“You’re a total Fuck-Up James” Antonia scowled. He was huddled at her feet, scratching at his arms, writhing and rocking on the floorboards. It had been nearly seventeen hours since he last shot up. Around him were needles (some James’), and a spread of vomit (not James’). This was the last time Antonia saw the Fuck-Up in real life, and it was the last time she ever spoke to him.
Antonia saw someone who looked a lot like the Fuck-Up months later, walking down the street, walking towards her; his matted ginger hair and his nest-like beard were gone, and revealed a face. Gone too were the red eyes, the cold sweat, the bare feet, the jitters. In their place, the man who looked a lot like the Fuck-Up had mastered a cool smile, absent eyes, flesh that filled his skin. Whether he was the Fuck-Up or not, he had recognised Antonia, and so she was stuck in this encounter. She greeted this new incarnation of the Fuck-Up, with a tepid smile and patient eyes.
“Antonia” beamed this man, unexpectedly joyful.
“James,” she conceded; “How are you?”, but her question was empty. She didn’t want to encourage a new recounting of how he’d got clean (again), or how sorry his was (again), or how different things were about to be, (this time for good, honestly). She didn’t think she could bear it. Had he become a Buddhist this time, or maybe he had let Jesus Christ into his heart? Would there be a recounting of the night Krishna appeared to him, and everything turned around? In fact, she was on her way to meet another man, and wanted to tell him this, if only to see if it would hurt him. She had heard all his ‘New James’ stuff before. Each time never hurt any less than before.
“Annie, no promises. Just watch this time. I’ll show you.”
“Great. Haven’t heard that one yet.”
“I mean it. But I’ve got no right to expect you to believe me, I know that. Annie I know I’ve got to prove it to you. I’ve got to earn it, so no fancy words, okay?”
“Don’t do it for me, James. Do it for you. I hope it works, just like I hoped all along. I’ve got to go.” She replied without bitterness.
She moved sideways to pass him, but he wasn’t done yet. She stared straight ahead anyway.
“I know I was a complete dick to you Annie. And I know I’ve said sorry too many times to be believed anymore. But I want you to know, you deserve to know, that I always loved you. Even when I pulled out a chunk of your hair that time-”
“I’m surprised you remember” she scoffed.
“- god I was a bastard to you,” he relived it, she could tell, as he told her this. His eyes glazed over with what became tears, as Antonia spoke;
“I have to go and meet someone now. Someone else who doesn’t have to apologise for himself.” Then suddenly, recognising the bitterness of her tone, she found herself exchanging it for exhaustion, “But you know, I want this to work for you, I really want you to be OK.” She then did something that surprised them both; she reached up –she didn’t quite look him in the eye- and she placed the lightest of kisses on his cheek, and walked on, almost as if it had been an accidental collision between strangers, on this Thursday afternoon, this peopled high street.
A few weeks later Antonia got a note through the door. It was in an envelope, but it just said “for Antonia”. She opened it to find a message from James, asking her to attend a meeting with a police artist; he had a special favour to ask. He promised it was innocent, and that it would also keep him clean, for good. All he needed was a half hour of her time and he would bring jam doughnuts.
“Shit” James stood back from the picture as he took it all in.
“That’s actually pretty spot on” Antonia approved. “I think the only thing that ever looked worse was the real thing.”
“So that’s what James the Junkie looked like, hey?” he said, with the trace of a smile.
“Is, um, Lardarse, here please?” James asked, carefully.
“I think he’s out back. Old friend?” said the guy behind the counter top.
“Sammy Michaels said he was good?”
His face spread into a grin as he replied, “hey, how is that son-of-a-bitch anyway? It’s been longtime.”
“He’s off the smack now.” James regretted not announcing this in a more promising tone, so he added “He’s getting on a bit, working and stuff. Living just past Deptford. Getting things sorted for himself.”
“It has been a long time. Tell him Tony said hi”, then before James could do more than nod, the guy yelled out “Lardie!! Job. Someone’s asking for you.” Tony didn’t even turn his head back to call out, and then left with a “Take it easy mate.”
A pipe-cleaner of a man stepped behind the counter through a bead curtain that rattled and flickered the rays of sunlight that shot through it. He was neat, and gangly, and looked like a leftover brit-rock guitarist from the nineties.
“Hey man,” he smiled, offering a scrawny hand out. “Who sent you?” James looked at this man, Lardarse, and smiled gently at the joke.
“Um, Sammy Michaels said you’re the best.”
“Yeah, that’d be about right. So what are you after today then?” he asked, alert for the answer. James pulled out a copy of the police artists drawing from his pocket, unfolded it, and handed it to Lardarse. “And who’s this nasty fucker?”
“Me, apparently. A while back. And I want it just here,” James explained, pushing his sleeve up to expose the crook of his arm. There was already, heavy tattooing there, a mess of blue lines, a set of rivers sunk into his skin. These were not rivers for water, but rivers for blood. Blood and smack. He had had them drawn over his real veins, when he had panicked himself trying to find them in a hungry fervour. He’d finally found success getting the smack in, then in his wretched elation, he had gone straight to the nearest ink shop to map it out for good. He had seen it properly for the first time months later in one of his sober stints, (and spent a long time trying to work it out). He still needed the belt on his arm of course but at the time, (and he wasn’t at his wisest), he had thought it was an ingenious idea. Today, he was having the Fuck-Up set in ink; the ultimate reminder for never going back. He left Lardarse’s reclining chair, no need for a receipt, the purchase with him, as mortal as he, and his bare arms swinging as he walked. Walking down the street, both sleeves pushed up.
Years later, explaining his tattoo, to his daughter, for the millionth time, she rolls her eyes, ready and restless to leave to meet her friends.
“Thanks, Dad, it’s not that kind of party. And I’m like fifteen. Can I go now?”
“Well just picture that, blue veins are the path to destruction.” Cheesy, well-worn words.
He walks his fingers up his ‘veins’ and freezes when he gets to the Fuck-up.
“We’ll you turned out okay, didn’t you?” she says, looking him in the eye. He glares back, uncertain of her, terrified of her.
“Okay, I’m kidding. I know, I know, drugs are bad I get it, I’m not interested in trying any of it, ever, now can I go hang out with my safe friends at a boring party in at your best friend’s house?”
He exhales. He lets a soft smile pass between them in his relief. “Chill, Dad. Bye” she turns to leave, and then, comes back and does something she rarely does anymore, she kisses his cheek. Remembering herself, she adds, “bye, James.” leaping up and going for the door.
“Bye, I love you” he puts in before she escapes.
“Whatever, Annie’s waiting for me in the car. She told me to ask if you can think of anything we need, she’s going to Sainsbury’s once she’s dropped me at the party. Can you think of anything you want?”
James thinks about what he might want. His daughter off out, and growing up quicker than he can believe. His wife; his best friend, out in the car. (An alright car). And she’s coming home to him tonight. No, there’s nothing more he wants.
“DAD! Hello Far-ther do you want anything from the supermarket?”
“I think we need fresh milk,” he says airily, and off she goes into the world.