“You’d better get up sonny....” Those were the first words I heard behind the blazing incandescence. I was groggily aware of a looming shape within the halo of roiling light as I rolled dreamily awake in my duck- down sleeping bag. There was a torch shining in my eyes and a heavy pistol at my temple.
It was autumn 1975 in a terraced street in Leeds. It was still coal dark; maybe an hour or two before the sun rose. I wasn't in great shape then. I was a skinny, hippy, long-haired, bearded guy in those days, flying my anti-establishment kite, just out of Art School, some forty years ago, but I'd picked up infectious hepatitis somehow during the previous few months and was working my way through the glamour -free recovery process that would take another six months. My similarly free-spirited art school girlfriend and I had split up at the end of the summer and I felt desolate; back sharing a house with a bunch of male friends, I would never see her again.
I wasn't allowed to eat anything with fat in it as my liver couldn’t deal with it, so I was existing on a diet of mostly dry bread and fruit and was using separate dishes and my own knife,fork and spoon. This awful bug that had colonised my body had made me something to be feared ... I was an untouchable....I may as well have had the plague....
At twenty three I felt the world had come to an unhappy conclusion and while licking my wounds at the loss of my partner in love, I had been burning my candle at both ends and partying too hard; drinking and speeding on amphetamine, earning handy money as a forklift driver, working in a warehouse outside the city. As short-term gigs went, I hadn't to work shifts; the work wasn't too hard and my evenings, nights and weekends were free. I had no real responsibilities either. After Art College, I was drawing underground comix and doing artwork for a plethora of small -print fanzines. That all came to a crashing finale when my skin turned yellow; the whites of my eyes yellow-ochred over while something like the worst flu that was ever conceived, set up housekeeping in my skinny body for months. I could hardly walk or move with pains in my joints and back .Wasted and wan, is what springs to mind retrospectively. I’d never even heard of infectious hepatitis back then but was soon to hear it was the kind of thing that rock stars picked up while sharing drugs, indulging in too much energetic, youthful, hormone- mad sex, or generally living in unsanitary places or travelling and eating food on the road. I had done my stint of Kerouac –style “On the Road” travels in Europe too. It wasn't quite the dissipated horror of "Withnail and I" but it was in the same shabby bohemian territory. People like Keith Richards or Phil Lynnot got hepatitis and I was ticking all the same boxes, back then in my blazing youth.
I joked that it was nature's way of telling me to slow down. The guy in the students union bar at the university whom I'd recently bought a wrap of speed from was the first to notice my condition and remark on the fact that I was drinking orange juice instead of beer. Beer was making me sick and the orange juice was the only thing I could handle. He pointed out that I'd either acquired a late summer tan overnight or I might be jaundiced. He was a medical student and advised I should see a doctor. My liver was packing in. Jaundice? My late mother used to talk in that country-woman's way about "Getting the Jaundies"...Something I'd never thought about until then. She posted over a bagful of herbs and moss, which when boiled in milk and drunk, were supposed to cleanse my liver. It was an old Irish folk-remedy. Well , I had ingested every other kind of medicinal ”herb” by then so I had no fear of a herb-infused milkshake prescribed by my mother.....”Mother’s Milk”,indeed.
There it was ...the doctor asking...”Do you take drugs?”. I told him I smoked the occasional spliff.... “Have you ever shared a needle with anyone?” Any heroin addicts I'd known were not seen as potential role-models...all that sweating and the smell of the coming -down alcohol percolating out of their sour pores. That wasn’t for me. Old Yan and his "Bloody Marys"; his vodka on his cornflakes diet wasn't something that inspired me or that I had aspirations to emulate. He and his room always stank of tomato juice and vodka while he kept his heroin cravings at bay. I met his mother at one point .She reminded me of a gothic Miss Havisham from a Dickens story, in her flowing black lace dress. She must have been a heroic character in her youth...a muse... because she'd posed for the sculptor Henry Moore .Apparently her modelled hands adorned the facade of some municipal building. She’d begged me to make sure "My Yan" didn't get his hands on any more of “that heroin”. Bearing in mind that I was twenty three and "My Yan" was nearing thirty, I thought that the “child was father to the man”. I was as good as my promised word though and any time I found his hidden "works" secreted anywhere , I'd immediately bin the needle and assorted paraphernalia .Smoking a little dope was one thing but heroin was a different kind of commitment altogether.
Well I'd never injected drugs but I'd smoked bales of hashish and grass over the preceding seven years.Paki-Black, Afghani Black, Lebanese Gold,Moroccan,Nepalese Temple Balls, Hash Oil,Sinsemilla Grass...all those different flavours and effects , like the assorted highs and unique tastes and aromas of various fine wines or olives...I’d become familiar with then all.... . Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and the underground press, aided by my innate seventeen year old curiosity were the entry points.Since then, I’d taken a boatload of LSD and tripped through the "Doors of Perception". Just seeing what all the talk was about and discovering that the psychedelic experience was as nebulous and unexplainable as the universe. The wash of time and the cellular extraordinariness of molecular life and existence was visionary and inexplicable but that was now in the past.
I dipped a little "speed" when it was offered around or if I
felt like a bit of a lift. Coffee and amphetamine sulphate gave us all the energy we needed to work and also party like demons. We mostly enjoyed having a cool smoke of good reefer and listening to what the effect did to music though. The way it made the ordinary seem profound; how it stretched time out so that you could live inside a song, inhabit it and become a character within its world. It also made us laugh very loudly and really relax. The downside was the laziness that it brought on but that was a small exchange for the droll pleasure it gave. It was a small underground conspiracy that we all shared.
There's always a price to pay for artificial stimulation and the coming down "low" was the price for the "high" .I didn't really drink a lot of alcohol. Just enough. Of course there was the mad wanton sex with my girlfriend and the fact that she shoved a needle through my earlobe to fit one of the set of gold earrings we each shared. She’d sterilised that needle over a candle flame, though, so I don't think it was that contamination that brought on my illness. Back then it was a pretty unusual, chic thing for men to wear a single earring. A little piratical or gypsy gesture, rather than a fashion statement It wasn't until twenty years later that everyone and his dog sported them, and like tattoos ,they quickly lost their rebel glamour.
There was the rambling, tumbling rat hole of a crumbling three storey house, with the free gas and electricity constantly running day and night, that the Indian bus driver, landlord seemed oblivious of.He charged us a tenner a week and left us alone.It was due for demolition. We shared it like a commune with some friends and that delightful little kitten whose mother had carefully left on our doorstep. Its baleful influence went unnoticed until there was a summer heat wave and suddenly the carpet was hopping with fleas. The kitten had brought some friends to the party and they seemed to enjoy my blood more than life itself.
So no drug-filled needles,then, but plenty of hungry little mouths feasting on my flesh and blood. A combination of these events conspired to put me the vulnerable position I now inhabited.
We'd just moved to this new place before the pre-dawn incident took place.The wrecking ball was moving down the street as we left the old haunt. This new house was a step up from the previous crumbling wreck .This one wasn’t quite dissolving before our eyes. We were all young though and such minor irritations didn’t bother any of us to a great extent. As long as the roof was sound and there was somewhere to sleep and a hearty meal every day, we really didn’t care.
There was Big Doc and Herbie the Bean, both Belfast men .Big Doc had returned from a six month hitch-hiking foray in India and Nepal before resuming his studies at university. Herbie was an old mate of his from Belfast. He’d been a butcher in his previous life and constantly expounded on the perfect recipe for beef sausages. There was another guy from Derry who was studying and
heavily involved in the left wing Young Socialists at the university. The only other inmate was Grimesie from my own hometown who'd recently moved up from London to have a look at the action in Leeds. We each had a room in this little terraced house with it Coronation Street vibe and its toilet outside in the yard. We showered down at the university and washed our clothes in a nearby laundrette. The only concessions to décor were the few posters stuck to the plain, grubby walls or an occasional ethnic wall-hanging to add some colour and focus to the rooms. Like most houses and flats near the university, polytechnic and art college, there was a constant traffic of friends and acquaintances coming and going; talking or sharing a cup of tea or a joint.
At that time Peter Sutcliff, the Yorkshire Ripper had begun to ply his gruesome trade across the other side of town. He was busily murdering prostitutes and various women and telling himself that God had made him do it. There was paranoia afoot, especially among the young women and the students of Leeds University. This was also the era of Irish Republican bombings in England. The IRA had carried the terror from Northern Ireland to the English mainland and were exploding bombs in public houses. In the months previously, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and the Birmingham Six featured in the news, supposedly captured IRA gangs responsible for various bombing raids in England .These Irish people were subsequently found guilty and served long prison setences , only to be declared totally innocent of any crime and released many years later. The police wanted scalps though, and you only had to be Irish then to merit their attention.
At the time we saw ourselves as nothing more than a bunch of young scallywags who were only too glad to be away from the terror of life in Northern Ireland .Our biggest fear would have been being busted by the drug squad for a half ounce of “shit” or a few roaches. The last thing we thought about was an anti- terrorist squad.
That, of course was what had crashed into our house in the wee small hours of the morning. It was like an episode of a grubby television cop show, like “The Sweeney”, in real-time. This dishevelled, sleepy group of young men were herded together in the front room, while our uninvited “guests” kept a keen eye open for any untoward behaviour from us. It was tense. We worried about the few roaches that lay in the fire-grate. The remnants of a couple of night-before spliffs we had enjoyed. The plain- clothes policemen were thinking of other things. It transpired in conversation that a friend of Big Doc’s had been arrested in Belfast and traces of explosives had been found on his
clothing .Big Doc knew nothing of this though, having spent the six months previous on the hippy trail east, more interested in smoking kif on rooftops of Nepal and wondering about the mystery of the universe and the shining white stars above.
The one person in this “criminal cabal” who hadn’t yet been roused from blissful slumber was Grimsie ...or the “Groins
Monster”, as he was sometimes affectionately, referred. This was not actually surprising because he inhabited the top room in the house, a converted attic bedroom. Access to this bijou pied- a- terre was actually hidden, in that the door formed part of a wooden –panelled wall at the top of the stairs. It was like a secret door. To say that the assorted policemen, now gathered downstairs with these potential “terrorists”, were taken by surprise, would be understating things. When Grimsie, his huge woolly early- morning afro, an explosion of the trichologist’s art , burst through the door, rubbing his eyes from happy sleepsville,with an rheumy expletive, followed by Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up Doc?”, aimed at Big Doc. ...Well , many pins could have been heard dropping. In that moment of undisguised bloody panic, every gun in the room was swivelled sharply in the direction of this woolly, astounded vision. You couldn’t make this up.
The tension in the room quickly dissipated as the absurdity of the situation sank in. Big Doc and Herbie were taken in for questioning as a matter of form, but were delivered back to us having breakfasted to repletion at the expense of the Yorkshire police force.
Meanwhile I was still eating my bland, dry toast. _