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I have tasted the grim drip at the back of my throat and blown out blood bogeys flecked with white.
I’ve grown certain of my own importance and cornered others to make them feel the same.
I’ve experienced the deep sorrow of realising the night will not go on forever, no matter how much powder’s in the bag.
I’ve glimpsed daylight through some stranger’s curtains and understood that shame was on the way.
I’ve walked streets in the early morning and felt the eyes of every smug dog walker and Lycra-clad jogger trained on me.
I’ve taken the tube through London at rush hour whilst my heart tries escaping through my chest.
I’ve paid at corner shops with unfurling five pound notes and smelt chemicals seep from my pores.
I’ve spent the next day failing to sleep and the next week failing at work.
I’ve seen twitchy, geared-up men fly off the handle at a drink spilt in their vicinity. I’ve seen these men break each other’s noses and still try to snort with the result.
I’ve heard of those who’ve chased the high too long, and ended up as low as one can go.
I’ve read of mental illnesses caused or brought to the surface, and of the deaths of first-timers and old-pros alike.
I’ve seen pictures of one great mono-nostril, all the middle cartilage worn away. And I’m aware there is a chain of production, of which I should be more aware. Disadvantaged young dying on the streets of London, caught up in reaching for a better life. And beyond that communities destroyed in Latin America, just to give the middle class here their drug of choice.
But, and I realise this counts for very little, it helped me tell a friend of mine I loved him, when otherwise I might have not.
I was 23 and back in my hometown for Christmas. The Two Willows was suitably packed, the town young and old having gathered to let off the steam built up over the dark months since the clocks went back. It was the sort of night bar staff dread. A hundred punters for every one of them. They must have felt like they were trying to stop an onrushing tsunami with good manners and a sheet of tarpaulin. By necessity, there were more people outside the pub than in it. They’d spilled out into the concrete garden and beyond that to the parking area. And even though the weatherman was reporting it as two below, no one felt cold.
In London, where I lived at the time, you could go into a packed bar and be sure you knew no one but the group you’d come with. Here things were very different. You were at most two degrees separated from anyone, and those degrees melted away as the drinks flowed and the night wore on. So that soon you’d have your arm round an old mate of your brothers, the two of you reminiscing about jumpers-for-goalposts and cuppies at the park. Or you’d be sharing a fag with a girl you kissed at youth club, who’s got three kids now and can’t believe how little you’ve changed. Or you’re getting bought a pint by the psycho football manager you had at under-tens as he explains how he packed it in once the world started going soft.
When the Two Willows kicked people out, a good portion of us moved on to the Cork. Still a pub but slightly more at the nightclub end of things. Darker and grimier, with bouncers, strobe-lighting and a square of Vinyl chessboard flooring for those fucked enough to dance. There the atmosphere became generally sloppier. Beers were swapped for Jagerbombs and Sambucas, glasses were smashed and fights broke out. The toilets gave off a vomity tang, tears were shed, makeup ran and couples chewed each other’s faces off with no regard for the people looking on. Some staggered from the pub, defeated, and others were carried out by their friends, like heroic wounded soldiers.
By the time the Cork shut its doors, a ramshackle group of us had firmly decided that the night could not end. Some of this group had already been busy in the cubicles, and some of us put our orders in there and then. We got into taxis and headed to the house of someone I’m sure I was great friends with on the night.
In general, my memory of the evening is very fuzzy. If pushed I’d say about ten of us made it back to a new build in the nicer part of town, but that could have been a different, similar, night. I have a vague recollection of everyone sitting around in the living room, trying to get some sort of game going as one of the music channels played on TV. But cocaine is not a drug conducive to group activities, and soon we had splintered off into our own little pairs or threes.
I ended up with Toby. We found ourselves, somehow, in a child’s bedroom, doing lines off The Very Hungry Caterpillar. For some reason I have a very clear memory of what that room looked like. Maybe that’s down to the sobering effects of cocaine or possibly it’s due to the intensity of the moment that took place in there. There was, I should mention, no actual child in the room. It was a childless child’s bedroom. The curtains, duvet, and pillow covers were a matching shade of dark green. Three of the walls were painted the same colour, whilst the fourth was covered with world map wallpaper, complete with kangaroos for Australia, penguins for Antarctica, and a hammer and sickle for Russia. The floor was varnished wood, and there was a treasure-chest toy box in one corner. The bookshelf had only one row of books, along the bottom; the other three shelves were reserved for figurines. Dinosaurs, Lego soldiers, and superheroes were all neatly lined up, ready to be played with. I cannot recall what the lampshade covering the main light looked like; I just remember it diffused the room with a warm, inviting glow. But the main impression the room gave was one of waiting to be used. It was perfectly arranged and well maintained, as if it were a Google image or the sample room from a catalogue. Anyway, the room is not the story (although, thinking about it now, it may have had an interesting one to tell).
Toby had been in my year at school, and though we weren’t in quite the same friendship group, our circles often overlapped. And there, in the Venn diagram intersection, we often found ourselves, discussing ’60s music, chord progressions, or the current Arsenal squad.
I’d barely seen him since school, save for a few chance encounters at the pub, but had heard through others that he’s dropped out of uni after only a couple of months and was now working in the sorting department of the local post office. Various reasons had been given for this – death in the family, illness, mental health – but nobody really seemed to know.
I was struck by how little he’d changed. Still small, waifish, and pale. A face so thin and boyish you could clearly see jaw and cheek bones operating beneath the skin, with an expression of permanent uncertainty still etched onto it. Only his deep brown eyes hinted at some ageing, them and the dark rings underneath.
We sat together on the perfectly made single bed, passing the book back and forth at more and more regular intervals as I chewed his ear off about the recent death of my grandad. How he had gone from the man we called on to fix anything and everything in our house – the man who still lifted weights in his 70s – to eight stone of skin, bone, and morphine.
It was the first real tragedy of my life and until then I’d been surprised by how little it had seemed to affect me, but cocaine brought all the truth and hurt to the surface.
I went on and on, round and round, about the man he’d been, his positivity in the face of it all, and his assurances he wouldn’t be defeated. And about how cancer had made a liar of him. The skeletal figure he’d become, the one that still haunted my dreams. Wheezing, retching, begging for it to end. Hollow cheeks, huge sunken eyes, brittle bones set to snap. The nurses had let him grow stubble in a way he would have hated. My mum was strong, my auntie was weak, and my dad struggled to find the right words.
I don’t think Toby interrupted my rambling, powder-fuelled monologue even once. No commiserations or condolences given. But he was wholly present in a way that meant more than empty words ever could. Previously, in conversations at house parties or the sixth form common room, I’d always felt that Toby was only ever two-thirds listening to me, or anyone for that matter. Not in a rude way. He seemed to be trying his very best to concentrate on every word you said, just not quite succeeding. He’d have his two eyes firmly trained on you,but the third was wandering somewhere else. That night, however, he was all there. I felt he understood my every thought and feeling, and cared about them just as much as me. Possibly that had to do with the coke, I don’t know, but I do know that he was exactly what I needed. He listened and cared until eventually I ran out of words to say.
The subsequent silence I found pretty unbearable. It brought with it the awareness that things end. I could speak until my throat was sore, but not forever. Just like we could keep this party going until the sun came up, but not forever. Just like my grandad could live and my parents could live and I could live, but…
I fought back against the notion with another line. A little powder tipped from the bag, crushed with my debit card and sorted into a neat white streak. I took an unfurling note from my pocket and was in the process of rolling it back into a tight cylinder, when Toby said something, in a soft whisper I still remember to this day.
“My mum’s got cancer.”
It took me a moment to register exactly what he’d said. When I did all I could do was put the book down and look at him, with wide eyes that I assume displayed something close to terror. The cocaine only half-responsible for this.
“Yeah, I’m not trying to one-up you,” he laughed. “I’m just trying to say I know how you feel. Or I might do, a bit.”
I’d admired him – maybe even been slightly jealous of him – at school, but could never quite tell why until that moment. He’d always hidden his light under a bushel, in a way I never had the integrity to do. Unlike me, he never put his hand up in top set English and yet when called upon he still gave answers more astute than mine. He was known to be a very good guitarist but didn’t play in a band, whereas I was bang average and played in two. And when I’d try to impress him with some new music I’d discovered, Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog or Future Blues by Canned Heat, he’d know it already but not be smug that was the case. It seemed now the same was true of pain. Whereas I had taken the opportunity to bring up my grandad’s cancer without any good reason, at a party no less, he had only mentioned his mum to empathise.
“Stage four,” he grimaced, almost apologetically, like he felt bad for not being able to give me better news.
“I’m so sorry, man.” Empty words but all I had.
“It’s all right,” he said, and shook his head dismissively. Like it was nothing, rather than the absolute worst fucking thing in the world. “It’s been years we’ve been dealing with it, so it’s not like new, or a shock or anything.”
I felt almost unbearably close to him then, like the two of us knew each other better than anyone else ever could.
“Is that why you left uni?”
It was a question I’d never have been able to ask him in usual circumstances; in the few times I’d seen him since school, we’d mainly just stuck to our safe old topics or shuffled anecdotes from the pack, but at that moment I felt it wasn’t out of bounds.
Instantly, I regretted it. The words seemed to hurt him physically. He winced and looked away. “No,” he said, “that was different. I just couldn’t…that was different.”
I tried to look him in the eye. Show him I was sorry for asking. Show him how fucking much I cared. But he wouldn’t meet my gaze. He was staring resolutely into the world map’s Pacific Ocean. His face was tight and jaw trembling, more from the effort to keep it all in than the coke, I believe. With the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, he pulled at a loose strand of wool from the left cuff of his frayed Christmas jumper. His hands, not fully sticking out from the jumper, looked so tiny and delicate. Like a child’s. I took one in mine and squeezed it hard.
This was a gesture only conceivable on cocaine, which I know reflects negatively on me rather than positively on the drug. Never had I shared a moment as intimate as this with another man. Not even my dad or closest friends. Gently, I stroked the top of his hand with my thumb.
Toby turned to look at me. He seemed surprised in a way that didn’t know whether to be angry or grateful.
“I love you,” I said. “You know that, right?”
With that, tears came to his eyes. He went to say something but released only a shaky quiver of breath. He nodded and squeezed my hand hard in return.
We stayed there, locked in the intense tenderness of that moment, holding on to one another’s cold and sweaty hands for dear life, until one of us could bear it no longer.
I made him promise to call me if ever he needed to talk, then I snorted my waiting line and tipped him a little powder from my bag.
After that, conversation turned to something else. American politics or the end of the world, I think. Possibly both.
I didn’t see him again that Christmas. I spent the next few days with family and then left town to see in the New Year with friends from London.
And he didn’t get in contact with me, nor I with him.
There were times, few, when it crossed my mind. When I resolved to make the effort. But it was always something that could be put off until later.
The next time I was back in town was the following May, to hug his sister and shake the hand of his stepdad. They reminded me of Grandad in those final weeks. Haunted ghosts of people. Barely hanging on.
Afterwards, we gathered in the Cricket Club’s Function Room, to say things that sounded right but meant nothing, whilst sipping on cups of tea and eating small rectangular sandwiches with no crust.
A group of us moved on to the Two Willows, and with alcohol we loosened up somewhat. We shared our favourite stories of Toby but still danced around how we really felt.
It wasn’t until much later that night, when only a select few of us remained, that we were able to be honest with each other, and peel through the layers to all the shit that lay inside.