1998, The Midlands, England.
I cracked open a can of Stella and swigged from it, staring out the train window at the rapidly darkening landscape that rushed past. As I swallowed the tangy liquid I tried to empty my mind of everything except the sensation of movement. The future was as uncertain as the past was bleak. All that comforted me was the relentless motion as I hurtled into the gathering gloom.
I put a hand up to my face to check if my lip had stopped bleeding. A small amount of red stained the tip of my index finger. Automatically, I licked it off and explored the broken area with my tongue. My stepfather had certainly swung a good one at me and I had not even allowed myself the luxury of retaliation. I deserved the punch, after all. I had upset my mother.
Leaving Stratford was a bit of a blur, not helped by the farewell drinks with my students and fellow staff members in the pub that lunchtime. I cursed the tenner spent on flowers and chocolates that had meant to be a present to mum and Bob but had ended up scattered all over the street in front of the college when I had been unexpectedly swung at.
My mother had had every right to be annoyed, so she believed. The last few months had seen me on a downwards trajectory, stuck in an unheated bedsit and associating with ever more unsavoury characters. The telephone call- the cry of help to my mother- had not been entirely unexpected. The revelation that I had been doing smack for the last three months, however, was something of an unpleasant surprise to her. That I was now in trouble with my associates and being subjected to dark threats only served to reinforce the impression of a life gone off the rails.
I had been curious about heroin and, following a three-day speed and ecstasy binge ending up in full-blown psychosis, it had been explained to me that opiates would calm my fevered mind and restore some balance. I had jumped at it like a shot. All my friends were getting into it anyway, becoming more entangled in the web of heroin use with each toot.
Not me, though. I was smarter than the average blur and didn’t allow myself to get hooked on something as cheap and nasty as brown. Instead, I had felt the need to get away, to disassociate myself from the madness that was unfolding around me. The occupied police car that had started taking up residence in the car park opposite my flat had been the final straw.
So I jacked it all in, handed notice in on my job at the college and told my mates I was off at the end of the month. No way was I going to get caught out like that. Arrested or addicted, it didn’t seem like much of a future.
My junkie mates had been surprised and disappointed at first, but this quickly gave way to suspicion and vague threats. Leaving the picture was not an option as far as they were concerned. When it was clear that I really was going and wouldn’t be coming back, one of them turned up at my flat with some of the lads from the bail hostel, demanding money and threatening to throw me through my own window.
I had paid up- five against one are not good odds- then, as soon as they had left, had rung my mother to ask if I could stay at hers for a week until it was time to finish work and fuck off out of town. She had sensed something terribly wrong in the tone of my voice and, when she had asked me what the matter was, I found myself blurting out everything. I had difficulty lying at the best of times and low, and in need of support, thought my mother needed to know.
She had been devastated, of course, but agreed to put me up for a few days. My stepfather had been suitably underwhelmed by my explanations and assurances that, really, getting into heroin wasn’t for me. A man with a short fuse at the best of times, when I turned up late for his final lift home, and turned up drunk, he had been unable to contain his temper any longer. Hence the split lip.
I had responded instinctively, throwing my hands up to protect my face and in that movement the gifts I had bought for them had also been thrown upwards, the chocolates and flowers scattering in a wide area and the bottle of Merlot smashing in the road.
“And that’s for upsetting your mother,” Bob had shouted before striding back to the car.
“What the fuck did you hit me for?” I had screamed at his back, my mother crying at me to get in the car, just get in the car and calm down.
“I’m not getting in the car. I’m not getting in the fucking car. He fucking hit me, mum!”
“Just get in, say sorry to him and we’ll all get off,” she had pleaded.
“No fucking way. I’m leaving. Now.”
I had then turned and strode away, ignoring the cries of my mother, towards the train station, hearing the squeal of tyres as my stepfather floored the accelerator.
So, it hadn’t exactly been the best way of saying good-bye, I thought, staring at my gloomy reflection in the window of the train. I hoped that I would be able to sort it out with them, but that was something for the future. Right now, I focused on the journey and tried to get myself in a decent frame of mind for arriving at BGC’s.
My cousin had been down to see me a month before and I had explained my situation to him: that I felt trapped and threatened and didn’t know how I was going to get free. A place to stay was offered, until such time as I managed to sort my head out and get back on my feet again. We both agreed that it would be purely a short-term arrangement, but even a very temporary offer of hospitality was better than staying around, watching my friends gouch out and my world slip down the toilet.
I wasn’t sure what Leicester would have to offer, but I didn’t really care. It was only short-term. I could use it as a stepping stone to London or wherever I eventually decided on. It might even be fun- new clubs, new people to meet, birds to shag, all that bollocks.
I yawned and looked at my watch. Another half an hour and I would be there. I caught the eye of the guy sitting opposite. We both smiled weakly in polite affirmation of the other’s presence.
“All right, mate?” the other said.
“Cool, man. yourself?”
The guy nodded. “So where you off to then?” he asked, faintly bored but making an effort to be sociable.
“Leicester,” I replied. “And you?”
“Yeah, Leicester too. Live there, don’t I.” The guy had a strong, flat East Midlands accent.
“Right. Actually, I’m moving there myself.”
“Oh yeah. When’s that then?”
“Well, right now.” I said.
“Oh,” the other guy replied. “Well, it’s not too bad a place. Just make sure you’re careful.”
“Sure I will. Look, sorry- what’s your name? I’m Rick.” He extended his hand.
The other guy looked at it for a moment then shook it in a thumb lock. “Wayne.”
The train kept moving.
I sized up Wayne for a moment, decided he looked like a clubber, and asked, “You know where I can get hold of any pills in Leicester?”
“Oh, yeah,” Wayne nodded. He felt around in his pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper and a pen. “Here’s me number,” he said, writing it out. “Give us a call if you want owt.”
“Sorted,” I nodded, putting the scrap in my pocket.
We chatted for a while, me asking where was good to go, where best to avoid, all the things one needs to know before arriving in a new town. I felt that, surely, this was some sort of Karma, that Leicester planned to treat me with kindness, and if not that, then at least it looked like I wouldn’t have much difficulty in getting off my head there.
Presently the train pulled into the station. Wayne got up.
“Well, this is it,” he said. “You’re welcome to it.”
“Err- right. Thanks.”
We got off the train and headed up the stairs to the exit.
“Take it easy, yeah?” Wayne said, disappearing into the street.
I stood there getting my bearings, unsure of how I felt about being here, unsure even of how to get to my Big Gay Cousin’s. It wasn’t far, maybe a couple of streets away, but I had no idea of the route to take.
I stepped into a phone box and dialed BGC’s number slowly.
After only a couple of rings the phone was picked up and a male voice answered.
“Hello, P______ residence. This better be good.”
I was a bit thrown by this. I didn’t recognise the voice.
“Uh, hi,” he said. “Is BGC available?”
“Who wants him?”
“It’s his cousin. Rick.”
I could hear the receiver being covered over and a muffled conversation going on in the background, then my cousin came to the phone.
“Dah-ling!” BGC exclaimed. “Do you know, I had a funny feeling that would be you. And how are we? All set up for tomorrow’s move?”
“Well, actually I’ve already moved,” I replied.
“How do you mean?”
“I mean I’m here. In Leicester.”
“Already? But the arrangement was-”
“Look, I’ve had a bit of trouble,” I cut in. “I’ll tell you about it when I see you. Where’s your flat anyway?”
“Err, just round the corner. I’ll come and get you. But I must warn you, I have guests.”
“That’s okay. I’ll see you in a minute.”
I put the phone down and opened the phone box door, stepping outside into the chilly March evening.
It was only a short wait until BGC turned up. His face registered concern.
“So what’s all this trouble, then?” were his first words.
As we walked back to the flat, G carrying the small rucksack that I had brought with me, I told him about the incident that afternoon.
“Fucking bully,” BGC declared. “Nobody touches my little cousin like that. I’ve a good mind to ring him up right now and give him a piece of what for.”
“Don’t. No point making things worse. I’ll sort it out with them. Eventually.”
We carried on up a side street lined by a wire fence that seemingly guarded a rubbish dump.
“Well, welcome to Leicester,” BGC said.
“Hmm. Thanks. So, you’ve got guests?” I asked.
“What? Oh, yeah. Just a couple of people I work with. Look, you’ll have to sleep on the floor or something tonight. We can sort things out tomorrow.”
BGC turned his keys in the front door and beckoned me inside the dilapidated terraced house.
The corridor was dingy and smelt of fish.
“Top floor,” BGC indicated, allowing me to go up ahead. “Mind the boxes on the stairs!”
The warning was unnecessary. The whole top flight was full of storage containers arranged so that a path only wide enough to negotiate with a squeeze was all that was left.
“These yours, then?” I asked.
“Darling, do you know I never seem to get around to unpacking,” was his explanation.
I had reached the flat door now and looked down to BGC, struggling his way through the crates.
“Just go on in, yeah?” he said.
I turned the handle and the door swung inwards.
To my right there was a small sitting room, its roof sloping down to a stereo playing forgotten club classics. Two guys were in there.
“All right, I’m Scott,” one of them said, offering his hand.
“Mike,” said the other.
I shook their hands and accepted the can of beer that was offered.
“So, you’re BGC’s cousin then, are you?” asked Scott.
“Yes. For my sins,” I replied.
“Well, nice to meet you in that case,” said Mike.
A sudden crash from behind him announced that BGC had negotiated his way up and was entering the flat.
“I have got to do something about those. Before I break my fucking neck!” he announced, taking in the room.
His eyes fixed on the can of beer that I was already swigging from. “There better be some more beers left.”
“Relax, G,” said Mike. “There’s plenty in the fridge.”
‘Plenty’ turned out to be two, so it was shortly decided that a trip to the shop was in order. Scott offered to go and BGC said that I should go with him.
“It’ll acclimatise you to the area,” he explained. “And besides, there’s less chance of two of you getting robbed.”
The shop was at the end of the street, an unclean and overstocked unit owned and operated by an Asian family called Chowdry. The father of the family, I would learn, served in the shop sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. He had a wall-eye that gave him the disconcerting appearance of scanning the aisles for potential shoplifters even as he was taking your cash.
Usually his wife helped out with the running of the business, and she was there when we entered, taking the money from winos for their three-litre bottles of White Lightning cider. I picked up a four-pack and queued up behind them, careful to keep a little distance. They smelt of piss.
One had paid, the other was laboriously counting out a collection of grimy copper coins onto the formica countertop. This was a slow process, made slower by the fact that, in his present state, the wino was clearly having difficulty in adding up.
“Look, I’ll do it for you,” the woman waved her hand as if to clout him, then quickly counted the coins into neat piles.
“Ten pence short,” she announced, unimpressed and unyielding to the cries from the wino to let him off, just this once.
I cut in. “Look, here’s ten pee.” I put a coin down.
“Bless you. Bless you, son. You’re a right gent,” the wino exclaimed, his face a puffy, red patchwork of broken capillaries, beaming in alcoholic delight.
The winos staggered out and away up the street and Mrs Chowdry turned to me.
“Yes, young man?” she asked.
After we had made their purchase, Scott and I walked back to the flat. Scott wanted to know a little about me- where I was from, what I was doing in Leicester, how long I thought he might be there. I answered as best as I could, but sounded vague about things.
“Well, look mate- I’m sure you’ll sort it out. Your cousin’s a good man. Just don’t get on the wrong side of him.”
“Oh- why’s that?”
“He can sometimes have something of a temper on him, when he gets going,” Scott replied. “I’ll say no more. Just keep him sweet and everything’ll be all right.”
Back at the flat, G beamed as they entered. “And how have we done?”
“Good, yeah,” I said. “Some beers. Bottle of gin. And some tonic.” I pulled my haul out of the blue carrier bag supplied by Mrs Chowdry.
“Darlings, I think you’ve done us all really rather proud,” G said, giving a sly grin as he rescued the gin and got glasses from the kitchen.
That night, we got rather pissed and stoned. Mike had some skunk on him and rolled joint after joint.
My head buzzed, both with the THC and booze, and also the conversation, which was impenetrable shop-talk. Mike and Scott were mental health nurses at the same secure unit that BGC was attached to, and all three gossiped about fellow staff members, arguing amongst themselves about who was the most off the rails.
“Set a thief to catch a thief, ennit?” Scott explained. “I’ve never met anyone working in mental health that wasn’t nuts in some way or other.”
“Steady on, you,” BGC admonished. “I’m not nuts. I’m special.”
“Needs,” added Mike.
The conversation got progressively drunker until it was time to crash out, Mike, Scott and I all having to share the living room floor. G retired to his room.
I lay in the dark a long time, listening to the snores and farts of my fellow travellers, before merciful sleep called me and I slipped into unconsciousness.
* * *
The next morning, a spattering of rain against the opaque skylights woke me up. I yawned and rubbed my eyes, careful not to move too suddenly for fear of being pole-axed by my hangover.
I got up and tiptoed past sleeping forms into the kitchen, flicking the switch on the kettle. As I waited for it to boil, I looked out of the window across wet rooftops to the gleaming dome of the local mosque, and further in the distance, green hills a long way from the city.
After everyone else had risen, similarly sore-headed from the night before, BGC and I discussed the arrangements that needed to be made. Because I had left Stratford in such a hurry, I hadn’t brought anything with me but a small rucksack. I would have to somehow make the journey to my mother’s to pick up my stuff.
It was decided that Scott and I would take BGC’s rusting Mini and drive the forty-odd miles each way. Scott offered to drive and I was happy to take the passenger seat.
The journey there passed uneventfully and without much conversation. I was unsure of the reception I would get. I was glad Scott was with me- a large man, he had been trained in dealing with violent offenders and was well used to handling the aggression of others in his job.
“If yer step-dad starts, I’ll de-escalate him,” he said. “With a slap.”
Fortunately there was no need for such action. When we arrived at my mother’s she was alone, answering the door with a disapproving face.
“I’ve come for my stuff, mum,” I said.
“You’d better come in, then,” she said, disappearing into the back of the house where she pretended to be busy.
Scott and I loaded the car in silence.
When all the bags were packed up, I walked through to the dining room at the rear. Mum was sitting at the table, cutting coupons out of the newspaper. Her eyes were red. She had obviously been crying, but was trying not to show it.
“Well, I’ve got everything,” I said.
“Right. Well, I’ll be off, then.” I turned to leave.
“Richard?” she called after me.
She paused, unsure of what to say.
“You go off and lead your life,” she managed.
“Fine. I will.” I walked away, closing the door behind me.
On the way back, we talked more freely. I was eager to learn about Leicester, my new adopted home, and Scott was happy to fill me in on some of the details.
The city’s population had the largest proportion of ethnic minorities in the country, a proportion that was increasing year on year. It wouldn’t be much longer before white people were in the minority. Despite this, overt racism seemed to be a fairly rare occurrence, something that had seemingly been consigned to history.
Leicester prided itself as a city of sport. Their rugby team was second to none and their football squad valiantly fought in the Premier League, albeit in the lower reaches.
Englebert Humperdink was a famous son of the town, as was Gary Linekar. Showaddywaddy came from there, as well as Mark Morrison. Walkers Crisps had their factory there.
The area in which I would be staying, Highfields, was notorious for all sorts of reasons. Over the road from BGC’s flat, I learned, was a halfway house for people discharged from the mental health services and two doors down was what was widely suspected to be a crack house. In addition to this, the street had recently become the city’s red light district, with prostitutes moving in from other areas after a shooting incident on the edge of town.
“Nice neighbourhood,” I remarked.
“Just watch yourself, that’s all. Keep an eye out and things will be okay,” said Scott.
Eventually, we arrived back at BGC’s flat, pulled up and started shifting my stuff up the three flights of stairs and into the living room, a laborious process made worse by the crates blocking the way.
BGC hovered about, overseeing the dumping of my belongings in a corner of the living room.
“Shouldn’t we put this stuff away somewhere?” I asked.
“There’s a room at the back of the building you can use,” offered BGC.
“Is there? I thought I’d be kipping on the sofa.”
“The landlord gave me the key so I could store my bike in there,” said G. “I dare say he wouldn’t mind you using it.”
He handed me the key. “There you go. “I’ll get you one for the front door later.”
I went out onto the landing and tried the key in the lock. It turned, and I opened the door.
Inside was a dismal sight. A corridor took me past the remains of what had once been a kitchen, but was now a jumbled mess of broken sinks, cupboards and builders’ rubbish. At the far end of the corridor another door opened out into the room in which I would be sleeping.
Scraps of stained and faded carpet half-covered the bare floorboards. There were two broken fridges in the middle of the room and a filthy mattress dumped in one corner. All about the mattress were screwed up pieces of tissue paper. There was a feeling that nobody had lived there for a long, long time. The room was extremely cold in contrast to the warmth of the main flat.
Welcome home, I thought, shaking my head and turning round to leave.
“Well, what do you reckon?” asked G as I stepped back into the flat.
“Basic. It’ll do,” I replied, sitting down heavily on the sofa. I felt utterly defeated.
“Well, it’s just for now, isn’t it. Until you get yourself sorted out.”
I nodded. That day seemed a long way off.
“Look, I’m going to make tracks,” said Scott. “I’ll catch you two soon.”
“Thanks for everything, Scott,” I said. “Take it easy, man.”
* * *
After Scott had left, BGC breathed out a huge sigh as he flopped into his armchair.
“Phew, thank fuck for that,” he exclaimed. “I thought he’d never go!”
“So has Matt been with you all day?”
“Oh, just a bit,” said G, rolling his eyes in a pained way. “I’ve had things to do, you know. People to meet. In the end I had to tell him to do one. This was in Bar Bossa.”
“Where’s that?” I asked.
“Just down the road. I’ll take you there sometime.” He paused, then began again in a sly tone: “Anyway, I had to get rid of him because I was doing a little bit of business.”
“What sort of business?”
“Darling, go into my room and open the top right hand drawer of my dresser. You’ll find a little something in there for us.”
I got up and went into G’s room, following out his instructions. He opened the drawer.
“There’s just socks in here!” I called out.
“Under the socks!”
I fished around and spotted a small, folded wrap of paper. Evidently this was it. I returned to the living room and held it out.
“I take it this was what you meant?”
“Bingo! Darling, can you sort it out?”
“Yeah. Sure. What is it? Coke?”
“Oh better than coke, cousin. This is a little soupcon of the famous Hinckley base.”
I opened the wrap and checked the contents- a small nugget of yellowish crystal. I looked around and, seeing a mirror on the bookshelf, picked it up and placed it on the floor, putting the nugget onto its surface.
“Do you have a razor blade or anything?” I asked.
“There’s a sharp knife in the kitchen.”
I returned with the knife. “So shall we snort or bomb this?” he asked.
“Bomb. Christ, you don’t want to snort this stuff. Not if you want to keep your nasal membranes, anyway.”
I chipped off two generous servings and put them to one side. I then pulled out a blue Rizla paper and folded it in half width-ways. I then opened the paper back up. Licking the gum, I folded it back, sealing the Rizla on one side. I repeated this process and placed a sliver of the base in each, twisting them shut and ripping off the excess paper.
“Bottoms up,” I said, handing one over to BGC and swallowing his own.
“Down the hatch,” agreed BGC, trying not to gag as the slimy paper worked its way down his throat.
About twenty minutes after dropping his bomb, I began to feel my scalp tingling.
“Wow, this stuff starts working pretty fast,” I said.
You just wait till that kicks in,” warned BGC. “We should get to bed around- oo-Tuesday.”
BGC wasn’t exaggerating about the strength of the speed we had taken. Once it had fully come on, both of us were dancing round the living room with the stereo turned up high. I hadn’t touched speed in the past few months, so I felt its effects keenly. My heart raced, the veins on my temples bulging out with each pulse.
I’m utterly fucked,” I laughed.
“And I’ll tell you something else for nothing!” BGC yelled. “We’re fucking going out tonight!”
* * *
It was Saturday night, and BGC reeled off a list of the names of the places we could go. It wasn’t a very long list, most of its entries being appended by the words “But that’s crap.” This was my first inkling of the limited nature of Leicester’s nightlife.
The Chapel seemed like the best bet from the way G told it. It was hosting a mixed/gay/straight/whatever night called Playboys. BGC had been to their New Years Eve party, which had ended up in a near-riot situation and had had to be closed down, yet BGC assured me that it was a friendly crowd, and really nothing to worry about.
At about half past ten, we staggered out into the street, me wearing combats, BGC in a fur coat and dark glasses.
“Lights, camera and- action!” he announced, turning the key in the car ignition. After we had pulled out onto the main street, he complained, “Do you know I can’t see where I’m going?”
Why don’t you try taking the glasses off, then?” I asked, chewing the side of my cheek in lieu of gum.
“Oh darling, I couldn’t possibly. It would lack a certain elan, don’t you think?”
So, half-blinded, half-crazed, we sped their way along the inner ring road, the rickety stereo blasting out a mix on Radio One.
It wasn’t a very long journey- central Leicester not being that big a place, and for all his claims of blindness, BGC managed to successfully bring the car to a stand-still when a random wandered out in front of the vehicle.
“Fucking tosser!” G screamed out the window as we sped off. To me he added, “Some people simply have no idea.”
* * *
The Chapel, when we arrived, had a fairly large queue outside. I started moving off to join its rear but was stopped by G who simply said, “We don’t do queuing in this family.”
He swaggered up to the doormen, said something I didn’t quite catch, then motioned for me to join him in going straight inside.
“Good work,” I said.
“Free entry and no queue? You can get me a drink for that.”
The Chapel was a dingy, scruffy maze of unpretentious rooms- no frills except for the promise of a good night out. In short, the kind of club that is no longer in fashion. G had been right about the clientele- it didn’t seem particularly gay; although I got my arse grabbed a couple of times. I shrugged it off.
In the nightclub, BGC was in his element. He swanned around, being greeted by all and sundry. Every few minutes, he would excuse himself from my company, saying, “Sorry about this, but I simply must talk to-” pointing out an associate.
I didn’t mind too much as most of the times he returned he would say something along the lines of “Here, pop this in your mouth.” handing over half a pill, which I happily devoured.
I stood looking over the balcony at the people dancing below, feeling totally muntered. Nodded my head with the beat, I breathed in and out deeply, as rush after rush coursed through my body.
“Darling, there’s someone I want you to meet,” said BGC, sidling up to me.
“Oh, who’s that?”
“Only the promoter of the night. See him?”
BGC pointed over to a short, squat man standing by the bar. In contrast to the rest of the people in the club, he was frowning and scanning the crowd as if looking for a friend. He was wearing a Red Indian headdress.
“We’ve been chatting,” BGC explained as we made their way over to him.
“Okay, what about?”
“Well, it seems he’s interested in utilising my unique talents.”
We had drawn up level with him by now, although the man in the headdress was looking the other way.
“Roman!” bellowed BGC. The man turned round. “I’d like you to meet my cousin, Rick.”
“Hi,” Roman said, shaking his hand.
“He’s just moved to Leicester, BGC explained.
“Really?” Roman asked. “Whatever for?”
“Oh, you know,” I offered. “I’m a big fan of squalor.”
“Good night you’ve got here,” I said. “Good club. Good vibe.” He nodded his head.
“Yeah, sadly it’s the last one.”
“Afraid so. The Chapel’s closing down.”
“Really? That’s a shame.”
“Yeah. But I’ve better things in the pipeline. Anyway, I’ll catch you later.”
Roman excused himself. Once he had disappeared from view, BGC turned to me.
“Well, what do you reckon?”
“About what? The headdress?”
“About Roman, silly.”
“He seems all right,” I shrugged. “Why? What’s this about utilising your talents?”
“Let’s sit down over there and I’ll tell you,” BGC said, leading me over to a miraculously empty sofa.
When we were sat down, BGC explained that he had been to Playboy’s New Years Eve Party, which had been a fancy dress affair. As a joke, he had turned up dressed in drag, all five foot nine of him and built like an ox.
“Oh, it was a hoot, an absolute scream,” BGC said. “I certainly turned a few heads that night.”
“I bet you did,” I said, visions of my cousin swaying troublingly through my addled mind.
“Anyway, Roman’s starting a new night in the Spring and he wants me to do something for it. Reprise my role, if you like.”
“What, and he’ll pay you for it?”
“Well of course he’ll bloody well pay. They all do, darling. If he wants an artiste of my calibre, I think he’ll be prepared to pay a pretty penny.”
“So what will you do? Host it?”
“Something like that. We’ll fine-tune the details nearer the time. But I tell you one thing- I’m going to get as much out of it as I possibly can, and you’re coming along for the ride, if you want.”
“If there’s free drugs involved, then I’m game,” I said.
“Good man,” BGC said, patting me on the shoulder. “I knew you wouldn’t let the family down.”