Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 18 August 2012

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Cider was her drink. Pint of. She was a reserved, deliberate, thoughtful woman, aged about 40. She went out hardly at all these days, she said, because she was raising a toddler. On the rare occasion when she did go out, nobody seemed to be having fun any longer. It wasn’t like the old days.  What’s happened to everybody in this town, she said? It used to be a party town full of interesting characters having fun. Where did they all go? 

Then she saw me at that party, she said, and she thought, well, at least there’s one person left having fun, keeping the spirit alive, which is why she’d made a note of my details and then called. ‘Another one?’ I said. ‘No, I’m fine with this one, thank you,’ she said, slightly horrified at the rapidity with which I’d sunk mine.

When they rang the bell for last orders, I went to the bar and ordered a carry-out. While the barman was organising it, I saw Blaze at the other end of the bar and trotted over to have a word. Blaze is an unreconstructed hippie of the old school: hair down to his waist, spangly waistcoat, absurdly voluminous embroidered trousers, and he calls everybody ‘man’. Blaze once lived in a bender in the woods for an entire year. Gathering firewood was so horribly time-consuming, he says, he was left with no time to play the guitar. Now he lives in a house.  

Three weeks ago the warm-hearted Blaze acted as a Good Samaritan to my friend Tom. Tom needed somewhere to stay and Blaze spontaneously offered him his living-room floor. ‘Is Tom still staying at yours?’ I said. Blaze rolled his eyes. ‘I’m having to take hallucinogenic drugs, man, to cope with it,’ he said. ‘Go and see him,’ he pleaded. ‘You’ll find him asleep in a chair. He’ll be glad to see you. Here’s the key. I’m going somewhere for a smoke then I’ll be home later.’

So that’s what this quiet woman looking for excitement and I did next. We walked with our carry-out down to the bottom of town, found Blaze’s house, a highly unlikely-looking mews house, and let ourselves in.  The place was in darkness. We tried a door off the hallway, and found an empty bedroom. We tried another, and found a bathroom and lavatory. The third door opened into the living area. I switched on the light and there was my great friend Tom, slumped in an armchair.

Here is a short summary of Tom’s recent past. The trajectory is vertiginously downward, flames and smoke issuing from his rear, and he needs to bale out.

He calls cocaine ‘chang’ or ‘changi’. He’s the only person I know who calls it that. And he’s been on the old changi a bit too much lately. In fact it’s ruined him. Diazepam, or Diazzies, as he affectionately calls them, and Valiums, or Valleys, haven’t helped matters. Nor has the legally available herbal high Salvia Divinorum, which he and friends have been caning lately. Herbal high websites tell you it’s a plant native to Oaxaca in Mexico that local Mazatec Indians have been using for centuries to expand their minds. For higher doses, one of the more responsible sites advises a ‘sitter’.  Tom is evangelical about the mind-expanding effects of Salvia Divinorum, though he has yet to devise a nickname for it. He has an out-of-body experience every time he smokes it, he says, as if this is his highest recommendation possible.

And on top of all that, he recently took a savage beating from two ex-friends, culminating in one of them repeatedly smashing him over the head with a frying pan. He’s made so little sense ever since that popular opinion has it that he’s been suffering from concussion for three weeks. The most remarkable thing about any of this is that Tom is a fundamentally decent, happy and hard-working chap. I’ve loved him since the day I met him round at Sharon’s.

The quiet woman seeking interesting people and I stood in the doorway gazing down at him. I wondered whether he’d been at the Salvia Divinorum again and was having an out-of-body experience right there in front of us. But slowly the glare of the electric light filtered into his consciousness and he came to, reaching forward automatically for the half-drunk bottle of lager on the table, and was stalled halfway by a spasm of pain from his busted ribs.  

I forgot to mention, too, that Tom has been on an 8 o’clock curfew for the past six months. So I said to this quiet woman, ‘Tom here doesn’t get out as much as he’d like to, either. He’s a right old laugh. Maybe you two should get together.’