STIGMATA: The Indelible Track Marks of Katy Jones
I met Frank on my third day in a new city. I'd moved from Manchester to Sheffield with my then boyfriend who'd found a job at a steelworks. The building Ari worked in was nicknamed 'Smack' because the sheer temperature as you entered from cold, clanging outside steps smacked you in the face. He'd return home each day filthy and smelling like a combination of doner kebab with extra garlic and a strange odour slightly resembling sump oil. By day three in our new home somewhere along the once-red carpeted top floor corridor of Park Hill flats, the supply of heroin I'd brought with me from Manchester had gone and, as I awoke in my usual pool of sweat, I remembered all I had left was a tiny zip-lock bag containing used filters. The worst part about my situation was the knowledge that there must be at least a handful of dealers living in the same building. Perhaps, even next door.
It was before six a.m, Ari having left already for his twelve hour shift. Ari feared heroin. I hadn't promised to stop, but he saw our move from Manchester as a new start away from the people who could supply my habit. He genuinely thought I would stop. Just like that. After cooking up my filters, which only took the edge off what would inevitably become an increasingly uncomfortable day if I didn't score, I pulled on yesterday's clothes, grabbed my key and left the flat. Huge windows the length of the deserted corridor showed the city's spires and tramways in a panorama of grey, its sky deceptively blue. It could have been summer but for the leafless trees and the prickling cold. Relieved that the lift was working, and smelling slightly less offensive than it might, I headed down and out.
Cringing downhill and past the station, I crossed the main road and groaned up another hill to the ancient stone main library building to look up the time of the next NA meeting. It was closed. Sheffield is built on hills, and each incline oozed out of me putrid heroin-sweat, each step sending electric-shock like pains through my bones. I yawned, brine streaming from my eyes and nose as I muttered self-deriding expletives at not having found a supply earlier in the week, and began my hurried limp towards the city centre. My clothes chafed my skin with each movement. A lone council worker pushed a road cleaner around the pavements, its noise sluicing though my nerves and putting my teeth on edge. I had the idea that if I could avoid asking people who were begging for a hook up and instead sit through until the first fag break in a meeting, I could tag along with whoever was going scoring. If I was lucky, there would be someone selling somewhere close by. I'd known dealers to turn up outside, answering the calls of the nonbelievers amongst the anonymous soldiers, having committed such crimes myself back in Manchester. But I didn't know where any of the meetings were. It was so early that none of the obvious begging spots were occupied. Nothing was open but a small newsagent. I made my way down an alleyway, which opened up into a small square and sat down on one of the benches outside a pub to smoke. Grey clouds were blowing in, obliterating the winter sun and all the joints in my fingers ached as I rolled myself a cigarette from the bitty powder of tobacco in the bottom of my near-empty pouch. Cold and withdrawals eroded my ability to adequately roll the tobacco in the rizla and the result resembled the attempts I'd made as a child with mint from the garden in rizlas sneaked from my Dad. I may as well have had flippers in place of my hands, they were so numb, and after several failed flicks of my lighter, I approached a man who was smoking on the steps of an adjacent building and asked him for a light. He sat on the bottom step, curled in on himself, his number two haircut and days old stubble draped in the hood of a green army jacket. He scuffed the toe of his Reebok trainer on a stone, grinding it into the pavement and looked up at me. His eyes were pools of pupil in which I attempted to see my own.
“You startin' ere then?”
He gestured to the sign on the entrance of the building: Kick the habit: start a life.
“What's this place, then? Kick the habit? A rehab? Are you?”
Passing me his lit cigarette to light my own from, Frank eyed me up and down with a smirk.
“Startin in a few weeks if I do us rattle. Came early cos I couldn't sleep. Looks like thah could do wi' joining us.”
“Uh, maybe not: but there is something you might be able to help me with...”
I immediately perked up, the simple thought of having chanced on a fellow heroin user who could find me what I needed alleviating in part the creeping sickness I felt. Frank never made it to the appointment he had at the rehab. As we walked, he told me they were to take blood to determine the amount of heroin in his bloodstream. Then he'd be prescribed the appropriate regimen of britlofex , temazepam and whatever other medications were included in the home torture pack that was to be prescribed to him and handed out by whoever was supervising the detox. His blood test never happened. Instead, we walked in step to the phone box outside the bookmakers across from the post office, from where Frank dialled his dealer. Whilst we walked to the bingo hall and waited for the red Orion to show up, Frank told me about his girlfriend, Katy, who cut words into her skin with the points of needles and filled the words with ink, and I told Frank about Ari and his innocence about my continued heroin use.
“He must be fuckin' blind,” Frank laughed. “Cos I clocked ya straight off.”
We weren't left as long as Frank had expected for his man to to arrive. He was, Frank told me, an early bird, taking advantage of the hours when most dealers kept their phones switched off. I'd struck lucky, indeed. We piled into the back seats behind two men who looked to be in their early twenties. The driver held out his hand for our money as he drove up the hill that passed behind my building, whilst his associate passed over a half teenth to each of us. Flashes of green and concrete shot past through the window's frame, like a double exposure against the grey of my reflected face. Frank wrote the dealer's number for me on the inside flap of my rizla packet after we'd been dropped off outside the old, abandoned court building opposite Sheaf market. The streets were filling up with shoppers and people on their way to work, a few junkies gathering in groups around the entrance, where a woman in a long skirt held bunches of lucky heather in a hawking basket.
I was waiting for Frank to ask me for a bit of my gear for the introduction, but he never did. He hadn't pretended it was more expensive than it really was, hadn't set any conditions on me accompanying him. I was about to head for the stand-alone pay as you piss single toilet and bid Frank farewell when he pulled on my sleeve.
“What you doin' later?”
I told him I'd nothing to do but sort myself out. Ari wouldn't be home til after six.
“Thah don't wanna go in there. Come in t' Pollards toilets wiy us and come back wiy us for a brew and meet our Katy.”
The heroin was good. Frank and I shared a cubicle in the men's toilets of the tea rooms. Old ladies' disapproving looks followed us out and I wondered whether they knew what we were really doing, or if we'd been in there for a sly jump. Outside, we caught the bus and made our way to the back of the top deck, where Frank lit a cigarette. Seeing the powdered tobacco in my pouch, he offered me one of his Lambert and Butlers. We smoked in silence as the bus passed through Wicker, under the railway arches and up the hill towards Pitsmoor, Frank picking at a hole in his tracksuit trousers, bloodstains on the crook of the knee and down the inner leg visible despite their navy hue. He appeared to be increasingly anxious as the journey progressed and took a strip of yellow diazepams from an inner pocket, popping four of them into his mouth and crunching, handing me the remaining one.
Our bus continued past the Northern General hospital and turned right at a church. Men huddled around the entrance to a mosque, others walking in groups towards it in an increasingly thick drizzle that gave the appearance of mist through the steamed up bus windows. With a swollen index finger, Frank cartooned a syringe sticking out of the eye of a Bart Simpson in the part of the window still clouded in condensation, before grabbing the bar, pressing the bell and swinging himself standing.I followed him down the steps, thrown into the wall, and out into the street as the doors opened with a mechanical hiss.
The pavement smelled of rain and dog shit, and the fragrance of cumin, coriander, fried chicken and samosas blew in the stinging wind. The houses were Victorian, small, stone-walled front gardens leading to heavy front doors. Walking back a few yards in the direction the bus had come from, Frank took the first turning into a narrow terrace of smaller houses. There were no front gardens, the coal holes directly on the tarmac. Each pair of houses shared an entrance, a tunnel which led to the back yards and front doors, which were positioned on the sides of the houses. Frank's home was half way along the street. Heavy, yellowed net curtains sagged in the diesel-blackened front window and an empty blue paper recycling bin blocked the front door.
“Round t' back.”
The yard was a scrubby patch of uncut grass with a brick toilet built against a high wall, overlooked by the backs of terraced houses in the next street up, higher up the hill. I could smell the contents of the open-lidded wheelie bins which lurked beyond the low fence dividing the two yards. Frank took a choke chain from his zipper pocket and put its attached key in the lock. It didn't turn. Grabbing a handful of gravel, he threw it at the window, calling Katy. I retreated to the shelter of the ginnel and pressed the door bell, which did nothing.
“'S a wind up one,” yelled Frank, taking another cigarette and throwing me one. “We never wind it up. Shit.”
“No front door key?”
“We keep it bolted. Back's on't sneck. Our Katy don't like being 'ome alone. Like fort knox, this place; 'as to be. Not that we've got owt to rob.”
After several attempts at rousing Katy, we heard two bolts slide, a key turn and a small figure appeared squinting through the crack in the now open door.
“What time d'ya call this, then, eh? This ya new keyworker then?”
Her hair was cut in a half-mohican and dyed pink. Her eyes, still crusted with sleep, were pink-rimmed, a slither of dried dribble clung to the corner of her mouth. She moved to one side to let us through into a small galley-like kitchen. Wrapped in a duvet over a dressing gown, she shivvered, telling us to hurry up and close the door.
“We just ran out of gas. Did you buy any when you were out?”
“Oh for fuck sake. Is it on emergency?”
“All gone. It's bloody freezing. You got a tenner for the meter?”
Frank looked sideways and reacked into his pocket, pulling out the remainder of the heroin he'd saved for her. She hesitated, looking from me to Frank, squinting into my eyes, a smile making its way onto her dry, cracked lips and up into her eyes like she'd just realised she'd matched three numbers on her scratch card after all.
“You're not his bloody keyworker, are ya? Why didn't ya tell us ya cheeky bastard?” She punched Frank playfully on the arm and leant over to give me a squeeze on the shoulder. “I'm Katy. Sit down, I thought he'd brought someone home to check up on him, sorry flower, don't mind me, I'm a proper loony tune, me. So, how did you go at t' blood test then eh? Managed to find a vein, did they?”
Katy sat next to me on the big, yellow-orange sofa and reached under the cushion for her works. Emptying the contents of the large, pink, fluffy make-up bag, she began testing the sharpness of a collection of used 1ml orange cap needles against the back of her hand. I reached into my bag and passed her one of mine which was new and unopened. She scrutinised it, checking it hadn't been used and resealed.
"Cheers petal. Can't be too careful eh." She turned to Frank. "So?"
He grinned widely. "I didn't go. We met outside. Took her to meet Taz instead."
"But no gas?"
"No gas. But there's wood in t' coil oil."
"Any coil in t' coil oil?"
"A bit he says. A bit. Right, what's t' time?"
"Not past eleven yet."
Katy poked around between her toes.
"Fuck sake- I can't find nowt when it's this cold. Make us a brew, eh, Frankie love, and stick some hot water in this for us. Please?" She passed him a hot water bottle in a knitted pink cover.
Katy chatted away as she rubbed her legs in search of somewhere to inject. Her body, hands and feet were dotted with Indian ink in the places the needle had entered her, detailing an exquisite map of her years of heroin use, tattoos following the path of her veins like dotted tree roots, assymetrical spider webs, words etched in the gaps between. A memorial to the damage done.
I felt a depression come over me, an emptiness I couldn't put a finger on. I didn' want to return to Ari, to the lies that had become our life. Not even lies- his irrepressable, naive positivity. I didn't want to stop using heroin. Using it suited me fine, but he was caught in its stigma, trapped in his blind faith that his world no longer contained its ills. I didn't have the energy to face him. I wanted to stay right here with people who wouldn't be disappointed in me when I failed to transform into someone who was not me in one easy step.
We didn't have a landline in the flat, Ari and I, and in those days, before the mobile phone became widespread, we didn't have those either. Blissful non-communication. I had a little cash saved up from selling the things we'd not brought with us into our new co-habitation, and also from the car I'd sold because the insurance had been crippling me. All I had to do was to offer a tenner for gas in exchange for a couple of nights' sofa space. I looked at Katy, in her vein-search trance, her lower teeth biting her upper lip in the contortion of the frustrated. I thought of Ari, of his young, frightened eyes, his terror of the unknown: the part of my life which he wanted to put on bleach-boil until it dissolved.
Ari had seven brothers. His parents were happily married. They were converts to evangelism, and, though disappointed in their sons' refusal to participate in their new-found faith, they were generous, loving, accepting of me. Ari's mother had given her grandmother's engagement ring to his older brother, Yaron, and had told me she was saving the wedding ring for Ari to give to me. Touched as I was, I felt, had she know about my habit, she wouldn't be talking about marriage and babies. She'd have been taking Ari aside to introduce him to nice Christian girls. Nicer girls than me. Nicer by far. As I watched the tendrills of blood curl into Katy's heroin and her plunger descend slowly into the barrel, I felt her relief and sought my own. I pulled a tenner from my hidden inside pocket and posed my question. Katy passed me the gas card for the meter and I headed back into the cold.
The Happy Shopper in Page Hall was a small convenience store. The smell of weed merged with the warm air inside. I bought milk and cornflakes, asking the small, middle aged shopkeeper for a packet of Drum.
"Samson?" he asked, pulling out a couple of boxes from under the counter. "Golden Virgin? Two fifty, five hundred gram, top quality pirate gear."
His eye widened in a naughty-boy grin as he fumbled under the packets of tobacco to reveal a few baggies of what looked like skunk buds.
"No, not that: gear. Brown."
"You have to ask t' boys outside. Bad boys. Not real Muslims. They skip mosque and give us a bad name. Drink alcohol. You drink alcohol?"
I shook my head.
"Good. So, flower, you want GV or Samson? You want a weed?"
"Just the Samson, cheers."
"I do bag for five pound if you want a weed, love."
"I don't smoke it."
He'd taken my money and given me change before I realised I'd forgotten the gas.
"And stay off the hero drugs. You want a good weed, you know where I am. Best deal this side of Sheffield."
I felt a little hungry and as I passed the takeaway, it was just opening for lunch. I bought three one pound meal deals of fishburger and chips before returning to Frank and Katy's.
When I returned, Katy had gone for a job interview courtesy of 'New Deal' for a shop assistant post in Meadowhell. Frank was watching a video of The Fast Show and I handed him the gas card and the food. Once the gas fire was lit, condensation streamed down the window and the atmosphere became passable. The walls were bright yellow and a victorian upright piano stood against the back wall, the only other furniture being a long coffee table, the sofa and a comfy armchair, where I sat to eat. Plants stood atop the piano- a cheese plant, a fern, a small date palm. The floorboards were varnished and swept. Both alcoves adjacent to the chimney breast were stacked with books. I felt at home here. It wasn't that Ari deserved my disapperance: it wasn't planned, as such. I didn't wish upon him sleepless nights of anxiety, wondering where I was. I hoped he'd sleep through my absesnce, believing we'd missed each other. But I didn't work the night shift, and I realised that he'd know what I was up to. I'd disappeared for days when we'd been living between our two flats back in Manchester. He'd always known why. We'd been through the silences, the tears (his) the justifications (mine) the threats to tell his parents (why did I care? I liked them. A lot. I craved the normality of their close family. But not the pressure to conform). I knew I wasn't the girl for him. I knew I wasn't the girl for anyone. But still I moved in with him. Perhaps the fact that he cared was enough.
Katy returned with a slightly flabby man in jeans and ski coat, his long brown hair visible under a blue beanie hat. She'd been asked if she could cover up her tattoos if she were to be offered the job.
"I asked t' stuck up cow if she could cover up her ugly gob and she asked us to leave. Now I'll have no end of grief down t' social. Oh well, I found Mark, so it's not all bad news. If you need anything, his stuff's same as you got off Kermit."
I laughed. "Kermit?"
"Yeah cos he's a muppet- but for fuck sake don't call him that- he likes everyone to call him Taz."
As it happenned, I later discovered, Ari had met someone at work who'd invited him clubbing. He'd come home to find me missing and left me a note saying he'd be in a club under Wicker arches if I wanted to join him later. He'd dropped an E with his new friend, who'd also given him enough speed to keep them working the next twelve hour shift. By Sunday evening, he'd been on such a massive come down, I don't suppose he'd have had the energy to mumble much more than how terrible he felt, had I been there to hear it.
As days rolled into weeks and months, Frank and Katy's became my home from home, my retreat from Ari's six-day, twelve-hour shifted weeks. Ari and I both needed frequent breaks from the tense atmosphere my continued heroin use, combined with his accusing looks and questioning expressions, created.Our two worlds never met and Ari continued his weekly entertainment of E and speed in the Arches on Wicker, just footfalls away from a needle exchange. To mention his drug hypocrisy would be to admit his fears were well-founded. Silence was the superior option by far.
As for Katy's interview, she'd been lucky that time. And the next: an interview for a job in a bike shop, where she'd said the only thing she knew about bikes was that she was a fuckin good ride if they had a few quid spare; they could take her for a test run in the repair workshop, fix her up good and proper for fifty. She came back in fits of giggles, wondering whether or not to be relieved they'd laughed her offer off as a bad joke. But the third time, it all hit the fan. She'd been called up for an interview for a position in telesales. Upon being offered a choice of tea or coffee, she'd shaken her head and told the stiff little balding woman in a twinset that it was ok, thanks, but she carried her own refreshment. Opening her bag, she'd pulled out a can of Tenants Super and cracked it open. What she hadn't realised was that an open insulin orange cap packet had somehow stuck itself to the can, its used, bloodied needle still inside, minus its cap, cascading onto the desk between her and the interviewer.
'Sanctioned. Sanctioned! I've been down t' CAB and they've helped me apply for incapacity- but in t' meantime, what the fuck am I suposed to do? Deliberately reducing me chances of finding work, they say...lucky they didn't call t' poo-lice.' Katy looked up at me, needle in hand, holding her palms outstretched like the junkie incarnation of Topol's Tevier in Fiddler on the Roof, before reloading her syringe with indian ink from an upturned bottle cap on the table. 'I ask you: how's this fucking fair? How? I've already spent me crisis loan.'
Katy went back to digging the final dots of the letter N into the bony flesh of her left ring finger, before starting a T on her pinkie.
'We'll be alright, petal. We'll get through grafting and maybe even get a few quid backdated.'
'No, Frank. It's now or never. I'm booking another appointment for detox. And I want you to come with me.'
Frank stood up from the sofa he'd been lounging on, his hands shooting to the back of his head, elbows out-turned in a triangle of defiant dread. His eyes scrunched up, then opened wide as he dropped his hands and shrugged, eyeing me up and down with a questioning glimmer. A smile worked itself across his eyes. I could see his facial muscles trying to control himself not to let it reach his mouth.
'I've told you before I'd pay you a bit for electric and gas, but the council aren't going to cough up for housing benefit when they're already paying for you two.'
'They are if this is your official address. We'll split it three ways.'
'Even if they did, it'd take ages to sort...'
'Frank, I said I want to detox. If you won't I will. I can't fucking DO this any more.' Katy was shouting now. As she stood up, she nudged the table with her knees, knocking over the tall, plastic bottle of blue ink, which pooled over used needles, empty clingfilm wraps, bits of foil, rizla packets tobacco pouches and cups, flowing around the full ashtray.
'Aggh, for fuck sake, Katy...'
As ink began to seep into Katy's duvet cover, illustrating its white, blood-flacked expanse with swelling thunderclouds, Frank ran to the kitchen for a dishcloth. Katy scooped up the near-empty bottle, attempting to direct the contaminated ink back into it along with grains of tobacco, cigarette ash, fluff and general detritus. By this time ink was dripping onto the floor in various sized puddles, and as I helped Frank wipe it up, Katy began to cry.
'Come on, now, it's not that bad, our Katy.' Frank eyed his girlfriend with a mixture of concern and fear. Until now, I'd never witnessed anything worse than a few jokey tiffs between them, fast resolved with the cure of a fresh score. But this was different. Katy lurched towards Frank, then stopped, as if suddenly changing tack, and hurled the Indian ink bottle towards his face. As he ducked, it missed him by inches, hitting the bottom corner of a huge, clip-framed film poster for Taxi Driver, which crashed from the wall, hitting the gas fire and smashing to the floor. Shards of glass scattered. Katy collapsed into a cross-legged position in front of the fire, her dressing gown falling from her naked shoulders and revealing the extent of her indelibly-inked trackmarks, spreading from thick, wavering branches of blue along her inner legs and arms, flowing out in rivulets and tributaries, her bare feet seeping blood where she'd trod through broken glass.
'Fuck it. Fuck this. Fuck sake. Fuck bollox cunt fuck shit.'
And she began to laugh.