Chapter 11 – An Unholy Sacrament
Dave Doherty declined Snout-Nose Steve’s magic mushroom brew at first, but as usual, Tom insisted everyone had a mug. Already regretting the decision, he necked the foul-smelling brown concoction and grabbed his coat, the new one he’d bought in the Corn Street Exchange.
Another heady night out unfolded; they started in The Croft, where a local band played live trip hop. Saxophone, reggae basslines and soft female vocals dripped like honey over experimental beats. The ethereal sounds spoke to him, caressing his vulnerability and pain. Tom danced, blissful and unhurried, his eyes dilated behind the thick-rimmed spectacles which suited his delicate features. Dave nudged his friend’s arm and shouted over the music. “I need to tell you something.”
But Tom wasn’t listening. The crowd cheered as the music kicked up a notch. A young guitarist in a leather jacket joined the band. Distorted chords slashed through the freestyle jazz like a hot blade through ice.
He waved his hand in front of Tom. “Are you listening?”
“Sorry, dude,” said Tom. “I was miles away.”
“I need to tell you something… It’s important.”
“Can we chat later? I’m high as fuck.”
“When are you not these days? It’s not all about the craic, you know.” He’d hoped Dr Palmer would talk some sense into his drug-obsessed friend, but the consultation had changed nothing. The health implications bothered him much less than the growing suspicion that they were following different paths.
“I’m just having fun,” said Tom, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “We’ll talk later, I promise.”
Dave sighed. “Alright.”
“Here,” said Tom, taking out a small bag of pink pills, Haz’s strongest. “Take one. There’s a rave on later.”
More drugs. Is that the only way I can reach you? At first the drugs set him free, but now he realised he’d merely swapped one unholy sacrament for another. Still, perhaps the pink sparkly pills would give him the courage to talk more freely, and allow him to connect with Tom and communicate something he’d not yet dared tell even his psychiatrist. Now he knows the truth about Venom Empire, he’d believe me, and maybe he’d understand.
“Alright,” said Dave, taking the bag. “But we need to talk later.”
Tom smiled. “Yeah, man, let’s have it large.”
They sank a few more beers and listened to the music. When the pub called time, they made their way to a free party organised by P.R.A.N.K., Pigs, Rigs and Naughty Kids. They took the bus to the outskirts of Fishponds and headed for an urban oasis: a twenty-four-hour laundrette, a glowing gem in a desert of shuttered shops and dilapidated buildings. He followed Tom inside the laundrette. They passed a row of washing machines and Tom pressed the call button on an intercom on the back wall.
“Speak,” ordered a tinny voice through the speaker.
“We’re here for the full rinse, mate” said Tom and winked at Dave.
A buzzer sounded and the security door unlocked.
“Let’s not stay long,” said Dave. He didn’t wish to repeat the debacle of their last night out.
Tom pushed open the door, a gleaming smile on his face. Dave followed his friend through an alley and into a squat; a large building that used to be a community centre.
A savage rave was going down. There was a hard industrial edge to the music, and the crowd was nasty. Neo-Nazi skinheads and anarchist scumbags swarmed around the speakers like flies on shit. Stick-thin druggies injected smack in the shadows. Nobody danced and nobody smiled.
Christ, he thought. This is almost as bad as Venom Empire. Spaced out on mushrooms and pills, the fear he’d suppressed that night returned to torment him.
Dave remembered the guards at Venom Empire knocking him to the cold, hard floor and leading Tom away. His shoulder bristled with pain. If only he’d taken up bodybuilding like he said he would when he first arrived in Bristol. Isla offered to help him up, but he brushed away her hand. What a conniving hussy! She even stole my coat to get me out of the way!
It wasn’t long before the guards returned, and one of them told him brusquely to follow him. The guard led him at gunpoint, down a spiral staircase, the sinuous curves of the bannister reminding him of Venom Empire’s symbology. His heart had nearly stopped when he saw the rave promo and the snake eating its own tail. He sensed the image disturbed Tom too, but unlike his friend, he knew exactly what it signified.
The guards pushed him forward, along a network of dark tunnels. An overpowering sickness churned in his stomach and his bladder threatened to empty at any moment. The stench of decay filled the tunnels as they continued. A cauldron of bats flocked overhead. They reached a stone staircase, at the top of which was an oak door. It was ajar and patchy green with moss and lichen. As he ascended the stairs, his eyes settled on the yellow radiance that lay in the temple beyond. Venom Empire enjoyed these rituals, making the initiate believe he is rising from darkness and death into a realm of illumination.
Dave’s shaking hand gripped the door handle, but he hesitated, prompting the guard to bark at him. “Inside, now.” He ought to despise Tom and his self-destructive habits. If only he’d listened, I’d be sitting in bed right now with a nice hot mug of cocoa. But Tom had a good heart, not like the evil lurking beyond this flimsy door. Besides, I should have tried harder. After thousands of hours of therapy it should have been easy to tell his friend the truth, but words failed him, strangled by the trauma which haunted his dreams. Instead of opening his mouth he’d followed Tom to the gates of hell, with a half-baked notion he’d protect his friend somehow when the time came. The time was now.
“Go in,” shouted the guard.
He pushed open the door and stepped into a candle-filled room. As he clutched his crucifix pendant, a hidden strength awoke within him, allowing him to confront his fears with bravery. He breathed deeper, gritted his teeth and strode forward confidently, towards the Grandmaster, who sat on a small island in the centre of a pool of dark water, wearing purple robes and a ram’s skull mask. Dave had seen that mask in his nightmares over the years. But as an adult, the disguise seemed pathetic: a cheap, flimsy Halloween mask, worn by a pencil-necked paedophile.
He shivered as the warmth of the myriad candles radiated into his body, then he steadied himself and folded his arms. If Dr Palmer could see me now, he’d be proud, though perhaps would regard himself as a professional failure. This self-prescribed exposure therapy trumped all the cognitive behavioural treatments the psychiatrist offered.
“My, how you’ve grown, David,” said the Grandmaster. The old man’s chuckle made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. “Brave of you to return, but foolish.”
Beside the Grandmaster, Tom lay prone on the ground, his mouth gaped open and his hair a mess. “What have you done to him?”
“He passed out. That happens when you mix alcohol and drugs, but you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you? From what I understand, Tom likes to indulge, and you’re happy to join in.”
Dave clenched his fists. “Listen to me, you degenerate piece of shit,” he shouted, intoxicated by rage, “You better stay away from Tom or—”
“Or what? I wasn’t intending to kill you, young man, but I may do something rash if provoked. As for your friend, we have plans for him. We’re going to make him one of us.”
Dave shook his head. “He’ll never be like you.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Yes?” called the Grandmaster.
A guard entered. “Jeff and Ghislaine are here with the girls, sir.”
“Good,” said the Grandmaster. “Get these two out of my sight.”
“Yes, sir.” The guard marched into the temple and grabbed his arm.
“Let this be a warning to you, David,” said the Grandmaster, as the guard yanked his arm so hard it almost dislocated his shoulder. “Interfere again, and I’ll have your throat slit.”
“What about Tom?” He asked the guard who led him away from the Grandmaster.
“You’re both leaving. There’s a van outside.”
An anaesthetising wave of relief spread through his body. As he descended the stairs, tiredness set in, reminding him he’d been up all night.
Dave felt a hand tapping on his shoulder. He turned to see Tom, looking aghast and holding his abdomen.
“What’s the matter?” He orientated himself to the dirty squat party. Two neo-Nazi skinheads were fighting near the speakers. Tom stumbled, bent over and collapsed to the floor. He watched his friend crawl on all fours across the filthy floor until he reached the wall. Tom shuffled over and propped himself up, his head held back in agony.
“You okay?” asked Dave, joining him on the floor.
“Steve and his fucking mushrooms,” said Tom, rubbing his belly. “I’ll be alright in a minute. Where’d you go, dude? Don’t wander off in a place like this.”
“Sorry,” said Dave.
A hand tapped his shoulder. He turned to see a middle-aged woman with bleach blonde highlights and needle marks along her arms. Her pupils were as wide as saucers and a crusty white residue ringed her nostrils like Polo mints. She parted her lips to reveal a mouthful of crooked brown teeth and mumbled something to him.
“What?” he asked, wincing at her rancid breath.
“Suck on my other tit,” she pleaded.
Dave looked down and realised she was topless. One breast exposed, the other being licked by a skinhead with a pierced tongue.
“One each,” the woman said and cackled.
“Christ almighty!” He jumped up and turned his back on the disgusting scene. Tom’s eyes were closed, so he shook his shoulders.
“What?” said Tom, his eyes rolled back.
“Can you walk? Let’s get out of here.” Dave offered him a hand.
Tom nodded and rose to his feet.
Dave walked along the main road with Tom for a while. His legs ached and Tom moaned about his stomach pains, buckled over at the waist. They were at least an hour’s walk from the centre, maybe two. He kept Tom going with promises of tea, blankets and films back home, until the headlights of an oncoming vehicle almost blinded him like a celestial apparition. A taxi. He thrust his arm out wide, praying to god it was free. Thankfully, the vehicle slowed and admitted them.
On the way home, Tom clutched his belly. Dave felt queasy too. The taxi driver’s aggressive handling didn’t help. He skidded around corners, slammed the brakes at every red and pumped the gas the moment they turned green.
“Why do we do this?” shouted Tom over the Euro-disco blasting through the stereo.
“I don’t know, but it has to end, right?”
“I just can’t stand the lows.”
“But we need the lows to feel human again,” explained Dave.
Tom nodded and then jolted forwards. He hurled, spraying the taxi with an acidic soup of beer, chewed-up magic mushrooms and pasta.
The driver shouted at them in a foreign language. He pulled over with a screech and unlocked the doors, while continuing to yell at them. Dave paid and apologised, giving the driver an extra fiver for his trouble. The driver—red-faced and with beads of sweat on his bald head—spat out of the open window, then shooed them away with his hand.
Outside, Dave realised they were not too far from home. The wind was brisk, and the pavements marinated in rain. An intermittent sough broke the silence of the streets. Above, in the early morning light, shadowy clouds hurtled by like passing trains.
“Feel any better?” He asked Tom.
“Yes,” said Tom. “Can’t wait to get home and brush my teeth.”
“There’s something I need to tell you.”
“I’ve been to Venom Empire before, several times. But not for some years.”
Tom froze, open-mouthed. “Wait… What?!”
“When I first came to Bristol, I told you I fled Derry to escape my father.”
“Because he was strict, right?”
Dave shook his head. “He’s a member of Venom Empire. Yes, Reverend Bishop Doherty goes to a place like that.” Venom Empire held their meetings all over the globe, usually in more luxurious locales than the one they visited.
“Happened gradually, a few years after my mum passed away. He told me his feet ached from standing all day delivering sermons and would I be a good wain and give them a rub. It felt strange, but I did as I was told. I was eleven years old. Then he pulled off his vestments and undershirt and asked me to massage his back and shoulders. And I did. It was our secret. Soon he was asking me to recruit choir boys from school. After the mass ended, he retreated to the vestry, and I’d take the boy to see him. I’d knock on the door and he’d say ‘come in’. We’d find him lying face down on the bed, naked. He’d tell the choir boy this was part of ministerial duties.”
“Dave… I’m sorry,” Tom’s voice wavered. “You don’t need to—”
“Somehow he found out about Venom Empire and things escalated quickly. He took me there and well… I’ll spare you the details.”
They approached the inner city; the clouds threatening to lash down with rain. Leftover takeaway boxes scuttled across St Augustine’s Parade on an icy breeze. Tom was speechless, floored by the revelation and unsure what to say. “It’s like someone punched me in the teeth.” As they headed towards Lewins Mead, Tom’s face reddened. “I’m going to burn them to the ground. Especially Reuben Fenwick, he’s up to his neck in sleaze.”
“You can’t,” said Dave. “They’re too powerful. Nothing you say or do will stop them. They run the world.”
“But there must be something—”
“We can’t prove anything. Anyway, I want to move on with my life.”
Tom gave him an incredulous stare. “Fucking hell. Why didn’t you say something? You should have stopped me from going to Venom Empire.”
“Well, I tried.”
“You’re right and I’m sorry. And I’m even more sorry that happened to you. What a bunch of cunts.”
“It’s okay,” Dave said, noncommittally.
“I’m going to be more honest with you, I promise.”
Dave approached Ashley Down Road, where he would leave Tom to go home. Despite the late hour, a bunch of hobos partied in the middle of a traffic island, with a boom box blasting out an impressive racket.
“I’ll ring you tomorrow. Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”
Dave nodded. “I’m fine. Speak soon, mate.” He felt relieved for confiding in his friend and hopeful he’d never hear the words Venom Empire ever again. His stride lightened as he walked away, but his heart soon sank as he contemplated being alone. The drugs were wearing off now. His body ached, depleted of energy and filled with gloom. The icy wind needled him, taking his breath away. He remembered the Grandmaster chiding him for using drugs and withered with shame.
“Tom,” he called, turning back.
“You’ll get rid of the Metanox, won’t you?”
Tom nodded. “I’ll flush it once I get home.”
Tom entered his house, still queasy from the magic mushroom fiasco. The lights were out and his housemates were asleep. The hall was lit by a brilliant shaft of moonlight from the upper window. He lived in an old Victorian house with eight others. A large lounge made up for the tiny bedrooms. He crept quietly down the stairs to his basement room, guided only by the glowing cherry of his cigarette.
Thinking of Dave, he fetched the bottle of Metanox from behind his CD player and rushed upstairs to the bathroom. He was about to flush it when a rasping voice tickled his ear.
“What the devil are you doing?” He recognised the upper class accent from his visit to Venom Empire. It was Watson Fenwick, the Grandmaster.
He jumped, thinking someone was in the bathroom, but nobody was there.
“Metanox is a perfectly safe, non-addictive chemical,” said the Grandmaster, drawing out each syllable as if tasting fine wine.
Disorientated, he scanned the hall.
“Who’s there?” he called, but received no answer. Wispy blue strands of cigarette smoke hung in the air.
He gazed at the bottle of Metanox, the skull logo grinning at him. It couldn’t be.
The jaw moved, and he almost dropped the bottle. “Why don’t you take another drop? You’ll feel much better.”
I must be insane. No, it’s the mushrooms. I’m tripping.
“No job. No girlfriend. A criminal record. Paying damages to Elixium! Your friends are reprobates, just like you, Thomas.”
“Fuck you,” said Tom. It seemed crazy to be talking to a bottle.
“Face it,” the Grandmaster said. “You’re nothing. You’ll never get a decent job, not after what you did at Elixium. No job, no money, no women. You’ll die a sad, lonely man, and nobody will mourn you, not even those deplorable friends of yours.” The Grandmaster laughed, cruel and insane. “Eventually, even David will realise you’re a waste of space and an addict, and he’ll despise you. Yes, he’ll hate you more than you hate yourself.”
“Shut up!” He sensed some truth in the Grandmaster’s harsh words. He’d made no progress with the job search, and Isla had vanished from his life; he missed her laughter.
“Take some Metanox. Don’t you want to feel that warm fuzzy glow? Untether your mind and let’s set sail on a fantastic voyage to an enchanted realm…”
The Grandmaster continued to tempt and torment him as he unscrewed the cap. I’m not listening. You can rot in hell. But as Tom approached the toilet, he noticed scintillations. Pink and purple dots of light twinkled on the surface of the water. Looking around, a beautiful nebula of stars glittered across the bathroom.
“Take a drop, Thomas,” said the Grandmaster. “Metanox is a perfectly safe, non-addictive chemical.”
One last time, thought Tom, and then I’ll get rid of it. Instead of pouring the Metanox out, he squeezed a droplet into his eye.