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, that work becomes ever more depressing routine, improved only by the occasional near-death experience. The day the scaffold collapsed, sending me and Tommy crashing into a conservatory roof, I felt more alive than I’d done for weeks.
I landed on Tommy, crushing his arm against the tiles with the weight of both our bodies. Multiple fractures: he gets pins in his shoulder and elbow. I got off light: a cracked rib and a rainbow of bruises. A guy called Andy took his place on the crew and we hit it off right away. He had this super-charged Honda I’d kill for and he was always cracking jokes. When we knocked off we’d head to the pub for a pint or two. It was the highlight of my fucking life. Then one day he asks me if I party.
He gives me some coke and that night I was fucking superman. Meera was nagging me the minute I walk in the door, Anita was crying. But I didn’t care. I took charge. I sorted some shit! I took them both out for a walk in the cool evening air and we got takeaway from the Chinese. Anita nodded off in the stroller and Meera tucked herself under my arm and smiled up at me: my girl again, my beautiful brown-eyed girl. We fucked for the first time in ages and she fell asleep in my arms. I can do this, I thought, and I drifted to sleep with my mind buzzing with good intentions.
But the next night I felt like shit and I knew I couldn’t go home to the same old, same old. So I asked Andy to get me more of the good stuff and I started taking a sneaky line or two before I went in the house. I’ll super-charge me, I thought. 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 worked, the coke. I’d be awake till all hours and back up to do the late shift with my little princess no problem. I fucking loved it. She was a freak for anything by Oasis and it cracked me up to put her in her bouncer and watch her rocking out to their big anthems. Sometimes I just lay on the couch with her sleeping on my belly and whispered all my dreams to the soft spot on her head. She’s a little person, it blew my mind. But Meera started to get suss and during the day I was dogshit, so I went to the doctor and told her I’m wasn’t sleeping.
“Darling,” she said, “Pills are not good for young parents, you need to hear when your baby needs you.” She referred me to a sleep clinic, gold rings flashing as she patted my hand reassuringly, “You’ll treasure this time one day, darling.” I ripped up the referral but I heard what she said. It was at least a week before I asked Andy if he’d get me something.
“Medication is the only rational response to this fucked-up world,” he said when he handed over a baggie of pills to me. And me? I fucking agreed with him. Twat.
I was giving a third of my pay to Andy some weeks and Meera was noticing. We were fighting again. Then Tommy came back. Casual at first: a couple of days here and there to build up his strength. He was watching me like a hawk and it pissed me off. Everything was pissing me off. I got into a fight in the pub over a football match I wasn’t even following, got a bloodied nose for my troubles. It wouldn’t stop, blood everywhere, We went to Meera’s parents for the day and her Dad grilled me about when going back to school so I can get a better job and I lost my rag and punched the wall. There was more damage to my fist than the wall but I earned myself a proper talking to about my responsibilities. They wanted Meera to stay the night but she stuck up for me and we went together, back to the flat her parents paid for. The fight lasted all night, raging and dying away then flaring up again in exhausting, depressing waves, and Anita cried and cried and I wanted to walk away but deep down I knew it’s my fault and I stayed but I couldn’t relent.
Meera finished her coursework and landed a job in a graduate programme at a big consultancy firm. My stomach was sour with bitterness. By then we were barely speaking so I was spared the effort of hiding my jealousy. A little voice inside me whispered that she deserved it, that she put in the work but it was drowned out by the incoherent rage that filled me and consumed me. It shamed me into opening the books again, though. Then studying was my next excuse for not giving up the drugs. I’m wasn’t even getting high anymore, it just got 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 meant I had to look after Anita two days during the week. The first couple of weeks went great. We’d go to the park and the library and I made all her meals and the frost between Meera and me started to thaw. One day at the library I looked up from my accrual accounting textbook and saw Anita bashing a toy oven with matchbox car and I realise I feel something like contentment.
There was nothing special about the day. Just a Tuesday in November. The days were drawing in and the skies were cold and grey. Anita had been up in the night with a bit of a fever, and she was still scratchy when I was helping Meera get off to work but not long afterwards she gave in to the desire to sleep. I was strung out too, so I popped a couple of downers so I could get some creep. I brought Anita in the bed with me so I’d hear her if she wakes up. While I waited for the pills start to work, I watched the soft dark curl of her hair against her perfect skin, the rise and fall of her little body.
I woke up to Meera screaming. I was disoriented: it was dark outside and I couldn’t figure out what was happening. Slowly the horrible reality seeped in: Anita wasn’t breathing. I was useless. Meera called the ambulance, Meera let them in. I itched to do a line but even I’m not that stupid. We rode in the back of the ambulance, sirens punishing my brain. Everyone was grim and Anita was tiny and grey. Meera wouldn’t look at me. I kept thinking about Red Nose Day and all the times I didn’t donate. There was nothing anyone could do.
Later, much later, the inquest found 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 closed ranks around her, they 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 and that’s what I focus on. No surprises.