This story was first published in The Twelve Days: A Central College Anthology Buy here
Reader note: The acronym SWIM is often used in drug forums and stands for Someone Who Isn’t Me.
A soft thud on the doormat is all that marks its arrival, along with the Christmas card I’d been told to expect from my grandmother. I cast my gaze lazily from my armchair towards the official-looking letter by the front door, staring at it for long moments like I’m trying to get a psychic feel about what will happen when I open it. At this point it’s like Schrödinger’s cat, both alive and dead at the same time, it’s only when I read the letter that I’ll know for sure which one it is. Eventually curiosity propels me out of my chair to see whether I’ve got another dead cat to add to my quite substantial dead cat collection.
Tearing open the white envelope, I yank the sheet of paper out and scan down it. “Congratulations Leighton. We are pleased to offer you the position of: Temporary customer advisor. Please report to reception at 8:30am on Monday the 15th of December.” Well I’ll be damned if I haven’t just gone and got myself a live cat, I mean a job.
My hopes of getting the job hadn’t been high, especially this close to Christmas, but the weight it lifts from my shoulders is massive; in fact I’m surprised that I managed to get out of my chair at all. Now when I go to the family Christmas reunion next month and my uncle asks, “So what are you doing with your life?” I’ll be able to tell him that I’m working. To attend the reunion last Christmas I needed a day pass out of rehab, and all I could say was that I’d lost my girlfriend, my house, my job and only narrowly evaded prison. Of course my close family rallied round to support me, which really made me wanna get high. But despite all of this, I’ve toed the narrow path almost without deviation.
I can’t say that working in a call centre is a dream come true, but it will give me the fresh start that I so desperately need. Since coming out of rehab I’ve made a concerted effort to distance myself from my old life, severing the artery that supplied my habit. But this has also resulted in a large void that used to be filled with friends, which I hope work can go some way to filling. And even if it doesn’t, it will still give me something to fill the hours between waking up and going to sleep. I crave sleep, almost as much as I do a hit, because when I’m asleep I dream. Some nights I have dream about heroin’s tender embrace, and awake with my pyjama sleeve wrapped tightly around my arm like a tourniquet. Don’t get me wrong, I know that it’s a completely idealised portrayal. Heroin is beautiful, but she’s also a jealous mistress who’ll strip your life down until there’s only her left in it, and she might even take that.
I sink back down into the chair and pick up the pay as you go mobile phone that my mother bought me when I got out of rehab, to tell her the good news. I’m a normal person again, back in the middle of the bell-curve where all average people should be. This time I’m going to make all the smart choices. This time I won’t let my family down.
Last night Swim celebrated, hard. It started with a couple of cans of super-strength larger which turned into a drink addled, drug fuelled crawl around town. Swim finally found what he was looking for from a prostitute standing on a corner in the red light district. Swim gave her one of the five pound notes that his grandmother sent him for Christmas, and when she returned with a wrap of what looked light Demerara sugar, he gave her another one. Inside the Christmas card, Swim’s grandmother had said, “Spend it on something you enjoy”, and that’s exactly what he’d done. His grandmother had more money than sense anyway, and sometimes Swim thought about evening up that equation for her.
Back in Swim’s miserable first floor flat, devoid of any Christmas decorations, he sank down into the armchair once again and turned on the TV. In the VCR player was a well-worn porn tape which skipped in places where the ribbon had worn. Swim should have thrown the whole lot out and bought a DVD player, but he couldn’t part with it because the woman in the video was the closest that he’d come to being in a relationship since The Bitch left. Swim reached into his pocket and pulled out the small wrap. Unfolding the foil, he folded a crease down the middle and made a tube out of the extra foil. He flicked a lighter until it leapt into life and held the heat under the foil, inhaling the white smoke.
The familiar hum was almost instant as it rushed through his body. It felt like meeting an old friend again. She’d been a gentle lover for the first couple of months, but she became possessive and wouldn’t let him go. Then once you know that you can’t get away, she’s at liberty to really start putting you through hell. But tonight she was tender, and our reconciliation euphoric.
Shit, I’ve over slept! I throw myself out of bed and rush around trying to find the shirt that I was going to wear for my first day at work. It needs ironing but I don’t have the time, and run out of my flat without even brushing my teeth. I gnaw my bottom lip anxiously as I wait for the bus, and it surprises me by arriving on time. I don’t have enough money for the fare but throw a load of change down the machine and hope that the bus driver won’t count − he didn’t.
On the journey I breathe deeply, trying to quell the rising nausea, and dampen the sound of my heart rattling in my ears. When the bus reaches the city centre, I’m the first to disembark and take off running towards the call centre. I’ve actually made up more time than I thought because I’m less than an hour late, but at the expense of my appearance. The woman behind the desk looks me up and down several times before calling down my new line manager. He’s a stocky man in his mid-forties with a vastly receded hairline and little black piggy eyes.
He scowls at me as he walks over. “I told you to be here an hour ago.”
“I thought the letter said ten. I’m sorry, I got two job offers at the same time and I must have got my wires crossed,” I lie, hoping that it makes me seem more valuable.
He pauses thoughtfully for a moment, and then says, “Follow me,” and walks deeper into the building.
By the time five O’clock arrives, I can say that at least two good things have happened. Firstly, it does appear that I still have a job for the time being. And secondly, two female colleagues who also started today suggested that we grab a quick drink after work. I started talking to Carrie on a cigarette break, she’s a single mum of two and has been through a rough patch, but like me she’s optimistic about the future. I know it’s a risky strategy considering how badly I fell off the wagon last night, but in some ways I feel that it’s hardened my resolve.
It took one police officer and a large bouncer to pin Swim to the floor, and another officer to handcuff him. Swim felt Carrie’s eye’s burning into him, and followed them to where she was standing in front of the Christmas tree like a damaged angel. He couldn’t identify exactly where it had gone wrong, probably after the first three pints if he was honest, but his intention had remained good even if the execution had gone awry. He’d intended to compliment Carrie, but that had put the other woman’s nose out of joint when he said, “I love your curves; not like Rosie ‘cause she’s just fat”. And it wasn’t long after that Rosie’s boyfriend showed up, and things really got out of hand.
He clearly had a problem with Swim from the start and refused to shake his hand when they were introduced. Swim tried his best to ignore him, but when the bloke made a snide comment about Swim’s appearance the two men got into a verbal altercation. At this point the landlord asked them to leave because they were disturbing the various Christmas parties which were taking place. Rosie and her boyfriend left, but Swim didn’t see why he should leave too, so one of the bar staff tried to manhandle him out of the pub and a scuffle broke out. They called the police who predictably believed the barman’s account of what happened and put Swim under arrest for being drunk and disorderly, as well as assault.
Lying on a thin plastic covered mattress, I walk back through my memories of last night but they’re pitted with black holes, echoed by the dull pounding in my head. It all just seemed to slip so fast that I felt powerless to stop it. Now when I go into work late today I’m going to have to tell my boss it’s because I was arrested. Maybe not, I’ll just phone in sick.
There’s only eight days remaining until the big family Christmas get together and I want so badly to be able to show them that I’ve put my demons behind me, and I’m finally getting my life back on track. Tears sting my eyes when I think about how disappointed my mother would be if she ever found out that I’d relapsed. Right, I say to myself, gripped by a new sense of determination. When I get out of here I’m going to have a shower, wash my clothes and tidy the flat.I need to make this transformation complete; I can’t have one foot in each camp because one of them would be in quicksand and inevitably drag me down. I hope that Carrie is able to forgive me.
“Leighton Hathaway?” I voice booms through the locked door with a small window in it where I see a police officer standing.
“Time to get up. You can’t stay here all day.”
“Can I leave?”
“Once we’ve gone through the official stuff, yes.”
By the time I emerge from the station into the bright sunlight it’s almost 2pm. I hold out my recently returned phone and call work as I walk towards the bus stop.
“Hi Darren. I just wanted you to know that I won’t be able to get into work today because I was up most of the night being sick. I would have phoned earlier but I barely got a wink of sleep last night and I’ve just woken up.”
“Leighton I know what happened. Rosie’s filed a restraining order against you.”
“She what? It was her fella that started it.”
“Well that’s not how the police saw it, or the bar staff.”
“Did you ask Carrie?”
“Yes, she said that you’d had too much to drink. I’m sorry Leighton but we’re gonna have to let you go because I can’t keep you far enough away from Rosie to comply with the restraining order.”
Swim didn’t wait for the bus. He didn’t think that he could bear to be still for that long. He wanted to run and scream and break things, lot of things, but he didn’t. On the walk home Swim took the route that used to be very familiar to him, he’d lived around there as a young adult starting out in the world, and then as a drug addict living on the street and in various doss houses. Cutting down between a collection of garages, Swim noticed a bedraggled man wearing a black raincoat and woollen beany hat.
“Leight?” the man called out.
“I heard that you’d gone straight, got yourself a flat, job and everything.”
“Yeah well that might’ve been true for a short while.”
“What so you’ve not gone straight?”
“Why what you got?”
“Got some sick brown man,” he said, taking a wrap of cling film and slim hypodermic needle out of his inside pocket.
Swim looked at the nip of the needle and back again at the piece of paper pinched between his fingers. He knew that if he injected, there’d be no going back. His mother would cry when she saw him at Christmas, and his uncle would tell him that he was throwing his life away. But what was he going to tell them anyway? Last year he’d lost his girlfriend, job and house. This year he didn’t have a girlfriend to lose, he’d lost his job after one day, he currently had a flat, but that was only guaranteed until the date of his court appearance when he was fairly sure that he’d go down for a stretch.
Swim looked at the date on the piece of paper one more time, January 23rd, and reached for the needle. Swim had better make the most of Christmas this year because wasn’t sure whether he’d be a free man the following year.