you’re having a caning session, and soon you get the telepathy-through-expression thing, the exchange of facial language. Are you as fucked as me? Yeah- why are you? Yeah- good innit? Fucking wicked mate. (Or however you and your chums might phrase it.) Except it wasn’t quite that simple. Naomi was gone, dying, vanishing and lost; Lucy was clearly loving it, moving her head from side to side, eyes closed; Matt looked bleary-eyed shitstinkingly pissed (his bottle was nearly finished); and Bob looked puzzled about something, as if there was some heatgenerating device -stove, iron, vibrator- he was suddenly not entirely sure he’d turned off before coming out. Then whatever it was hit him and his thin dry lips curled into a smarmy little smirk. Though heartily tempted to stand up and kick the smile right off his face and into the long grass never to be found again, restraint ruled the day. “What is it Bob?”
“It’s just something I heard once about studying philosophy.”
Cue some secondhand fuckwitted piece of apocryphal donkeyshit. “Really, what’s that?”
“A question right? In an exam? An essay question yeah? Yeah?” The cocaine had clearly got to him. I nodded that yes, I was with him thus, and that if he started going too fast I wouldn’t be so proud not to mention it. “A question, like an essay, you know for the exam or whatever, yeah?” He was looking round at Matt and Lucy and Naomi, desperate for them to grasp the finer points of his discourse. “And the question is... ‘Is this a question?’ There, what do you think of that?”
“Wow,” said Naomi.
“Fucking hell,” said Matt.
“And d’you know what the answer is?” he continued. “Eh? Eh? D’you know what some kid answered and got full marks? I’ll tell you. He wrote, ‘If this is an answer.’ Just think about it- a whole essay question, and this person wrote-” he counted carefully on his jittery fingers, “-five words, and they get the highest mark. ‘If this is an answer’.” He folded his arms, waiting for this to sink in, ‘QED’ written all over his ratty face, quite clearly mistaking being ‘on’ something with being ‘onto’ something.
“Wow,” said Naomi.
“Pretty clever, I like, I like,” said Matt in a ‘smug-oriental-and-therefore-presumably-comic’ voice. That’s right. He did voices.
“For fuck’s sake.” The cocaine had made me fizzy and itchy, both hot and cold with adrenaline- liquid blood was rushing into my brain and there didn’t seem to be enough room for all of it. I could actually feel a pulse hammering insistently behind my eye, eager to get out. “It’s not fucking deep cos it’s not fucking true. Jesus Bob, it’s just some bullshit urban myth generated by idiots who either don’t get what philosophy is or who try to denigrate it and trivialise it into nothing.” I took another hit of the poppers, holding it out for whoever wanted it. “Fucking hell.”
“Yeah sure Alex,” said Matt, accepting the little brown bottle and taking a snifter. “Fuck. Erm, what was I..? Right yeah, urban myth or legend or whatever. Doesn’t mean though, doesn’t mean that somewhere that question wasn’t actually set and that someone answered like that. I mean, lots of myths are based in truth.” He had said this in a conciliatory and friendly manner -just opening my mind to another possibility, carefully presenting it for my perusal- and his amiability would probably have soothed me at least slightly were it not for the smug so there look on Bob’s face, as if we were in primary school and Matt was his older brother who had just duffed me up for nicking Bob’s packed lunch.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that such an essay question was once set and that someone answered it such Matt,” I said. “My bone of contention is of such an answer getting any marks at all, never mind a high one. Jesus fucking Christ people, I don’t know what you think the criteria for marking philosophy essays are but trust me, they don’t hand out good grades for being a smartarse. I mean... hey Lucy, you study, what, English wasn’t it?” She nodded. “Okay, an essay question for you. Erm, right. ‘Does Hamlet’s tragedy stem more from a fatal flaw within him or is he more a victim of circumstance?’”
“Well, it’s obviously a bit of both-”
“Yes but I obviously said which is it more?” (I’d actually, tautologically perhaps, said it twice: not as if she or anyone else would’ve noticed.)
“Oh right yeah sorry. Erm, fatal flaw.”
“Well, yeah. Because all tragedies, in the true literary sense, stem from-”
“Thank you, that’s enough!” I turned to Bob and Matt. “See?” They didn’t. “Because. You have to explain your answer, why you believe it. Lucy wouldn’t just write ‘fatal flaw’ and hand it in, would she? Fuck, she may as well write ‘I don’t know and I care even less’ and then wipe her arse on it.”
Bob and Matt both looked at me as if I’d just broke the tragic news to them about Father Christmas’s non-existence: crushed, disappointed. “Yeah,” said Matt eventually, “but it’s quite a cool story.”
“Sure it is, for people who like to believe that philosophy or any arts subject for that matter are full of smartalecky little wankers who don’t really have to work. If you wanted good marks you’d have to write ‘if this is an answer’ and then go on to explain why, with truth-tables, equations, talking about epistemology and semantics and so on for a couple of pages. It wouldn’t be quite as memorable or ‘cool’, but at least you wouldn’t fail the fucking exam.”
“Fucking hell,” said Matt.
“You get my point then?”
“No no not that Alex, just got this fucking mad coke rush. Jesus.” He was rubbing his face and gasping. I looked at the Bob and Naomi- I could tell the same was true for them. “Jesus that took a while though- what’s that all about Alex mate?”
It’s ‘all about’ the poisons I’ve fed you fucking up your nervous system- if I cut your head off it’d carrying on burbling fat Manc twatshit for five minutes as I booted it down the street. ‘Mate’. “Dunno, thought this stuff was quite good.” It was, I knew it was: my teeth were filing each other into small sharp points. Oh well, better late than never eh? Small sharp points, grinding ever smaller and sharper. “All the better to eat-” I stopped, and made a mental note to sort out the saying-thoughts-and-thinking-speech thing, before the whole evening became a complete waste of time. “Oh well, better late than never eh?”
“Yeah sure,” he said.
Lucy turned to me. “So what’ll we do now we’re up?”
“How about a dance, m’dear?”
She looked round at the others: Bob was trying to skin up and making a very poor fist of it; Matt was drinking and smoking; and Naomi was swaying and drooling. Each one looked very locked into their chosen activity. Lucy shrugged and uncurled her arm from round Naomi, who whimpered as if left precariously unsupported. “Ar eh Matt, come here and give her a cuddle eh? She’s not feeling too good.” Matt did as requested and Lucy stood up with arms outstretched, faltering slightly and giggling. She looked both vulnerable and capable, very much of both somehow, and I suddenly felt a deep and aching need to know exactly what noise she made as she approached orgasm. Even if it meant just asking politely, ‘sounding her out’ on the subject. Waving such thoughts -currently all too frustratingly fruitless- to one side, I grabbed one hand and pulled her round into me: she was quite tall and her bottom was about level with my balls, standing spoons. I put my arms around her, just under her breasts, guessing their weight. “Oh,” she said, “be gentle with me kind sir!”
“Oh I’ll be gentle, for now.”
“Why only now?”
“Maybe you forgot, but later on we’re all gonna get naked.”
She wriggled -in my grasp, not against- and went mmm in a sexual yet still highly ambiguous manner, one which made me wonder ‘what are you- a pricktease or a slut? Do you hate being raped or live for it?
These musings were brought short when I, we, heard voices -all Geordie- in the distance.
I turned around (swinging the pneumatic Lucy with me as I did, as if she were a hostage) and saw flashing orange lights that seemed to be -no, that definitely were- coming nearer.
I am Alex Towers, welcome to my world.
“C’MON, WHEREAREYA! WE’LL FUCKING FIND YA!”
Panic set in amongst ‘the gang’: Lucy wrestled herself free from my clutches, hissing “Bill! It’s fucking old Bill!”; Bob hurriedly stuffed his weed, his ripped-up Rizlas and the spliff he had been building into my guitar; Matt calmly said “ssh everyone” and leant forward and turned the torch off with a snick; and Naomi started vomiting into her lap. Still standing in darkness now, with the orange strobes coming nearer, I was so unruffled by this development -because of the drugs and who I am and the fact that only a fool would fuck with me- that I had time to ruminate in turn upon my housemates’ various actions: (1) I didn’t know Liverpudlians used the term ‘old Bill’, I had up until then thought police to them were always ‘bizzies’, so I had at least learnt something that night; (2) Bob had probably already been caught by the law in possession, or -no, no, infinitely more believable- one of his loser mates had and scared him shitless with the story of it; (3) Matt was either always good in a crisis or currently too pissed to care, probably both; and (4) what I had said to Naomi would be a ‘moment of discomfort’ was proving to actually be a loud agony, an agony that, judging from the groans she emitted between wretches, in no way surprised her and was very much her ‘lot’. Either way, it made it instantly apparent to the Geordies where we were sat. Oh well. “WHADDYA WANT?” I shouted towards the encroaching orangeness.
“WE’RE GONNA ROB ALL YA MONEY!”
“YEAH, AND THEN BEAT UP THE BLOKES!”
“YEAH AND RAPE THE LASSES!”
“Well I think that rather blows your ‘old Bill’ theory out of the water, don’t you?” I whispered to Lucy, who, like the others, was attempting the tricky martial art of hiding under herself. I sighed at their lameness and turned to the voices. We were sitting in a bit of a dip, and I now saw the orange lights, and their holders, standing slightly above us, about 150 yards away. The lights came from those blinky little plastic arrangements, those small yellow buckets wearing seethrough hats that you often see by roadworks or holes in the road. There were three of them, wellbuilt: I couldn’t make anything more out from the pulsing suns dangling from wire in their fists, but I realised that all my dreams had come true as one hand went into my pigsticker pocket and curled around the springloaded handle. I would show Bob, Lucy, Matt and Naomi exactly what I was all about. “YOU CAN FUCKING TRY!”
FUCKING HARD NOW?”
Am I the only person who automatically, exclusively and comically associates Newcastle accents with the Big Brother voice-over? (‘Dee thairty-woon...’) The only person who can’t take them seriously- who feels the bizarre need to start singing about fishies on little dishies? I turned to them. “FUCKING HARDER THAN YOU THREE CUNTS PUT TOGETHER!”
“THEN FUCKING BRING IT ON!”
“YEAH COME ON BADMAN!”
The flashing lights moved steadily down the incline towards us.
“Oh fucking hell this is fucked, what’ll we do?”
“Shall we run, just get out of here, hey Alex, shall we just run?”
“Alex Alex I’ve got me mobie, shall I call the police or something?”
“Look,” I said, “we’re not calling anyone, and we’re not going anywhere. We were here first, so they can just fuck off. Okay? And,” I bent down and turned the torch back on, “we may as well have this on, know what we’re up against. But you’ve all got to stay calm.”
The three were now standing just outside the clearing, about twenty feet away. They were, as I said, heavilyset fellas, and though obviously by their accents not from Leeds, still townies: Mr Buyrite clubbing trousers, 50p patent leather shoes, shortsleeved I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Polyester shirts with crappy pseudo-oriental designs that probably passed as ‘exotic’ in their drab little world (a red a white and a blue cos they’re good ol’ British boys), overgelled curly fringes with shaved back’n’sides, one earring per ear and meaningless tattoos done when drunk by someone probably even more drunk. ‘Hardmen’. “Stay calm,” I whispered to my hapless chums, before turning to the intruders. Their little lamps were still pulsing, making the place look like an outside nightclub, and the effect was kickstarting the MDMA I’d eaten: I wanted to stack shelves, feed the birds and gurn like a goodun- fuck, I wanted to rave hard in the graveyard. All very pleasurably inappropriate. They stood in silence, legs apart, having all clearly watched at least one more western than was strictly good for them. I said, “And what the fuck do you want?”
They laughed with what they no doubt judged to be ‘menace’, and placed their lights on the ground, stepping into the clearing.
“Your head on a fucking plate mate.”
I walked up to them. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t mind sticking it to old redhead there neither.”
“You fucking know that mate.”
Time to play the hero: time to stand in front of Lucy and defend her honour. “If you touch her, if you lay one fucking finger on her, you’ll be the one with his head on a plate you thick little cuntfuck.”
The one in white looked mildly impressed at my... I don’t know, spirit perhaps: he then walked up to me, calmly grabbed my face (a large handspan, I had a thumb in one ear and a pinkie in the other) and then pushed. I hurtled backwards, caught myself quite nastily behind the knees on a gravestone, which I backwards-somersaulted over to land on the grass. And there I lay in silence, completely still.
“Right,” said White. “Anyone else wanna act the badman? No? Good.” I couldn’t quite see from where I was, but could all too easily imagine my housemates’ feverish headshaking. “Now, what drugs you guys on?”
Bob’s poncy home counties voice came out with more confidence than I would have given him credit for. “Oh ya know, coupla Es, some coke and poppers, oh and grass, real skunk actually. You know, the usual.” I almost clicked my fingers as the lightbulb went ‘ping!’: of course he was confident- the little fucking prick was about to get his head kicked in and all he cared about was impressing these thrillingly realistic townies with his newfound narcotics-nonchalance. “And we’re all pissed.” Well, he’s in the right place for digging his own grave...
“Oh I say,” said Red, imitating Bob’s accent, “you’re a real top chep, aren’t you Mr Stig of the dump?” I suppressed laughter: though plebs could often be the dullest people imaginable, they sometimes had an amazingly penetrating way with an insult. If there was credence in the theory that when one meets someone anew, one’s part of the brain that deals with facial recognition brings instinctively to mind the person -famous or otherwise- who most closely resembles them, then Red had indeed nailed down skinny simian Bob square and true, with no scope for debate. “Oy, fatman, oy, oy, fatman! What’s your problem eh? Looking at the ground as if we’re gonna leave you alone or something?”
I heard what could only be Matt getting to his feet. Heard it? I practically felt it. “Look guys, we don’t want to start any trouble, you know, we’re not students we all work here and, err, if you wanna have a drink and a smoke with us then, look, here you go...”
I inched forward imperceptibly to get a better view, and saw Matt offering his bottle. Red took it and had a swig. Then another. “Aah that’s better. Thanks fatman- now, what can I give you in payback..?” He seemed to answer his own question by headbutting Matt, who dropped to the floor with a bloody face. Lucy shrieked, Bob jumped, Naomi fainted. Red, who was clearly the leader, clapped White and Blue on the back. “Right boys, you keep an eye on these fucking muppets ere while I,” he started undoing his belt, “get... ‘acquainted’ with redhead over ere.”
A lot of things then happened, in no particular order: snapshots held in the on/off orange light (Red had turned off the torch, permanently this time, by smashing the empty vodka-bottle over it):
-Red knelt down by Lucy, waved the broken bottle in her face and told her not to move or talk, and that if she screamed she was done for
-Matt went up to Blue with his hands outstretched and a peace-treaty forming on his crimson bubbling lips, and Blue punched him hard in the gut
-Bob started crying
-Naomi started being sick, still unconscious
I lay there, powerless, as the Earth turned and the fun continued:
-Red told Lucy to take her coat off and strip down to her bra and knickers unless she wanted her throat cut and her face slashed
-Matt lay winded in a curled heap on the floor, gasping
-Blue disgustedly told Bob to stop crying and kicked him heftily between the legs twice, one kick per bollock
-White turned Naomi onto her back with his foot, and she started choking on her vomit
I too turned onto my back and looked up at the sky: no stars, no moon, no nothing. I felt small and vulnerable, but in a nice way, like a child underneath the universe. And I don’t often feel like that- in fact, hardly ever. I lay like that for some time, not really thinking of anything, just listening to the crying, the gasping, the pleading, the gurgling. Oh good God are these really tears of happiness? I wondered gratefully as eyejuice blurred my vision. It was just so… nice.
Too nice: I’d almost forgotten what was going on, what I had to do. I stood up, one hand in the pocket where my knife lived. “YOU FUCKING ARSEHOLES STOP RIGHT THERE!”
They did, all seven of the fucking arseholes. Oh, except -and I do grow weary of
continually having to add this caveat- Naomi. Red White and Blue all turned to me. Bob had an overjoyed, girly and tearstreaked my hero! look on his face. As did -more appropriately, in my opinion- Lucy, who hurriedly pulled down her skirt and swathed herself in her long coat. But not so hurriedly as for me not to happily notice that she wore a G-string and was no Wonderbra fraudster. Matt, somewhat puzzlingly, wore an odd mixture of disappointment and empowerment behind the blood that had already caked his chops, as one who would say Don’t you worry Alex, I’ve got it all under control here. And Naomi was- well, she was dying. I approached the attackers.
“D’you want this bottle in your fucking face hardman?”
“Oh look, it’s Mr fucking badman, back for more.”
“Yeah go on, cut the cunt.”
Figuring that the absolute funnest -though not necessarily wisest- thing to do at that point would be to make them look unimportant, a task that could wait, I ignored them and turned to my young charges. “Matt, you’ve got to take as many deep breaths as you can- it’ll hurt to do so but it’ll sort you out, and it’s better to have a shortlived intense pain rather than a merely agonising one that seems to last forever. Bob, I can tell you’ve just taken a nasty knock in the knackers. All you do is stand, jump up about six inches and land on your heels with your legs as stiff as possible, you know a couple of times- again it might hurt but it’ll increase the gravitational pull on your ballbag and generally sort you out in the end. Lucy, turn Naomi onto her side and try to unclog her airway so she doesn’t do a Hendrix on us. All of you- fear not, for I am here, and these common little piss-sniffers are just about to leave.” I pulled out my pigsticker and there was a little thfft! as I pressed the button and the six inch stainless steel blade made its presence known. I looked at our assailants. “Aren’t you?”
Ooh, a standoff- how exciting.
“Oh well just look at Mr Bad!”
“Yeah mate- wotcher gonna do against this?”
“Yeah go on, cut him with it.”
I moved around so I was standing inbetween them and my housemates. “You can cut me all you fucking like, I’m still gonna whip you.”
I shrugged, at what I saw as no big deal. “Deadly serious.”
“There’s three of us and one of you mate, c’mon give it up.”
“We’ll fucking kill you, you dickhead. Don’t you know that?”
“Look we ain’t bothered about you, s’just yer mates, that’s all.”
I swung at them with my knife in a neckhigh arc. There was a ssswsshh, and they jumped back, and there was a padded thump of leather on my right leg which made me grateful I was wearing my long jacket, the one with the wide lapels and the pockets designed specifically to hold flickknifes. True 70s gangster glam, so often attempted, so seldom achieved. “Yeah they are my mates, and in my book mates come first, and you’ve upset them, so I’m going to ask you one more time to leave before I get nasty. And I don’t care what you do to me, you can rip me to shreds and I’ll still come back for more, and I won’t fucking finish till you are -y’know, finished?- so let’s bring it on, yeah?”
They looked at me, the knife in my hand and the determination on my face. This went on for a while (and terribly rousing, manly stuff it was too), until Red dropped the bottle and they slowly started backing off. I screamed with both lungs -with what Japanese martial artists refer to as a ‘kiai’, but is more commonly known by the layman as a ‘totally fucking scary noise’- and started chasing them. Through the graveyard, round the front of the church, over the road towards St Marks flats and into a paved, dogshit-strewn area next to the Bricklayer’s Arms that the landlord had dubbed, in a fit of optimism, a ‘beer garden’. We all slowed down to a stop, and then stood around for a bit, hands on knees, catching breath, wiping our brows and enacting other such ‘we’ve-just-been-running-I’ll-have-you-know’ nonsenses. I retracted the blade of the knife and returned it to its pocket, at the same time pulling money from another. “So that’s... what did we agree on?”
“Score each mate,” said Red.
“Very reasonable,” I said, and peeled off three purples, handing them one each. Then another, which I held before them. “And did you manage to get the..?”
“Yeah no worries mate,” said White, who swopped the note with a clingfilmed block of hash that he seemed to produce from nowhere. “Just over an eighth there, sorry couldn’t get more.”
“Not at all, not at all. Well thank you gentlemen, you’ve been most helpful. And you said you definitely won’t be coming back?”
“Nah mate sack it. This city’s shite and the birds’re minging. Old redhead there was the first decent flange we’ve seen all evening. Straight back to Newkie Uni for some proper talent.”
“Yeah,” said Red, “FAFF.”
“Yeah, you know,” said Blue, “FAFF.”
They all laughed at this and I did too: there was indeed a lot to be said for Fucking A Friendly Fresher, unless you crave challenges in life and think taking candy from a baby or shooting fish in a barrel to be rather unsporting. “Well I wish you luck in your quest and thank you again.” I turned and started walking away.
“Oy mate- a question?”
I was crossing the road, the three knuckleheads already forgotten, their role played, consigned to oblivion. I sighed: great. When meeting them in that dodgy-as bar earlier, I’d assumed that questions regarding anything other than football, TV, lager or ‘flange’ pretty much passed them by untouched: this evil narrator must be slipping. “Go on.”
“Why’d you want us to do that? I mean, like why?”
“Yeah I was wondering that.”
“Why?” I lifted my arms, cruciform, let them drop with a slap, and smiled my smile. Aah, my smile. Now here I could go into detail about it, rhapsodize upon the even wideness of my grin, fully explore the possibly insane? discuss glint in my eye, spin sonnets regarding the devilish arch of my eyebrows... Then again I could just say I look a bit like a young Jack Nicholson and let you fill in the gaps.
Why did I want them to do that?
“Because I’m a modern monster.”
Apparently satisfied by this (well admittedly, it was highly plausible in a forehead-slapping ‘oh well of course’ kind of way), they turned and left.
And there I loitered in the dark empty road for a moment with my arms hanging limply by my sides with nothing to do, like vestigial protuberances that really had no reason to be there at all. I was experiencing a strange and unwelcome pang of existential doubt, roughly placed somewhere between ‘why was I put on this earth in the first place?’ and ‘is my surname cool enough?’ Disquieting, all most disquieting. It soon went though, vanished into the thin blue yonder from whence it came, just drug-silliness, and I walked back towards the flashing orange lights.
“Well,” I said as I stepped back into the stone clearing, “that little interruption over, let’s carry on with the party!”
The four were, were, were... well fuck it, you can imagine how they were: shellshocked. (And yes, I do tire, also, of having to describe each one in turn: Bob was this, Matt was that, Lucy was the other and Naomi was Naomi... It’s an honest and growing shame they’re so central to the story.) Oh, except for Naomi, who was still unconscious.
“What happened Alex?” croaked Lucy eventually.
“What happened? Why I saw those damn blighters off like the greasy little cads that they are!”
All three of them said ‘really’ at once.
“Yeah. Chased them onto a bus going to the station. They said they were leaving Leeds for good. Also, after some ‘persuasion’, gave me this.” I held out the draw I had bought for them, though mainly offering it to Bob. “I trust you’ve got a few Rizlas to give this a good home to eh?” Bob took the cannabis, and I noticed he was sitting crosslegged, with no apparent pain. “You did the jumping thing then?”
He raised a thumb, already searching for his skins in the guitar. “Indeed I did, rather did the trick, many thanks.”
I picked up the poppers -they had been left open by Matt on the grassy floor, we would have to have words about such behaviour later- and snorted deeply, achingly. “Good, good, I’m glad Bob.” Of course, I wasn’t really glad, after all, what’s the point in wanting to take someone to pieces if you don’t want them to live with pain first? No, the amazement in my voice came from the fact that that little trick -which I think I learnt off Karate Kid II- had actually worked. “Matt? Windedness gone?”
He rubbed his tummy. “Yeah cheers mate. I also wanted to ask, cos it hurts like fuck and these two can’t tell, and you seem so sort of, I dunno, experienced, if you think that bastard broke my nose?”
I leant forward and gently cradled his face in my manicured hands, his nose between an index and middle finger and my thumb at the tip, like when you’re young and your Dad pretends to steal it. “Here- does that hurt?” It did. “How about that?” Yes. “And that- that hurt?” Apparently so. “No don’t worry mate, just a bit of bruising, you’ll be fine.”
“Oh great cheers mate.” His tone then changed, slightly more obsequious, but still asking and thinking about himself, the greedy little bastard. “Can, err..? I think she’s had enough.” He gestured to Naomi, spark out, but more specifically to her bottle, which contained, at a guess, 751 mls of fluid out of a possible 750 (I could only presume she’d been drooling into it). “I mean, she’s in no fit state to, well I mean-”
I was so taken aback by his enquiry -by its gutless, craven, subservient nature- so taken aback I almost committed some random and spontaneous physical act -laughed in his face, cried my eyes out, shat my pants, exploded- but by now I was determined not to lose my game. “Yeah sure, she won’t mind.”
“You think she’ll be all right Alex?” said Lucy.
“She’ll be fine Lucy, absolutely fine. But where are my manners!” I leant forward and held her shoulder. “Are you all right?”
She shrugged, not for the first time that evening, and in a manner I was increasingly finding most endearing: tits go up, tits go down. “Yeah, whatever.”
I pulled out my little baggie of coke with a flourish. “Time, my friends, for another line!”
“What,” said Bob, “you reckon we should stay here? After that, err, fracas?”
“Yeah hey why don’t we just chip off home eh?” said Matt, whose nose was most definitely broken and would wreak searing pain through his head tomorrow morning.
Lucy frowned awkwardly. Such a pretty girl. “Oh I don’t know Alex-”
“Lucy.” My hand was still on her shoulder, my thumb gently working the boneless space behind her clavicle with a pestle-and-mortar action. “Bob. Matt. We’ve just had a rather unpleasant experience, but the thing to do is just carry on. I’ve been in Leeds a few years and the one thing I’ve learnt is that yes, there are wankers about, and they will try and fuck with you, but that if you’re gonna let them rule your life then you may as well just lay down and die.” -don’t worry folks, the irony of my words hadn’t escaped me- “We just carry on people, so Bob, skin up, Matt, help yourself to that Southern Comfort, and Lucy, will you join me in a line?”
Now this was the trying moment: everything from now was unplanned, and I had to be careful, any more talk of ‘studying people’ and I was fucked, may as well throw my dreams down the toilet and start behaving like a decent human being. They all looked timidly at each other (except guess-who), eventually lapsing into a mutual acquiescence, no doubt partly engendered by me shovelling cocaine onto the back of my guitar, for me and Matt and Bob to have a line. And then, after a quick -and to my mind, criminally negligent- poppersnort, we sat there looking at each other, the facial-telepathy thing seeming to resurface. Cocaine confidence: we all smiled stupidly at each other, no longer scared of the night. That lasted for a while, and then we started talking, or rather they did, rapid happy coke-talking, unfortunately. Which mainly consisted of them sucking my cock for five minutes. About how brave I had been, how commandeering, what a good friend I was, how they’d always trust me: conversational fellatio has rarely -outside the worlds of showbiz and royalty- been so expertly performed.
Phase one achieved: they like me and they (think they can) trust me.
I took bows and smiled warmly and feigned pained modesty, but my dark heart inside was thundering at the door of my chest, for I realised that everything was as I had wanted and that the moment had come.
“You all right there Alex old chap?” said Bob.
“What’s up Alex darling?” said Lucy.
“You all right Al mate?” said Matt.
I took my hand from my pocket, uncurling -somehow- my fingers from the knife. “It’s just, I’m err... having a bit of a turn I think. Just drugs, that’s all. Be gone in a bit, nothing to worry, err, about. Please don’t talk to me till it’s over, eh?” I turned my back to them and grabbed the switchblade. Then I turned back round to their slightly worried faces. “Oh and Matt?”
“I’m not Paul Simon, so please don’t fucking call me Al.”
I turned my back on them again before he could even decide how to react facially, my hand pressing the button that released the blade, the blade that I then ran through a tightly-packed fist. The blood came. I joined hands, wringing and rubbing them against each other as if washing. As I did my Uriah Heep I thought this is the birth, and then, like a cartoon character, banged my palm on my forehead (leaving a patch of blood that would be difficult to explain away), because conception was much more apposite- it being a ninth-month plan, after all.
Mental note to self: take (1) a couple of temazzies soon; (2) it easy on the cocaine.
I swore my promise to myself, the promise of blood, and then effectively the night was over. Although many things were still lined up to occur (such as me ‘realising’ I must have been cut somehow bravely ‘defending’ the group, a further five minutes of conversational fellatio, a few more lines being snorted, me and Lucy having another pill, Matt and Bob arguing north and south, me popping open the childproof top of the bottle with my name on it and kickstarting the temezeparty, Matt and Bob building a fire and Lucy saying that they reminded her of blokes at a barbecue, something we all found pretty hilarious (reason? Drugs work), Naomi being sick in her sleep again, Bob losing the plot and calling Matt and Lucy unrefined idiots, Matt losing the plot and calling me and Bob soft Southern poofs, me losing the plot and revealing most of my aliases, Lucy saying she felt horny at which point I suggested the boys find the oldest gravestone there for the last spliff, some heavy pilled-up flirtation with me and her and then annoyingly the boys returned, some more coke and temazepam and then the night got messy, everyone being drunk and drrrrrugged and delirious and dead but still somehow finding our way home at sunrise, The Patron Saint Of Absolute Caners obviously smiling –or at least not spewing- down on us), such occurrences were academic, because the minute I took the knife and opened up my hand, I swore my promise that, by the time the academic year was out, I would have utterly destroyed my four housemates.
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