This story appears in the Stories for Homes Anthology, edited by Debi Alper and Sally Swingewood. All proceeds from the book go towards supporting the work of Shelter. Available via Amazon.
My mother wasn’t always drunk, but that’s like saying it doesn’t always rain in a rainforest, or it’s not always snowing in Alaska. More often than not we’d get home from school or from playing out, and find something had changed somewhere about the house – a new animal sleeping or pacing around in the sitting room, or a half-painted chair in the garden; perhaps a new lodger moved into one of the bedrooms or a pan of pig food boiled dry, the kitchen full of greasy smoke and whatever animal or animals were in there whining and snorting and freaking out.
Somewhere within a one or two mile radius my mother would be lying face up to the sky, as if she had been doing star jumps and had frozen as she fell – in the garden, in the paddock, a barn or anywhere around our village. Then came the regular kind of hide-and-seek we played, where two of us three kids – usually me and my younger brother – would go off and find her, shake her until she stopped snoring, get her to stand and do the wobbling walk back to the house, while the other one – usually my older sister – would get tea, clean up and feed whatever animal or animals needed feeding. Then we would all disappear to our separate rooms. The nights would fall and during the dark hours we would inevitably hear our mother get up from her bed, or from watching the TV, and go to whichever cupboard or drawer or handbag or wellington boot or sack of animal food she kept her whisky hidden in.
By the time I was fifteen I’d I developed a serious pot habit, scoring from anyone I could find, always putting word out that I was interested in whatever there was on offer, smoke, powder or pills, it didn’t matter. I spent many sick days and nights with a weasly man out of town who sold rotten gear to all the bikers and punks. Surprisingly, he never tried anything on with me, but after a bad twenty-four hours of mushrooms where we had melting walls and sharks coming out of the toilet I gave him a wide berth and started looking to score elsewhere.
I had an older cousin, Vanessa, from a good side of our family, who was in her final year at university in Oxford. We wrote a lot; she made time to ask how things were going in my house and with my mother, and sent me wild, beautiful drawings of trees and flowers. She said the gear in Oxford was superb, it was what made life worth living, so early one morning during the summer holidays I took my mother a cup of tea in bed and told her I would be going away for an indefinite break to recharge my batteries. My mother held the mug with trembling hands and I could see the top of a whisky bottle tucked down between the side of her bed and the table. ‘All right then, darling,’ she said, with a voice as shaky as her hands.
I packed a rucksack with clothes, soap, toothpaste, food, my best tapes, my Sylvia Plath anthology and my writing notebooks. I took two pounds out of my mother’s purse, ripped up an old sack of pony nuts and made a sign saying ‘Oxford please’. I kissed the various animals, especially my dog.
It took me all day to hitch to Oxford. I had rides with two lorry drivers and an elderly businessman who stopped at a café to get me tea and a sandwich. He took me straight to the address I had for Nessa – a cold, damp terrace on the Cowley Road with a large buddleia in the front garden and a couple of bikes leaning against the rotting wooden fence. The businessman patted me on the knee and gave me five pounds, saying he wanted me to get the bus back home straight away with it. I promised him that I would, and thanked him very much for his kindness.
A poster saying ‘Nuclear Power? No Thanks!’ was stuck in the front room window, facing the street, along with one of a peace symbol and another of a clenched black fist. Nessa opened the door, looking much thinner than when I’d seen her the Christmas before. Her hair was cut very short, almost shaved, her arms bare and blotchy. I waved goodbye to the businessman.
I had never seen so much dope in my life. Nessa lived with her boyfriend Marcus and two other guys – two skinny art degree dropouts called Martin and Chris, who were starting an anarchy magazine. Martin and Chris rolled joints for breakfast, then spent the days writing, playing guitars, boiling brown rice and frying up eggs and bean sprouts. Every day the kitchen was filled with hash smoke and the smell of the gas from the cooker, and the boiling rice steamed up all the windows until we joked that we were in a submarine. We made up songs about kelpies and sirens and mermen calling us away from the oppression of the establishment and into a new silent, salty universe.
We were sick and tired of it all – Ness’s dissertation deadlines, my repressive, sexist school and all the idiots in it, the whole oppressive culture of exams, the Falklands war, nuclear power, terrible pop music, fascist Thatcher. We needed the freedom to express ourselves, to explore our ideologies away from hierarchical, Orwellian institutions. But our anger had nothing substantial to cling to; we raged into smoky air, our furious words gathering a curious sort of form but then sliding uselessly away like the condensation on the kitchen windows. I knew it had to be more than gravity keeping us flattened and impotent, and it especially seemed to me that the simple possession of a white skin, a greater age and a penis was all it took to properly control and oppress.
Vanessa had been given a car for her twenty-first birthday, and after three or four days in the house we decided to drive to Cornwall to a holiday cabin belonging to Marcus’s family and take some acid. I’d read a lot of Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda and was convinced that psychedelics were the key to unlocking the true power and magic of the mind and therefore the solution to all that was wrong and evil with western so-called civilisation. This wild, isolated hut would be the perfect place to journey into the depths of our psyches and fully connect with the power of nature. Nessa called up her dealer friend and by the end of the evening we had an ounce of Moroccan hash, a cap of thick Lebanese oil and five small tabs of blotting paper, each with a tiny sunshine imprinted onto it.
For once we were all up early. We squeezed food and bedding into the boot of Nessa’s Renault. Marcus claimed boyfriend rights to the passenger seat and said he would read the map. I was squashed in the back with Martin and Chris. Nessa was the only one with a real licence, and it was her car after all, so she drove all the way, peering through the windscreen with bloodshot eyes. Marcus wanted to listen to Duran Duran or the Bee Gees but he was outvoted by the rest of us so we played Patti Smith and The Cure and my Dave Brubeck tapes and we smoked and shouted out of the windows at all the normals and their pathetic bourgeois lives.
The hut sat deep in some tangled hazel and beech woods, a couple of miles inland from the North Cornish coast. We got there, ragged and tetchy, in the late afternoon and had to park half a mile away at the end of a bridleway as it was only accessible by foot. We hauled all the bags of bedding and food over our shoulders and set off into the trees. The air and the birdsong felt very good after the smoky mess of the car journey. Marcus and Nessa were tense with each other, and more than once she turned to me and raised her eyebrows at something he’d said. I hadn’t brought any proper boots of course, preferring always to wear sandals or flip flops, so my feet became covered in mud. Martin and Chris went barefoot as it was more natural, but Chris stubbed his toe so put his shoes and socks back on again. Martin kept his shoes off and said he felt really connected with the earth.
We reached the hut after twenty minutes. Marcus retrieved the key from its hiding place in a log pile. There were just two rooms – a kitchen with a wooden table, a few mismatched chairs and stools, a wood burning stove and an old settee. There was a gas bottle attached to a couple of rings for cooking, plus a few blackened pans and a tin kettle. The adjacent room had two bunk beds and a double bed. Outside there was a makeshift lean-to shed and a toilet with some sort of chemical bucket, plus a water butt and buckets for washing.
It took a while but eventually we had the wood burning stove alight and a version of a meal in front of us. After eating we rolled and smoked, rolled and smoked. I began to feel my thoughts existing as separate to me, I could visualise them floating around the cobwebby beams, then flying away and linking with all the other thoughts that had ever existed, from Shakespeare to Sylvia, Proust to Patti, Cornish caveman to Quentin Crisp. Martin and Chris played their guitars, improvising Django Reinhardt licks around Bob Marley riffs. Marcus tried to do a hundred press-ups, but lost count. Nessa sat silently at the table with her sketchpad and pencils, drawing her hands, left, right, left, right.
Tomorrow we would have breakfast, then go deep into the woods and take the acid. Nessa had it stashed in her little baccy tin, the small white blots carefully wrapped in tissue paper and Clingfilm. I lit candles around the hut, closed the windows and door to keep the moths out and made everyone tea. I watched their faces in the candlelight. Four humans around a table, their skins waxy in the unsettled light, their eyes puffy and unfocused.
Marcus squabbled briefly with Chris and Martin about who should get the double bed, then agreed that they would take it in turns. I laid my sleeping bag on the lumpy settee and crashed out.
Sometime during the night I felt a weight by my feet and opened my eyes. Marcus was sitting there smoking a cigarette. He didn’t say anything for a minute, just stared through the candlelight, the red tip of the cigarette glowing stronger with each drag he took. I turned over in my bag, pretending to be asleep.
‘She’s completely frigid. Stupid cunt. Won’t let me near her.’ His words were slow motion bullets. I felt him shift his weight and move closer. ‘Why are girls like that? Huh? Why are you such prick teases?’ I stayed silent. ‘I know you’re awake,’ he said.
I pulled the sleeping bag up higher over my shoulders. ‘Don’t know what you mean,’ I muttered, and deliberately yawned loudly and extendedly. My mouth was dry from all the joints, and I knew I must still be stoned. My thoughts were thick and gluey, and a fluttering bird of panic was beginning to awaken in my chest.
‘You know exactly what I mean,’ he said, and leaned right over my face. I could smell the sour tobacco on his breath, plus sweat and something else. Something male, unpleasant.
‘You’re a dyke, aren’t you?’ he laughed. The truth was, I had never heard that word back then, and I honestly didn’t know if I was or wasn’t. I guessed it was an insult, though, so I denied it. He laughed even louder, a silly, squeaky laugh, and I was scared he would wake the others. ‘How old are you, really?’
‘Fifteen. So what?’
‘Have you ever given a blow job?’
I knew full well what a blow job was, and no, I had never given one nor had any intention of ever giving one. ‘None of your business.’
‘Wanna learn how?’
‘Don’t your parents mind you not being at home, dykey?’
This time it was my turn to laugh, but not because he’d said anything funny. The idea that my parents, as a twosome, a couple, a united front, Mrs and Mrs Normal, might know or care about my whereabouts was something I’d long learned to live without. I pulled one of the cushions over my head. It stank of mould and damp.
He whispered bitch and squeezed my backside hard through my sleeping bag, then the settee bounced a little as he got up. My heart was still banging behind my ribs and I forced myself to think happy thoughts to make it slow down. I took myself to the fields behind my farm on an early summer’s morning. I ran my fingers over banks of cow parsley, picked a sprig and held it against my cheek. The soft, creamy petals tickled and soothed me. A few minutes later I heard Nessa making little nuh nuh nuh sounds, followed by Marcus grunting. Then silence.
The candles flickered into pools of melted wax, then one by one they turned into thin twists of smoke and died. Time was impossible to measure, inconsequential. Sleep was beyond me now; the roof above my head heavy and full of webs, and I longed for open space, air, the universe. As quiet as a ghost, I pulled on my clothes, filled my rucksack with as much food as I could fit in, took the baccy tin from the table and wrapped my sleeping bag around me.
The Milky Way peppered the sky, the blackest tangles of branches and leaves shot through with distant silver. I walked deeper into the woods, stumbling, cracking twigs underfoot and hearing my dad’s voice reading me Hansel and Gretel. I know nothing about navigation but I recognised the North star when it appeared between the treetops, high above the bucket of the Plough. The one constant, immovable star, the most ancient, the one true guide. I smiled and tipped my head back, breathing in the night, the damp, the brambles and moss. I carried on walking. When finally I heard the sweet, tumbling call of a lone blackbird, and the North star was slipping away into a new pink sky, I lay my rucksack down on the ground, slid into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes.