By Andrew Maben
I regained consciousness to find the sky still that limpid blue, and to the smell of the dew-damp grass soft beneath my back. I was lying half-in, half-out of the van, which teetered gently, the edge of the roof poised precariously inches above my waist, threatening to bisect me should the van seek stability on its side, as seemed all too likely. The window’s rubber sealing strip somehow was wrapped around my waist.
I squirmed out, thinking abstractedly of Damocles. As I extricated myself the possibility of fire, explosion, occurred to me. I staggered free of the wreckage. Pain in my leg, all of my torso. Pain: present but not felt. I threw myself to the ground, covered my head against the explosion…
“This is silly,” I realised.
I looked back. Jimmy sitting up on the door on his side of the van, legs dangling inside the window, staring vacantly, his face a mask of blood from a cut on his forehead. Merry sobbing. The back roof crushed where the hitcher had been sleeping.
I lurched back over, helped the distraught Merry climb out through the gaping windscreen.
I pulled sleeping bags, blankets from the car. The hitchhiker crawled out. I laid the two of them on sleeping bags, wrapped in blankets. Turned to help Jimmy. As I reached to help him climb down, I noticed that my arm, too, was drenched with blood.
The two of us made our way up the embankment. A car passed, the driver studiously ignoring our frantic waving. Another. The passenger waved back…
I remembered the syringe in my bag… Leaving Jimmy beside the road, I went to look for it, hoping to dispose of it before the police arrived.
Not soon enough… Looking back as I heard a motorcycle approach and stop, I saw Jimmy talking to a gendarme, saw the gendarme talk on the radio.
I gave up on my search when I saw the two of them walk down the slope. Surveying the wreckage, bending to look at the two in their blankets. The gendarme straightened and turned to me.
“You have done everything necessary.” Smiling he offered me a cigarette as we waited for the ambulance.
I began to relax a little, and pain stepped forward into my consciousness. As I walked up the embankment to the ambulance, my leg gave way. I was carried the rest of the way hanging on the shoulders of two firemen.
At the hospital as I sat waiting to see a doctor, a girl was pushed by on a wheelchair, stricken eyes gazing from a ruined, once beautiful face, now a crazy pattern of deep cuts, a ghastly echo of the morning’s shattering vision.
“She went through the windshield,” an orderly whispered…
X-rays. The technician finished with my torso and began to send me away.
“What about my leg?”
“What about it?”
“I think it’s broken.”
Cutting open my jeans, a massive swelling at the knee.
“Yes, I think you’re right. It looks broken. But there’s nothing I can do tonight” (What happened to the day? I wondered – must have been unconscious.) “I need an authorisation from a doctor.”
The night was long, seemed endless as I lay in bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, racked with pain that seemed, each time I thought it could get no worse, to rise to a new plateau. The amphetamines were wearing off. The dismal speed comedown gnawed my brain, threw thought into dark shadowed despair. And then muscle cramps in my legs…
As the pain mounted to new heights, I floated free of my body… From above I watched it writhe and twitch, aware of the pain but not feeling it, a dispassionate impersonal observer of the timeless suffering of some damned creature…
Delirium. I lay in a dank dungeon, tortured victim of the Inquisition… A woman’s distant agonised screams. Am I a prisoner of the Gestapo? Or is this a lunatic asylum, Bedlam?
A nurse appeared by the bed, bathed my head with a cool damp towel. I was a soldier wounded in the Crimea…
And through it all Jimmy’s screams for morphine…
At last, somehow, the night ended and agony receded, leaving me limp and wasted. I was wheeled downstairs and at last a cast was put on my leg. A doctor came to my bedside.
“You must remain for a few days, under observation. We cannot be sure you have no internal injuries.”
The hospital routine was pleasant enough. The food was decent, the nurses kind. Merry and the hitch-hiker had been released on the first morning, Jimmy soon after – he had just broken a collar bone.
A nurse appeared one afternoon at the door.
“You have a visitor.”
To my shock, it was the motorcycle cop. He had my bag in his hand and held it up.
“This is yours?”
I admitted that it was.
“Please look to see that everything is there.”
Sadistic bastard, I thought to myself, he’s going to bust me as soon as I pull out the syringe…
I rummaged. Passport, wallet, everything was there. Everything except the syringe.
“Yes, all here.” I met his eye, and knew that he had found it, and disposed of it. He smiled.
“T’as bien fait là bas…” and with a sardonic salute he left me, relieved and grateful…
Fionn and Joanna surprised me with a visit, bringing flowers and the news that Jimmy would pay for my return to England. I had severed a tendon of my right thumb and the French doctors felt it should be operated on in London…
My sister Claire made amazing efforts to prepare for my return, and met me at the airport with an ambulance. But on arriving at St. George’s Hospital I was refused admittance, on the grounds that my injuries had been sustained abroad…
Happily, after spending the night with her at her flat, Claire managed to pull some strings and I was admitted the next day.
My confidence was not exactly inspired by the surgeon’s pre-operation visit.
“Now then, Mr. Maben,” as he pulled back the covers, “let’s have a look at this leg of yours.”
As he fingered the plaster, I remembered stories of accidental amputations…
“Um? I think my leg’s almost mended. But I do have a severed thumb tendon.”
I’d half-expected an angry retort, but he managed to recover with some aplomb and examined my hand.
“Ri-i-ight. Your tendon has retracted too far to be recovered. But you’ll notice that your index finger has two, so what we’ll do is take one from your finger and attach it to the thumb. With a little physiotherapy you won’t know the difference.”
And the next day that’s what he did. I came some of the way out of the anaesthetic haze and put on the hospital headphones, to awake some time later to hear for the first time the soothing, healing sound of Dylan’s All the Wild Horses. Soon the surgeon reappeared at my bedside, with instructions to have the cast removed from my hand in a couple of weeks, and some exercises to train my new tendon.
“That cast on your leg can go right now. But you’ll probably need a stick, and limp for the rest of your life.”
At visiting time the next day I was astonished to see Howie.
“What are you doing here?!”
“I thought I’d visit London on my way back to New York, and as long as I’m here I may as well drop in on you.”
He pulled up a chair and told me a story:
“Last year Joey and I were motorcycling in Italy. We were on a mountain road, stuck behind a truck. The truck driver waved me to overtake, but then, when I was alongside, he pulled over and crushed me between the truck and the mountainside.
“When I came to I was in a hospital in Naples, in a cast from my neck to my toes. They told me I’d broken nearly every bone in my body, and that I’d never walk again.
“So right then I started flexing all of my muscles under the cast. Every day I exercised. Yes, it hurt like hell. But when the cast came off after almost six months I had some strength in my muscles. Right away I started more exercises, and as soon as I was walking again I started taking Karate lessons. Now I have a black belt.”
I expressed myself suitably impressed.
“So, you’re going to check out right now!”
The hospital staff were not exactly enthusiastic, but they wheeled me to the door and handed me a pair of crutches. As soon as we were outside in the sunshine, Howie grabbed the crutches.
“You won’t be needing those,” as he crammed them into a waste bin. We crossed Knightsbridge into Hyde Park and as soon as we found a patch of sunny lawn Howie had me doing knee-bends and high kicks until my knee felt on fire.
“OK. Do that every day and your knee will be right as rain in a week or two.” He was right.
The remainder of the summer passed in the usual haze of hashish, acid and occasional lines of cocaine, which was becoming fashionable – but with no reprise of my experiment with heroin – and for the most part irretrievably lost to memory, but some incidents do still manage to loom, like street lamps on a foggy night…
For some reason I decided to visit Sally, who was now living in Brighton. I suppose I was still more than mildly besotted. In any event it was not one of my better ideas. She had a new boyfriend, rather unprepossessing in my eyes, whose finest quality may have been that he was pretty much the polar opposite of Jack. And Paul, the film editor who used to be a regular at Colville Terrace, lived there too. Paul told me something that might explain Sally’s affair with Jack. It seems that when she first moved up to London after returning from France, Sally was seeing a boy who hanged himself when she dropped him. Perhaps Jack was her way of punishing herself? They put up with me for a few days until Paul confronted me in a rage, punched me in the face and told me in no uncertain terms to fuck off. I resisted the temptations to either complain at his striking someone with an arm in a sling (and wearing glasses!), or to smack him in the face with my cast. Maintaining what little dignity I could muster, I grabbed my stuff and hitched back to London…
From today’s vantage I’m both amazed and grateful for the forbearance and generosity of my friends, who seemed, indeed were, glad to feed and house me unstintingly on a succession of sofas – up to a point, at least… I decided go on a little hitch-hiking holiday lest I exhaust their patience. I mentioned this one afternoon at Sarah’s and Joe wondered if he might come along. The next morning we set off…
Robert’s farmhouse again for a couple of nights, country cooking and catching up, and a visit to the hospital in Penzance to take the cast off my hand.
Robert suggested we should visit another farm, a commune with a dozen or so members off deep in the countryside.
“They’re always glad to see new faces and get some news. It’s pretty isolated.” He picked up a couple of magazines and handed them to me as we took our leave. “Take these.”
We wended our slow and circuitous way on minor roads, down narrow lanes. Rides were few and mostly short, but the weather was fair and we were in no special hurry. Although we travelled barely twenty miles it was evening before we arrived and were made welcome, given a place to sleep and invited to supper. As we sat having a postprandial smoke and drink, I remembered Robert’s magazines and put them on the coffee table.
A dark-haired American girl who had not had much to say up to now snatched the magazine that was on top. It was the issue of Rolling Stone with Charlie Manson on the cover…
“Oh no! I don’t believe this!”
She started to scan the article, with its descriptions of the Tate/LaBianca murders…
“No. It’s not true. It can’t be true. I lived with the Family in San Francisco. Charlie was a sweet, gentle, generous man.” As she waxed lyrical over the simple joys of life with Charlie Manson and his girls, her denials became almost plausible. She settled down to read and the conversation turned to a general discussion of the ways in which the hippy scene was falling apart. Naturally nobody present had contributed to this degeneration…
Back in London, Sarah introduced me to some friends who shared a room on Holland Park Road who were willing to let me sleep on the floor for some minuscule rent. The room was very small, the weather was hot. The smells, of sweat, of socks, and stale semen, were overlaid with Brut, which did little to disguise the underlying odours but added an oleaginous tincture of debauch to the atmosphere. I spent as little time there as I could… I preferred to spend the days in the park, wandering the streets of Notting Hill, visiting and meeting people, selling a little hash here and there…
My hitherto all but non-existent sex life finally took a slightly more active turn that summer. Slightly more active, and slightly odd…
I don’t recall how I was alone in a flat with Mariju the lovely but oh-so-dim Afghan hound. The flat belonged to more friends of Sarah, and I suppose they just went out… I was sitting in the window, smoking a joint, watching the world in the street below.
“Hi,” a girl’s voice. A very pretty black girl. I glanced up and down the road. Nobody else she might have been calling…
She laughed. “What are you doing?”
“Would you like to come and have tea?” There was something in the way she said “tea”, hinting with a delicate subtlety at pleasures beyond a simple cup.
“Sure, I’ll be right down.”
Her place was just around the corner above a shop on Ladbroke Grove. A sunlit white room, a sofa, a pot of tea. Her kisses were sudden, hard and greedy. She leaned back into the corner of the sofa, pulling me with her. I unbuttoned her white blouse. Hands on her skin now, her breasts. Her breasts were pert and round, like tennis balls. And they felt like tennis balls, tennis balls covered in skin, frankly rather unpleasant and detracting somewhat from my arousal – perhaps this was breast enhancement, but by no stretch did it feel to me like breast improvement… However her hands were also busy, so I soldiered bravely on to a mutually more or less satisfactory conclusion, then beat a hasty, embarrassed retreat…
“We’re driving down to Devon.” Friends of Sarah at her place on Notting Hill Gate.
“Oh, you won’t have heard of it. It’s just a tiny village.”
“Try me. I grew up down there.”
“OK. Holcombe Rogus,” in a tone that plainly said I-told-you-so.
I laughed. “That’s where I grew up.”
Expressions of astonishment, then: “You’ll have to come with us. You can show us the way.”
As we motored west my new acquaintances explained that somehow or other Quintessence had managed to get themselves booked for the village dance, presumably in an effort to widen their appeal beyond the confines of Notting Hill, and had invited some of their London friends to come and provide some support…
When we arrived at Holcombe I felt a lifetime away from my village years, viewed the familiar streets with a kind of jaded nostalgia… I should probably not have been surprised when we pulled up in front of the “witch’s” house across the street from Court Cottage. Kay and Pippa, the two little girls whom I’d last seen coming back from the woods with Pete, faces bright with blackberry juice, were now two nubile teenyboppers, dressed in gauzy finery, happily toking on joints, who would not have been out of place in a Robert Crumb cartoon…
It was a euphoric day at the fête, with surprised encounters with village acquaintances, and in the evening the almost surreal scene of Quintessence playing their ethereal sitar rock to an audience of bemused bumpkins and blissed out hippies…
Then there was the day I ran into the Manson girl from Cornwall on Portobello and let her invite me to her place for a smoke. We didn’t really have a lot to say to each other. I rolled a joint and we passed it back and forth. She responded with a kiss as soon as I tentatively touched her hair, and soon enough we were naked. I admit to finding a perverse eroticism in knowing I was following in Manson’s… well, not exactly footsteps, I suppose…
Dropping acid at every opportunity, I finally succumbed to a surreal bad trip. I’d been invited to a party somewhere in Chelsea, and on the way to the tube I passed a record shop. This was the era of Satan Rock and in the window were a Black Sabbath LP next to what purported to be a “Complete recording of a real Witches’ Sabbat”. I was uncomfortable with the adulation of Aleister Crowley and the black arts in general that had become current, so I viewed this display with a certain distaste as I passed. But a germ had been planted that germinated into pure terror later that night… The party was in a pleasant basement flat. Once all the guests were assembled we each swallowed a hit of blotter acid. Absently I counted the company. Thirteen… Someone said something about having brought “that record” and that he would play it “when the time’s right”. With the suggestibility elicited by LSD I became convinced that I had been inveigled into participating in a black sabbat – thirteen of us! – and that the record in question was the one I’d seen in Notting Hill… When everyone was peaking came, “I think it’s time to put it on now.”
“NO!” I croaked.
It felt that everyone was looking at me, like the neighbours in Rosemary’s Baby. As a wave of disapprobation washed over me reality flipped. The room transformed itself into some Egypto-Alien throne room, the people into Lovecraftian god-monsters. I was judged, found wanting and condemned, in some paranormal court, condemned to arcane and inexplicit sanctions…
I crawled into the cupboard under the stairs, where I spent the rest of the night… As side two of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played endlessly on repeat, I sat in steaming misery. Had I been ostracised simply on account of my negation? Or was there more to it? Had I made some deal with the devil to save my life in the car accident? Where had I been in that brief interlude of unconsciousness? Had this group been convened to consummate my agreement? And what was the meaning of that vision of an alien court? To sign my soul over to the devil in perpetuity? As dawn’s grey light brightened the windows I snuck shamefacedly to the door and departed. Of course it is easy in retrospect to provide a plausible psychological rationale for the experience, but even now, sometimes, on dark, troubled nights, I wonder still…
I left the room on Holland Park Road and moved in with Kathy and Tove off Ladbroke Grove. Dark moody Kathy had some deformity of her vagina, she said, that made it impossible to fuck. She also had an almost daily visitor, a seedy spiv who liked to refer to himself as “the ageing roué”. Tove was a sweet blonde, often smiling Swede. I don’t know why they let me stay, I fancied them both, but neither showed the smallest sign of reciprocating…
One afternoon, a knock at the door. A spectral figure, clumps of hair gone, the rest hanging in lank strands, face skeletally gaunt, dead eyes, discoloured lips half bared to reveal a few discoloured teeth in bleeding gums, ragged clothes hung limply from a thin frame. I gaped at the apparition.
“Andrew? Don’t you remember me? It’s Heather…”
Jesus! The model who used to visit Colville Terrace? What’s happened to her..? I nod, speechless.
“Someone told me you live here. You wouldn’t have anything to eat?”
We go to the kitchen. The cupboard is more or less bare. I offer her a couple of slices of bread.
“Thank you. I’m sorry…” She left… Speed kills.
Venus had reappeared. I found him one afternoon sitting at Sarah’s. I suppose he must have met her through the Quintessence connection. So a few weeks later, when he became ill, Sarah sent me to the hospital to visit him.
A big smile broke across his ill-fitting vulpine face as I neared his bed. At his bedside a willowy brunette who turned as I approached. What a lovely girl!
“This is Leslie, she’s from California. Leslie, Andrew.” We shook hands…
When visiting hours ended, Venus made me promise to walk Leslie home.
“Do you mind if we visit some friends on the way?”
I was in no rush, happy to spend longer in her company. We turned onto Sheffield Terrace and Leslie rang a bell. Janey and Maggie were two more Americans. Janey, whose father had made a fortune designing engines for an Italian car-maker between the wars, was quiet, bespectacled and serious. Maggie was an ebullient elfin blonde who I felt an immediate attraction for. Somehow she was bouncing on a bed waving a pillow about, laughing. But she was seeing the singer in a band that was looking at the edge of success, so I put aside the lustful thoughts she inspired and resolved to pursue Leslie – at least for now…
Leslie’s parents were visiting London, and I left her at the gate of their basement flat on Kensington Church Street. We promised to see each other soon…
An acquaintance asked if I might be able to get hold of half an ounce of cocaine. So I went to see Ros, who turned out not to be home. But her friend invited me in. As we sat down to a pot of tea she brought out a bag of coke. Several grams. We were just going to have a couple of lines…
Some hours later the bag was almost empty. My hostess disappeared to the bathroom for a while and I was entertained with the sounds of retching… And somehow we were embracing, the bitter numbness of the coke blended strangely with the sour aftertaste of vomit. We groped and fumbled out of our clothes and fucked on the floor…
As I walked home in the breaking light of dawn, nerves drawn in the cocaine aftermath, the thought of Leslie’s innocent purity illuminated the sordid squalor of the night… I had seen her again, several times. She was resolutely virginal, still held fast to ideals that for me had become at best tarnished, even abandoned, and she seemed to offer a promise of hope.
I found a source for the coke, and went up to Muswell Hill to meet the buyer at our mutual friend’s flat. He was late. The flat was above a shop, looked down on the neighbouring roof, where two tomcats were fornicating with a female, providing a screeching background soundtrack. At last the buyer showed up. Or at least his representative.
“It’s not for me, it’s for Ginger B____. He wants to pick it up himself.” We agreed on the price and arrangements for the following day to make the exchange…
A ring on the doorbell. The familiar emaciated red haired figure entered.
“Right, let’s have a look at what you’ve got.”
He opened the bottle.
“Be careful, man. It’s straight from the factory, uncut.”
“I know what I’m doing, man,” as he heaped a small mountain into a syringe.
“That’s an awful lot…”
He glowered at the speaker and drew water into the works and shook it to dissolve the powder. He bared an arm and tied off with a borrowed belt. A few moments probing and a rosy bloom of blood blossomed into the cylinder. Slowly, firmly he pushed the plunger home…
His eyes bulged, rolled back. His whole body stiffened, went into convulsive tremors. White foam gathered in the corners of his mouth…
“Oh shit! He’s OD’ed! Let’s get him on the floor.”
A couple of people laid him out unceremoniously on the carpet.
“I’ve got some heroin. Hold him still while I cook it up.”
I knelt beside the trembling body, held an arm as the heroin was administered.
The tremors eased. Eyes flickered open. A breath…
“Man! That feels good!”
He took out his wallet, pulled out the cash and left with a grinning “Thanks!”
Soon after I snorted an offered line, pocketed my own paltry cut and headed over to visit Annie, another girl Venus had introduced me to, who lived with her baby by Portobello. I rolled a joint and we smoked companionably.
“Hey, I did OK today. Do you want to do some acid tomorrow, go up to Holland Park?”
So it was that we were sitting the following afternoon on a bench, the baby in the pram beside us, looking out over the grass, watching patterns flow…
A cyclist hurtled towards us out of the trees, hair and mac floating behind him. He skidded to a halt beside us.
“Have you heard? Hendrix is dead!” I stared. He rode away.
My mind spun back to the previous evening. My first thought was that he may have OD’ed on Ginger’s coke. That would make me responsible, at least partly. A shock of revulsion poured through me, revulsion, guilt and fear…
We learned soon enough on the way home the true circumstances, but for me the shadow of loss was further darkened still by the lingering sense of culpability. Annie invited me to her bed, where we made joyless love…