Here’s a little story that’s going in my upcoming collection The Greatest Show in Town and Other shorts. It’s not very big – think a shot of espresso, rather than a big mug of noir – but I’d like to think it gets the job done.
“You get the shit?”
Joe waved two baggies. “Yeah. I got it.”
Stephen sighed. “Thank fuck.” He looked like a Science class skeleton that had been dressed in charity shop cast-offs. Even small-sized clothes looked roomy on his stick man frame. He had bags under his eyes that were large enough to carry groceries.
“What are friends for, right?” Joe said. He looked healthier than his friend, but his once tight frame was getting soft and doughy. When he wasn’t high he worried about this, though he wasn’t quite sure why.
“Right,” Stephen said, his movements twitchy. “Was getting worried for a second.”
“Christ. You thought I’d cut out on you? Jesus, Ste’!”
“Nah. It’s not that I don’t trust you or nowt,” Stephen said, with a shrug and a guilty smile, “but that’s the last of my money.”
“Last of our money,” Joe said, throwing one of the baggies.
Stephen caught it. “Right. Last of our money.”
“Then we better make sure it lasts.”
Stephen smiled. “You’re a real mate, Joe.”
He shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. “De nada.”
“Best friends, mate,” Stephen said, lifting a can of Tennant’s Super in celebration.
Joe blushed momentarily, then bumped an imaginary tin against the Super and made a clanking noise in acknowledgment. “To the grave.”
Both men took swigs – one real and one imaginary.
Stephen looked around the squat. It was shitsville – even the rats thought twice about staying here – the floorboards were soaked through and warped with rain water and piss and the wallpaper was peeling away in pendulous fungus-flecked sheets. Given a choice, Stephen and Joe would have chosen anywhere but this, but they were all out of options. It was this place or the streets.
“Was Oggie radged?”
“No more than usual.”
“He say owt?”
“Only that he still wants his money from you.”
“He was okay with you, though?”
“I’m here, aren’t I? Told him it was my cash, so he gave up the shit, but he said you better have his money, and sharpish.”
Joe shrugged. “That part he left open. Let your imagination fill the gap, or summat.”
“What we gonna do about money?”
Joe shook his head. “Dunno.”
Stephen paused, bit his bottom lip nervously. “Sorry, mate.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“About all of it.”
Joe’s jaw muscles twitched. “It’s history.”
“I mean it,” Stephen said, his eyes glistening.
“I had the need.” Tears clung for dear life to Stephen’s eyelashes. A blink sent them tumbling down his cheeks.
Joe smiled briefly and sighed. “You coulda asked.”
“Would she’ve given me the dosh?”
“No. But she woulda given it to me. I’da lent you it.”
Stephen gave his baggie a long glance and tapped it with his finger, dispersing the contents. “I didn’t think Emma’d kick you out ’cause of it.”
“We were on the edge.”
“She could still take you back.”
Joe shook his head. He sat down on the floor and gave his baggie a quick shake. “It’s been a month, mate.”
“She loves you.”
“She told me.”
“Things change,” Joe said and sighed long and loud. “Month’s a long time.”
“It’s not too late.”
“It’s not too late.”
Joe hung his head momentarily. “Yeah. It is.”
“It’s done,” Joe said with a sharp edge that suggested this topic of conversation was over.
“All I do is bring you down.”
Joe looked at Stephen for a long time, then glanced at the baggie. “Forget it.”
“Even when we was kids you stuck up for us.”
“Somebody had to.”
“Didn’t hafta be you.”
“You know me. I was always a bit of a touch for a sob story, stray animals, crying women, friends in need. It always take something drastic to cut the ties, know what I mean?”
“Well, means a lot. You’re a quality fuckin’ bloke, mate.”
Joe gave him a hard stare. “Can you just fuckin’ leave it.”
“And stop saying sorry; it’s getting right on my tits.”
“Sor…” Stephen checked himself, then looked away. His eyes drifted back towards the baggie.
“Can I have first taste?”
Joe paused, then shrugged. “Do whatcha like.”
Stephen put some of the powder in a spoon, then added some powdered Vitamin C. He took a syringe, punctured a plastic bottle of water, drew in the amount he needed, pulled out the syringe and squirted this over the drugs. He mixed everything together with the syringe, cleaned the tip and started heating the underside of the spoon with a lighter. Once he was happy, Stephen dropped a raggedy piece of cigarette filter into the liquid and used this to filter the solution into the syringe. He tied a tourniquet around his arm and looked for a healthy vein – there weren’t many. When he found one that didn’t look too manky, he pushed in the needle and depressed the plunger.
Stephen’s initial reaction was to breathe deeply, almost orgasmically, but this was followed by another rapid inhalation. His eyes widened. His fingers drew into tight fists and he slouched back into his mouldy armchair, sinking slowly into paralysis. Tears rolled down his cheeks and his breathing became more and more shallow.
Joe stood up and looked at his friend. As Stephen’s eyes began to take on the glassiness of death, Joe glanced at the baggie in his hand. “Sorry, mate. It was fifty-fifty. I never could cut my ties – always did involve summat drastic, like. Well, this is as drastic as it gets. If it makes it any easier it could’ve been either one of us, you know. I didn’t know which one was dosed. I couldn’t leave with you around, mate; just didn’t have the willpower. Like I sez, sorry.”
When Joe finished talking, he realised he was chatting with a corpse, or as near as it gets. Stephen stared glassy-eyed into the distance, his skin almost translucent, fine blue veins sitting just beneath the surface. He was slack-jawed and a line of drool ran from his bottom lip down to the neck of his T-shirt.
Joe crouched on his haunches. He rubbed his chin, deep in thought, staring at the baggie on the arm of the chair. He stayed like this for a while, then stood up slowly and walked to the chair. After rummaging around in his pocket for a while he took out an old till receipt and laid it flat in the palm of his hand. He picked up the baggie, poured some of the contents into the center of the receipt and put the baggie back down on the chair. Then Joe folded the receipt carefully, making sure not to spill the contents. The receipt went back in his pocket.
He smiled at his friend. “Just in case she doesn’t take me back.”
Joe patted his friend on the head, but Stephen didn’t feel it. He took one final look around the room, then made for the door. After opening it, he stood in the doorway for a few seconds, took a few deep breaths, sighed, and closed the door behind him.