Chapter 16 – Strangers
Three weeks had passed since Tom’s failed attempt to steal Metanox from Elixium. Three weeks since he’d seen Hazeem’s face on the local news under the banner: “Man Shot and Killed During Armed Robbery Gone Wrong”. According to the report, the police opened fire after Hazeem refused to drop his gun. Liars, thought Tom. Reuben Fenwick murdered his friend. He gritted his teeth, his cheeks burning. A knock on the door sent his heart racing. What if the police figured out he was involved too? He heard muffled voices above; one of his housemates had answered the door.
“Don’t be so jumpy,” chided the Grandmaster. “It’s just the postman. Now take some more Metanox and relax.”
As the days passed, Tom’s fears faded. Replaced by a growing anxiety as the Metanox slipped away, drop by drop. Unwilling to quit and unable to score more, he tried to mete out the dosage, only allowing himself to take the drug on Friday nights. This made the rest of his time hellish—his mental landscape was a chaotic mess of numbers, taste sensations, regrets and cravings. Even worse, the Grandmaster constantly disparaged him—a persecutory voice only quelled by Metanox.
The first drop silenced the Grandmaster and helped him focus and relax. The next drop lifted his spirits, motivating him to leave his stinking bedroom and explore the world. A third drop elicited euphoria and subtle visual illusions—the patterned wallpaper rippled like a heat-haze mirage. The fourth drop—the last he allowed himself—numbed him from head to toe, helping him drift off into a deep, restful sleep.
He detailed the experiences in his notebook and decided that the quantity of the drug could explain the contradictory effects. Anyway, he didn’t care how Metanox worked its wonders, only that it continued to do so. As long as he had the drug to look forward to at the end of the week, he could cope with the Grandmaster’s jibes, the pain of losing his father, his guilt over Hazeem, the boredom of work, the strained relations with Dave and the increasingly sorry state he found himself in.
One Friday night, as he washed his face and put on a clean shirt, the Grandmaster demanded attention from inside the bedside cabinet drawer. “You’re venturing out? Why don’t you stay home and take Metanox?”
“What if I want to go out? Make some new friends, meet a nice girl.”
“Nobody’s interested in you,” said the Grandmaster. “You’ve got a shitty job, no car and the physique of a praying mantis.”
“Dave invited me.”
“Dave? You’re giving up Metanox to spend time with him?”
“I’m not giving anything up. I’m taking you with me.” He opened the drawer and placed the Metanox in his coat pocket. He hated bringing the bottle out of his house, but then he didn’t like leaving it at home either.
“You shouldn’t be spending time with David. I don’t trust him. I wish I’d placed a bullet between his eyes when I had the chance. Don’t tell him anything!”
The Grandmaster need not worry. Since Dave caught him using Metanox, relations had been frosty.
He met Dave and Teresa in one of the riverside bars. The noisy music and crowds of drinkers covered the awkwardness. Teresa wouldn’t even look at him. Dave asked him if he was still taking Metanox, and Tom nodded. No point denying it now. Dave frowned and opened his mouth to say something, but Teresa’s friends saved him from the lecture.
A bunch of bright-eyed go-getters, dressed in trendy clothes, entered the bar. They exchanged hugs and kisses.
Tom sulked in the corner, watching Dave interact with Teresa’s friends. With his newfound confidence and Teresa on his arm, he’d become a social butterfly. The audience looked captivated by Dave’s stories, and they laughed at his jokes. This isn’t right. Dave’s too messed up to tell jokes. It seemed Teresa had shagged the neurosis out of him.
Huddled together, the group laughed and smiled. They ignored him, but he didn’t care. I’m happy to exist outside your repulsive bubble of warmth and self-satisfaction. They talked about the challenges of managing the double-digit growth of their start-up companies, soft furnishings and summer vacations in Tuscany.
He soon left Dave and company to go to a breakcore night. In the club, he got talking to a blonde girl at the bar. She’d been snorting coke all night, and he bought her a few drinks. On the hot, packed dance floor, she slid her hands all over his body. Strobes flickered. He watched a bad stop-motion animation of the girl’s wild eyes, vacant smile and gyrating hips. For a second, she reminded him of Isla and how she danced in 1999. He wished he could kiss her again, hear her wicked sense of humour and raucous laugh.
He’d been thinking about Isla a lot recently, tormented by love’s slow decay. Where was she right now? Did she think of him or had she moved on?
Late last night, while his housemates slept, he’d plugged in an Ethernet cable to the router and connected to the internet on his slow, dusty PC. He searched for Osiris Bitch. Scanning the results, it seemed she’d stopped painting for several years. Forum posts speculated that ‘OB’ was in prison, convicted for drug dealing or had given up painting to start a family in Australia. Then, two years ago, the artist came back in spectacular fashion, achieving worldwide recognition. Judging from the recent work, Osiris Bitch had embraced an aggressive green liberal stance. Stencilled pieces across Europe predicted that the ice caps would melt by 2015, another painting on the side of a flower store in North London urged politicians to pass “carbon tax laws now”. A Hollywood A list couple bought the shop for five million dollars and airlifted the anointed wall to Los Angeles, where it now resided in a glass display cabinet in the drawing room of their mansion. The council demolished the rest of the flower shop, leaving a gap like a missing tooth in the high street.
Tom clicked further through the results and his jaw dropped when he discovered Osiris Bitch had also been shilling for Elixium. The artist sprayed Elixium’s pyramid logo on the headquarters of the Medicines Regulation Agency, in an effort to fast-track the approval process for a new antiepileptic drug the company developed.
Tom closed the browser and switched the computer off in disbelief. He knew Isla would never sell out to Elixium. Somebody had to be aping her style.
The crowds in the club thinned after midnight. The girl he’d plied with alcohol had moved on. She was getting up close and personal with some shirtless muscle lord. Good luck to you, Tom thought. He’s probably gay. Cynicism was his default position these days; he must be getting old.
“Ahem,” said the Grandmaster. “Shouldn’t you be at home?”
“Yes, Grandmaster,” he said, leaving the dance floor. Like a rave version of Cinderella, he rushed out of the club and grabbed a taxi.
Once home, he perched on the doorstep with a bottle of beer and the Venom Empire flyer. At 3 a.m., he dialled the number into his cheap Nokia burner, waited for two rings and then hung up. He performed this ritual every Friday night. He waited and waited, watching the road. His heart quickened whenever headlights approached. Could this be the limousine? His ticket out of misery? No, it’s just some pillock in an open-top sports car.
His thoughts turned to Elixium Pharmaceuticals. Could he attempt a heist on his own? A bad idea given what happened to Hazeem. A cold shadow of emptiness loomed over his life. A purgatory of withdrawal and suffering. He’d crawl on his hands and knees, begging for more. Pure hell, until the day he wrapped a noose around his neck to rid himself of the frustration. But even then, his soul would not rest. He’d linger beneath ground, craving chemicals, unable to rot.
One Tuesday night Dave showed up at his house unannounced.
“Can we talk?” he asked.
“Okay,” said Tom, and showed him in. Tom now rented a cubby-hole of a room in the basement of a shared house. It was just big enough to fit a single bed, a grotty set of drawers and a glass-topped table. The weed-strewn garden blocked nearly all the daylight from getting in through the cellar window. Mould grew on the walls unchecked and mice scurried around at night, their tiny feet pitter-pattering on the floorboards.
“Teresa and I have some news,” said Dave. “We’re getting married.”
Tom folded his arms and sat down on the wooden stool by the bed. “Congratulations. I’m thrilled for you.”
Dave sighed. “Look at this place. How can you live like this?”
Tom shrugged. The cheap rent left him more money for alcohol, which he drank from morning to night. With several credit cards worth of debt and an overdraft to his name, he couldn’t afford to move anyway.
“What happened to you?”
“Nothing’s happened to me,” said Tom. “I’m still having fun.” I bet Teresa has been boring him to death, and he’s searching for some hedonism.
“This is fun? Tom, it’s time you moved on. The drugs—Metanox and whatever other garbage you’re on—it’s no good for you.”
In defiance, Tom grabbed the Metanox from the glass-topped table and took some. He tipped the bottle too high, and the liquid came gushing out, streaming down his cheek like tears. The wastage threw him into a rage.
“Look what you made me do!”
“Get out,” snapped Tom.
Dave looked hurt. “Give me the drug, Tom. Hand it over.”
“Aha!” said Tom. “You want it for yourself. That’s why you’re here.” He grasped the Metanox bottle as tight as he could. It fit snuggly in his hand.
“It’s destroying your life. You must get rid of it. I’m your friend, remember?”
All he wanted to do was get high. No family. No friends. No obstructions. His own company and a few droplets. Despite these thoughts, his grip loosened, and he placed the Metanox back on the table.
“Don’t let him steal your drugs,” said the Grandmaster. “He wants it all for himself.”
That doesn’t make sense, thought Tom. Dave always wanted him to flush the drug.
“Nonsense!” barked the Grandmaster. “He’s a dirty druggie! Don’t let him take your Metanox.”
“Did you hear that?” asked Tom.
“Hear what?” Dave shook his head. “Listen, Tom, back in ’99, I should’ve stopped you going to Venom Empire. The Grandmaster told me he wanted to make you one of them and while you’re taking this drug, you’ll do whatever they want.”
“Don’t listen to him, Thomas,” said the Grandmaster. “It’s a desperate ploy to regain your favour. He wants to steal your Metanox. What a shameless leech, pretending he’s your brother! ”
“Do you think so?”
“Yes,” said Dave. “It’s obvious. You’re addicted, and that’s what they want.”
The Grandmaster chimed in. “Don’t let him steal your Metanox. He’s not your friend.”
“You’re right,” Tom told the Grandmaster. They’d been drifting apart for years. If Tom threw him out, Dave would become a memory. Another character that disappeared from his life, signifying nothing but passing time. Sure, he might relive some nostalgic memories from time to time, but nothing substantial; nothing real. Soon they’d pass each other by in the street—perfect strangers, enveloped by the cold, metallic structures of the city.
“Let me destroy it,” Dave urged.
“You’d keep it for yourself.”
“Liar. It’s mine.”
Tom gritted his teeth. Then, after a few tense moments, Dave sprang into action. He lunged forward, reaching for the Metanox. Tom crashed down on top of him, almost smashing his head on the glass table.
After seizing the bottle, he jabbed at Dave with his elbow. Dave grabbed at his closed hand, but Tom swung his other fist and punched him in the head. As Dave wrestled him, he kicked and pushed him away, freeing himself with the bottle, which remained intact. Dave lay defeated on the floor, his face red and his nose bleeding.
The Grandmaster chortled. “What did I tell you? Now teach him a lesson he’ll never forget.”
Tom kicked Dave, as hard as he could, in the belly. Dave howled, a piercing inhuman sound which degenerated into a series of whimpers.
“Please, Tom,” Dave said, raising an arm to protect himself. He crawled away, holding his stomach.
Tom watched him rise and stagger to the door, half bent over with pain. At the doorway, Dave paused and gazed at him. The door slammed shut, and he knew he’d never see Dave again.
What have I done? Through teary eyes, he turned the Metanox bottle over and over in his palm. I should crush it, right now. I should break the glass with my bare hands. He imagined the freedom of birds soaring in the sky, as glass, blood and Metanox congealed in his hands.
“Don’t you dare,” said the Grandmaster.
“Why the hell not? What have you ever done for me?”
“I’m the only friend you have in the world. Destroy me and you’ll truly be alone.”
He was right. With Dad, Isla, Hazeem and now Dave gone, the Grandmaster was his only friend.
“I’m sorry,” Tom whispered. He stroked the bottle with his fingers, as though it were an injured person.