Over the central doors is a sign, the lettering picked out in individual white bulbs. The sign reads: THE RITZ. Tembe looks at the luxury hotel, looks at it and then crosses Piccadilly, dodging the traffic, squealing cabs, hooting vans, honking buses. He goes up to the entrance. A doorman stands motionless by his slowly revolving charge. He too is white, milky, translucent white. His face, white; his hands, white; his heavy coat falls almost to his feet in petrified folds of milky, translucent white.
Tembe stretches out a black hand. He places its palm against the column flanking the door. He admires the colour contrast: the black fading into the yellow finger flanges and then into the white, the milky, translucent white. He picks at the column, picks at it the way that a schoolboy distresses a plaster surface. He picks away a crumb of the wall. The doorman looks past him with sightless, milky, translucent eyes.
Tembe takes a glass crack pipe from the pocket of his windcheater and fumbles the crumb into the broken end of Pyrex piping that serves as a bowl. Setting the pipe down on the pavement, at the base of the white wall, from his other pocket he removes a blowtorch. He lights the blowtorch with a nonsafety match, which he strikes on the leg of his jeans. The blowtorch flares yellow; Tembe tames it to a hissing blue tongue. He picks up the crack pipe and, placing the stem between his dry lips, begins to stroke the bowl with the blue tongue of flame.
The fragments of crack in the pipe deliquesce into a miniature Angel Falls of fluid smoke that drops down into the globular body of the pipe, where it roils and boils. Tembe draws and draws and draws, feeling the rush rise up in him, rise up outside of him, cancelling the distinction. He draws and draws until he is just the drawing, just the action: a windsock with a gale of crack smoke blowing through it.
`I’m smoking it,’ he thinks, or perhaps only feels. `I’m smoking a rock of crack as big as the Ritz.’
When Danny got out of the army after Desert Storm he went back to Harlesden in north-west London. It wasn’t so much that he liked the area – who could? – but that his posse was there, the lads he’d grown up with. And also there was his uncle, Darcus; the old man had no one to care for him now Hattie had died.
Danny didn’t like to think of himself as being overly responsible for Darcus. He didn’t even know if the old man was his uncle, his great-uncle, or even his great-great-uncle. Hattie had never been big on the formal properties of family – precisely what relation adults and children stood in to one another – so much as the practical side, who fed who, who slept with who, who made sure who didn’t play truant. For all Danny knew, Darcus might have been his father or no blood relation at all.
Danny’s mother, Coral, who he’d never really known, had given him another name, Bantu. Danny was Bantu and his little brother was called Tembe. Coral had told Aunt Hattie that the boys’ father was an African, hence the names, but it wasn’t something he’d believed for a minute.
`Woss inna name anyways?’ said the newly dubbed Danny to Tembe, as they sat on the bench outside Harlesden tube station, drinking Dunn’s River and watching the Job Seekers tussle and ponce money for VP or cooking sherry. `Our ‘riginal names are stupid to begin wiv. Bantu! Tembe! Our mother thought they was kind of cool and African, but she knew nothing, man, bugger all. The Bantu were a fucking tribe, man, and as for Tembe, thass jus’ a style of fucking music.”
`I don’ care,’ Tembe replied. `I like my name. Now I’m big –’ he pushed his chest forward, trying to fill the body of his windcheater `– I tell everyone to call me Tembe, so leastways they ain’t dissin’ me nor nuffin’.’ Tembe was nineteen, a tall, gangly youth, with yellow-black skin and flatfish features.
`Tcheu!’ Danny sucked the inside of his cheek contemptuously. `You’re a fucking dead-head, Tembe, an’ ain’t that the fucking troof. Lucky I’m back from doing the man stuff to sort you, innit?’
And the two brothers sat passing the Dunn’s River between them. Danny was twenty-five, and Tembe had to confess he looked good. Tough, certainly, no one would doubt that. He’d always been tough, and lairy to boot, running up his mouth whenever, to whoever.
Danny, many years above him, had been something of a hero to Tembe at school. He was hard, but he also did well in class. Trouble was, he wouldn’t concentrate or, as the teachers said, apply himself. `Woss the point?’ he used to say to Tembe. `Get the fucking “O” levels, then the “A” levels, whadjergonna do then, eh? Go down the Job Centre like every other fucking nigger? You know the joke: what d’jew say to a black man wiv a job? “I’ll have a Big Mac an’ fries …” Well, I’m not going to take that guff. Remember what the man Mutabaruka say, it no good to stay inna white man’s country too long. And ain’t that the troof.’
So Bantu, as he was then, somehow got it together to go back to Jamaica. He claimed it was `back’, but he didn’t exactly know, Aunt Hattie being kind of vague about origins, just as she was about blood ties. But he persuaded Stan, who ran the Montego Bay chippie in Manor Park Road, to get him a job with a cousin in Kingston. Rootswise the whole thing was a shot in the dark, but in terms of getting a career Bantu was on course.
In Kingston Stan’s cousin turned out to be dead, or missing, or never to have existed. Bantu got all versions before he gave up looking. Some time in the next six months he dropped the `Bantu’ and became `London’, on account of what – as far as the Jamaicans were concerned – was his true provenance. And at about the same time this happened he fetched up in the regular employ of a man called Skank, whose interests included buying powder off the boat and cooking it down for crack to be sold on the streets of Trenchtown.
Skank gave London regular pep talks, work-incentive lectures: `You tek a man an’ he all hardened, y’know. He have no flex-i-bil-ity so he have no poss-i-bil-ity. But you tek de youth, an’ dem can learn, dem can `pre-ci-ate wa’ you tell for dem … You hearing me, boy?’ London thought most of what Skank said was a load of bullshit, but he didn’t think the well-oiled M16s under the floorboards of Skank’s house were bullshit, and clearly the mean little Glock the big dread kept stuck under his arm was as far from being bullshit as it was possible to be.
London did well in Skank’s employ. He cut corners on some things, but by and large he followed his boss’s orders to the letter. And in one particular regard he proved himself to be a very serious young man indeed: he never touched the product. Sure, a spliff now and then just to wind down. But no rock, no stones, no crack – and not even any powder.
London saw the punters, he also saw his fellow runners and dealers. Saw them all getting wired out of their boxes. Wired so they saw things that weren’t there: the filaments of wire protruding from their flesh which proved that the aliens had put transmitters in their brains. And hearing things as well, like non-existent DEA surveillance helicopters buzzing around their bedrooms. So London didn’t fuck with the stuff – he didn’t even want to fuck with it.
A year muscling rock in Trenchtown was about as full an apprenticeship as anyone could serve. This was a business where you moved straight from work experience to retirement, with not much of a career in between. London was getting known, so Skank sent him to Philadelphia, PA, where opportunities were burgeoning, this being the back end of a decade that was big on enterprise.
London just couldn’t believe Philly. He couldn’t believe what he and his Yardie crew could get away with. Once you were out of the downtown and the white districts you could more or less fire at will. London used to get his crew to wind down the windows on their work wagon and then they would just blast away, peppering the old brown buildings with 9-mm rounds.
But mostly the hardware was just for show. The Yardies had such a bad reputation in Philly that they really didn’t have to do anyone much. So, it was like running any retail concern anywhere: stock control, margins, management problems. London got bored and then started to do things he shouldn’t. He still didn’t touch the product – he knew better than to do that – but he did worse. He started to go against Skank.
When the third key went missing, Skank grew suspicious and sent an enforcer over to speak to his errant boy. But London had headed out already: BIWI to Trinidad, and then BA on to London, to cover his tracks.
Back in London, London dropped the name, which no longer made any sense. For a while he was no-name and no-job. Floating round Harlesden, playing pool with Tembe and the other out-of-work youth. He lived on the proceeds from ripping off Skank and kept his head down way low. There were plenty of work opportunities for a fast boy who could handle a shooter, but he’d seen what happened in Trenchtown and Philly, he knew he wouldn’t last. Besides, the Met had a way with black boys who went equipped. They shot them dead. He couldn’t have anything to do with the Yardies either. It would get back to Skank, who had a shoot-to-kill policy of his own.
Without quite knowing why, he found himself in the recruitment office on Tottenham Court Road. `O’ levels? Sure – a couple. Experience? Cadet corps and that. He thought this would explain his familiarity with the tools, although when he got to training his RSM knew damn well it wasn’t so. Regiment? Something with a reputation, fighting reputation. Infantry and that. Royal Green Jackets? Why not?
`Bantu’ looked dead stupid on the form. He grinned at the sergeant: `Ought to be “Zulu”, really.’
`We don’t care what you call yourself, my son. You’ve got a new family now, give yourself a new name if you like.’ So that’s how he became Danny. This was 1991 and Danny signed on for a two-year tour.
At least he had a home to go to when he got out of the army. He’d been prudent enough to put most of Skank’s money into a gaff on Leopold Road. An Edwardian villa that was somewhere for Aunt Hattie, and Darcus, and Tembe, and all the other putative relatives who kept on coming around. Danny was a reluctant paterfamilias, he left all the running of the place to Aunt Hattie. But when he came home things were different: Hattie dead, Darcus almost senile, nodding out over his racing form, needing visits from home helps, meals on wheels. It offended Danny to see his uncle so neglected.
The house was decaying as well. If you trod too hard on the floor in the downstairs hall, or stomped on the stairs, little plumes of plaster puffed from the corners of the ceiling. The drains kept backing up and there were damp patches below all the upstairs windows. In the kitchen, lino peeled back from the base of the cooker to reveal more ancient layers of lino below, like diseased skin impacted with fat and filth.
Danny had been changed by the army. He went in a fucked-up, angry, potentially violent, coloured youth; and he came out a frustrated, efficient, angry black man. He looked different too. Gone were the fashion accessories, the chunky gold rings (finger and ear) and the bracelets. Gone too was the extravagant barnet. Instead there were a neat, sculpted flat-top and casual clothes that suggested `military’. Danny had always been slight, but he had filled out in the army. Darker than Tembe, his features were also sharper, leaner. He now looked altogether squared-off and compact, as if someone had planed away all the excess of him.
`Whadjergonna do then?’ asked Tembe, as the two brothers sat spliffing and beering in front of Saturday afternoon racing. Darcus nodded in the corner. On screen a man with mutton-chop whiskers made sheepish forecasts.
`Dunno. Nuffin’ criminal tha’s for sure. I’m legit from here on in. I seen enough killing now to last me, man.’
`Yeah. Killing.’ Tembe pulled himself up by the vinyl arms of the chair, animated. `Tell me ’bout it, Bantu. Tell me ’bout the killing an’ stuff. Woss combat really like?’
`Danny. The name’s Danny. Don’ forget it, dipstick. Bantu is dead. And another fing, stop axin’ me about combat. You wouldn’t want to know. If I told you the half, you would shit your whack. So leave it out.’
`But … But … If you aren’t gonna deal, whadjergonna do?’
`Fucking do-it-yourself. That’s what I’m gonna do, little brother. Look at the state of this place. If you want to stay here much longer with that fat bint of yours, you better do some yersel’ as well. Help me get the place sorted.’
The `fat bint’ was Brenda, a girlfriend Tembe had moved in a week after his brother went overseas. Together they slept in a disordered pile upstairs, usually sweating off the effects of drink, or rock, or both.
Danny started in the cellar. `Damp-coursing, is it?’ said Darcus, surfacing from his haze and remembering building work from four decades ago: tote that bale, nigger; Irish laughter; mixing porridge cement; wrist ache. `Yeah. Thass right, Uncle. I’ll rip out that rotten back wall and repoint it.’
`Party wall isn’t it?’
`No, no, thass the other side.’
He hired the Kango. Bought gloves, goggles, overall and mask. He sent Tembe down to the builders’ merchants to order 2,000 stock bricks, 50 kilo bags of ballast, sand and cement. While he was gone Danny headed down the eroding stairs, snapped on the yellow bulb and made a start.
The drill head bit into the mortar. Danny worked it up and around, so that he could prise out a section of the retaining wall. The dust was fierce, and the noise. Danny kept at it, imagining that the wall was someone he wanted done with, some towel-head in the desert or Skank, his persecutor. He shot the heavy drill head from the hip, like an action man in a boys’ comic, and felt the mortar judder, then disintegrate.
A chunk of the wall fell out. Even in the murky light of the cellar Danny could see that there wasn’t earth – which he had expected – lying behind it. Instead some kind of milky-white substance. There were fragments of this stuff on the bit of the drill, and twists like coconut swarf on the uneven floor.
Danny pushed up his goggles and pulled down his mask. He squatted and brought a gloveful of the matter up to his face. It was yellowy-white, with a consistency somewhere between wax and chalk. Danny took off his glove and scrunged some of it between his nails. It flaked and crumbled. He dabbed a little bit on his bottom lip and tasted it. It tasted chemical. He looked wonderingly at the four-foot-square patch that he had exposed. The swinging bulb sent streaks of odd luminescence glissading across its uneven surface. It was crack cocaine. Danny had struck crack.
Tembe was put out when he got back and found that Danny had no use for the stock bricks. No use for the ballast, the cement and the sand either. But he did have a use for Tembe.
`You like this shit, that right?’ Danny was sitting at the kitchen table. He held up a rock of crack the size of a pigeon’s egg between thumb and forefinger.
`Shee-it!’ Tembe sat down heavily. `Thass a lotta griff, man. Where you get that?’
`You don’ need to know. You don’ need to know. You leave that to me. I found us a connection. We going into business.’ He gestured at the table where a stub of pencil lay on top of a bit of paper covered with calculations. `I’ll handle the gettin’, you can do the outin’. Here –’ he tossed the crack egg to Tembe `– this is almost an eightf. Do it out in twenties – I want a oncer back. You should clear forty – and maybe a smoke for you.’
Tembe was looking bemusedly at the egg that nestled in his palm. `Is it OK, this? OK, is it?’
`Top-hole! Live an’ direct. Jus’ cooked up. It the biz. Go give the bint a pipe, see how she like it. Then go out an’ sell some.’
Tembe quit the kitchen. He didn’t even clock the brand-new padlock that clamped shut the door to the cellar. He was intent on a pipe. Danny went back to totting up columns of figures.
Danny resumed his career in the crack trade with great circumspection. To begin with he tried to assess the size of his stock. He borrowed a set of plumber’s rods and shoved them hard into the exposed crack-face down in the cellar. But however many rods he added and shoved in, he couldn’t find an end to the crack in any direction. He hacked away more of the brickwork and even dug up the floor. Every place he excavated there was more crack. Danny concluded that the entire house must be underpinned by an enormous rock of crack.
`This house is built on a rock,’ he mused aloud, `but it ain’t no hard place, that the troof.’
Even if the giant rock was only fractionally larger than the rods indicated, it was still big enough to flood the market for crack in London, perhaps even the whole of Europe. Danny was no fool. Release too much of the rock on to the streets and he would soon receive the attentions of Skank or Skankalikes. And those Yardies had no respect. They were like monkeys just down from the fucking trees – so Danny admonished Tembe – they didn’t care about any law, white or black, criminal or straight.
No. And if Danny tried to make some deal with them, somehow imply that he had the wherewithal … No. That wouldn’t work either. They’d track him down, find him out. Danny had seen what men looked like when they were awakened at dawn. Roused from drugged sleep on thin mattresses, roused with mean little Glocks tucked behind their crushed ears. Roused so that grey patches spread out from underneath brown haunches. No. Not that.
Danny added another hefty padlock to the cellar door and an alarm triggered by an infra-red beam. Through a bent quartermaster at Aldershot who owed him a favour he obtained an antipersonnel mine in exchange for an ounce of the cellar wall. This he buried in the impacted earth of the cellar floor.
At night Danny sat in the yellow wash of light from the streetlamp outside his bedroom. He sucked meditatively on his spliff and calculated his moves. Do it gradual, that was the way. Use Tembe as a runner and build up a client list nice and slow. Move on up from hustling to the black youth in Harlesden, and find some nice rich clients, pukkah clients.
The good thing about rock – which Danny knew only too well – was that demand soon began to outstrip supply. Pick up on some white gourmets who had just developed a taste for the chemical truffles, and then you could depend on their own greed to turn them into gluttons, troughing white pigs. As long as their money held out, that is.
So it was. Tembe hustled around Harlesden with the crack Danny gave him. Soon he was up to outing a quarter, or even a half, a day. Danny took the float back off Tembe with religous zeal. It wouldn’t do for little brother to get too screwed up on his profit margin. He also bought Tembe a pager and a mobile. The pager for messages in, the mobile for calls out. Safer that way.
While Tembe bussed and mooched around his manor, from Kensal Green in the south to Willesden Green in the north, Danny headed into town to cultivate a new clientele. He started using some of the cash Tembe generated to rent time in recording studios. He hired session musicians to record covers of the ska numbers he loved as a child. But the covers were percussive rather than melodic, full of the attacking, hard-grinding rhythms of Ragga.
Through recording engineers and musicians Danny met whites with a taste for rock. He nurtured these contacts, sweetening them with bargains, until they introduced him to wealthier whites with a taste for rock, who introduced him to still wealthier whites with a taste for rock. Pulling himself along these sticky filaments of drug-lust, like some crack-dispensing spider, Danny soon found himself in the darkest and tackiest regions of decadence.
But, like the regal operator he was, Danny never made the mistake of carrying the product himself or smoking it. This he left to Tembe. Danny would be sipping a mai tai or a whiskey sour in some louche West End club, swapping badinage with epicene sub-aristos or superannuated models, while his little brother made the rounds, fortified by crack and the wanting of crack.
It didn’t take longer than a couple of months – such is the alacrity with which drug cultures rise and fall – for Danny to hit human gold: a clique of true high-lowlife. Centred on an Iranian called Masud, who apparently had limitless funds, was a gaggle of rich kids whose inverse ratio of money-to-sense was simply staggering. They rained cash down on Danny. A hundred, two hundred, five hundred quid a day. Danny was able to withdraw from Harlesden altogether. He started doling out brown as well as rock; it kept his clients from the heebie-jeebies.
Tembe was allowed to take the occasional cab. Darcus opened an account at the betting shop.
The Iranian was playing with his wing-wang when Tembe arrived. Or at any rate it looked as if he had been playing with it. He was in his bathrobe, cross-legged on the bed, with one hand hidden in the towelling folds. The smell of sex – or something even more sexual than sex – penetrated the room. The Iranian looked at Tembe with his almond eyes from under a narrow, intelligent brow on which the thick, curled hair grew unnaturally low.
Tembe couldn’t even begin to think how the Iranian was getting it up – given the amount of rock he was doing. Five, six, seven times a day the pager peeped on Tembe’s hip. And when Tembe dialled the number programmed into his mobile, on the other end would be the Iranian, his voice clenched with want, but his accent still that very, very posh kind of foreign.
Supporting the sex explanation there was the girl hanging around. Tembe didn’t know her name, but she was always there when he came, smarming her little body around the suite. Her arrival, a month or so ago, had coincided with a massive boost in consumption at the suite. Before, the Iranian had level-pegged at a couple of forties a day and half a gram of brown, but now he was picking up an eighth of each as soon after Tembe picked up himself as he could engineer it.
After that the Iranian would keep on paging and paging for what was left of the day. Now, at least three nights a week, Tembe would be called at one a.m. – although it was strictly against the rules – and have to go and give the two of them a get-down hit, to stop the bother.
Tembe hated coming to the hotel. He would stop at some pub and use the khazi to freshen up before taking a cab up Piccadilly. He didn’t imagine that the smarmed-down hair and chauffeured arrival fooled the hotel staff for a second. There weren’t that many black youths wearing dungarees, Timberland boots and soiled windcheaters in residence. But they never gave him any hassle, no matter how late or how often he trod across the wastes of red carpet to the concierge and got them to call up to the Iranian’s suite.
`My dear Tembe,’ Masud, the Iranian, had said to him, `one purchases discretion along with privacy when one lives in an establishment such as this. Why, if they attempted to restrict the sumptuary or sensual proclivities of their guests, they would soon have vacant possession rather than no vacancies.’ Tembe caught the drift below the Iranian’s patronising gush. And he didn’t mind the dissing anyway – the Iranian had sort of paid for it.
The girl let Tembe in this time. She was in a terry-towelling robe matching the Iranian’s. The dun blond hair scraped back off her pale face suggested a recent shower, suggested sex.
How could the Iranian get it up? Tembe didn’t doubt that he got the horn. Tembe got the horn himself. Got it bad. But the stiffie was hardly there, just an ice-cream, melting before there was any chance of it getting gobbled. Not that Tembe didn’t try it on, far gone as he was. If he had a pipe at Leopold Road he’d make his moves on Brenda – until she shoved him away with lazy contempt. If he was dropping off for one of the brasses who worked out of the house on Sixth Avenue – who he still served without Danny’s knowledge – or even the classier ones at the Learmont, either they would ask, or he would offer: rock for fuck.
It was ridiculous how little they’d do it for. The bitch at the Learmont – who, Tembe knew for a fact, regularly turned three-ton tricks – would put out for a single stone. She stepped out of her skirt the way any other woman took off her coat and handed him the rubber from the dispenser in the kitchenette drawer like it was a piece of cutlery.
Usually, by the time they’d piped up together Tembe was almost past the urge. Almost into that realm where all was lust, and lust itself was a grim fulfilment. He’d try and push his dick into the rubber rim, but it would shrink back. And then he’d just get her to un-pop the gusset of her sateen body. Get her to stand there in the kitchenette, one stilettoed foot up on a stool, while he frigged her and she scratched at his limpness with carmine nails.
Tembe tried not to think about this as the Iranian’s girl moved about the bedroom, picking up a lacy bra from the radiator, jeans with knickers nesting in them from the floor. The Iranian was taking a smoke of brown from a piece of heavily stained foil a foot square. Tembe watched the stuff bubble, black as tar dripping from a grader. The girl slid between him and the door jamb. Wouldn’t have been able to do that a month ago, thass the troof, thought Tembe. She’s that fucking gone on it. Posh white girls don’t eat any, and when they’re on the pipe and the brown they eat even less. Despite that, skinny as she was, and with those plasticky features like a Gerry Andersen puppet, Tembe still wanted to fuck her.
The Iranian finished off his chase by waving the lighter around hammily, and said, `Let’s go into the other room.’ And Tembe said, `Sweet,’ keen to get out of the bedroom with its useless smell of other people’s sex. The Iranian moved on the bed, hitching up his knees, and for a second Tembe saw his brown dick, linked to the sheet by a pool of shadow or maybe a stain.
The main room of the suite featured matching Empire escritoires that had seldom been written on, an assemblage of Empire armchairs and a divan that had seldom been sat on. In front of the divan there was a large, glass-topped coffee-table, poised on gold claw feet. On top of this were a crack pipe, a blowtorch, a mirror with some smears of rock on it, cigarettes, a lighter, keys, a video remote, a couple of wine-smeared glasses and, incongruously, a silver-framed photograph of a handsome middle-aged woman. The woman smiled at Tembe forthrightly over the assembly of crack-smoking tools.
The room also featured heavy bookcases, lined with remaindered hardbacks, which the hotel manager had bought from the publishers by the yard. The carpet was mauve, the walls flock-papered purple with a bird-and-shrubbery motif worked into them. On the far side of the coffee-table from the divan stood an imposing armoire, the doors of which were open, revealing shelves supporting TV, video and music centre. Scattered around the base of the armoire were videos in and out of their cases, CDs the same.
Somewhere inside the armoire Seal was singing faintly: `For we’re never going to sur-vive/Un-less we go a little cra-azy …’ `Ain’t it the troof?’ said Tembe, and the Iranian replied, `Sorry?’ but not as if he meant it.
`For we’re never going to sur-vive/Un-less we go a little cra-azy …’ Tembe warbled the words, more falsetto than Seal, but with a fair approximation of the singer’s rhythm and phrasing. As he neared the end of the second line he did a little jig, like a boxer’s warm-up, and wiggled his outstretched fingers either side of his face, his head chicken-nodding. `… You know, man, like cra-azee.’
`Oh, I see. I get you. Yeah, of course, of course …’
The Iranian’s voice trailed away. He’d put himself down in the centre of the divan and was using the flap of a matchbook to scrape up the crack crumbs on the mirror, sweeping them into a little vee-shaped pile, then going over the same surface again, creating a regular series of crack smears.
Tembe looked at the pipe and saw the thick honey sheen inside it. There was plenty of return there, enough for five or six more hits. Tembe wondered why the Iranian had called him back so soon. Surely the return alone would have lasted the pair of them another couple of hours? But now Tembe saw that the Iranian had got down on his hands and knees behind the coffee-table and was methodically combing the strip of carpet between the table and the divan with a clawed hand. The Iranian’s starting eyes, hovering six inches above the carpet, were locked on in the hand’s wake, crack-seeking radar.
Thass it, Tembe realised. The fucker’s so fucking far gone he’s carpet-cruising. Tembe had seen it enough times — and done it himself as well. It began when you reached that point – some time after the tenth pipe – where your brain gets sort of fused with crack. Where your brain is crack. Then you start to see the stuff everywhere. Every crumb of bread on the carpet or grain of sugar on the kitchen lino looks like a fragment of ecstatic potential. You pick one up after the other, checking them with a touch of wavering flame, never quite believing that it isn’t crack until the smell of toast assaults your nose.
The Iranian had turned in his little trench of desperation and was crawling back along it, head down, the knobbles of his spine poking up from behind the silvery rim of the coffee-table. He was like some mutant guard patrolling a perverse check-point. His world had shrunk to this: tiny presences and gaping, yawning absences. Like all crackheads, Masud moved slowly and silently, with a quivering precision that was painful to watch, as if he were Gulliver, called upon to perform surgery on a Lilliputian.
The girl wandered back in, tucking the bottom of a cardigan into the top of her jeans. She fastened the fly buttons and then hugged herself, palms going to clutch opposing elbows. Her little tits bulged out.
`Fuck it, Masud,’ the girl said, conversationally, `why have you got Tembe over if you’re just gonna grovel on the floor?’
`Oh, yeah, right …’ He slid his thin arse back up on to the divan. In one hand he held a lighter, in the other some carpet fluff. He sat and looked at the ball of fluff in his hand, as if it were really quite difficult to decide whether or not it might be a bit of crack, and he would have to employ his lighter to make absolutely certain.
Tembe looked at the blue hollows under the Iranian’s almond eyes. He looked at the misnamed whites of those eyes as well. Masud looked up at Tembe and saw the same colour scheme. They both saw yellow for some seconds. `What …? What you …?’ Masud’s fingers, quick curling back from exploded nails, bunched the towelling at his knee. He couldn’t remember anything – clearly. Tembe helped him. `I got the eightf anna brown.’ He took his hand from the pocket of his jacket, deftly spat into it the two marbles of clingfilm concealed in his cheek and then flipped them on to the table. One rolled to a halt at the foot of the portrait photograph of the handsome woman, the other fetched up against the video remote.
This little act worked an effect on Masud. If Tembe was a cool black dealer, then he, Masud, was a cool brown customer. He roused himself, reached into the pocket of his bathrobe and pulled out a loose sheaf of purple twenties. He nonchalantly chucked the currency on to the glass pool of the table top, where it floated.
Masud summoned himself further and resumed the business of having his own personality with some verve, as if called upon by some cutting-edge auteur to improvise it for the camera. `Excuse me,’ he stood, wavering a little, but firm of purpose. He smiled graciously down at the girl, who was sitting on the floor, and gestured to Tembe, indicating that he should take a seat on the divan. `I’ll just throw some clothes on and then we must all have a big pipe?’ He cocked an interrogative eyebrow at the girl, pulled the sides of the bathrobe around his bony body and quit the room.
Tembe looked at the girl and remained, rocking gently from the soles to the heels of his boots. She got up, standing in the way young girls have of gathering their feet beneath them and then vertically surging. Tembe revised his estimate of her age downwards. She sat on the divan and began to sort out the pipe. She took the larger of the two clingfilm marbles and laborious unpicked it, removing layer after layer after layer of tacky nothingness, until the milky-white lode was exposed and tumbled on to the mirror.
She touched a hand to her throat, hooked a strand of hair behind a lobeless ear, looked up and said, `Why don’t you sit here, Tembe? Have a pipe.’ He grunted, shuffled, joined her, manoeuvring awkwardly in the gap between the divan and the coffee-table.
Masud came back into the room. He was wearing a shirt patterned with vertical stripes of iridescent green and mustard-yellow, sky-blue slacks in raw silk flapped around his legs, black loafers squeaked on his sockless feet, the froth of a paisley cravat foamed in the pit of his neck. What a dude. `Right!’ Masud clapped his hands, another ham’s gesture. Upright and clothed, he might have been some motivator or negotiator freeing up the wheels of commerce, or so he liked to think.
The girl took a pinch of crack and crumbled it into the bowl of the pipe. `I’m sure,’ said the Iranian, his tone hedged and clipped by annoyance, `that it would be better if you did that over the mirror, so as to be certain not to lose any –’
`I know.’ She ignored him. Tembe was right inside the bowl of the pipe now, his boots cushioned by the steely resilience of the gauze. The lumps of crack were raining down on him, like boulders on Indiana Jones.
Tembe mused on what might be coming. Masud had paid for this lot, but could he be angling for credit? It was the only explanation Tembe could hit on for the welcome in, the girl’s smiles, the offer of a pipe. He decided that he would give Masud two hundred pounds’ credit – if he asked for it. But if he was late, or asked for any more, Tembe would have to refer it to Danny, who would have the last word. Danny always had the last word.
The girl lit the blowtorch with the lighter. It flared yellow and roared. She tamed it to a hissing blue tongue. She passed Tembe the pipe. He took the glass ball of it in the palm of his left hand. She passed him the blowtorch by the handle. `Careful there …’ said Masud, needlessly. Tembe took the blowtorch and looked at his host and hostess. They were both staring at him fixedly. Staring at him as if they wouldn’t have minded diving down his throat, then swivelling round so they could suck on the pipe with him, suck on it from inside his lips.
Masud hunched forward on the divan. His lips and jaws worked, smacking noises fell from his mouth. Tembe exhaled to one side and placed his pursed lips around the pipe stem. He began to draw on it, while stroking the bowl of the pipe with the tongue of blue flame. Almost instantly the fragments of crack in the pipe deliquesced into a miniature Angel Falls of fluid smoke that dropped down into the globular body of the pipe, where it roiled and boiled.
Tembe continued stroking the pipe bowl with the flame and occasionally flipped a tonguelet of it over the rim, so that it seared down on to the gauzes. But he was doing it unconsciously, with application rather than technique. For the crack was on to him now, surging into his brain like a great crashing breaker of pure want. This is the hit, Tembe realised, concretely, irrefutably, for the first time. The whole hit of rock is to want more rock. The buzz of rock is itself the wanting of more rock.
The Iranian and the girl were looking at him, devouring him with their eyes, as if it was Tembe that was the crack, their gazes the blowtorch, the whole room the pipe. The hit was a big one, and the rock clean and sweet, there was never any trace of bicarb in the stuff Danny gave Tembe, it was jus’ sweet, sweet, sweet. Like a young girl’s gash smell sweet, sweet, sweet, when you dive down on it, and she murmurs, `Sweet, sweet, sweet …’
It was the strongest hit off a pipe Tembe could ever remember taking. He felt this as the crack lifted him up and up. The drug seemed to be completing some open circuit in his brain, turning it into a humming, pulsing lattice-work of neurones. And the awareness of this fact, the giant nature of the hit, became part of the hit itself – in just the same way that the realisation that crack was the desire for crack had become part of the hit as well.
Up and up. Inside and outside. Tembe felt his bowels gurgle and loosen, the sweat break out on his forehead and begin to course down his chest, drip from his armpits. And still the rocky high mounted ahead of him. Now he could sense the red-black thrumming thud of his heart, accelerating through its gearbox. The edges of his vision were fuzzing black with deathly, velvet pleasure.
Tembe set the pipe down gently on the surface of the table. He was all-powerful. Richer than the Iranian could ever be, more handsome, cooler. He exhaled, blowing out a great tumbling blast of smoke. The girl looked on admiringly.
After a few seconds Masud said, `Good hit?’ and Tembe replied, `Massive. Fucking massive. Biggest hit I ever had. It was like smoking a rock as big as … as big as …’ His eyes roved around the room, he laboured to complete the metaphor. `As big as this hotel!’ The Iranian cackled with laughter and fell back on the divan, slapping his bony knees.
`Oh, I like that! I like that! That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in days! Weeks even!’ The girl looked on uncomprehendingly. `Yeah, Tembe, my man, that has a real ring to it: the Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz! You could make money with an idea like that! He reached out for the pipe, still guffawing, and Tembe tried hard not to flatten his fucking face.
At home, in Harlesden, in the basement of the house on Leopold Road, Danny kept on chipping, chipping, chipping away. And he never ever touched the product.
©1998 by Will Self. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.