Chapter 3 – My Good Side
Tom woke to the sound of scratching. Where the hell was he? He had a sore back, stiff neck, pounding head, ringing ears and a cracked, arid desert in his mouth. He forced open his sore eyes to meet the blistering sunlight. A Brazilian flag and a Bob Marley One Love poster hung on the wall. He’d landed at Dave’s shared house and had been sleeping on the sofa, covered by a flannel sheet—once olive, but now mottled with coffee, ketchup and grease.
“Hey, Tee,” said a male voice, making him jump.
It was Hazeem, Dave’s housemate. He was sitting on another sofa opposite him, drawing with chalk and charcoal.
“Jesus, Haz, you scared the shit out of me.” He found his glasses on the table amid the scraps of tobacco, weed and ripped cigarette papers. “Hey… Are you drawing me?”
Hazeem turned his sketchbook around and Tom saw himself asleep with his mouth gaped open and saliva running down his chin.
“You caught my good side at least.” Still, he had to admit Hazeem was a skilled artist.
“Didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” said Hazeem. “Just practising for my course. I’m sick of drawing Snout-nose Steve’s ugly mug.”
Tom was seized by a coughing fit. His airways felt red raw. “Water,” he croaked. “Please.”
“You want water? After dissing my masterpiece?”
Hazeem smiled and sauntered off into the kitchen. The clock on the wall read half-past two. The curtains were closed, but intense light penetrated through a small gap, stinging his sore eyes. Hazeem returned with a pint glass of water, and Tom guzzled it down. Icy rivulets soothed his parched stomach, spread around his body, and hydrated the shrivelled mound of flesh in his skull.
“Like an angel pissing on my tongue.”
Hazeem fetched him a steaming hot mug of coffee and toast. The strong coffee resuscitated his ailing body.
“How were the pills?” asked Hazeem, as he cleared away his art materials.
He’d taken a couple of Haz’s pills before he met Isla in the club. Tom raised his thumb, trying to swallow a piece of toast.
“You’d tell me if they’re shit, right? I only want the best.”
“They were wicked, honest. Um… How much do I owe you?”
“Thirty, but anytime next week’s kushty.”
Tom took another sip of coffee and smiled. Hazeem wasn’t like other dealers. He used the money from dealing to fund his Fine Art degree, and as a practising Muslim, took nothing stronger than lemonade.
“Why’d you deal, Haz?”
“Oh, you think I should work in a corner shop like my dad?” He smiled, stroking his thick black hair. “I want a better life, init.”
Now that he’d established solid connections—linking pothead students and skinny white boys with the black street gangs of St Paul’s and Easton—he was earning heaps of dosh. He’d even placed a deposit on a plush apartment in the suburbs. Tom often wondered how he squared his drug dealing with his faith. Everything he ate was halal. He insisted his sister wore a Hajib, and yet he saw no issue with selling pot and cocaine. But don’t we all pick and choose our morals? Tom thought of his own lifestyle, how he presented himself as a virtuous member of society, working within medical research to cure the sick, yet every Friday night he pickled himself with a cocktail of drugs and booze.
“Where did you get to last night?”
Good question, thought Tom. His recollection was hazy. Did he go to a rave? Yes, now he remembered. Venom Empire. He shuddered, recalling the man with the skull mask.
A loud, cockney voice blasted through the house. “Strap in, strap on and grab your lube. Things are gonna get messy!” Snout-Nose Steve peered around the door, cradling a two litre bottle of White Lightning. Steve was the third occupant of this shabby two-up two-down overlooking the local sewage refinery. He had yoghurt white skin with dirty brown dreadlocks, a goatee beard and a bulbous nose. “Well, you’ve looked better, Tommy boy!”
“Upstairs, snoring like a pig. Wild night?”
Tom massaged his thumping head and winced.
After finishing the coffee, Tom took a shower, rubbing the layers of sweat and filth from his body. Memories flooded back. He passed out at Venom Empire, and when he awoke, guards were carrying him out of the rave by the wrists and ankles. They hauled him into the back of a white van. Dave was waiting inside, huddled in the corner.
After a long ride in the darkness, the van stopped. The doors opened, and the guards ordered them to get out. They were dumped in the middle of the city centre. It was cold and still raining. They shivered as they watched the van speed away.
St Augustine’s Parade was ghostly. No cars, no people. Colston’s statue wore a traffic cone on his head. Squawking seagulls fought over the leftover kebabs, which were half-trodden into the pavement along College Green.
It was over. They’d survived.
“I’m sorry,” Tom said to Dave. His head ached, and he blushed. “I should have listened.”
Dave sighed and told him he could crash at his place, since it was closer.
Later that evening, Tom, Dave and Snout-Nose Steve ventured out for a drink at The Foresters, a small pub on Gloucester Road. The pub was a favourite of theirs for a hair of the dog, although Tom often wondered how it stayed in business. It had threadbare carpets, grubby, peeling wallpaper and a yellow ceiling from decades of cigarette smoke. Last decorated in 1972, Tom guessed. Etta, the stoic, middle-aged landlady struggled with complex orders and giving correct change. “Ain’t no renaissance hotel,” she would say when people asked if she served cappuccinos or herbal tea. Food comprised peanuts or out-of-date crisps; drink came in two kinds—ale or lager, both served lukewarm. If you were a regular and she liked your face, Etta gave the glass a cat lick under the cold tap. Otherwise expect lipstick marks and a funny taste in your mouth.
Downstairs was usually empty except for a few decrepit fossils drinking on their own, but upstairs was salvation for ailing clubbers. It was the perfect place to drown your sorrows. Etta didn’t seem to notice the smell of weed, so Tom and his mates would smoke up, wasting away the hours drinking cheap beer and getting stoned. They listened to Portishead and Massive Attack on the Hi-Fi and played poker, gin rummy and pool.
“Fackin ’ell. You’re having a laugh, ain’t ya?” Snout-Nose Steve’s mockney accent sounded harsh to Tom’s delicate ears, which were still recovering from the previous night’s sonic onslaught. Snout-Nose Steve was rumoured to actually hail from Oxford, but took on the East London accent for street cred.
“It’s true, man,” said Dave, growing more and more apoplectic with each swig of beer. “Guys in balaclavas! Machine guns!”
Snout-nose Steve rolled his eyes.
“And you, Tom,” said Dave. “Why did you take that drug?”
Snout-nose Steve’s ears pricked up. “Drug? What drug?” He gained his moniker not only on account of his oversized, bulbous hooter but also his gluttonous appetite for cocaine, ketamine and speed. A few weeks ago, while out of his tree on acid, he snorted brick dust off a toilet floor in a club thinking it was coke, and ended up in Accident and Emergency with a nose that bled for three days straight.
“Um, I guess you’d call it a designer drug,” said Tom.
Dave folded his arms.
“You take it… through the eyeball.”
“Bollocks,” shouted Snout-nose Steve.
Dave shook his head. “What were you thinking?”
“I guess I got carried away,” said Tom. “Met that girl and, well… I wasn’t thinking straight.” He had to admit he’d been stupid. The drug might have blinded him. He finished up his pint and slid the glass across the table.
“I’m going clean from tomorrow,” said Dave. “No pills, no fags, no beer, no nothing. And you should too, Tom.”
“You’re so gay,” said Snout-nose Steve.
“Feck off,” replied Dave.
It wasn’t the first time Dave had had one of these ‘holy moments’ where he renounced all worldly pleasures. Usually, he’d only last a couple of days. His willpower was strong, but no one around him could cope with his sobriety. He’d turn into a trembling, gibbering wreck, freaking out over ridiculous things, and after a couple of days, they’d literally be pouring beer down his throat just to shut him up.
Tom stared at the nearby slot machine, mesmerised by the pulsing lights.
“So this eye drug,” said Steve, nudging him. “Got’ny on yer?”
“No,” said Tom. “But it’s the truth. Man, it was so fucking intense. The guards took me to a weird underground temple. Sketchy as fuck. Met this guy, called himself the Grandfather or something. He wore a skull mask—a sheep’s I think.”
Snout-Nose Steve piped up. “Sounds like a baaaaaa-d man!”
“Shut up, Steve,” said Dave. “This is serious. What did he say to you?”
“He talked about Elixium. He’s got some kind of vendetta against them.” Tom’s blood boiled when he thought of Isla. She’d lured him to Venom Empire. Did she even like him at all? His cheeks burned with shame for having been so besotted with her.
Dave threw him a burning look. “Did the masked man ask you to do anything?”
Tom hesitated. He could trust Dave and Snout-nose Steve, right? “He said Elixium are hiding medical advances from the public. He wanted me to steal from them.”
“And what did you say?”
“I told him he was out of his mind. Anyway, what’s with all the questions, Dave?”
“Nothing. You wouldn’t be so stupid to steal for that eejit, would you?”
“Of course not. Anyway, what happened to you last night?”
“Not much. They took me to the van after you left.” Tom could see Dave’s leg tapping under the table. Was he hiding something?
They finished up their drinks and prepared to leave.
“I reckon this girl spiked your drinks with acid,” said Snout-Nose Steve, as they were leaving the pub. “You were tripping your fackin’ tits off.”
“No, Steve,” Tom said. “It was real.”
He had proof in the shape of a ‘souvenir’ he’d found in his coat pocket earlier that day—the Venom Empire flyer, commanding him to ring the number in the early hours of the morning.