excerpt from
Poppy Dream - the story of an English addict (2008) by Joe South

Florrie’s House

Mid-summer 1967

I felt my eyelids flicker once or twice and then slam open. My heart was racing and my mind was full of the certain horrors to come on this day. The familiar heroin withdrawals had also started. It was dark but I knew what the time was without looking at the alarm clock - it was 4 am. I reached over and switched on the bedside lamp. Sonia was also waking as I shifted into a sitting position on the edge of the bed where I could cook my fix. Our bedroom window was wide open and the air was still warm from the hot day before. Sonia was lying naked on the grubby sheet, her pale, thin body already showing the characteristic muscular spasms of early junk deprivation. In this state my arms had a tendency to both shoot forward simultaneously and so I had to be careful when I prepared my fix in case I spilt any of the precious fluid. My nose was running, I felt like my stomach had been surgically removed and my eyes were wide with the onset of my morning horrors.

Arranged carefully on the floor, near the gas fire, was our paraphernalia: a glass jar, full of alcohol, containing two French syringes, a small wooden laboratory rack of test tubes, a bottle of TCP, ampoules of apyrogen, a bag of cotton wool, leather belts for tourniquets, a neat stack of empty methedrine boxes and rows of empty heroin and cocaine bottles. I put the last three jacks of heroin in my syringe and filled up with a mil of sterile water. This half grain was all I had left from the previous day’s script and was only enough to remove some of the withdrawal pain, temporarily, until the morning when I’d fetch a fresh script from the pharmacy. With any luck we’d both sleep for another few hours. I shook my works a couple of times and the H dissolved obligingly. I slipped my arm through a belt and pulled it tight. It took me a while to find a vein but eventually the plunger eased back and admitted a little curl of blood into the liquid opiate inside the glass syringe. I had a hit and I could send the drug into my vein. Although this morning dose was small it removed the pain instantly and I lay back to watch Sonia moving in the gloom.

I found it almost unbearable to watch her fix these days. Her veins were either thrombosed or retreating far from the surface and, as a solution; she had taken to injecting in her feet. When she injected herself she managed to get her blood everywhere in her desperate and impatient attempts to get a hit. I watched this pale, skinny, blood splattered woman hunched on the side of the bed. She had been so beautiful once and I felt ashamed that I had led her to this. At last, she found a vein in her left foot and she lay back with a long sigh, leaving her gun in the vein. We both slept until around eight o’clock when our withdrawal pains woke us again.

At half past eight I would walk a couple of hundred yards to Archie Lyles Pharmacy so I could pick up our daily scripts. Not so long to wait now and I pulled on my leather overcoat in anticipation. I lay down on our bed and listened to Sonia’s mother, Florrie, pottering about, downstairs in the kitchen, as I waited for the minutes to pass. As the opiate left my blood my senses awoke, sometimes violently, and I began to smell the acrid, bad cabbage smell of our unwashed bodies. Normally we couldn’t smell ourselves so we only washed now and again; a wipe with a damp flannel here and there. We listened for the front door to bang and that told us that Florrie had gone across the road to open up her small knitting and wool shop for the day. Her husband Ralph had already left for work earlier at Morris Motors and the house was empty except for two, half dead drug addicts.

We had moved in with Sonia’s parents a few months previously as we could never raise the cash to pay the rent on our flat. To explain our awful appearance to her parents Sonia had told them that we were both getting over Hepatitis B and that our recovery would be a long job. I’m convinced that Florrie never bought this story but I don’t know what she believed. If I had been her I would have hated me with a rage and a passion for not protecting her lovely daughter better, but instead, she was kind and loving with me the whole time we lived there.

“I’m really sick Joe, when are you going to pick up?” pleaded Sonia.

“I’ll go now, don’t worry and I’ll get back as quickly as I can,” I replied. Despite my withdrawal pain I quite enjoyed parts of this early morning walk to the chemist. The fresh morning air, a bonfire smoking somewhere, cheap perfume coming from a lady at the bus stop, the scent of the Thames on the breeze. All these smells triggered memories from my childhood evoking strong emotions within me, some sad and some happy. William Burroughs once wrote that someone ought to bottle and market this marvellous side effect of heroin withdrawal. All my senses were alert and heightened for part of each awful day.

I usually arrived at the shop before Archie or his lady assistants. To others I must have looked a pathetic sight pacing up and down outside his pharmacy every morning. Long, greasy hair and a white, sometimes blue, face. My clothes hung loose on my skinny frame and were now several sizes too big for me. Grimy, grey plimsolls, blood splattered Levis: a shirt peppered with nod burns and buttoned up unequally, so that one shirt tail hung 6 inches below the other outside my jeans. My brown, Belgian leather overcoat topped this ensemble, old, scratched and scuffed. A sad sight to others maybe, but I felt as if I was at the pinnacle of cool. My hip, dramatic protest at a cruel, harsh and unfair world. Waiting there, shivering, sniffing and shaking I was Jean Genet, Coleridge, Byron and Trocchi all in one…….but much more radical. I was deliberately killing myself…….that is…. until it got too painful. Come on, come on, the waiting is getting tedious now, hurry up Archie, for fucks sake hurry up, I thought.

At last, 5 minutes later, Archie arrived and with a brief nod in my direction he unlocked the shop where all the nice drugs lived. Without taking off his coat or trilby he unlocked the DDA cupboard and placed our prescriptions on his small dispensary counter. He checked them over before he put them into a large paper bag. “OK. Sonia fi rst. 5 grains of diamorphine hydrochloride, 5 grains cocaine hydrochloride and 5 ampoules of methyl amphetamine hydrochloride,” he reported as he stacked her boxes.

“Yup,” I said.

“You next. 7 grains diamorphine hydrochloride, 7 grains cocaine and 7 ampoules of 1.5 ml meth. All correct?” he asked.

“You can give me a bit more if you like,” I sniff ed. “Do you want any syringes, needles, sterile water or anything?” he added ignoring my request.

“Just some 26g by half inch please Archie. Give me a dozen.”

Archie chucked the needles into the open bag and smiled his goofy smile. He had a lovely smile did Archie. Red faced, eyes wide apart like a frog, and a broad thin lipped mouth that took up half his face when he smiled. I loved Archie; he took away the pain and gave me so much pleasure. I wonder if he ever guessed how much he meant to me.

I had no ‘holy mescaline recall’ experiences of childhood on my return journey. I was, as usual, in an almighty hurry to get back to Florrie’s and to get well for a few hours. In spite of the summer warmth Sonia was huddled, naked and shivering in front of the lit gas fire. She already had a leather belt around her left ankle. “Give me, give me, gimme, gimme,” she squeaked. “Lovely heroin, lovely coke, lovely meth. It’s going to be alright after all.” She snapped open a meth ampoule and filled her syringe with the clear amphetamine. She put 4 jacks of heroin and a grain of coke into a test tube and squirted the meth on top of the tiny tablets and the crystals. The speedball dissolved as soon as the liquid amphetamine hit it and Sonia drew the one and a half mil into her works. After another ghastly, blood splattered 10 minutes of poking and probing she found a vein, pushed home the precision made glass plunger and gently lay back on the bed, a soft smile playing on her face. Yesterday’s mascara had run during the night and left black stains on her cheeks. I used a grain, a grain and an amp. The concoction hit my brain instantly and the pleasure was intense for some minutes. My aches and pains had all gone. The fear and anxiety replaced by peace and an illusion of hope. Trocchi called this heroin high ‘inviolable’. A sense of being ‘intact and unbrittle.’ We both nodded for a couple of hours. We came to with the sound of ‘She’s Leaving Home,’ drifting in through our open window. Obviously our neighbour, Sam, had just bought the recently released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and we listened, with interest and pleasure for awhile. The songs were lovely it was true, but it wouldn’t have been too cool to admit to liking anything by the Beatles, no matter how long they grew their hair. My mad suspicious, anarchistic mind saw them, even then, as a tool of the establishment. If we had to have pop music then the Stones would just about fit the bill.

I took another fi x, nodded for a while longer, and then announced to Sonia that I had to go into town. “Charley wants a selection of men’s trousers so I’ll get my bag and go and get ‘em.” Charley was my fence on the Cowley Road and if I popped into his second-hand shop he would tell me what he needed. He gave me only a fraction of the true value of the stolen clobber but we almost always needed the money so badly I seldom refused his paltry offers. “Take care,” she said, sipping her first cup of tea of the day. Sonia was an expert shoplifter. A couple of weeks previously she came into the basement kitchen of her mother’s house and told me to ‘hush’ by pressing her finger against her lips. She was wearing her short, shiny, black plastic mac and she had something big inside it which she was supporting with both hands held in front of her. Her mother was busy at the kitchen sink and quietly talking to Ralph who was sitting at the kitchen table reading The Oxford Mail. Sonia pointed to the stairs and we slipped by the pair without them giving us a second glance.

Inside our bedroom she unbuttoned her coat and out tumbled a large pile of LPs. There were twenty Music for Pleasure albums which she had just pinched from WH Smith. Beethoven, Mozart, Delius, Tchaikovsky, Bach - a lovely, marvellous haul of beautiful music. I was impressed. “So many. How did you manage to lift them all?” I asked. “There’s loads and they must have been so heavy.”

“I chose them, one at a time, carefully from the display counter until I had what I wanted and then I walked out of the shop,” she said matter of factly. “So why did you arrive with them under your mac?” “Oh! I didn’t want mum to see them,” she explained.” I didn’t want her to think that I’m a thief.” “A cultured thief though, with good taste,” I reassured her. Feeling good and confident from a recent fix I headed off into the city centre and Marks and Spencer. As I approached Carfax I was praying that I wouldn’t bump into Dick Webb. I was getting really bored with the game that we compulsively played out every time that we saw each other. Dick was a junky and a thief just like me and he sometimes liked to parade his junk thin frame inside a Wyatt Earp frock coat, wearing a smart, black Stetson and carrying a magnificent replica Colt 45 in a gun belt at his waist. I always knew when I saw him dressed this way that he was flush with horse and probably money too. I don’t know how, or why, or when the Dada started, but over those Oxford heroin years we dropped into a habit of acting out an imaginary gunfight whenever we saw one another, whether he was kitted up or not. We would spy one another, across a busy street say, and then slowly adopt a gunfighter’s stance, facing each other until one of us drew his ‘two fingers’ gun. The stand off could take minutes, confusing passing shoppers with the frozen tension that they sensed between us. After the draw, one

of us would obligingly drop dead on the pavement, or in the shop, or wherever. We never spoke to each other during these encounters and at first, when we were both young in our habits and our tolerance to H was low, our performances were hilarious and enjoyable. Over time though they became a nuisance. They wasted precious time when we were both engaged in important junky business and we didn’t have the patience anymore to act out this compulsive theatre. But we were locked into the game and we were powerless to stop it.

The last time that I had seen Dick was about two weeks earlier. I was skint as usual and I had decided to visit Marks and Spencer to relieve them of a few shirts to sell to Charley later. With my grey, grimy heisting mac on, concealing my thin body and laundry bag, I entered the famous store. I quickly located the shirts that I wanted and I was getting ready to transfer 10 or 12 into my bag when I noticed, behind me, a whole line of men’s trousers moving with some rustling sounds coming from the same location. I moved closer to the trembling rack of pants and peered behind to see Dick, on his knees and ramming strides into his big poacher’s bag. Precisely at this moment, he saw me and then, simultaneously, we both glanced over to the left where we saw a store detective standing about 25 feet away and apparently studying something interesting in the opposite direction. We couldn’t tell if he was aware of us or not. There was a look of panic on Dick’s face as he stood up slowly. We had only two choices: gunfight at the M&S corral, or leg it fast. We chose to fight, clearly the show must go on, whether we were in horrible danger or not. We paused ready to draw, waiting, staring flinty eyed at each other. Dick drew and I fell down dead. We left the store very quickly, Dick clutching his huge bag and I, empty handed. For some unfathomable reason the detective had not seen, or heard us and had moved off down the shop floor.

Leaving M&S I almost collided with Wilbur Driesen. We embraced, delighted to see each other again. He was thinner than ever and parchment white, “Christ Wilbur you old tart how great to see you,” I yelled. “Ah, my only true love, such a delight,” sang Wilbur. “Come on, let’s go to the Cadena. We’ll go upstairs and have ice cream sundaes. My treat.” We sat in our usual corner and Wilbur ordered two Knickerbocker Glories, four fresh cream meringues and two pots of tea. We smoked and jabbered as we waited. “My pater’s cheque has just arrived so I can afford it,” smiled Wilbur. “Where have you been?” I asked. “I was worried about you.”

“Why, for Gods sake. The worst thing that can happen to me is that I die and death, my dear, still appeals to me,” he screeched. “I’ve been in town. Isabella died so I had to get a new croaker. Now I have a young buck in Harley Street. He’s OK I guess, he’s even increased my script a wee bit. But I do miss dear Lady Frankau it’s true.” “The American and Canadian narcs won’t miss her,” I said seriously.

“No, it’s true; she was an aristocratic thorn in their arses that’s for sure.”

“You look fucking awful Wilbur,” I giggled.

“You look fucking worse Joe,” he laughed, beginning to cough on his meringue. Sometimes when he laughed this way, semi hysterically, he used to suck in more air than he could handle and end up choking. He was a peculiar blue colour now, but his coughing stopped as abruptly as it started. His nose and mouth were covered in cream and I laughed at him again, pointing at the daubs of cream on his face with a nicotine stained finger. “You do cheer me up,” he said. “What an awful, dreadful life it’s been and heroin doesn’t help that much any more don’t you agree?” I nodded my agreement.

“How’s Sonia these days, still using I presume?” he asked.

“She’s still using,” I said.

“You never loved her did you?” he said, taking one of my cigarettes. I wasn’t surprised by his question; it had been an unspoken fact for years.

“No, never. It’s funny you know because she was beautiful, funny, talented and kind but I never felt deeply for her,” I replied. “I can recognise the feeling of being in love because I’ve had it with others but never with Sonia.”

“I knew all along. You loved your Aunty Wilbur more than you loved her I reckon,” he teased. He still had a daub of cream on the end of his nose but I didn’t tell him. I didn’t want to wreck the romance of the moment.

“You’re right of course, you outrageous old queen.” I said sadly. We sat quietly: licking bits of cream, smoking and complaining, when the thought occurred to me that we must have looked like Belsen inmates, sitting there in the Cadena, let out on a day’s pass for rest and recreation. “Everything is so fucking grotesque Wilbur and the horse doesn’t really do it these days. I feel desperate,” I whined.

“Another fi ne mess you’ve got me in to Stanley,” he chuckled, but his eyes were wet with tears.

“Here is a couple of pounds, come and see me soon. I’m back in Paradise Square,” said Wilbur chucking the notes on top of the white tablecloth.

“Why are you going so soon,” I asked, scared to lose his company.

“I need a big fix and some Beethoven,” he replied quietly.

“Oh, that reminds me, is your favourite poet still Houseman?” I asked.

“Of course, who else is there for the likes of me?” “John Betjemen, try him. I love him. You do understand though, that as the cutting edge, hip intellectuals of our generation we should appreciate Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Corso and the like,” I said.

“Dull fuckwits,” muttered Wilbur as he got up from the table leaving a tip under a plate. We parted company in Cornmarket and I caught a whiff of paraldehyde coming off his sports jacket as we hugged goodbye. “Don’t forget to pop around to Paradise sometime,” he shouted. I never saw my friend again. He died, a few days later, from an overdose in a public lavatory, near Leicester Square.

That evening I spent two hours in the lavatory. I hadn’t crapped for at least five days and things were getting dire to say the least. Laxatives had proven useless in the past and so I had taken my bicycle pump and some Vaseline with me into the loo. This particular crapping aid was my very own invention and, as such, it had seldom worked. I lowered my pants and greased my anus with the petroleum jelly. I drew back the plunger and introduced the cut-off rubber adaptor into my arse and blasted a few strokes of the pump into my rectum. I sat and waited. Nothing, so I blasted again and waited for perhaps 2 or 3 minutes before I was rewarded with one huge, loud fart followed by one tiny hard turd dropping into the water with a minute splash. Oh God, how frustrating. Still it was a start. I kept repeating the process for another one and a half hours but never really achieved much apart from a thick, oily, foul smelling sweat covering my body.

Ralph was waiting in the kitchen, looking very angry, when I emerged from the lavatory. “I’ve been waiting an hour for you, you inconsiderate bastard. You know that is the only toilet in the house. What in God’s name were you doing in there?” he raged.

“Oh sorry, I fell asleep,” I muttered meekly. That evening, lying in bed, after Sonia and I had swallowed our Mandrax and had our last fix of the day I turned to Sonia. “It’s no good you know. We have to clean up soon. This is too awful, let’s take the cure.” She stared at me, searching my face for something. “OK,”she said.

Joe South

Poppy Dream - the story of an English addict (Joe South)

OPIOIDS: the birth of a new generation
and further reading