The sweat trickled down his calloused face, as he lay lifelessly in the centre of the unfurnished living room. And though his eyes were closed and his mind totally detached from reality, Gary was not asleep.
His body shook violently, as a look of elation covered his now drooling face and the hours scouring the streets for the precious cargo now seemed worthwhile. But in the midst of his stupor, his facial expressions began to change, his face and body contorted into a ball, as if he was trying to save himself from being pushed from the edge of a cliff. His hands swung wildly, as he tried desperately to break from the trance, to get back to reality, to get back to what he had paid so dearly to get away from.
But it wasn’t a cliff that he was falling off in his mind, it was something much worse. As his hands continued to flap, the sounds of that dreaded music played in his mind. Those sounds had long been drowned from his memory, but deep in his subconscious, they started to re-emerge. And with those knelling bells ringing in the background, he watched as his mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Images that he had tried so hard to suppress had forced their way back to the front of his mind.
That song, oh that insufferable song. It was her favourite and he used to hum along with her in the kitchen, back when times were good. Now it was a reminder of a time long past, a time that was far removed from his life in this grim apartment, filled with hopelessness and despair. His body writhed in agony, as each syllable tormented his tortured soul. Please let me wake, he cried to himself but his cries were drowned out by the ascending melody. It reached a crescendo as his eyes burst open and his body thrust upwards, his stomach erupting, as hot foaming liquid exploded from his mouth. He lay there, staring into the abyss, staring at the bodies strewn across the floor, ashamed at what he had become.
Despite being twenty three years of age, he knew he looked much older. His once muscular frame had disappeared and his bony shoulders protruded through the white cotton t-shirt. But this feature was masked by the heavy scarring on both his arms. He now had to fight so valiantly to find a willing vein, a sign that his body had had enough. It was as if his body was begging him to stop.
Sitting there, staring at his ‘friends’, he started to think about his life, what he was doing in a place like this. There were days that he promised himself that he would stop and then there were days that he thought that he would live like this forever. Today, however was different. Today, he felt a knot in the pit of his stomach and he realised that the nightmare was a message, a message from his wonderful mum.
A tear slid slowly and rhythmically through the contours of his skin as the memory of his mum flooded through his mind. Tear followed tear as they gently hit the floor beneath him, each drop echoing through the stillness of the empty night. Her infectious smile and distinctive laugh crashed through his consciousness but what should have brought a smile to his face only made him feel worse because his memories of his mum always ended the same way, the horrible memory of hearing those words, “Gary, your mum has been killed in a car crash.” Ten words that changed his life forever. It was the day after his Leaving Cert results. He had spent the night with friends and was on his way home when he got the news. His mum and dad were travelling back from the city, where they had just bought a new laptop.
The laptop was smashed on the floor of their kitchen two weeks after the funeral, when Gary’s dad had given it to him.
“What the fuck do I want a laptop for now?” he screamed at his father, before hurling it towards the floor. Gary still remembered the tears dripping from his father’s face, as he delivered the final blow.
“It’s your fucking fault she’s dead you bastard and I don’t want to see you ever again.”
And that was it. He walked out and never returned. He had wandered aimlessly from town to town, from city to city, picking up odd jobs to feed and clothe himself. He never stayed anywhere long enough to settle down or get to know people.
In Cork, he met a man who got him to do a few deliveries for good money. It was sometime before he realised why the money was so good, as his cargo was not of the legal variety, not that he cared. He was drinking himself into a stupor most nights to numb the pain and the loneliness, so it was a natural progression to heroin, which blocked everything out.
Gary wondered how his father was doing, he regretted how things had turned out. The pangs of guilt ate away at him, as he thought about that moment, when he placed his mum’s death on his shoulders. Gary vowed to himself that night as he looked around the room that he was going to make things right, that he was going to clean up his life and ask his dad for forgiveness.
He rose shakily, his body ravaged from within, but he mustered enough strength to pick a coat from the floor and force his weak legs out the front door, leaving behind a lifestyle that had almost killed him.
It was only 10 p.m. and he knew the shelter would be still be opened. He picked up the pace, his mind racing, coherent for the first time in months, as he thought about what he would say to John. John was the man who worked at the shelter, a former addict, who now spent his days providing food and help for addicts in the city. He told Gary every week that when he was ready that he would be there to guide him. Gary laughed his offers off each week, telling him that he didn’t have the will-power to succeed, but now it was different, now he had a reason to live again. His guardian angel had guided him back to the light, now it was up to him to follow it through.
John was busy serving soup to two men, when Gary entered the small run-down kitchen. He smiled and nodded to Gary, who took a seat and waited for him to finish his duties.
John had barely sat down when Gary announced, “I’m ready. I want to quit.”
John smiled and nodded his head vigorously, before responding, “brilliant, but Gary you know this is a tough road, it’s not going to be easy.”
Gary interjected quickly, “I know, but I will do whatever it takes John, I swear. I have to get off this shit or it’s going to kill me.”
“First thing’s first, we’re going to have to get you to a clinic. You can stay at my house tonight. I must be crazy believing a junkie who shot up today, but I’m willing to believe you.”
As his head hit the pillow in John’s house that night, Gary overcame his first temptation, as he thought about another hit, just one last one before he gave it all up, but he resisted. He looked at the mirror and saw the damage it had done and told himself and that his days as a ‘druggie’ were over.
It was a tumultuous sleep, the first sober sleep in years, yet his body was still filled with a variety of chemicals. He lay and stared at the ceiling, thinking about his life, the one he had prior to the accident. He didn’t realise it at the time but his life really was perfect.
And then in one foul swoop, his life was turned into disarray. He thought about the previous five years and honestly couldn’t remember much. There was not one person he could say was a friend, only people who had a common goal, to get enough money to feed their habit. In the early hours of the morning, he thought about getting up and running out the door, John would never know. But each time he was tempted to quit, he thought about his mum, the sound of her singing in the kitchen and the guilt made him stay.
The clinic was a scary experience for Gary. The clean, pristine building contrasted wildly with his shabby, forlorn appearance. Everyone’s looking at me, he thought. The feeling of inadequacy haunted him as he looked at the healthy people all around him. He had lived in a different world, where his appearance was acceptable, like a zombie on the set of a gore film.
The doctor was a kind man in his fifties with a white beard and glasses. He had treated John and was delighted that Gary had made the brave decision to come off the drugs. “I have great admiration for you young man,” he said much to Gary’s surprise, and it brought a smile to his face.
“What you are doing or rather what you are attempting to do is a brave thing indeed. The hardest part of your journey is already over. I won’t lie, the next few weeks will be tough, but you have John, you have me and you have the courage in your heart.”
And I have my mum looking down on me, he thought to himself as they shook hands with the doctor and made their way back to John’s apartment.
“You’re going to have to stay in the apartment by yourself and I’m going to have to lock you in. I know you promised you wouldn’t but I can guarantee that by next week, you will have attempted to break out and score a hit. I’ve been there Gary but give it two weeks and the worst will be over.” Gary nodded, not knowing what to say.
“Now I’ve got your methadone and I’ll be keeping it at all times. It will help you, but it’s not the same, we both know that there’s nothing on this planet that’s the same. I’ll give it to you as prescribed, not a minute before or a minute after. Try to attack me and I will defend myself.”
They both laughed. John was six foot four and weighed roughly seventeen stone. Gary was a bag of bones that some weighing scales might not even register. Short of holding him at gun-point, he would do well to tickle the gentle giant.
They agreed that after two weeks, Gary would come to the shelter to serve food and get himself back on his feet. John told him that once he had got himself in reasonable shape that they would look for suitable employment that would help with the rehabilitation.
But that was for the future and at that moment, tomorrow seemed like a long way off for Gary. The methadone had begun to wear off and the sweat was starting to trickle from the top of his forehead. It was time to go to the room and begin the fight of his life.
The room was eight feet long and five feet wide, with the small single bed sitting in one corner, with a chest of drawers and a wardrobe the only furnishings. A pan had been placed in the corner of the room, John’s version of an en-suite bedroom, for he knew the dangers of bathroom trips in the middle of the night. For now Gary was under lock and key.
The evening sun shining through the flowery curtains began to fade and as night descended, Gary came face to face with his demons. Within an hour, he was standing at the door, screaming with his fist crashing against the oak door, desperate to flee his mother’s funeral, begging the priest to stop chanting that prayer, closing his eyes to rid himself of the image of his mother’s coffin. “Let me out,” he roared.
In the next room, John prayed that Gary would be okay, that he could get through this horrific journey and come out the other side.
Gary’s pleas got louder and louder, as dogs barked and animals of all varieties attacked him. With his head in his hands, he scraped as hard as he could, trying desperately to release the demons from within, but all that came forward was blood. Again his mother’s image flashed before him and he screamed and screamed until his body finally gave up and lost consciousness, his body flailing to the floor. John smiled, the first test had been completed.
For days Gary’s life went through the same routine. The same imagery haunted him, the same screaming and wailing, as his body learned slowly to live without the lethal liquid that it craved so violently. “I can’t do this!” he screamed over and over as he scraped and scraped at his bloody face. How his body stood the torture he would never know but the constant throught of his mum watching over him kept him from giving up. Night after night he slowly chanted, “I can’t do this,” over and over, his mind, on the verge of explosion would shut down and lose all feeling. Each morning, he sat shivering like a wreck in the corner of the room. If there’s a God, please help me, he would beg each morning, as John came in to clean the room. I can never repay this man, Gary thought to himself, before making a promise that he would repay him by completing this journey.
By the sixth night, he was ready for the onslaught, but it was starting to ease. The same horrible nightmares were still recurring but he was much more lucid, more in control and by the time the two weeks were up, he was starting to sleep for an hour or two at a time.
John decided that it was time for Gary to get out and do some light work, to try to keep his mind off the drugs. The physical fight had been won, it was now a psychological one, a fight that John was all too familiar with. “Once a junkie, always a junkie,” was John’s motto.
But to John’s surprise, Gary showed no signs of weakness, he was so driven, with the determination that he was going to get clean and start a new life, a life that involved his dad. He worked for hours at the shelter, cooking, cleaning and serving. Seeing this, he decided that Gary was wasted working in the shelter and he got in touch with some of his contacts and he arranged for Gary to interview for a job in a hotel, washing dishes.
Gary was amazed at how fast his life was changing, but looking in the mirror, with his new suit that John had bought was a constant reminder of his past. The deep black circles around his eyes, protruding cheekbones and the thin frail neck were tell-tale signs, but at least they couldn’t see his arms, he thought.
The interview was a success and Gary was now back in employment, back in the land of the living. He worked tirelessly each day, washing each plate and each pot with a determination that impressed his superiors. He arrived early and left late and never spoke out of turn and not once did he think about getting high. He made a conscious effort each day to hide his arms, to keep them invisible, such was the shame about his past.
Months passed and Gary started looking better and better. His strength returned and he slowly put on weight. His bones no longer looked like they were trying to escape from his body and he had started going to the gym to get a little bit fitter. It was after a particularly pleasing evening in the gym that he decided that it was time to go see his father.
“A ticket to Naas, return,” Gary said to the receptionist at the bus station. He was getting the eight o’clock bus, which would have him arriving in Naas at ten. His house was a five minute walk from the bus station and after five years in exile, the prodigal son would be returning. He smiled to himself, thinking about how he used to listen to that story at mass years ago, never imagining that one day he would be in the same situation. He wondered if his father would kill a cow for him, or perhaps want to kill him, as he thought about their last meeting, when the shiny laptop met its end on the kitchen floor.
When the bus pulled into the station in Naas, the excitement built at the bottom of his stomach, he was so happy that he would finally see his dad again, that he could have a family again. He had so much to tell him, so many things he wanted to say, he just hoped his dad would feel the same way. He was certain that he would.
As he made his way through the streets, memories of his childhood came rushing back, regret started to fill his body at what he had done but he pushed them out, determined that he was going to start afresh and leave the past where it belonged. As he glimpsed the front door of his house, the knots in his stomach reappeared but he had to persevere. He walked slowly up the path and did what he had been planning for months, he pushed the doorbell and hoped that it was the start of something new.