I'm out of Wandsworth, keen to go straight after 20 years of criminal life, with a methadone prescription to keep me off heroin. The only problem is cutting through the red tape while cold turkey sets inby Peter Wayne / February 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
To begin at the beginning, I must make a confession. As regular Prospect readers will know, I am a heroin addict. In my case, the millstone of addiction lives side by side with a cycle of criminality. I’ve spent most of the last 20 years in prison.
I do my time, hope that one day I might break the habit. Whenever my release comes round, I head off determined not to make the same mistakes. It never works out, but last time, on a chilly February morning one year ago, I was more than usually optimistic.
Wandsworth prison in southwest London had just initiated a methadone (heroin substitute) scheme for people like me. I had a letter from the prison’s senior medical officer, addressed to a drugs agency in Soho. I had been instructed to report there straight away.
This had been, in prison-speak, “a bit of a result.” No longer would I have to spend half my days scouring the west end in search of dealers, nor the other half burgling and shoplifting for the wherewithal to pay their extortionate rates. For the first time, my “heroin” consumption was to be legalised. All I had to do was turn up at the Whalebone Project to pick up regular methadone medication.
The probation department back at the prison had done their best to find me a hostel. But such was the midwinter demand for places, it had only been possible to book me into a temporary night shelter: which was how I came to be standing on the steps of James Gibbs’s great late baroque masterpiece, the church of St Martin-in-the-fields, close to midnight. Behind me, a freezing northwesterly wind blew across the unusually pigeonless expanse of Trafalgar Square.
At any other time, one might have been excited at the prospect of a visit to the crypt of St Martin’s. As it was, this was all that stood between me and penury. Judging by the group assembled under the Corinthian portico it didn’t look as though I was alone. Hogarth would have recognised this mob of malodorous rapscallions sporting a variety of threadbare macs and overcoats. Carbuncles protruded from blotchy complexions. The miserable scene could have been lifted from a canvas of a seething Gin Lane.
Near the drunks, a young woman micturated, bent double over a complicated arrangement of ragbags and laddered tights stretched taut around crimson, swollen ankles. She released an arc of asparagus-yellow urine onto the Portland stone slabs, whilst puffing on a crumpled cigarette attached to a polyapexed cold sore that spread along the length of her bottom lip.
“Whit are ye lookin at?” The broad Scottish accent caught me unaware.
“Sorry. I… er… is this St Martin’s night shelter?”
She struggled to pull up her fishnet tights exposing a patchy mound of coconut-curly pubic hair. The woman looked exhausted and emaciated. She was all bones-in-a-bag-of-skin with deeply etched tucks and folds cross-hatched in green-black London grime.
“Ma name’s Mona,” she offered. “Where’ve ye blown in fae?”
“Just been released from Wano this morning.”
“Another yin.” Mona smiles, showing three small peg teeth blackened by heroin.
“Ye’ll love it here-as long as ye gie this lot a wide berth. See there’s them-the drunks. An’ there’s us-the junkies. Ah take it yer a skaghead?”
“I was when I went in but I’ve been put on a methadone script. Got a letter for the Whalebone Project in Wardour Street.”
“Oh aye. An ye’re expecting tae walk in there and just peck up a bottle of juice?”
“That was the idea.”
“Aye well. Remind me o’ this conversation in three or four weeks.”
Our talk was interrupted by the racket of half a dozen disgruntled drunks hammering on the steel doors to the crypt, demanding to be let in.
“Brian,” Mona shouted across to a tatterdemalion boy dressed in battered, billowing black. He had a golden fleece of a hairstyle-late Jim Morrison-waxen ivory complexion, open face still unravaged. But I soon found out he was far from well.
“Liver’s shot to pieces,” said the Dubliner. “Hepatitis A-E inclusive. Got 18 months to live at der most.”
He sounded happy as he said this, as if he were talking about coming to the end of a prison sentence.
“Tell the new kid on the block how long it took tae get your methadone script,” said Mona.
“Got out of Pentonville seven weeks ago an’ I’m still waitin. It’s like havin a ticket to all der rides on der fair. Come outta one place. Go to anodder. Dey send me somewhere else. It’s easier to buy juice on der street if you want to stay off der powder.”
Just then the doors to the crypt creaked open. As the crowd surged forward, two enormous black major-domos stepped out of the darkness to block their way. Even St Martin’s night shelter has its own guest list these days, and if your name isn’t on it you’ve got more chance of getting past the bouncers at the chic St Martin’s Lane Hotel, just a hop, skip and platinum American Express card up the road.
Past security, well below street level and deep inside the catacombs, Mona and Brian led me to their corner. There were no windows or carpets. The atmosphere was claustrophobic.
“Got a graft lined up in der morning if yer want to come,” Brian told me as we ate a surprisingly good supper served by volunteers. “Boots der chemist,” he elucidated. “Hair shampoo for a fella who’ll take as many as we can lift off der shelves.”
“Are yer listenin? I’m talking about an earner here.”
There was no need to get involved. I had my letter. The drug agency. The methadone.
“Er. I was hoping for a lie-in. What time are you going out?”
“We get thrown out at seven every morning. Wind, rain, snow, sleet, whatever.”
“Anyhoo,” Mona said. “In what were ye thinkin o’ lyin? Seen any beds?”
All about us, people lay on the gravestone floor, like corpses waiting to be packed away into coffins.
“How can a shelter have no beds?” I asked.
“They’ve got sinks without any taps. An’ a clock wi’ only one hand.”
“Staff dat can’t speak English. An’ tea without sugar,” Brian added.
The incessant “boom, boom, boom” of someone’s ghetto blaster put a stop to further discussion. I nodded, smiling vacantly at an old woman with yellow-grey hair, who stood rigid against the wall quoting Bible verses in a quavering but well-educated voice.
At the unearthly hour of seven in the morning, nearly two hours before I had been used to getting up in prison, we were ejected back out of the shelter. The temperature was several degrees below freezing. Declining Brian’s repeated offers to go along with him on his graft, I parked myself up in the rather warmer foyer of a west end hotel where, while fighting off the first unmistakable signs of withdrawal, I drank complimentary coffee and read the papers. At ten o’clock sharp, I was outside the Whalebone Project’s HQ reading from the polished brass plaque on the wall: “Treatment and Counselling for Addictive Behaviour.” Treatment meant methadone and relief from my pains. I pressed the bell and was buzzed inside.
“If you would like to fill in these forms and post them back into us…”
The receptionist smiled the practised smile of one paid to make others feel welcome.
“No, I’m sorry. As you will see from the letter, I’m just here to register and pick up my methadone.”
“Ah. I should tell you that the Whalebone is not a prescribing agency. We assess, counsel and refer.”
“But I haven’t had my medication for over 24 hours. It states quite clearly on your door that you offer treatment for addictive behaviour.”
“Oh that. We offer acupuncture, for instance. Meditation and shiatsu massage.”
“But I need methadone, ” I insisted. “I’ve already been interviewed and assessed and prescribed for it back at Wandsworth prison. I was told to report here to pick up my weekend’s supply.”
The receptionist sighed. You could tell she had been through this before.
“All we can do, once you have filled in the forms, is refer you to somewhere else.”
“But that’s no good. I’m feeling ill already. Filling in forms and waiting for replies, attending interviews, assessments, how long is it going to take?”
“Generally we can get a first referral in three to four weeks. After that we’ll need urine samples for analysis. Another ten days. Then, if methadone is considered appropriate, it will be a matter of laying our hands on your medical records from your GP and transferring your papers to the prescribing agency.”
“I don’t have a GP. I’ve been in prison for 20 years.”
“Oh now that will complicate matters. Most people have a GP you know.”
“Well I don’t. But I do have a letter from the senior medical officer at Wandsworth prison, telling you I’m prescribed methadone. Surely that’ll do.”
She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “There are private medical practices that will take self-referrals.”
“I’m not a self-referral. Wandsworth referred me.”
“Yes. To us. And if you just fill in these forms… “
I thought of Brian and his ticket to all the rides.
“This is not getting us anywhere, is it.”
“If you would listen to what I’m saying, Mr Wayne.” There was an edge to her voice.
“I am listening. But please will someone start listening to me? For the last two months I have been receiving methadone every morning. Yesterday, I was released from prison. So that I wouldn’t have to steal or get into debt, they gave me this letter which I was told would ensure that my prescription could continue. Inside, I was living a stable life because at last someone had realised that methadone, while not perfect, did at least allow me a semblance of normality and some hope for the future. For the first time in 20 years I thought I was going to be able to concentrate on getting a job. And now here I am back in the real world and you’re telling me I’m going to have to wait six weeks or pay goodness knows how much for private treatment. How am I going to afford that? I’m living in a bloody night shelter for God’s sake.”
My voice echoed round the high-ceilinged room.
“It’s no good losing your temper, Mr Wayne. I’m trying to do all I can for you.”
“Of course you’re not! Look, if I don’t have my methadone by lunchtime, I’ll be flat on my back in a fever. That means only one thing, I’m going to have to go out robbing. Let’s see now. A couple of litre bottles of whisky from Tesco’s, that should raise enough for a couple of bags.”
“I’m afraid if you carry on like this, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” She sounded like a school teacher about to stand me in the corner.
I threw the questionnaire back across the desk.
“By all means. I have no more time to waste.”
I stormed out of her office and off down Wardour Street, muttering and mumbling to myself like one of the drunks back at the shelter.
Already I was suffering from alternating hot and cold shivers. Gobs of black catarrh were building up at the back of my throat. An ache had begun to spread over my shoulders and down below my buttocks.
“I’m not going to go stealing. I’m not going to put myself on offer,” I kept repeating to myself, less convincingly each time I passed another supermarket.
“I’m going to have to go stealing,” I finally admitted to myself, when I bumped into an ebullient Brian coming out of a chemist on Tottenham Court Road.
“I’m not going to ask how you did at Whalebone.”
“Don’t,” I snapped. “I should have come thieving with you. How did you get on anyway?”
“Piece of piss. Fifty-two bottles of medicated and extremely expensive conditioning shampoo. Hundred quid ain’t bad for five minutes work now is it?”
I was snuffling and sneezing in serial combination.
“Come on down,” he said, “you’d better hop on der tube with me.”
“Brixton of course, where der deals are half der price an twice der size o’ these up here. I’ll treat yer, only dis once, mind. Did I ever tell you about der toime I screwed dat magistrate’s car outside der court in Bow Street?” He began in a welter of Irish blarney, pushing me through the barrier without a ticket.
Brixton is a chaotic and unpredictable place. Here some of the foulest and filthiest specimens of humanity disport themselves, importuning travellers with second-hand, cut-price travelcards or empty palms. Even the dashing Brian Paddick, erstwhile police commander of the borough, fell short of sweeping this vestibule clean of these creatures.
The scene remains the same as always. Greasy bundles of rags on which lie the contorted and raving forms of some of the most desperate skagheads in London. The air around is stale with obnoxious breath and body odour. Scraps of rotten food and fizz-less drinks lie scattered alongside the ubiquitous orange caps of the junkies’ needles. Bag girls here, bin boys there, victims with all their sores, putrid abscesses, imploded veins.
As Brian led the way past this grotesquerie, through a labyrinthine grid of latticed stalls and limelight alleyways. I found myself recognising far too many pairs of ochre-white eyes that stared balefully back at us out of darkened alleys and recesses.
Electric Avenue, Atlantic Road: grandiose architectural remnants of another era looked down disdainfully at the passing of empire. We were in now amongst the dedicated band of class A dealers who festoon every railway arch either side of the rattling overhead track. A not so clandestine exchange of merchandise. No sign here of the much vaunted police campaigns to give the streets of Brixton back to law-abiding Brixtonians. We might have bought our gear from “Warrior” or “Soldier,” “Long Tooth,” or “Shortman,” “Yankee” or “Texas,” “Corky the Cat,” or “Dog.” “Sultan” was there too, and further along loped “Prince” and “Duke,” each with their own hangers-on-the holders and runners and lookouts positioned along this busy drag to ensure safe and uninterrupted supply.
Although scoring in Brixton is as easy as buying a couple of kilos of yam, finding somewhere to smoke or inject your gear poses a trickier problem. In the west end, there are numerous nooks and crannies to hide away in. Those automatic 20 pence toilets are one of the best bets, giving absolute privacy and a clock on the wall which counts you helpfully down from 20 minutes to zero. In Brixton there is only one public convenience: a drafty pre-war shed hidden behind the market, ruled over by a Rastafarian martinet who never seems to go off duty. Ever tried unravelling a roll of cooking foil silently? Or puncturing a can of Coca-Cola through which it’s then possible to smoke a rock of crack cocaine? The Rastafarian has antennae so sensitive he can even pick up the sound of clingfilm being torn as you unwrap your deal. And the minute he hears the slightest rustle you’re banned from his precious throneroom for the rest of your natural life.
I didn’t fancy an afternoon brush with the Lion of Judah, but I was now in serious trouble. My nose was in full flow and, as for my bowels, I knew that if I released my grip a flood of diarrhoea would follow. Somebody had once told me that the after-effects of methadone were worse than the comedown from ordinary heroin. I was about to find out.
Quickly, I went through the other possible boltholes in Brixton. Telephone boxes: too open; McDonald’s or KFC-too busy; the Ritzy-too early; Brixton Town Hall-not dressed well enough to get past security; multi-storey car park-CCTV cameras, newly installed; pubs-toilets not light enough; the park-too cold…
If only I could have picked up that promised bottle of sticky green juice, I could have been looking for a flat or bedsit by now. At times like these, I thought seriously about the advantages of being back inside.
“Eowargh!!” My self-pitying reverie was brought to a sudden halt by the most excruciating pain which shot up the length of my right arm. I had been fiddling about in the bottom of a wastepaper bin trying to retrieve an empty can. Brian had brought crack as well as heroin, so we needed a pipe. As I withdrew my hand I could only stare in disbelief. A hypodermic syringe had appended itself to my forefinger. The needle had broken the skin just above the knuckle. I stood flabbergasted, frozen to the spot in shock. It was Brian who sprang into action, grabbing the syringe by its barrel and whipping it straight out.
“That’s it then,” I screamed. “Looks like I’ll be joining you on the first express to hell!”
“Calm down will you. It’s only a wee pinprick.”
“It’s not any old wee pinprick though is it? This is Brixton, seven out of ten junkies are HIV positive. That’s all it takes. Just a little pinprick.”
“You’re getting hysterical. The virus only lives for 12 to 15 seconds after it leaves der host body. Whoever left that needle left it a damned sight longer than 15 seconds before our arrival. If you’re scared den get a blood test done. All I can tell you is dat worrying changes nothin.”
It was hard to remain miserable with Brian close at hand. We had arrived at the wall which surrounds the Stockwell skateboarding park. Sometimes I stood here for hours watching the aerial gymnastics of scraggy-haired, rubber-limbed adolescents. Today, the park was empty and silent.
Brian beckoned me behind an unruly privet hedge which screened off the entangled front garden of a boarded up, long abandoned Georgian townhouse. This was a junkie’s enclave known only to the cognoscenti. We sat on our haunches behind the privet, hidden from the world. Although my finger still throbbed, I had already forgotten my accident. As I put my apparatus together, I was almost physically sick with the retching nausea of anticipation. It had been a while since I’d smoked straight heroin.
Brian, meanwhile, had been putting together his own more dangerous hit. The snowball. Once the contents of the wraps of heroin and crack cocaine had been emptied onto the can lid, he squeezed the lemon and watched as the droplets of citric acid coalesced with the mound of tawny grey powder. It was ready for ignition now. All it lacked was a drop of water.
“Old Irish traveller’s solution,” Brian beamed as he undid his thick leather belt, unzipped his flies… took out his flaccid penis and began to water down the compound with his own steaming urine.
“Don’t do this too often,” he admitted, setting the flame of his lighter under the can and holding it steady until the solution began to bubble.
“Is that… I mean… won’t it…?”
“Poison me? Me own piss injected into my bloodstream? I doubt it, but who gives a shit when I’m on the way out anyways?”
The gear was as it always had been in Brixton: thick, black, strong and foul tasting. But it did the business. No doubt about it. Warm now, temporarily cocooned against life’s bitter pill, I began to feel ashamed (if hardly surprised) that I had succumbed less than 48 hours after my release.
Swift on the heroin trail came the thrust and parry of a great fat pipe of crack cocaine. After that, I knew the damage had been well and truly done. Before returning to the cut-throat chaos of Brixton street life, I tore up the good doctor’s letter into a hundred little squares and threw them over the hedge and into the wind. In a seizure of drug-distorted compassion, I hugged my dying Irish friend, while all around fragments of the letter fell like confetti over the concrete hills and dales of Stockwell skateboard park.