“Thanks love,” the red-faced punter wheezed, tossing over a tenner, as Charity Proudfoot wiped away the spunk he had dispensed on her lip with the back of a frayed coat sleeve.
She didn’t reciprocate with a banal pleasantry of her own, as per usual, she just took the dishonest twenty and climbed out the motor, which is how she knew a monster of a rattle was on the way if she didn’t hurry up and get her shit together. Normally you couldn’t shut her up.
Charity the chatterbox had been her school moniker, or as her mam preferred, a right mouthy little pain in the arse.
On goose pimpled and blue veined legs, she galloped onto Brixton high street, less a melting pot and more a digestive tract that you passed through before being shat out onto Effra road or Brixton Hill, lights, sounds and accents colliding into one another before falling in love and fucking.
The bastard offspring of Caribbean patois and estuary English made Charity’s head spin a la The Exorcist, and the miasmic
pong of jerk chicken fist fighting with the aroma of Portuguese Espetadas made her lurch drunkenly.
She stifled a chunder.
She fought her way through freaks in various stages of zombification thriller dancing their way down the street and made it to the corner.
She picked up from Twinkle Toes, the six-foot, nine-inch yard man holding court outside the KFC and emanating bad juju, clad in a razor-sharp zebra print zoot suit.
He was slurping on a pot of strawberry yoghurt, the spoon clashing against the shining chrome grill he had instead of teeth.
Charity handed him some scratch and shuddered.
“One on one please Twink.”
Twinkle toes scowled down at Charity for a hot minute before scanning the street fiercely.
He plunged a sausage thick finger into his mouth and fished out two wraps coated in yoghurt and saliva.
“Put it in ya mout girl! Feds be watchin da corner. Mout! Now blud!”
“Alright. Chill fam. Keep ya hair on innit.”
Charity did as she was told and sunk the pair of cling film wrapped goodies deep into the dank recess between her teeth and tongue.
The gob of synthetic yogurt triggered yet more nausea.
It was jank but you didn’t argue with Twink.
He had deaded people for not much more than dirty looks.
She got home and got out her doings without even taking off her spikes and then she set to work, squatting on the stained carpet, putting the trembling flame of a lighter to the bottom of a blackened teaspoon, the light brown powder beginning to bubble and cough out a vinegary reek.
“Bubble bubble toil andtrouble,” Charity mused.
Her heart was rioting inside her chest, and her nose was dripping.
It was always darkest before dawn, and you would never need a shot as badly as when it was winking at you. Charity’s bowels growled out threats of spontaneous evacuation as she cooked.
“Please,” Charity hissed, and then she remembered the cotton.
She filched a used-up clod of cotton from the coffee table. Coffee tables usually served as the main altar of abasement for most hope to die hypes, busy as they were with paraphernalia and left overs.
She sucked up the medicine through the already dirtied filter with her rig.
She tied off and dug into her arm and miraculously found a vein on the first excavation.
The dope sick wraith she had been seconds before the plunger went down vanished like memories of a fever dream and Charity Proudfoot reassimilated, her aching muscles and old woman bones melting away into a blissful glowing nothingness
She French kissed her weeping arm.
“Time for a cuppa,” Charity said, her lids leaden and her face so slack the flesh threatened to slide off her skull.
She shed her street demon get up and donned her dressing gown.
She didn’t bother with a shower.
Horse heads hated water more than cats.
She floated into the kitchen and ignored the pile of neglected washing up seething in the sink and whacked the kettle on.
After feeding her steaming mug of tea a mandatory six sugars (any less and her dope dead taste buds wouldn’t tingle) she sank into the sofa.
She eyed her hoard of dog-eared books, accrued from second hand shops mostly, but one or two of the weightier tomes deftly shoplifted from Waterstones.
If there was a habit that annoyed her wine frenzied mother more than her incessant chattering, it was her carnivorous hunger for the printed page.
She didn’t discriminate.
If it was words vaguely arranged into sentences that pleased her then she devoured it and parroted it all back out, and mam seemed to hate her for it.
Afterall mam couldn’t read, raised on that trailer site in the dead end of nowhere, selling sprigs of not so lucky heather to the gorgers too scared to say no, whilst grandad Samuel cidered his brains to oblivion in the pub, knuckle punching some poor eejit into an unwanted dental appointment for any slight half real or imagined.
Stephen King was the first she could remember and he got it good and proper.
Charity had eaten him for breakfast when she was still a pup, five or six of his books swallowed whole in a single summer whilst the other kiddies were tongue stumbling their way through Biff Chip and Kipper.
Mam had given her a good crack in the mouth for reciting a portion of Misery in the middle of a particularly sad Sunday lunch, which consisted of soggy chips for Charity, and cheap wine for Mam.
“Chips and child abuse eh,” sighed Charity as she thumbed through a yellowed copy of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf.
A great old book, thought Charity, recalling the images of salt and blood it conjured in her pre junk muddled brain.
She realised with affection that the eponymous Wolf Larsson was her first real crush.
Many a lonely night she had imagined Wolf’s huge crushing arms wrapped around her, his merciless steel blue eyes staring into hers.
She had felt a twinge in her little fanny and even now, years later, she still had a thing for blondes.
“Not tonight Wolfie,” said Charity, placing the book carefully back onto the stack.
Perhaps something more risqué madam.
She ran her fingers over Seth Morgan’s Homeboy, which, in another life, had been her favourite book, and the one she had read more than any other.
Now it just made her sad.
The gutter vernacular and ribald plunge into drug hell that Morgan described used to be tantalizing, before her own skinny dip in the sewer system had turned the dazzling word play and frenetic chaos of the book into a busman’s holiday.
Charity sipped her tea and considered the time she had read HMP Holloway’s library dry during a two stretch for burglary and had to resort to reading the bible back to back to stave off a bout of sanity crumbling boredom only incarceration could incur.
“What a pack of nonsensical shite,” Charity had scoffed as she slammed the good book shut, her god botherer cellie shaking her head at such blasphemy.
Charity’s fingers ran out of books.
She opted for the TV. She aimed the remote and mashed a few buttons.
Then she remembered that it didn’t work.
It had never worked.
“Serves you right for stealing and not paying,” she said.
She scalded her tongue with a mouthful of tea and decided to have another dig. The gear was obviously cut to fuck.
She hit the beat in the dark blue twilight of the early morning, donning knee length leather boots, laddered tights and a mini skirt, the witching hours of three, four and five a.m. bizarrely great times to look for punters who wanted to get a quick one in before the morning rat race.
It made her scratch her head.
Sex had been rendered into an abstract concept by her habit, and her own libido had dried up to the point of near extinction.
It was so mechanical it verged on the absurd.
It was just a means to an end, with the end being of the eternal variety.
In her more poetic moments, Charity had liked to think of her pussy as a well men would pour their most painful, filthy secrets into, the lies and the shame that they couldn’t face themselves.
They lied to get it, but they never lied to it.
She sparked a fag and hugged herself.
The rock Charity had smoked before she had left the house still blazed through her crumbling veins.
Charity hated crack.
After all, it’s what got her into this mess in the first place.
The problem with crack wasn’t that it was so exceptional a buzz you would do anything to get it.
The problem was it was all over in a heartbeat.
It grabbed you by the shoulders and tore into the sky toward the sun, and then just as your face started to burn it got bored and let you go and you dropped back to earth.
It was over so quickly you had to hit it again, in case you had missed something.
There has to be more, Charity would think, trying to find the answers, and by the time she was thinking that, it was already too late.
It had her.
It placed you so fiercely in the now that you weren’t really anywhere but in your own head, running away with your own thoughts.
Smack was the remedy.
Intravenously administered opiates were a revelation, not because they ceased suffering, because they didn’t.
They were magic because they made you not care.
How else could you desecrate your own flesh and slip a needle into an eager sore and just take it with nary a whimper? Because you knew when you pushed down the plunger, the hurt would be just a drop of blood in a sharkless ocean.
It dissolved the self, made you dead before you had died, and you would die a thousand more little dress rehearsal deaths before you croaked it for real.
What most people didn’t realise, which Charity quickly figured out, was that smack was also an entity.
It was alive.
Charity had read Mckenna before, and she had heard a lot of egghead hippies prattle on about how psilocybin was merely a doorway that put you into contact with another consciousness.
Smack, the poppy seed, giver and destroyer of dreams, was no different.
She realised what it was doing when she endured her first rattle.
She realised it had been storing up all the pain she thought had vanished into the ether, filing it away in a big old hurt locker marked Charity Proudfoot.
And it enjoyed the torture it gave you.
Smack sang its song the loudest when you were writhing in torment, begging it to stop, not knowing if you were going to burst into flames or freeze and shatter into pieces.
Charity could never forget its warning, its solemn promise.
“You try to leave me, this is what I will do,” it said.
“Fuck me its bitter,” Charity said to herself. “Me fucking fanny’s fucking frozen.”
The beat was dead, except for a few glacial looking Polish birds huddled up near the bridge.
Charity sparked another ciggy.
She thought about the leftover crumb of rock she had stashed in her boot along with her pipe, and the sharpened nail file she kept just in case a punter, or a trick as they were sometimes called, got too hands on with the merchandise.
“Trick eh,” Charity said. “Are they supposed to pull a white rabbit out of my muff or what?”
A car went by and slowed.
Charity began to tread the beat and make for the car, but before she got close and caught a butcher’s hook at the driver, it sped off.
“Charity. They should have named me Patience,” she said, echoing a pun another brass in the nick had made after Charity had bounced an eight ball off of her dome.
Charity had smiled all the way to the block.
A ghost white milk float hovered along, the old codger hunched behind the wheel giving Charity a dirty up and down from behind his frosty glasses.
She considered retreating back to her book strewn lair.
When the beat was this unforgiving, it made you tap out.
It was a place that thrived on defeat.
Sometimes all it gave you was pneumonia.
Her breath came out in a plume of steam, and she watched it float up and vanish into the sky above her as she weighed up her options.
“Fuck this,” she said, grinding her heel spike into the burnt to the bone cigarette butt she had tossed to the floor.
And then the car was back.
She hadn’t heard it pull up.
The window came down.
Charity swaggered forth with hips cocked, shaking her shit a little to give the punter a taste.
“You looking for business darlin?”
“Climb in gorgeous,” a disembodied voice said. The interior of the car was dark. She could only make out shadows.
Something was off, and against her better judgment she hopped in.
But then again, every time was against her better judgment.
And her habit wouldn’t pay for itself.
By the time she had considered climbing out and legging it the car was already doing a steady fifty.
She had entertained a fair share of creeps and dodgy punters and in their way, they were all possibly dangerous.
There were the fledgling nonces who asked her to make like a school girl and suck on daddy’s lollipop, and then there were the straight up women haters, men who didn’t have the spine to kill the wives they loathed, and tried to take it out on Charity instead.
Rough trade was better than no trade at all she thought, eyeing up the latest punter.
He would’ve been handsome were it not for the bombed-out disaster of his teeth, and his casually lifeless eyes.
Usually the eyes would betray the motives of the punters and Charity would see flickers of self-loathing or guilty hatred.
But here there was a gleeful nothing.
“What ya wanting then? It’s twenty for a suck, forty for a bunk up and fifty for both. You want shitting or weeing on you can drop me off now.”
The man’s joke shop teeth clattered together in a series of pops and clicks.
A smile slashed his face in two.
“I’ll try a suck and then we can take it from there. You know you are very pretty. I bet you know already. I bet everyone always tells you you’re pretty.”
The punter’s voice was a ruckus of wet gurgles and swallows.
Charity yawned inwardly at the compliment she had heard a thousand times already and instead noticed the yellow sheen on his skin.
He was sick. That’s all it was.
“Say, you don’t have anything I can catch, do ya? I’m not gonna end up with a dose up am I coz I really don’t have the time to get the Aids.”
The man smirked.
“Cancer. I’m in remission. You got nothing to worry about. Where shall I go? I’ve never done this.”
Now Charity felt bad. Cancer was what ironed mum out. He was just looking for a few bonks before the big C came back. No wonder he looked a bit shellshocked.
“Drive to the big Halfords. There’s a car park there. We won’t be disturbed.”
Five or so minutes later they pulled in and the punter parked the motor with a jerk of the hand break.
In the pallor of the encroaching dawn Charity could clearly make out his hair, jet black and seemingly slicked back with chip fat.
He peered at Charity.
There was an awkward silence. Charity decided to shatter it.
“Well then. Money first? Then we can get down to the business at hand.”
“Sure. Money first. Ten, right?”
He looked up and grinned. He was taking the piss.
“Twenty I said.”
She considered taking the money and running.
When she saw the wallet, stuffed to the gills with crisp notes, she also considered the sharpened nail file in her boot.
She’d only had to shank a motherfucker once, and she had felt awful after, even though the punter had blacked both her eyes.
But she had strong armed plenty of fools, back in the day.
Most punters had no guts, and they would usually cough up all the coin they had before shit got too real.
There hadn’t been one that was worth it in a while. Most of them carried chump change, but this golden goose was loaded.
He handed over two soiled tens. Charity stuffed them into her bra, against her tits.
When she looked up, he already had his dick out.
He was staring through her and into something she was glad she couldn’t see herself.
“Suck it,” he hissed. Punters were seldom subtle creatures.
“As you wish daddy, you eager beaver. As you wish.”
As Charity bent down to receive her unholy communion something ensnared her throat with a cold snap.
She tried to draw in a breath but somehow, she couldn’t.
I’m being strangled. He’s fucking strangling me, she thought.
Her fingers went up to her neck expecting to find a makeshift noose or cord of some kind, but there was nothing.
Piano wire. He’s using a piano wire, she thought, realising she couldn’t find the ligature because it had already bitten into her neck.
Angry fireworks swarmed Charity’s field of vision.
Oddly, there was no pain, just a clinical detachment, as if she was watching it happen to someone else.
The clarity of what she knew to be her final breathless moments was dizzying.
Everything was so vibrant and clear it didn’t make sense.
She saw her own blood, thick and dark, crawling out of her neck and coating the interior of the car.
And she saw how excited this had made the punter.
She couldn’t remember eyeballing such an angry dick, and it felt like he was pulling her head down toward it.
“Die you fucking bitch. Die you fucking tramp,” the punter said.
She dropped her head into his crotch and sank her manky teeth into his viciously turgid piece and bit down for all she was worth.
The coil of steel around her throat relaxed immediately and the car was filled with screams that threatened to send spider cracks across the windshield.
She took in a deep breath with her nose and shook her head, rag dolling his rapidly shrivelling meat between her teeth.
The punches he rained down onto Charity’s head only aided his own botched circumcision.
“YOU FUCKING BITCH!”
She spat him out and fumbled with the car door, but she was so dizzy she couldn’t find the handle.
She finally tumbled out, birthed onto the cold cement of the Halfords carpark with a spatter, taking in giant, ragged breaths.
Delicious oxygen filled her torn lungs.
She crabbed across the icy cement, away from the motor.
From inside, she could still hear him screaming.
And then the car sped off in a banshee wail of tires.
She felt foetal and somehow newly born, slathered as she was in blood and blinking dumbly as the sun examined her.
Lying in my own filth in the gutter never felt so good, Charity thought.
Her hands went up to her neck.
A raw necklace of bared tissue circled her neck, just above the collar bone, and it was starting to send alarm signals to her brain.
Her adrenaline dump was wearing off.
She needed hospital.
But first she needed a hit of something.
A girl couldn’t be expected to run on empty.
She remembered the rock.
She reached into a boot with a trembling hand and retrieved her pipe and lighter.
She fished out the crumbs and sprinkled them onto the wire wool filled pipe as carefully as her shot nerves would allow.
She fired up her horn and sucked and her brain roared as every synapse lit up at once.
She choked on the smoke and hawked up a wad of blood.
She had the ridiculous image of smoke billowing out of the vent in her throat.
She laughed, which hurt.
“I’m alive,” she said, staggering to her feet, cringing at the pool of blood coagulating into pudding where she had just been sitting.
“I’m all kinds of fucked up, but I’m alive,” she told herself again, in case she forgot.
Charity Proudfoot had never felt so fiercely alive as she did now, when she was dying, and it was a game changer.
Maybe it was the kick up the rear she needed. Maybe now she could get off the gear and stop haunting the beat.
Get a job, perish the thought.
Maybe she could fall in love and let someone take her heart hostage rather than holding it to ransom herself.
She made her way to the road in an unsteady zig zag and fed her doings into the greedy maw of the nearest bin.
The last thing she needed was to get birded off for possession as soon as she was put back together.
She steadied herself with a lamppost.
She dug into her bra for her phone.
It was gone.
Morning was imminent.
She stuck out her thumb as cars passed her, clutching at her neck with her free hand.
A car passed.
A dirty white van slowed.
The window wound down.
A man with a drinker’s nose and a unibrow poked his head out.
“You offering business gorgeous,” he asked.