issue 25: July - August 2001 

  | author bio

Dragons in E8
Atima Srivastava



I'm waiting to see my social worker in her office. It makes me angry when she's late, because she's supposed to be working, not doing me a favour. Here she is. Sandra. She's just been up Ridley Road Market to do her shopping and she got stuck on the one-way system up there. She apologises to me as a matter of course. Manners are important to Sandra. When I was little, I remember a story I read about a girl who never said "Please" or "Thank you." Her aunt, who came to visit, cut out big "P" and "Q" letters from card and pinned them on her pinafore every time the girl forgot. In the end the dress was so covered with "P's" and "Q's" that the girl finally realised what it was to be well brought up.
      Not dragged up, like me.
      "Why do you always put yourself down?" asks Sandra, really concerned.
      You've got to have a killer instinct in Hackney if you're driving: the "one way paranoia" we used to call it. Round there, no one cares what side of the road they're on. You just have to drive like everyone else, like you've only got your destination in mind. Ridley Road is good for fruit and fish. And vegetables you never saw before. There's a hundred shops that sell black hair products and bleaches for lightening the skin. Beats me why some black people want to be pale. Being white never did me much good.
      I'd been living on the Downs Hackney council estate for a few months when Fliss and Rob moved in downstairs. I was working at an old people's home and Barry was dispatch riding. We'd been together seven months, and we had fun. We were high up and there was no lift but you got used to the stairs after a while. Fliss was short for Felicity. I was hanging out of the balcony watching them move into the flats on a Saturday afternoon. Barry had just pulled up on the Kawasaki and he was helping them with their boxes in the empty courtyard and car park that was also the kids’ playground. The Council hadn't bothered to let a lot of the flats in the estate, so it was no wonder that squatters were moving in. Fliss and Rob had pink hair and wore leather jackets with writing sprayed on, but they seemed okay.
      We'd been redecorating our place and I'd made some big cushions for the floor. Rob and Barry got stuck into bike conversation so I started to tell Fliss about what I'd been doing on the flat. She didn't seem very impressed but we were drinking coffee and rolling joints and making friends. By opening time we were all a bit stoned so we took them to our local. They had met at university. Rob was looking for work and Barry's firm needed a rider so that was that. Fliss was a painter and wasn't bothered if she had a day job or not. She felt it would interfere with the creative process.
      I worked three days a week, so some afternoons I'd go downstairs to chat with Fliss. After a month there were still half-unpacked boxes around their double mattress on the floor. The walls had blistering wallpaper. She'd bought a rug for the floor that even my mum's dog would not have slept on. All around there were tubes of oil paints and brushes, cigarette packets and cooking foil, tins of half-finished baked beans and dead matches. There were lots of Fliss's paintings around the place, the paint buttered on with knives, that didn't look like anything. She had money, yet she pretended to be poor.
      The old black people would kiss their teeth as we passed them on the stairs. I felt embarrassed because Fliss was wearing a t-shirt with a tit hanging out of a rip. I think she thought I was a square for keeping the flat clean and wearing clothes that didn't make a statement. But she knew we were ordinary and that's why she talked to us.
      Gradually, but somehow suddenly, the estate became divided up into those people who had lived there for years, and the new people. Most of them were white political activists or art students looking for life. They had come running from detached housing and fitted kitchens that their neighbours wanted to run to. I thought I was smart because I had them all sussed, the losers and the winners. There used to be some grand parties in those flats. Word of mouth in the corridors and so many people you could hardly breathe. Dope, and marble cake and fried chicken in the kitchen. People dancing with their kids. Even the parties changed. Grass would still go round, but now there were ten pound notes rolled up to snort white lines, pieces of silver foil to chase dragons with.
      I knew where they were coming from, how they were slumming it with the working classes. I might not have had their education but at least I knew how to pay my rent legally. Once I was telling Fliss about the old dears I worked with, as she spiked up her hair with Palmolive soap. About having to take them to the toilet, waiting on them to remember their train of thought. She said it sounded "gross". She said that word a lot. She also said "bad" when she liked something, like she'd heard the black kids say. There was no talking to Barry about it. He was so keen, so impressed by their rebellion.
      "What's so good about working class people?" he challenged me one day. "They're ignorant and prejudiced. My dad, he'll work and die driving that train for London Transport, for what? He's never been on a plane or had a dream beyond four walls".
      I knew what he meant but it upset me all the same. I felt he was betraying me, my mum and dad,our lot. Fliss had big glossy books in her flat with pictures of dripping clocks. On my day off, I went to an exhibition in the West End and tagged along with a tour, eavesdropping as the guide explained the significance of ants in Dali's work. It wasn't important or necessary, just interesting. I bought some postcards for the old dears which they put up on the notice-board. The one I bought for Fliss was still in its paper bag on the floor. She was sitting in front of a canvas chewing the end of her brush. She said she took smack to help destructure her work.
      I got to know Sonia next door after a while. According to Sonia, everything belonged to the "governmen'". She'd say,"I'm off to my governmen' bed now" or "sit down on the governmen' chair love," mimicking her old mum who had used that expression back in Trinidad. Sometimes, I couldn't tell if she meant the social security snooper or her boyfriend. Her daughter Tamla and I would hoot with laughter sitting side by side in front of the telly. One night the governmen' man cancelled by phone at the last minute. I was going to babysit and me and Tamla had spent the whole afternoon plaiting Sonia's hair for the occasion. Tamla was six and she taught me how to make thin plaits and wax them carefully at the ends. Two hundred plaits! We were more upset than Sonia. "Well you know how governmen' is" she said to cheer us up, "they screw you when they feel like it." She winked across to me to see if I got the double meaning. Tamla understood, but she always let her mum think she didn't. She always looked after her that way. I used to think when I had a kid, I wanted it to be just like Tamla.
      I hadn't seen much of Fliss and Rob for a few months but Barry saw them all the time. They always seemed to be sharing a private joke. I still went to the library once a week ,and one day I saw Stafford from upstairs in there. He was a designer and, unlike his younger brother Harold, who was a Rastafarian, he dressed in smart tailored jackets. Sometimes I'd lie in bed waiting for Barry to get in from downstairs and I'd hear Stafford coming home at four in the morning. They shared a room and he'd always wake Harold with his noise. When Stafford took out blonde women to nightclubs, they weren't women like me. "Rich white tarts who like being seen with forbidden fruit," said Sonia with contempt. After a while Stafford moved out and we never saw him again.
      Harold was different. He'd taken to visiting me and usually he would just sit quietly watching the telly or reading a book while I did chores. Sometimes we'd talk. Although he didn't say much, I knew he liked being there, and that was fine with me too. I hardly saw Barry in those days anyway, and when I did he was always talking about Fliss and Rob. If Fliss ever came upstairs, Harold would make some excuse and leave. Unlike me, he was too proud even to smoke her dope. Meanwhile I was beginning to suspect that Barry was doing smack. Sometimes Fliss and Rob would come back from Marks and Spencer loaded down with plastic bags full of food. We feasted like kings for a week on Chicken Kiev and Boeuf Bourguignon. Fliss said I should try it, it was easy. But I said I couldn't shoplift, my mum had got nicked for stealing half a pound of butter from Tescos when I was little and the whole supermarket had seen her being led away. Rob and Fliss opened their mouths wide at the story; they were embarrassed and I was ashamed of it. I thought, screw them for everything, their conscience and their money. I let them fill my fridge with prawns, ham, pate and strawberries. Barry said I was wicked. He said I was jealous.
      Around the time I started taking smack, Hackney was on the point of change. Black women stood on the top-floor balconies shaking out the washing, gaping down at the distant houses in the streets. Property prices were spiralling. For Sale signs were sprouting like brazen daffodils in the bleak narrow streets. The new shops were rubbing shoulders with the rough trade. Next to the Continental Store was a health-food shop that didn't allow smoking. Next to the electrical repairs was a kite shop and a designer-jewellery shop which was also a café. Our local was under new management. They knocked the pool room down and turned it into a greenhouse called The Conservatory,with books on the shelves that nobody read. The fruit machines disappeared and the beer came in bottles. The Socialist Workers Party held their meetings on Tuesday nights and purchased Class A in the toilets. The yuppies only bought property to invest; the ones who mingled were the do-gooders, the revolutionaries, the artistes.
      Harold's mum had died two years ago, just before we moved in, and his dad became silent and timid. I took some Boeuf Bourguignon up for them and told his dad I'd cooked it because he wouldn't have approved of stolen goods. I could hardly get inside the door because five suitcases were piled up in the hall. I thought they were going on holiday, but Harold explained they just hadn't touched anything since their mum died. Squeezing past into the front room I saw a 3-D Christ hanging over the mantelpiece, looking down on the countless glass fish that you get in Ridley Road for 50p. All neatly arranged on differently coloured crocheted mats. Everything shrouded in dust. It made me think of all the important, sentimental clutter that people collect in their life, which just becomes stuff when you die. I suppose she was always packed, always ready for that place she had abandoned for England, but of course she never went. Fliss was laughing about it. She said their flat was "tacky". Funny how the only thing about black people she liked were the drugs and the music. I nearly said her paintings were the nastiest things I'd ever seen.
      But suddenly everything seemed empty to me that day.
      People's dreams and hopes, their aimless existence, the governmen' man screwing you when he felt like it, half a pound of butter turning into a criminal record. And I thought I could hear laughter and champagne glasses clinking in the luxury conversions. And just out of earshot, up in the tower blocks, someone was cleaning toilets. The four of us were sprawled around our flat and the rain was like sniper fire against the window. That was the day I first had smack. Just smoked it. That's what the silver foil was for. I watched Rob burn the dirty white powder and pass me a tube to inhale it with. I hadn't realised the three of them had been doing it for the last few months. Well, I thought, why not, I'll try it.
      The first time I threw up. The second time it was the best feeling I'd ever had. I didn't feel anxious or angry or scared. It was better than smoking dope because you didn't feel paranoid. I hugged Barry as though I hadn't seen him for ages. We were all laughing so much, feeling so good. I thought it was alright to smoke it anyway, but jacking up was disgusting. I'd never have done that. I was far too sensible.
      It was coming up for two years we'd lived on the Downs. Smack was cheaper than speed those days and it was a small price to pay for the way you felt. Pistachio nuts were a pound for a pound in the Indian shop. The bloke told me it was a consequence of the war between Iran and Iraq. The pistachios had accumulated into surplus in Iran and they were shipping them out by the truckload, and smack coming via the black market in Iraq. I was feeling fine as I strolled past the Hackney front line, digesting two of London's cheapest imports. All the tower blocks looked like a fairy tale with pink clouds behind them. The air swung heavy with diesel and the sound of children in the park, but it felt like another planet.
      There was a phone box. About a dozen Rastafarians with long dreadlocks were congregating around it. It was their drug business hotline. It was dusk and I swaggering along, grinning. I had nothing anyone could steal, just well-being. There was a row of shops there that all hated each other. The Turkish kebab shop hated the Chinese takeaway hated the Bangladeshi fishmonger hated the West Indian restaurant hated the Greek dry-cleaner. And they all hated the Jews because they had got there first and done well and moved to Golders Green. Well, not hate, professional rivalry, you could call it. After all they were all in the same boat. I just laughed and laughed because I was a citizen of the world. In my own carriage reserved first class. Everyone was out there engaged in the battle of life, trapped by the very rituals that promised to set them free. Working like dogs so they could relax, being unhappy so they could be happy. All waiting for a receipt for their good behaviour.
      The four of us spent nearly all our time together. Other people didn't interest us. They were a drag; they had no sense of humour. The four of us developed another language of slang and code. I was lying about it but I was jacking up by then. It was getting expensive and you needed much less if you shot it straight into the bloodstream. You learn it real easy. Finding a vein, slapping it to attention before feeding it, so easy to feel good. I lost my job around then because I could never get up in time. The old folk needed someone reliable, so I was a bad bet for them. I managed to get some cleaning jobs in Stoke Newington. That was ironic. I'd always promised myself I would never clean other people's houses, like my mum had because she wanted a better life for her kid. And I could feel Fliss looking down her nose at me. But I needed the money, didn't I?
      Days just passed by. Sometimes I'd go into a panic if I thought we couldn't afford to get more stuff but Fliss and Rob always had some so I suppose I had been wicked about them after all. Occasionally I'd suspect Barry had scored some for himself and we'd row about it. You don't get addicted just like that, whatever the adverts tell you. It kind of creeps up behind you like a stranger, and before you know it, it's your guardian angel, checking every move, every thought you have. I get pissed off when people say you're not with it when you’re smacked out. I know what's going on around me. And what I close my mind to isn't worth knowing because it's bullshit. The trouble with people like Sandra the social worker is that they're into the bullshit, making sense of it from the books they've read. I know more about it than she does. I could do her job. I could do it tomorrow. But who am I kidding? No, I couldn’t because I'm sick and she's all I've got to help me get better.
      Sonia said she didn't want me babysitting the kid any more.
      A lot of things happened around that time. The stomach cramps were so bad I thought I was going to die. I didn't dare go to the clinic in case they did a drug test. Blood came out and somewhere inside that mess was a shredded little life. My heart and body ached. The old men looked sideways at me as I staggered downstairs in the middle of the afternoon. I felt bad. I wanted just to feel alright but I felt like a rubbish bag. There was nothing to talk about. I just took some more stuff so I didn't have to think about it. There was nothing else to do. It was all over.
      One night the phone rang.
      It was Harold. I suddenly missed the quietness of Harold and I really wanted him to come over. Then I realised that he wasn't talking in his deliberate slow Jamaican drawl. He was talking like me, London fast and scared. He said he was at Stoke Newington police station. He'd been picked up and he wanted me to come and get him. He must have been really desperate to call me. So I went, even though the others said it was a drag.
      I'd had a hit before I left the flat to see me through the ordeal. As if it were me not Harold that had been beaten up. I strung some words together to the man behind the desk, gave him my address and all the rest of it. Finally they let Harold out and as we left the station, a policeman sniggered nigger's tart behind his hand. On the street, Harold said nothing. As the free night air hit my face, I realised I'd just been in a police station with heroin running around my bloodstream. I started to laugh because I felt very brave and clever and Harold looked at me with his eyes half closed. I never noticed he was walking with a limp. That night I felt I'd let Harold down in some way. I felt ashamed but I didn't know of what.
      The next night we got nicked. They burst into the flat like a movie, four policemen. They'd been watching Rob for ages. They found everything. I remember the thin plastic bags they put the pieces of foil, the tubes, the works into. The stuff of dreams. The evidence. The four of us got bundled into a police car. Lights flipped on but no one really noticed or cared. A few flats double-locked their front doors. We were screeching down the one-way paranoia and it was just another night in Hackney.
      Fliss's dad came down with a solicitor and she was gone in half an hour. Barry and Rob got done for dealing. They let me off with a caution. I sold them a fast story about being led on by my boyfriend and having to stay with him because I was too scared to leave. The solicitor from Legal Aid was great. But it was all rotten. All that ducking and diving to save myself. I felt as though my life wasn't mine, it was just a defence. All the stuff that had happened to me was just a strategy to get myself off the hook.
      Barry started writing me letters addressed to Mrs. Barry Watkins, which made me laugh. There he was inside, being forced to come off the smack and having the luxury of dreams. I was waking from nightmares every night. He thought he could lean on me, when I was falling apart. It was no good; it had all gone bad between us. I had to give up the flat and move back in with my parents and see Sandra once a week.
      She says I'm hostile, that I use my hostility to rich people as a crutch. She says the drug problem is worse inside and Barry isn't better off than me. She says I feel displaced and that I need to integrate myself back into society in a meaningful way. She says I need to talk about my feelings around the miscarriage. What she means is I'm fucked up by life, by smack. Maybe she's right, but everyone's fucked up. It just depends what side of the table you're sitting. All I have to do is follow the rules and then I'll get better. She's pinning letters cut of card on my pinafore. I've got to leave aside all my thoughts and longing and concentrate on getting better. I miss the Downs and Tamla and Harold. But I don't suppose I was anything to them. Just another face that passed through. They don't need me to survive. And I look around my mum's flat and wonder if I could have been happy if I'd done what was expected of me. I miss Fliss too in a way. We were both trying to be different, trying to be someone. Only, my mum's still cleaning and my dad's still unemployed. Fliss did send me a Christmas card saying she was working in her dad's firm. She never mentioned smack or her address.
      After a while I can’t be bothered to go to the toilet every time I want to jack up, so now I do it in the living room. Mum and dad are watching EastEnders in their slippers and I just stick the needle into my arm. My dad goes mad, but he won't throw me out. My mum starts crying but I don't know what to do. It feels bigger than me, this thing; like fame it's taken over my life. And I feel so bad, so low, if I haven't got any. In the morning I get up, have breakfast and I really hate smack. I hate getting under my dad's feet as he sits smoking. I hate being there and making him ashamed. I give myself lots of good reasons for stopping. I want to start thinking about the future instead of thinking about smack all the time. I watch telly and by the afternoon I want some and I forget about my resolve because I'm another person now and I want some, I want some, I want. I sell my script of methadone for smack. It's so hard because it's so easy. The physical urge overrides everything and even the idea of being so weak, so submissive, doesn't stop me wanting.
      There's nothing left to say now. I just wanted to write down something about myself because I'm sure I'm going to die soon. It's for my mum so that she knows I did nearly turn out okay and that none of this is her fault. It's for someone who very nearly existed inside me. And it's for Harold and for Tamla because they made my world, even if I never really fitted in theirs. It's also for Sandra, because I never seem to be able to answer her questions. I can't tell her exactly which day I took smack or why.

© 2001 Atima Srivastava

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author bio

Atima Srivastava was born in Mumbai in 1961, moved to Britain when she was eight, and has since been living in North London. She has written two novels, Transmission and Looking for Maya, both of which are set texts in the syllabi of several universities in Britain and other European countries ranging from Poland to Spain. She is working on a third novel, tentatively titled The Non-Resident Indian. Several of her short stories have been commissioned and published in anthologies, including New Writing 2001, Well Sorted and Tran-Lit. She won first prize in the Bridport Arts Short Story competition, an Arts Council Award for her second and third novel, and a Hawthornden Fellowship.
      Additionally, for over 13 years Scrivastava has worked in television as a film editor and, more recently, as a director. She has three screenplays to her credit: Dancing in the Dark and The Legendary Vindaloo, commissioned for Channel 4; and Camden Story for the BBC. A play, Why not Love?, has been commissioned by The National Theatre; and she is the author the libretto for a new opera, Cross Currents, commissioned by BroomHill Opera, performed in June 2001.
      She has been Writer in Residence at the University of Singapore and the University of Sophia (Bulgaria) and University of Mainz. She has taught Creative Writing courses and lectured around the world with the British Council.


barcelona review 25           July - August  2001


Bill Broady: In This Block There Lives A Slag...
Pinckney Benedict: Rescuing Moon
Atima Srivastava: Dragons in E8
Joan Wilking: A Long View
Mercedes Abad: As I Fall
Anne Donovan: Hieroglyphics

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