Each year, thousands of young travellers move to London to suckle from the teat of the mother country, chasing fast times in weird places. These rag-tag pleasure-mongers tend to band together in undignified masses, spreading smiles and Chlamydia wherever they go. An untidy affront to all that is Normal. It was amongst this breed of degenerate escapists that I spent my two years in London. I made a lot of good friends. I lost one, too.
It started at ‘The Bakery’. Taking its name from the Polish bakery it’s nestled above, this dank little flat in North-West London is the place I called home for nearly two years. The best way I can describe it is ‘filthy party hostel’ meets ‘dysfunctional family home’. Established in the 1980’s, The Bakery has hosted nearly three decades of London’s freshest faces. The sort of place with a history of debauchery that runs back so far it actually has integrity.
At any one time The Bakery squeezes in around 20 pretty young things from all corners of the globe. To pass a joint around the beer-soaked table was to send it on a journey of lips from Korea to Colombia via Croatia and anywhere in-between. It tends to attract like-minded souls brought together for a mutually beneficial exchange of culture. And bodily fluids. What you get at The Bakery is a cheap bed and a sense of belonging. What you don’t get is privacy, cleanliness or the right to complain about either of the first two.
On the surface there’s nothing particularly special about the place. It’s just one of hundreds of overcrowded share houses in London, full of bunk beds and bed bugs. But for me and the people I shared it with, The Bakery provided more than just a stale mattress and a hopelessly inadequate wifi connection. It provided a family when you were so far from your own.
I arrived to a house full of strangers. A group of individuals brought together under one roof by a combination of chance, poverty and an imaginative Gumtree ad. It wasn’t long before these people had endeared themselves to me, had imprinted themselves upon me in a way that friends I’d had for ten times as long had never done before.
I chalked it up to the constant flow of people, both in and out. There’s only so many goodbyes you could say before you came to accept that nothing there was going to last. Of course we all know that life is transient, but at The Bakery that felt real, tangible. As your old life became a distant memory, the fastest of friends were embraced with everything in your heart’s arsenal. Relationships compressed by the ever-looming reality of your plane ticket home.
Drugs came with the territory at The Bakery. We were all young, all far away from home, and all gorging ourselves on the rich new experiences that each day brought. We passed around white lines on dinner plates like our parents passed around bread at the dinner table. Drug taking was a social event that had none of the seedy junkie imagery that was drilled into us throughout high school. We were sharing incredible experiences with beautiful people. It felt wholesome.
We got through the whole spectrum of uppers, downers, screamers and laughers. Indulging our lust for life with an ever-growing list of chemical companions. Be it baffling our brains with ketamine, exploding our synapses on acid or surrendering our hearts to our beloved ecstasy. We were The Privileged on an ignoble journey of self-indulgence.
I enjoy drugs. Something to rock the boat of everyday life. Something to send the needle soaring into thrilling highs and plummeting into sordid lows. Something to strip back the layers of civility that form the conditioned routine of life. Drugs are a gateway to the sort of experiences that sobriety prohibits out of modesty or good taste or self-preservation. It’s not glamorous, but it does hold a certain romance for the otherwise bored and restless.
Besides, we knew what we were doing. We weren’t addicts battling inner demons, or trying to dull the pain of our daily existence. For us, like so many other recreational drug users, it was just a bit of innocuous fun. Weekend warriors paying homage to hedonism. The biggest price we paid was the extra few quid most people spend on buying shit they don’t need, and a synthetic depression of a Monday morning.
And then there was Mario. He’d moved into my room a couple of months earlier. A devilishly handsome, sweet and unassuming guy from Italy. Not that that in any way defined who he was. Truthfully, there’s no way I can do justice to the man he was and the life he lead before I met him. What I can tell you is he was relatively unassimilated into our lifestyle. I’d given him his first line of Ecstasy just a few of weeks earlier at a house party in Oxford. Just a taste. Then one night he said he wanted to do it properly.
And so it was that we were piling into the back of an illegal minicab to make our way over to a dubious contact we had across town. Our usual sources were uncharacteristically dry, so the dealer of a friend’s friend had been recruited to provide the night’s supply. We got four grams of MDMA crystals between five of us. It was way too much, but we wanted to have plenty left over for the rest of the weekend. The girl that went in to retrieve our goods and came out complaining that the dealer was a squatter and that the whole place smelt like piss. Happy to get on with our night, we headed on to Camden.
Once inside the venue we each headed to a toilet stall or dark corner to take our first hit of the night. As the drugs crescendoed to dizzying highs, we hit the dance floor with misplaced confidence. That’s one of the terrible side effects of ecstasy, it’ll make you dance like a complete spastic and feel really good about it. Our eyes shining with enthusiasm and pupils dilated with joy, we were united by the feeling that it just might not get any better than this.
I don’t know when I first realized something wasn’t right. The evening had thus far been a blur of lights, sounds and serotonin. Evidently, Mario had poured a gram into his drink, and before anyone realized he had nearly finished it. For a seasoned drug taker, taking a gram over the course of a night was not unheard of. But to take it all at once for your first time was way beyond anything we would have considered kosher. We were shocked. How? Why? Surely he knew better.
We took what was left of the cup off him and led him to a quiet area to sit down. He was beginning to get anxious. He told me that he thought he had taken too much. Through my ecstasy cocoon, unable to grasp the gravity of the situation, I put my arm around him and told him to just breathe and try to enjoy it. At the time, it felt like the best I could do for him.
We all hear stories of excess. The one about your friend who woke up naked on her parent’s front lawn, or that crazy guy at that party who pissed in someone’s cupboard (I’m that guy). Far from being sobering reality checks, these stories are likely the ones you and your friends recount most often. The formula is pretty simple; the more fucked up you were, the bigger the laugh. You hear enough of those and you begin to forget that you’re playing with fire. I guess it’s easy to glorify drugs when everybody has a great time and nobody gets hurt.
I’ll admit, there were times when each of us had stepped beyond even our liberal ideas about sensible limits. I recall fragile Sunday afternoons spent cradling a meth pipe, trying desperately to keep the chemical crash at bay for another hour or two. The sting as your umpteenth line of speed stung your nasal cavity and sent your heart into palpitations. Those were times when you began to question the lifestyle. When you felt like maybe what they told you in adolescence wasn’t all propaganda.
But this didn’t feel like one of those times. This was supposed to be a relatively mild night out. A routine affair with a few close friends. Home by four, bed by six. Up in time for the same thing tomorrow.
The venue had an in-house medical officer for these sorts of situations and one of the girls decided to bring him over, just to be safe. I’ll forever be grateful to her for that. In my arrogance I had not allowed myself to believe that anything bad would really happen. He just had to ride it out, like I’d seen so many people do before. Nobody dies on ecstasy. Had it been left to me I know I would been too fucking passive to do anything until things got much worse. I’m so glad I didn’t have that responsibility in my hands. I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself.
The next time I saw him was an hour and half later when the paramedics wheeled him out of the medic room and into the ambulance. He had to be strapped into the wheelchair as his limbs had begun to convulse. His face looked contorted and unnatural. He was scared. Even then we didn’t see it coming. We were worried for our friend, but he was in an ambulance now and they were looking after him. Nobody dies on ecstasy. This was just going to be another story of excess, one we’d tell for a long time. “Remember that time, Mario?”. We jumped in a cab and followed him to the hospital.
It wasn’t until a dour nurse ushered us into our own little room by the ER that we began to fear. Fear turned to shock turned to anger turned to guilt turned to despair. My first thought was that somebody was going to have to tell his mother. They would tell her he had overdosed on illegal drugs. The words conjured up images of collapsed veins and dirty syringes in seedy back streets. It evoked a self-inflicted death by a self-serving addict. That word would be the story that most people who knew him would receive. Overdosed. It felt like such an unjust summary of what had happened and who he was.
For the next few weeks, The Bakery was a grim scene. There were tears, police statements and frantic phone calls from desperate relatives. Feelings that couldn’t find their way into words became heavy silences that filled rooms. We packed up his clothes and belongings into bags that were taken back to his family. All that was left of him were our memories, and a niggling sense of guilt.
The fear-mongering anti-drug lobbyists amongst us will read this as yet another example of The Evil of Drugs. The drug fiends and club rats will dismiss it as a case of irresponsible use by a young, ignorant user. But this story isn’t a platform for anyone’s opinion. It’s just something that happened.
I guess when anybody close to us dies we’re wired to feel a need to rationalize it. An evolutionary kick designed to help us avoid danger in the future, perhaps. We have to point that finger of blame somewhere, don’t we? You could blame us, oh yes. However, we accepted pretty early that there was no sense going down that path. We had to recognise it for what it was: a momentary lapse of judgement with devastating consequences.
Words by Zac Black.
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