The Bastard Sea of Life - Part 1

Spring had come to London. From out the death and rot of winter came forth the fragile green beginnings of life, and from the tips of the hard, seemingly extinct branches of the city's trees appeared the first ugly knots of beautiful growth. I was down to the lunula of my fingernails, had been steadily eating myself away in an effort to survive and not bury myself in debt. I had buried myself in debt. Among the few people who cared I had relinquished my pride and accepted their generosity, had used it to paper over the ever-widening cracks of other, more pressing debts. But then, Came the Spring Came Hope. It showed in the broken plastic chairs that reappeared outside the cheap Chinese cafe, came with the far-off squinting sun and the blue and wet of fresh days. I didn't dream often just then, but when I did I dreamt of love and tenderness and loyalty; of light summer dresses and romance, of a square of room, any room, where we could retreat, lie together and talk out words into the night. And that was how it was in that year, when spring came to London, during my first spring back in town. 

A message emerged from out of that blue. It flashed through on my phone early one morning and sat there for three hours waiting for me to find it. I read the words and then I read them again. It didn't help. They made even less sense second time around. All that I could determine with any degree of certainty was that his name was Grayson and he was in some kind of trouble. 

Must be wriggling some bait to put the bite on me, I thought. Strangers were always doing that, imagining that I was doing well and would leap out of bed at the chance to wire them across some money. As I was deliberating over what to do, a second message buzzed through.

Soz 2 msg like this. not doin 2 good. Plz msg back.

So it is money, I thought. It's rarely anything else.

What'$ the problem? I sent back.

Grayson's response was immediate, this time emotionally cryptic and worrying: 

im just so angry m8. U no like so fuckin angry n i dont have any1 2 turn 2. feels like sumthing real bad is gonna happen. 

I understood that whoever this Grayson fella was, that he was certainly struggling to keep ahold of any beauty in life, was maybe floundering in the junk tank or was possibly even quite seriously ill. I quit messaging and called. He didn't answer. Then he messaged.

cant blieve u foned. fucka! was 2 spineless 2 answer. call again.

I did call. And from that call Grayson would be drawn out and pinned wide open, the old junk train would chug, loaded back into the station and, for another year, spring would be abandoned and the trees would bloom alone. 

I turned up to meet Grayson with a large kitchen knife stuffed down the band of my trousers. Too many psychos out there to rely on luck and intellectual reflexes. If he tried to pull any crazy shit on me, I'd vowed to pin his guts to the inside of his back. Over the years my words had secured quite a number of death threats. One guy, whose daughter had died from an overdose, had journeyed over to France to track me down and even up the score. In his penultimate email he wrote, 'People like you are a cancer on society.’ His mail included a picture of the apartment I had abandoned just a month previous and a warning that he'd find my new address within days. He never did, and I never heard from him again. And now, there I was, waiting to meet a stranger who had been saying some real weird stuff that made no real sense apart from "I'm just real fucking angry." It was that logical, almost placid acknowledgment that he was finding it difficult to cope which unnerved me. So, I stood waiting for him with a knife digging into my groin, purposely positioned on the opposite side of the road and a little way down from where I had arranged to meet him. I wanted to give myself as much room to manoeuvre as possible, be in a position to observe and weigh Grayson up before deciding whether or not to go through with the meet. 

It was a fine spring afternoon. The overground tube grabbed ahold of its track and lurched on over the iron railway bridge. It headed on down its line and left an echo of its entire history in the day. I could smell treated wood and boiled tarmac, dusty stones and the black engineering grease of faraway days. Surely this wasn't an afternoon that would be pierced through with psychotic melodrama. With the train then just a faint rumble in the distance, a man appeared outside the station. He wore red-framed shades and had wavy, greying hair which was finger-combed through with wet gel. His nose was very slightly upturned. He stood there holding a large bouquet of bright yellow daffodils. It was Grayson. I recognized him from the pictures I had seen online. I eyed him closely. He made a phone call. As he spoke he observed himself in a shop window, made an attempt to tidy himself up a little, like he cared what kind of an impression he would make. He didn't seem obviously troubled. I unfolded my own shades, placed them over my eyes, crossed the road and approached him from behind. “Grayson?” I said, gently touching his arm as I came around. For a moment he seemed taken aback, lost for words. Then he found himself. "Ya Fucka!" he said. I could smell alcohol off him. He was slightly taller than I and stood in front of me looking as awkward as I have ever seen any man look. Then he said: "Well, give us a hug then, ya Fucka!" He opened his arms and, being careful not to crush his daffodils, he embraced me and squeezed tight and he was full of warmth. 

Grayson seemed no more prone to violence than most people with borderline psychotic tendencies. If anything, he seemed kind of sorrowful and lost, reflective, still speaking in half riddles.

"I just bought these shades,” he said. “You know, had to cover my eyes to commute... To stop people looking in at me.” 

I didn't have a clue as to what the hell he was talking about. I nodded as if I did. That's when I noticed his shirt, yellow stains down the front and two large patches of perspiration spread out from under each armpit.

"Excuse the shirt, I didn't have anything clean."

"I've worn worse,” I said. “It's nothing. Right, shall we grab a coffee and talk? You can explain a little of what's been going on."

"A coffee? Er, we can, but I was thinking I could maybe shout you something a little stronger? I didn't want to ask over the phone. "

"Stronger? Like gear stronger? Can I score for ya?"

"Gear... Score… Yeah. Can you?"

"D'you even need to ask? How come, though? Is there some kind of blockage your end?”

“I wouldn't know, mate. I've not used for six years... Deleted all my numbers when I quit.”

“Six years?! Fuck. That's something. I've never even gone six weeks."

"I know. It's one of the things I admire about you. You seem to have accepted what you are. I wish I was more like that. I'm just fuckin' dishonest... An absolute fraud."

"Nothing to admire in me. I only burnt my bridges so as I could never sneak back across. Now, are you absolutely sure you want me to score? It's six years, don't forget."

"I'm sure. I'm more sure about that than just about anything else right now. Give your man a call and order like 300 quid's worth from him. What'll we get for that?”

"It's three for twenty... The white and brown. 300 would be 45 bits."

"Three for twenty? Fuck! Then order 200 in white and a 100 of brown... might as well make a proper day of it. Will it be cool to go back to yours?"

"It's right where we're headed,” I said. “Though I see you've already lost a yard of pace."

“I'll get it back, don't worry. I'm not all shot through just yet... And I won't slow you down."

- - -

Grayson looked uncomfortable sitting within the confines of a room. It was like the walls and ceiling were exerting an undue pressure on him. He was sweating, and his clothes appeared suddenly too tight. He sat there like that, on the edge of the sofa, counting out his money by dealing each note down onto the table in front of me. When he was done, he asked how long I'd be.

"Five minutes. You can come with me, if you like?"

"Nah, I trust ya, mate."

"You'll get badly stung trusting people round here. You may even get badly stung today!"

"I know the scene, don't worry. If I'm honest I'd expect nothing less. Worse, if it were me I'd probably fuck off with the cash myself. I've just about given up caring either way."

“O well, I guess we take our chances. Just don't steal the fucking windows while I'm gone.”


“The windows. Don't steal 'em or jump through 'em! I'll see you in five.”

- - -

45 bags.
3 extra. 
32 white. 
16 brown. 
A handful of holiday. 

I unclenched my fist and let the bags fall out on the table in front of Grayson. He barely even acknowledged them. Instead, he took a small puff on the cigarette he was smoking and after blowing out a little chortle of smoke, he said:

"Help yaself, mate. Go ahead. This is my treat.”

"Not how it works, I'm afraid. First pipe's yours. You look like you need it much more than I do."

I set up a pipe for Grayson. It was a little homemade number, a small plastic methadone bottle run through with the stem of a biro and crowned with a skin of tin foil. It looked like it was just about ready to go out jousting. Grayson raised the pipe to his mouth. I lit it for him. Through the wavering flame, Grayson trembled. And then he sucked, and the flame swamped over the crack and ash and was taken down through the perforations in the foil and disappeared into the top of the bottle. Grayson inhaled. When he'd taken his fill, he raised a hand to signal for me to cut the flame. He rested motionless for a second, holding the sweet smoke in his lungs. Then he exhaled, sending ghosts of smoke tumbling and expanding out into the room. I watched him with a tenderness of soul, took a strange pleasure in observing the effect that the pipe had on him. As the drug hit his brain he made a deep, low groaning sound, like he was being relieved of a tremendous burden. It made me sad. And, for a moment, before my turn on the pipe, I sat in the silent, smoky spectre of a life that had fallen into an unnamed tragedy. 

Alone like that, free from the distraction of the day turning on around us, it was the first proper look that I got of Grayson. Sat down and hunched over into himself, unwrapping a second rock of crack, he seemed much broader than he had appeared while standing outside the station. I also became aware of his facial stubble, at least a week's worth and a few years greyer than the hair on his head. Whether down to nerves or some kind of mental distraction, his eyes were fast and jittery. At times they lost focus and glassed over and seemed not to want to settle on anything in the past. Maybe the only constant was his sweating – an itchy uncomfortable perspiration of the type that rivers toxins out the body. I was still looking out for any sudden changes of mood or personality. There was nothing obvious, but there was something. Underneath, below the moist skin, it felt like his soul was wound like rope and knotted up. I let him drain his second pipe. As he tapped the dead ash clear from the bottle, I probed him for his story. 

“So, what was the problem this morning? You said you were angry?”

“I did. I am. But fuck... How to explain it? Like, you've never felt angry? Pissed with the world? The present? The past? It's like I'm tied in place, caught in a web and the fucking spider is creeping slowly in to finish me off. I've got a job. Oh, I'm so fucking dishonest. They think I'm Mr Grayson... Clean and tidy and responsible. Always telling others how to get back on track and I'm so far off mine that I no longer know which track it is. Everything's like that. Like I'm a fraud to everyone. This is me. This is me right here! Getting fucked up and enjoying it! I've been made an outcast. I became someone I'm not... Became ashamed of who I was and proud of the man I wasn't! That's fucked up. Real fucked up. And that's my life. That was my life. Things change. I've been drinking. I knew I really wanted junk, but I drank instead. It's OK to be a drunk. Except in the shop where you buy your liquid. There they look at you like shit. Treat you like it. Think that you can't see them through the fog of alcohol! They begrudge having to take 89p for their cheapest can. They sell it at that price! They price them up! And you know what? If you buy their weakest beer at twice the price they treat you differently... Even if your fingers are just as brown and your nails just as dirty. As they say: there's levels. There's even levels to being a drunk. I never got off the first level. That's why I'm angry. I lost myself in trying to be sober. I seethe as I talk, feeling that dishonesty inflating within me with every word. That's why I admire you. You just are what you are and rather than hide it you unhide it. I need to do that, but I can't. Small town mentality? Maybe. There it's so different. You've gotta keep secrets if you want a friend round there. Pull this shit with the curtains open and you'll come round to a very lonely world... If indeed you come round at all. “

I listened but never replied. In parts it made a kind of sense. But there was something dark surrounding his words, something dangerous. Like he said: something seething.

I must have been staring at Grayson, as I next became aware of him looking at me looking at him.

"Give us a hug then, ya Fucka!" he said. He always said that, 'fucka', whenever he expressed anything soft. It was as if I were such a Fucka that him feeling the need for a hug was my fault. "You're brilliant, you are,” he said as we unclinched. “I hope ya fucking know that? Fucking admire what you do so much."

"I write... That's all. Nine-tenths of the time I don't even do that."

“Nah... that's not all you do. You don't understand. Right now, the world needs great artists and writers more than ever. I work at the Southbank Centre, ticket manager. The performers – O God! Not one of them has anything to say. Either they're all 'darkly comic' to make up for any real depth to their work, or they're so middle of the road that they get mistaken for the fucking lines! It’s one of the reasons I wanted to meet you... Talk to you... Make a business proposal to you. Shit, ya Fucka, you're making me lose my words. The thing is this: I'd like to be your manager.”

“My manager??? Fuck. Where did that come from?”

“Well, you need a manager, don't you? Or you will do. That's my thing, what I'm good at: organizing stuff, meeting deadlines, getting the drugs in... convincing people they need things they really don't! I sold a bald guy a crate of shampoo once... anti-dandruff shit as well!”

“That certainly makes you something... But a manager? My manager??? I mean, let’s just weigh this up, soberly:

We've only just met.
You're in a bit of a state, freshly wired after six years on the wagon.
You say you're suffering from anger management issues. 
You've never managed an artist before.
And, maybe our biggest problem: ME... I've nothing to manage!

So, I really don't know what else to tell ya…. Of course you can be my fucking manager! Though there is one condition: No more shampoo to bald guys. We don't need that... Yet.”

And so, not even an hour in, Grayson had had something a little stronger than coffee, had fallen off the wagon and landed on the horse; I was stood opposite, sucking the entrails out of a dying pipe which I hadn't paid for. And, to cap everything off, I'd landed myself a manager. It was pretty decent going. Especially considering we'd only blasted down a couple of rocks apiece and the day had barely made it out of 2 o'clock.

Grayson stayed on late that night. By the time he eventually left, he was in much better spirits. Still not everything made sense, but enough made sense to know that he wasn't completely off the rails. I walked him back down to the tube station, said goodbye and listened to the tired chugging of the last westbound train as it clattered off like music into the night. 

- - -

I didn't hear from Grayson for three days. Then his face appeared in my messenger. This time he got straight to the heart of things:

not doing 2 good. u up 4 a sesh?

Come on down. It'll b fine.

And so Grayson travelled down once more, scored another £300 of gear, divided it in half and opened up a little more. He told me more about his ticket manager job at the Southbank Arts Centre and how it had led to him being signed off with acute mental stress and depression. He also mentioned that he was due up on a disciplinary for an unauthorised absence. That wasn't too serious in itself, though it transpired that it was the last in a long line of offences and had happened only weeks into a final written warning. The Centre seemed hesitant to take a decision while he was signed off sick. I asked Grayson if he had suffered a mental breakdown, to which he reluctantly answered 'no' and then even more reluctantly answered 'yes'. Then, with no reluctance at all, he called me a Fucka.

Aside from his work, the night revealed another part of the Grayson puzzle: Serena. It wasn't the first time that the name had been uttered, only now he spoke of her freely and did so as if I knew her. Yet every time he mentioned her name, revealed a new anecdote of conjugal hell, he would suck down a fresh pipeload of crack as if to force her right out the back of his mind.

"I'll always fucking love her, in some context," he said. "Only now it isn't really love... not like it was. It's different. She's more someone I'd protect with my life and never want to hurt. But I do hurt her... I am hurting her."

"Are you still together?"

Grayson trembled an outheld hand in the air, as if that status was somehow still in the balance. 

“Well, who left who? Who caused the rupture?” I asked.

“That was me.... Well, me by consequence of my behaviour. She said I either had to stop drinking or stop seeing her. I went for a walk to figure things out and returned home too drunk to talk. I told you, I'm a coward. I've not seen her since. But she's not in a good way. I'm worried she may hurt herself... I mean, seriously hurt herself."

After listening to some more details it was quite clear, at least to me, that this Serena defaulted to a position of self-harm and outlandish threats of suicide whenever she couldn't get her way with a lover. She seemed determined to get Grayson back by whatever means necessary. And like most people of that persuasion, the more desperate she became and the more frustrated she got, the more extreme her behaviour became until she finally lost all care and pride and would end hysterical, screaming down the phone with a knife to her own throat. 

"And, does she know you're back using?"

Grayson nodded as he sucked hard on a pipe and inhaled. He carried on nodding until he could speak.

"She knows. I told her first day."

"Did you enjoy telling her?”

“I did, yes.”

“How'd she take that?"

"She collapsed to her knees screaming and pulling her hair and cursing God. She's Italian."

"Fuck, I must be popular with her!"

Grayson wagged a negating finger. "Uh, no... She thinks nothing of you. She knows about addiction... knows about me. This is my choice."

"Well, I'll take your word for it. But if I know people half as well as I think I do, especially people predisposed to emotional blackmail who believe in God and learnt how to mourn in Italy, she'll blame me all right, and what's more: she'll be hellbent on clearing me outta your life."

Grayson froze staring at me with his mouth slightly ajar. His eyes were watery with a certain kind of universal dread which came through understanding and disappointment. He knew I knew, that blame had already been portioned out and I was the devil-in-the-wilderness.

- - -

Grayson started scoring on a daily basis soon after that. It wasn't so much a conscious decision, more a natural reaction to a life that suddenly seemed to be caught up in a retreating tide. Looking at it objectively, every aspect of his life that held any importance was in turmoil and heroin and crack cocaine were the only means he had of reining them in. And it wasn't even especially the effect of the drugs, but more how they totally occupied his every waking moment. Whether it was planning to buy them, getting ready to buy them, sorting out the finances to buy them, redialing dealers when they wouldn't answer, scrambling into clothes to leave that very second, sprint walking for the train station after scoring... It all combines to stop you thinking about life and whatever nasty trick it is halfway through at that moment. Our entire day was then, in some way or another, a direct result of making sure our evenings were full of the drugs we craved. Then even our habitual usage took on habits. It was like one long ritual devised to stave off falling back into the sewage of daily living and all the domestic and social problems which slowly screwed in against us. 

It was around that time that we stopped using my room at my mother's as a junk den. Instead, we crossed the length of the city and went back to Grayson's flat in Lambeth where we could get high in peace and not have to worry about hiding syringes or care about what time we woke the bathroom up to hit a late vein. 

Our evenings also merged into a kind of routine. On arriving back at Grayson's we'd divide up the drugs, steady ourselves with a shot of brown, and then get the crack pipes struck up and smoking away. Once we'd got our bearings Grayson would take up a position, cross-legged, on the floor, in the middle of the room. He'd sit like that with his pipe to his right and his little bags of crack laid out like pebbles to his left. I would stand, my pipe up on the mantlepiece alongside a glass of water. From my phone I'd narrate a single text to him each evening. At random moments Grayson would spring to his feet and duck out the room in tears. I understood so much more about him from the blankness he left behind in the room than from what I ever felt from his physical presence. When he returned he would invariably say, “Fucka!” He was ashamed of those tears, certainly ashamed of showing them in a man's arena. He couldn't cry and carry on, whereas I could. I could walk the streets crying or turn up for work in tears. And some part of Grayson wanted some of that too. Some honesty. Some way of being human without feeling like he had lost all self-respect in the process. 

After the storytelling, the conversation would invariably turn to Serena. Grayson remained adamant that the relationship was over and that it was now just a matter of disconnecting and untangling from a life together. But it was never that clear-cut, and from what I could make out, Serena was being pulled along on a chain of evaporating hope, kept at a safe distance while being soothed by the idea that things would one day be better. And with each passing day, as the different tensions in Grayson's life stretched ever tauter still, I could feel Serena's dark and brooding presence nearing closer and closer to our world. 

“About Serena, I need to ask you something and I'd like you to be honest.” 
“Ask away.”
“Are you sure you've not created this split just so as you can have a blowout on drugs in peace? Generally, when relationships end there is a coldness of detachment somewhere... at least for a while. But I hear you reassuring her, calming her... taking private calls... jittery if you miss a call. It doesn't sit true with many things you have told me.”

“I've thought the same. Maybe at first I did cause an argument because I wanted to get high, but things are really over now. Bt, I just can't be that cold a person... I'd die if she ever did anything stupid because of me being intentionally heartless.”

“The problem with that is that she then keeps an emotional hook in you. How could you ever really move on with your ex attached like that? But, even more serious: you're giving her hope and like that she blossoms and dies afresh each day. Hope is the worst in these situations... You're peddling dreams – dreams you tell me are dead.” 

He didn't respond, and I left it at that. Sometimes we hurt people more with our kindness than anything else. What Grayson was doing was either taking the easy way out or creating a situation that he could profit from, keeping tensions high so as he had the courage to tell Serena that she couldn't come home again, and like that his place was free for me to occupy and fill the air with the toxins of narcotics. But Grayson wasn't a terrible man. He had a certain honesty. At least around me he did. And there were things in him I greatly admired. Like his unwillingness to have anyone fuck with him or take away an inch of his personal space. No matter what shape or size, if someone encroached upon him he'd have none of it. That's when you'd get glimpses of his rage. He wasn't a brawler, had probably never learnt how to throw a punch in his life. But what he had was anger and rage, and it was that combination that would made him a very formidable and difficult opponent for anyone.

After a few weeks, Grayson asked if I'd like to move in with him. I told him I wouldn't move in as I had some concerns but that I'd stay there for an undisclosed amount of time.



“That's finished, I told you. I want some proper passion... not that... Not what I had with her. I love her, in a certain way, but we can't be together.”

“Grayson, I'm gonna tell you the blunt truth: I still think you have cleared Serena out just so as you can go on a mammoth drug binge. That's how it looks to me... Like you're being very selfish.”

“You're wrong. And you're even more wrong if you think I could be selfish like that. We're through... finished. I'm finished.”

“Well, time will tell. Nothing can be known here between two great fools.” 

Grayson didn't reply. Instead he gave me a spare set of keys to his flat and said the place was mine too.

The spring moved on and by. We hardly noticed it but did remark that the trees were starting to fill out and that the subway ride across town to score had become claustrophobic and muggy down in those deep tunnels. That subway ride, an hour each way, that constant and monotonous jerking and chugging, became synonymous with how our days had become. Hardcore daily addiction had crept back in and we were always now a step behind time – rushing to get to the bank, to score, to pick up clean rigs, to buy extra methadone and then to get back home and forget about everything but that which was in front of us. But some things just couldn't be swept aside so easily. Firstly, there was the question of Serena and then, quite out the blue, Grayson was passed fit to return to work and was then just a weekend away from full-time employment and the disciplinary hearing that would commence the moment he returned...

- - -

Part 2 coming very soon.. X

And What Moved Over the Dying Sun

At just gone seven my heart darkened. She heard me stop typing, waited for some minutes, and then asked “What's happened?”

“I need to score,” I said.

“You're kidding, right?”


“You must be! It must be a fucking joke?! You spent all day telling me of how you had had enough... How you were going on at least a week's break.”

“I know, and I meant it... Then. But now, now I want to score. Something's happened.”

“What? What's happened?”

“Just something in the air. Did you hear the rain? Did you smell it when you opened the window? That's what happened. Something blew on in.”

She didn't speak for a moment after that. I sat staring at the words I had been writing on the computer. The light was fading and there was something sulphurous out there in the night, like the city had a whole life going on that I was missing out on. When she next spoke the room was in darkness and I was camouflaged by it.

“Well, how can you score? You've no money. You've never any money.”

“I know, but I'll have money one day. I have an article that will be ready for Monday and a few bits to collect from a few people.”

“So, you want me to pay for it?”

“No, that's not what I want. I never want you to pay for it. But you could lend me the cash until my cheque comes through.”

“And what if I don't want to? What if I ask you to just go two days?”

“Then I'll do it. I'll have no choice. But it won't change anything and those days may bring in hell.”

“You're a shit... a real fucking shitbag! I was so happy watching you write, thinking of tomorrow...”

“We'll still have tomorrow. We'll always have tomorrow. But today I'm sorry.”

She took her purse up out her bag, counted through whatever money she had in there, then closed it again and sat like that, in the dark, hoping the horror would somehow end. I pretended to be editing, but really I was staring at the clock on the computer, hoping she'd give in quickly and not make this any more difficult than it needed to be. After half an hour I broke the silence.

“So, will you lend me it or not?”

“Do I have a fucking choice?”

“You always have a choice. Come on... Get yourself ready and come with me.We can run through the rain and get a coffee up on the hill. We can look at the lights and be thankful for all the success we never had.”

“You go. I'm not going. It was so peaceful here. You keep your dreams to yourself tonight.”

“No, you've got to come. We'll ride the metro one last time and tomorrow will come so much quicker like that.”

She rose, slowly. She smoked a cigarette and she stood near the window. She scrunched her cigarette out until every ember was done cold. She went into the bathroom and she pee'd in slow motion and then washed her hands and creamed them and changed her clothes at a thread a time. She did everything slowly, wanted to run time out and to somehow stop the unstoppable. When she was finally all out of things to do she came in and took up her purse and, without making eye contact, she gave me the notes and another little piece of her waning love. I wanted to die and I wanted to laugh. I took the notes and I held her, like the first time and like forever.

- - -

A full Memoires text coming soon... X

One For The Lungs

One For The Lungs - A Vaper's Tale


Forty Euros and it doesn’t even kill you? No, thank you! I've invested a lot of money in lung cancer and pulmonary heart disease and I'm not about to blow my investment now. E-cigarettes! Fuck! What's gone wrong with us when we want all the allure of smoking without the consequences? The Marketing of the Self. That's what it is. It's why chewing-gum or nicotine patches rarely work. They look over the fact that smoking is mostly about image, that smokers are just as addicted to the personality which holds the cigarette as they are to the additives within them. Cigarettes allow us to buy further into the persona we want to project – our internal hero. And because we figure it’ll take at least 30 years of smoking to even begin killing oneself, it’s become the safest, least reckless way to advertise a sense of self-abandon. Cigarettes are fetish and I‘m as guilty as anyone of using them as accessories.

One for the lungs and one for the fashion!

Oh, my beautiful words. The poetry of reckless and idiotic youth. A Marlboro poking out my breast pocket and another behind the ear. Sweeping onto the underground with my scarves aflap, smelling of snuffed dog-ends and some other perfume from some other lover. A wildness in my eyes, my gait. The last vestiges of smoke still drifting from my mouth. Standing tight up against the doors, impatiently flicking my lighter to a spark, revealing a person out to destroy himself, someone in a hurry to suck down another lungful of youthful demise. I've never known a heroin junkie who did not smoke; I wouldn't trust one who didn't. I don't even trust the ones who do. The flirtation with death and stunted living starts there. An infatuation with self-image, style and attitude, all pulled in from a searing, smoking stick, sucked way down and blown back out as your fantasy persona clears into view through clouds of your own myth.

The cigarette.

My first erotic love.

Lying back, breathing heavy, her legs open, waiting that my tongue tastes her for the first time. Me. Between her thighs. 3am. Bare apartment. Single mattress on the floor. No electricity. Rats in the loft. Kissing up her thighs. Pushing her legs still farther apart. Her sex tingling. The entire universe and all existence collapsed down into a bud of pleasure. I take a long, slow drag from a B&H and funnel a fine flute of smoke against her swollen clit. And with the air and the warmth she groans and quivers and pushes forward, suddenly clenching her stomach for the first steep drop of the death ride. 21 and discovering ourselves, taken over by an insanity we didn’t know we possessed. An intense mournful and desperate erotic longing, pupils dilated, tears from an unknown emotion, mouths biting words of unrepressed madness and honesty.

We must die together… I can’t live without you now.

I know, My Love, I know. I’ve wanted to die so badly, but in you I want to live.

I want to live so badly too. Tell me that you'll save me, that you’ll save all of this… that tonight will never end.

Ssssh, My Darling, Sssssh… This hell is ours eternal.


Oh no, not you as well, I said.

The local shopkeeper pressed a button on the side of his e-cigarette and, looking at me, sucked in and blew out, letting clouds of vapour pour from his mouth before swallowing the last of the heap down.

Voila, mon ami... That's how you evade the law, he said.

He pulled the e-cigarette from his mouth and showed it to me, pointing at the graduation marks printed up the top side. He said that he had filled it up only that morning, had been vaping away all day and still had 0.4ml of nicotine left. It meant nothing to me, but I read the reaction he sought and pulled an incredulous- looking expression like I was greatly impressed and what a shrewd investment it was.

Does it feel like smoke or is it like swallowing air? I asked

The shopkeeper wagged a demonstrative finger at me, then put the e-cigarette back in his mouth. He pressed the button once again, only this time he kept it pressed. I watched him curiously. He watched me back, his eyes open wide, the e-cigarette between his lips, button held, taking in vapour,  the seconds passing and his face becoming more strained and more ridiculous by the moment.  Finally he removed the device from his mouth and inhaled, instantly falling into fits of coughing, a shock of smoke sputtering out his mouth and nose. Through watery eyes he looked at me and forced a smile: It's just like a cigarette, he said. It's real smoke... Only, NOT smoke! Then he coughed some more before making a horrendous wretching sound like a bird regurgitating food for its chick.

For the first time I was kinda impressed. I'd imagined a variety of  politically correct smoke that didn't touch the throat on the way down.

Fuckin' good them things and I’ll tell ya wot for as well, said a new voice behind me. I quit with mine. Smoked 50 a day for 25 year. Stopped just like that. Amazing! Has turned me life right around and I feel so much better for it.

I turned around to confront the owner of the voice. It belonged to a new customer who had entered, who then whipped out his own e-cigarette, mouthed it, pressed the GO button and sucked down a lungful of steam himself. I eyed his sallow, bloodless complexion, his tea-stained teeth and oiled back grey hair. He stood there in a full-length woollen coat, yellowed from years of tar perspiration and nicotine-filled bars. A real smoker here, no doubt. A definite potential stiff for the cancer ward. I could see him there now, his last days spent dragging around an oxygen canister as he shuffled out the lift to stand in the hospital grounds in his pyjamas and smoke himself off in style. This was no three-a-day weakling but a hardcore, lifelong smoker, all attitude gone, someone who had smoked out of habit, through the night, coughing up phlegm and lighting another and not a slither of coolness left about it. He blew his vapour over me and the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper took a drag of his own e-cigarette and returned the gesture. I stood in the middle as these two local characters blew misty kisses at one another. The vapour didn't smell much like tobacco smoke but rather of some sickly perfume you would never want clinging to your clothes.

When I was once more alone with the shopkeeper, I questioned him about his electronic stick. To each question, the shopkeeper would present me with a different part of his device,  excitement lighting him up as he explained away how it worked and the genius of progress. It seemed like it was a piece of technology that he finally got better than the young. Twisting off the stem of his e-cigarette, he showed me how easy it was to refill and how to recharge it.

USB, he said, USB key!? As if asking me if I knew what one was. I nodded. Then he started going into the mathematics of the money this new-age cigarette was saving him.

Hmm, interested now aren’t you, he said, supposing everyone was as calculating with money as he. That speaks to you, don't it?!

It didn't, but I nodded as if I did, as if I was now open to the idea of an e-cigarette myself.

Standing as close to the shop counter as I could comfortably be, the shopkeeper took up his traditional position behind it and beckoned me still further forward, secrets abounding in his eyes as he leant in and whispered.

Listen, if you want an e-cigarette DO NOT buy it from the tobacconist. No, no. 50 euros from them dirty criminals. If you want an e-cigarette, my friend, come and see me. Look...

From below the counter he pulled out a package that looked like it contained two quality pens. E-cigarettes.

From me only 40 euros... for the TWO.  Plus one 12-miligram refill. Brand-new best quality, he said. Just 40 euros for you, my friend.

So that was it: The Hard Sale. This mule was so het up about e-cigarettes because he was flogging them. The other goon who had come in tinged the colour of morning piss was probably his stooge.

40 euros? I'll think about it, I said.

Don't think too long, he replied. Every second with them other foul things is killing you... And your wallet! E-cigarettes: all the pleasure of the real thing without the death sentence!

He sounded like a programmed advert. God, how it sickened me. For a moment back there I thought he was genuine. This man, this little independent shopkeeper who had plead poverty over the years, who had kept me supplied in chocolate and cholesterol, who I'd remained loyal to despite his inflated prices, was now trying to sell me any old junk he got his bartering hands on. Why, only three days previous, he had sold me half-priced Albanian cigarettes. I took a carton of cheapest orange juice he sold, paid, and walking home wondered what the hell was in it.


You should at least try it before you condemn it, she said. I thought you were more open-minded than that... That you‘re into everything e-dash and smart?

Not everything. And I don't need to try one. I'm sure they work just fine and that the vapour is as good as everyone says it is. But that’s not where it falls down: it's the thing itself. E-cigarettes just aren’t attached to anything or anyone or any image. That may sound ridiculous but everything nowadays comes down to that: not the practicality of the thing but what it says about us, the consumer. The Marketing of the Self, capitalism's greatest success and hold over us. It sells us fantasy and individualism through association. With all the choices we have we can construct a personality around ourselves, be whoever we want to be, except, ironically, ourselves. Some people construct that character around an empty husk, become what‘s cool and fashionable, and others construct an outward representation of their internal self, that hero they imagine they are and want the world to perceive them as. But it's all marketing and we are all victims, no less the people who claim to have escaped modern life, who live in tents and shit under trees. I can spot an eco-warrior miles off! How? Because he/she dresses in a certain style... Keeps their hair in a certain fashion. They market themselves to the image of who they want to be. We project who we are, who or what we want to be and what we're into by our clothes and accessories. Do you think modern books are designed to be read? Well, they’re not. They're designed to be shown off. It's why e-books haven't completely taken off just yet, because no one can see what you're reading. Give Kindle a back screen which displays an image of the book you're reading (even better an image of the book you're not reading) and sales will rocket. People could then show off an appetite for Jean Paul Sarte while reading of the wizardry of Harry Potter. Do you imagine there's one person on the bus or underground who is not conscious of what the cover of their book is and what they imagine it says about them? I'm sure I'm not the only one who has chosen books especially for my journey, going so far as pretend-reading the same words over and over for the eyes of others. One woman even once pulled me up on it.

Sat on the underground opposite me, smirking and looking over like I was a simpleton, she said: I say, you must be a terribly slow reader... You've been on that same book now for almost four months and you're not even a third of the way through! I smiled and said: Every great book's worth at least one half-decent fuck and this one hasn’t paid its dues yet!

And it won't today, she replied, standing up and moving away before she caught whatever stupidity it was I had. I’m telling you, it's all about image. Westerners have become obsessed with being someone in this life. It comes with the loss of religion, which is a good thing of course, but the transient period, the intermediate search for meaning and acknowledgement, is not so good. God needs a replacement. Without an omnipresent peeping Tom to distinguish ourselves to, it's only natural we become more and more extrovert as a people.

Fuck, Christ what has any of that got to do with anything? How does that stop you from at least trying an e-cigarette? They’re revo-fuckin-lutionary!

They could very well be once some rockstar takes up the habit while shooting dope or a bunch of vaping gangsters hold up a casino in some film or other. What they’re lacking right now is sex appeal. That's what will really make the e-cigarette: an identity. And even more importantly: If it can help get you laid or not. And that, that search for company, this 21st century isolation, brings it back once more to the loss of God.

Huh! Well, I think you've thought way too much about this. What a sad man you really are. There you are writing on about living such a decadent life as you do, when really you're sat at home alone, pondering over all kinds of nonsense. And, by the way, not everyone is into dead rock stars and sex appeal. Not everyone is so superficial and self-conscious as all that!

You think so? It's not important if it's a dead rock star or a sport's personality, whether it's people power-dressing for work or a 50-year old biker with no bike: it's all the same thing. And before you say it, it's nothing to do with adolescence or being immature or anything like that. And we rarely wise up, ever. We just age, shrivel up, and pass onto another marketing image. We modify who we project as we get older. We steal from what we feel are wiser, more sophisticated sources or those that will benefit better what we want from life. But it's not really about the age we are, it’s much more about the age group of the people we’re looking to attract. But, back on subject, for the moment the e-cigarette adds nothing to our marketed persona; it may even detract from it. Imagine a different scenario, one in which our paedophile cousins adopt the e-cigarette as theirs, in which vaping is known as an accessory of child molesters. In that instance, how many adult males do you think would take up vaping? Not many, I tell you. It's where anti-smoking campaigns have always fallen down in the past, by showing black lungs and hideous neck tumours. They made smoking seem even more dangerous, even more rebellious. What they should have done was associate smoking to a very uncool image, an image that'd have had kids ridiculed and bullied and young adults mocked off the streets. Instead they sold death to the young, and the young are infamous for wanting to die.

Oh, come on now, stop! Not one subgroup will ever have exclusive rights over a product. That's really fucking simplifying it.

Of course it's simplifying it. I agree it's much more complex than that but we'd never get there if we didn't simplify it. But still it happens. Look at how rubberwear is, associated to taboo and S&M, or how a certain haircut can define what music someone likes. Look at the swastika! If I were to wear one tomorrow I'd be branded a fascist and probably be beaten too.

Let’s leave swastikas well out of this. As to someone’s hairstyle or clothes, it all depends on what and how they wear them. Something as practical as an e-cigarette will maybe find its niche markets in colours and shapes??? It could be that a certain style of electronic cigarette comes to be associated with a certain type or group, but not the entire product itself.

Yes, but that’s exactly it : that's what the Marketing of the Self is. It’s exactly that! And once we've marketed ourselves right down to a specific type and colour, right at that point where we believe we've attained true individualism, that's when we've been done over completely, pigeonholed into small denominations with tastes so refined that we’re sitting ducks for specific products and ideas. At that point, as a sub-sub-sub group, the market knows exactly what to sell us and what magazines and websites we'll most likely visit or buy. It knows our morals, sexual perversions and our politics. It's why all these sub-genres exist in everything from music to art. People think it's individualism but it’s not. We're being divided up into ever smaller subgroups so as our choice of products becomes ever more defined. With a large enough wardrobe, you could go out and masquerade each day as a completely different person. It already happens: multiple interior personality disorder! People, terrified of loneliness, taking on multiple interior personalities according to the set circumstances or what people they’re with on any particular day. The phrase ‘I'm gonna let my hair down’ is a symptom of such a phenomena. What it really means is: I'm gonna abandon my serious and professional self and instead lose myself in someone quite different for some time.

Yes, yes… I understand what you're saying, but I’m wondering whether you do? On one hand, you're criticizing such association and on the other, you don't want to be seen with an e-cigarette because it's not 'rock n' roll' enough. You seem highly confused… Even more than usual.

It's not confusion. It's saying I'm as much of a victim as anyone. That I've nowhere near escaped the capitalist system. But I don't ever pretend I have. For me, the ultimate victory over capitalism will not be if you were used by it or not, but if you were conscious of being used by it or not: If you were duped or not duped. To undermine any system or order you must first become a part of it, use it against itself. A revolution is that... It's all a part of the same circle. Whatever our society becomes in the future, the free market will have played an important role in getting us there. In that way, if you believe in and strive for a fairer social and economic system, you must ultimately celebrate the role capitalism played in getting us there. You can't love the human and hate the monkey.

If you're evolution I certainly don't love the human.

Well, now you're sounding just like that bitch on the train, and I suppose you'll not let me fuck you either... E-cig, paperback or not?

And she didn't answer. She just shook her head like there was no hope left for me. Then she pressed GO and swallowed down another lungful of steam.


I could feel myself cracking from a long way off. I'm so familiar with that dual inner tension of desire and restraint that I now often give in immediately just to save time. I caught myself watching people with e-cigarettes, searching out any potential types, some malleable and corruptible characteristic that I could clutch on to, possess and make my own. But I saw nothing. Just idiot after idiot, holding these things like Irish whistles and sipping at the vapour like someone trying to make a single shot of whisky last an entire lifetime. When I came across a group of young clerks stood outside a bank, looking like an advertisement for menswear fashion, I knew there was little hope for me to be able to ply my sickly trade in this newly-emerging market. One of the clerks, a tall, slim, rosy-cheeked young man with blond hair, even seemed to goad me. Taking a pip-puff of his tin whistle, he blew the smoke out as if he were blowing his fringe out his eyes. Then he smirked as if I were the punchline of some joke. As I passed I heard his little crowd of cohorts chortling away with amusement, like they maybe would at a hated client who'd just lost his house and car and family on a bad investment. I was the bad investor. And lighting a fresh cigarette with the butt of my old one, I surely was.

Fucking bank clerks! I spat, looking at my reflection in the storefront window of a tobacconist’s. I'd prefer to be dead at 40 rather than have the misfortune of being one of them until the age of 60! And as my spite receded and my reflection disappeared in the glass, they came into sight, dozens of them, some dressed in black with white tops, others in sparkling pink, another in army fatigues, polka dot, glitter, gold, some fat, some thin, some long, others short, some sculpted and slender, some straight and some sober. Laid out, on display right in front of me, e-cigarettes of all shapes and sizes. I stood there staring at the wares, trying some more to figure the product out while fighting off an inner yearning to try it. My stupid head went so far as to start making deals with itself that I could smoke real cigarettes in public and take things a little easier on my body in private. I went through my options and each time opted for a death I didn't want. God, smoking is so unremarkable that it hardly matters anyway. Am I really so superficial it matters? Probably. Surely. Scratch my skin and you'll find nothing underneath. I'd probably disappear if I grazed myself badly enough. I eyed the e-cigarettes with great suspicion, thought of the bank clerks, and then eyed the cigarettes some more. Then taking a breath and swallowing my soul, I entered the shop for a closer inspection.


I took my first puff on an e-cigarette two days after Christmas. It had a weird sweet taste, not at all like a cigarette, but not unpleasant either. I did not buy it from the Algerian shopkeeper and neither did I opt for anything fancy or anything which resembled a real filter cigarette. It was plain black, 22 euros, and I bought the strongest liquid nicotine available. I felt like a fraud. I crept home and I charged it and I vaped covertly and mourned the sale of my bartered soul. To my surprise, it worked well. Over the following few days I went from smoking forty real cigarettes a day to no more than five. By the end of the week, as long as I was inside, tobacco had lost much of its importance. Outside, however, my cigarette fetish was as strong and as hellbent as ever. I started buying cigarettes expressly for that reason. But then two things happened, one by accident, and the other by design: The first change came when I cooked up a small fix of heroin and instead of shooting it in my veins I mixed it with my nicotine liquid and filled my e-cigarette with it. It wasn't strong, wouldn’t have killed a novice, but I could taste it and it seemed to keep me stoned without doing much more. I spent the day traveling the city and openly smoking heroin on the metro, in the street, alongside police officers, in shops and just about everywhere that hadn’t yet outlawed vaping. And it felt good. And in my mind the e-cigarette changed. It was then something subversive and secretive and I felt quite sure that everyone could tell that my e-cigarette wasn't quite smoking like any other around. Ha! It became not only a pleasure but a duty to vape outside, blowing out feint heroin fumes around the most unsuspecting of people. After such bastardization, I was no longer ashamed to be seen with such a thing. The second event came by way of complete hazard. Standing at a packed tram stop a tall young man came bouncing along, knocking into anyone who didn’t step aside. As he neared me I tensed my upper body and stood my ground. He knocked right into me and was duly sent veering off his line. He must have felt the resistance in my body as when he had regained his course he stopped and spun around.

Mind where you’re fucking walking! I yelled at him. The young man approached me with his arms flung open like he wanted some business. Or what? Or WHAT? he said as he came right up to me. With my e-cigarette pushed into the tender side of his neck, I leant in to his ear and snarled, Or I’ll empty you out right here. He must have seen some madness in me which he wanted no part of. Cool down, man, he said. It was an accident… Just an accident.

Well, mind your fucking accidents next time and never accident into me again. He backed off with his hands slightly raised. Go! Be off! I said. When he was far enough down the road he turned once more and screamed some insult at me in a foreign tongue. I just stared, all the while chugging on my e-cigarette. When he was finally gone, I heard the other people at the tram stop discussing what had happened and how he had either bumped into them or had made them step aside. And as listened I vaped, and for a moment I felt like a dangerous man.

On the short walk home from the tramway that evening I decided to pass the little corner shop. As I turned in off the road, there stood outside was the shopkeeper sucking the entrails out the arse of cigarette. When he saw me he quickly dashed the dog-end aside before putting an arm around me and shepherding me into the shop in such a way that I wouldn’t have seen the smoking butt on the floor. The man was a cloak of absolute deceit.

Were you just smoking? I asked.

He was all set to lie, then must have remembered that he believed in an all-seeing God and so made a confession.

Ah, yes, yes, he said. You’re a very intelligent and observant man! But I always have one cigarette in the evening and one after breakfast each morning. Sometimes you just can’t beat a real cigarette.
Yes, I agreed, pulling out my e-cig so as he couldn‘t help but see. Sometimes a real cigarette just cannot be beaten.

When he saw my device he washed over with a very distinct strain of sorrow, like I had caused him a great disappointment in his heart. O, but why? Why this cheap vulgar thing and not one of my beautiful vaporizors? Did you lose your mind over the New Year? Why, why, sir?

It was a present, I lied. And besides, yours don’t seem to work very well. I just caught you out there smoking away in shame.

O, but I explained all that, he said. It was just one… My allotted transgression, if you will. But never mind that— I’ve a little gift of my own for you, for your much appreciated custom.

The shopkeeper went behind his counter and bent down out of sight. I heard him rustling about and open some kind of carton. When he rose he handed me one of his electronic cigarettes and a quite devilish smile to accompany it. Here, for being such a good reliable customer. I instinctively reached out to take it. He pulled it back from out my reach. There’s just one condition, he said. If mine smokes better than yours, you must agree to buy the other one?

Oh no, I said, I don’t like such agreements… I’d not be comfortable with that.

Take it, Sir, please... It’s a gift. It’s yours. No conditions if you don’t like. But please accept it. Will you?

Under such duress I agreed. The storekeeper visibly lit up, dropped the-cigarette in a small paper bag and said with great excitement, You will see… Now you will see how much better mine are.

I took the small bag containing the e-cigarette and without buying anything, I left the shop.

Back home I took the e-cigarette out the bag ready to put on charge. As I unscrewed the vaporizing chamber from the battery, a thick dribble of saliva ran out the mouthpiece and over my hand. The sly old bastard. The entire mouthpiece was not only clogged with spit but was also heavily chew-marked. All that bending down behind the counter while making out like he was opening something was a complete charade. This wasn’t a new e-cigarette at all. It was his old one that either no longer worked or was so sodden with spittle that the vaporisor needed replacing. No doubt the shopkeeper now felt like I was in his debt, that I would find it difficult to worm out of buying the other e-cigarette without offending him in one way or another. That’s how the world often works. It pushes things our way and taxes us for them later.

That night the New Year was brittle with cold. The windows of the apartment frosted up through the night and the ice creaked and cracked and at times it was like there was no life out there at all. In the dark of the room the charger for my e-cigarette emitted a single green light. It was charged and ready to get me through until the morning. I laid on my side staring at that little light and listening to the wheezing of my lungs. Technology had come too late, and anyhow, I missed the orange glow and the magic patterns of a lone cigarette burning through the night. And with a certain resignation I reached across for my Gauloise Reds, shook one out, placed the firm filtered end between my lips and lit her up. It was a lonesome old world and my lover tonight would kill me tomorrow. But that was fine, and what‘s fine is good, and I puffed some more and sealed my rotten fate.

- - -

Lines for Joe M


THEY CAME along in unison, building-sized and on their sides, past the cheering crowds. They played military music and fanfare, and because everything was choreographed it reinforced our ideas of uniformity and comradeship that little more. Even those who didn't buy into the Western bullshit and propaganda looked on with fear and concern.

"This is a direct fucking message to us," said Joe, sucking down the smoke from a rock of crack.

"More like a reply," I said. "Why should anyone keep quiet?"

"To not rock the boat? To not risk reducing this world down to fucking rubble."

"That'd take more than one lunatic and there are more than one out there. Don't think that just because someone speaks the same language as you that they're not a fucking psychopath."

"This is pre-war, man... I'm telling ya."

"It's always pre-war. Every moment before the next is PRE war."

"Not like this it's not. This is pre-imminent-war. Damascus up in flames and now North Korea and Russia and China... All the big boys. This is a terrible and macabre dance we're watching."

We watched President Kim Jong Un. He was dressed in a black suit that didn't seem to fit. He had a body shape that was impossible to tailor for. As the troops and missiles passed by he held his right hand angular to his temple in a stationary salute.

"Doesn't look insane to me," I said. "Looks just like any other guy I could pass in the market."

"Another guy in the market??? The guy's stood there with a weird fucking haircut saluting warheads... What fucking market do you go to?"

"Same one as you: rotten fruit, cheap porcelain and leather and stomach churning lingerie. Kim Jong's not a man who wants to die... Look at him. I'd be much more terrified of someone sold to an apocalyptic religion, who believes he can be nuked into paradise. It's them idiots, obsessed with tenor voices singing Revelations from the sky, who are the real crazies. And anyway, why shouldn't North Korea and Mr Jong have nuclear weapons? Who ruled the West to be the voice of all reason? Judge and jury over who is responsible enough to have them and what justifies bringing them into play? It's a fucking craziness that has led to anyone stockpiling such weapons at all. A real fucking insanity."

"Fuck, man, look at that! D'ya see that missile? What the fuck is that?"

"It's sad, that's what it is: sad. Now pass that pipe over. I'm starting to suffer from sobriety and it's all making me quite sad."

I loaded that pipe and fired it up and sucked the contents way, way down. When I was quite done I blew the smoke out towards the sun that shone in from high up through the window. I thought of nothing but saw images of missiles and tanks and red stars on white and cheering crowds beneath a crisp blue sky. And through the smoke and through the crack that late afternoon sun was the colour of champagne.

"Do you think this is the start of a nuclear war? Joe asked, interrupting the thoughts in my mind.

"Nuclear war? No. I'm sure people won't allow America and its whores to bring us to that catastrophe. I think pure public opinion and fear, demonstration and revolt, will oust any president who seriously threatens to bring us to that."

"I think you're wrong, man. I think an awful lot of people are secretly spun out on the idea of all out nuclear war. I'm telling ya, a hell of a lot of people wouldn't mind dying."

I thought about the great power and false promise of capitalism, of how the collecting of material possessions and wealth affect a man... How we've become too comfortable in our own lives, have too much to risk losing to want to go to fucking war. Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat, Youtube, iPhones, Chrome Books and cheap foreign travel. It all means too much. It's created a generation which does not feel the need to run out screaming in front of machine gun fire... A generation who source their thrills and gamble with existence in other ways, safer ways. I thought of the crack pipe and scoring heroin outside the 24hr chicken shop, of the rags of men salivating over fortunes in the gambling houses. I thought of alternative and underground political discussion groups and Cute Dead Guys and all those billions of smiling selfies people post while giving their lot back into the system. "I'm not sure I agree with that," I said. "Have rarely ever met anyone who wants to die... Not even when the drugs are gone."

Joe blew out the smoke from his latest pipe. He closed his eyes over as if meditating while the tickling creep of the rock hit him. "Hey, do you think it's possible to score crack in North Korea?" he said, still with his eyes gently shut and holding the pipe out like it were a candle.

"Don't think they need it. I don't think they live based on promises of great success only to sink into despair at 35 from the failure to have realised such impossible dreams."

"Bullshit! Everyone needs crack. The whole fucking world would benefit from a decent fucking pipe. Hey, imagine Kim Jong sucking on a Martell bottle!"

"Kim Jong on the fucking pipe? Cut the crap will ya. "

"I bet he is! I bet he's a right fucking crack fiend, piping away from sun-up to sunset, those sexy fucking Korean babes sucking him off between toots. Bet he's into diaper play! Dressing up as a fucking baby, being put in a cot and left to cry and crap himself! He looks the type alright, what with those short fucking arms and dimpled fists."

"You do know what that is, don't you?"

"Huh? What what is?

"You, putting Kim Jong Un on the pipe and in a diaper? Having the poor guy crap himself?"

"Yeah, I know what... Er, No, what is it?"

"It's the propaganda maggot having burrowed right down deep into your skull. You may not think they've got to you but they have. They get to all of us."

"They ain't fucking got to me, mate. Was just fucking with ya. I couldn't give a shit about Kim Kong or whatever it is they call him. Was just pondering shit is all."

"Well pass that fucking pipe while you're pondering... My lungs are getting wet."

Joe made to hand the pipe over. As I reached to take it he pulled it back. "Oi, I know that face," he said.

"What face?"

"Your thieving writer's face... That one! I fucking bet all this about Kim Jong crops up in one of your texts. I fucking bet it does!"

"Kim Jong in a nappy and smoking crack? Shit like that will never make it into my writing."

"And what about me? Will I?"


"How are you so sure?"

"Because I never write about people who want to be written about, or worse, people who try to get written about. They're never genuine."

"Who the fuck would purposely go out their way to be written about?"

"You'd be surprised, Joe... You'd be very fucking surprised."

- - -

The girl who was commentating on the military parade sounded like she was hosting some weird Asian game show. God knows what she was saying but she was saying an awful lot of it. Every now and again the program would cut to Kim Jong Un. He stood there, just as he had from the start, admiring his nation's weapons and personnel.

"What do you imagine she's saying?" Joe asked, referring to the excited commentator.

"I think she's saying ugly words. Ugly words of how great Kim Jong is and what unique weapons he has commissioned and what brilliant science was involved in the making of them. Yeah, ugly stuff of fact and horror, not an ounce of poetry anywhere."

"You're probably right. Though, I'm thinking maybe she's just speaking random words, like a nonsense commentary to work everyone up into a kind of wild hysteria."

I watched Joe curiously. He always said stuff like that, like his mind was slowed down somewhere between insanity and stupidity. He knew I was watching him but made out like he was unaware. Instead, he grinced his teeth down on the small knot of a fresh bag of crack, twisted it with his thumb and forefinger as his incisor put on the pressure. In that light, with the crack smoke heavy in the room and the afternoon's dust glinting in the sun, it felt like I was watching an old movie. Joe looked beautiful and well and full of life, even if he was almost rotted right through to the end of his film.

“Why do you do that?” I asked

“Do what?” said Joe, before spitting out a small fleck of cellophane he had finally gnawed off the bag.

“Bite your bags open like that and pull that face when the crack gets in your mouth.”

"They're my fucking bags. I'll open them how I like. What's it to you?”

“Just a waste is all. You won't put 47p toothpaste on them teeth of yours and yet here you are coating them with crack.”

“Shit! You saying that reminds me of Micky Mouth. He used to eat his crack. No joke. He'd chew it up into a foul paste and swallow it down. Then he'd act all nuts. Start screaming on about his football team, pulling his pants down and flashing his arse and slapping himself in the face. Was fucking mental he was.”

“Did anyone tell him you can't get high eating crack?”

“Seemed to work for him. Poor fella fell out the back of a moving taxi one night and rolled head-first into a lamp-post. Ended up in a coma for weeks and was never quite the same after. Retarded. Even stopped using, I think. Last time I saw him he was parked up outside the post-office with bright pink lipstick smeared all over his lips. Some cunt had thought it funny to doll him up and leave him sat out there like that.”

“Jesus. It's incredible, isn't it? This miracle of existence... Us humans, supposedly the most highly evolved animals on the planet... a bio-illogical marvel, and yet there we are running around daubing lipstick on invalid folk. Really... it's fucking astonishing. Weren't you was it, Joe?”

Joe went to laugh but instead controlled himself until he had finished sucking down the fresh hit that he was in the middle of piping. As he blew the smoke out he said, “No it weren't fucking me, you Cunt... It was my mate."

= = =

Back in Kim Il-Sung Square military battalions now marched by. As they passed their leader, they would turn their heads in order to keep their eyes on the great Kim Jong Un. It made me think of the Imperial Russian Guard, chins raised and ever so slowly turning their heads to follow the passing President. It's the mechanics of such behavior which is so terrifying, like the human is no longer in the soldier.

“Hey, would you ever fight for your country?” asked Joe.

“Doubt they'd let me. They certainly wouldn't give me a gun and directions! But yes, I would... Though it'd have to be for a very special cause and under the right leadership. Any war you could think of right now, no, I wouldn't. Why d'you ask?”

“Just curious. Sometimes you seem like you'd die for this land.”

“I have died for this land. But I don't love the nation... I don't care for that kind of stuff. I'm in love with the physical terrain... The bricks and concrete and shop shutters. All the things we know so integrally and yet have absolutely no appreciation of. The people too, I guess. Though they're mostly assholes. O, I don't know. There's just something isn't there... Something here that gets to the heart of everything. I learnt that this place is me... that my existence is intertwined with this city. Though of course, it can go the other way. Some people learn to despise their homeland and miss nothing of it. I should despise London and yet, by some freak twist of whatever, I don't.”

“You see, I don't get that. I hate this place. I hate the country, the traditions, the history. And I especially hate the people. Only bad things happen in this place. I don't feel any romance at all. Roads of endless tragedy... x2.”

"That's because you've never been away. We all despise things when it's all we have. You SHOULD hate it because it's led to nothing... Led just to this dying day and these last crumbs of crack."

Joe stared forlornly at the TV screen. Brass bands passed and played but for the moment Joe was somewhere else.

"Hey, what you saying over there?” I said after a while. “What you got left?"
"This pipe and another rock," said Joe. "And you?"
"A rock less. Though I've a decent last pipe to save my soul with."
"So what, d'you think we should call your man then?"
"Wouldn't be a bad move. Though work your fucking order out first this time."
"Hang on... Let me see."

Joe shuffled up in the red armchair he was perched on. When he was sitting erect he kinda keeled over on his left buttock, raising the right, and began furrowing down and around in his back pocket. He pulled a scorched face like his arms weren't quite long enough. Finally he withdrew a handful of screwed and scrunched up bank notes and began straightening them out and laying them down on the table like he were playing solitaire. "Gotta keep 40 squid back, mate. So yeah, order like, er... 12 white and 6 brown."
"If I were you I'd order a few less white and a few more brown."
"Nah, I'll be OK."
"You sure?"
"Yeah, fuck it, 12 and 6."

I made the call and on receiving  no answer I made the call and then again.

"No answer?" asked Joe.
"Nah. Not a good sign, mate."
"So what, are we fucked?"
"As good as... We've gotta do some cardio! Get yourself ready we'll have to go for a trot."
"A walk? How far, man? I really don't feel like walking."
"That's because you've got a rock left! Stick it in your pocket and grab the pipe and let's go. Any later and we really will be screwed."
"Can't we just wait a little for the Somalians? See if they turn back on?”
“They'll be off all evening, I know them too well. If they were even as much as two hours away they'd answer."

Joe quit protesting. He rose and visibly tried to compose his mind. He was a mess of a thousand different frequencies. His jittery forgetful fingers collected up a few things he needed and forgot a couple more.
“Fuck, where's my lighter... Cigarettes? Ah, I got em. Keys... Need my keys. Shit, you seen my keys?”
“Leave your keys. We're coming back here anyhow. Just get the pipe, that's all. You got the pipe?”
“Yeah, yeah I got the pipe.”
“Well, give us it here.... We need a little blast to get us on our way.”

- - -

The fading evening was warm and quiet. The sky stretched on way out, mysterious and haunted by the coming darkness of night. The very last of the sun cast tragic shadows deep into Joe's face. We walked in silence until our leaving pipe wore off. I listened to the chaffing of Joe's jeans and his occasional coughing that had birds scatter and take off for places new.

“It's a lonely old world this evening,” I said to Joe. “Can you feel it?”
“When it comes, it comes a-creeping,” said Joe. There was all the beauty in the world right there in that moment. Everything any man has ever wondered over was in the air as Joe spoke those words in that gone and going evening.
“Surely we wouldn't destroy all this,” I said, looking out.
"All this??? What the fuck are you talking about? If any-where could do with being destroyed it'd be this place. It's one big fucking shithole!”

Joe's words made me laugh. Sometimes poetry is something else. It wasn't the place I was speaking of, but it didn't matter.

“Right, you gonna phone this guy?” asked Joe.
“No. You can't phone this guy... He ain't got a phone. He's one of us. He serves up out the Bookies on Oakley Road.”
“Oakley Road?! That's a good way away.”
“I know, that's why I told you to bring the pipe and that last rock of yours. Now keep an eye out for a quiet place or a bench... Even an old telephone box. We'll get there just fine.”
"Nah, fuck that shit. I'm good. On the way back, maybe. Lets just get there first and hope he is too."

It wasn't a night for scoring disasters. Before even turning onto the Oakley Road I spotted Caleb serving up some long-haired rock-looking guy. I whistled and Caleb saw me and hung on where he was as the rocker shuffled off with his goods.
"What ya saying, Bruv?" he asked as I approached.
"You holding both, mate?"
"Course, Bro... Course."
“Then sort us out 12 light and 6 night."
"6 night! I like that! No-one ever called this shit Night before."
I took the bags and quickly counted them up as Joe handed over the readies. As Caleb verified the notes his next customer pulled in, a short man with a large rounded torso and a plump face that looked like it had been pinned on by mistake. Topping off that head was a sculptured thatch of thick satin black hair, swept back and fanned out like he'd been hit by a supersonic blast wave. Joe shot me a look of astonishment, like he could hardly believe what he had just seen.

“Did you just see that?” Joe said, once we were away.
“I did see it, Joe. I did.”
“And you noticed the fucking shape of him, right?”
“I noticed Joe... Was impossible not to.”
“And the haircut? You saw that too?”
“I saw it, Joe...Didn't miss a thing.”
“So tell me: when have you ever seen an Oriental scoring crack?”
“I never have, Joe... It's a first for me too.”
“And it did remind you of someone, yeah?”
“It did Joe... It seriously fucking did.”
“Ha! I told you so! Didn't I tell you?”
“You did tell me Joe, but I just wouldn't listen.”
“That's right: you just wouldn't listen! Now, as sweet as any music to my ears, tell me: who have we just seen scoring?”
“Looked like Kim Jong Un, Joe... Looked insanely like Kim Jong Un.”
“Like Kim-Jong-fucking-un! Scoring crack from the last fucking stop in town! Awwww!!!!”

Things had turned good; sometimes they do. Light from laughter and carrying an evening's worth of escape, we turned off the Oakley Road. With the sun behind us, drowning beneath the horizon, shadows stretched on so far we were walking in them. The echoes of the day were now just a faint memory in the declining evening. We walked in silence, out of step and at good pace. When the sun was finally done, gone down behind the Western edge of the world, Joe took out his shades and placed them on his face. He looked at me and I looked at him and he smiled. And then his lips went, ruffled out and vibrating, as he mimicked the sound of a trombone. And then his right hand found the beat and he began swinging and waving an invisible conductor's stick through the night. It was fanfare, Pomp and Circumstance of a Crackhead in Bmajor. And as we marched on home I kept a look out for a hole, a little doorway or recess, some place we could slip into unnoticed and ignite our world once more.

Thanks as ever for reading... Shane. X

Lines for Joe M to follow...

The Night That The Storm Came In

I want to tell you of the night that the storm came in. Of how I was out on my feet, wandering around town and hoping for an act of God to prevent me from ever making it home again. I want to tell you of the night the storm came in, how I saw all my pasts and futures at once and felt like screaming out about something so terrible in the present. I need to tell you of that storm, of how the light collapsed into yellow and hung overhead, of that strange mood that made the world take notice and of the silence which allowed single leaves to be heard in the little swirls they'd been caught up in. I want to tell you of how the sky lost its mind, and of the haunted song that that first rebel wind sung as it snaked its way through nothing streets. The storm touched me that night. It whipped up grit around me and stung me, and it was hard not to weep in the pause of that great foreboding. I have to tell you of that storm, of our storm, a common storm... of a beauty that came in from the distance, rolling like the furious sea and churning up blues and silvers and golds. I want to tell you of the eyes I saw, how lost they'd become and how I knew we'd never survive another. It was like that for so many that night, half the city, running in fear for their lives while being chased down by a darkness they hoped would never arrive. And I was walking around town, miserable with life, a rotten heart, poor lungs, circling the old square and thinking about young whores and young love and how I had no money to rent or keep either. And that was when the first splodge of the great wash arrived... Thick and singular: SPLODGE. Just like that. Just the one and then a pause and then nothing and then just another. O, CLACK! A cracking whip somewhere out there, fathoms deep in the nowhere. And then the sky shattered and lit up and gave light, and the old bastard was upon us, running us down and raging away through the heart of our town. Through the haze of that violence I watched the destruction play out, wanted to fall into it and be consumed by it. The trees around me bent and swayed, those with weak roots were pulled right on up and carried away. What was not nailed down and what had no heart was taken too. Some roofs collapsed and others slid right off; the old school became a hollow, whistling spirityard of tragedy and horror, all the children from all the years screaming in unison as the terror finally came. The city took it hard that night, took one hell of a beating. And I was out and I watched it happen and I never wanted to make it home again.

There were fires up on the hill in the distance. Sheets of lightning, jagged too, explosions and flames and dragons' tongues. Smoke rose off that thing like water sizzling on hot stone, and all around, O great hell had broken loose. There was some fury out in our world that night, something that we all understood but which noone could explain. The first of the city's rivers burst her banks and after that the second too. Cars trying to out speed the storm were washed across the road and into each other, a great skidding opera as the water rose, spinning with the fish that looked out into a strange new world. And that was the storm, the thrashing we had been waiting for all these years, the test of who we were and what we had left. In that force people were crucified, went down without a murmur and even less hope. For once you could do nothing but surrender, give yourself up to a greater power and be thankful that kicking back was no option at all. I was stopped still, in that old square, being whipped by winds and stoned with hail and staring out into the whirr that had come to greet me then. And I'm telling you, and I said it before, there was gold out there... Gold and silver and pewter and yellow. And it was like a place I'd seen before, like a dream and like a river, like everything I'd ever wanted.

'Worst Storm Since '88', it read when it was all over and finished.
'17 dead in a Once in a Generation Tempest'
'Dog Found Stranded on a Raft. Weak but alive. BELIEVED TO HAVE A HEART!'

And that was the storm. All gone and all blown out, the city and its people stripped of everything they didn't need. In the old square I had watched it come in, watched it prepare its way and had looked through it in search of something I didn't know what. And when the night finally closed down, when we'd all had enough, soaked through and nauseous with water, I was left with just one way to go and that way was East. In the miserable, tail-end dripping of such fury, with the storm's better half all raged through, tender tender now, I took out a cigarette and made to light it up. Marinated through it broke at the filter and folded over, hung from my lips like I was a beaten man. I was. I was walking home to my second night in a bed that would smother me in torment, have me come to in the violence of solitude, mad for yesterday again.

Thanks as ever for Reading... Shane. X

Lines for Joe M

2 Stories of the Sea & Love

The cabbage came to the boil and it smelled like the sea, the sea on the stones and in the kelp, the smell of the old rotting pier and the barnacles and mussels clamped on down low in the shade and damp. I often think of the sea. I've never lived in a seaside town nor alongside the coast. I can barely swim and I despise the sun and hot, sticky days beneath it. But on certain days the sea still comes and I can hear the screams and they are not screams of horror.

My last but one told me a story of the sea and I told her one back. Mine wasn't so good. I thought I could get a laugh but I told it badly and it didn't even get that. I'll tell it here. Just for the record. Everyone's heard it anyway. It was that day I was dragged off to Brighton by that Italian Girl, the one who cried herself to sleep over my use of opiates; the one who thought anything besides straightforward in-and-out sex was perverted and odd; the one who left a stain on the mattress in the shape of the missionary position. I'd be fantasizing of the craziest shit as we fucked. Maybe she was too? Though I doubt it. When we eventually split and had it out, the only time we ever spoke of such things, her body betrayed her and her eyes teared up and she gagged. She was preparing to say “You should have told me... I'd have done that!” Those dry heaves made me terribly sad, like she couldn't have done anything worse than that. Anyway, she took me to the sea. She was from Naples and had such a desperate longing for the ocean.

“Please don't be getting stoned,” she said.
“I've nothing to get stoned with,” I told her. “We'll pass my mum's on our way to the Station.”
“Got to drop off something for her fella.”

Why I still lied I couldn't say. She had long ago made the connection with me visiting mum and an hour later my pupils pinning up and a giant's slumber filling me without warning.

We arrived at the seaside in the early afternoon. I had come around numerous times on the train down, had watched the countryside hurtling by outside, and now I opened my eyes to us slowly pulling into Brighton Station, the unmistakeable scent of sea air floating through the old train carriage, boiled eggs and tomato and the feint sound of the high ocean.

My girl wasn't angry; it had passed. And then it passed some more. Out of the train and heading down the platform you could see straight up ahead, right through the station to the city outside, the hordes of people making their way down, and at the end the bulging sea, like some huge heart expanding and contracting away.

“The sea,” she whispered like it were something sexual. “The sea.” And she looked at me with a wonder that I thought adults no longer possessed. Then she held me and close in she whispered once more, “the sea.”

The sea was wild. Choppy and powerful. The danger signs were out 'NO SWIMMING'. Up above the sun appeared dazzled by its own brilliance. It was beating down, so hot it seemed to muffle all sounds except the heave and sway of that fucking ocean.

“We can still swim,” she said, excited. “I will!”

I looked at the sea. There were a few people out in it, bobbing around like sewage between swollen rows of waves. “You go ahead... Enjoy yourself. Like I said, I'll just watch.”

We laid our bags down and set out a large towel on the stones. I had a shitty little transistor radio. I tuned it into a mess of static and let it crackle on like that in the afternoon. She looked at me. “Come on,” she said, “make an effort.”
“Your top... Your boots!!!”
“I'm good just like this.” She stared at me incredulously, sitting there in my long-sleeved white cotton top, cut down military trousers, black, steel toe-capped Doc Martin boots and shades.

“You can't sunbathe like that. Only your knees and nose are showing!”
“All the more skin cancer for everyone else,” I said. I just wanted to sleep and dream of dragonflies and a small boat gently lulling on the waters, out there in the deep blue of nowhere.

They removed the dangerous current signs at around 2pm. My girl had already been swimming and now woke me excited, pestering me to go in the shallows. After a moment I gave in, reckoned on giving her ten minutes and then I could get back to reading and drifting off.

“You must remove your boots to go in the sea,” she said. “You'll lose them if not.”

I took the Slacker's option. I redid my laces, tied them tight around the uppers of my boots so as they couldn't be pulled off. She shook her head but I could tell she kinda enjoyed leading me down to the water in my boots and shades, looking like some drug fiend who was being shown 'How To Have Fun'. I strode into the water, into the shallows where the children were running in and out from the waves and screeching wildly. I could see people on the beach laughing at me. I walked into the water up to my knees. It felt good, cool, like a young memory I only barely still remembered. That's when the wave appeared. We saw it coming from a long way off, a big swell of water pushing in.

“Get back a little,” she said. She remained bobbing in the water, waiting to impress me with how well she would navigate the incoming bulge. I retreated to a safe place. The wave hit and the water came up to my hips and almost lifted me off my feet. Then everything stopped, like the moment was on pause, and then came the suck, the horrendous sound of hundreds of thousands of small stones being pulled over the larger ones as the sea took back what it had given. Now, somehow, the full might of the sea was in my boots, a force pulling from inside the steel toecaps, pulling me out and laying me back in the same movement. I was under the water, under the damn sea and being dragged out. I tried to right myself but my boots were then a terrible weight and it was impossible. I panicked in a struggle to unlock myself from the sea, the water rushing up my nose and taking my breath. I caught dirty snapshots of bubbles and driftwood and wide planes of sunlight shining somewhere through the water. Then came those muffled screams of joy, the beachgoers screaming from the excitement of the wave. For one awful moment a panic hit so terrible that no-one had noticed me disappear and the world would play the sounds of a wild summer day as I lost my fight to right myself. And then my face somehow broke the water and something behind me was giving me just enough angle to right myself. My Italian Girl, laughing: “I knew that would happen, going into the sea stoned like that. you should have seen how quickly you disappeared. PLOOOP and you were gone! Idiot!

I couldn't talk. I was flushed pale with shock and gulping for oxygen. I let her turn me around and lead me back to the shore. Up, safe on the beach, I said: “It wasn't the drugs. It was these fucking boots... filled with the fucking backwash!”
“Ah, yes, you are right. It wasn't the drugs it was absolute stupidity!”

It wasn't stupidity either but I didn't argue. In fact it was something far worse, a character trait that would almost have me dead on several occasions and even more often have me harm myself. I guess that was how I sourced out love and friendship in those early years of my life, the only way I knew how without having to speak too many words.

The sea had ruined my high. I wanted no more to do with it. I sat back down on our towel. I had lost my shades. I urged the Italian back out into the sea, told her to go swim and have fun. I pretend read as she hurried off, dripping wet over the stones and back on down to the water. When she was safely in the sea I turned on my side, went through my bag and pulled out a strip of subutex. I crushed down four and hooted them up and then laid back, waiting for the sun to blur, the sounds to merge and drone out and a warm tranquillity to put me out under the glorious day.

I couldn't remember moving but I must have. Maybe I did so in increments as the tide slowly came in up the beach. For whatever reason I moved she couldn't find me. She woke me up furious in the late afternoon, standing over me, tears of anger in her eyes and screaming. I couldn't hear her words and anyway they didn't seem too important just then. I had something much more pressing to tell her, an instinct which made anything else irrelevant:

“I feel like I'm dying,” I said. “Something's happened. ”
“You're burnt to a crisp you fool! You must have been asleep in the sun for more than three hours! You have sunstroke!”

She gave me water and cooled my head and chest. She fed me small squares of chocolate and fanned me with a piece of card. After a moment I felt a little better, still very weak but better. We packed up our belongings and made it off the beach. Our return train was for 7pm. We decided to quit ahead of time and took a slow walk back to the station.

“You're a walking disaster,” she said.
“Maybe, but it's mostly only ever me who suffers.” She looked at me with eyes that called bullshit.

The day had completely drained me. I was burnt and dehydrated. All I wanted was to be on the train, resting as we travelled home through the darkening evening. Back in London we had a room and in the room we had a bed. The room was clean and the bed was fresh. That idea occupied my mind as we walked through the dusk, that and the thought of ice fresh water. Any day can be perfect if it just ends well, I thought.

7h15 and our train was nowhere to be seen. Neither were there any other beachgoers at the station. I sought out our return tickets and went in search of a station attendant. I didn't find one; I didn't need to. Reading over the tickets as I searched I noticed that our return train was at 6pm not 7. We had missed it and there were no more trains to London until the following morning.

“We're slightly fucked,” I told the Italian on my return. “The last train for London left at just after six and there are no more until morning.”
“6 PM??? But why our ticket says 7 then?”
“Fuck knows. That gorilla in the ticket office must have fucked up.” She shook her head in total disappointment, seemed to know instinctively that it was me who had fucked up. Then she must have remembered that I was ill. “How you feeling?” she asked.
“Not bad... Better. I was looking forward to lying down so badly, was thinking of just that.”
“The night will be cool... It'll be good for you.”
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
She nodded.
“Come on, lets find some place to get something to eat. We can rest inside for a while.”

We found a Fish Shop down a quite deserted little backstreet close to the sea. It didn't look like it did much trade. On entering it was clear that the owner was on his way through closing up for the evening. “Sir?” he enquired.
“You done for the evening?” I asked. He nodded. “Almost. Why, what were you after?”
“Fish and chips.”
“We've fish... no chips. Hang on right there.”
He returned with a tray of battered cod. “Half price,” he said. We took two pieces.
“You down from the city?” he asked. “Got family back there?”
“Some,” I said.
“Hmmm... Some. You think they like fish? REAL fresh fish straight from the sea?”
“I guess they would. You only get fresh fish in London if you catch it yourself. Ans even then it's not certain.”

We paid for our two pieces of battered cod and wished the Fish Man a goodnight. “Here,” he said, handing me a bag. “Fresh Brighton cod for the family... 7 pieces. I was about to leave it out for the cats.”
“Serious? That's very kind of you.”
“Take a drink too,” he said.
The Italian took a cola and I took a bottle of fresh, chilled water.

Back out the night was almost upon us. “Let's go back to the sea,” I said, “find some place to sit and eat our supper.”

We found a bench up on the main road, directly looking out at the sea. The coming night was mild. Not hot and sticky and not cold. Just perfect. We unwrapped our fish and sat staring out and eating. At the back of the sea, on the horizon, there was a light that lit up the very top of the water neon blue. I didn't know what that light was but I knew it wasn't the setting sun. We both sat and watched that light, eating our cod with our fingers. ”The sea contains magic,” she said.
“I know it,” I replied. “Beautiful wayward magic that cannot be harnessed by man. That's what that light is, an illumination of everything we can never know.”

We finished our fish and shared another piece besides. With no warning and not looking at me she asked: “Will you ever do anything without drugs?”
I heard but didn't reply, sat there in silence as if I were thinking. After a while she said, “Hey?”
“Maybe one day,” I said. “Maybe one day I will”.

She turned and threw herself around me, gripping on tightly and burying her face in my shoulder. I thought she was crying but she wasn't. She was feeling the beginning of the end of her feelings, knew she wasn't cut out for a future of this. I let her hold on, stared at her sea in the distance as she silently, unknowingly undid the first chain of her bondage.

- -

She broke the stillness of the water sometime that morning, walked into the clear emerald sea and fell into a swim. There was a surfer out, waiting for waves, but there were no waves to be had. She would swim out so far she couldn't be seen from the shore, would spend hours out there alone, just floating with her head back. This is the story she told just not how she told it. Neither did she tell it all. Maybe she couldn't or maybe she didn't know it all. It was a story about the beauty and relief of giving up, of witnessing the awesome power of the elements and understanding some intrinsic connection with nature. It was confirmation of death being quite OK under the right circumstances, a return to something, not an end.

So, the green sea spread out from a deserted beach in Costa Rica. Since arriving three weeks beforehand she had all but lived in the water. She was out on her travels alone, just her and a little hut on the beach and an array of credit cards. The water was mysteriously calm that morning, sat there like it had given up for the day. She didn't tell it like that but that's how it was.

What was also how it was was that the water was so clear you could see the fish through it. They followed, curious, and after some days were curious no more and didn't even disperse when she kicked up into a swim.

“You become a real part of nature,” she said. “Very different from having a pet of being a farmer or zoo keeper. Out there, like that, you are interacting as a free wild animal and the wildest animal is the sea... it's alive.”

So, she was out, floating with her head back as usual, and then she rolled and dived and swam. And that was when a mighty and invisible force collected her and kept her under and took her out. She fought to get to the surface but it was impossible. She described it as trying to navigate through multiple planes of overlapping glass. But the weird thing was the fish, all rippling away in the same force, leading her, following her, hardly exerting any energy at all. After a moment she did break the surface, found herself being rushed out to sea. She was caught in a powerful current which was impossible to swim against. I didn't understand that. I visualized it as walking up a downwards moving escalator: difficult but possible.

“Such currents are no downward moving escalators,” she said. “To swim against such a force would be like coming up against rock-face and trying to swim right through it. It's the entire sea pushing in whatever direction it's heading.”

So, the sea had her and it was taking her in the wrong direction and, after a while, when she looked back, she could no longer see the land. That's when a serene calmness overtook her, like the weight of breathing and existing and keeping well, that constant battle to survive and be healthy, had been lifted.

She said that she felt no fear at all, that all she felt was an all encompassing sense of beauty and a deep admiration for the powerful force which had hold of her.

“This innocent element that didn't know who I or my mother was, that didn't care about age or wealth or status, it had hold of me and I understood its almighty power and indifference and it was an honour to be taken in that way. I just felt completely helpless, like my fate was out of my own hands, that it no longer had anything to do with me. I wanted to cry I felt so ecstatic. Something about it seemed so correct. And those fish! They followed all the while, reminded me that I was out of my natural environment and that's why it was so impossible.”

The sea dragged her out for over an hour and, just as quickly as it had taken her, it let her go, dumped her at what she figured was over ten miles from the land. Only then, with no distinguishable reference points to understand her position, she had no idea which way the coast was.

“The sun?” I offered.

“The sun's useless if you don't know it. You only realise once its too late how little notice you take of it. I had an idea which way the coast was, but in such a situation its hard to act on an inclination, knowing you could be swimming to safety in the wrong direction.”

That was when she panicked, knowing her fate was once again back in her own hands. So, she did what most people do when they have no idea what to do: she did nothing. She stayed right where she was, looking out for help, hoping to see a boat. She didn't see a boat, but what she did see were those same fish she knew from closer to the shore.

“They swim with the current,” she told me. “I was no expert but I gathered they had had their free ride and were now making it back to the reef in the shallows.” So she put her faith in something other than herself, latched onto a guide, a belief, and followed the fish. The problem was that every minute seemed like ten and when there was still no land in sight she began to doubt her course.

“You learn that memory, well, recognition, is all mathematics,” she said. “That when everything looks identical that memory doesn't exist as we know it. Imagine if everyone looked identical, all had the same features and the same voice... How would you ever know who said what? Who was who? 360 degrees of sea is like that. There are no reference points. You even become doubtful as to whether you are swimming in a straight line or not. I really almost stopped and did a u-turn, suddenly convinced that land was back in the opposite direction.”

Fortunately she carried on, followed the fish and ignored her doubts. And just when she was really on the point of giving up she saw the faintest trace of something in the far distance, and that something was land.

The full swim back she never made. The surfer who had no waves to surf turned out to be a member of the local lifeguard service. He knew the currents and had noticed her disappear. In a small boat he and a colleague were criss-crossing the area and they spotted her on one of their passes. They picked her up and sped her back to land. She was quite OK, not hurt or injured or suffering from shock. They warned her to be wary of still seas and explained about the dangerous undercurrents which frequently pass under the calm waters. She listened, took notice, but she had her own idea of what would be more helpful. From that day on she began to study the sun, wanted to be always sure of at least one point absolute were she to ever find herself in such dire straits again.

“The sea is amazing,” she said. “I now have more love and respect for it than ever.” Then she said: “I could never live for too long away from the sea... I need it, physically and mentally.”

I nodded, sad. I understood. I needed the city like she needed the sea. Only that need wasn't really what she was communicating. What she was saying was that the romance of living hand-to-mouth in my filthy bedsit was over, that the novelty had worn off and now her mind was thinking of new adventures.

“So, what dyou want to do?” I asked.
“I'd like to go to Paris to see some friends,” she said. “I'll only be gone a couple of days.”
“Is it the drugs?”
“Partly. I thought I'd be able to handle it but I can't. It just seems such a waste. But its not only that... it's everything. I need a break. I need to be alone for a while. Maybe after a day or so I'll want all this back again... I actually found myself in this shitty little room.”

I cried. Told her I couldn't make it on my own.
“You mean without my money? I'll still help... I'll always help.”
“No, not your money. You... Without You the person!”
“You'll survive. You always have. You always find a way.”
“So everyone who shoots thru keeps reminding me. But I'm no survivor... Look at me, my body, I'm quite useless at it.”
“I'm sorry. I tried... I really tried. But I need to be alone... figure my life out.”
“Hang out the month,” I said. “Help get me home and we'll leave together... Say goodbye nicely.” She nodded, slowly, and then said “OK.”

She changed after that. Was happy and light again, began dreaming of all she would do with her young life. I felt better too. I could stop pretending, stop curbing my drug use and denying myself in order to make a visible effort at trying to contain things. I had never promised to contain things but I had taken that road anyhow as a natural gesture after bringing someone into that environment. But now I had no responsibility, nothing to gain through making such a gesture and nothing to lose from being as wayward as my finances allowed. And so I cashed out, scored and used freely with any guilt or conscience or the need to apologize. It still upset her. She tried to control her temper but couldn't. She spent the weeks painting and doing yoga, let me give her guitar lessons when I was wide enough awake. In the late evenings and through the early hours we watched double-titled TV movies: Stolen Innocence - The Taking of Sarah Kindle; Empty Cradle - A Mother's Worst Nightmare. All, supposedly, true suburban horror stories but which had the converse effect of making life inside the screen seem quite serene, like there was some kind of natural, harmonious balance which turned tragedy and horror into a lush sedative. We ran the month out and come the end we were both ready to say goodbye.

It was a sad, tearful day. I took her to the station and promised to put her on the train for Geneva. The train was delayed. First by 30 minutes and then by a further 45. She had noticed me texting, getting more and more anxious about the time, cursing delays and ranting how easy it was to keep trains running on time.

“You can go if you want,” she said.
“Yeah? You sure? You won't be annoyed?”
“I'll be OK. I'll get a coffee. Where must you meet him? Croix Rousse?”
“Yes,” I said, “the Croix Rousse,” a shard of shame stabbing right through me. “I'm already late.”
“Well, you can't miss that can you. Go on... Go score your medicine.”
“The place will be empty when I get back... It'll be terribly lonely without you.”
“You'll get used to it.”
“I'll never get used to loneliness. I hope not anyway.”
“Your writing will ensure you're never lonely for too long.”
“No. My writing will only ensure destitution and no-one will put up with that for too long.”

We held one last time and I looked over the top of her head, through wisps of her hair, at the world. A sea of people, coming and going, staring up at departure and arrival boards, waving goodbyes and greeting hellos.

“Take care You,” I said. “And try to love your mother.” I unhinged, turned, and without looking, left. Walking back through the crowded station alone I could already feel that strange disconnect which comes with waking and living and shopping alone. But, soon enough I'd have some help. The Croix Rousse was waiting for me and the summer had arrived. I thought of her as each footstep took me further away, wondered how she was doing. I imagined her running behind to catch me up, saying to hell with the train and that she didn't want to leave. But it never happens like that. Unimpeded I was down in the metro, a ghost amongst the commuters, travelling the opposite way from home and dreading the emptiness that awaited me in my room that night.

I scored and stayed out late, sat nodding on the steps of the Opera House in the city centre. I sat through the closing of the metro and sat through the gradual dispersal of the tourists and revellers. All who remained were the skateboarders, practising and perfecting their jumps and tricks to the lights and the fountain of the square. I watched those skaters and I remembered a time not so long ago when the world was there to be explored and the nights held a very certain magic. As my eyes closed over again the blue neon backdrop of the city flared and died and I dreamt of a coastal town, the cool salty air coming in from over the water. At gone 2am a text beeped through on my phone: home safely. xhausted. thanx 4 the memories & sorry. I closed the phone and thought of nothing and watched the skaters skate some more. I was exhausted too and I had a long walk home.

When the next skater falls I'll head off, I thought. And then there it was, the thump of a body falling in the night and a skateboard spinning loose across the concrete. It reminded me of the backwash of a wave, the sea retreating and pulling everything into its rightful place.

You'll be OK me old mate, I thought. Just a minor bump. You've the joys of love to flatten you yet... Then the night won't be so brilliant.

Only the night was brilliant. I walked home lonesome amongst many ghosts, felt the sinister city leaning in on me and the pain of existence in my stride. I took out my phone and read her message once more. I wanted to be cruel and bitter, tell her a few home truths. She had arrived with her wealth and riches and had left with them intact while I was in a worse situation than ever. I wrote many replies on that long walk home but I only sent one: No, thank you, it read, tonight I am half alive.

- - -

Two weeks later and I was back under the sea again, rocketing through the Channel Tunnel on the Eurostar. She never did help me get home, took those dirty credit cards of hers and a guitar and canvasses and oil paints and set up life in some shanty town in Southern India. I never thought of her much after that, had maybe just been lonely in those middle years of my life. But like the sea occasionally she'd come , and as the cabbage boiled away on the stove and the cheap potatoes softened and crumbled and turned to mush in their water I thought of her and I thought of the sea and I thought of the life to come. 

- -

Thanks as ever for reading and linking... Shane. X

Lines for Joe M ---->