Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Breaking the bond: four heroin addicted mothers tell their stories



Alicia is a heroin addict. She is also a mother of two. Terrified of losing her children into care if her addiction is discovered by the state, she chooses not to seek the help of drugs services or register for methadone or buprenorphine substitute therapy. To look at Alicia, you would not guess that she has been addicted to intravenous heroin, on and off, for twenty years. She's dressed elegantly in a long, khaki linen skirt, suede boots and a white faux fur jacket. She appears confident and she smiles warmly as she hugs me and kisses each of my cheeks continental style. She is a graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music and has an MA in the same discipline. She has a hectic schedule of rehearsals and performances with her jazz trio, for which she plays piano.

'I started using heroin when I was in my teens, and I swear nicotine's harder to quit.' Alicia states, as she blows vapour from her electric cigarette. I ask her what flavour she has and if she's successfully switched from 'analogue' cigarettes.

'Oh, I used to smoke twenty, thirty- I dunno, maybe forty cigarettes a day. I smoked rollies, so I never counted. But I smoked a lot. I used to play piano with a cigarette dangling from my mouth and I ruined the keys with fag burns. I'll have one or two a week now, tops, and I'm telling you, they taste disgusting now. I have to clean my teeth afterwards, else my mouth tastes like a sewer.'
I pull out my secret stash of rolling tobacco along with my own e-cig and we laugh conspiratorially.

'They'll probably find out one day that these things are even worse for you and then I'll either try to quit or go back to smoking fags,' Alicia continues. 'I love this flavour: it's black jack. Like those sweets you had as a kid- you remember them?'
I agree, laughing, remembering the halfpenny chews I'd buy with my friends from the local old fashioned sweet shop and general store. Alicia and I are around the same age and started using heroin for very similar reasons.

'I was sexually abused from as young as I can remember. He was a family friend. My mother didn't believe me over him. I went off the rails and ended up in care for a while. That type of pain doesn't go away. I tried antidepressants. So many different kinds. Therapy; counselling; group therapy...even yoga and meditation. But nothing works. Heroin works. It helps you cope with the pain, with the trauma, you know?' I nod. 'But you know, it's illegal. And then there's the stereotype- the thief, the prostitute. People judge you. They think a heroin addict is so out of their face that they can only sit there and gouch. I've always looked after myself. I have all my teeth. But I never use enough to get a gouch on: not since I had my kids: I use to survive. To get through life.'

I ask Alicia why, if she's happy to use a nicotine replacement product, what's so different about switching from heroin to subutex, suboxone or methadone. As she talks, she plays with the zipper on her coat.

'I'm a mother. Maybe I'd try it if I hadn't got kids, but I'm not willing to take the risk. I don't want to quit. I'm happy when I'm using.'

It may not make a lot of sense, if any, to someone on the outside, but to a survivor of severe childhood trauma like Alicia, it is a perfectly logical explanation. She has been using heroin to mask symptoms of the depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress she suffers from, and amongst heroin users, this is far from unusual. Recent government policy strongly encourages total abstinence, which usually means fast reductions, even for long term maintenance patients on high doses. This results not only in painful physical symptoms, but mental health issues which frequently include debilitating depression, insomnia and panic attacks. And, for many, a return to heroin use. On the Methadone Alliance's discussion boards, the hottest topics focus on forced reductions faced by growing numbers of methadone clinic clients across the UK. Combined with the government's austerity measures, which include funding cuts and closures of many organisations which previously supported heroin addicts, such as Manchester's Lifeline, things are not getting any easier.

'Some people aren't confident enough to speak out when their reduction isn't working for them. I would need maintenance permanently if I ever switched. When you start using heroin at a young age, your brain never develops the same ability to produce endorphins and dopamine that someone who didn't use develops. I've been using for more nearly three quarters of my life. But maintenance rather than reduction: that's all changing. Policy has changed. Besides, methadone and subs are way harder to get off than the gear. They're different drugs from heroin. They have different effects. A lot of people can't stick to their scripts. They use on top and get double addictions. What if it didn't work for me? Plus the rattle is twenty times longer because of methadone and subs being long acting. It's really drawn out. Then there's the paws (post acute withdrawal syndrome). I need to be there for my kids. I need to be able to perform. The stigma could jeopardise my job. I can't afford to get ill again. Every time I quit, I was having terrible flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks. I couldn't leave the house. I need the emotional stability that heroin gives me.'

We discuss the trials for prescription injectable diamorphine, and Alicia rolls her eyes. She won't get it, she believes. If she could, it would be the answer to her prayers. But her fear of losing her children keeps her account with her long term friend and dealer ticking over like a beautifully maintained Rolls Royce.

'I've met women, I know women who've had their kids put into care and even adopted because they couldn't stop using heroin occasionally on top of their script. If they'd never gone on a script, who'd have ever known they were using? Jane, well she was on a script and after she lost her partner, she relapsed a few times. The court took her kids. She never came back from that, not after her baby was adopted and they stopped her visitation rights. It was just too painful for her. She uses more heroin now than she ever did before. She's careless, chaotic. She was never like that when she had her kids. She was really careful. She only used enough to keep her stable. Those kids were her life. They were clean, well fed. Had plenty of toys. She had a full time job. She's lost that job now. She was a brilliant mum. Now, she's just an empty shell. She's got nothing left to live for. And the kids have lost their mum: can you imagine that kind of trauma? Now they're that much more likely to go on the gear themselves when they get older, to cope with the pain of losing their mum. All that on top of losing their Dad. He overdosed. They'll think she doesn't love them. But my god she loves those kids. She's lost without them. Their world has been turned upside down.'

Alicia pulls a tissue from her pockets and blows her nose, her tears smudging her carefully applied make up. I can almost feel the fear radiating from her. It seems, listening to Alicia's heartfelt words, that it is not so much heroin that has broken Jane's family, but that the very services who are in place to help parent addicts like her who have failed them.

'She wouldn't overdo it when she had her kids with her, you know?' muses Alicia, composing herself and stuffing her tissue back into her bag. 'But since her youngest was adopted: I mean, adopted- not just in care: that's so final, and the other two had contact with her stopped. Well, she's overdosed twice on the gear mixed with benzos and booze. She wasn't even drinking before. It was just the gear before. She's a mess now. It's horrible.'

According to the Saving Mothers' Lives report, almost two thirds of women starting replacement treatment for heroin addiction are mothers. Only half of them live with their children. Typically, after registering with the drugs service, there is a minimum wait of two weeks before a prescription, or 'script' can be written. Each service user will be assigned a keyworker who will meet with them once every few weeks to a month for half an hour aside from the initial assessment. There is also an preliminary assessment from a prescribing doctor, followed by appointments to stabilise the patient, who will subsequently see the doctor monthly. All other support, such as groups, classes or acupuncture are voluntary. However, there are very rarely crèche facilities: in most establishments, they are absent, and many sessions are placed at inconvenient times for parents, for example, during school pick up, resulting in parents in treatment with far fewer options for support than their counterparts without dependant children.

Sara only had to wait two weeks for her script when she first registered with Addaction for methadone treatment, but she told me that those two weeks were far harder to get through when she was faced with the fear of a possible referral to social services.

'I was injecting at the time and they told me to stop injecting or they'd call social services. I broke down crying and couldn't stop. Then they told me they might make a referral to social services because of my mental health. I thought to myself, I wish I'd never walked through this door and I told them so. I was lucky I was having counselling at the time because I told them I had that support and they didn't make the referral in the end. Plus my friend gave me some methadone. Bless her, that was really kind of her, because how else would I have managed to stop injecting? I couldn't afford to be smoking the gear and I wouldn't have been able to look after my kids if I'd gone into withdrawal. I think, as I remember, I did inject a couple of times before she gave me the juice, but do you think I told my keyworker? All social workers see is a heroin addict. They judge you. They don't see you as a person. If you're late for an appointment, they think you're out scoring, even if you had to wait a long time in the chemist: they never believe you.' She laughs, taking a long drink from the cappuccino she's nursing. 'I probably won't sleep tonight after all the coffee I've had.'

So, how did Sara cope with the transition to methadone?

'It was horrible. They say ten ml is equivalent to one bag (of heroin), but it's not. Well maybe it is when you smoke it. I was using three bags a day and the thirty ml just didn't hold me at all. I ended up on sixty, but it was horrendous before I was stable. I barely slept a wink. I was sweating and aching for a few weeks. My nose was running like it had missed the bus.'

All new service users are put on a daily supervised script, which is consumed in front of a pharmacist every day. Methadone is a long-acting synthetic opioid, but because different people's bodies metabolise it at different rates, a lot of people wake up each morning feeling the initial stages of withdrawal.

'They had me on supervised for far too long. I'd wake up feeling like I'd been run over by a bus and then having to get my son ready to come with me when I was feeling that ill was horrible. It was hard to get to the chemist at the same time every day and because I don't drive, I'd have to walk with him to the chemist six days a week in all weathers. It just wasn't fair on him. And he'd be asking me why I had to go every day. They make it really hard for mothers. I used to love Sundays, because the chemist was closed, and I got to take home that day's dose. When I was using (heroin), my dealer used to just pop round for a coffee and a chat when I needed to score.' Sara smiles and whirls her finger around in what's left of the chocolatey froth. 'I love my coffee. I think I'm just as addicted as I am to the methadone. Well, my son didn't know she was bringing me anything. She was always very discreet. I never used in front of him. Never talked about it in front of him. You hear about people who do, but I've never witnessed it- it sounds like an urban legend to me: the junkie mother with a filthy house, bags of heroin open on the table and dirty needles strewn around. What sort of mother would behave like that? I think films like Trainspotting and Pure have gone a long way to contribute to the stereotype people have of us. I'm not saying stuff like that doesn't happen. But that wasn't me. It isn't me. I love my boy.'

Sara tells me that since starting on the methadone programme, that she has not used any heroin. She's incredibly proud of her achievement, and even more proud of her son, who was Pupil of the Week at the local primary school the previous week.

'He gets it from his mum', she jokes.'But seriously, it's my boy I have to thank for keeping me off the gear. If I hadn't had him, I
wouldn't have been strong enough to do it. He kept me going. He keeps me going, alright- I never stop!'

But when I speak to Angela, she tells me that some service users feel they have to play the system in order to stay on a script and be allowed to continue taking home their medication. Unlike France's methadone programme, where writer, Shane Levene, describes success as being measured not on abstinence, but decreased use, UK drug services create a situation where some service users trick the system or simply lie about their use of heroin whilst on a script. If a service user gives a positive sample for opiates, they are unable to take their medication home and must remain supervised. If a long term patient who has been picking their medication up on a weekly basis gives a positive sample, they are immediately returned to a supervised script from either a three times, weekly, twice weekly or the maximum for newer clients, a weekly take home script.And of course, for mothers, there is the threat of social services.

'I've done it myself, I'll be honest with you,' Angela states, shrugging her shoulders. 'I've not used (heroin) for a while, but I'd know when I had my appointments and when I was likely to be tested, so I'd just work around those dates and inject in places no one would notice. I was going through a really tough break up. It was really on and off and because my ex, my kids' dad, he still uses heroin, every time I saw him, it was so hard to stick to my script. It was him who told me not to tell them I'd used. He said social services would take the kids if I did. They don't support you. They're supposed to be there to help you, but they seem to use all their funding to take kids into care. Just because you're a heroin addict doesn't make you a bad parent. There are people who are not addicts out there really abusing their kids and social services turn a blind eye. They target us because it's easy. As soon as the judge hears the word “heroin”, you don't stand a chance. At the CDT, some of the staff are really prejudiced. They'll use any excuse to make a child protection referral. Just crying at an appointment is enough. It's disgusting. People with attitudes like that shouldn't be allowed to work with heroin addicts. It lowers your self esteem.'

Surely these parents' fears of losing their children and the reality which backs up those fears is counterproductive to their treatment. Were the system in place more empathetic, parent-centred and less punitive, honesty about using whilst in treatment would result in help, for example, an increased rather than a reduced script for those who need more, and extra, longer sessions with keyworkers.

'If I'd have said to them “my script isn't holding me, I need an increase,” well I doubt they would have given me more unless I'd told them I'd used on top. But because I was so scared they'd call social services on me, how could I take that risk? So I went through the withdrawals on my own. I did it on my own but it would have been a hell of a lot easier with some support there instead of that nagging fear of social services getting involved and the stress of that fear of my kids going into care making me want to keep on using heroin to cope with the stress. It's a vicious circle. You see a lot of them that go in there (Addaction) selling their scripts and buying heroin and crack. Because they don't see their kids anyway or they haven't got any kids, it doesn't matter to them if they get kicked off. They probably feel relieved not to have to go traipsing down the chemist every day to be honest. But it's different when you have kids. You're fighting against the stereotypes. They call heroin addicts “junkie liars": but because of that, you have to lie to people and pretend you're not an addict because a lot of people wouldn't let their kids play with your kids if they knew. A lot of employers will hold that against you and give the job to someone else. My kids would get bullied if any of the other kids in their school found out I'm on methadone. They'd say things like “Your mum's a dirty junkie”. I keep my house spotless. I don't know if that's an obsession I got because of the concept of “getting clean”, but I do. I hate that concept. Just because someone uses heroin doesn't make them dirty. It's a painkiller. No one calls pain patients who need diamorphine or morphine dirty, yet they're also addicts. They're killing pain. I'm killing pain. The only difference is that my medication was illegal and I'd prescribe it to myself.'

Does Angela feel she may feel the need to use heroin in the future?

'The last time they reduced me, they put me on a two ml a fortnight drop and told me I wouldn't notice it. By the end of the month I could hardly sleep. I was aching all over, had terrible stomach cramps. I felt like I had flu, yet my keyworker was like, “it's all psychological, you shouldn't feel any different when it's such a small drop”. They dropped me two ml again when I asked them not to. I wrote to the manager, and they left it at that, but they never put my dose back up and I'm still feeling rough after a few months. So, yeah, if it carries on like that, it's going to be a pretty big temptation. They say it's good for my kids if I get off my script, but I'm so much less irritable and tense when I feel okay. Who isn't? I don't want to be a stroppy mother. I need my medication. That's my right, surely? To be able to have enough medication to keep me well. Why would they take that away from me when they know without it I can't function properly?'

Is the simple fact that a parent uses heroin enough to remove a child into care? Drug addiction does not mean that a parent is by default uncaring or neglectful. It is possible to be a loving, supportive and responsible parent and be a heroin addict just as it is possible for a non addict to inflict abuse, neglect and harm. Alicia speaks to me about Jane, the mother who lost her kids to adoption.

'She was unlucky because the she just didn't click with the social worker. She showed me some of the reports they'd written and they were putting two and two together and making seven. I remember one part which described a visit where the social worker noticed Jane hadn't done the dishes or folded the laundry. The carpet hadn't been hoovered for a couple of days and she made a comment about the house being filthy...and if they thought the house was “filthy”, then they presumed she was leaving drugs and works all over when she wasn't. I know she wasn't, because I was there. It wasn't pristine, but it wasn't filthy either. They wrote in the report that was used in court, “Jane neglects the housework and leaves dirty dishes all over the worktops. My concern is that she may be leaving drug paraphernalia laying around which could cause significant harm to her children.” There was a lot of stuff like that in the report. How can they take away someone's kids on a false assumption? I would understand if she had been- that would have been understandable- but she hadn't. The woman's just found her husband dead- and they're criticising her for not washing up. If she wasn't an addict and the house was a mess, they'd be understanding- even paid for some help with the cleaning. I supported her through the whole ordeal. It was horrible. In the end she was telling me to meet her in secret because she was scared they'd start on me if they knew I was still seeing her. She became really isolated, really depressed. She talked about ending her life. They could have helped her, but they didn't. There's help for people with physical disabilities, but with hidden disabilities? Nothing but judgement. They'd visit once a week and send a family support worker round once a week. She sat for an hour drinking tea and talking: how is that practical support? Jane needed practical support. But the whole time, they were writing a lot of negative stuff down in their reports and not giving any practical help. If she'd had a different social worker, who understood and saw her for who she really is, things would have turned out different. Her kids didn't want to go into care. They became really clingy, started wetting the bed. They used that against her, when the reason they were wetting the bed was because they were scared of being taken away like their new sister was. They didn't wet the bed before social services got involved. All this because she gave a few positive samples. That was just the tip of the iceberg.'

I wonder how many more women there are like Jane, and how the effects of Jane's reaction to her partner's death had on her children was weighed up by agencies against the effects of being taken into care and later, denied access to their mother. Or if the only thing the family court judge read in the report was that Jane was a pregnant heroin addict with a partner dead from an overdose. Considering the fact that children who grew up in care are far more likely to become addicts themselves than those who are raised by a loving parent, Jane can only hope that her baby's adoptive parents provide a warm, loving home. Her older two children were not so “lucky”, and are in two different children's homes.

I spoke to Sunshine, the adult daughter of a now-recovered heroin addict, about her experiences of growing up with an addicted parent. She lived between her two parents as a child, her father, who is not an addict, and her mother, with whom she spent around thirty percent of her time. She has a lot of compassion for her Mum, although there have been difficult times.

'She turned up for the birth of my first child off her face on heroin. She was falling asleep on the chair next to my bed. But she was there. At least she was there. She was a very liberal mum and yeah, sometimes she was in trouble. Sometimes she'd be ill. But then I'd be able to go to my Dad's. If I'd not have been allowed to see her, that would have been far tougher. It would have been far more difficult than dealing with all her ups and downs. She was never abusive. I always had a cooked meal and I have some great memories from my childhood with her. She's a brilliant Nan to my boys, just brilliant. Even if she spoils them rotten. I'm so proud of her for getting clean. She's a support worker for addicts now. It makes my heart smile to see her happy.'

With her own experiences of being a heroin addicted mother, Sunshine's mother Liz is able to understand what the women she helps are going through. Although there are some social workers and drugs workers who are ex addicts, many have the qualifications, but not the life experience.

'It's great here. We have an anonymous drop in, which I do two days a week. I see a lot of mothers who are scared of losing their children because of their addictions and a lot of mothers who I'm helping turn their lives around so that they can begin the process of getting their kids back home. I'm lucky I didn't lose Sunshine, but her Dad was always there for her if I couldn't cope. A lot of these women are totally alone with no support from ex partners. Some of them have partners in prison. Some of them grew up in care. Some have been through domestic violence and with legal aid being stopped for divorce, it's even harder for those individuals. It's not easy, but if I can help them with practical things, give emotional support, a lot of them will come to the point where they know for sure that using heroin and crack to cope with their situation is only going to make things worse. Once your mentality changes and you find new ways of coping, like the acupuncture and meditation we do here and the relapse prevention groups, it's easier to begin your recovery from a stronger place. The women who still have their kids at home tend to do better with their recoveries than those who have their kids in care, although there have been a few happy reunions. It makes my job worthwhile seeing families reunited. They're not bad people. They're just doing what they can to cope with tough lives, but with street drugs, first there's the cost. Then there are the health risks.'

Liz is angry that the government's funding cuts have hit so many organisations which support women like those she helps.

'The fact is that the government don't seem to realise that it's going to cost them more in the long run. Harm reduction, maintenance substitution scripting and support are really important tools. Not everyone recovers from addiction: in fact the percentage is pretty small. That's only going to get worse now so many services have been axed. There used to be free counselling for child survivors of domestic violence: that's gone. They've cut the funding for services for rape survivors. If you don't get the support you need in the early stages you're much less likely to be able to cope and much more likely to end up using substances to cope with the trauma. You see poverty, unemployment, homelessness. You see suicide. We've lost a few of our clients here over the years to suicide. It's devastating.'

It seems fitting that the day I'm due to meet Jane that there's a sudden downpouring of hail as I run across the road to the café where we've arranged to meet. I'm feeling slightly anxious. It's going to be hard for Jane to talk about what's happened to her and I'm beginning to think she won't turn up. After my second coffee. I pick up my phone to try her number one last time. It's switched off. It reminds me of all the times in the past I've waited for dealers. The switched off mobiles. The phone boxes stinking of piss with their receivers smelling of spit, stale tobacco and perfume. The standing in the rain for hours, waiting, and I decide to give her a little longer. I remind myself she wanted her story told. I'm beginning to think I'll be kicked out if I don't buy something else, and consider either leaving (I've been here nearly an hour) or buying the cheapest thing available, which is a piece of fruit for twenty six pence. As I make my way towards the counter, I hear the bell on the door ring as it opens, and I turn to see a small, dark haired woman in skinny jeans which wrinkle in places they should cling, and a grey hooded top. She walks towards me with a slight limp and I guess she's been injecting in the most painful areas of her feet. She's wearing no make-up and her shoulders are hunched. She makes brief eye contact with me and smiles without her eyes, which have the look of deep, unresolvable pain about them.

'I'm sorry I'm late. I thought you wouldn't be here.' She shuffles from one foot to the other, her eyes taking in her surroundings. I ask her what she'd like to drink and I ask the proprietor for an energy drink for Jane, another coffee for me, remembering Alicia's words about not sleeping. I'm tired too, having had a restless night going over the questions I want to ask Jane without making her feel worse than she already does. I needn't have worried. Jane answers everything and more without me even having to ask much at all.

'I grew up in care,' she begins. 'And now my kids are going through the same. I'm scared shitless they'll be sexually abused like I was in care and I'm powerless to do anything to protect them. It's my worst nightmare become reality. My last daughter was born addicted. The doctor told me it could kill the baby if I stopped. The withdrawals can kill the foetus you know. So they put me on methadone and I was doing fine. I was doing really well, reducing really slowly. Everything was going to be alright. My eldest daughter was seven at the time, and my boy was four. I was clean when I had them both. I was happy. Me and my boyfriend were both clean. Then we drifted back into using after my son was born. But then I got pregnant again. We hadn't planned to have any more kids but I was over the moon when I got pregnant again. We both were. I wasn't using much before I went on my script. The kids didn't know. Why would they?.' Jane ponders her question for a moment, picking her nails. They are short and bitten, but not dirty. She picks them throughout our conversation, cleaning out dirt that isn't there. 'And then he died. He overdosed. Their Dad. I found him in the bathroom. He'd taken brown, white, benzos, vodka, super. He'd done a snowball (a mixture of crack and heroin) on top of all that and some of my juice (methadone) was missing. He'd had a massive heart attack.'

She hugs her arms around herself and rocks backward and forward, squeezing her eyes tight. I ask her if she wants to stop. We don't have to do this. We can talk about something else and meet up another day if she wants to.

'No, I'm okay. It's okay. Do you smoke?'
The hail and rain have stopped now and we stand in the tiny courtyard behind the café, where Jane pulls out a can of Tenants Super from her pocket and cracks it open, offering me first swig. I shake my head and say thanks as she takes a long drink and stands the can between her trainers. We both roll cigarettes and debate on whether it would be better to sit at one of the two tiny tables that are crammed into the tiny, half-sheltered space. The chairs are wet and Jane wipes hers down with her sleeve.

'I thought I'd have a nervous breakdown after I found him, but I didn't. I feel awful saying it, but in some ways I thought it was going to be easier bringing up just two kids instead of two little ones and a grown up one. And I still feel so fuckin guilty for even feeling like that, but...I shouldn't be saying this. It hurt like hell. Of course it did. We lived together for eight years. You have your ups and downs when you're together that long don't you? But I'm still angry with him. I know he did it on purpose. Fuckin coward.'

'You think it was suicide?'

'I know it was.'

A study conducted by the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse entitled Parents with drug problems: how treatment helps families states that, statistically, parents who live with their children have far fewer drug related issues and are also far more likely to stick to and complete their treatment programmes than those who do not live with their children, and Jane's story makes this all the more poignant. She strongly believes that if her children had not been removed from her care, that she would have been able to stabilise on her methadone and even possibly come off her script, eventually. But as things stand, she has no desire to ever stop using heroin. Not unless she's able to make contact with her children again. The 'stronger foundation on which to start their recovery and build their lives' which having children at home creates, according to the same study, has been taken away from Jane, perhaps forever. There are tens of thousands of looked after children of addicts in the UK, the vast majority of whom are from poor backgrounds. There is little known of the lives of the children of fully functional addicts simply because their parents are so functional. They hold down jobs; they run their own businesses. Amongst them are professors; lawyers; estate agents; entrepreneurs; salespeople; teachers; surgeons; bank staff; anaesthetists; medical professionals. They are anonymous. The stereotypes simply do not apply, save, perhaps, for the anaesthetist or the doctor prescribing their own diamorphine: they don't shoplift; they don't work as street prostitutes; they don't hang around with other addicts in the street, waiting to score. They are utterly unrecognisable as heroin users.

They inhabit the eclipsed arena of the heroin world: they are invisible. Unless they seek treatment. Or unless they are caught. And because they are generally otherwise law-abiding, this is not a huge risk in the world of the internet where 'clean, fresh urine' is discreetly and freely available. It is this comfortable invisibility which heroin addicts like Alicia feel protects them by interference from the State. They are off the radar. The dire consequences of the stigma of addiction keeps them hiding. And, frequently, also keeps them from seeking treatment, should they wish to take this route.

Jane held down a regular job as a care assistant in a residential home for adults with learning disabilities until her partner died. Her partner worked as a boiler engineer, and between them, they were comfortable. Yet he had been hiding stacks of unpaid credit card bills from Jane as well as the fact that he'd been missing mortgage repayments and their home was due to be repossessed. Jane feels her partner took the easy way out and left her in an impossible situation. Before his suicide, she may have been using heroin until she discovered she was pregnant and sought treatment, yet she planned to reduce her methadone and be off the script before the baby was born. But life does not always work out as planned.

'After he died, it was so hard not to go back on the gear. And I didn't go back on it: like I told them over and over again, I only used it sometimes, in minuscule amounts, because they were nearly finished reducing my script and I felt unable to cope with that so fast. I'd nearly made it. But they didn't believe me. We lost our home and most of our things. We were put in a one room bed and breakfast. I was heavily pregnant by then, with two kids in this room with only two single beds and a push out sofa. I found I couldn't carry on reducing my script. People can judge me and ask me- didn't I think of the baby- of course I did, but until something like that happens to you, you don't know how you'll cope. I don't think anyone has the right to judge unless they've been in those shoes. I had to carry on looking after my children, who were suffering the death of their dad, the loss of their home. We lost everything at once. Ironic as it sounds, heroin helped me cope. I don't think I could have carried on looking after them if I hadn't used on the occasions I did. I was trapped between a rock and a hard place. That's quite apt, isn't it?'

Jane's baby was taken away from her at birth because she consistently failed to provide clean urine samples. She believes that if she had been given the chance to keep her baby, with the right support, she would be on the road to recovery by now.

'It was like every bad thing you can possibly imagine happening at once. I didn't cope at all well with my baby being taken. It's the cruellest punishment. All I needed was support and time. That's all I needed. But with her gone, I fell apart. I started using more, in order to cope. They kept saying I didn't need an increase in my script, but I did. By the time I got it, it was too late: they'd already started proceedings for an interim care order. I fought for those kids tooth and nail through the courts. I tried so hard to hold it together for my kids. So hard. Telling them their sister would come home. But instead I lost them all.'

It's difficult for me to listen to Jane's story and a deeply tragic reality for her. She reassures me that she's told it many times already and she hugs me for a long time before she excuses herself to go to the bathroom, leaving me with a huge wad of papers to look through. They are her court files which contain reports from the social workers who made the decision to place her two older children in long term care and her baby for adoption. The file is thicker than two London telephone directories and as I flick through them, I see that Jane has made notes and highlighted phrases and paragraphs in fluorescent marker pen throughout the entire document.

'They took my baby off me. I wasn't even allowed to breast feed her. The methadone in my milk would have helped her with the withdrawals, but they didn't listen. I was hysterical when they wouldn't bring her back to me after the birth, and that went against me. They didn't understand that if they just listened to me instead of making these decisions that I couldn't cope with that I would have coped better. When someone tells you you're having your baby taken off you, you're going to be broken. You're going to be angry. You're going to cry...scream. You're going to shout at them. Anyone who just sits back and lets someone take their baby. Well that woman doesn't exist or she's already dead.'

Does Jane understand the harm that she caused her baby by continuing to use heroin whilst pregnant?

'Because she never knew me, she'll never know, will she, unless they tell her. But yeah, they're unlikely to portray me in a positive light if they do. I know it was irresponsible. A lot of heroin babies are stillborn or premature, underweight. They can die from the withdrawals. I could have lost her like that which would have been a lot worse. But I wasn't using heavily. Just a bit now and then because I wasn't coping and didn't have a lot of support. I can't justify what I did but I didn't do it because I wanted to hurt her. But they just kept on reducing my methadone and I needed something to hold myself together because I had my other two to care for. You can't do that when you're in permanent tears. The antidepressants they gave me made me feel so ill I was like a zombie, so I stopped taking them, and the next ones and the next ones were no better. They made me worse. I mean, on the advice labels it warns against their use in pregnancy, so...what were they doing to my baby, the tablets the doctor gave me? I didn't drink a drop of booze when I was pregnant. Not a drop. Not until they denied me access to my other two kids.'

Jane shows me one of the social worker's reports and points out some highlighted words.

'Risk of emotional harm. Risk of significant harm. Their Dad dies and they become homeless in the space of a week. Then to top it off, they have their new sister taken off them. Isn't that enough significant harm for them? Not according to the social workers, no. Apparently, shoving them into a children's home is gonna fix that. Not. Do they honestly think that's the solution? Do they honestly think that was the right thing to do?'

She points to a paragraph on an A4 sheet towards the bottom of the ream of papers. It reads 'Jane presents at contact as hostile towards staff and is clearly of a volatile temperament and emotionally unstable. In spite of the fact that she has had two clean urine samples recently, the fact that previous samples were positive cannot be overlooked. I recommend stopping contact until she is engaging well with children's services and Addaction, has stabilised on her methadone with regular clean samples, has completed six months of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and has as her mood swings pose a risk of emotional harm to her children.'

'I wasn't hostile: I was angry and bereaved. And because I was angry, because I was upset and hurting like hell, I'd cry when I saw my kids. I never showed my kids how angry I was: but I did shout at the social worker a few times before or after I had contact, because they weren't listening to me. I was telling them my kids were begging me to come home. The woman who was in there with us supervising the contact knew that. She was sympathetic. But the social workers, they didn't listen to me and they didn't listen to my kids when they were asking me, “please mummy I want to go home.” Instead of helping me to get to the place where that was possible, they reduced the risk of significant harm by stopping contact. I didn't ever get housed in a place where my kids had bedrooms so they could start visiting me. I ended up in a women's hostel. And I ended up being told I only had third party contact. That means birthday cards, Christmas cards, basically. Didn't they realise how much that was hurting my babies? Don't they understand why I'm like I am? Everyone got me wrong. Interpreted what I said wrong. All I ever wanted was to have a happy family. Instead of that, I never saw my kids again.'

There are many, many women with similar stories to Jane. Amongst them are many victims of domestic violence who are using heroin in order to cope with their situation. But in Austerity Britain, there is little hope of things changing. There is not enough funding for organisations which could offer full support to women and their children. Women's Aid refuges are not only underfunded, but according to their website, don't have the resources, support workers or facilities to house women who use drugs. If a woman admits to drug use, they are not given a place in a refuge. There are far fewer refuges available which accept women who are on methadone programmes, and those that do only have sufficient staff to support one woman per refuge. Applicants also must have been on the programme for a period of time and must prove that they no longer use drugs. Solace Women's Aid in Southwark, London, offers a service which assists drug dependent women in ending their dependency and offers their children therapy and support, but considering the widespread nature of the problem, Britain desperately needs far more more organizations to follow in the footsteps of this pioneering programme. So in cases which involve domestic violence, it is no wonder that most women trapped in violent relationships and addicted feel they have nowhere to turn. Whilst women like Alicia continue self medicating in the hope that they will not be discovered by the authorities, many mothers who would like to start on substitution programmes feel the barriers to seeking treatment are just too much of a risk to take. What can be done to make services more accessible to those mothers who are scared to seek help? Liz says:

'We're not going to call social services unless there is a genuine risk to a child. Just the fact that a person is using drugs isn't a risk in itself. There are a whole host of factors involved which could contribute to a child being subject to a care plan, such as the risk of overdose, especially when a person leads a chaotic lifestyle and is using heroin in combination with crack, benzos or alcohol. A lot of addicts also suffer from mental health issues, and their children can sometimes end up becoming their carers. Children's Services runs a young carers group so those kids can get some support and take part in group activities. It's not always a situation where a child has to be taken into care. Some parents leave young children alone and go out scoring. Getting on a script helps people get their lives together. It's always going to be there, and there's support where people need it. Parents wishing to start their journey into recovery must know that so long as they're taking the right steps, recovery is always going to be easier than to carry on using.'

But until the stigma of heroin addiction is gone, the work being done by workers like Liz will always be undermined. Heroin addicted parents will continue to lose their children, will not seek treatment and will continue to keep their addictions secret for fear of consequences which can include, amongst many injustices: loss of access to children; mistreatment by medical staff; courts allowing contact with violent ex partners simply because a heroin addict holds the stigma of being a 'lying junkie'.

It's dark when I leave Jane's office. As I cross the road, I realise that I forgot to ask her about the forced reductions after she mentioned that a script was “always going to be there”, and I wonder how, and if, she would be able to help someone like Jane find her 'happy reunion'.

Outside the methadone clinic across the road, a group of people huddle together, smoking. They have a look about them of desperation, like they're looking for something, yet don't even know what it is, moving from leg to leg, hugging themselves against the cold. One of them is crouched in a near-foetal position, looking like he's in the initial stages of withdrawal, and another strides away from the group and begins shouting into a mobile phone.

'If that were three fuckin bags then I'm a fuckin ballerina. Yeah I'm sayin you're a lying fuckin cunt. There was only two bags in there. Yeah, two fuckin bags. Two. TWO! There was NOT fuckin three.' He flings his arm up in a wild attack on nothing and hurls his fag end into a scrubby, dog shit bag-strewn bush before shouting again, so loud this time, his voice cracks.'Yeah you will fuckin get down here now with another bag or I'll fuckin break your fuckin legs.'

The wind picks up, blowing leaves around crushed, empty super-strength lager cans, cigarette
butts and empty, torn rizla packets as it begins to rain and I walk away.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Badger Stew

Badger Stew

Beyond the locks, where the willows droop into a gulley of black mud and leaf mould, is the stream, and beyond its makeshift oak-trunk bridge, is the container. Seven old tyres balance against its flaked, once-green rusty walls, its doors secured with an old Yale padlock and a dirt encrusted choke chain. Only his three-legged lurcher knows how long he's lived there, collecting dead wood to fuel his pot-bellied burner where, if the weather is icy, he boils purified water collected from the cut in a family-sized lifesaver bottle.

His wrinkled, sun-browned face, shiny and dark as a newly opened horse chestnut from years of living through all seasons outdoors, sits on a neck as thick as a tree trunk. His stocky, short torso clad in clothing from the army surplus: an olive green t-shirt; a German parka, the small flag-patches on its arms coloured black; perhaps with dirt, perhaps with a marker pen: nobody knows but him. His torn combat trousers in ambiguous print, unidentifiable perhaps even to experts in military designs, their muddied bottoms drooping into mud-encrusted para boots.

Hidden from view in undergrowth bordering the towpath, he draws back elastic, his slanted eyes steady as a feline on the prowl, fixed on an unsuspecting brown duck playing bottoms up in the water. Ping. He misses. The duck paddles to where his stone cast rings in the surface, checking for food. Three more tries and she's down, squawking, flapping and flopping; gone. He reaches for his hook-ended stick and snags her by the neck, tail feathers dripping. Skimming brown across shimmering, dawn water, mist clinging to her limp body.

His fire is ready as he sits on a log to pluck feathers into an old potato sack. An entire duvet he's made during this savage existence: ducks, swans, coots, geese. His container's floor carpeted in the skins of deer, squirrels, rabbits and in the doorway, a badger skin. All have filled his cooking pot; all have been caught, trapped, sling-shot by him, save the badger, which he witnessed being crushed by a careless driver one icy night. Not the most delicious of stews, its meat as musky as its scent; but it had filled his belly and his dog's for a fortnight, preserved by the frosty, midwinter air. With calloused hands, their tough skin engrained with filth, he slits the naked duck open, throwing its innards into the bushes for foxes to find. His dog will share his duck. Of all the creatures of this world he inhabits, the fox is King and his vixen Queen. Their lair carved in hard earth beneath his container, he hears them scurrying deep below. In the winter months, they screech and howl in mating and in spring, he watches as the young emerge to begin their lessons in foraging. The foxes will never be harmed on his watch. This family, his downstairs neighbours whom he feeds and nurtures will outlive all others. Never will a fox skin adorn his metal walls, nor keep him warm.

Peeling the skin from the duck, he scrapes off its fat with uncut, unbitten fingernails, letting it drop into the pot resting over the fire. It sizzles as it hits the cast iron vessel and he adds first pieces of skin, then the entire duck, minus its head, which his dog grabs and chews, devouring even the beak with contented crunches. With his sharpened penknife, he slices onion to the pot, then the stems, leaves and buds of wild garlic, stirring with a hand carved wooden utensil. Unpeeled potato pieces are followed by water, also inhabited now by sprigs of thyme. Amongst runner beans, cabbages, wode, calendula, leeks and slug-eaten lettuces, tomatoes climb, in yellow, orange, red and green, fixed with hooks and wire up the corrugated walls of the rusting, green container. The ripest fall easily into his hand and he squeezes them straight into his cooking pot, gelatinous seeds sliding between his fingers and oozing into boiling liquid below. His stew smells good. Fat hen is his spice, growing wild by the banks of the cut, and he rips buds and leaves from above the full, simmering cauldron, his hands and the wild herbs growing moist in the steam.

Then, carried across the cut's brown soup of sludge and shit comes the open strum of a single guitar. Notes bend as machine heads are gently adjusted into tune, followed by a series of melancholy chords, joined by a lone, hoarse voice.

“Aye, mi corazon, dime, pero dime dime di-i-i-i-i-meee”
Flamenco drifts on dawn air as he stirs, stirs, stirs his cast-iron cauldron, its inner grey enamel chipped and full, the edges splattered with the colours of his wild cuisine, his eyes so accustomed to the smoke now, which tangles through his rough-shorn hair, that they barely water. And he stretches his legs, his boots' soles warming in the fire's flame. He sits on one of three long, oak logs he's rolled into position around his firepit, a three-legged, three-horseshoed trivet in its heart, upon which stands his pot of stew, next to his cast-iron kettle, suspended from its handle on the hook of his kettle iron. He lines up four cups and into each places a teaspoonful of roasted and powdered dandelion root: his substitute for the coffee he would drink each morning with his wife. But that was many years ago now, and he yawns, stretching again, unable to recall even the outline of her face. As boiled water spits and fizzes from spout to fire, he whistles a bird call, loud and shrill before unhooking the kettle and pouring water into his enamelled tin cups, standing the kettle on a large, flat stone.

Now Jarad is coming, stooping under the tangled branches which surround the clearing, snapping twigs and nettles underfoot, brambles snagging his thick, rainbow-striped woollen jumper as he walks. From his boat he has brought a carton of longlife milk, a packet of ginger nuts, and their daily fix of sugar in a cylindrical, watertight container. Seeing Sean by the fire, Jarad smiles, waving a greeting.

“I smell you've caught a duck, my friend,” and Sean laughs his rasping, wheezy chuckle, picking up his utensil and giving the stew another stir, then collecting a little for Jarad to taste, as he does every morning.
“Cooked to perfection.” Jarad observes, his eyes, which change from green, to blue, to grey, depending on the weather, glinting with a mischievous smile.

The two men sit, face to face across the fire, clutching cups, stirring in milk and soft, dark sugar with brown-stained spoons. They sip their brews, staring into the flames.

It hasn't always been this way: this life hidden from view, out of reach- or seemingly so. He had children once. A flaxen-haired girl he named Starlight, pushed into the world through twenty four hours of his once-wife's labour, coated with vernix and blood and handed to him two days later accompanied by the saddest eyes he'd ever seen. He'd been at a squat party in Bristol and swore he had meant to be there for the birth.

“I was two weeks overdue! Two weeks! Two.Fucking.Weeks!” those broken-voiced words echoing still in the years collected inside him. His daughter would be in her thirties now, and his son? He had left whilst Angelica was pregnant, never to see her again. He doesn't even know what she named him, or if he really was the boy she had hoped for.

He sips from his tea now, his thoughts merging with Jarad's accounts of his daughter Rosie's difficulties at school. Occasional words he picks up: bullying; tears at bedtime; “they shout 'water Gypsy' at her to taunt her”.
But she is strong; proud of her ways and those of her people before her.

'They're only jealous of her freedom, Jarad. The world doesn't change in that way: there will always be the jealous ones, the violent ones, the indifferent ones and the ones who join us.'

And Jarad nods as he picks up his guitar and plays. A moment later, Phoebe brings Rosie, holding four balti dishes which clang together in time with Jarad's chords, and a handful of cutlery. Sean scoops a ladle full or two of stew into each bowl and they are passed around the circle of friends and family until everyone's lap is full. This daily ritual: sometimes porridge, sometimes cornflakes: but always something shared- serves to remind Sean that family is not always tied by blood; that in this life, you take to your heart those who accept you, share what you have until they are moved on by the absurd laws- sometimes of nature; sometimes of the heart, and here, on the cut, of the government- which force people to move on and on endlessly, even when they want to stay longer. He cherishes each moment.

It is Rosie who hears it first. Perhaps the souls of children are more open to the vibrations that most cannot detect. But after a while, all four of them stand, their empty bowls stacked in a pile so fast that Jarad's pings to the ground.

'Vehicles can't get down here.'

'They can if they belong to British waterways.'

'I thought they'd closed off that gate,'

Jarad's eyes are pierced with worry now and he brushes past nettles and brambles without care if he's stung or cut, towards the ever-approaching chug chug chug of a heavy diesel engine and the gunshot sounds of snapped sticks and branches.

They are here.

An irate, officious-looking man approaches, dressed in a suit and fluorescent yellow jacket, a yellow hard hat on his potato-like head. He is red-faced and pockmarked, his angular jawline which could have been handsome were it not for his malice, set in an expression of impending doom. He has a clipboard in his hand and is followed by a worried-looking young man in work boots and jeans under the same style of jacket and hat.

The first man's voice is robotic and abrasive. He takes a sheet from his clipboard and flourishes it menacingly.

“I'm serving you with a notice of enforcement. I see you're still here in your illegal dwelling. Well it's going today. Clear out your rubbish, you hedge vermin. Better move sharpish if you want to get down the housing department, eh?”

“Leave him be, you beaurocratic jobsworth,” shouts Jarad, grabbing the paper from the bailiff's hand. “What do you people get out of this, eh? Eh? Leave us alone. Your vehicle is damaging the woods.”

They can all see it now: a towering, yellow bulldozer with a crane attached, crashing haphazardly through the tranquillity of the woodland, crushing rabbit warrens and toppling small trees in its wake.

Rosie begins collecting stones, hurling them in handfuls at the bulldozer, her piercing screams sending birds scattering from the treetops.

“Take her home, darling. Move on fast and leave me a pukkering cosh as you go,” shouts Jarad over the cacophony of the bulldozer; but Rosie won't be stopped, her stones now raining down on the two men, who shield their faces with their sleeves as they hurl abuse back. Phoebe takes out her phone and starts to film the bailiffs as they continue to invade the small family's peace with racist abuse.

“You dirty little pikey brat: what the fuck do you think you're doing you filthy gyppo scum!”

“Stop, Rosie: there'll only be more trouble if you hurt them. Stop, my child.”

Rosie turns to face Phoebe and screams a no, her face contorted in eleven year old fury.

“They're trying to take Uncle Sean's home away and I'm going to stop them.”
Phoebe tries to put her arm around her daughter, to shield her from words she was never meant to hear. But Rosie shrugs her off and heads for the container, fast as a ferret, Sean's lurcher barking behind her as she turns her attention from growling at the bailiffs.

And Rosie's scaling the container like a spider, her years of tree climbing paying off as she reaches the top and stands, holding her arms to the wood's canopy and screaming like a warrior.

“Get that child down!”
The head bailiff is shouting at Jarad, gesticulating wildly. He obviously expected to find no one here but Sean at this early hour.

“Get her DOWN!”

But Rosie has other ideas. She has heard many a tale around the campfire of bailiffs and evictions and she's brought the chain and padlock Sean uses to secure his door, and she's fastening it around her ankle and locking it onto the container's heavy iron fittings as the bulldozer crushes over the camp fire, buckling metal and driving logs into the earth, shuddering to a halt just inches from her.

“LEAVE US ALONE!” Her almost-adult voice drawing the attention of the growing crowd of boaters who have come to see what's happening. And one by one at first, and then en masse, they climb the container to join her; young, old, children and parents, single boaters and lone pensioners.

“Pulled his boat right out of the cut, they did”

“Lucky I'd sold it first- there was nothing they could do.”

“They're trying to turn the canals into a theme park for the rich.”

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS! YOU SHALL NOT PASS! YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

And it's working. For now, it's working. And as the bargees chant, the bailiffs make a hasty retreat, the lurcher tearing at the trousers as they scramble into the bulldozer, which reverses back over the desecrated countryside. For now.


They all know they'll be back with the police.


Sean will collect what he needs of his belongings and sit on the stern of Moonlight as Jarad and his family head for new places. Away from the school where Rosie never went that morning; away from the container and the family of foxes. Jarad will weld Sean's trivet, but his cooking pot is rent in two by the bulldozer.

And as the boat cuts its path through the water, the rising sun shimmers daggers of yellow and gold in the trails it leaves behind.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Gypsum

He's perched, cross-legged on the torn, black, cheapest Ikea sofa, furling foil around a chewed pencil stub. He's sworn never to go back. Promised. Promised himself. The misses. His kids. Two kids, a girl and a boy, who lay now, sleeping, in the room above. He promised. As he rips an oblong of foil the size of monopoly money, hears creaking above. Stops. Silence. It's seven minutes past one. He's careful to fold a long line the length of the foil, turns up each end and pours on powder the colour of gypsum. Just one. Just tonight, then he'll stop. It's day two since he broke seven years clean. Just the one. But he only used half a bag yesterday. He'd felt the need to save some. Just a bit. And he's proud of himself for not injecting it. Each click of the lighter, though, each crackle of the foil, each hiss of air sucked through the tube is a sound closer to being discovered. Each careless outtake of smoky breath, a smell closer to divorce. He must be crazy. Still the next day, he dials that same number.


He's living close to the edge of discovery, the denim pencil case he's put his paraphenalia in on top of the shared wardrobe in his marital bedroom. Just foil (used and new), cling film-wrapped bags (three for twenty five just like the old days: some things never change) and an electric lighter. He's not stopped wanting since that first toot: it's the smoking that's making him want it all the time, that's what it is: he never wanted it so often before. Not when he was injecting. And he's looking for an opportunity to slip out. Plenty of milk in the fridge. The gas and electric meters topped up. Enough toilet paper to last a bloody month. He opens the cardboard box of Tetley and rips the plastic foil wrappers. Tips the teabags into the bin and shoves them under vegetable peelings and cigarette ends. Ties it up and opens the back door. Out it goes, into the wheelie bin. His adrenaline is working now, hands sweating as he holds his palm out to see if it's shaking. Calm, calm. He goes upstairs into the bedroom and reaches for his denim pouch, which he shoves deep into his jacket pocket. He's already put his old favourite spoon in there before throwing out the teabags. Sticks his head round the living room door, where she sits in front of Ice Age 4, one child snuggled up on either side of her.


“I'm just going down the local shop to get some teabags. You need anything while I'm out?”

She shakes her head.

“Thanks love. See you in a bit.”


And he's out the door, straight into the car.


The chemist on Wicker is open as expected and he uses the left hand door with the yellow and green exchange sign. He shows his battered old keyfob he's had stashed for years and he's handed a brown paper bag. It's too big, he thinks, wondering how he'll stash all this. Back in the car he drives around the corner to a safe spot, rips all the packets open, shoving ten now-unsterile needles into his denim stash along with ten little yellow packets of citric. Brown paper bag with its black needle bin goes straight into the black, cast-iron effect dustbin. He was going to wait until she was asleep. No, he'll wait. But he's looking around, checking there's no one looking and he's ripping a piece of filter from his unlit cigarette, opening the bag he was saving for later and scooping four heaped spoons from his tiny handmade foil scoop into his spoon. He's filling a syringe with water from the little brown pill bottle he remembered to bring, just in case. Though he swore he wouldn't inject. It'll just be this once. Or maybe once a week. Even once a month. The mixture spits onto his hand as it boils to yellow-brown. It's nothing, this. Just a little bit. Not even half a bag. And seven years has given his veins a chance to emerge, if some are missing, so be it, but that place in the crook of his knee, he's been checking it all week and it's going to be an easy hit this time. And the blood squirts up first try, and he pushes down like he's never stopped at all.


It hits fast; his body flushes hot, feels it flow up his leg: up, up to his brain, that taste in the back of his throat like coming home and he knows he'll never stop at one.


And the feeling's all but a memory. Wishing he'd put more in the spoon. The only giveaway his pinned eyes and forgotten teabags.

“Make us a brew then, love”

Going back through the bin (why did he open the packet, stupid twat) just putting the bins out (again) and he wonders how long before she notices his crime against her sane reasonableness.


It's not true what they told him at the meetings. Hours each day wasted, reading repetitive messages from frayed and delaminated colour coded cards. Not true at all. We used to live and we lived to use. Untrue. Not back to where he started. Not back to begging for spare change or lifting testers from Boots counter. Not cashing kites down the cheque exchange. Not on a teenth a day and double. It's not true what they told him. Not back to square one. Unless you count that first square of foil. Five scoops from the homemade measure, tapping the powder with a bitten thumbnail into the old spoon. Just one more for luck and it cooks up a treat. The crimson plume sending his dick rock hard as he pushes home.


It's the little things that give him away. One by one. She knows the signs. A forgotten, used filter when she's hoovering. Storming in, empty-handed from the local shop, two small, sad, tearful faces full of broken promises of sweeties and sherbet dip: a declined receipt and a useless debit card thrown in his face. A cup of boiled, cooling water beside the ripped, black sofa. A trail of black soot on the lino where he dropped his spoon. It's always the small things. And the shouting starts. The slammed doors at night; the rev of the engine as tryes screech away, his children's cries fading to silence as he pushes the plunger home.




Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Hangin' up on Fear: Suspension Hanging Suicide Style.

Hey all,

I'm sorry I've not posted for a while. I hope there will be a new post coming up soon.


It involves flesh.

Meat hooks? Not quite.

Imagine a human, suspended, mid air. By the flesh.

Suicide? Only metaphorically.

Only the strongest, bravest, some might say most crazy individuals have the courage to attempt this ancient art.

In the words of the incredible woman I'll be writing about: FUCK FEAR.


WATCH THIS SPACE.

Love & Inspiration,

Vee X

Monday, 28 October 2013

'The Assimilated'

'What’s my name?': Changed Memories and Observations on Cultural Identity


…do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place..
-Hillel


…the assimilator…allows it to happen. This is achieved simply by doing nothing about being Jewish. Three or four generations, and the family ceases to count as Jews, unless bloodthirsty lunatics like the Nazis start up a grandfather hunt. Remaining Jewish in a free society takes work. If the work goes undone, Jewishness dims and dies. It is the exceptional assimilator who tries to speed the death by such devices as changing his name and obscuring or denying his background.

-Herman Wouk; This is my God.

Hiding, always hiding. I remember the words: don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish. Nobody told me why not. Just a child in nineteen-seventies small town England. DON’T TELL ANYONE YOU’RE JEWISH. Five short words, or seven.
Am I the generation of disobedience?
I told. I am a Jew. A Jewess. Yehudah. Yid.
‘Mouth almighty, you are.’ This was my father’s name for me. ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ He’d look at me and narrow his already narrow almond-shaped brown eyes.
‘Oh yeah?’ Defiant then as I am now.
If they did not want me to be a Jew, why did they tell me?
If I had known how much trouble telling would cause, then whom would I have obeyed?

Listen:
I have been less than a week in big school. Although this is real big school, it still has that nauseating smell of stale disinfectant, spilt milk and accidental urine, like the kids’ school. I close my eyes, remembering half-tables, pushed into imperfect hexagons, where various small children sit in stiff grey-blue uniforms. Here, in this high-windowed room, generations of eleven-year-old girls have watched the same, whitewashed walls, paint so thick now that the bricks resemble cobblestones. Here, we sit at those same antique desks that they once used. On the front wall, above the teacher’s podium, is a photograph of the class of 1891, and I wonder how it would have felt to be there then. I imagine future girls- boys, even- eyeing a photograph of my class, one hundred years hence. No. Stop. I do not want to imagine such things.
In a long, horizontal groove disrupted momentarily by a white ceramic inkwell, lays the burgundy Parker fountain pen my parents bought me as a prize for passing the entrance exam.
Then: STAB!
-like static electricity in my back: I yelp, swivelling at breakneck speed, roaring at the girl behind me, who bleaches her hair and leaves her eyebrows dark.
‘You killed Jesus,’ she mouths.
She wields no sharp objects and holds her hands innocently upon her desk, but in my role as Sherlock Holmes, I deduce that the weapon in question was a school-issue compass.
I speculate as to why they cannot think of anything more original to hurt me with. Rage seethes within me.
‘Mary Godston! Report to my office at the end of class.’ This is Handwriting and Reading, the only class taken by the Headmistress. Another thing I have come to expect is that it will always be my fault and it will always be me waiting for the red light to turn green and the buzzer to sound in the big hall outside Miss Grimsby’s ‘Study’ What she studies in there is anyone’s guess, but I suspect it has little to do with justice or fairness. I had thought it would be different here. I wonder if teachers have visual difficulties, as they never seem to witness whole events. I wonder if it is because my family are not rich and are not paying any fees for me to attend the school.
Over time, I have become a pan of hot oil on constant simmer like the plug-in slo-cooker my father uses to cook cholent, which is the vilest food in the world, ever. It consists of pieces of lamb so soft that they resemble overwashed dishcloth fragments that have been bleached to rags. The meat festers in slices of potato and butter beans with the consistency of silt. I visualise this girl who has just practically stabbed me, drowning in a bath of cholent. I do not make a sound. I do not protest. I am past all the but misses and the it wasn’t mes. I will save her for another time. I have learnt over the years that ‘telling’ only gets me branded the troublemaker. I have found that my parents are unsupportive to say the least:
‘Just ignore them. They’re jealous. You’re more intelligent than them. JUST IGNORE THEM.’ This is the voice of my mother. ‘Walk away’.
‘Just tell them you’re not Jewish. JUST IGNORE THEM.’ This is the voice of my father. ‘Why did you have to go and tell them you’re bloody Jewish?’
But I am Jewish. Am I not a Jew? Anti-Semitism is a term I have to learn for myself.
‘Mary GODSTON!’ Just the sound of this name uttered in this way gives me the yucks.
‘Yes, Miss Grimsby.’ The woman is tall: cropped dark hair, dark, dark-circled eyes. Dog-tooth suit in black and white; tan tights. I want her to be ugly: she is not. Just stuck up, but not ugly.
‘Stop daydreaming!’

Cut to headmistress’s office. Some time the previous year. An hour before the Eleven Plus. Legs shaking uncontrollably.
‘Wipe that smirk off your face.’
Miss Sergeant has tree trunk legs. Her feet swell from ugly brown flat-soled Ecco shoes like a plump baby’s foot forced into the cutesy first shoes found thrown from prams in righteous fits of remonstration. My mother says that she has gout, the disease of old men who drink too much port.
‘People like you may think you are better than the rest of us, but you’ll never pass the entrance exam. It’ll be the local comprehensive for you in September.’
In the cabbage and gravy infused dining room, I stare at the green and white streaked vinyl floor. The tables are arranged like bus seats. I sit behind Jane Johnson, who has braces and a lisp. Her hair is impossibly straight and seems white as it emerges from her pink scalp. I play ESP with the back of her head, willing her to scratch her head. Scritch scratch itch- scritch scratch twitch- scratch your itch- itch itch itch itch. She glances, then glares at me, turning back to her paper, an almost imperceptible tut emanating from her pouty mouth.
People like you
People like me…I meditate on this concept. Eleven years old, water-blue eyes, wavy dark hair hacked into a long at the back, short at the front affair, which renders me boyish, despite it being the latest fad. Larger-than average ears, but not sticky-out like Jan’s were before she disappeared from school for a fortnight, only to return with them modified and plastered on in a new, flatter position. Nose: definite ‘problem’ area. Listen to this: my cousin Sharon is ten years older than me. She’s my uncle Dave and Aunty Rosa’s daughter. Even though Dave looks like my father’s twin and Rosa could pass for my mother’s sister, Sharon doesn’t look like any of us. How do you work that one out? She has smaller ears; her nose is small and pointy and upturned. She bleaches her hair. No, it’s not what you think- she really is Uncle Dave’s daughter. But her face is plastic. My mother says that if she keeps on having plastic surgery, she’ll go the same way as Michael Jackson.
At home, bedroom door secured, I spend extravagant quantities of time in front of the mirror. I push my nose up into a pug, forcing my eyes to see past my hand which semi-obscures this object of exquisite and enthralling beauty. My top lip follows my nose on its journey up to Caucasia with the alarming effect of revealing a gummy, buck-toothed smile. I try again, this time adjusting the length of my ear with my free hand. If, as my classmates inform me, I truly do resemble the Wicked Witch of the West, Malificent the wicked fairy or witch from the Sleeping bloody Beauty, then the plastic surgeon is bleedin’ welcome to fit me a new face.
The invigilator calls us to ‘place’ our pens on the tables. My paper remains blank. I have failed my Eleven Plus. But I pass the entrance exam. I pass with the second highest grade and gain a free place at a prestigious single sex high school.

The same year, my father goes to work in Saudi Arabia.
The locals look him over.
‘Jew or Arab?’
My father looks at his feet, shrugs.
‘I’m English,’ he says. ‘I’m an engineer. I’ve come over to work. Look, this is my workmate, Martin.’
He nods at his friend as if his goyishness will save him by association. The man laughs wryly.
‘We are brothers, then. I make you an honorary Arab. We are all Semitic.’ My father closes his eyes and inhales deeply. He feels his skin prickle, chill, in the Middle Eastern heat. His eyes open and he sees azure sky, palm tree fronds.
‘Come, you want alcohol? Come, friend: we all of us have secrets here.’

I begin to spend every break time in the school library. This is not permitted. It is obligatory to step outside for a breath of fresh ostracisation and frostbite. Enough already. I head for the section marked Religious Studies, take the first book that I find, one of a half-shelf dedicated to the Holy Bible, scrape myself up to the heavy oak table and read.
Abram lay with Hagar. And so Ishmael was born. Through Sarah, Abram, now called Abraham, gave seed to Isaac.
Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac, lay with Leah. She bore Reuben, then Simeon, Levi and Judah.
Bil’hah, Rachel’s maidservant, bore Jacob Dan and Naph’ta-li.
Zil’pah, the maidservant of Leah, gave birth to Gad, then Ash’er.
Jacob again had relations with Leah: she bore Is’sa-char and Zeb’u-lun. A daughter, Di’nah, she bore to Jacob.
Rachel bore Joseph. Her final son, she named Ben-o’ni. Rachel died in childbirth: Jacob, now named Israel, changed his son’s name to Benjamin.
I wonder how it would feel to have four mothers and one father. I decide that I will never get married and even if I become a multi-trillion-zillionaire, I will never, never hire a maidservant.
I discover that it is not permitted to mix wool and linen fibres. At home, I ask my father what will happen if I weave wool with linen.
‘Look,’ he says, showing me the heel of my stiff, grey school regulation sock, which has been drying on the radiator. It is threadbare. ‘Unless you want to go fishing with your socks, get one hundred per cent fibre. That’s why we’re the best tailors in the world.’
I smile at this logic, and wonder why my father fries bacon and latkes on Saturday mornings.

For as long as I can remember, every summer holiday, we pack everything (including two black cats named Siggy and Fred) into the back of our rusty white Ford Escort estate and head South down the M1. By the time we reach Golders Green, which is always the first stop, my bladder is in danger of exploding. My father always parks down a pristine crescent off the main road and brings us to a little kosher restaurant. When I am done in the toilet, he buys us falafel with humous and Israeli salad in circular pitta breads. I hear Yiddish and Hebrew spoken naturally. My father asks for extra zehug, which is a hot sauce, a permanent feature of our fridge at home. He has a hand-held blender which he uses to whiz up handfuls of small, pointy chillis with coriander, salt and enough raw garlic to keep vampires away from the entire town, never mind our kitchen.
When our bellies are full and I have consumed a full two cans of mitzli mango (mitzli means ‘juice’ in Hebrew, one of the few words I know apart from Shalom, and a couple of Hebrew songs), we take a walk ‘to stretch our legs’, as my father puts it, before we make the next annual visit to my father’s friend the luthier on Edgeware Road. Everywhere I look are Jewish people. I feel angry at my father, because he doesn’t wear a kippah. We go inside a shop which sells religious books and artefacts. My mother negotiates a price for a Hebrew course with eight cassettes and a book. The proprietor shows her a range of Mezuzahs from basic plastic to intricate gold. My eyes are wide and sparkly as I imagine how they will look on the doorposts of our house, but my father shakes his head.
‘Come on, let’s get going now. We have to be in Southend for teatime. Your Nan’s expecting us and I want time to see Sammy Berger’.
Sammy Berger is my father’s violin making friend, and he always calls him Sammy Berger, never just Sammy. My mother and I reluctantly leave the shop behind my father, who is always in a hurry, and I take my new possession out of its brown paper bag, parading with it down the street, hoping people will see it and not notice that my father is kippahless. I know that he is just making excuses not to buy the pretty brass menorah that I want. I know that he will make a stop in the local supermarket, where everything is kosher and most of the labels are in Hebrew as well as English.
We stock up on Mitzli mango, which is syrupy, sweet and moreish. I want to buy packets of chicken soup, which is my favourite junk food, but my mother says why do I want that when I cook the best chicken soup and the packet one is full of MSG, which she says gives her a headache. My father buys gefilte fish for the journey, which I detest, and ten bottles of Palwin no.10, the sweet, red kosher wine that he lets me taste on a rare Friday night. We carry our bags of shopping to the car and set off towards Edgware Road. From the window, as we drive, I see Hassidim: families and men in shtreimels and I remember, years before, another summer holiday.

I am sitting in my grandmother’s back room, the window open. It is summer and I smell saltfish air blowing in from the Thames Estuary. I love this smell, fresh as ozone as it mixes with the sweetness of the doughnuts she is frying and will later fill with the sticky red jam that she has boiled and boiled in a heavy old cooking pot. I am five years old. Later, when my mouth and hands are sticky with sugar, my father comes in and wipes my face clean, licking sugar from my fingertips so that I jump up and down in excitement. I know that soon he will be taking me to the beach. He asks me if I want to see the curlies. I do not know what he means by this, what curlies are supposed to be.
‘What you want to take her down there for, Dave, Benny?’
My grandmother always muddles the names of her sons. My father, Benjamin, is the younger of her two boys. Sometimes she calls him Rachael, which is my auntie’s name and my middle name. This makes me giggle, because I know that my daddy is not a girl and sometimes he will pretend to be cross and call her a silly bugger. Then she will flick him on the ear with her finger and tell him that he should bang our heads together for disrespecting his old mama.
‘I’m going to show you the curlies, aren’t I, bubbeleh?’ he says, tickling my belly as he balances me on his crouched lap. My grandmother shoots him a look.
‘What do you want to fill her head with all that rubbish for? Bloody old Jews.’ My father rolls his eyes like Harpo Marx and wiggles his ears. I don’t know how he does it and I don’t think I will ever be able to wiggle my ears like that. I spend what seems like hours practising in front of the kitchen mirror: no way. My grandmother shakes her head in defeat.
‘Give your Nan a kiss.’
My grandmother Elsie’s face feels soft like the velveteen leopard I carry everywhere with me. She smells of ancient powder, lipstick and the red concoction that she calls rouge. Sometimes, she takes me into her bedroom and I close the hinges of her heavy dressing mirror around my head, seeing myself replicated smaller and smaller until my face disappears. If I have been extra specially good, she sprays Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew onto my wrists. It looks and smells like Coca-Cola, which I am not allowed, because it will dissolve my teeth.
My father hums Shnirele Perele, a Hasidic song about the coming of the Messiah, Moshiach, under his breath and I feel my grandmother’s body stiffen.
My father and I walk along the beach. He is carrying my shoes and I am running in and out of the water, chasing the tide. In the distance, nearby the houses on the waterfront, I can see the silhouetted figures of children and adults. As we draw closer, my father nudges me.
‘Look. There they are. The curlies,’ he winks. I am more interested in the cockleshells and pebbles that I am filling my pockets with, and in the two golden retrievers fetching a tennis ball from the water. I love the way their fur clings to their lithe bodies, how the water sprays from them as they shake themselves.
‘Daddy, can I have a golden retriever dog?’ But he is not listening to me. He has that faraway look in his eyes and what my grandmother calls his ‘naughty boy smile’.
‘Look, bubbeleh, you see? Those curly locks they have, you see, they’re called peyes. They can’t trim the corners of their hair or beards.’
I watch these children playing on the beach in their long, black clothes, heads covered. They look so familiar to me, yet so distant.
I want to ask my father why my grandmother is so mean about Jewish people when we are Jewish too. I want to ask him why he has brought me to this place where he grew up. Why he wants me to look at these people in the same way as we look at the lions when we visit London Zoo, except that we wave to the lions and shout hello. The children look happy. I pull on my father’s hand, wanting to run to play with a little girl who looks about my age, but my father holds me back. He kneels down and speaks to me quietly.
‘Would you want to go to the beach and never be allowed to wear your swimming costume?’ I shake my head. ‘Don’t get involved in religion, Miriam.’
I know he is being serious, because he is calling me Miriam, not Miri. Although I don’t really know what religion is, I shake my head solemnly. I do not understand why I cannot go to play. I am still smiling at the girl, who smiles back with eyes that reflect my own.
‘Nanna Elsie’s brother was killed because he was a Jew. Don’t let people know you’re a Jew. It’s better never to get involved. You’ll understand when you get older.’
Even though I am just five years old, I can see that in some way, these people are related to me. I do not know why, but I envy them. Young I may be, but I still understand that a colossal part of who I am is being methodically and deliberately denied to me. I feel loss. I feel shame, a shame which will cling to me like the barnacles that I try to prise from the rocks after the tide has gone, but which refuses to let go.
We walk and walk, my father carrying me most of the way on his shoulders, until we find Rossi’s Italian ice cream kiosk. My father buys me a big cone of my favourite ice cream and as we stroll down Southend pier, he tells me about the days when he would visit his Grandmother Goldstein and Grandmother Isaacson as a child. He tells me about Mezuzahs and menorahs, lokshen and bagels. Real bagels, he says, not like those fluffy things they sell in the supermarkets. He tells me about the East End of London and the Blackshirts, the broken windows and the burning Jewish shops, the tailors, and how the doctors tore the womb from my Great-auntie Rachael when she was fifteen after she had a baby from a boy called Charlie. He tells me how they covered all the mirrors in the house and took all the cushions off the chairs for seven days until she wasn’t their daughter any more. I feel terrified that one day I will be dead and alive all at the same time and that I will never see my family again.

Sammy Berger has his workshop in a room up some wooden stairs, tucked in amongst the backs of Victorian terraces, down a backstreet and an alleyway. It is a wooden structure built on top of a brick-built outhouse. The alley is paved with blue bricks cast with diamond-shaped criss-cross grooves. Some are missing, and the spaces where they were are filled with tarmac. Metal dustbins stand at back gates. There is ivy growing up the bottom of the stairs, covering the banister; it reminds me of the trip we made the previous year to see Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery, the way the ivy twisted and curled around delicate wings and fingers, brushing the silent stone lips of angels.
The smell in Sammy Berger’s workshop is of resin and spruce and turpentine. It is lit by a dim, clear glass bulb, its yellow filament flickering ever so slightly. Along the workbench are chisels, planes, rasps and gauges. I am fascinated by the tiny thumb planes, too tiny even for the hands of babies. What a baby would be doing with a plane is anyone’s guess, but that’s what I call them: baby planes or, better, fairy planes. Sammy Berger is a slight man with wire-rimmed spectacles and bushy black eyebrows. His hair is combed back to cover the initial stages of baldness. It is wiry rather than curly, and has become less and less bushy over the years that my parents have known him. I don’t know how he met my father, how they know each other and I never ask. They just are. They talk about music and a woman called Mrs. Thatcher. Here in this room of half-varnished violins dangling from brown string and brass hooks, bodies of ‘cellos, hulks of double basses hunched in shadowy corners, it is as though I have never seen Sammy Berger without his white apron, a yellow and black striped pencil tucked behind his right ear.
I take a piece of maple with a curved edge from a box labelled SCRAPS. I check it against the ribs and mould of the viola Sammy Berger has clamped up on the bench beside him. He is constructing the back from a single piece of maple, its grain deep and contoured like a shimmering Ordinance Survey mountain range. He lets me slot my piece of wood into its larger counterpart, where it fits like a baby tucked snug on its mother’s hip. I love the shape of these instruments, their womanish curves: names like ribs, belly; neck. The necks and scrolls of double basses lean together like giant fern leaves, waiting to unfurl, scrolls of 1/16th size violins like newly formed foetuses. The ebony of fingerboards, hard, cold and perfectly smooth; pegs chiselled, filed, sharpened, sanded: kidney-shapes mounted with tiny boxwood spheres. I pick one up and roll it between thumb and forefinger, like I do with my pen in school. I lift it to my nose: it smells of bees’ wax and I have to resist the temptation to put it into my mouth and chew it. Instead, I run it over the tip of my nose and smell my breath mixing with the smell of the wood.
When Sammy Berger passes me a small gouge, I look to my father and he nods, checking me in a way that says: be careful. Sammy Berger lays it in my hands, placing my thumbs and fingers in the right position. The steel at the tip of the blade is thin as paper and sharp enough to cut soft stone. Seeing my hands shaking ever so slightly, he guides them, metal scraping maplewood into curly slivers.
‘The tools are your friends. Don’t be afraid of them,’ he says. His voice is softer than my father’s. ‘If you treat them kindly, hold them gently, yet firmly, they’ll do as you ask them. If you’re rough, if you’re not sure of their friendship, if you squeeze them too hard, your hand will slip. Look, your knuckles are white!’
I try to be calm. I have never been allowed to hold one of these tools before.
‘I want to make a face’, I tell him, pointing to a ‘cello, its scroll, the head of a woman with piles of curly hair and mother of pearl earrings.
‘Aah. Then you need this.’ He reaches for a rasp and begins to grate at the wood. ‘Ha!’
Already it is more head-like in shape. As I take each tool to scrape, file, plane and cut, my world becomes concentrated into one small space. I work with the grain, control it, own it, as cheeks, nose, pits for eyes form. I pass a licked finger over my work to see the depth of colour, to bring the grain to life. I will varnish it a red-brown, I think, as my dreams are abruptly disrupted by Sammy Berger, who has made tea for everyone in enamel-glazed tin cups. He sets down a very ringed wooden tray on which my cup rests. It is un-chipped white with a blue rim and handle.
‘I put plenty of milk, but it’s a touch hot. Don’t burn your tongue! Your momma will never forgive me’. Then he looks at what I’ve been doing. ‘Look, Benny, look! Your daughter is a natural!’
I keep the feeling that his words give me stored up inside myself. I wish I had a teacher like Sammy Berger. When I grow up, I decide, I will make figurines of maple and walnut and boxwood and I will sell them at Harrods. I never do varnish my carving. I slip her into the pocket of my navy blue zip-up jacket. I call her Zana and over the years she becomes smooth as glaze as I touch her secretly in times of stress or sadness or boredom or whatever abstraction.

I have no sisters, no brothers (as far as I know). I am what they call an only child. Although Maya Collins fights and bickers almost constantly with her brother Kalen, who is my friend too, and even if they both tease their baby sisters Sophie and Zoë, who are twins, I crave a sibling.
‘Sibling rivalry’, says my father when I ask him why, if they are brothers and sisters, they are always fighting. ‘When I was a kid, your uncle and I had to share a bed. I’d be at one end and Uncle Dave at the other. There was only one pillow and he was three years older that me, so he thought he had the right to it. He’d start kicking me, pulling the blankets off me, sticking his feet in my face, so I’d go for the pillow and we’d fight over that bloody pillow every night until the bloody thing burst open- feathers everywhere. Up my nose, in my mouth. All over the place, they were. And I just knew Dave was going to call your Nan and say I broke the thing.’
I laugh. We are looking at an old photo album with a dark red leather cover. It smells of Time Before Me and is so heavy I find it uncomfortable to carry. The pictures are monochrome. Grandmother Elsie is fat, with round cheeks and a long nose. Her curly hair looks stiffened into waves with an unknown substance. She wears a small hat at an angle, and tortoiseshell spectacles. She looks angry in her big double-breasted winter coat with its furry collar. I flick through the pages until I reach the first of what my father describes as ‘glorious technicolour’, but which is more like looking at life unfocused, through scratched orange-brown lenses. Grandmother Elsie still looks angry. Even in the photograph where she is holding tiny me in white blankets, she looks angry. And I see something else, something indeterminable in her expression. Is it fear?
‘So what happened?’ I enjoy listening to my father talking about his childhood, about his brother and sister and how they had to piss in a pot to avoid the outside toilet and its spiders, and how mornings were so cold they had to break the ice on the goldfish bowl. I don’t like the one about Uncle Dave frying the goldfish and eating them, and I never believe it anyway. Sometimes I can’t tell if my father is teasing me when he tells his stories.
‘Well, I tried putting my hands over his mouth; it didn’t work, I must have been about five or six maybe, him eight or nine, not exactly an even fight, eh?’ He laughs, enjoying the story almost as much as me. ‘Your Nan ended up storming into the room anyway, with all the noise. She got both of us by the ear, shouting and raving about her only good pillow, when we knew it was the worst one! We both had the belt for that.’
I don’t like the part about the belt either. My father carries on talking:
‘She had us collecting the feathers up and putting them into a potato sack while she stood there, checking every last tiny bit of down was gone from the bedroom. She cut the old pillowcase in half, put half the feathers in each and had us sew them up.’
‘So, you had one pillow each!’ I look at the lines around my father’s eyes, the lines that my mother calls crows’ feet and he calls laughter lines. If I ever have to have lines, I will never name them after a scavenging bird’s ugly foot.
‘We still fought about the pillows after that. Yeah, funny old thing, sibling rivalry…’

The house where we live is big and old and half falling down. It has a small garden with broken flagstones, pear trees and mud, not grass. It is midsummer and the school holidays. I have been trying to persuade my father to plant a lawn, but he has said no so many times that I am astounded when he arrives home from work with a brown paper bag fat like a packet of sugar, and tells me to open it. Inside are millions of tiny flat, brownish seeds and I know what they are because he has a fork for digging in his other hand.
‘You’ll have to help me with the mowing!’ he smiles, rubbing me on the head. I take my little trowel and help him soften the earth for planting. When we are done, he lets me throw handfuls of cool seeds over the earth. When the water from the rusty can, which we hold together, hits the ground, the smell of rain on hot days fills my nose and I realise that it doesn’t have to rain to make that smell. After that, I make the smell as often as I can by pouring glasses of water over flagstones in the midday sun. It smells of happy.
On muzzy summer evenings we go to the park compost heap with plastic carrier bags. My father climbs to the top of the heap, grass cuttings clinging to his yucky brown Farah trousers, and begins to throw me wallflowers in full bloom. The sweet scent of the flowers and grass is nothing like our stinky compost heap at home where potatoes sprout from onion skins, eggshells and overboiled lamb bones. I gently place each plant roots-down into the bag. The roots are swathed in dry, terracotta-brown compost, more like sawdust than real soil. When all the bags are full, he carries me home on his shoulders and I search his head for white hairs, pulling them each one out with a sense that so long as I pull out these hairs, which should not really be there, my father will never grow old; my Daddy will never die.
Maya Collins is in my year at school. Her birthday is the second of February, which is the day before mine. She is my best friend and ‘blood’ sister. We make a pact to be friends forever even after death in her attic bedroom. Her mother, whom she calls Bethany instead of Mum or Momma, is a nurse, and Maya has raided her workbag for the purpose of our initiation ceremony. There is a square iron bolt set into the black lock box on her bedroom door, just like the one on my room and she slides it across.
‘Really, Miri, you want to do this? Because we can never go back on our pact.’ I nod.
Maya has a really cool wardrobe that must be as old as the house with a big drawer in the bottom, and it is filled with amazing clothes, scarves shoes, fur coats. She lights two red candles, which are stuck in Portuguese wine bottles coated in wax drips, then two joss sticks. She places a huge chiffon scarf over my head like a veil and I do the same for her.
‘You know that anyone who breaks the blood pact will die a horrible, agonising, early death?’ I nod again, not really believing what she says, and I am sure she doesn’t either. Then she reaches into her pencil case, which is white nylon covered with plastic stick-on beads. Her name is written inside the seam in indelible green pen. She takes out her fountain pen, which is the same as mine. ‘We have to sign the pact on parchment paper and seal it with ceiling wax and barbers oil.’
Ceiling wax is sealing wax and barbers oil is Olbas Oil. The parchment paper is normal A4 which we have stained with tea and burned around the edges. Maya has written the pact in blood, she says, but I don’t believe this either. It says, in large, crooked letters:

Maya Lynette Collins and Miriam Rachel Goldstein
Blood Sisters in Life and Death.
This is our pact. Made on:
Sixteenth of July Nineteen eighty seven
Signed………………..…… ………………………

Maya’s bed is Victorian with brass posts and a patchwork quilt. We sit in its sagging centre as Maya rests on the Rupert annual and signs the paper in slanting cursive. She hands me the pen and I sign too, trying to make my signature as florid as Maya’s, but I still like hers better.
‘Miri?’
‘Yes?’
‘What’s your name?’
‘What?’
‘I mean, what’s your name really?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, in school, you’re Mary Godston. But that’s not your name, is it?’
‘No.’
‘So if you’re Miriam Goldstein, why are you Mary Godston?’
‘…’
‘You’re weird.’
By now I am as red as the silk scarf that has been draped over the small dormer window. I don’t know why. I mean, I really don’t. I don’t want to be weird. I don’t want to be Mary Godston and I don’t even know if I want to be Miriam Goldstein. Sometimes I fantasise that I am Maya’s sister. Maya’s mum Bethany is Jamaican and she is just the best. She wears her hair in fine dreadlocks and sometimes she wraps them in big colourful scarves. When she’s all dressed up she looks like an African Queen, with big clip-on earrings and bangles and beads. That’s why Maya has so many cool clothes to dress up in. When I stay over at Maya’s, Bethany lets us stay up to watch films with her. She calls them movies. She lights joss sticks that come in cardboard packets with pictures of flowery many-limbed elephants and plaited, multicoloured strings, which we take off when the packets are empty, to make friendship bracelets. There are always loads of candles on the big Victorian mantelpiece; big fat multi-wicked ones and little globe-shaped ones coated with millefiori wax which glow from inside. I know how to make millefiori flowers in Fimo, but I wonder how they do it in wax; how they keep the wax warm enough to work it, so it’s soft but not liquid. My favourite candle though, is a glowing globe the size of a small melon, with an indigo sky filled with stars. There are palm trees and little buildings with windows which light up yellow when the flame is on. When we’re watching a film, I sometimes catch myself watching the candle instead of the film, the little black wax houses coming to life, my imagination taking me to hot, dusty alleyways where veiled women laugh and hang out clothes on lines which criss-cross from balconies and fruit vendors sit on elaborately woven carpets.
Tonight, Bethany has promised we can watch one of her favourite films.
‘Hello! The lights are on but no one’s home!’ I’m back in the attic on Maya’s bed and she’s holding a hypodermic syringe with a long, thick needle. Under her hands is the ‘pact’ document. Her eyes are wide and spooky and I feel goosepimply all over. ‘We gonna do this or what?’
‘What are you going to do?’ This is freaking me out. Maya laughs then shakes her head, which makes her curly red-black hair shimmer in the candlelight, even though it isn’t dark outside. The sunlight passing through the scarf makes her hair more red, the ends like pure pink gold.
‘Come on, then. Look.’ She takes me by my right wrist and turns my palm upwards. ‘Do you want me to go first? We just have to prick our thumbs then rub them together. See what I got from Bethany’s bag! It doesn’t hurt like if you prick yourself when you’re sewing. Trust me, my mom’s a nurse! Ha ha, you get it, trust me, I’m a doctor…’
‘You do it.’ I brace myself for a big pain, but when she does it, it is almost pleasurable and when we rub thumbs together, the blood feels a bit like oil and warm water.
‘Blood sisters.’
‘Blood sisters. Now do your thumbprint next to your signature’
The thumbprint looks more like a blotch but when it dries, I can see that Maya really did write in blood. I am surprised by its shiny quality. Maya pulls a baby wipe from a plastic pot and passes it to me. I wipe my thumb, noting the tiny dot where the needle pierced my skin. She tears a piece of medical tape off a roll and I wind it around my thumb. She takes off the veil and I follow. When Maya has folded the document, she holds the sealing wax stick to the candle flame. As it melts it bulges and soot sticks to it. Maya hands it to me and I smear a blob where the flap of paper covers the other, then, pulling it away, a string like pizza-cheese, of brittle, red wax, snaps. Maya presses her skull and crossbones ring into the wax. We take turns dripping Olbas Oil over the paper. I rub some on my nose. We are done.
I don’t feel much different, I don’t think. Do I? When Maya’s mom puts the film on, I have butterflies. Does Bethany know we are blood sisters? What if she finds out what Maya took from her bag? Worse, what if my parents find out? I find myself hiding my taped thumb. When it gets sweaty under the plastic tape, I excuse myself and get rid of it in the bathroom.
The film is The Color Purple. We giggle when Maya’s mom tells us the actress who plays Celie is called Whoopi Goldberg, like a whoopi cushion. At first, I think the film is going to be boring. It starts off in 1909. Another costume drama, I think to myself, but it doesn’t take long to hook me and when by the end I still want more. Whoopi Goldberg becomes my favourite actress and I ask Bethany if I can borrow her Alice Walker books. Reading is my sanctuary. I feel blessed that I am not illiterate.
It is the later learning that methadone, or Method One was synthesised by Hitler's chemists and the association with syringes that causes me to cast my mind over past memories and to fictionalise it in writing. We are all human and our experiences shape us sometimes into the antithesis of what we expected to become.