But Drugs Are Drugs...
Ernie was convinced he had enough for a couple of pints. And I felt the need to escape the clutter and confines of the small two-room flat for a while, so despite my reservations off we went down the Hyde Park, the nearest we'd got to having a local. Sure enough when I got to the bar the handful of change he'd carefully counted out and given me was several pence short, but by that time the beer had been pulled and it was just a matter of weathering the withering look of disbelief from the barman as I made my scruffy excuses.
The drink quickly loosened Ernie's tongue. His tales grew taller, his reminiscences more romantic, his speech more lively - confused stories from long ago of Gypsies and South Africa, Liverpool and giant marihuana leaves, hookers and prison, all mixed in with pseudo-folk wisdom and tips on how to survive in such a world. But the place was good-humouredly noisy, and we didn't attract too much attention from the young lads dressed in their Saturday-night-out suits looking for some action. Still, I felt a sense of relief when we finished our drinks and managed to leave without arousing any hostility.
The slow walk down the side of Woodhouse Moor in the mild September evening failed to lift our spirits, but instead somehow sapped our energy, reminding us that our assets were nil. Even Ernie seemed to accept that the evening had probably already peaked, and there was nothing much left to do apart from crash. We got back to be greeted by George in a bit of a state, going on about how the electric had run out yet again, and he didn't know where Howard was, and he wasn't going to take any more of it, and.... As the place was owned by Howard's uncle extra special restraint had to be shown towards the meters, so we all searched the shelves and cupboards 'till someone found a candle, and then we helped George find his bottle of tuinal after which he quietened down a bit.
Ernie and I sat down at the scarred wooden table diligently looking for dog-ends by the flickering light of the solitary candle, searching through the old fag packets, scraps of newspaper, empty match boxes, sweet-wrappers, and whatever other rubbish might have accumulated since it had last been knocked over. George resumed his usual pacing from one side of the room to the other, criss-crossing our darting shadows. Being so tall and gaunt he appeared quite ominous, yet truth to tell he was in many ways a good and simple man, and gentle except when his frustration overcame him - and then he'd punch the partition wall so hard there'd be holes left in it. Ernie didn't help by calling him Big Soft Mary. The details of his decline were vague and unconfirmed, but as I understood it, there'd been a fairly lengthy career in the police force, and maybe a marriage, whilst in his off-duty hours he'd been a scout-master, running a successful troop which he sometimes talked about nostalgically. But he had one weakness which proved to be his undoing - a fascination for fires. Now a convicted arsonist, he sought solace in sleeping pills, though it was hard to think of him as being a typical downer freak.
There was a knock on the door. "The door," said George gloomily. I got up, went across the room and opened it to find a dark-haired hesitant young man. "Hello," I said encouragingly, trying to reassure him thinking he might be one of the neighbours come round to complain. He looked me up and down as if to make sure he was talking to the right person.
"Have you got any drugs?" he asked me straight out.
"Sorry? What's that?"
"Have you got any drugs? - D'you know where I can get some speed?"
I looked back at him more carefully - didn't recognise him... wonder why he thought we had some drugs?... must be a bit desperate... He was waiting for an answer, fidgeting slightly, uncertain what to say next now he'd committed himself.
"My name's Steve - I'm trying to get hold of some pills."
I heard a scuffling noise behind me as one of Ernie's conditioned reflexes stirred into life. Thrusting his unwashed unshaved face out of the shadowy doorway into the dim orange glare of a distant street lamp, he took on a pugnacious and slightly ferocious look as he launched his charm offensive on the potential new audience, babbling the first thing that came into his head.
"Yeh, yeh... come on in, me ol' mukka... yer want doobs? little doobies? yeh, I c'n get hold of 'em, I c'n get hold of pills - anythin' yer want... you tell me what yer want an' I'll get 'em fer yer..."
The visitor looked apprehensive and took a step backwards from the over-friendly onslaught as Ernie continued to enthusiastically reinvent himself as the Scouse super-dealer, the Yorkshire king of speed, the North of England's original candy man. I looked on dubiously, trying to remember when I'd last seen Ernie speeding, vaguely aware that he wasn't being totally cool.
"Yer want some preludin? I 'ad some preludin the other week - it was great man, yer sh'd 'ave 'ad some... fuckin' great man!... yeh, come on in... we had loads of them... I was fuckin' out me 'ead man... I c'n get yer blueys, purple 'earts... thousands of 'em... as many doobs as yer want... yer 'aven't got anythin' on yer, 'ave yer?... any smoke or anythin'?"
Steve made his decision. "Ok, err... look, I'll tell you what, I'll go and get some cannabis if you want - won't be long, 'bout ten minutes."
Sounded promising, things were looking up. This was more like it. Ernie and I went back inside and shared the good news. George looked gloomier than ever; he didn't smoke, or take anything come to that, apart from his sleepers of course.
"You ought to be careful, Ernie. You know that? You ought to be careful... you mark my words. Who is he anyway?"
"What'ya mean? Stevie's all right, 'e's gonna get us some draw, 'e's a mate."
George remained unconvinced and continued his pacing interspersed with the occasional sigh while Ernie and I speculated about the exact nature of the forthcoming dope. A quarter of an hour later, Steve again knocked at the door. "I've got my fiancée in the car - is it all right if I bring her in? I'll just go and get her, should I?"
"Yeh, yeh, bring 'er in... have yer got the smoke?... I c'n get yer both all the pills yer want," burbled Ernie oblivious to the fact that no one we knew got engaged or had a car - shit, I didn't even know anyone who had a bicycle. "I'll put the kettle on an' make a brew," said Ernie, warming to his role as the gracious host.
Steve gave a quick nod, said "I'll be right back," and disappeared across the yard towards some parked cars. A few minutes later he reappeared followed by a woman in high-heels wearing a new-looking coat and carrying a rather smart handbag. I was becoming a bit apprehensive. There was something disconcerting about the possible disparity between the world she'd come from and the one she was about to step in to. Still, Steve looked cool enough, and drugs are drugs...
Once inside, they stood there looking ill-at-ease, blinking in the candle-light. Ernie brought up a couple of wooden chairs and shepherded them to their seats at the table. "This is Angela, my fiancée," said Steve a little stiffly. We exchanged hellos, and sure enough the appropriate finger had a ring on it which she twiddled nervously.
Ernie poured out the tea. It really didn't look too bad in the dim light, though the milk was probably off and the grime of the cups was all too visible, but at least he'd shaken out most of the previous contents. And judging by the strength, it looked like he'd added lots more tea-leaves to the pot. "D'yer want some sugar, Angie?" Ernie asked, and without waiting for a reply poured in a drastically over-generous measure straight out of the bag. He stirred it vigorously with the handle of a greasy looking fork, although it was pretty certain that nothing short of terminal dehydration was going to induce her to drink it. Steve hurriedly extended a hand to cover his own cup and prevent it from suffering a similar fate.
"'Ave yer got it then, Stevie?" said Ernie, eager to get down to business now the social niceties had been observed. Steve fished about inside his pocket and brought out a small package which he carefully unwrapped to reveal four bits of dope - what you'd get if everything went all right when you bought a quid deal up in Chapleltown. We waited, expecting him to roll a joint.
"Do you want to do it?" Steve said to Ernie, and passed one of the chunks across to him followed by a cigarette. Ernie grabbed them and rummaged around for some skins. Then Steve passed a piece to me saying why didn't we all roll one. Perhaps it was surprise or maybe just my own clumsiness, but the hand-over was fumbled and down into the darkness fell the precious substance, disappearing into the debris that covered the floor.
Well there's few people who are blasé enough to drop a piece of dope on the floor and not devote the next period of their life to finding it. But without the candle, which Ernie was certainly not going to relinquish until he'd finished rolling up, there was little chance of success. Nevertheless I rummaged round determinedly until I heard Steve's voice from above. "Don't bother with that now, it's all right, here's another piece. Me and Angela can share."
I took a smell - it was nice and rich, definitely best quality local black! Obligingly Steve provided me with a cigarette and then offered a brand-new packet of papers. I took out five, and handed back the packet. Steve took out five. As I started to stick them together I couldn't help noticing that Steve, who was sitting next to me, was putting the skins together in exactly the same way. Now this was unusual because I wasn't using the traditional method. And so fascinated was I by this, that not taking sufficient care and attention I made a mistake and stuck one of the papers the wrong way round. Strangely enough, Steve made the same mistake. Weird!
Reluctantly I decided it wasn't going to work. "Shit, I've fucked this up," I said to no-one in particular, and crumpled up the failed attempt and started again. Steve had little choice but to do the same. I waited for him to catch up. Though curious, I could sense his unease and tried not to watch him too blatantly as he continued faithfully to follow suit. The remainder of the operation proceeded as normal, except that after we'd both finished roasting our bits of dope, and it didn't half fluff up nicely, he surreptitiously avoided crumbling any of his into the tobacco. By now my suspicions were becoming aroused; but what the fuck, drugs are drugs...
Ernie lit up, took a few good drags, and offered it to Angela. She tensed a fraction. "How about if we smoke our own?" said Steve hurriedly. Ernie looked at him bewildered, and then shrugged assent - it saved waiting for somebody to pass one to him.
Now never in my life either before or since, have I ever smoked dope with a group of people where everybody's had their own individual joints. Admittedly, there's been times when everyone in the room's been busy rolling a joint, but never an occasion when everybody's smoked their own. Even in extreme situations when lines have had to be drawn round the outside allocating portions to prevent people hogging it, the idea of people not passing the joint around was unthinkable. Still, in those days there was a first time for everything. So Ernie and I settled back and got very stoned on what was some truly exceptional black while Steve and Angela conspiratorially shared their oversized cigarette.
Meanwhile George was becoming increasingly agitated. His pacing had lost it's rhythm and he was muttering indistinctly, breaking off now and then to give us all a baleful stare. Every so often, phrases would emerge - "...I'm tellin' you, I know... recognise 'em a mile off... used to be in the Force didn't I... told you.. said you should be careful... I'm tellin' you - I know... was one m'self..."
"Shurrup Mary, yer don't know what yer talkin' about," boomed Ernie through the smoky haze, half-catching the drift of the background monologue, "Stevie's a good mate, aren't yer, me old mukka?"
George shook his head in resignation at the unjust certainty of life. "I'm tellin' you," he muttered, "I'm tellin' you all right... I know what's happening," and continued his slow worried striding back and forth across the room.
I glanced at our guests who had gone very still and excedingly quiet during the exchange. But before I could say anything Steve heroically summoned up his resources and returned to his theme. He looked over at Ernie. "So you can get hold of lots of speed?"
Now nicely stoned, and all vestiges of modesty discarded, Ernie rolled his eyes and preened himself. "Me? I c'n get yer anythin' - anythin' yer want, just name it - I c'n get smack, coke, morph, meth..."
"But it's got to be good stuff," said Steve not to be distracted, "no rubbish."
"Only the best, the very best. It won't be rubbish, it'll be the best stuff yer ever 'ad mate."
"What? Pharmaceutical? From chemists?" prodded Steve.
"You bet! All kosher, still in the cans."
"So you know someone who does chemists then?"
"'Course I do," boasted Ernie, "I know everyone who does chemists round 'ere."
"There was a chemist broken into in Sheffield last week - they took thousands of pills, mainly dexedrine. Did you here about it?"
"'Course I did. Yeh, I 'eard about it all right. You want dexies? We c'n get yer dexies, can't we?" he said, looking across at me for confirmation.
Idly dreaming, I'd been half-listening without bothering to try and follow what was happening too closely, but felt obliged to offer Ernie some moral support without committing myself to anything that required any effort or expense. I sat up and tried to concentrate, but by this time was hardly capable of answering the question yet alone organising a major drugs deal. Nevertheless I dutifully attempted to think about what was obviously a completely hypothetical problem. Well the last time I'd seen John he'd had half a dozen, but they'd be long gone by now... still he usually had a few on him... and maybe... But what on earth was this to do with anything? - there was something much more important I'd been about to do before being interrupted from my reverie... now what was it?...
"Yep," Ernie continued not bothering to wait for a reply, "yep, we c'n get 'em for yer, don't you worry about that."
"So you know who did it then?" asked Steve, deciding that in Ernie's present state he'd got nothing to lose.
Ernie hesitated a moment, not wishing to lose face. "Well, now you're askin'," he said very deliberately, nodding as if such secrets could only be revealed to the highest authority.
"You didn't do it yourself then?" joked Steve. At least I imagine he was joking.
Ernie again hesitated, perhaps tempted by the opportunity to enhance his reputation. But years of living on the fringes had ritualised his response to such direct accusations. "Wha' me? Nah, it wa'nt me; I di'nt do it - nah, not that one," he added unwilling to relinquish all credibility.
I was getting increasingly bored with Ernie's conversation - I mean it's not as if I hadn't heard it all before... also, supposing our visitors were not who they said they were, and George, even in his barbiturate state, seemed pretty certain on that one, then who knows where it'd all end? ... now what was it I was going to do?... something important.... something really important... That was it! - the piece of dope I'd dropped!
With Ernie's approval and assistance I commandeered the saucer which served as both our candle-holder and a target area for flicking fag ash, and we disappeared with it under the table leaving the rest of the room in near darkness. A couple of times there were false alarms as Ernie triumphantly proclaimed "Found it!", followed by grunts of disappointment as he peered at the object he'd unearthed. But they'd been good sized deals and now I had illumination to guide me, and despite Ernie rooting about with all the finesse of a pig after truffles, it took less than five minutes of diligent and systematic combing of the surrounding tide of domestic litter for it to be rescued.
Rejoicingly I built the last joint, lit it and inhaled. It tasted great! A few drags later, mischievousness got the better of me. "This is really good dope, Steve," I said, passing him the joint. That is to say, I didn't so much offer it to him as give it to him. He could hardly have refused anyway - we all have our pride - but I wasn't taking any chances. To his credit, he took a few drags, inhaling deeply enough for it to be bound to have an effect, and keeping a straight face handed it on to Angela without saying a word.
By this time I'd given up all pretence of nonchalance, and propping my chin on my hands stared at her across the table, watching her unwaveringly, trying to disguise my silly grin as she flashed a fierce and unforgiving glance at her supposed betrothed. There was nothing for it but to raise the dreaded object to her lips and pretend to go through the motions. It's unlikely any of the smoke reached her tonsils let alone her lungs before she puffed it out. But then it dawned on me - it really made no difference! Three very strong joints smoked all at once in a small room with a low ceiling is more than enough to cause an effect on everyone in the room whether they're smoking or not! The reason she was worried about smoking the joint was because she was paranoid about getting stoned. And although she didn't realise it, the reason she was paranoid about getting stoned was because she already was stoned.
Her initial half-hearted attempts to convince everyone that she was not only smoking the joint but enjoying every moment of it were too much for me. It's not often I get the giggles on black, but I did this time. Initially it was easy to stifle them, but it got harder and harder. I soon gave up. Why bother? I was completely smashed. I giggled and giggled helplessly. Angela looked at me strangely as she passed the joint on to Ernie with one hand, while holding on to her handbag with the other.
"Wha's up with you then?" said Ernie, "wha'sa matta?"
"Nothing," I spluttered, "nothing at all."
"You're fuckin' mad, you are," he declared, and began to ramble on again to Steve about pills.
But Steve by this time had had enough. His eyes were unfocussed, he was beginning to sprawl in his chair, and the last thing he was interested in was buying drugs. He seemed to have accepted that the situation had deteriorated past the point of no return and was happy enough to let the flow of words drift past him, lost in wonder at Ernie's sustained performance.
Ernie gave me back the joint and rose determinedly to his feet. "Want something to eat then?" he said, unexpectedly changing the subject. My giggles ceased as I pondered the implications. Ernie's cooking at it's best was not really suitable for those with delicate sensibilities or sensitive stomachs - even OJ with his biker tales of live maggots and shit sandwiches would probably have turned down second helpings of Ernie's cooking. Stoned and in semi-darkness, it was likely to be of more value as a spectacle for the depraved than as nourishment for the hungry. My giggles returned as I realised he was addressing our guests.
Normally they would have dismissed such an offer without the slightest of qualms using the flimsiest of excuses - diets, allergies, nausea, aesthetic scruples etc. But things were not normal. Angela was now clutching her handbag with both hands, pressing it against her lap as though it were her last remaining link with the outside world. Steve had momentarily lost concentration, or maybe he was being tempted - who knows, he might have got the munchies and was conjuring up thoughts of bananas and crisps, ice-cream and chocolate...
Their hesitation was interpreted as approval by Ernie. "Right, that's settled then," and he disappeared into the alcove next to the cooker. The scuffling sounds of him scrabbling about on the floor searching for something to eat were shortly replaced by a cheery tuneless whistle. He turned round towards us holding out a large potato in each hand. Though slightly withered and beginning to sprout, it was hard not to be impressed with the dividends of his resourcefulness.
"Look what I found! 'Ow's about some chip butties? anybody seen the chip-pan?"
"It's in the cupboard," replied George helpfully, adding as an afterthought, "there's hardly any lard left - it's nearly empty."
"Aw!" said Ernie disappointed, then brightening up, "but I c'n always boil 'em."
Ernie retrieved the chip-pan from the cupboard and after some manic tinkling clunking and clanking, enough space was cleared in the sink to get it under the tap and fill it up. He went across to the cooker and lit the gas. Silhouetted by the faint eerie blue light, all eyes were upon him as he put the pan on the stove and dropped the two spuds into the cold greasy water.
Taking advantage of the distraction, George stopped and leaned down towards me and began to whisper in a hoarse voice.
"They're the police - tell Ernie to shut up and stop talking about drugs."
I started giggling again.
"They're police," he repeated fiercely in an even louder whisper.
"I know," I gurgled back at him, "I know...."
"Well tell Ernie then. Explain what's happening to him."
"But he can already hear what you're saying from here..." I pointed out, before relapsing into helplessness once more at the thought of trying to explain anything to anyone.
Ernie returned to the table giving George and myself no more than a dismissive snort. "Yer don't have to worry about them two," he said, "they're both mad - completely bonkers... don't you take any notice of 'em, it's not worth the effort... anyway, what's that yer were sayin' Stevie, 'bout them pills...." and off he went again.
It wasn't too long before the water in the pan began to boil. "Nearly done," said Ernie cheerfully.
George was now regularly interrupting his journeys across the room to whisper dire warning in my ear despite my feeble attempts to reassure him that everything was ok.... that any attempts to interfere would only make things worse... and anyway it was a bit late to start worrying now.
"I wonder if they're ready yet," said Ernie, his impatience mounting, "I'll just take a quick look."
He walked over to the pan, picked it up with an old flannel and brought it back to the table. "Can't see a thing over there," he explained. "Now where's it gone... ah, there it is, that's what I need," he went on, finding the fork. And holding it like a dagger, he violently stabbed at one of the potatoes. "Look, it's gone right in - they're ready."
We all watched in fascination as he conjured up the remains of an old packet of bread and cast around for a plate. His eye fell on the saucer in the middle of the table. "That'll do." Moving the candle on to a convenient beer-mat, he casually wiped away the saucer's most recent layer of fag-ash and candle-wax with the flannel and placed one of the greyish slices of stale bread on it. Picking up the skewered potato, he pushed it down the fork with his thumb until it was forced off onto the bread. Perhaps in the flickering light it looked worse than it really was, but the clumps of earth still clinging to the skin of the half-boiled vegetable were hard to ignore. The sandwich was completed by a second piece of bread which perched precariously on top. Ernie abandoned all decorum. Using his full weight he pushed down with the flat of his hand on his creation until its resistance was broken. It collapsed, potato spurting out between the squashed slices, the top one of which now bore every detail of Ernie's palmprint.
Ernie examined his handiwork with pride. I watched with amazement - this time he'd excelled himself! Steve and Angela gazed in horror at the culinary nightmare. Ernie poked the saucer in Angela and Steve's direction, an innocent leer on his face, overcome by his own generosity and radiant that he'd remembered to serve his guests first. Aghast, unable to speak, Angela didn't even dare look at the repulsive mixture of soiled and inedible carbohydrate that appeared before her.
"What's up, Angie? Not 'ungry?" said Ernie incredulously, "well, what about you Stevie, my mate Stevie?" Steve shook his head in disbelief. "Oh well, never mind, I'll have it then," and he picked up the object and its trailing debris with both hands, shoved as much of it in his mouth as would go at one attempt, and started to devour it to the accompaniment of a slurping and smacking of lips. "'elp yerself," he said pushing the pan towards me, "you an' Big Soft Mary c'n share."
It was far too much for me. Giggles gave way to full-scale shrieks of hilarity. I leaned back laughing uncontrollably. The chair balanced precariously on its two back legs momentarily and then tipped over backwards taking me with it and collapsed into numerous pieces of splintered wood with me lying in the middle of the wreckage convulsed and howling hysterically. I vaguely remember George standing over me with a concerned look on his face. Ernie shrugged and decided there was no point in wasting good food on the likes of us, and started preparing himself a second spud butty.
Suddenly the door opened and Howard walked in. All went quiet as Howard, concerned but calm, surveyed the tableau before him - three figures round the table their features reflecting the dancing candle-light, the pall of bluish smoke hanging across the room, the chip-pan full of water, me sprawled on my back amidst a pik-a-stik-like pile of wooden arms legs spokes and shadows in the middle of the floor, and George, barely visible, who was paused at the far end of the room...
"Howard, this is Stevie an' Angie. They've just come round to..." Ernie began to explain.
"I think you're both police officers," said Howard accusingly to Ernie's new-found friends, "and I'm having nothing to do with any of this." So saying he strode across the room sweeping aside George's offer of confirmation and disappeared into the bedroom slamming the door behind him.
I continued laying there flat on my back quivering and shaking, emitting little squeaks and squeals as Stevie and Angie making hasty excuses scurried from the room and escaped through the still open front door, Ernie's voice pursuing them down the street, "...don't forget, if yer want any doobies, I c'n get 'em fer yer... no problem! I c'n get doobs all right..."
A few days later I went round to Sue's place a few streets away just as it was getting busted - one of the first raids by the city's recently formed drug squad. As I looked down the basement corridor, I saw Stevie leaning against a doorway chatting to a couple of uniformed cops. We nodded to each other without saying anything - it wasn't really the time or place....
- Weed (December 1997)
[with thanks to Simon Archer for enthusiastically encouraging my memories]