There were five of us: Scootskin, Austin, 'Nam, Andy and me, Frank Smith from Huddersfield. We all slept in about two rooms of an old ruined house on Fort William Avenue, Swinetown. We inhabited that district of existence where the line between life and death is very finely drawn and forever shifting, where people become simultaneously both a little more and a little less than desperate. We were just desperate. Desperate and, occasionally, desperately happy, although you might not have believed this from appearances. And we did not want to die; we didn't want to live all that badly either, but we did not want to die.
We had come across the house through a broken window out the back; Scootskin was about the right size and shape and therefore up for it, and he performed his task with all the ease and finesse of a circus tumbler. I think he must have been the veteran of at least a couple of burglaries and for a person of his dubious habits he was in pretty good shape: bulges in all the right places and lean as a bean. Then we bodged the electricity on with a screwed-up old beer can, and away we went: in our company, even the old beer cans were screwed-up. Scootskin lived in the cupboard under the stairs, like the bogeyman or something from a kids' pop-up storybook. He owned a shelf, a candle, a machete and one foul stinking blanket, enough to cover both his modesty and his needs. The rest of us did what we could.
Some evenings we would go panhandling outside the Burger King on Regent Street. This is something that I have not done too often, and it is an acquired skill: that is to say, it is a skill acquired through drink. You cannot do it sober, which only gives the passers-by the excuse they feel they need to say:
“Oh, you'll only spend it on a bottle!”
Well, I never said no.
But many people have feeling and the little dog who was my companion at the time helped me to draw it out of them, sitting there and wagging her tail more earnestly than I ever could. And after the drop:
“Gawd bless yer, guvnor/lady!”
Real Dickensian street-urchin stuff.
Eventually we would make enough for, say, a 12-pack of Special Brew and some food and then we would make off for home at around 9 or 10pm. I was only surprised that the Burger King manager didn't call the cops on us more often. I don't know, it seemed a very decent time. I can't say that we were comfortably off, or unremittingly and relentlessly ecstatic or anything; but we seemed to have attained this air of almost-contentment - it was almost as if we knew something, and this seemed to me to be a state of enlightenment that precious few people ever managed to attain. Occasionally, very occasionally, some fool would stroll up and offer us all jobs. I didn't want a job. I didn't want to do anything other than sit around and wait on something. I felt as though something were about to happen. I had no way of knowing just exactly what it was, but I felt that I ought to be ready for whatever it was when it arrived, so I just sat there waiting for I don't know what, anticipating the unknown. I just wanted to sit and drink wine and talk and laugh, if possible. And when we got home we would do just that, and argue, and sniff glue and gas, and pass out in various uncompromising shapes and positions. What we had, we shared, and this among other things put us outside of the big society thing and we weren't sorry at all; and of course, we shared our madness too.
One evening I was walking down toward the west end of Fort William avenue in a stricken and deranged state, not knowing whether or not to carry on, my stomach in turmoil over a woman and dying for a drink. It happened. All of a sudden I came across Scootskin and Andy; they had been hanging around outside chip shops all evening, standing next to the bins and whistling into the air with their hands in their pockets - if they had pockets - looking for cold chips and bits of battered fish.
“Any good, boys?” I asked them. “Nah man, fucking useless!” Scootskin told me. “We're fucking starving!” “Never mind, here's a drink, let's go home and sleep,” I said, tapping the tops of the cans in my carrier bag.
We strolled on in and passed the cans and some dog-end roll-ups around for a while, nattering and giggling away, making drunken grandiose plans that would invariably come to nothing. The less you believed in life the less you had to lose. I didn't have much to lose, me and my stricken and deranged stomach.
'Nam had been out making a little too. She had this flageolet which she called her 'penny whistle', and she would adopt the lotus position on the corner outside Halfords and wait for the spare change to come falling into her lap. She wasn't anything much out of the ordinary but she had a handsome vigour and flair and you either loved it or you hated, so of course some people loved it and I suppose a few people even took pity on her. Most of us had these paltry little schemes for getting by. There wasn't much else that we could do.
The chatter and banter began to run out with the beer, and the resolved sighs and yawns replaced it all and Scootskin made for his cupboard beneath the stairs, about two feet to my left. About ten minutes had passed when I noticed another tin of Special Brew that I had apparently forgotten: I opened the thing with its characteristic click and after-hiss. Then, just to my side, there was a noise like a large bookcase collapsing in a reference library, or perhaps the urban freeway coming in on itself during the Los Angeles earthquake. I had involuntarily triggered Scootskin's inbuilt alarm system. We all collapsed into fits of giggles that lasted for some time. These were our joys, small and tiny things that were bigger and greater than the whole damned world.
Scootskin had done a deal with a few of the crowd that he had used to run with; they were in the business of burgling off-licenses, and the deal was minimal amounts of pot for large bottles of Rum, Gin and Whisky. This led to much dancing around our communal room at lunchtime, mostly to the sounds of Fugazi, Santana, Jimi Hendrix and, incredibly, the theme tune from 'Neighbours' on the TV. It was around this time, November 1990, that Margaret Thatcher was driven from power with a wet tea towel, or something. We decided that an extra party was in order. It was organised along the lines of Special Brew, Captain Morgan's Navy Rum, the Ozric Tentacles and 'Home & Away'. Scootskin became annoyed that not enough people were joining in with the festivities. He threw open the front door.
“What's wrong with you people?” he screamed into the street. “It's a PAAAARTEEEEY!!!!”
Then he went and flounced down on the sofa in front of the TV, folded his arms, adopted a despotic expression about his face and waited for the masses to come streaming through the doorway. When after a full ten minutes this still hadn't happened, he decided that he must take matters into his own hands: if the people wouldn't come to the party then the party must go to the people! He lurched his way, head down like a prize fighter, into the street.
I was just beginning to get interested in 'A Country Practice' when there came the blaring of a car horn and not a little shouting from outside. It appeared that Scootskin, in his enthusiastic zeal that maybe people ought to enjoy themselves a little more, had leapt into the middle of the road waving his arms over his head and flagged down the first motorist who happened along. He threw himself across the car's bonnet and windscreen.
“IT'S A PAAARTEY!” he told the car's occupant. “COME ON IN AND HAVE SOME BEEER!”
He was waving a half-emptied bottle of Captain Morgan's about his head. The motorist concerned was clearly not amused: he probably had a plane to catch, a train to rob, or something similarly dull. In order to avoid an altercation, Austin and myself were forced to haul Scootskin bodily into the house, apologising to the by-now giggling motorist as we went. Then he and his Austin Allegro were gone too.
The party went on…