Chapter 19 – Only the Beginning
Tom sat on the edge of the bed, gripping the knife. His unblinking eyes fixed on the bedroom door. He’d lost count of the passing days and he longed for sleep, just a couple of hours to refresh his tired body, but the Grandmaster reminded him he needed to stay alert. Hours slipped by in silence. He splashed water from the fish tank on his face, but it was no use, he couldn’t stop his eyelids closing.
“Wake up!” shouted the Grandmaster, making him jump. “You must protect the Metanox from Dave and the rest of the vagrants you live with.”
The Grandmaster’s voice brought him to his senses, and he discovered his fingernails had curled with length. He reeked of body odour. Palpating his face, he discovered a tatty beard over his neck and cheeks. His bedroom was a pig sty. Mouldy plates and cups littered the floor, strewn beneath empty takeaway boxes. Flies swarmed around. An intrepid mouse nibbled on a rotting pizza crust. The tropical fish he bought last year had starved to death; they floated on the surface of the water.
A maniac pounded on the front door, trying to break it down. Tom’s heart went into overdrive. It’s Dave.
“I’m ready,” he said, clutching his knife. “Grandmaster?”
Tom reached for his Metanox on the bed next to him. Less than a quarter of the bottle remained. Not much, but Dave would attempt to snatch it, anyway.
A thud startled him. The silhouette behind the pea-green bed sheets covering the windows spelled trouble—big trouble.
“Open up! I know you’re in there, Mr Toombs.” Tom did not recognise the voice.
He grabbed the Metanox bottle. “You can’t have it!”
“This is your landlord, Barry Gardiner. You’re three months behind in your rent, Mr Toombs. I’m here to serve you with an eviction notice.”
“I’ve got a knife, and I’ll stab anyone who comes in.”
The landlord peered into the basement through a tear in the bed sheet. “I can see drug paraphernalia in the property. You better let me in right now, or I’ll call the police.”
“Go away. You’re not coming in.”
“Then you leave me with no choice.”
He strained to listen to the landlord’s muffled voice. Was he bluffing, or was he phoning the pigs?
Tom rubbed the bottle of Metanox as if to summon the chemical genie. “What should I do?”
“You must protect the Metanox at all costs,” said the Grandmaster.
“The police are on the way, Mr Toombs,” shouted the landlord.
The police would surely confiscate the Metanox and throw him in prison.
“We need to leave,” said the Grandmaster. “Hide the drugs! Somewhere they won’t look!”
In a panic, Tom grabbed his holdall from the wardrobe and turned it upside down to empty the crap from inside it. He’d long since sold all his valuables for drugs, but packed his mobile phone, a few CDs and the Metanox.
He left the room, climbed the stairs and opened the front door. The sunlight stung his eyes. Barry, a squat man with greasy hair and narrow, piercing eyes glared at him.
“This is your legal notice of eviction,” said Barry, thrusting a piece of paper at his chest.
“Please call them off,” said Tom. “Give me a couple of days. I’ll get the money.”
Barry shook his head. “You’re a mess! I bet you don’t even have a job!”
“You can’t just throw me out of my own house!”
“Get out of here, you filthy druggie.”
In the distance, he could hear sirens.
He sprinted away from the house, but tripped over a loose paving stone on the street. His bag went flying, and he landed in the gutter. Fumbling, he clutched his bag and opened it. He held his hand to his chest and exhaled deeply. The Metanox bottle remained intact.
“Hurry,” said the Grandmaster. Tom collected his bag and scurried away.
That afternoon, he curled up in one of the nooks and crannies of The Bay Horse with half an ale, all he could afford. The punters at the bar held their noses when they caught a whiff of him, but the bartender, served him anyway.
He scrolled through the contacts on his phone as he sipped his drink.
The Grandmaster moaned in his ear. “What makes you think we can trust any of this scum? They’ll gouge your eyes out for a drop of Metanox.”
“I’ve no choice,” protested Tom. “The streets aren’t safe either. There’re muggers everywhere.”
He rang his contacts to see if they’d help him. Snout-Nose Steve claimed his house boat was too small, the tight fuck. His old housemate Pete was living with his folks now. Aunt Miriam lived in a nursing home and Russell, his brother, hung up as soon as he mentioned he needed a place to stay.
Most conversations went something like this:
“Is that Trent?”
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“It’s Tee. We met that time at Lakota? Or was it Creation? Wicked night, dope tunes. Anyway, how are you, man?”
“Great... That’s great. Listen, I’m in a fix at the moment and uh… I need a place to stay. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I was wondering if—”
He was running out of phone credit, and since the cashpoint chewed up his bank card, he had no way of buying more. He rang old work colleagues, housemates, random ravers and even old flings he’d forgotten to delete from his phone. No luck. Many had moved, married or just didn’t give a toss.
“My flat mate won’t like it.”
“There’s no room.”
“We’ve got kids now.”
“Tom who? I don’t remember you at all.”
Finally the credit on his phone dried up, and Tom swallowed the last of his ale. There was one option left, a number he’d skipped in his run through. He still had some change. He could go to a phone box and ring Dave. Ring, repent and beg for forgiveness. He’d help me, wouldn’t he?
“Don’t be stupid,” said the Grandmaster. “You know what’ll happen, don’t you?”
“What else am I going to do?”
“Park bench. Bus station. You’ll be fine. You’ve got me. You’ve got Metanox.”
“Dave will help me.”
“I’m sure he’ll make up a nice comfy bed for you, but you know the price—handing over the Metanox. ‘I’m pouring it down the sink,’ the fucker will say, but he’ll keep it all for himself. He’ll leave you with nothing.”
The thought of that traitorous bastard taking his Metanox angered him. I’d rather smash it against the wall, then hand it over to Dave. He pictured him and Teresa, high on Metanox, making love. No fucking way.
So what could he do? It was early afternoon. Enough time to raise some cash by selling his old CDs at the pawnshop. He’d hit the recruitment agencies afterwards, secure some menial work, and find a hostel for the night.
The Grandmaster piped up. “You won’t get that much from a few scratched CDs. You should save your money and sleep rough.”
“We’ll see,” said Tom. If he could get some work, perhaps he could persuade the recruitment agency to give him an advance on his first months’ wage.
He made less than sixteen pounds for his CDs at Crack Converters. Downhearted, he walked to Sustainable Resources. He tried to smarten himself up as best as he could in a petrol station toilet, but he didn’t have his shaver or any of his shirts. He washed his hands and face, tried to tidy his lengthy hair and hoped for the best.
When he arrived at the agency, Miss Danniella Gehrmann, his old nemesis, was on the phone. She seemed in no hurry to finish her conversation. He took a seat in the waiting area. A few minutes later, a well-groomed young man entered the agency and sat opposite him.
Miss Gehrmann finished her phone call and sauntered over to the waiting area. “Can I help you?” she asked, a toothy grin stretched across her face.
Tom smiled and rose to his feet. “I’m looking for work, temporary or—”
Gehrmann held her hand up to silence him. “I’ll get to you soon.” She’d been speaking to the well-groomed young man sitting opposite.
“But I was first!” protested Tom, but Gehrmann ignored him.
“I’m looking for permanent work,” said the young man.
“Excellent,” she said, gesturing towards the back office.
They left Tom alone in the drab waiting area with back-breaking grey chairs. He rolled his eyes at the life-sized cardboard cut-outs of ideal employees. In the years since he’d last visited, they multiplied and now fulfilled diversity quotas. Black, white, Asian, Latino, young, old, male, female, gay, trans, disabled. An equal-opportunities museum of horrors.
After an hour with the smart young man, Miss Gehrmann returned to the waiting area and invited him into the back office.
“Let me log into the system,” she said, typing into the computer. “Okay, we’re in. Now, could you give me your name and date of birth?”
Tom reeled off his details.
“Oh,” she said, bringing up his record. “You worked for TDM International, but they ended your contract for non-attendance.”
“Yes,” Tom said. “I was going through a hard time. But I’m ready for work now.”
“I see,” said Miss Gehrmann. She sized him up, peering down her nose at his scruffy clothes. “We’d have to re-register you on our system to offer you employment.”
“Okay, can you do that now?”
“Do you have any identification with you?”
Shit. He’d left all that at the house. “I’m sorry. I don’t.”
“No proof of address? Bank statement? Utility bill?”
“I’m staying with friends at the moment.”
“No fixed abode?” Gehrmann’s lower lip quivered, Tom sensed she was trying to suppress a smile. “To offer you employment, we have to re-register you on the system, and I can’t do that unless you show me two forms of ID.”
“Please,” Tom said, his voice breaking. “I’ll do anything. Cold calling. Door to door. I’ll sweep the streets. Anything.”
“I need two forms of ID to register you on the system.”
“I’m begging you.”
“But unless you’re registered on the—”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it, the fucking system.”
“You need to leave now,” said Miss Gehrmann, folding her arms and pursing her lips.
Bitch. She could smell it on him as soon as he walked through the door. Drugs, poverty and desperation. The commercial-grade antiseptic he’d used to wash his face in the petrol station toilet only added to the stench.
The Grandmaster piped up. “You could always put her in a head lock and register yourself.”
“No,” said Tom. “I’m not doing that.”
“Suit yourself,” said the Grandmaster.
“If you don’t leave,” fumed Miss Gehrmann, “I’ll call the police.”
“Alright,” he said, holding his hands up.
He wandered through supermarket aisles, hungry and seething with anger at how Gehrmann had treated him. He grabbed a sandwich, some crisps and a drink. As he was working out the cost, he felt a throbbing, migrainous tension building behind his eyes. He winced as a high-pitched drilling sound penetrated his ears. Pressure amassed inside his skull, as if his head was going to explode. He collapsed to his knees. What’s happening? Am I having a stroke?
“That,” said the Grandmaster, “is a Metanox withdrawal symptom.”
“I’m going to fucking die,” he said, grabbing the bottle from his pocket. He administered a dose in the middle of the aisle.
“That’s mild,” said the Grandmaster. “It gets much worse.”
After taking the Metanox, the sickness and dizziness faded, but he couldn’t feel the effects. Usually there’d be a pleasant tingle and boundless serenity, but now he felt nothing. “Where’s the high? Grandmaster?”
“You’re entering advanced dependency. Your body’s so used to Metanox now, the effects are diminishing. It’ll forestall the withdrawal, but you’ll no longer experience the high.”
It’s not true. He’s planting ideas in my head.
“I never lie,” said the Grandmaster. “You’re going to need at least ten drops for any kind of high. But don’t worry, you’ve got hundreds of bottles to enjoy. Supplies are plentiful.”
“Fuck!” Tom shouted and attacked the shelf beside him. Jars of pasta sauce flew off the shelves and smashed on the floor. Two supermarket security guards were on him like gnats. One of them radioed through to management to call the police. Tom fled the shop and sprinted down the street, losing the security guards in the crowds of shoppers.
Is this a nightmare?
“It’s only the beginning. Soon the drug won’t counteract the withdrawal symptoms. You’ll be in constant pain, even when you’re using.”
He pressed his hands to his head and collapsed in the gutter. Jets of vomit spewed from his mouth. The dread turning his stomach. When he’d finished puking his guts out, he asked the Grandmaster what he should do next.
“You’ve still got a little money. Let’s get some cider in your veins.”
Tom soon trampled the litter-strewn streets, foul tasting cider in his gut and nowhere to go. As the sun lowered and the temperature dropped, he reached the lower end of Park Street. The cathedral cast a dark shadow over College Green. The fountains hissed in the distance.
“Over there,” said the Grandmaster.
A bunch of kids loitered, riding around on skateboards. They looked about fifteen years old. A group of them huddled together on a park bench. One caught his eye. He was black, fat and smoking some tasty skunk.
“Hey,” Tom said, as he drew close. “Got any weed?”
Alarmed, the kids scattered, the fat one waddling away as fast as he could. Only a lanky teenager remained. “We don’t sell drugs, officer,” he said.
“Police? You think I’m police. All I want is a Louie.”
Don’t these kids know anything? “A ’teeth of an ounce. As in, Louis the Sixteenth.”
The lanky teenager surveyed him with suspicion.
“Lift your shirt,” he said.
“Lift it up so I can see if you’re wearing a wire.”
Tom smiled, but the teenager was deadly serious. He sighed and lifted his jumper. “There, you see? Come on, give me a ten bag or something.”
“A ten bag?”
The teenager plunged his hand into his hoodie pocket but then stopped. “Can’t help you, officer,” he said. Then he grabbed his longboard and took off, the wheels clattering over the paving slabs.
How can they think I’m police?
“You’re old,” said the Grandmaster. “But still too clean-cut for a hobo, despite the present circumstances.”
The Grandmaster seemed to relish his wretchedness and desperation. “Can’t you help me for once? Don’t you have any useful ideas?”
“Let me think… No.” The Grandmaster laughed.
At nightfall, Tom went to Queen’s Park and sat under one of the old oak trees. The ground seemed soft at first, but soon became uncomfortable. Thick tree roots knotted the earth, digging into his thighs. As the streetlamps glowed, a mist descended, and he shivered. It was the beginning of November, and in the rush to grab his belongings, he’d neglected to grab his coat. Unable to restrain himself, Tom burst into floods of tears.