Work becomes ever more depressing, routine, improved only by the occasional near-death experience. The day the scaffold collapses, sending me and Tommy crashing into a conservatory roof, I feel more alive than I’ve done for weeks.
I think of my Dad a lot. I thought he was so fucking dull. Didn’t drink, didn’t smoke. Didn’t chase fast women – or even Mum. Just went to work, and came home. Day in, day out, right up to the day he dropped dead in Sainsbury’s doing the weekly shop. Now I think he was a saint. Nobody tells you, do they? Nobody tells you that life is one long relentless grind.
I land on Tommy, crushing his arm against the tiles with the weight of both our bodies. Multiple fractures: he has to get pins in his shoulder and elbow. I get off light: a cracked rib and a rainbow of bruises. A guy called Andy takes his place on the crew and we hit it off right away. He’s got this super-charged Honda I’d kill for and he’s always cracking jokes. When we knock off we head to the pub for a pint or two, the highlight of my fucking life, then one day he asks me if I party.
He gives me some coke and that night I’m fucking superman. I don’t care that Meera’s nagging me the minute I walk in the door. I don’t care that Anita’s crying. I take charge. I sort some shit! I take them both out for a walk in the cool evening air and we get takeaway from the Chinese. Anita nods off in the stroller and Meera tucks in under my arm and smiles up at me: my girl again, my beautiful brown-eyed girl. We fuck for the first time in ages and she falls asleep in my arms. I can do this, I think, and follow her to sleep with my mind buzzing with good intentions.
But the next night it’s the same old, same old. So I ask Andy to get me more of the good stuff and I start taking a sneaky line or two before I go into the house. I’ll super-charge me, I think. Give myself a little boost, just enough to give me the energy to be a father and husband.
Nobody plans to be ordinary, that’s what I’ve figured out. You grow up thinking you’re special. You look out at the world and there’s a legion of shiny happy people having fabulous lives smiling out at you from your TV and computer and you think that’s you, that’s where you’re headed. And you’ll be better than your parents, and better than your teachers, and better than the fucking drones that serve you in shops. And then your girlfriend gets the norovirus and that little pill goes down the toilet with the rest of her guts and all of sudden you’ve got responsibilities and you slowly wake up to the reality that the shiny happy people are a big fat lie and that you’ve got to slog your way through like every other poor bastard.
It works, the coke. I’m awake till all hours and I can do the late shift with my little princess no problem. I fucking love it, I really do. She’s a freak for anything by Oasis and it cracks me up to put her in her bouncer and watch her rocking out to their big anthems. Sometimes I just lie on the couch with her sleeping on my belly, and I whisper all my dreams to the soft spot on her head. She’s a little person, it blows my mind. But Meera starts to get suss and during the day I’m dogshit, so I go to the doctor and tell her I’m not sleeping.
“Darling,” she says, “Pills are not good for young parents, you need to hear when your baby needs you.” She refers me to a sleep clinic, gold rings flashing as she pats my hand reassuringly, “You’ll treasure this time one day, darling.” I rip up the referral but I hear what she says. It’s a week or so before I ask Andy if he can get me something.
“Medication is the only rational response to this fucked-up world,” he says when he hands a baggie of pills to me. And me? I fucking agree with him. Twat.
I’m giving a third of my pay to Andy some weeks and Meera’s noticing. We’re fighting again. Then Tommy comes back. Casual at first: a couple of days here and there to build up his strength. He’s watching me like a hawk and it pisses me off. Everything’s pissing me off. I get into a fight in the pub over a football match I’m not even following, get a bloodied nose for my troubles. It bleeds and bleeds. We go to Meera’s parents for the day and her Dad’s grilling me about when I’m going back to school so I can get a better job and I lose my rag and punch the wall. There’s more damage to my fist than the wall but I earn myself a proper talking to about my responsibilities. They want Meera to stay the night but she sticks up for me and we go together, back to the flat her parents paid for. The fight lasts all night, raging and dying away then flaring up again in exhausting, depressing waves, and Anita cries and cries and I want to walk away but deep down I know it’s my fault and I stay but I can’t relent.
Meera finishes her coursework and lands a job in a graduate programme at a big consultancy firm. My stomach is sour with bitterness. We’re barely speaking so I’m spared the effort of hiding my jealousy to congratulate her. A little voice whispers that she deserves it, that she put in the work but it’s drowned out by the incoherent shouts of rage that fill me and consume me. I’m shamed into opening the books again though and studying is my next excuse for not giving up the drugs. I’m not even getting high anymore, it just gets me through.
I look back now and I wish I hadn’t been so good at hiding it. I wish Meera or Tommy had caught me, sorted me out. I said that aloud once, to the shrink at the clinic. He was like twelve or something, some posh boy fresh out of med school, looking down at me with a fat, satisfied face. He said, “One of our aims here is for you to take responsibility for your actions.”
Meera’s job means I have to look after Anita two days during the week. I want to show Meera I can do it and the first couple of weeks go great. We go to the park and the library and I make all her meals and the frost between Meera and me starts to thaw. One day at the library I look up from my accrual accounting textbook and see Anita bashing a toy oven with matchbox car and I realise I feel something like contentment.
There’s nothing special about the day. Just a Tuesday in November. The days are drawing in and the skies are cold and grey. Anita’s been up in the night with a bit of a fever she’s still scratchy when I’m helping Meera get off to work but not long afterwards she gives in to the desire to sleep. I’m strung out too, so I pop a couple of downers and bring Anita into our bed so I’ll hear her if she wakes up. I lie watching her while the pills start to work, the soft dark curl of her hair against her perfect skin, the rise and fall of her little body.
I wake up to Meera screaming. I’m disoriented: it’s dark outside and I can’t figure out what’s happening. Slowly the horrible reality seeps in: Anita’s not breathing. I’m useless. Meera calls the ambulance, Meera lets them in. I itch to do a line but even I’m not that stupid. We ride in the back, sirens punishing my brain. Everyone’s grim and Anita’s tiny and grey. Meera can’t look at me. I keep thinking about Red Nose Day and all the times I didn’t donate. There’s nothing anyone can do.
Later, much later, the inquest finds that Anita suffocated to death, probably because I rolled on her at some time during the day. Meera testifies that I wasn’t lying on her when she came home and found us, but she says there was no bedding over her face either. Her family close ranks around her, don’t let me anywhere near her. She doesn’t answer my calls, not since she learned about the drugs.
I’m on another crew now, good blokes who know nothing about my past. The work is still routine but it’s no longer depressing. The sameness, the lack of surprise? That’s all good.