The Crime Readers' Association

Between the Flakes

by Roger A Price

I awoke around 9 a.m. Not that I’d slept much; my legs had ached on and off all night. I just couldn’t seem to keep them still. When I did doze, all I dreamt about was getting my next fix of heroin. I was glad it was morning; nearly time to go and score from my dealer, then maybe the pain in my legs would stop. But it wasn’t just my legs; I seemed to ache all over, it was just worse there. The cold didn’t help.

I slowly orientated myself out of bed; I felt slightly heady and had to wait a minute for the mist to clear. Then, the coughing started. I rushed to the sink where I was violently sick. That over, I steadied myself against the wall whilst I recovered, glancing around the hovel my squatter’s room had become. Spartan. Anything of value had long been taken and sold for drugs. There was no heating, no hot water, nothing. How the heck had I let my life reduce to this, barely an existence. A single bed – with sheets I hadn’t cleaned in weeks – was the only furniture. I hadn’t washed the covers because I couldn’t be bothered, it didn’t seem important. Cardboard was taped to the window as makeshift curtains, and the cold dew held them to the panes. It wasn’t very effective, maybe after I’d scored this morning I would sneak down to the household tip and see if I could find some old cloth. Mind you, that would mean playing hide-and-seek with the council workers: smack heads weren’t welcome there, smack heads aren’t welcome anywhere. And especially at this time of year.

I splashed some water on my face and cleaned my teeth with my finger before putting my shoes on. They were still damp from yesterday’s trudging through the snow. I was already dressed, I never got undressed, as there seemed little point. I then realized I was starting to shake and shiver; and not just because it was cold. I was starting to rattle. I had to get some gear soon, it was only going to get worse, a lot worse.

I picked the purse up off the floor and took out a ten-pound note; it was full of notes, tens and twenties, over £300 in fact. I hadn’t checked the rest of the purse, never did, I was only interested in cash. But, as I took the note out, a wave of guilt hit me; what kind of man had I become? One who could steal from an old lady.

Her bag had gone before she’d known it, and I’d been off before she could have done anything. That had been last night. She’d left the cinema around midnight, probably been working there, probably on her way home. I hadn’t hurt her or anything like that. In fact, I’d made sure so; I was quite adept now at sneaking up from behind, cutting the strap on a shoulder bag and taking it before the owner knew anything. I never hurt anyone, though I knew plenty of smack heads who did. Even so, she must have had one hell of a shock, but I was desperate, I’m always desperate. All that ever matters is getting enough money for my next bag of heroin. Mind you, I’d hit the jackpot this time, over £300, I couldn’t believe my luck. I was due a bit of good fortune. That amount of money would keep me sorted for a few days at least. And, I could buy some proper food instead of the usual rubbish I ate, which mostly came out of skips at the back of the supermarket.

Anyway, time to get going. The dealer would be open for business from 9.30 a.m.. That’s what he’d said last night after I nicked the old dear’s bag. It was around midnight when I rang him. “Too late,” he’d said, he’d sold his last bag. I’d have to wait until the morning. That’s why I’m starting to suffer withdrawal symptoms; I’d missed my late-night fix.

I’d hid the purse in my room in the squat; other addicts were always coming in and searching it, looking for things to nick. Thieving swine would have a field day if they found all this. But it was too risky to take it out on the street with me; I was always being turned over out there. This neighbourhood had really gone down the pits; it used to be such a nice place a few years ago. I’d lived round here all my life, though I didn’t recognize the place now; but I don’t suppose the place would recognize me either.

Back to the matter in hand; no, I would only take a tenner, just enough for one bag of heroin, that would see me right until the afternoon. I walked out into the daylight and squinted as my eyesight adjusted. It would be worse once I’d scored; my pupils would let in too much light. It would feel like you do when you’ve been to the pictures during the day and come into the daylight. Remembering going to the Saturday matinees as a kid. That brief memory soiled, as the thought of the cinema brought a fresh feeling of guilt at last night’s activities. I shook it off. The enlarged pupils would be a small price to pay.

As I walked down the road a snowflake landed on my nose. I shook it off, that was all I needed. In doing so I caught my reflection in a shop window, it made me stop and stare; I knew it would be bad. I was in a bad way, but the sight still gave me a shock. I hadn’t seen myself for a few days; I tended to avoid mirrors, nothing good to see. Though I hadn’t expected this; I looked a real mess. I needed to rein things in a bit; my habit was getting worse. Squinting once more at my reflection, I wondered how I had come to this. From being a twenty-year-old undergraduate with a bright future ahead, to this in just over a year. It didn’t matter where you came from, or what kind of upbringing you had had; heroin ignored social classes. It crossed all divides, and united all within its misery.

I shook my head and ignored my self-disdain, I had to get going. The quickest way to where the dealer lived would take me past the cinema; and therefore past the corner where I’d robbed the old lady last night. I didn’t want to go past that spot. It would have been all right in a day or two, but not nine hours later. My self-loathing reminded me of its presence. I paused, but the only other way was across the park, and that would take twice as long. Ten minutes delay, no way; that was too much. I kept going the same way, kept my stare down at the pavement.

I turned a corner. The corner. The one from where I had sneaked up on the old dear. She never saw me; I always approach from behind, quick in and out. All she saw was the back of me. It wouldn’t have been too bad for her after all, I reckoned.

Then, I rounded the corner and almost walked straight into a copper. That was all I needed. I mean I had no worries; I hadn’t scored yet, so I was clean. He wouldn’t find anything if he stopped and searched me, I could just do without any delays. So, I kept my head down and walked past him while muttering, “Sorry, mate, didn’t see you.”

“Just a minute, son,” came the reply.

I hate it when they call you son. I wasn’t his son. My own father had died years ago, so the only person’s son I was now was my mother’s, and I hadn’t seen her in months. It only made her cry when she saw me, and as soon as she stopped lending me money to ‘sort myself out’, I stopped visiting. Her definition of ‘sorting myself out’ meant getting off the gear, getting cleaned up and eating properly. My understanding was very different; it went straight on more drugs. And when she realized this, she’d stopped doling out the dosh. So, I’d stopped visiting. Another wave of self-pitying remorse touched, if only briefly. I was having a hard day today. It would be better once I’d scored, though I had to deal with this copper first.

“Yes, officer, how can I help you?” I said as normally as I could, conscious now of my appearance.

“We’re looking for witnesses to an incident which happened here last night. An elderly lady was attacked,” the officer said.

“Sorry, I can’t help you, I wasn’t around here last night,” I lied. “Anyway, what exactly happened?” I thought that was pretty smart of me, remembering to show normal interest, even seeming concerned, like the good citizen I no longer was.

“An elderly lady was robbed,” he answered.

Keeping up the interest angle, I asked, “Is she all right?” Knowing that she was.

“No, I’m afraid not, she had such a fright it brought on a heart attack, and at this time of year as well. Happy Christmas from a scumbag.”

His answer hit me with the speed of my first fix; but without the pleasure.

“She can’t have.” I stuttered, my swagger and arrogance replaced with horror as his words sank in.

“Afraid so, son, there are some real slimeballs around here nowadays. It used to be such a nice estate, good hard-working people who looked out for each other,” the officer said.

Frantically I asked, “Is she all right? I mean she’s not, er, you know…”

“Dead?” The officer said, finishing off my question, “No, she’s not dead. But it was touch and go through the night.”

By now, I had forgotten about all my woes, all my aches and pains. I just felt disgusted in myself. I felt unclean; but on the inside as well the outside.

The officer went on, “We’re trying to trace her next of kin. Apparently, she has a son who lives around here. Though she’s not seen him in a while, you might know him? He’s called John Smith.”

At this point, my world shattered, completely. I thought I’d misheard at first. I asked the copper for the name again, I received the same reply.

I paused, and then spoke. “I’m John Smith,” I said. My self-loathing and feelings of guilt now utterly real, and not fleeting. I knew this was it. Enough was enough; this had to stop, and stop now. “Lock me up, officer,” I said to the startled policeman, “lock me up and I’ll tell you everything. I did it, but I swear I didn’t know she was my mother. Not that that should make a difference, if she wasn’t my mother she could have been someone else’s. But I’m going to need the police surgeon, I’m going to need some help; it’s time to sort myself out.’

Twelve months later, I left prison a changed man. It hadn’t been easy, drugs were on offer inside, but I’d resisted. I’d taken all the help I’d been offered. One day at a time, each easier than the last, and I’d done it. I’d been clean for several months, and if I can resist it on the inside, then I can avoid it on the outside. But before I put my life back in order, there was one thing I knew I had to do first; especially at this time of year.

I’d spent twelve months practising what would happen next. As I came to a halt by the T-junction entrance road outside the prison. Left was to my old squat, which had no doubt been taken over, though I wondered if the hidden purse and its contents were still there; probably not.

Right would put me on a completely different course; one I knew I had to take. A soft flake of snow landed on my nose as the weather started to turn. This time I didn’t shake it off. I felt it melt and I listened. I had already decided on what I had to do, but this little flake from a flurry that had stopped as soon as it had started gave me that extra little push. I turned right and set off to make my peace with an elderly lady who worked at the cinema; and to wish her Happy Christmas from an ex-scumbag.

You can read more about Roger A Price and his books here.

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