The Grass Arena - Excerpt 3

AS Mad Jerry and I climbed the hill leading to the Convent of the Virgin of the Miracles, I wondered if it was going to be another conversion job. Last week he'd been converted to the Church of England for 2, the week before he'd become a Jew for a cup of tea and a packet of fags.

IN THOSE three months I never took my clothes off or had a bath. About ten of us, men and women, slept in that one room because it was the only one in the house that didn't have a leaky roof. We were all getting amphetamines off this quack, washing them down with wine and cider. We were like zombies half of the time.

The room was full of filth - lice, human shit and piss. We were all coughing up jagged gobs of phlegm. TB or not TB? In the end I got the horrors. I used to sit there not caring whether I lived or died. I'd start to doze off and some weird furry animal would slink up to my neck and start kissing me, friendly-like. Then spiteful rows of gleaming teeth would sink into my face and lips. I'd jump up with a scream, doze off again, try to be ready for the dreams next time. But they were already nibbling gently at my skin.

A wino is a person in total need of alcohol. No one's going to help you. So I'd drag myself out on to the street and try to hustle up a bottle, get pissed, fall down, maybe injure my leg again. Then crawl back to lick my wounds in the lousy skipper, and after that lay with the others vigorously scratching. Since it was some time now since any of us had set foot in prison, the maturing lice were becoming more aggressive. One night the law came and nicked four of us that were there. We got three months each for being on "enclosed premises". I was glad in the end - my leg healed up perfectly.

AS THE few little flowers skirting the edges of the park started to bloom, Livepool Lil passed away.

I remember when she first set foot in the park, cheeky and smart, not bad-looking for a whore. The lads fancied her like mad. She teamed up with Kelly the Tinker. They made the boneyard their home, pulling strokes, panhandling and hustling from there. Looks fade quickly. Hair turns grey, teeth fall out, wrinkles appear on top of wrinkles, sight fails, bodily functions fail, the mind deteriorates, memory goes, pity goes, to be replaced by aggression. Violent acts quickly punished by further violence deteriorate mind and body more and more until eventually the Chief Psycho puts the final boot in.

After that Kelly lost weight, spent days without speaking, nursing the bottle. Suddenly

he'd fly into a rage at someone, over a long-forgotten incident. Sometimes he'd win, but mostly he'd lose. Never a fighting man, his body couldn't take it. He was found close to death in the park. Someone had given him a savage kicking. Taken into hospital, he lasted a few months.

As the flowers slowly withered and died, so did Kelly. Drink is a hard master. Someone got a collection up. Someone else drank it. Someone managed to get a week's money from the Social, using his name and date of birth. No one really cared. The only sad part was when Scarface Mick dropped a full bottle of wine. The red liquid spread out slowly, like blood from a knife wound.

FUNNY how things work out sometimes. I thought of every way I might get to wash my feet and change my socks. I've been unable to take my shoes off for a week or so and the socks have rotted. They're not so bad when damp and sweaty. Somehow you can handle that, squelching along. It's when they're icy, they become a bit lethal - sharp slivers cutting the toes painfully. And this army marches on its feet!

It's not so much a problem to get clean socks - Woolworth's is a benevolent society for those with quick hands. But where to wash a pair of rotting plates of meat? I know the toilet washroom, if you can find one open, seems the place, but the days have long gone since I was nimble enough to lift one leg up for that balancing trick.

Nothing worse than getting nicked sober; and soberer than the soberest judge was I when they came in and done me for a fine. As soon as the cell door clanged, I eased my shoes off; took my socks off slowly, peeling the tattered bits gently away from my toes like some second skin.

A rest to get the breath back, and then the final part of the operation, and the happiest. Sitting on the bed board, I rolled my trousers up, swung my feet over, placed them in the toilet bowl, and after a few pulls of the chain, they were as clean as this makeshift foot shower could make them. It don't half make you footloose. Pity about the lock. As I lay down, through the door comes the soft coaxing voice of the gaoler. He's got a cunning tongue. " Son."

"Yeah, guv."

"We got another little charge for you."

"What?

"It's an enclosed premises to steal."

"When?"

"Last Monday night."

"I was in here last Monday night."

"Don't be awkward, lad. You weren't in here."

"Yes. I was. You booked me in yourself for drunk." "The book's been lost, son."

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