The Grass Arena - Excerpt 2

IT WAS a cold day, empty of laughter, empty of spirit, empty of everything. I asked a bloke if he could help me out with a couple of bob. He shrugged his shoulders and pushed past me (I was going to have to improve my begging technique fast!). Winos usually have another string to their bow such as shoplifting, thieving, mugging, prostitution-all these acts committed later in the day when you've got some wine down. But begging is the drunk's stock-in-trade. It starts you off. It's got many aspects: it gets your courage up, gets you communicating with normal people - perhaps the only communication many winos ever have. But, most important, it gets the first drink of the day with which to cure the shakes. The day always begins with the shakes, sickness, fear, paranoia, constipation, dry retch, and complete loss of memory, which only a drink will cure. So begging a bottle can often turn into demanding with menace, and threatening behaviour into grievous bodily harm. It takes about a week's dry-out before winos show any signs of behaviour that indicates that they might actually be human beings after all. Even then the signs are few!

THE LAW picked me up one afternoon. At court next morning I got a one month prison sentence. I was sent to Pentonville where all the winos go. The place was worse than a nut-house. Every wine school was represented by their own table, so at one end you had the Waterloo mob, the other the Camden Town mob, etc...

I only had three days left to do before my discharge and was surprised when the screw came to my cell and told me to pack my kit - I was going out. Then he explained that one of the boys had come up and paid the three days off my fine. This was sort of standard practice. I would now be eligible for a few pounds discharge grant which would buy the wine. The mate who buys you out is into a good thing - you pay him back out of the grant, he gets half the drink, and you owe him.

Sometimes you have only been given seven days' nick, and you are just about getting the drink out of your system and begging to get a good sleep , and rest, when someone buys you out and you don't want to I go. But once the fine is paid you ' are out on the street again. The ' 14 days' lay-down in prison for drunken fines is the only restful bed winos get; saves lives, really.

Woke up feeling terrible - had a fuzziness in my head, everything seemed blurred, out of shape, odd, like looking through wet glass. I could not remember anything about the last few days. That's the trouble with drink, it ruins your brain cells, and when that happens regularly you can get a wet brain. Then you're in a horrible fucking position.

Mad RafFerty is curled up like a dog in the corner: bearded, straggle-haired, alive with lice, tattered clothes ripped and stained. He's never been the same since the gypos took him into the country working, never paid him, and tied him under a caravan with a chain each night for a week. He wakes up with a sort of alky shrug, inquiring with a roar if there's any drink... Nothing. 'Fuck it to hell.' He says 'I wish I knew where there was a good ironmonger', that'd give us a bottle of blue." We make up the price of a bottle of surgical spirits and head for the chemist. I went in alone. Mad Dog was too dirty, but here it wouldn't have mattered.

The chemist was a German or something. He said, "Yes, how many bottles you vant?" He's all eyes: you can't nick anything.

We could get no water to mix with it, so we went in the church and filled a milk bottle out of the holy water font and started slowly to swallow it. But it's hard to get down first thing in the day - any time for that matter. Bastard stuff. It either makes you dead sleepy and fit for nothing, or drives you mad and ready to kill some cunt.

Excerpt from: The Grass Arena by John Healy. Published by Faber & Faber First

Published 1988. Reprint 1988. First Published in Paper back 1990. Reprinted in 1990.

© John Healy

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