‘It’s too hard. I can’t do it.’
‘You’re kidding aren’t you? It’s easy and you’d better get used to it fast otherwise you’ll miss out.’
Bobby looked at the other man and studied the deep lines in his face, around his eyes and at the corners of his thin lipped mouth. His skin was pasty and translucent under the fluorescent light which flickered above them. For what seemed an eternity, Bobby was lost as though he had fallen into the dark ravines on the older man’s face and had no idea how to get out. He considered the precision with which the man had prepared the heroin, placing it on a sterile spoon, drawing water into the fit, then adding it to the heroin before mixing it and placing a filter over the solution. Finally, he drew the mix back into the syringe and flicked the side of it to remove air bubbles. Ready.
‘What are you staring at?’
Bobby shook his head and forced a smile.
‘Hell if you don’t need this one bad, boy.’
It was confusing to be called boy. It made Bobby feel like a child being lectured by his overbearing and grim faced father, being yelled out, being abused. Bobby shuddered.
‘Christ!’ said the other man. ‘Will you get on with it before you pass out.’
‘I’m all right.’
‘What are you waiting for then? Do you want me to do it for you.’
Receiving the needle from his friend, Bobby lifted it to eye level and stared into the clear fluid. Was he really going to miss out? Was it as good as they all said? The lure, the promise of bliss and relief? An experience not to be missed? He had heard it described as euphoric and magical while others gushed about an incredible feeling of peace, of ‘being home.’ The high offered an escape from whatever prison you may have felt trapped in. What is my prison, he wondered.
‘What’d you say?’
‘Nothing,’ mumbled Bobby not realising he had spoken the question out loud.
In slow motion, he watched the needle turn in his hand and point threateningly back to him, before beginning its march to the target: a swollen purple-blue vein in Bobby’s forearm. He loosened the tourniquet and held his breath as the needle tip kissed his skin then bit through, plunging into the warm ocean of blood. Glancing sideways at his older friend, Bobby watched a deranged smile form at the edges of his mouth, his lips twisting into a snarl. It frightened him so he pulled back the needle, retreating too quickly and causing a spurt of thick red liquid to leap out as though chasing the gear.
The older man quickly forced a cotton swab down onto the puncture site on Bobby’s forearm and swore. ‘Christ!’
Bobby started breathing again but his chest heaved and choked off the oxygen desperately trying to enter his lungs. He coughed and suddenly turned his head to vomit on the ground. The splash of his last meal, now in liquid form, sounded like a bucket of water being dumped on a hard floor. Fighting to regain his breath and battling endless waves of nausea, Bobby fell to the ground beside his own vomit and the stench of it filled his nostrils. Ironically it revived him and he sat bolt upright, and wiped his mouth, coughing a few more times trying to clear his throat.
‘Jesus!’ said the other guy who had somehow managed to keep his fingers pressing down on Bobby’s forearm. ‘I’ve never seen a reaction like that before.’
That was Bobby’s first attempt. The second was much easier, and three weeks later he was sitting in place of the old man who had nursed him through the early days, himself helping other young users dive headlong into the world of avaricious addiction. Bobby could do it with his eyes closed and had mastered every aspect of his own addiction so that he had no trouble holding down a job in a city insurance office and living a normal life, pursuing his hobbies of photography and music. He played in a band called The Fits and people said his playing had improved out of sight, using words like sensational to describe his licks. Most weekends The Fits played local pubs, but they had recently lined up an east coast tour for the Christmas/New Year period. Good times!
One Tuesday night after Bobby had his hit, he checked his script and found that it was due to expire at the end of the week. That meant another trip to the doctor. The script itself was not a problem, any user could write their own, but once a month a qualified medical practitioner had to conduct an examination. He looked up into the mirror in front of him, and began a thorough search of his features which he concluded with a smile of satisfaction. Although a picture of good health, his prescription would be invalidated without the rubber stamp of a licensed white-coat, and Bobby would not be able to purchase heroin. That was one of two remaining instruments of control wielded by the government since the legalisation of the once notorious narcotic. The other was the publicly funded enterprise known as CHASS.
Bobby looked at the word at the top of the blank prescription and smiled. Great idea. Revolutionary. Controlled Heroin Addicts Supply Service. He filled in the spaces where required and signed and dated it at the bottom and made a mental note to make an appointment with the doctor for tomorrow. Once examined and given a big tick of approval he would simply go next door to the chemist and buy another sachet of white powdered heaven.
After laying the pen down, Bobby reached for a half finished packet of cigarettes. The packet was plain brown with no markings of any kind either on the outside or the inside.
A fleeting thought raced through his mind but was gone before he could entertain it, or afford it any authority. He had such thoughts before. Thoughts of quitting. Smoking was a bad habit, and he knew it. He had known it since his first puff on a dreaded cancer stick back in the day when they were cheap and legal and he was a bullet-proof fifteen year old troublemaker. Even the skyrocketing cost in the years leading up to prohibition, and his diminishing levels of physical fitness had only managed to force temporary reductions in nicotine intake with the occasional personal ‘no tobacco day’ here and there.
Bobby lit the thing and dragged deeply, drawing the poisonous smoke deep into his lungs. It still felt good. Tasted good. Why give up the things you like? Because they are bad for you? Killing you slowly? Tearing cash from your wallet quicker than you could refill it?
He exhaled fast and hard while making a dismissive grunt through the midst of the grey plume. It was a switch hit. Heroin: people used to die on the streets from overdoses caused by dangerous heroin cocktails, and criminals, spawned in the black market, created wealth for the chosen few and never ending violence for the many. Tobacco: addicts dying slowly and tortuously in hospitals paid for by the taxes the government collected from the sale of heroin. The criminals? Yep, the same criminals. The wheel had turned and smokers were now society’s pariahs, unfashionable and unacceptable.
The cigarette had burned down to the stub due to Bobby’s inattention and he only now noticed the brittle looking grey remains of paper and tobacco. As he watched, the column of ash fell from the cigarette to the table but miraculously maintained its shape.
He stood quickly and shook himself in an exaggerated fashion to break free of the melancholy whose tentacles were spreading over his body and invading his mind. He shivered and for a moment forgot who he was and what he was doing. The soft leather lounge beckoned and Bobby gratefully accepted the offer, falling onto it as though diving into the fresh cold ocean on a hot day. Relief came in many forms, he mused as he dreamed of his next hit. Bobby could feel the slide already and too often now his thoughts were embroiled with a lust for the rush.
The next day, Bobby was lucky enough to be able to see the doctor first thing due to a cancellation. In the waiting room, he was reading Sports Illustrated when the sound of the opening door caught his attention. He looked up to see a familiar face.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Bobby. ‘Fancy seeing you here.’
‘No mate, I’m not Jesus. Not even close… but I’m trying,’ he said with a surprising smile as he came to sit beside Bobby.
Lucid and sharp like his normal self this morning, Bobby was wondering about the man’s comment. Not even close but trying. What did that mean? It sounded suspiciously like religion. He had also noticed his skin: there was a healthy rouge on his cheeks, his face looked clean and his blue eyes bright.
‘Still a space cadet, I see,’ said the man when Bobby’s long thoughtful pause failed to produce any words.
They talked for a while about the old days and how he had quit smoking and was thinking about getting off the Horse. Bobby had thought him mad and dismissed the idea by reminding him of the legal status and safety of heroin while offering some praise to him for giving up durries. The other spoke of a strange nagging feeling he had that there was something wrong with mind altering drugs. That they might have messed him up more than he realised. Bobby laughed initially but had to apologise when he noticed the hurt look on the other’s face.
‘You’re really swimming against the tide with that one. Everyone uses something. It’s a part of life,’ said Bobby.
The other guy simply shrugged, then Bobby’s name was called and he stood up, ending what he thought was a very unusual conversation. They shook hands and wished each other well, but it bothered Bobby that the other man looked so sincere.
Having recovered his breezy disposition during the walk down the sterile corridor, Bobby strode into the doctor’s room like he owned it and sat down opposite the doctor who watched him come in without saying a word. They exchanged greetings and got down to business. A very long series of boring questions was followed by a set of meaningless physical tests, and finally the doctor handed Bobby a piece of paper. Bobby stared at it as though he had never seen paper before or could not read what was written on it.
‘It’s a referral,’ said the doctor helpfully. ‘For your scans. We do it right here in this building. Very convenient. Won’t take long. Then hopefully we can endorse your prescription and send you on your way.’
The doctor’s cheery tone annoyed Bobby.
‘Scans? What the hell?’
The doctor patiently explained the new regulations and steadfastly refused to subvert proper procedure in any way, politely dismissing Bobby’s protests and pleas. After five minutes of futile discussion, Bobby sprang to his feet and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
The scanning process was very straightforward just as the doctor had indicated but the technician boasted so enthusiastically about his latest toy that it made Bobby want to slap him and force him to shut up. He felt agitated and anxious so he checked his watch. Already late for work. Not good. Bobby had to grin and bear the procedure because there was no other way to get heroin and he needed it.
With the scanning process completed, the technician asked Bobby to wait a few minutes while the images were developed and collated. He left the room briefly, then returned with a sombre countenance. Bobby swallowed hard and gripped the arm of the chair which suddenly felt like it was burning a hole in the seat of his pants.
‘I’m sorry, it’s bad news…’
Bobby did not hear the rest of what the technician said although there might have been something about needing to see the doctor again, and a caution against jumping to conclusions. He was fully occupied trying to decide which was worse, the possibility of having a terminal illness or of not being allowed to get his next fix. The technician’s voice faded back in interrupting Bobby’s deliberations.
‘…the brain. Have you been having many headaches lately?’
Still busy refocussing his thoughts, Bobby ignored the question, and produced one of his own. ‘Did cigarettes cause… ’ He pointed at the image of his brain on the screen and the very clear dark mass in the centre. Even he could tell that it looked deadly. ‘…That?’
‘No,’ answered the technician, ‘It was mostly likely heroin or something like it.’
‘But they said it was safe,’ mumbled Bobby as he rose slowly from his chair at the prompting of the technician. ‘They said it was completely safe.’
Disbelief hung in the air, palpable and intense, surrounding him and disorienting him. Bobby felt faint and frightened. Now what? Death? Despite trying to resist, it was impossible to feel anything but abject despair, but not-and here Bobby was shocked by his own thoughts- because he may be dying, but because he would not be able to score another hit.
In his mind Bobby saw an image of violent flames thrusting and consuming him and he cringed, cowering as though the fire was real. Sweating suddenly and profusely, Bobby knew withdrawal was beginning already. He was on his way to hell.