Elixium

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Chapter 20 – Dead Cat Bounce

Broken street lamps flickered as Tom scoured the seediest parts of town for shelter. At night, Bristol became a frightening labyrinth of late night kebab joints, closed barbers, sleazy hotels, boarded-up derelicts, sex shops and saunas. But most oppressive of all was the maze’s Minotaur. A demon channelled through a chemical. A dead man pulling him deeper into the sepulchral darkness of the city. The Grandmaster.

He’d been begging all day outside the ice rink and made nothing. Hungry and desperate, he approached a homeless woman named Mary for advice. Mary was a sweet middle-aged crackhead who said she’d be delighted to show him how to beg. He followed her to the harbour and watched her prey on a couple of businessmen. They sipped gin on the patio of a trendy harbour-side café-bar, discussing taking longs and shorts in a bear market.

“Excuse me,” said Mary. She was petite with wispy blonde hair and a pathetic tone of voice. “I’m sorry to bother you. Could you please spare twenty pence for a cup of tea?”

The businessmen ignored her at first, but Mary had ensnared them both. She’d insinuated herself into their private space. The businessmen squirmed, each hoping the other would break off the conversation and send Mary packing. The longer she lingered in the periphery, the more uncomfortable they became. Finally, the older man in the seersucker suit caved in, dipped his hand in his pocket and gave her some loose change.

“Oh, thank you, sir!” Mary glowed like she’d won the lottery. “Good night and God bless.”

She curtseyed before returning to Tom, who clapped. You’d think any fool could beg for coppers, but it was an art—a performance.

“Thinking this way helps to distance yourself,” said Mary. “If you feel ashamed or humiliated, you’ll come away with nothing. You got to be bold. Spot a good person with a conscience and target them. You’ll soon strike gold.”

She left him to his own devices, and he took up residence outside Somerfield supermarket, a polystyrene cup in his hand which he rescued from an empty shopping trolley.

“Spare a little change please,” he moaned, but shoppers ignored him. What does Mary have that I don’t? He contemplated stealing a pair of crutches for extra sympathy, but doubted it would make much difference.

“Aren’t there other options, Grandmaster? What about a crappy cash-in-hand job?”

“You’re a mess. Nobody will employ you.”

“Shoplifting?”

“Get caught by the police and you can kiss the Metanox goodbye.”

He took a daily drop to fend off withdrawal and the cold. Hardly any remained—a month’s worth, if he was lucky.

As night fell, he found a derelict by Cattle Market Road close to the train station. It was a mail sorting office in the 1970s, left to rack and ruin. This huge rotting structure, vandalised and falling apart, became his home. There was no glass in the windows to shield him from the Baltic gusts of wind.

Everything was silent, save for the faint rumble of distant passing trains. He traversed fallen beams and slabs of concrete, to the back wall he used as a latrine. He followed the winding, dilapidated corridors, running his fingers over the peeling plaster. Was this the derelict Isla took him to in ’99? He searched for the Grandmaster’s temple, but found nothing. Only isolation and deafening silence.

Night descended, and Tom cowered in the darkness. He listened out for footsteps, ready to run if anyone approached.

The freezing nights disturbed his sleep. The type of cold you feel in the marrow of your bones; a cold that burns. His teeth chattered. He curled up into a ball, but the ground was hard. He cursed existence. Cursed himself for being so fallen, frightened and alone. And yet, there was still hope. If he apologised and begged for forgiveness, Dave would help him.

“At what cost?” asked the Grandmaster. “You still have Metanox. Why give it up?”

“It doesn’t get me high anymore.”

“True. But you know what’ll happen if you stop. Withdrawal. A high-pitched blade of noise, like an evil dentist drilling into your skull. A head-splitting migraine knocking you off your feet. You’ll writhe around on the ground, puking, pissing and shitting yourself at the same time. Sunlight will sting your eyes and your raw, inflamed guts will twist and turn. Every cell in your body will scream out for Metanox. Febrile and in agony, you’ll seize, biting your lips and tongue. Your arms and legs will convulse, your mouth foaming… Need I go on?”

“But it’s so… fucking… cold.”

*

The next day, Tom trampled the rainy streets of Redland, searching for Dave’s house. Earlier, he’d visited the tuna factory in Brislington and asked a worker on his fag break if he’d heard of Dave Doherty. The man said Mr Doherty was an area manager who travelled to different sites across the South West. Tom explained he was a distant cousin and that he’d love to give him a visit. After some wrangling, the man gave him Dave’s home address.

Redland, green door, number 63. A row of pretty houses and geometric lawns. It was a quiet neighbourhood, the street lined with silver birches and wisteria. Tom followed the path to the front door and saw a white feline smudge through the frosted glass. He’s got a cat now, how nice.

He knocked on the door and after a few moments Dave opened. He looked well. He’d lost weight and had a rosy complexion. When he opened the door he was smiling, but the smile soon dropped.

“Tom? What are you doing here?”

Dave stood tall between the door frame, blocking the entrance with his arms.

“Who’s there?” called a voice from the kitchen. It was Teresa. A young child was singing a song. Peering through the gap in the door, he saw a little girl. She was baking with Teresa, rolling offcuts of pastry with a toy rolling pin.

“Look at the state of you,” said Dave. Tom had tried to smarten himself up but needed a proper wash and shave. He applied copious amounts of pink chemical goo under his arms from the dispenser in the petrol station toilet, but it failed to cover the nasty pong emanating from his unwashed body and clothes.

“Please, Dave. I’ve nowhere to go. I’m on the street. All I’m asking is for a couple of nights on your sofa… or the floor. I’m so cold.”

Dave’s expression softened. Tom hoped that his old friend would see past his grimy appearance and remember the good times they shared.

“I’m sorry for what happened.”

“Have you still got the Metanox?”

“Yes,” Tom confessed. “But it’s different now. I don’t take it to get high; I only take it to stop the headaches.”

Dave shook his head. “I can’t help you unless you’re clean. Smash the bottle right here, right now.”

Maybe I should. After all, there’s hardly any left. Wouldn’t it be better to quit on my own terms? But that would mean facing withdrawal earlier. He had to stave off that empty feeling, no matter the cost. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Can’t? Or won’t?”

“Come on Dave, don’t you remember the good times? We had fun back in the day. Let’s crank up the turntables and have a dance. You still got them?”

Dave shook his head.

“No matter, it’d be great to… chill.” Tom reached into his pocket and showed Dave the little bag of weed he’d managed to score from the skater kids. They’d finally decided he wasn’t a cop.

Back in the 90s, Dave always loved a good smoke. Class A’s he could take or leave, but he never refused a reefer. Holding out the bag of weed, Tom watched Dave’s eyes widen. He sensed his old friend’s fear, but also desire. Dave’s lips parted. He’s probably not had a smoke in years.

“No,” said Dave, his voice trembling with emotion. “I escaped.”

“Escaped from what?”

“From drugs. From you.”

The words stung. How can he see it that way?

“David?” shouted Teresa. “Who’s there?”

“It’s nothing,” Dave shouted back.

“There’s no escape,” said Tom. “This,” he said, looking around at the suburban homes and Dave’s manicured garden lawn. Neat flower beds. A fucking garden gnome. “This is denial; delusion. You think a wife, house and kids will protect you? No, it’s a middle class fantasy that’ll come crashing down, sooner or later. You opened a door, Dave, the first time you took drugs. A door that can never be closed.”

Dave gritted his teeth. “Get the fuck away from my house!”

Tom stepped back in shock, as if his friend had plunged an icy cold dagger into his chest.

“Wait,” cried Tom, before Dave could close the door. “I’ll back off with the drugs. But please, help me out for a couple of nights. I’m on the street.”

“There’s no way I’d have you in the house,” said Dave.

“I helped you. When you first came to Bristol, I was your only friend.”

Dave shook his head. “You kept me down. You wanted me fucked up and addicted so you could feel better about yourself.”

“Please—”

“Die,” Dave whispered, but his voice had changed. He no longer heard his former friend, but the Grandmaster. “Crawl on your hands and knees to the coldest corner of Bristol and die.”

The door slammed shut in his face.

Tom staggered back to the derelict as the sun set. He regretted what he’d said to Dave. He should have done as he asked, smashed the Metanox bottle. He could have achieved freedom, couldn’t he?

“Impossible,” said the Grandmaster. “Desire is encoded into every cell of your being. To be human is to be addicted. The only choice is surrender or die.”

*

It was a cold evening, and he couldn’t even afford a cup of tea. His head throbbed and his throat was sore. What am I going to do now?

“You could always sell your body,” said the Grandmaster. “I hear the fags hang out in The Bear Pit.”

“No way,” said Tom.

“There’s nothing to it,” said the Grandmaster. “After all, everyone’s born a whore.”

“No,” he replied. “I’ll get some money together begging. I’ll make it.”

*

He begged all day and received only a little shrapnel for his troubles. At nightfall, he was about to find shelter when four lads, out on the town, swaggered towards him. While one of them urinated up the wall, the others approached, towering over him like skyscrapers.

“Oi oi!” shouted one of the lads, pointing at his cup of change. “Whatcha got there, fucker?”

I better get out of here, thought Tom. He picked up his blanket and stood up, losing his balance a little.

“Whoa! Been on the old sauce, have we?” The lads jeered.

Tom folded his blanket over his arm and walked away with his cup, hoping the lads would find someone else to harass.

“Don’t ignore me, cunt. I’ll rip your balls off and shove ’em up your nostrils.”

Tom looked around for help. Outside the bookies, a thin man in a black leather jacket smoked a cigarette. A group of drunk women in tight skirts stepped out of a nearby bar, shrieking with laughter. Otherwise, the streets were empty. The engine of a nearby motorcycle revved; a chainsaw terror assaulting the night.

“Oi mate!” shouted one of the lads. They were right behind him now. He could smell the cheap cologne, but he did not run. They would only chase him down. It was better to creep away.

Tom continued walking. Slowly at first, but then as his nerve faltered, he picked up the pace. The streets bounded beneath him, his heart skipping beats.

The Horsefair. Countless corporate chains, coffee houses, fast-food restaurants, betting shops and fashion retailers. The lads jeered behind him, enjoying the chase. They’d slowed down to give him the illusion that he might escape, but there was nowhere to run.

“Help me,” he shouted to the empty street. “Please!”

“No one’s going to help you,” said the Grandmaster. “I hope they break every bone in your body. That’s what you deserve for disobeying me.”

A hand grabbed his shoulder, and a fist slammed into his face, knocking out a couple of teeth.

“Leave me alone,” he cried, but the lads were only just getting started. The tallest one jabbed at his chest and followed with an upper cut which sent him flying back against the wall.

“Worthless scum,” the tallest lad shouted.

“Fucking parasite,” added another.

The next blow struck his stomach, winding him. He bent over, struggling to breathe. The next lad approached, cracking his knuckles. Another blow to the head and he tumbled to the floor. He curled up to protect himself as boots kicked him. His body pulsated with pain. He heard a zipper being released and groaned as urine rained down on him, stinging his eyes.

At last the harsh voices faded, and he rose to his feet, his body aching and his clothes soaked with piss. The day’s takings of coins, mostly coppers, lay scattered over the pavement. He picked up what he could, grimacing with the pain in his ribs.

An elderly lady approached him. During the beating, he’d seen her on the other side of the road at the bus shelter. She was a cheerful black woman in her seventies, a bright ray of sunshine on an otherwise foul day.

“Are you ok?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Can’t abide it.” Reaching into her purse, she produced a fifty-pound note and offered it to him.

Should I take it?

“Go ahead. But please use it to get back on your feet.”

He reached out, wondering if the money was real. “Thank you.”

“Have you been on the streets long?”

He nodded.

“It’s drugs, isn’t it?” said the old lady. “What’s your name?”

“Tom.”

“Get off the drugs, Tom. Escape yourself.”

He’d been trying to escape himself for twenty years. Did she not have any better advice?

She whispered, “The demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and he healed him.” She passed him a small red bible. “See for yourself.”

He’d never particularly been religious, but wondered if reading it might help him.

“Leave it behind with your piss-soaked blanket,” ordered the Grandmaster. “Filling your head with claptrap will get you nowhere. The crushed polystyrene cup is more useful to you.”

He gazed down at the fifty-pound note in his bloodied hands.

“Let’s get drunk,” said the Grandmaster. “Piss providence down the drain.”

*

Sore and thoroughly miserable from the beating, Tom found a dive bar. The moment he entered, a rowdy couple stopped their argument to gawk at him. The lads playing pool in the corner murmured to each other and laughed. The barman served him, though. He closed his eyes and took a big gulp of beer, and as the alcohol entered his bloodstream, the shame subsided. He’d considered getting a cheap bottle of cider from the supermarket, but he wanted the luxury of shelter from the windy drizzle and a comfortable seat to rest his aching bones.

Nursing his pint, Tom found an empty table out of sight from the rest of the bar. He stared through the window at the yellow flickering lights of a row of Belisha beacons, shimmering across pools of rainwater and the drenched tables on the terrace. On and off. On and off. He seemed to have no choice but to follow these hellish jack-o’-lanterns, as they guided him deeper into the underworld.

The beer quelled the Grandmaster’s rasping, baritone voice, but not for long. He lies in wait after every cigarette; every pint, shot, pill and drop. The more I indulge, the stronger he gets. He’s feeding off my excess.

Tom could see a ghostly shadow in the periphery of his vision. The notion entered his mind that the Grandmaster, Watson Fenwick, might somehow take physical form again.

One of these days he’ll reach out and clasp his twig-like fingers around my neck. He’ll throttle me, just for fun, just because he can.

Time accelerated and the money soon ran out. At closing time, he scoured empty pubs, and mined every ashtray for butt ends. He gulped down the leftover dregs of other people’s beers, no matter how flat and warm. Anything for a little more.

He remembered watching a daytime TV show featuring a heroin addict, a nasty piece of shit who’d beaten his wife to a pulp and stolen all his mother-in-law’s money. When the junky agreed to go to rehab, the sanctimonious host commended his bravery, and the audience cheered. It all seemed so easy. At the time, Tom watched with cynicism but now he wondered whether he’d get a chance at redemption. Maybe something would click when he hit his lowest. A gold-plated epiphany fired point blank into his brain. He’d wake up, come to his senses, stop punishing himself and embrace change.

He ached for freedom, but something told him he’d yet to reach his lowest. He’d wake up tomorrow, hung over and bruised from the beating. He’d long for drugs, alcohol, Metanox, anything to take the pain away. No, he hadn’t hit rock bottom yet. This was just a dead cat bounce; smacking his head against a ledge as he continued the descent.

*

Tom awoke in the freezing cold derelict and quickly slid down a gradient of pain with the growing awareness of his throbbing headache. His insides were rotting and his bones ached. His eyes, especially his right, were sore and itchy. He closed them and wept dry tears.

“Oh, you poor little thing,” said the Grandmaster and laughed.

He reached into his pocket and breathed a sigh of relief when he realised his Metanox was still intact, although there was barely any left. Less than ten percent. He allowed himself a couple of drops to sooth his sore head. And hoped for a taste of euphoria.

“You’ll be lucky,” said the Grandmaster.

He was right. Metanox didn’t even give him a fluttering heartbeat anymore. Only a disappointing numbness, a flimsy shield soon burnt away by the searing flames of withdrawal.

“I need… More. A bottle of vodka.”

“And how exactly are you going to pay for that?”

The Grandmaster soon stymied his thoughts of shoplifting. “You risk losing your Metanox if you get caught. But there’s another way.”

The Grandmaster struck an ominous tone.

“Tell me.”

“I already did.”

Public toilets: The Bear Pit, Stoke’s Croft. Wanking off some 66-year-old puff. He was slim, wrinkly, and dressed head to toe in tight blue denim. He reeked of cigars, lubricant, amyl nitrate and rain. Everything down here reeked of rain.

“Reach and pull. Back and forth. Close your eyes and pretend you’re milking a cow.” The Grandmaster laughed.

“Are you really making me do this?”

“You offered,” said the puff. “Name’s Frank, by the way.”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Tom snapped.

Hurry up and cum so I can get the fuck out of here!

“Don’t be like that,” said Frank.

The old queen’s rancid voice, degraded by a million cigars, made him want to retch. Everyone’s born a prostitute, Tom repeated to himself. We’re all Mickey Mouse’s sex slaves. But as Frank moaned and groaned, Tom stopped, too disgusted to continue.

“C’mon,” pleaded Frank. “What’s your name, fella?”

He remembered Mary’s advice about developing a persona to avoid the humiliation of begging. If I stopped being Thomas Toombs for a while, this might work. “Lee.”

“There’s a good boy, Lee,” said Frank, his voice haggard and ugly. “Give you a fifty if you suck it.”

“Fifty?”

“Do it,” said the Grandmaster. “Swallow this cunt’s cum.”

“It’s as good as yours.” said Frank. “Just put your lips round that for me, fella.”

There was something familiar about Frank’s voice—rasping and upper class.

It’s him. The Grandmaster. He’s taken over a body! He’s controlling this old queen like a puppet.

Tom pushed Frank—the Grandmaster—back against the toilet and rose to his feet.

“Oh, you want me to suck yours?”

Tom knocked the hideous grin off his face with a punch in the jaw. He continued to pummel his fists into him as hard as he could. A horrible yelping sound like a beaten dog filled the air as Tom continued to pound the living shit out of Frank. No, not Frank, the Grandmaster. The final blow sent the Grandmaster flying against the wall, a rivulet of blood trickling down his chin.

Tom laughed. “You like that, huh? Now I’m the master.”

Tom searched the old man’s jeans for a money. Finding a wallet, he looked inside and discovered a stack of twenties. He inhaled sharply, his beating heart drenched in adrenaline. The old man mumbled something. Tom kicked him in the ribs and ran out of the bathroom.

*

Tears of regret flowed down his cheeks. Standing outside The Bear Pit at 4:30 in the morning, with blood and the fusty smell of Frank’s cock on his hands.

I nearly killed him. I nearly killed the…

“I’m still here,” said the Grandmaster. “You can picture me torn apart by horses or devoured by two-headed monsters, but I’ll always return. You’ll never escape.”

“You’re not real. You’re a projection. My madness. My pain.”

He walked the streets for the rest of the night until he reached the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The sun rose over the gorge, breaking through a river of mist flowing underneath the bridge. It was silent, save for an occasional car. He gazed at the wrought-iron chains above, trembling with cold, then glanced over the edge, at the grey sludge on the banks of the Avon.

“If I wanted,” said the Grandmaster. “I could have you end it all right now. Yes, Thomas. Why don’t you climb the barriers?”

“I’m thinking of doing something more drastic,” said Tom.

“Like what?”

He looked down at the bottle in his shaky hand. “Throwing you off.”

“You don’t have the guts,” said the Grandmaster.

“Is that so?” Tom thrust his arm back, but couldn’t bring himself to complete the throw. Instead he balanced the bottle on the barriers, where it would remain until a stray gust of wind blew it, and the Grandmaster, into the abyss. He walked away.

I’m brave and determined. I’m the one who decides how this story ends, not you.

The Grandmaster chided him as he marched along the bridge, telling him about the withdrawal symptoms he’d be facing in a matter of hours. But then he stopped speaking. Everything was silent, and Tom felt an overwhelming sense of loss. He needed strength to recover, but drugs sapped every last ounce from him. He stopped in his tracks.

I need you. I’m lost. I’m alone.

He wanted to move forward, to run as fast as he could, but invisible walls held him back. Despite everything, he wanted to take more. Just one last drop.

Tom retrieved the Metanox, balanced precariously on the barriers.

“Take a drop,” said the Grandmaster. “It’ll make you forget. And you’ve got a wallet full of cash there.”

He’s right. As decrepit as I am, I don’t want to say goodbye.

“That’s right, take a drop. Buy some beers, hell, check into a hotel if you want. But you need me. I’m your only friend.”

It’ll be fun. It’ll be shiny. It’ll be like the 90s.

*

Tom recognised the outside of The Foresters but the interior looked completely different. What was once a recovery lounge for ailing clubbers was now a sports bar—bleached, polished, and soulless. The latest vapid song from some talent show runner-up was playing on the stereo. Several flat screen televisions showed horseracing. Young lads in football shirts sat around drinking, but nobody he recognised.

He ordered a pint and sat down near the window. A newspaper littered the table, the crossword half-filled in. He found a pen on the seat and frantically scrawled his thoughts across the sports pages. The words flowed through him but made very little sense. He sensed they were mathematical equations. Maybe solving them would rid him of the Grandmaster and provide a map to Venom Empire. Yes, Venom Empire. If he could score some Metanox, he could turn his life around.

“It’s time for something stronger,” said the Grandmaster. Outside, rain lashed down on plastic tables beside the zebra crossing.

“No,” Tom protested, but it was no use. Once the thought entered his mind, it became reality. He looked down and realised he had a half-finished vodka and coke in his hand.

He ordered drink after drink, drifting from one seedy shithole to the next. Hole in the Wall, Colosseum, The Stag and Hounds and The Punchbowl. Once he’d drank a skin full, he took drop after drop of Metanox. Ten drops should be enough for a proper high. He’d reached the last dregs of the bottle, but he needed the feeling. Maybe this time it’d last forever.

*

“Can I help you?” asked the pretty young barmaid.

“Double vodka and coke.” I’m over 18, have money and can form words. So you can watch me commit slow suicide and keep a clean conscience.

“Pepsi alright?”

As if I give a shit.

Tom nodded and watched the barmaid fix his drink. She added a slice of lemon without asking, which annoyed him, still it would do the job. Economic exchange: fiat currency for ersatz happiness. His substitute for Metanox: plain, shitty, reliable alcohol.

“Do I know you?” asked Tom.

The barmaid studied him. “I don’t think so.”

“Isla. Your name’s Isla.”

Yes, it was Isla in the flesh. Nineteen years old, elfin features, cheeky smile. She had dyed pink strands and rainbow beads in her hair. Exactly how he remembered her from 1999. She danced beautifully that night. He’d lit her cigarette under the eaves while they waited in the rain. In his mind, he kissed her tender lips.

Somehow Isla embodied the magic of the rave scene and of every youthful music revolution. She danced through time, generation after generation. From the dark vaulted cellars of The Cavern Club in the 60s to a South London warehouse in ’92, tripping on acid. She danced topless in the sunshine of ’69 and joined a punk band on stage at the 100 Club in ‘76. In twenty years’ time, when robots and cyborgs run the world, she’d still be dancing and laughing. She’d always be young.

“No,” said the barmaid. “It’s Gemma.”

Tom’s heart sank, and he backed away in confusion. The barmaid was a brunette student-type. She looked nothing like Isla. In any case, Isla would be pushing thirty by now, she’s probably married with children and boasting a spare tyre between her skirt and her tank top. He could hear the Grandmaster laughing.

I’m losing my mind. Where the fuck am I? I need to go home. Do I have a home?

“I’m sorry,” he said to the barmaid, Gemma.

This is rock bottom, right? Surely I can’t get any lower than this. I’m ready for that epiphany bullet now. Load it up and shoot me down.

Gemma sighed. “Anything else?”

“Isla. She told me to ring between three and five on a Friday night. A limo picks you up and takes you to Venom Empire.”

“Alright then,” said Gemma, smirking. She thought he was crazy.

“There’s a man in here,” he said, leaning forward. “Calls himself the Grandmaster.” He looked around at the shady characters. Underage girls in mini-skirts stalked by sweaty creeps at the bar. There was a CCTV camera watching everything, hanging from the wall like a vile metal prick. “You know him?”

“No,” said Gemma, looking bemused.

“You’re lying.”

She shook her head and sauntered to the back of the pub. “Some weirdo,” Tom heard her say to the manager. But she knew the Grandmaster, he was certain. She knew everything.

He gazed up at the CCTV camera, which was manufactured by Avant Guard Security, his brother’s firm. I bet my brother’s a member of Venom Empire. He’s probably streaming the visuals to the rest of the members. He gave the camera the middle finger and swigged his drink.

*

Alcohol stoked a fire in Tom’s belly, neat whisky running down his gullet. He’d taken ten more drops of Metanox, and now he floundered in the concrete landscape. The grey buildings choked him and he slipped with the rainwater into the gutter. A yellow light flickered in the sky, a neon halo around his reflection.

He gazed into the black mirror of a puddle. The Grandmaster stared back at him—sallow, wrinkled skin, liver-spotted bald head with white tufts of hair above his ears that descended to form a moustache. Tom punched at the water with his fist, obliterating the vision. He was too drunk to feel pain, but when he looked at his hand, he saw his knuckles were bleeding. He headed to the nearest bar.

“Vodka and coke, please,” he asked the barmaid. His vision was so blurred that he couldn’t make out her face. She nodded and set to work on his drink.

“Double?”

“Triple.”

“Do you want ice?” asked the barmaid. Is it Etta or Isla?

“Um…Yeah, just ice.”

“What else d’you think I’m going to put in it?”

Sarcastic bitch. The overweight guy beside him burst into hearty, flatulent laughter.

“Sometimes,” Tom slurred, “there’s lime and shit.”

“Ain’t no renaissance hotel,” said the barmaid.

Is it Isla? Is it Etta?

“I remember this place. We used to drink here years ago.”

I’ve been here before. Or was it a dream?

“Is this The Foresters?”

“No, space cadet,” said the barmaid. “It’s The Old Duke.”

I’ve had enough. I’m undone. But I’m not yet done. Not while I’ve got this cigarette to smoke and this glass to drain. And this Metanox…

Delving into his pocket, his heart pounded as he realised that the bottle was virtually empty. He retreated into a dingy corner. The last few droplets splattered somewhere near his eyeball, mostly over his cheek. He tried to rub what he could into his eyes. A bad idea considering how filthy his hands were, but hopefully it would stave off withdrawal a little longer. And maybe, if he was lucky, he’d experience one last Metanox high.

*

He hit the streets in the early hours of the morning, after all the bars finally closed. With nowhere to go, he curled up in a foetal ball on the cold, concrete floor, bracing himself for the head-splitting agony of withdrawal. He passed out for a couple of hours, a shallow sleep, tormented by vivid images—twisting Japanese knotweed and bougainvillea overwhelming a beautiful garden, vines strangling bluebells and daffodils. Just as the blade of a gigantic thorn plunged into his heart, he awoke and gasped.

Metanox.

He rummaged around in his pockets to confirm what he already knew—he’d used the lot. He still had time before withdrawal kicked in. Maybe he could find Venom Empire.

He scoured Brunswick Square and St James Park looking for Venom Empire, Isla and the emergency exit. He trampled the pavements of Whiteladies Road to Blackboy Hill; visited every filling station in the city, desperate to slow the mental devastation. Llandoger Trow. St. Nicholas Market. The Crown. The intersection. Welsh Back. Bedminster Bridge. Screaming at the sky, a bleeding aneurysm of despair.

He could kid himself that he had the best of intentions, but it wasn’t true. He had no control over his urges and he could not stop. If I could see my reflection in the mirror, that would give me the epiphany shot I need.

He looked into a nearby puddle, but could only see through one eye.

A jolt of pain surged through his body. His vision blurred, and he felt the trickle of liquid oozing down his cheek. His right eye was weeping blood and pus, not tears. Disorientated, he tripped and hit the curb.

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