Waiting in the Shrub House, Ben rolled the black Afghan hashish in his palm. First into a sausage then into a worm, leaving its sweet scent on his dry palm. He was meticulous and gentle. Cupping a hand, depositing a supple cylinder of resin on see-through paper. Humming, he retrieved a cigarette from the makeshift table. A metal sign held up on two columns of cinder blocks. Licking to peel away the paper, lyrics on his mind. I’m feeling good, you know I’m going to work it out.
Shaggy-haired and bulky, Ben had a baby-face on a squarehead. The Shrub House, so named for its use, was his retreat in the Hale. It was after ten o’clock in the morning when he had knocked on Stu, who was still in bed. Knowing the message would get to him, he made his way here and waited.
Ben had to be out of the house. He’d woken up needing a piss and found the new man in his home parading naked on the landing. Sauntering from the bathroom to his mum’s, the door left open. The silhouette of his mother’s back beneath the sheets.
Two puffs later, Ben saw Stu arrive, his hand stretched out, greedy for the joint. A lanky sort, Stu had a good reach.
“Wait your turn,” Ben said.
Stu gestured with his hands as if warding off an evil spirit, “Damn, that stench is good.” He sat down, brushing down his cargo shorts. Leaning back, he rested his sandals on the table. “Come on mate, you gonna share or what?”
Using his high-ankle basketball boots, Ben kicked the edge of the sign, causing Stu’s legs to collapse. Taking more puffs than he needed, Ben choked on the fumes. The shit-eating grin on Stu’s face the added insult. The joint passed to Stu and Ben spat out yellow phlegm. Arms folded, he pulled his hood down over his eyes.
“Tasty,” Stu said. The morning had started with grim friction. An argument with his fierce Scottish mother. A lecture from his half-present father.
“Get some direction. Sort out your attitude!” The usual spiel.He wanted to tell him where to shove it but kept it back. The irrepressible seventeen-year-old wasn’t going to let the old man wind him up. Rather dead than selling on the road like you, mate.
There were no worries for Stu, not about his future. He lived in the moment, always clutching his Nikon FM10 wherever he went. Looking for the right moment, his eye adjusting the scene for composition and light. Behind the pentaprism viewfinder, he observed the world without getting involved.
Ben was staring up into the overhanging ivy, five-lobed leaves clustered over fencing. Stretching from the derelict building site to the spindly branches of the trees.
They had inherited the space from older boys long gone.Leaving only the relics of their former presence. A cinder block table, plastic chairs and a rusty oil drum. They kept their stash and porn in there. The worn magazines salvaged from the side of the railway tracks.
Their leafy suburb in north London was safe even late at night. The secluded space close to both their homes made the perfect place to roll, smoke and chill.
The joint came back to Ben wet on the roach. “Twat, you’ve ducked it.”
Nothing more was said that morning. They took turns in quick succession until they hit the roach. They sat a while until Ben’s stomach rumbled. The craving growing, Ben got up to go home.
As he passed Stu, he patted his shoulder, rousing him to leave. On the footpath, they popped gum and let their minds wander as they would.
The path opened into the street, Ben checked himself in the side mirror of a parked car. Peeling his eyelids back, he examined his bloodshot eyes. Then steeled up, went on.
Five minutes later, he was slipping the key into his front door. Tip-toeing up to his room, he stashed his pungent hoodie under the bed. Out of a canvas bag, squirrelled by the wall-side of his bed, he pulled out a Mars bar and packet of Quavers. Supplies are low, he noted. Munching furiously, the crisps and chocolate fast disappearing, he lay back. Putting on his over-ear headphones, he flicked the switch on the tape player. The crackle of a live recording ripped through with the screech of guitars and the wailing of Bob Mould.
“Sooner or later, friend, you’ve got to fall.”
Ben closed his eyes and floated away.
It was dark when he opened his eyes. Ears sore, he untangled himself and got up. The clock on the wall made it quarter to eight. He sniffed his armpits and ditched the t-shirt he was wearing. Grabbed a fresh one from the clean pile his mum had deposited in the corner. He was half-way down the stairs when he remembered the small bag of weed. Retrieving it from inside the Mickey Mouse clock, he stopped in the bathroom to roll one for the road. Thrashing some toothpaste with his finger he followed it with a mouthful of wash. On a whim, he decided to gel straight his blonde hair. He was out the front door a little after eight.The party wasn’t far, down Byron Road. Almost there, he regretted not having his coat. The prevailing winds from the south were bitter cold. So much for it being summer, he thought, never mind – best get a beer blanket going. The house was up ahead. Checking his watch, it wasn’t even quarter-past- eight. Way too early. He crossed over and headed down the alley opposite, towards the off-license.
Walking in, Ben squeezed past the narrow aisles of booze.Behind the thick glass, he saw the Gujarati man, a prominent birthmark on his bald scalp. It looked like a purple Rorschach test. Always reliable, he was sat behind the counter in a metal cage, whatever the hour.
“Hi Mr Patel, is Amit upstairs?”
“Good evening, Benjamin. Yes, he is.”
The automated lock on the metal door to the side released. Ben reached in and worked the bar, opening the entrance. Mr Patel closed and locked it once Ben was through.The corridor up to the flat upstairs rich with a heady mix of incense, stewed vegetables and sharp spices. Mrs Patel smiled and wrapped her headscarf as Ben passed by the living room.Ben gave a curt wave and rushed to the small room on the street side before he got pulled in for a sit-down meal. He knocked three times before entering.
Amit was lying on his bed examining the centrefold of a magazine. Good looking, Amit had a stern disposition, rarely cracking a smile. He was a solid friend though, always bailing Stu and Ben out.
When they had started at the grant-maintained school they all went to, Ben got bullied a lot. This towering brute calledTomas being the worst offender. Over six-foot-tall, the German loomed over Ben, still inching his way across the puberty line. It was Amit, already sporting a patchy moustache and bum fluff, that stepped up and put himself in the way. Took him under his protection like some Sicilian gangster. Despite them being of similar height and Ben being much more toned up, Amit still treated Ben like a kid brother.
“You going to Ballsy’s tonight?” Ben asked.
There were no pictures on the walls of Amit’s room. The bookshelves stacked with clothes. Drawers full of old game consoles and hidden away VHS porn. There were a small TV andVCR on the side table by the bed. Amit kept it all spotless.Partly to keep his mum from cleaning it and partly because he was a neat-freak. He pulled out the tape he was listening to from his Walkman.
“Here,” he threw Ben the BASF C-90 cassette, “you gotta hear this. Max made it. The first side is all Stone Roses. But the B-side, he’s filled it with all sorts. It’ll be good for you. Educate you.”
Amit and Ben diverged on the crucial question ofManchester versus Seattle. “Too much slash-my-own wrists, life is shit, bollocks,” Amit would say. “I mean fuck that, life is good, yeah?” Then in his worst Mancunian, “I wanna live forever!”
“I’ll give it a listen,” Ben said.
And he would. Max always made good mixes. They got passed around until they wore out or jammed up someone’s deck. Max had pretensions of being in on the scene, whatever scene.
One afternoon after they had sucked on an acid-soaked sugar cube in the park, Max had tried it on with Ben. It was cool, though. Ben had brushed it off and they didn’t make a big deal about it afterwards.
Sometimes he’d go around to Max’s and they’d listen toJohn Peel together. They liked everything they heard. The weird ones, the good tracks, the shit noise that would mushroom all around school in a few months. Whatever Peel would play, Max would make a note. He’d head over to the shop in Finchley the next Saturday and put in an order. Never short of cash, his record collection was a row of heavy duty boxes lining his bedroom wall. The beauty of a system he played them on was worth more than the car Ben’s mum drove.
Rolling up the magazine, Amit secreted it in a poster tube. Then slipped the tube between the wooden rungs holding up his mattress.
“Alright, let’s go,” Amit said. “You got some hash for the night?”
“Dirt weed. You got some 40 to share?”
Touching his nose, Amit pulled out a bottle of Jack from between the stacks of clothes piled by the wall. Stashing it inside his Puffa jacket, Amit led the way onto the street.When they arrived at Ballsy’s front door, the party had already spilt out onto the front drive.
“Let’s have a spliff before we go in,” Amit suggested.
That sounded fair enough to Ben.
The mood downstairs was teetering on the edge. Girls in mod get-up downing schnapps, starting to get rowdy. The Sixth-form football team commanding court downstairs in the living room. Metal-heads sipping cider in the kitchen.
Amit and Ben slinked upstairs where the other tokers had gathered. Stu and the others were blazing through low-grade skunk when Ben and Amit arrived. Bongs and joints passed around freely.
“Happy days,” Stu acknowledged their arrival. He had both a purple bong and a dove-tailed joint on the go.
The bedroom squeezed in eight of them. Stu held court on the carpet in front of the radiator. Ben positioned himself on the wall corner of the bed. Amit perched himself on top of a chest of drawers, cross-legged doing a Sufi mystic impression.Streaky haired Stacey and her boyfriend Chris took most of the bed, squeezing past Ben’s legs. Giggling after her first puff,Stacey was a casual only. Chris sipped foul smelling whisky from the bottle, passing on the joints. Patting his blonde helmet of hair every time Stacey wasn’t looking.
It wasn’t that Chris was insecure about his looks. If anything, he seemed proud of his chiselled Scandinavian features. Boasting to anyone who let him about whatever he was bench pressing at the gym. But Stacey was hot and everyone knew it. There was no shortage of flash lads who could take her out in their car. To the movies or to a proper restaurant.Chris couldn’t even invite her back to the fixed-place caravan he lived in with his mum. Most of the cash from his job at the bakery went to help with the housekeeping. He never griped about being poor. House parties and five-pound bottles of whisky would do him dandy.
“Give it a listen, it’s Vedder as you never heard him.Before they all sold out.” Chris’s voice boomed as he talked to Rob, a scrawny kid squeezed into a corner. Rob’s face was a sore pizza of acne. Everyone but Chris avoided long conversations with him. Nobody disagreed with Chris when he described Rob as “sound as fuck” though.
Taking the bottle of whisky, Rob did an impression of a baffled gentleman drinker. “Not everyone who drinks is a poet.Some of us drink because we’re not poets.”
This sent Chris into a titter accompanied by a piggish snort. Emphasising his approval, he clicked his fingers like he was a jazz musician. The bottle of whisky came back fromRob and the swigs went between them like a pendulum.
The mood of the room poised between the noise of cheap spirits and introspectiveness. Stu offered Rob the joint as a chaser, performing some sort of psychic balancing act.
The mousy-haired South African girl Amy, who was next inline, got out of sorts about it.
“Chill,” Stu said and passed her the bong. Hands free, he arched his back and pulled out papers and tobacco. Using cheap hash, he kept the quality Afghan black for later consumption at the Shrub.
Everyone but Chris embraced the hazy vibe, mellowing into a lazy giggle. Chris sipped his booze, getting into a black funk. Muttering barbed words, his jokes mean and out of tempo.When he directed his mockery at Max with his thick curls and easy going manner, Stacey told him to put a sock in it.
“Dude, why don’t you stop and smell the roses,” Max said.Max was hovering over a box of old records in the corner. He pulled out a hippy drippy long-player from the earlySeventies. The cover art was all flower power and bellbottoms. He put it on the small Technics player and put the volume up on the amp to overcome the bass from downstairs.
“Groovy, yeah, you can dig it.” Max flashed the peace sign as the guitars and acid-trip lyrics kicked in. This was only partly an act on his part. Max loved Hendrix, Lennon, theByrds, Dylan and all that. His dad’s stories about Hamburg beer halls was how Max had gotten into music. When his parents divorced, it was the only thing he could talk to his dad about which didn’t result in bitterness. His mother was living her life. He wished his dad would too.
There was a chorus of giggles as Max played the fool, muting Chris from whatever venom he was going to spew. Chris’s face resembled a bulldog who had his leash yanked.
“Shit,” Stu grabbed the record sleeve. “Who the fuck is this guy?” He gestured wide around the room. Posters of big hair bands hung on the wall. There were three lava lamps of different colours and a set of wind chimes on a stand. “It’s a bloody hippie shrine.”
“He name is Paul,” Amy said. “I know him from chess club.His parents are ‘right on’ Commie yids.”
Ben squirmed, shifting his legs about. Stu’s eyebrows raised and he mouthed astonishment. Not for the first time,Amy had left everyone dumbfounded. The words reflections of her father, an investment banker with a hard-on for Thatcher.They’d moved to north London after Mandela got elected. No guest left their house without at least once hearing how the old country had now gone to the dogs.
The group drifted into paranoia. Amy’s eyes darted between Stu and Ben, then lingered on Amit. She put a velvet hairband over her cropped hair, tugging the frame of her glasses. “Sorry,” she said.
Once again it was Max who intervened, playing the chimes with his Bic lighter. The tune recognisable, the stoners concentrated on trying to guess it. Bored of the game, Max dugout another record and put it on. The melody was tribal, twisting crescendos into prog rock.
“Shit, I know this,” Amit said.
Picking at an imaginary guitar, Max moshed. He put a boot on the corner of the bed and rocked his charity-shop flares.
“There’s no limit to your cool,” Ben said.
Stacey suggested, “Is this the Beatles?”
The boys all groaned. Stacey was the normal of the group, their link to the rest of the school. Into all that dance-floor synth-pop. She was on the Thunderbird until she hooked up with Max. Then she discovered weed. Nobody doubted she had a soft heart; never an unkind word for anyone.
“Daft bint, it’s the Led ain’t it?” Chris said.
Nodding, Max’s glam rock performance came to a sullen end.
“Leaves are falling all around,” Robert Plant sang on the record.
The people in the room watched wisps of smoke circle as the speakers reverberated. The feel-good CD playing below them was discordant with the fantasy lyrics of the record. The vinyl’s screeching guitars ethereal, inviting an outer body experience. Downstairs the bodies rubbed together. The party rowdy, the treble and bass turned all the way up.
Stacey got up, “Come on Amy, let’s go have a dance.”
Amy stopped tracing patterns in the carpet with her fingers and got up, following Stacey out.
“I’m alright, you go ahead,” Chris muttered, swigging the whisky and spreading himself out on the bed.
Ben got up and moved to sit on the windowsill. He was the first to notice Chris pull out a knife. It was a yellow-case craft knife with a slide-out blade. Nobody else in the room saw it at first except for him and Maggie. She had said nothing all night, her matt black hair covering most of her face. Her eyes had a hungry look as she watched Chris flick the blade in and out, testing its sharpness on his thumb.Under her attentive gaze, Chris’s playfulness intensified.Dragging the blade, he left a thin red line and turned his hand for her to inspect.
“That’s sick, you fuck,” Amit said. Tense, he uncoiled his legs, dangling forward off the chest of drawers. Ben saw his body poised to fight or flight.
“Shit, Chris, put that thing away,” Max said.
“What are you, scared?” Chris waved the knife within inches of his face making clucking noises.
“Not cool, dude, not cool at all” Max walked out, givingChris the finger.
This delighted Chris who continued his taunts. “Don’t be such a little baby! Awww, why don’t you go blub to your mummy about it.”
Maggie inched closer. Ben felt a protective urge towards her and moved closer too. He’d known her since they were young enough to play on the slides and swings. More recently they shared a desk in History class. He’d watched her doodle macabre but funny comics when Mr Whitely was droning on. Her pale nymphs wearing ankh medallions were a favourite of his.The gore scenes and scary doll faces, not as much. It had been a long time since he’d invited her round for tea with his mum.
“Lay off it, Chris,” Stu had a sober look. Standing as well, he twitched the curtains as if checking on the safety of the outside world. Everyone’s eyes shifted, keeping Chris in careful sight.
Enjoying their morbid fascination, Chris became more extravagant. He picked up a paperback novel, slicing a triangle of yellowing paper out, throwing the cut pieces up in the air. Some of the pieces he tried to spear with the knife.No one commented so he tired of it. Drawing out the blade as far it goes, he waved the knife around the room again.
“Alright, who wants a cut?”
“Fuck off, Chris,” Amit backed up.
“Here,” Maggie spoke. She rolled the cuffs of her sleeved own, revealing healed-up scars.
“Alright! At least someone here has a pair of balls!”Chris said, waving the blade again at Stu and Amit. “Come on then Mags, put your hand on here.”
Maggie placed her open palm on Chris’s knee.
“Ready?” he asked.
The blade glided across Maggie’s palm as she looked down at the shaggy carpet in a ritualistic pose. The knife left only a pale white mark then a narrow bloody line. The smoke in the room cleared. Nobody was stoned anymore. Holding their breath, the boys watched, eyes wide. As if the metal alone had kept it together, the cut expanded. White jelly exposed before thick warm gore rushed out. Gushing, the drips stained the carpet a bright magenta. As it flooded, Maggie’s face drained of colour. The anguish on her face wild, her scream ferocious.
Ben was at her side, to Chris he said, “You mental bastard. Why the fuck did you do that?”
Pressing tight, he tried to knit the flesh back together with his hands. Amit intervened, wrapping a dirty black t-shirt around the wound. The tightening fabric stemming the worst of it. Stu rushed downstairs and they heard the music stop. Before long, Stacey and Amy stomped back into the room and swarmed around Maggie.
“Come on,” Stu came up breathless, “we need to get going before the filth get here.”
Fixed on the sight of Maggie’s blood and face drained of colour, Ben was only partly aware as they grabbed him. Taking an arm each, they dragged him out of the room and ushered him outside.
Ben bent over and heaved his guts out.
The flashing blue lights, ambulance or police Ben couldn’t tell, danced from down the street. The pubs hadn’t closed yet, the police had been prompt.
“Come on,” Amit said.
The crisp air felt good on Ben’s face, the cold balancing the ground shifting in his vision. Picking up the pace, Amit led them forward. Stu was already far ahead, turning on to the junction. Amit stopped every few feet, impatient and checkedBen was still walking. Often, Ben found that he wasn’t.
The sky was a blank canvas. The city’s light pollution and clouds hiding everything but the blimp of the full moon. A ‘Give Way’ sign reflecting the moonlight gave Ben something to aim towards.
“Come on!” Stu shouted back to them.
Ben realised he’d stopped again. Amit walked away frustrated, leaving Ben lagging.
“It doesn’t bear thinking about,” Amit said back to Ben.”Someone knocking on Dad’s door. Let’s get out of view.”
The two of them watched Ben drag himself to the corner and roused by pity, grabbed him under the armpits once again.Encouraging him forward, the quickened steps unsettled Ben’s empty stomach. He dropped to his knees and heaved but nothing came. He began to laugh, but there was no mirth to it. Stu andAmit waited then helped him back up.
“You took something?” Amit said. “I mean besides the weed.”
Shaking his head, Ben freed himself from Amit’s grip, letting Stu alone have the burden. With a stiffened resolve, they made for the Shrub House. There, they slipped Ben into a chair. Stu wasted little time getting a roll going. They were silent. Amit watching Stu’s fingers work. Helping to speed matters along, Amit emptied tobacco from a cigarette. Then softened hash off a block. The job done, they relaxed.
“Oi oi,” Stu passed the joint to Ben. It had already done a few rounds with Amit but Ben hadn’t noticed. Slumped in their chairs, the cold biting, they let a smog form around them in the windless night.Ben’s mind was racing with flashes of the night’s trauma, mixed with his own musings and feelings of guilt. He’d abandoned Maggie. Chris’s smug face haunted him. So much blood rushing out. The quick shifts of the group’s mood, from light paranoia to sheer panic. The acidic smell of vomit. How did I get here anyway? Trapped in his own monologue Ben envied the other two, communicative and relaxed as they were.The rustling of vermin by the bins on the street brought Stu back out into the moment. He was imagining a potential argument with his mother. He pictured her finding an empty baggy in his jeans, the barest specks of green inside. Careless, leaving it in his pockets. The look on her face. You’d think she found a needle and some skag, he thought. The conversation always played out the same. An angry mother, Stu sticking fast to his denials until they became untenable.Indignation at the accusation, followed by a sincere apology as his mother cried. Consoling her and promising to be better, to be good, not to be a disappointment. Regardless of how much he wanted to please her, he would disappoint her again.Withdrawing into themselves, Amit considered how different their lives were to his. They were like lost lambs in the night. Guilt flashing across their faces. He felt detached from them but relieved to be away from that psycho Chris. What was he supposed to do about a knife if some crazy girl wants to get herself cut?
Stu was going through a moon trip, staring up at the sky.Taking a Marlboro Light from him, Amit lit up, waiting for the joint to come his way. Blowing smoke rings, Amit reassured himself that he had done the sensible thing. These guys needed him, he was the only sane grown up in this whole mess. Up to him to have it all figured out.
Amit had the future mapped out. University then GraduateLaw then a nice steady job as a solicitor. Plenty of clients through the Gujarati community. His place in the world worked out from the age of seven. He didn’t have any tension with his parents. He was a dutiful son, getting good grades. The one pressing duty was to keep all this, the weed, the booze, the night, all of it, out of their faces.
“Shit,” Stu broke in, ending the inward drift. “Can you believe Chris? I mean what a mother-“
Amit let out a throaty laugh and Ben smiled.
“Bloody unbelievable,” Stu went on.
“Hope Maggie is alright,” Ben said.
“The ambulance came quickly, didn’t it? She’ll be fine.”Amit settled the matter.
The three friends were quiet until the solemnity of the moment passed. Stu asked, “What happened to her. I mean she used to be alright. Now she’s cutting?”
“She probably didn’t figure it’d be that bad,” Amit go tup and took the lifeless joint from Stu’s fingers.
Ben got up too and faced into the bushes by the wire fence. The sound of a pressured jet of piss hitting the ground muted the conversation.
“At least,” Amit said when Ben returned, “we have few nights like that left now. Not long till the summer holidays.”
“Glad when it’s all done with,” Stu chipped in. “Upwards and onwards, right?”
“It’s not been all bad,” Ben was feeling nostalgic, thinking about Maggie. “Worse places than the Hale I reckon.”
There was no disagreement. The joint made its final round before Stu crushed it under his shoes. They got up and headed home.