Chapter 14 – Respect
Tom and his friends celebrated the passing of the new millennium in a crowded rave, horns and whistles blowing over pumping beats. Afterwards they continued the party at Dave and Snout-Nose Steve’s house, laughing about the millennium bug. Dave had bought into the panic big time and bought enough cans of baked beans to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Tom laid back on the sofa as Snout-Nose Steve rolled joint after joint. He wished the past few months had been more productive. After leaving Elixium, he’d spent most of the summer getting high and watching re-runs of the Countdown numbers game in his pyjamas. With his overdraft growing and the landlord raising the rent on the house, he finally made efforts to get a job around September, dressing in his pinstripe suit and spraying himself with man musk.
The strong wind rustling through the trees had threatened to make a bird’s nest of Tom’s freshly styled hair. Undeterred, he grabbed a takeaway coffee and moseyed over to Sustainable Resources—the biggest employment agency in the city.
When he entered the agency, ready to offer the recruitment consultant a placid smile, his heart sank. He recognised the figure sitting behind the desk.
Miss Danniella Gehrmann, the bitch receptionist at Elixium, surveyed him with hostility, her eyes narrowing. Can’t I get a break? She’d cut her glossy black hair shorter, but still had the same crimson red nails.
“Good morning,” said Gehrmann, rising from the chair. She scrutinised him with her hands on her hips. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Hmm. You must have one of those faces.”
Thank god she doesn’t recognise me, thought Tom, as he shook her hand. She led him to a back room and invited him to take a seat.
“Are you looking for temporary or permanent work?”
“Fantastic!” she squealed, too exaggerated to be genuine. “Do you have your CV?”
He passed her a fresh copy, and she ran her finger down the page. “Fantastic! I see you have Elixium experience. I used to work there.”
He tried his best to look surprised. “No way!”
“That must be where I’ve seen you.” He watched as Miss Gehrmann almost went crossed-eyed trying to figure out the puzzle of his identity. “Did you have a moustache before?”
He shook his head.
An awkward moment passed. Deep in thought, Miss Gehrmann pursed her lips. His future career prospects lay on the tip of her tongue. But to Tom’s relief, she turned to the next page of his CV. “Never mind. So why did you leave Elixium?”
“It was time to move on. I wasn’t fulfilling my potential.”
“That’s understandable. Myself, I felt I had more to offer in recruitment. I’m a fantastic judge of character.”
Yeah. Nothing gets past you, Miss Fantastic.
She gave him some forms to fill in. He sat in the hot office, cramming everything he’d already written in his CV into tiny boxes. Life-sized cardboard cut-outs of model employees leered at him as he worked. Suited men and women, all grinning like hyenas. When he’d finished, he gave the forms to Miss Gehrmann.
She leafed through the papers. “Hmm, so you’re white, male and heterosexual?”
“Yes,” said Tom.
“Are you sure you’re not gay, bi or questioning?”
Tom screwed his face up.
“It could improve your career prospects. Here at Sustainable we’re very keen on equal opportunities.”
“Too bad. So can we approach Elixium Pharmaceuticals for a reference?”
Tom squirmed in his suit. “I’d rather you didn’t, if that’s okay?”
“That would be… unusual.” She circled a blank section of the form with her red pen. “You haven’t filled in the disclosure section.”
“Is that necessary?”
“It’s required.” Tom sensed she was frowning at him, but her forehead—frozen stiff with Botox—showed no creases. “Do you have a criminal record, Mr Toombs?”
He sighed. “A petty misdemeanour. Nothing to worry about.”
“I see.” Opening her desk drawer, she shoved his paperwork inside. He prayed she’d give him a chance, but she crushed his hopes with a swift slam. Knowing my luck, it’ll be the same story with all the other agencies. Once they realise I’ve got a record, they’ll look at me like something they’ve stepped in.
“I have my degree certificate and transcript. You can take a copy. I have a first in Applied Maths.” He fumbled in his bag and offered her a plastic wallet.
She refused to take them. “That won’t be necessary.”
Tom placed the folder on the table anyhow, hoping she’d change her mind. “And I’m a human calculator. Ask me the square root of any three-digit number.”
A condescending chuckle.
“Ask me! It’ll blow your mind.” He laid out a smorgasbord of tasty numerical treats in his mind, but she wasn’t hungry.
She pushed the plastic folder back towards him, dismissively. “A neat party trick, I’m sure.”
Party trick? I’m not a puppy shaking hands with its master. “It’s an incredible skill, Miss Gehrmann. I’d make an excellent bookkeeper or accountant.”
“You don’t have the qualifications.”
“Yeah, but I’ve got... What do you call it?” He tapped his finger on the plastic wallet, scouring his mind for the correct recruitment-speak. “Transferable skills. Doesn’t that count?”
She gazed at him blankly, as if he was speaking a foreign language.
“My colleague Alphonse can offer you something. An entry-level position at TDM International, Europe’s largest debt collection agency.” She turned to the guy at the desk next to her, a ratty-looking shit stain in a tight pink shirt.
“Great,” said Tom.
Alphonse muttered something under his breath to Miss Gehrmann. Miss Gehrmann snorted and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. Grinning, Alphonse invited him to come into his office.
Tom started work at TDM international two days later. The boss, a straight-talking cockney, was very clear in his expectations. No bullshit. Turn up on time and do the hours. Don’t get ideas above your station. The company required ears on phones to listen to customers whining and begging for more time to sort out their finances, nothing more.
Tom soon discovered TDM’s customers were the downtrodden and unfortunate dregs of society—unemployed, widowed, or otherwise penurious. They rang TDM (or tedium, as Tom soon dubbed it) anxious and desperate. In negative equity and facing home repossession, they’d offer their left kidney for one more week. The boss told him to refuse every request. This provoked understandable venting and insults. In his first week, irate customers called him an “assmonkey,” a “fuck weasel” and a “prize-winning prat”.
The Grandmaster greeted him every evening when he returned home.
“Good evening, Thomas,” said the Grandmaster. “How was your day?”
“Well, you know what to do. A bright world of serenity and expanded consciousness is one droplet away.”
The metaphysical wonders of Metanox kept him sane. He could gaze at a flower, a dog, a crumpled sandwich wrapper and glimpse a fundamental truth. The back-light of the universe; a system of interconnected symmetry and asymmetry.
The bizarreness of existence amazed him. He’d take a shower and sink to his knees, overwhelmed by physicality. As the water hit his body, the oddity of liquid, warmth and skin blindsided his senses.
Metanox stripped everything down to the base constituents. A current of raw sensory input pulsing through the filament of his consciousness. A single drop kept him high all night. The energy infusion spiralled into an intense calm and then settled him into a deep, restful sleep.
Sometimes, concerned about harmful long-term effects, he wondered whether he should quit—pour the drug down the drain—but the Grandmaster’s Received Pronunciation soothed his worries. “Metanox is a perfectly safe, non-addictive chemical.”
Tom agreed. Metanox is a marvel, the zenith of ecstasy.
Armed with synthetic confidence, he attended clubs and parties. He lapped up the music, the drugs and the women. The grains of time slipped away, like a line of coke vacuumed up by Steve’s legendary hooter.
On September 11th, 2001, he was off work with a cold. After a bowl of soup, he took Metanox and watched planes flying into skyscrapers on the TV. It looked so trippy.
Naturally, 9/11 truth and Snout-Nose Steve went together like apple pie and ice cream. He was cynical of the rush to war in Afghanistan and espoused controlled demolition theories. The smoking gun, according to Steve, was World Trade Centre 7, as no plane hit the building and fire cannot melt steel. Dave scoffed and called him a conspiracy theorist, but based on his experiences at Elixium, Tom gave these theories some credence. He even protested the invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, like many people his age, he felt disconnected. With an eyeful of narcotics and an earful of techno, nothing felt real. He kicked off his trainers, laid back on the sofa and let life dissolve in the steady flow of liquid drugs. One long high with no comedown.
In summer 2005, Dave and Tom went to the Ashton Court festival. They ambled across Clifton suspension bridge and gazed across the Avon Gorge. The clear blue sky and the views left them speechless. Once they crossed the bridge, they took a detour through Leigh Woods. This allowed them to break into the festival and avoid the hefty entrance fee. After dodging security, they joined the crowd in the dance tent and listened to some old school drum ’n’ bass. Later, they laid back in the dry grass watching the clouds go by, a pleasant breeze providing a respite from the July heat.
At sunset, the sky turned a brilliant red. They sat at the top of a hill overlooking the festival, listening to the reverberating hubbub of bands and DJs below. As the music wound down and a chill set in, Tom basked in an amphetamine warmth. The neon lights of the festival and the stars glowing in the sky mesmerised him.
“Tom,” said Dave, introducing him to a dark-haired girl. “This is Teresa.”
He smiled and shook her hand.
“She’s from Seville,” Dave enthused.
Tom listened in silence as Teresa talked to Dave about her journeys around the world and her family back home. She recited some of her poetry, her glittery notebook illuminated by a little torch on her key ring. Dave listened intently, but Tom ached for a droplet of Metanox to inject some meaning into the torrent of sappy drivel flowing from her mouth.
He wandered off and took a droplet. Dave thought he’d flushed the Metanox down the toilet in ’99 but he’d continued to use the drug in secret. Dave would shit a square brick if he found out, but Tom had become adept at hiding his use. He indulged at work too—it relieved the tedium. Before securing the bottle lid, he stared at the liquid level, troubled by how little remained.
He struggled to sleep that night. Given the drug’s potency, he’d assumed the little bottle would last a lifetime, but he’d developed tolerance. He threw off the covers and the cold air greeted his legs. He turned on his lamp and opened the bedside cabinet where he kept the Metanox bottle. He tried to quantify what remained. A few months, a year at most. And once it ran out, what then?
The next day, Tom visited Snout-Nose Steve and discussed his diminishing Metanox supply. Steve now lived on a houseboat which he’d painted bright yellow and named I Am The Walrus. Steve enjoyed the freedom of the open water, shrouded in a warm fug of diesel heaters and cannabis. He made cash by downloading music and films from Kazaa and selling ripped CDs and DVDs in The Reckless Engineer and The Bridge Inn. It was a surprisingly good earner and fuelled his growing coke habit.
While Tom skinned up, Steve paced around the boat looking for the fresh box of tea bags he swore he bought last week. As Tom sparked up the reefer, a duck sailed past one of the portholes.
“It doesn’t matter about the tea. Steve, I need more Metanox.”
“Can’t help you with that either,” said Steve. “Asked around at a free party the other night. Nobody’s heard of it. Look, let’s go see Hazeem. See if he’s got any contacts.”
After they’d finished the joint, Steve locked up the boat, and they took the bus to Hazeem’s house in Clifton—the posh area of the city.
Hazeem opened the door to Tom and Snout-Nose Steve and invited them in to his refurbished townhouse. Hazeem had transformed himself over the past few years. Little remained of the slim, timid guy drawing portraits and making him coffee and toast. He’d bulked up, shaved his head and tattooed his arms. Despite his creative talent, he never completed his Fine Art degree, dropping out to deal drugs full time. It proved the more lucrative option. The business was booming and Hazeem excelled. One by one, other dealers, scatter-brained after years of snorting coke, got caught, but Hazeem stayed focused, and, following the Koran, abstained from drugs and alcohol. He rarely talked about his faith, preferring to compartmentalise his activity as a Muslim from his activity as a drug dealer, but Tom heard he’d made several large donations to his local mosque, as if to allay a guilty conscience.
Tom’s eyes scanned the vaulted ceilings and rustic oak floor, wondering why Hazeem chose the criminal lifestyle. Had wealth intoxicated him, instead of chemicals? Or was there a deeper motive?
Clearly, he’d also lost his artistic sensibilities since dropping out of college. In his gold satin dressing gown, Hazeem showed them into the lounge where a hideous leopard skin sofa awaited beneath tasteless portraits of naked black women with halo-like afros. Tom could hear a bubbling sound. Through the open patio doors, Hazeem’s glamour-model fiancé, Diamond, lounged in a hot tub, sipping a lime-green smoothie.
“Nice crib,” said Tom. “Mind if I smoke?”
“Sure,” said Haz, putting on a record, the latest gangsta rap. The auto-tuned bravado soon grated. The usual crap: bitches and hos, guns and diamonds, drugs and million-dollar record deals.
Snout-Nose Steve gushed over Haz’s flat-screen TV, which hung on the wall. “Wow,” he said. “It’s so thin. Never seen one up close before.”
“Brand new, 40 inch, surround sound,” Hazeem boasted.
“That’s sterling mate. Bet it’s ace for porn,” said Snout-Nose Steve.
Outside, in the hot tub, Diamond cleared her throat then pressed her chest forward to show off her double-Ds to Tom and Steve. She winked at Hazeem and said, “You ain’t watching porn, huh sugar?”
Snout-Nose Steve raised his eyebrow.
“Oh yeah,” whispered Haz. “She’s a freak.”
Tom switched off the god-awful hip hop.
“Sorry Tee,” said Haz. “You were after a little something?”
Tom explained he was running short of Metanox and asked Hazeem if he’d ever heard of it.
“Steve’s told me about this drug. Through the eye, no?”
“It’s a complete unknown. Nobody else has it… Except you.”
Tom took a deep drag of his cigarette. Although he’d known Hazeem since high school, he feared he might steal the chemical.
“Where did you get it?” Haz asked.
He explained about the rave back in ’99 and that he’d stolen the bottle from Elixium.
“Never had you down as a troublemaker, Tee,” said Haz. He clasped his hands together and rested his chin on them, deep in thought.
“It’s good, right?”
“Better than any pill, powder or weed I’ve taken.”
“You tried it, Steve?”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “But I’d taken too much K that night. Maybe I could give it another shot, Tom?”
“No,” he snapped. He clutched the bottle tight in his fist.
“Jeez, keep your wig on,” said Steve.
Tom ignored him and turned to Hazeem. “Metanox is the bomb, trust me.”
“I believe you, Tee. And as no other dealer has it, we’d have the market cornered.”
“We?” asked Snout-Nose Steve, sniffing money in the air.
“I’ll give Tee twenty percent per transaction. Five for you, Steve, call it a finder’s fee.”
“Seven and a half and we’re talking.”
“Don’t push it,” said Hazeem.
Tom huffed. “It’s all good talking percentages, but we don’t have a supply.”
“You still have the flyer, right? With the phone number?”
“Yes, but it’s been years. Might not even happen anymore”
“We’ll soon find out. Ring them Friday night. Do exactly what you did in ’99. When the limo comes, I’ll be waiting in the van with Greenleaf. He served in Afghanistan.”
“Jesus,” said Tom.
“We’ll follow you to the party. Then, it’s just a matter of popping a couple of guards.”
“They had machine guns!”
“And Greenleaf has a sniper rifle. We’ll take them out from a distance before they know what’s happening. Then we’ll storm the place. From what you say, there’s two, maybe three, guards patrolling inside. The rest are wrinkly old white dudes shagging underage girls.”
“That was before 9/11. Who knows what security they have now.”
“You want more of this drug, right?”
The idea worried him, but Hazeem was right. How else would he score more?
“As dope as this house is,” said Haz, “it’s not enough.” He sat down, elbows resting on his chin pensively.
“You want a mansion, right?” asked Snout-Nose Steve.
“Did you hear about my dad’s corner shop?”
“Two thugs threw a brick through the window. When my younger brother Zidan came out, they called him a paki and a terrorist. Then they threw him to the ground and stole cigarettes. My brother’s ok and I paid to replace the window and the stock, but it’s the principle. My dad worked hard to build that place from nothing, thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, and nobody respects him. That’s what I want, Tom. Respect.”
By Friday night, Tom’s nerves were in pieces, waiting for 3 a.m., worrying what might happen. To make matters worse, Dave roped him into spending the night at The Queen’s Shilling. Teresa and her friends liked gay bars. Dave seemed loved-up, but he couldn’t fathom why. She’s a nice girl, he thought, but so boring. She didn’t even smoke weed. Under her guidance, Dave had quit weed, smoking, class A’s and drank in moderation. He’d even earned a promotion at work and now managed the production line instead of working on it.
As the evening progressed, he struggled to gather his courage. He kept thinking about Hazeem and Venom Empire and whether any of them would make it out alive tonight. The music was terrible and Dave’s swooning over Teresa made him nauseous. Only by taking Metanox could he tolerate this pink neon catastrophe of a night club. He brought the bottle up to his eye and applied a single droplet to his cornea.
“Tom!” yelled Dave.
Shit. Dave had seen him.
He looked furious. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“It’s alright, man,” said Tom.
“No, it’s not! Where did you get that?” Soon enough, the penny dropped. “You lied to me. I thought we were friends.”
“We are,” said Tom. “Forget about Venom Empire. The drug is safe. Don’t worry.”
“As long as you keep taking it, they’ve got a hold over you.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” protested Tom, but Dave had already stormed off to see Teresa.
Tom took more and more, but each dose only increased his anxiety. If he had any sense, he’d follow Dave’s example. He had enough to slowly taper off, but he couldn’t imagine a future without it.
Teresa consoled Dave and then glowered at Tom with disgust. Bitch. He’d like to shatter her perfect little dream world with a mainline shot of urban desolation and despair. Even so, the candy optimism of the 1960s Motown filling the club infected him. He took another drop of Metanox and melted into sugary bliss.
Soon the drugs wore off and icy fears entered Tom’s soul. Paralysed by darkness and despair, he stared straight ahead, powerless and hypnotised. Visions of splattering bullets as Hazeem’s man opened fire upon Venom Empire assailed him. The guards returning fire. Blood spurting in every direction. Lips contorting into screams.
His heart raced faster and faster. It was stupid, but he needed more. He had to have more. He took another drop. Then another. And another. Finally, he turned and walked out of the club, leaving Dave and Teresa behind.
Back home, he sat on the doorstep of the drab, low-rise shared house, watching the street. He’d recently moved to escape the spiralling rent and now lived in a tatty little estate some distance from the corporate fantasy land of the city centre. He read the time on the screen of his Nokia 3310 mobile phone. It was 2:59.
As three o’clock struck, he saw the headlights of Hazeem’s van blinking.
He took out the flyer, keyed in the number for Venom Empire, and pressed the dial button, remembering Isla’s instructions to wait two rings and hang up. I can’t believe I’m doing this. The ringing sound relieved his nerves. At least the line still works.
After the second ring, he ended the call. Folding his arms, he leaned back against the door and waited for the limousine to arrive.