Wednesday, 21 May 2014
Popchik (Part one)
It took me a while to realise I had a problem. Not a major problem - nothing serious - but a problem that, nonetheless, my life would be better off without.
At first, I'd set myself firm rules - a set of strict parameters that would govern what I would or wouldn't do. How far I'd go. I was good at discipline. But you know how it usually goes - and if you don't you can probably imagine: over time you bend these rules out of shape until, much later, your new 'normal' is a far cry from where you started. Once in a blue moon becomes every now and again. Every now and again becomes once a month, once a fortnight, once a week, every day, whenever you can - the only limits being how much money you can muster and how desperately you want to cling to some semblance of an ordinary life.
It all started on my wedding day. The first one, the one that got away. I'd always been very anti-drugs until then. Funnily enough, I still am. Difficult to imagine, then, how things got so complicated.
The Girl From Australia had moved out to a shared house near a laundrette, leaving me behind in the small flat above the caff with the words I should never have spoken, the echoes of the things I should have done differently and the ghosts of the people we could have become.
It was her idea that I go round for breakfast on the morning of the day which, until two weeks previously, would have been the date we were wed. A strange idea - and one in which a man cast adrift is prone, I'd suggest, to mis-reading.
For some unfathomable reason, I'd decided that this would be the morning that I win her back.
After a dawn run along the riverbank, I'd got home, got showered and got changed into the outfit I'd bought a couple of months back for the big day - white Van Heusen shirt, sombre tie, sharp mid-blue suit and a brand new pair of black penny loafers.
Thus attired, by half-eight I was heading through town in the direction of her new abode, clutching a £30 bouquet of flowers I'd purchased the day before from the florists round the back of Woollys. It was a huge bouquet. £30 was a lot of money in those days.
As I reached Portland Street, found number 12 and knocked on the door that morning, I'd felt so positive, so hopeful for the future. Didn't last long though.
She just looked at me when she'd opened the door. Her: on the welcome mat, hair pulled into a high pony-tail, not long out of bed, jogging bottoms and a baggy sweatshirt. Me: on the step, dressed in a wedding suit, holding out a bunch of flowers, trying to smile.
I'd time to notice that there were tears in her eyes before she finally said anything.
'Chris. What are you doing?'
I wasn't smiling anymore. But I'd run through the scenario so many times in the last few days that things just sort of happened automatically.
I held out the flowers. 'I love you,' I said.
In retrospect, I guess the only reason she didn't shut the door on me was because she felt sorry for me. So she invited me in, and our breakfast lasted an eternity. It was during one of the many silent pauses between my mouthfuls of toast and slurps of coffee that I decided I'd really nothing else to lose. Tonight would be the night.
My choice of drug was amphetamine. A completely arbitrary decision, much like most of the big decisions I've ever taken in my life. In much the same way as I'd studied history because Dustin Hoffman's character in 'The Marathon Man' was a history student and become a primary school teacher because the new guy in 'Home And Away' was cool, I picked speed for no other reason really than it was the Mod drug. (Plus, I'd read enough Beat poetry and Jack Kerouac novels to suss that uppers were hip whilst dope was for dopes.)
That night - the lads' night out on the date of my wedding which never was - was the first time. The best night of my life on the worst night of my life.
I'd just turned 26. A young professional with a promising career and a life in front of him. A fucked-up kid with fuck-all left. There was no peer pressure. This wasn't a playground. On that night I made a calculated and reasoned choice. An adult decision. I stepped off the cliff and hoped the water below was deep enough.
Society has a tendency to demonise drug use, but, in the the early days, my own experiences - casual, recreational and limited to just the right type of night out every three or four months - were overwhelmingly positive. Nights when drugs were on the agenda were those nights where music and dancing were foremost in the nocturnal mix. Taking more than its fair share of cues from the 790's Nothern Soul all-nighters, the early-90's House scene was electric, exciting and life-affirming. It wouldn't last long. Soon would come the rise of the 'super clubs' and more commercial, chart-oriented dance music, dragging an underground into the mainstream. Eventually, the increasingly widespread use of cocaine in clubbing would leave big piano tunes in its wake and take the music into a harder direction. But for just two or three years in the middle of that decade, things were magic. And we were in it.
Drugs, music and dancing worked together to make these occasional big nights out something special. Granted, a wrap of whizz gave you the physical capability to dance solidly from 10pm to 6am, but more important were its psychological side-effects. A dab or two made your brain sharper, your ideas more interesting - made the world around you, and the world in your head, just a little bit clearer. (The first time I tried speed on that fateful night in Leo's, I remember standing in a phone-box with a mate as he waited for a taxi home and I waited for the walk back. 'So-what do you think?' he said. I struggled to find words for what the drug was doing for me. It was just before dawn and the morning was still and calm. 'You know this silence,' I gestured to the air around us. 'It's like I don't just know it's there, but I can hear it. I can hear that silence. I've never heard it before.)
Moreover, the drugs changed the relationship between you and the music. You didn't just listen to the music - you became it. The drugs dissolved the distance between you. For hour upon hour, as the beat stayed four to the floor and the sweat ran down your neck and made your shirt wet, you and the music were a part of each other - fused, ecstatic, one entity. And the feeling you felt was that feeling.
There's a chasm between using something to depending on it. For 5 or 6 years, the occasional use of amphetamines undoubtedly made my life better. During those years, I held a responsible job as a primary school teacher ( at no point did my extra-curricular activities ever impact on my work responsibilities, although, I admit, during this time, my eyes were opened to the sheer number of school-teachers who were also regular drug-users) and kept up a running schedule that enabled me to run a 2.38 marathon and a 1.12 half. The whole situation gave me a kick. I've never clamoured after being 'part of the gang', and, for those years, I straddled a number of social sets - clubbers, educational professionals, athletes - only one foot ever planted in any camp.
As 1997 approached, the tide for myself, and most of the crew I went clubbing with, had turned. The scene had become a hollow parody of itself. Inevitably, the drugs had become more important than the music for many. The young gurners now populating the dance floor knew fuck-all about House music, and the raison d'etre for a night-out for a new generation went from becoming part of the music from dusk till dawn towards the boastful bragging of how many pills you could ingest and not die.
Those of us a bit more savvy moved onto the Heavenly Social and the infant Big Beat scene - a movement based more on traditional boozing culture - a two-fingered salute to the commercial whores of Cream and The Ministry Of Sound - a 'see-you-later' to that new breed of wankers on club drugs.
If paths never reached cross-roads, then that would have been the end of my innoculous flirtation with chemical enhancement. However life is littered with cross-roads. I hadn't envisioned The Run For Africa in my future. But it came and it went, and it made me different.
Everything changes when you start lying. Having given up full-time teaching, I faced life after the Africa debacle as a market trader. Dark clouds were gathering, but fate intervened to provide me with the whisper of a way out. For a brief time during my first, often-drunken, post-University summer - young, green and 21 - I'd somehow managed to stumble into a short-lived fling with a girl of Russian origin who'd made a living by taking photographs of seaside tourists with a python that she carried around her shoulders. The bloke who'd worked with her had made an immediate impression on me. His wild stories of far-flung adventures he'd entertained me with had left a lasting impression. Imagine my surprise then, a full 10 years later, that our neighbour on the market turned out to be this self-same chap.
The time I spent during my typical work day in conversation with The Storyteller became a pleasant distraction to the dreary drudge of selling Chinese crap to people who didn't really want it and certainly couldn't afford it. With a decade more of life experience, his stories, although all true, were even more unbelievable. It soon became apparent, however, that the ferocity with which he lived his life needed a little help. Over the years, he'd developed a serious taste for 'the powder'.
I guess, if times had been good, I would have steered clear, but - of course - they were anything but. What he'd got to offer would either keep the darkness at bay or let it completely overwhelm me. What lay beyond the cloud wall? I was equally happy with either scenario. It was hardly any time at all before I went from being The Storyteller's newest friend to his most regular customer.
I look back on the routine I quickly fell into nowadays with a certain amount of disbelief, as if the person living it wasn't really me. Once the season reached Easter, we'd work 7 days a week until the end of September. On a typical day, we'd be down the market for 6am and off it for 7pm. In the height of summer or either side of a Bank Holiday, we probably wouldn't get away until 10pm. As if the work schedule wasn't punishing enough, I'd also started going out religiously on a Monday, Thursday and Saturday night. Typically, these nights would involve little or no sleep. Typically, I'd only be able to do this with the help of The Storyteller.
I'd never buy my speed in greater quantities than a wrap at a time - any more, in my state of mind, would have been asking for trouble. So three times each week my bike-ride home would involve a detour to The Storyteller's caravan. He'd extract his stash from the fridge and divvy me up enough for a night-out. Occasionally, when he'd got a new batch, he'd give me a dab or two for free. ('Taste this. Fucking lovely, eh!')
I'd get back to Anchor Lane, shower, order my taxi and iron my clothes. I'd always give myself an hour head start, taking a couple of dabs before the taxi arrived and revelling in that smooth, delicious rush of coming-up. I'd make it back home for 3am and spend a couple of hours drinking sweet tea and listening to my favourite afterburn LP's - The High Llamas' 'Hawaii', The Beach Boys' '20/20' or The Trembling Blue Stars' 'Her Handwriting'. Come 5, it would be time to start a new day.
All this was far removed from the big night-outs of previous years. There, the drug-taking amongst friends was a communal experience. You came up together, danced together and came back down together. Everyone in the same boat helped the waves stop rocking it. The routine I now found myself in was altogether shadier, sadder, more destructive. Maybe I was ashamed at the person I was becoming. I kept my habits close to myself, admitting it to no-one. And, for a good while, I convinced myself that nobody noticed. (Of course, they did.) I became a compulsive liar ('Jesus - what were you on last night?' 'Note mate - just a few beers'), a fraud, a fake, nothing.
As summer dragged on, my schedule began to falter. Big ups and easy downs soon became small ups and hard downs. Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays became non-days, functioning, but hardly just. I started falling asleep at work. Tensions with Our Kid - my business partner -began to become more distraught. Arguments in public, fist-fights on the market stall in front of customers. All exceedingly unbecoming.
When the dark night came, and I made my way back to Anderby Creek with the words of a stranger in my head ('Keep it up, son. Keep it up.'), I knew that things would have to change. And change they did, but only slowly. It took the words of another stranger - a random girl on a random night-out - to see me straight. Talking to someone on a typical Monday night - off my head and spouting rubbish - her forthright accomplice interjected with a barbed comment that horrified me. 'What you doing talking to him?' she spat out. 'Fucking druggie.'
I've always hated labels - 'teacher', 'runner', whatever. I always maintained that I could never be captured by one word, one idea of who I am, one stereotype. What am I now? 'A druggie...?'
Of course, I knew straight away that she was right. This is what I'd become. My life had narrowed until the most important thing was that little pile of white powder, wrapped up in the corner piece of glossy paper from The Face or The Radio Times. That, I'm afraid, wasn't good enough.
Fifteen years on from that particular night, my views on drugs are what they always used to be. Whilst other folks can do as they please, they're just not for me. I've never smoked a cigarette, never smoked a joint, dropped acid, snorted coke. With today's prevalence of social drugs, it's a courageous person who can say - no thanks, my life is better off without them. For me, it's dead easy now (I haven't been drunk in the last decade, never mind done anything stronger). I sometimes wish things had been the same back then.
When I look back, I see a character with only traces of who is me - a cracked actor in an almost-forgotten film. But I'm reminded of the words of Leonard Cohen:
'There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.'
Their truth is undeniable.
We all make mistakes. I've made as many as any of you, perhaps more. And making mistakes is fine, as long as you learn from them.
After that last night all those years ago, I vowed I'd never become dependent on any one thing again. It was a promise that I fully thought I could keep.
But I made a mistake there too.
Which leads me onto Part Two...