Ceroc are doing one of their nights again.
Loud music is in the air.
‘Ice Ice Baby’ (an old fave) is playing; good, clean fun at the YMCA dancehall, and I remember being a teenager trying to look like a cross between Foghorn Leghorn and a Detroit murderer.
Still, how can I possibly write with that noise going on?
I’ve just moved rooms to get away from the sixth floor skunkmeisters, but nothing’s perfect. The new room’s bigger, closer to the loo, the canteen and the outside world, but the guy in the next room prays or something at all hours in a resonant Jamaican hum and the bloke on the other side likes his disco, which is better than the vile tech I hear from other windows. The costs of change weigh heavy as I tap away on letters.
At least on the sixth, my neighbour only coughed his guts out waiting for a new osoephagus. My other neighbour was a fifty-foot drop. Kerplunk!
Down on the third, I have the constant coming and going of one particularly angry lad who insists on slamming his bedroom door as hard as he can when there are notices by the lift to ‘please close doors quietly’.
The youth of today; they just don’t care. And I don’t blame them. If I’d had his past, I’d be exactly the same. Most of the kids have been dumped off here by abusive parents who see no reason why they can’t stand on their own two feet.
I’m careful with the kettle these days because the last time I used it, I was thinking of some little squirt who’s owed me a measly tenner for two months and still asks for a burn (a roll-up in oik-speak) and angrily decided that I could manoeuvre the thing without getting up. The trouble was, it banged against something and the steam hit my wrist, which I tried to contort in such a way as to place the kettle on the long formica desk, but I failed and it ended up on the chair, narrowly avoiding my legs, which made me laugh until I saw little blobs of liquid on the laptop (my only ally).
Wiping carefully, I let the thing rest for a while and then, silently praying, went to tap a few keys. The w went wwwwwwwwwwwwww and wouldn’t stop, so I thought ‘shitbags’ and got up, wondering what would become of me without it. I started to imagine that I might be able to post a teasingly intellectual piece called ‘wwwwwwwwwwwww’ and get away with it, but then dismissed the idea as utter folly. These people are serious.
Then I started thinking about the PC I’d lent to a friend who’d stolen the money I gave him to hold for me after I’d tried to beat up the architect from the downstairs flat who’d ripped me off on a job. The architect had called the police and I’d just made a killing on a car boot sale to get the mother of my children out of my hair, but I’d got pissed and seen him walking home at the same time as I’d fallen out of a cab from the pub (I was kipping at my mate’s flat) so I smacked him in front of his parents.
After a night in the cells, I called my mate and he told me he’d be keeping the money and, to boot, couldn’t afford to have me as a friend any more.
So I called him up for the PC but he’s in an oxygen-tent for fifteen hours a day now and has his own place in Clapham, his landlord said.
He’d left the PC so I could pick it up any time, but it didn’t work, which wasn’t much use, I thought.
So I left the laptop alone but kept it on, thinking that the heat would evaporate the liquid on the w quicker.
I went out to the library and left a message with a friend saying what I’d done and she got back to me telling me that she’d done the same thing and that the only way out of it was to turn it off and let it take its course naturally, so I rushed back to my room and tried again, but the w was still constant. It just went on and on, so I got out of the document and switched it off.
I perched it on the window ledge and left it with the sun. I know, I’m impatient, but it’s natural light and I thought the laptop would react well to a tan.
After dinner, which resembled the regurgitated dog food that Maxwell used to bring up to enjoy one more time, an imaginary second helping, on the floor for us boys to watch, described by the one-eyed ‘chef’ as beef stew, I returned to my room and rubbed my hands in front of the laptop.
If it didn’t work now, it would never work.
I pressed the w and it did a w. I punched the air and thanked God etc., but then, after about five seconds, it started to trail along and down, along and down, along and down.
I screamed ‘Mince!’ and then worried about the reaction of the neighbours.
At night, when I’m watching telly quietly on the set that I pretend I don’t use for fear of being fined by the license people, a neighbour might come back sloshed and slap his stereo on.
By waging war on the bastard, I hike up the volume on the telly, so the guy on the other side puts his music on and we’re all trying to hear our own noise but it’s just a war of hate-filled noise.
When one turns his off, the other two quieten theirs, and then there’s peace again.
I went to my first AA meeting for donkeys tonight. It was only across the road and I’d seen someone at the mental health place in the morning who’d said I was ‘a strong candidate for help’ after filling in my self-assessment form with me.
After that, I’d gone to Putney on the bus and thought about calling one of my five drinking buddies who might stand me a skinful, but then I remembered that I’d poured a can of Stella all over one (a double-wide artist) for ridiculing my present living conditions.
Then I remembered why I hadn’t called the brothers, one another artist who’d just done my portrait for the Threadneedle Prize (and had it returned) and the other a cabinet-maker, both of whom I’d enticed to reveal their sexuality on coke in front of old friends, much to my own disgrace. The property magnate had just had a stroke (he’s my age) and the other was a closet mudpacker who only bought the drinks in the hope that one day I might resort to crashing at his so that he could have his way.
Brightened and energised by the imminence of ‘help’ that was still rolling around my conscience, I elected to go to the bookies to inflate the tenner in my pocket enough to pay the direct debit for the phone that was meant to go out today by shrewdly analysing runners and riders at Royal Ascot.
Two hours later, I had forty pence left.
I wandered out pretending to be cool and thought about calling one of the boys; do the sympathy-line and cadge a few pints, but then I’d miss the slop at the Y and spend the rest of the evening mulling over which takeaway I could scrounge a meal from. Rich Tea and Cadbury’s Fingers are never enough, especially without milk for dunking in tea.
I caught the bus back, had my dinner and, after calling my eldest sister to ask if she knew of any traumatic episodes from my childhood that might explain my gormless, ever decreasing existence, sauntered to the AA meeting across the road.
They like newcomers at meetings (dry drunks call them ‘fresh meat’) and there’s always one good soul to soften the blow for the spiritually bereft.
I stopped at the entrance and looked inside; the same old church annex, with the seats that stack up, the desk at the front, the twelve steps poster, the tea and coffee, the coughing, the kind, open faces; I’d been here before.
The obligatory newcomer-greeter got up and invited me to come in.
‘Yeah, thanks, I’m alright,’ I said, brushing his arm off my shoulder.
I went to get my tea from the hole in the wall but he followed me across the room.
‘Fuck,’ I thought, ‘another weirdo.’
His hand came to rest on my shoulder again as I asked for tea.
‘James,’ he said. ‘I know you, man.’
I looked across at his face and recognised him.
It was Dave.
‘Wow,’ I mouthed. ‘Dave. How the devil are you? You look amazing.’
He did. Instead of the loose, ripped facial skin dripping off his face (think of that Peter Gabriel cover) from the coke, booze and cannabis, he was the image of health. OK, his mouth was still full of metal and the scars, well, they weren’t going anywhere, but his eyes, skin and aura made him almost unrecognisable.
He’d been clean for two years, and I hadn’t seen him for about that long.
We’d have a chat and a fag outside after the meeting, he insisted.
When the meeting ended, the crowd dispersed.
‘Man,’ he said. ‘You won’t believe it but you really helped me get clean back then.’
I remembered saving him from a beating at the Leathern Bottle after he’d been accused of hitting a girl, and we’d done some coke at a mate’s house and he’d scored some nice hash, but I couldn’t recall telling him how I’d been clean all those years ago.
‘Yeah, you were at Farm Place, right? You used to talk about it.’
‘News to me,’ I said back.
‘Honestly,’ he said, resting his hand on my shoulder again. ‘You really fuckin’ helped me, man.’
Boy, did he have a good recovery.
I could do with some of that.
We exchanged numbers and I agreed to go to another meeting with him the next day.
And now I remember what the guy said at the end of the meeting, about gossip killing, that what is said in the rooms should stay in the rooms.
But we were outside the rooms having a fag in front of the church’s CCTV camera.
And this is fiction, right, so it’s OK.
The laptop worked at the fourth time of asking.
I knew it would. It just needed coaxing in the right direction. A little bit of time off.
The music has stopped and there are no noises from other rooms. I could hear a pan drop and now I remember that a dozen of the youngsters here have gone to Essex on an adventure outing and won’t be back till tomorrow.
Things slot into place without a drink.
God (and please don’t assume I’m religious) gives me unbeatable luck when I’m not gambling.
Hash? Forget it. It’s gone clean out of my mind.