Glimpses of a Floating World
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.
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?’
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.
Ronnie collected a paper bag containing two small medicine bottles—one with the pure white crystals of cocaine hydrochloride BP, the other with twenty-four white tablets of diacetyl-morphine hydrochloride BP. Spear was watching from his vantage point beside the counter as Ronnie rushed out, heading for the underground public toilets in Piccadilly, the Sandman in close pursuit. The Sandman handed over a ten shilling note as they trotted down the stairs, and Ronnie slipped half a grain of heroin into his friend’s outstretched hand. Ronnie almost ran into the karzi and found the first available cubicle. Rather than risk attracting attention by taking water from a washbasin, he flushed the toilet and caught some water in a spare medicine bottle as it swirled around the lavatory pan. Then he cooked it up over a match, making sure it came to the boil. He added nearly a grain of heroin and half a grain of cocaine, and cooked the mixture again. That should give a nice rush. In just a few seconds that raw feeling would cease, and he would be flying high again.
As soon as he made the hit he knew that it was a dirty fix. The water hadn’t boiled enough. Unsterile. He’d injected some nasty bug. Could do without that, he’d had a run of dirty fixes. Almost immediately, his stomach went into a spasm, and he started to retch. He knelt down and spewed into the toilet bowl, a thin, yellow, acidic jet, all that remained of the bacon sarney he’d had for lunch.
Still feeling queasy, Ronnie came out of the cubicle and washed his face at one of the sinks. The smell of carbolic soap always helped, he thought. Bloody witching hour. It’s an unhealthy time. Fatal overdoses always happen at midnight.
Ronnie reached for a clean roller towel and started to dry his face, but the newly starched towel wouldn’t absorb water easily. Bloodshot eyes stared back from the mirror as he patted his wet cheeks. Baron Samedhi prowling the graveyards, in Tales from the Crypt. Best comic ever. Artwork by Wally Wood.
A searing pain flushed tears from Ronnie’s eyes. It shot from his hair-roots, at the base of his skull, to the crown of his head. It tore at his scalp. His face was forced down into the sink, as someone seized his hair, wrapped it around their fist, and pulled.
‘Cut my throat would you? Eh? Eh?’ Each word was expelled through gritted teeth, like scraps forced through a meat grinder. ‘Not-so-cocky-now!’
Ronnie forced his head up and saw the mirror image of the old git from the Haymarket. He had Ronnie’s hair in a vice-like grip with his only hand.
‘What? Get the fuck off!’ Ronnie yelped like a dog, and tugged against the man’s fist. ‘You’re mad!’
Pulled off balance, Ronnie was forced down on one knee, into a puddle. Dirty water soaked through the knee of his jeans. He held onto the washbasin to stop being dragged to the ground. He could see the ex-soldier looming above him in the mirror, the empty sleeve of the man’s blazer pinned back across his chest with a safety pin, the regimental badge on his pocket, showing what looked like a lion and a crown above a red rose, and a motto that said something about Loyalty.
The man rammed Ronnie’s head against the washbasin, opening a deep cut above his left eyebrow. Blood gushed out, running into his eyes and down his cheek, before dripping onto his green cord jacket.
‘I’m sick!’ Ronnie yelled. ‘Let go!’
‘Long hair? I’ll pull the bugger out!’
A long shadow passed across the mirror, and then the Sandman came into view with an eight-inch lock knife, pointed at the assailant’s back.
‘Let the boy go or I’ll fucking do you.’
‘Want a fair fight?’ the ex-serviceman shouted. ‘I’ll give you one! Only cowards use knives.’ He pulled harder on the hair, forcing Ronnie to squeal.
‘Let go,’ the Sandman said, holding the man’s shoulder and pressing the knife against his backbone. ‘You started this. I’ll do you!’
‘You’re dragging this country down, you scum!’ The man’s shoulders began to shake with convulsive sobs. ‘This poor country. It’s losing everything.’ He let go of Ronnie’s hair and knelt down in front of the washbasins, crying without restraint. ‘Poor England! We gave our lives.’
Ronnie flushed with embarrassment. The man who had assaulted him looked pathetic, crouched on the floor, so frail that a breeze could knock him sideways, and hardly strong enough to threaten anyone. Ronnie exchanged a glance with the Sandman, and then walked backwards towards the exit.
‘Scum!’ the man called after him. ‘Giving everything away. First India and now Kenya!’
The Sandman closed his lock knife and slipped it back into his pocket with one smooth hand movement, indicating, with a jerk of his head, that they should scarper. They climbed the stairs to the street level hurriedly, and then paused, gulping in the night air like men who had been confined underground for weeks.
‘You are extremely lucky I was with you,’ the Sandman said, putting an arm around Ronnie’s shoulder, a gesture that would have been reassuring in a more trustworthy person. ‘That could’ve been very nasty. What you got yourself into, back there.’
‘Well, don’t get overcome with gratitude.’ The Sandman displayed his narrow, crooked teeth in a sneer.
‘I won’t, man.’
‘Only, I probably saved you from a real beating.’
Ronnie had no intention of thanking the Sandman for his assistance. Gratitude would encourage the Sandman to try to blag more junk. Besides, Ronnie didn’t feel grateful; he felt resentment, because he’d been caught offguard, and the Sandman had seen him looking vulnerable, like a child.
Ronnie Fizz was on his knees in the bogs, the Sandman would say. He was crying ‘Oh! Don’t touch my barnet!’—Just some old cripple! A one armed tosser! I put the frighteners on him. Fizz was shaking like a leaf, couldn’t do nothing. Lost his bottle!
Ronnie didn’t want a story like that doing the rounds. Too many people on the scene treated him like a kid. People went by appearances, like the fact that he was unable to grow a beard yet. They underestimated him. Ronnie considered he’d grown-up at the age of twelve, when he stopped going to school. In the last few years, he’d gathered more worldly experience than others had in a lifetime. Ronnie had gone out and collected extreme experiences, in a conscious attempt to destroy childishness. Now, he felt so much older and wiser than the Sandman that he was almost sorry for him. The berk didn’t understand that no one on the scene believed in violence. If anyone asked about the incident, Ronnie decided, he would say, ‘The Sandman freaked out and started waving a chiv around.’
The Sandman was pretty uncool, actually. He was always running out of junk. Ronnie reckoned the idiot was too generous, insisting on sharing smack with every novice he met. That’s how the Sandman, whose real name was Paul Alfred Spackman, acquired his nickname: he once initiated a roomful of kids, and every one of them went on the nod.
Funny how you got stuck with a nickname, Ronnie thought. He was known as Ronnie Fizz, because when he was fourteen he’d broken into the wine cellar of a country club, and only managed to come away with a single bottle of champagne. He’d hitched down the M1, trying to sell the bottle to lorry drivers along the way. When he received no takers, he drank the fizz on a street corner in Soho. This was before the Sandman turned him on to junk.
The one-armed man came into view at the foot of the stairs, and pointed them out to one of the lavatory attendants, an old bugger with bushy eyebrows like Rudolph Hess, who nodded his head continually, as if it was on springs. Both men started up the stairs towards them. Without saying goodbye, the Sandman dodged through the traffic and was soon lost in the crowds around Eros. Ronnie tucked his hair under his jacket collar and walked swiftly in the opposite direction, along Shaftesbury Avenue, until he felt that he, too, must be invisible in the late night throng.
Ronnie wondered whether to head for Leicester Square Tube. He needed to speak to Samantha urgently, tell her that Guido suspected they were screwing. Maybe they should cool it for a bit. Didn’t want Guido getting heavy. He might start throwing his weight around. This wasn’t cowardice, just common sense. Never put yourself in the firing line. If people accused him of being a coward, that’s what he’d say: ‘never put yourself in the firing line’.
If he was to be sure of getting to Samantha before Guido, he needed to catch the last Tube to Archway. On the other hand, he needed to get rid of the opium he’d been carrying all day. It was worth a couple of quid, and he wouldn’t need to sell anything off his prescription for the rest of the week. Ronnie decided to go up Soho, to see if anyone wanted to score. He could skipper somewhere tonight, and speak to Samantha tomorrow. Surely she’d keep schtum if Guido confronted her?
Ronnie turned left into Dean Street, and then right into Old Compton Street. He hadn’t gone more than twenty yards when he noticed that he was being followed. He walked faster. It wasn’t the ex-serviceman. It was a woman, and whenever the crowd was particularly dense, she was there. He first noticed her on the same side of the street, some thirty yards away. She wore a black suit, the skirt just below knee length, and a black pillbox hat that belonged at Ascot, with a pink organza flower that seemed to float above the hat, like a halo.
He slowed down until she was almost close enough to touch. A silver grey fox fur stole was draped around her shoulders, the kind that looked as though it had been produced by a taxidermist, complete with dangling legs and a preserved fox head. The fox’s beady eyes stared back at him, like a stuffed animal in a display case, frozen in a moment of rage. The woman’s own eyes were lustrous, thick-lined with kohl, jet black behind the veil that half-covered her face. She was pale and aloof, aged about sixty, with her face heavily powdered and rouged to hide the decay.
Ronnie knew the woman from somewhere, but where? He could hear a loud humming sound, as if his ear was jammed up against a beehive. The noise burrowed down into the pit of his stomach, making him nauseous. The woman stood still and gazed at him. His breath stopped in his throat and he felt suffocated. She was choking the life out of him.
He had to get away.