Glimpses of a Floating World by Larry Harrison

1963, and panic about the spread of heroin addiction in London. While scandals like the Profumo and Challenor cases are exposing the dark underbelly of post-war Britain, a teenage heroin and cocaine addict undergoes a cold turkey. His escape from custody triggers a chain of events which ends in murder and mayhem.

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The Sandman leaned against the balustrade and punched the stone until bright spots of blood appeared on his knuckles.

‘This is turning out to be a bloody awful year.’ He stared out across a rain-swept Trafalgar Square, as if searching for someone to blame. ‘The beginning of June? More like non-stop bloody winter.’

‘Yeah, and you’re bringing me down,’ Ronnie Jarvis said. It was bad enough having to wait all evening for a fix, without having to listen to some cunt moaning all the time. He took several short, impatient drags at his cigarette. A shred of tobacco found its way onto his tongue, and he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The act was hasty and ill-judged. His umbrella tilted and raindrops cascaded down, soaking the cigarette. Ronnie gazed at the sodden Woodbine in disgust, then hurled it into the gutter.

‘Things are falling apart,’ the Sandman whined. ‘Weeks of snow, and then continual bloody rain. It’s unnatural.’ He looked distraught. ‘Did you know that Nostradamus predicted the world would end this year?’ Ronnie waved his hands dismissively, as if shooing pigeons, and the Sandman became insistent. ‘It’s true, man. Nostradamus predicted the world would end in 1963. In the year of Our Lord One Thousand Nine Hundred and Sixty-three, the world by ice will cease to be. They reckon it means there’s going to be a new Ice Age.’

‘You’re junk-sick,’ Ronnie said. ‘You’d feel cold in the Turkish Baths.’

Ronnie looked at his watch and counted the minutes. As usual, he was conducting a mental countdown until the midnight hour, when the next day’s prescriptions would be dispensed at the all-night chemist’s in Piccadilly Circus. ‘Not long to go,’ Ronnie said, trying to sound upbeat. ‘Twenty minutes to the witching hour.’

‘Gypsy Dave owes me four fucking jacks.’

‘How does it go?’ Ronnie said. ‘The witching time of night, when something-something? When graveyards yawn?’

‘No idea!’

For fuck’s sake, Ronnie thought, you’re only nineteen. Only three years older than me, and you’re whining like an old man. ‘Don’t you ever read Classic Comics?’ Ronnie sighed. ‘The world’s greatest authors meet its finest cartoonists? When graveyards yawn is from number 99. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Artwork by Steve Grant.’

‘Gypsy Dave sneaked out of the Three Tuns yesterday and thought I hadn’t seen him,’ the Sandman mumbled, from underneath his umbrella. His flat, nasal voice hardly varied in tone; it made a low droning sound, like an engine stuck in first gear. ‘People are always taking liberties.’

The Sandman had been pestering Ronnie since lunchtime, trying to score some H. The berk wasn’t interested in a two quid ball of opium, he wanted to hold out for heroin. He would wait, he said, until Ronnie got his script at midnight. Then he fastened onto Ronnie like one of those toothless catfish that suck the life out of their prey.

Ronnie began walking slowly towards Pall Mall, and the Sandman lurched after him. ‘You still in that Marshall Street squat?’ the Sandman called out. ‘I need to crash there tonight.’

‘It was closed down weeks ago. I’m staying up in Archway, with Samantha and Guido. A Black chick I know from Swindon, and her feller.’

‘Oh yes, I forgot. You’re a country boy.’

‘You keep saying that!’ Ronnie snapped. ‘I’m a Londoner, like you.’

‘Nothing to be ashamed about, being from the sticks.’

‘For fuck’s sake!’

Eighteen minutes left. Ronnie hated these last few minutes when he was waiting for his script. If there was a God, you could offer Him a deal. God, take away the next eighteen minutes. Let it be midnight now. Take a quarter of an hour off the end of my life. I don’t mind dying a bit earlier, if I can have my fix right now.

‘Gypsy Dave’s turned a lot of people over,’ the Sandman was saying. ‘I know exactly how I’m going to get even with him—’

‘Can’t you walk a bit faster?’ Ronnie said. ‘It’s a long way up the Haymarket.’

Ronnie was aware that they looked an odd pair as they left Trafalgar Square. He was tall enough to be a guardsman, while the Sandman was only five foot four inches. Ronnie was proud of his classy walk: he bounced on the balls of his feet, ready to move in any direction, like a tennis player. The Sandman kicked his feet forward, sullenly, like a squaddie engaged on a route march. And Ronnie’s blond hair reached his shoulders in ringlets, while the Sandman had his hair cropped short.

Growing his hair long had been one of Ronnie’s big accomplishments in life. When he first saw a man with long hair, at the Anarchist Ball in 1962, the level of public hostility fascinated him. People stood in the street and stared; men’s faces were contorted with rage. From that moment, Ronnie knew he had to grow his hair long. It was an act of defiance, and he often paid a heavy price. Sometimes, shop assistants refused to serve him, or bus conductors wouldn’t allow him onboard. Once, as he walked along Brighton beach, the preacher at an open-air evangelical meeting interrupted his sermon to condemn longhaired men.

Today had been free of incident, but as they headed up the Haymarket, an ex-soldier screamed out, ‘Get your hair cut!’ The man was pacing to and fro, on the opposite side of the road, outside Her Majesty’s Theatre. One sleeve of his regimental blazer was empty, pinned back across his chest, surplus to requirements since the day he’d lost his arm. His thin face was pink with anger.

‘Get your throat cut!’ Ronnie shouted back. He noticed disapproval in the Sandman’s expression and grinned. ‘That usually shuts them up,’ he explained. ‘You can’t let the buggers get the upper hand.’

The Sandman frowned. ‘You ought to get rid of your barnet. Long hair attracts too much attention.’

Ronnie shook his head, so that his hair spread out over his shoulders and could be seen to best effect. They turned into Piccadilly Circus, and Ronnie stood and stared across at the statue of Eros, silhouetted against the neon advertising displays behind: Coca Cola, Wrigley’s Chewing Gum, Gordon’s Gin. ‘During the war,’ Ronnie said, ‘the Yanks called Piccadilly Circus the biggest open-air whorehouse in the world.’

‘It still is,’ the Sandman sniffed.

Ronnie thought of the wartime poster his doctor had never bothered to remove from the surgery wall. A woman was wearing a pink orchid on her hat, only her face was dissolving into a skull. Hello boys, coming my way? Venereal disease. She may look clean, but she’s a carrier. She’s as dangerous as a Panzer division. Doing Hitler’s work for him.

Ronnie checked his watch. Seven minutes to go. Time seemed to slow down when he was waiting for a fix, each minute stretching, until the last few moments lasted for hours. Then, when he shot up, time ceased to have any importance. He would get up late tomorrow, have his morning fix, and watch children’s telly, or take an hour or more over coffee and biscuits. But time always reasserted itself, gradually, and he ended every evening like this, waiting for the minute hand on his watch to edge forward.

Leaving the Sandman to wait on the corner, Ronnie walked back to the all-night chemist’s. When the minute hand reached midnight, the pharmacist would begin calling out the names of people whose prescriptions carried the next day’s date. Most were junkies, claiming a new day’s supply. Like Ronnie, they were registered with one of a handful of private and NHS doctors who treated addicts.

Ronnie was prescribed four grains of heroin and two of cocaine every day. Last week he’d told his doctor it wasn’t enough.

‘Your tolerance is increasing, that’s why,’ the doctor said, peering over his half-moon glasses. ‘We’re going to have to get you in for a Cure.’

Better shut up. That’s what they say when you start to hassle them. Gypsy Dave told him that private doctors like Lady Frankau were worse: they sent you for a detox if you didn’t pay your bill. When Dave hadn’t paid for a while Lady Frankau said, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to start cutting you down’. Dave took out his wallet and said, ‘I’d like to settle my account’. (That’s what you had to say, nothing crude like ‘Do you want some loot?’ or ‘Here’s some bread, man’. You had to keep up appearances with private doctors.) Dave said the doctor smiled as she wrote out the usual script: ‘Pay the receptionist on your way out.’

Ronnie reckoned he could manage on four grains of Horse for now, even if it wasn’t giving him the buzz it used to. Cocaine helped, but he didn’t think of himself as a coke-head, even though he’d hassled to get coke on his script. He mainly used it to get out of bed in the mornings. When you had a big heroin habit you could get a bit lethargic. Coke helped kick-start the day. Fucked the brain into action. Made it move. He wasn’t like the coke-heads, people who were mainly hooked on cocaine, who only used heroin for a soft landing. They almost always picked up their script at midnight, and injected coke continually, until it ran out in the wee small hours. You could often sell them some of your surplus coke, if you managed to hold some back.

Rain started to drip through a tear on one side of Ronnie’s umbrella and he decided to wait inside the chemist’s. Mr Spear, the Home Office civil servant responsible for inspecting the Dangerous Drugs Register, was standing near the pharmacy counter, chatting to three Canadian junkies. Ronnie met Spear’s gaze, and felt uncomfortable. Although he had a genial manner, Spear kept every customer under surveillance; he had a mind like a card index, able to retrieve current intelligence about most addicts on the list. The Sandman reckoned that Spear knew every junky by name—all 360 of them. That may have been an exaggeration, but Spear knew all the big names, the old guys Ronnie respected because of their single-minded commitment to heroin, like Barry One-Leg and Tony Moss.

Spear joined the night-duty pharmacist, and started going through recent entries in the Dangerous Drugs Register, holding the book up at chest height, to make maximum use of the florescent light. Ronnie looked up at the clock, prominently sited on the wall above the dispensary counter, so that every customer could watch the minute hand crawl forward. Three minutes to midnight. Not much longer. Soon straighten out. Have a fag, and, by the time you’ve finished, it should be time.

As he lit up, he distinctly heard Spear say, ‘You know, I’m a little concerned that Our Mutual Friend has taken on a youngster who’s under seventeen.’ They both looked in his direction. Bad news: they were talking about him. Although he refused to cut his hair, Ronnie hated attracting attention at times like this. He opened his paper and pretended to read, while observing Spear surreptitiously. The man glanced over several times. Then all eyes turned towards him. The name Ronald Jarvis had been called, and he hadn’t even noticed. The pharmacist was holding his prescription at arm’s length, as though obliged to handle a parcel of dog shit.

~ by yearzerowriters on November 6, 2009.

7 Responses to “Glimpses of a Floating World by Larry Harrison”

  1. […] Glimpses of a Floating World by Larry Harrison […]

  2. Finally, a book that stands up to that euphoric ’60s myth and dares to tell the truth.

  3. ‘Growing his hair long had been one of Ronnie’s big accomplishments in life’, I remember when I was a child, how rebellious my parent’s & their friends were… that hair was indeed a big deal. & my best friend’s dad was a coke dealer, amongst other things. This excerpt is gritty & true & it whisks me straight back to those days, but from an angle I obviously didn’t experience. Excellent, harsh too.

    Penny

  4. This reads very familiar. Have I read it before? I think so, but there are some parts I can’t remember and some that I do. It’s raw and edgy. Just my kind of thing. Powerful writing.
    Anne L-G

  5. Thanks Marcella, I do get irritated by all that “flower-power’ stuff. And hair really was a big deal, as you say Penny. We forget now how close the early Sixties were to the Second World War, and how militaristic Britain still was. National Service had just ended, most men still had army-style short back’n’sides, and used to get very upset by the sight of long hair on other men – it was like wearing a frock in public. It was common to have abuse shouted at you in the street, and to get beaten up, outside of a few safe areas like Soho.

    Thanks Anne – it’s probably had a bit of editing since you saw it on Authonomy?
    Larry

  6. […] book I’m currently reading is Larry Harrison’s, Glimpses of a Floating World. Here’s the mini-review, I posted on Amazon: “1963, London, Soho, sex, drugs and yes […]

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