“Are you not going to do up all of it?” demanded Beni narkily.

“I was going to save some for later – for both of us, I mean.” Not for the first time, Craig was a little taken aback that someone wasn’t in tune with his thoughts without his having to explain them. “And I thought you could do without your neighbours seeing the paramedics arrive.”

“If you’re worried about dropping, take less yourself and give the rest to me – or don’t give me any at all. I’m an old man with old veins. I’m not pricking my skin for half a twenty.”

Craig sighed, shrugged, and emptied the rest of the deal into the spoon.

“And by the way,” added Beni. “If I drop, don’t call the ambulance. Just wash your hands, wipe off your fingerprints, and lock the door behind you.”

This old trip. “Not a chance,” Craig shot back, smiling an impatient grimace. “You have my permission to kill yourself, but not while I’m watching.”

The expression of his readiness to die was nothing unusual for Beni. Neither was the petulant assertion of rights over someone’s generosity. First, there was that manic euphoria most junkies default to having decided, despite themselves, to score. And then, he’d lived his entire life in a world of influence and favours. Put simply, he saw it as his just recompense for a phone-call and a safe place to shoot.

Like most old gangsters and stand-over men he was on the bones of his arse, although a small trust account allowed him to live decently – if frugally. And old habits are hard to break.

Some people wondered why Craig liked Beni, but he did. Then again, Craig had never had Beni put a gun to his head. Neither did Craig own a small business where Beni could walk in and threaten to go berserk if he wasn’t given coffee or a meal.

He hadn’t always been a gangster – or a depressive – the war did that. He had seen his country occupied and torn apart. He had seen his brother ambushed and killed. And, along with the bullet wound and the mortar shrapnel lodged in his legs and chest, he’d carried away a new streak of cynical ruthlessness – a brooding sense that life eviscerates everyone; that all you can do is take whatever you need, by force if necessary. Suddenly, vice seemed more natural to him. The war rumbled over his ideals. It scorched and blighted the future, imprisoning him in eternal present scourged by incessant memory.

The tragedy was that Beni hadn’t needed to fight. He’d gotten out. But his family were active in government and defence, and his travels had made him a believer in causes. He was hardly a Kennedy but, in a small post-colonial state where land ownership and military service still counted, he was close enough. He was, he knew, a prince; a son of the families; born not to rule, but to govern. Tradition, duty and conviction brought him back. His older brother received him with surprise – and pride – and Beni went to work alongside him in the secret service.

Until then he’d been seeing the world. A stint in the mines of Western Australia had led to a position in the union, and then membership of the Communist Party. On learning he was fluent in several languages, and could make himself understood in several more, the Party gave him a press-pass and sent him abroad. Most of Beni’s thirties were spent in passionate, purposeful travel. Working as a journalist, translator and part-time intelligence gatherer, he’d seen Paris and London, Moscow and Vienna. He had reported from Latin America and South-East Asia. He’d played baccarat in Monaco, and fallen in love at least once on every continent. Before the war Beni was both a joyful liver and that rare thing, a practical revolutionary.

Before the war, Beni wasn’t a junkie.

Not everyone knew these things about him. Not everyone knew that his flinty rapacity existed side by side with a fundamentally over-generous nature. People who rolled their eyes when they saw Craig paying for Beni’s coffee didn’t know that, sometimes, Beni fed Craig for days at a time. Nor did they know how he worried whenever the younger man was ill. And they certainly wouldn’t have recognised the figure Craig had found one night, upon returning to Beni’s flat, after going out without his phone.

It was his turn at having some cash, so Craig had gone to buy them a meal. Finding nothing open close-by, he’d walked some distance to a pizzeria he knew. All up he was gone about an hour, maybe a little more. Now, while it wasn’t unheard-of for Craig to become preoccupied and lose tranches of time, on this occasion he happened to know just how long he’d been away – he’d checked the TV guide before going out. When he opened the door, the pizza box still warm against his forearm, he saw on television the start of the movie for which he’d hoped to be back in time. He also saw his friend pacing, panicked and teary, up and down the living room. Beni had nodded off over a book and, waking, had misjudged the time by an hour. The sound of Craig’s ringtone from the kitchen counter when he’d tried to call and check on him turned foreboding to the certainty of disaster. Obviously, he’d been mugged or had overdosed somewhere.

Yes, that would definitely surprise some people.

It didn’t surprise Craig. Theirs was an odd friendship, but a friendship it was; the kind formed between types who know and like a lot of people, but have few real friends; who form few attachments but, when they do, form them strong and deep. They had helped one another through bouts of depression, each knowing when to prod his friend into the world and sunlight and when to leave him the hell alone. They talked about politics and history, books and music, science and religion, women and misfits they knew. They drank a lot of coffee and spoke in French; Beni, fluent if a little rusty; Craig, much the same way he spoke English – in a monotone, either too fast or too slow, too soft or too loud, and nowhere near as well as he read it or wrote it.

Despite a vast difference in age and class, culture and experience they were, in many ways, remarkably alike. Both were attractive to women, though with little idea why or what to do about it. Both could be considered either brooding or hilarious, depending on the day or the hour in which you caught them. And they shared a basic existentialist philosophy – which though never quite breaking free of a Catholic education rendered it, at least, a kind of poetry. Neither believed in heaven or hell; neither was morbidly suicidal. They both simply accepted the Algerian’s take on Sisyphus: that every day you decided anew whether to keep pushing the boulder up the hill or let it roll back over you; all other considerations flowed authentically from that. You made the best decisions you could, and accepted the consequences.

Beni kept a chosen death as his last reserve, to be employed when all else was exhausted. His father, the Commandant, had done the same thing. Widowed and sick but still strong enough to exert his will, he had, Beni said, “planned it like a military operation”. Finalising his affairs and waiting till his youngest son had left the country, he’d just stopped taking his medication. Within a month he was found, upright in his favourite chair, dead.

Alongside the grief and resentment, Beni admired that. He planned, one day, to go with the same kind of dignity – though possibly with a little more drama. He liked the idea of smuggling a syringe, loaded with a gram of coke and a gram of heroin, on to a sky-diving plane. One last monumental rush before his heart exploded in terminal free-fall had a nice ring. It seemed like poetry. It was also why he wanted to preserve his last workable vein.

So, no, you didn’t have to worry about what he might do if you left him alone at the wrong moment. He talked in terms of a few years. “Who wants to live much past seventy?” he’d say. Craig could respect that; even offered to help, if the need arose. The trouble was that Beni mistrusted his kismet. For all his military planning talk, he was certain he’d be taken in some absurd accident – he’d get his toothbrush stuck in his throat and choke to death, or fall under a bus after tripping over a Chihuahua.

“Here,” Craig tendered. Beni snatched the syringe and, clenching his fist, jammed it straight into the vein that bulged on his knuckle. He always did it that way. Craig liked to be a little more meditative. He liked the ritual; tying-off his arm, swabbing the injection site and flicking the bubbles from the fit while the alcohol evaporated from his skin; the careful, clean insertion and the bloom of dark blood like an undersea plant in the liquid. Scoring was usually impulsive, so he liked the using to be deliberate. Beni would soon start talking again. Craig adjourned to the bathroom and closed the door.

Sitting legs crossed on the edge of the toilet, he withdrew the spike, tongued the blood in his elbow-crook, applied a cotton ball and waited. His eyes fell on the electrical cord, plugged in and switched on, snaking down to the part-open vanity drawer.

Every morning Beni would wash his face and shave, then wet his hair and reach from his puddle for the blow-dryer. As he closed his eyes and felt the heroin burst warm then cool in his brain, Craig decided that this time he wouldn’t unplug it.
  • Oceania Luxury Travel Co Luxury Travel Australia Banner 728x90 1