Big Issue, March 17-23 2003
Kodan is dead. Who was he? He was a man who died before his time, of an overdose of heroin. He thought he could have one last blow-out before going into rehab. It was a blow-out all right. It blew out his life.
It’s an old story this. Anyone who has ever had dealings with junkies knows a version of this story. The junkie tries to go clean. Six months off, a year, but that old niggling urge is still there, like the voice of absolution whispering in his ear. And then one day there it is in front of him, for real, in the hands and eyes of another junkie, and he thinks, “well it can’t do any harm. Just one last time, for old time’s sake.” And the deed is done, the dose is too strong, the heart gives way and - bang! - he’s dead.
Life is cheap, they say. For a junkie it’s worth precisely ten pounds a wrap, with all the inevitable consequences: the degradation, the lies, the hurt, the betrayal of love, of friends and family, the manipulation, the theft, because to a junkie nothing really matters but junk.
It hurts to have to say this of my friend, but it’s true. In the end the person he betrayed the most was himself.
I first met him some time in the early nineties. He wasn’t really a junkie then. He was just practicing. It was late summer and the poppies were out, nodding on their stalks like little green sages with a secret message to convey. You’d be walking along with him and his neck would rise. “Pop, pop, pop,” he’d say: like that, turning his head left and right like a radar dish. “Pop, pop, pop.” And he’d leap a fence into someone’s garden and come back with all these poppy heads. And then later he would boil them up to make this awful, greeny-yellowy slop. I tried it myself once. I was sick for two days.
But I never saw any harm in Kodan’s obsession then. He was the most down-to-earth, yet the most cultured man I ever met.
We were good friends. We talked a lot, about anything and everything, about philosophy and art, about politics and religion, in the pub or at home, as we skedaddled here and there, from the far south of England, to Scotland, his home. We talked to save the world. And Kodan could listen too as well as talk. He could absorb your thoughts and play them back to you. He made you feel as if no one could understand you like he could. He was comfortable with intellectual intimacy.
So we had a bond, Kodan and I. It was only later that I discovered he had the much same bond with everyone else.
I said, “Kodan, there’s a fine line between being merely a charming person, and being a con-merchant, and sometimes you come quite close to that line.”
He said, “ah, but at least I know where the line is.”
It was also later that I discovered that that’s all the talk ever was to him: just talk.
Who knows what forces drive us this way or that: why Kodan chose to be a junkie, while I chose to be a writer? And he did choose. He worked at it, over a number of years. From poppy tea to codeine tabs, from cough linctus to “chasing the dragon”, from skin popping to, finally, the whole junkie works, the needle, the spoon and the tourniquet. To him this was all the height of romance, like dancing with the demons, like a love affair with death. It was his version of poetry.
There’s something else about junkiedom: the lure of the inevitable decline. Because all junkies follow a certain trajectory. Sooner or later, it happens to them all. They even have their own expressions for it. “I’m a scum-bag junkie.” “I’m a rob-yer-grannie junkie.” In the end the call of chemical absolution is too strong and the bonds of mere loyalty too weak. That’s the game every junkie is playing, sliding ever closer to the moment when he will betray every decent thought he ever had, every hope and every dream. Every chance of redemption.
One day Kodan was paying me a visit. I used the word “junkie”.
“We don’t use the ‘J’ word,” he said. “It’s like calling a black man a nigger or a gay man a queer. There’s as many types of heroin addict as there are people using it. We don’t all mug old ladies for their pension books you know.”
He was wrong about that.
I was also noticing something particular about his habit. It was pure self-indulgence. He didn’t score drugs to share them, like other drug users share spliffs or pints, or a line of this or that. He wasn’t concerned about how you were feeling. It was a ritual played out with himself alone. He was an S.S.S., a member of the Secret Society of Swallowers, engaged in an experiment with his own body-chemistry, in the laboratory of his blood.
I said, “there’ll come a time Kodan, when I’ll stop being your friend. You‘ll think it‘s about money or something, but it won‘t be.”
He said, “but you don‘t care about money, Chris. It‘s not important to you.”
I said, “that‘s where you‘re wrong, Kodan. Money isn‘t all that important, sure, except when it’s matter of trust. It‘s your word I care about.”
And I was right. I fell out with him in the end. He paid me a visit and he was lying to me again, from the second he walked through the door. Claiming he’d been mugged and he’d lost all his money; claiming he’d “accidentally” bumped into a friend on the way down, a dealer, and that was why he was late, and could he borrow some money, till next week? And I knew there was no accident involved and exactly where his money had gone. I asked him to leave, and I’ve never seen him since. That was last year.
When I heard he’d died I was angry with him. I was marching up and down in my living room shouting at him in my head. “You stupid big lunk,” I was saying, “you stupid bloody twat.” I was still angry at the funeral. I couldn’t believe that that was his body in there, in that coffin, lying like a 37 year old lump of meat in its box. Angry because he’d made me be there. Angry at the stupid bloody church music and the stupid bloody prayers.
It was the following day when I realised what I was really angry about. Someone showed me a picture of him from when I’d first known him, when he still had something to give. He was fresh-raced and alive. I burst into tears. I thought, “I’ve come to say goodbye to my friend.” And I knew that I was angry because I’d never see him again, because he’d died before I’d had the chance to forgive.
Because in the end I don’t care if he was a junkie. He was my friend and I loved him.