This story, although inspired by an actual event, is a work of fiction. The characters within it may contain nuances of many individuals, including myself, yet much of what is written here is untrue. Every skank has a story and we are one another…
Skank polished her designer shades with her hoody and perched them on the end of her nose. She liked her shades, partly because they were cool and partly because she could study passers-by intently and without fear of recrimination. The first afternoon of autumn was quiet and the streets bereft; with summer and carnival receding in memory and disappearing from timelines folk were left with empty pockets and looming anxieties about when to put on the heating and how to cope with the slow fall to Christmas. Skank had stale air and holes in her pockets, and a silent scream in her stomach and veins. She shifted on the bench and stroked her hair with her hand. She cared about her hair a lot. Come pain or moonshine she always had pretty hair, smoothed and shone and straightened, thick and glossed with many a stolen product.
No rick pickings today, she thought. Skank was new to the area and had a brief window of time to scam folk before she got a name for herself. It had gone well so far. She had a nose for them, bleeding hearts, and there seemed to be plenty of them in this town. She mainly went for middle aged women, teenagers and very old men. The middle aged women liked to feel charitable, the teenagers were easily intimidated and the old men were sentimental and embarrassingly grateful to be flattered by a young girl. Skank had an impressive repertoire of begging lines. She had used “Lost me purse and have to get back to Bath” on a non-existent bus on thirty occasions, had needed “Money for the phone to ring up someone to bring me epilepsy medication in to town” eleven times, had “Run out of dog food” for an invisible hound thirteen times, had to “Go to court in Swindon” four times, needed to “Visit a dying relative in Melksham” frequently and had produced “Embarrassed to mention it but require emergency sanitary protection with immediate effect” seven times. Then there was the straightforward “Starving, haven’t eaten for a week” the brazen, “Give us a quid I’ll give it back to you when I get me giro, honest, swear on me kids’ lives” and the killer, “Got to get back to the kids with some tea” lines. The last one worked best. She also found that a sycophantic “God bless your heart” finished off most interactions nicely.
Most days the lines went well, the hair stayed straight and the pockets filled but on other days it rained, the hair frizzed and, tiresomely, people tried to help her. They rang hostels, they bought her food she would never eat, they offered her sleeping bags and moral support, they offered to take her to the council and the food bank and gave her good advice that she had heard so often it just slipped off her brain. Old ladies promised to pray for her and old gentlemen were eager to install her on their sofas for a price. I only want an effing quid, she would think to herself, smiling and nodding behind her shades and making the odd grateful noise, keep your effing do-good sh*te to yourself and just give me the wonga. In her mind it was simple, I want money, you’ve got money, give me some of your money and don’t waste my time. But, to her endless frustration, the people she picked out always wanted more from the interaction. They wanted validation. That they were good, or cool, or more charitable than the next man, or destined for heaven, or something special, or more possessed of tolerance than the average, or richer, or more effective, or wiser than most. Skank could smell this need around a person. It was her way in to their hearts and wallets. Just a shame that it was so time consuming.
She’d had some gear that morning but the effects were wearing off now and she could feel the sickness coming. Shifty was at home in bed, incapable of anything much but the odd punch and some verbal abuse. She didn’t know if she loved Shifty. They had moved here to make a new start but had brought themselves with them, and it had not taken long for them to be subsumed in to local using circles and to replicate their old life. Shifty was in and out of prison, hard as nails and quickly establishing himself as the main man. He had filled the void left by the last one, who had finally been put down for a decent stretch, much to the relief of local shopkeepers and the constabulary. Nature abhors a vacuum and Shifty had stepped in to Tyrone’s shoes faster than a blink. She was with him because, because, because he had a fast ass, because he was a habit, because he was hard and because he would not let her go. She had twice his brains but he hit the hardest. They had been together since she was fourteen. They had a child when she was fifteen, a little boy whom she had called Alfie after her grandad. Alfie had been removed from her arms in the hospital. He had screamed and she had cried. Alfie was now with some strange happy family somewhere else. He had survived heroin withdrawal at birth and was now a recovering addict, aged three.
Skank had found that heroin helped her to forget about Alfie. Heroin helped her to forget what feeling was altogether. With heroin she was invisible, invincible, floating in a sensory deprivation tank, bathed in warm cotton wool and custard, beautiful, immune. She had never quite been able to replicate the bliss of her first hit, well the third. The first two times she had retched and gone in and out of consciousness and thought she might die. The third time the spot was hit and as she went on the nod she dreamed of heaven and her flesh became infused with glory. From that moment on hitting the spot became a devastating obsession, more important than Alfie, or Shifty, or pride, or reputation, or self-respect. More important than food or love or the future and almost more important than her hair. She had tried, once, to stop using. There had been a drought and Shifty had been doing time for mugging an old lady. She had hassled the doctor for codeine and he had referred her to drug services. She was fine on the methadone for a while, despite the fact that it was crashingly dull, and had started to reduce her dose and not use on top. Then Shifty came out of prison and beat her up and it all began to seem pointless and she gave up giving up. When he started pimping her out she started to need a lot more heroin and began to turn tricks behind his back, always looking over her shoulder, always looking over punters’ shoulders, in case he appeared to claim his own.
The other thing that heroin helped Skank to forget was her childhood. Her parents had taught her violence, swearing, poverty, conflict, dishonesty and fear. They had used her as a pawn in their mind games, as whipping boy and scapegoat, as a passport to benefits and housing, as cleaner, cook, carer and courier. They had filled her pushchair with stolen meat and alcohol and sent her out begging in the cold with holes in her shoes. She had had so many fathers that they all merged in to one and she categorised them in to the ones that touched her up, the ones that hit her and the ones that did both. She had craved her mother’s love but had been passed over time and time again for each new hero of the house. In the end she grew cold and silent and withdrew to her tiny cupboard bedroom to play with her hair and self-harm. She was careful to cut in places that no-one would see. The surface of her skin became in time a landscape of abuse, all lakes of bruises and ridges of scars, an undergarment of livid despair. The last straw, the final insult, came on the day when the latest squeeze invited his friends round when her Mum was out nicking. All was fine to start with but as the empty whisky bottles began to populate the living room floor and the shouting got louder and glasses were broken Skank became afraid and locked herself in her room. She shook in fear as she heard stumbling and laughter on the stairs. Then they started banging on the door. “Come out and play, you little whore, you’re Mum’s a right goer and the apple don’t fall far from the tree” “Go away, leave me alone” said Skank. This enraged them and they banged harder and louder until the door broke. They pulled Skank out of the tiny room and raped her on the landing, laughing. Then they took her downstairs and raped her again, in more adventurous ways. Then they went to the pub. When her Mum got home she was rocking on the floor half naked and bleeding. “What the f**k have you been up to?” Asked Mum “Where’s my man?” Skank tried to tell her, she cried and pressed herself to her mother’s breast, desperate to be held and believed and saved “You little bitch,” said her Mum, “get out of my house!” She thumped her hard on the way out of the door and Skank never went home again.
Skank snuffled and fidgeted on the benches by the old Post Office, waiting for an unsuspecting ship to come in, becoming achey and sweaty and just a little desperate. Other users came and went, with bags of stolen meat and bottles of sherry and unlikely business propositions regarding half a bag of gear next Jalloon and complaints about the unfairness of life. Someone had some dog ends and Skank accepted a puff. She wanted them all to go away. No one would give her money if she was sat with that lot. She liked a couple of them but in this game it was every man for himself. Keep your friends close and your dealer closer. Trust no-one and no-one can betray your trust. If you haven’t got a granny you can sell for a tenner then sell someone else’s. And don’t grass unless it pays well. These were the rules. People moved swiftly on when they realised that Skank was not in for going in on any mythical deals and soon she was alone again. She wasn’t a paranoid person but it became immediately evident that there was something different going on today. A couple of people crossed the street without saying hello. A stranger scowled at her with peculiar intensity. One of the ladies who had helped her out more than once would not catch her eye on passing, becoming abnormally engrossed with her phone. A couple of teenage boys pointed at her and laughed. A young Mum seemed very concerned with pulling her children away from the benches. And someone let their poodle piss right next to her. Skank became uneasy. Last week she had tapped someone up for a quid and the interaction had been unusually intense. She had chosen the combination of “Bus to Bath” “Hungry children” “Lost me purse” and “Swear on me kids’ lives” on this woman. It hadn’t gone down well. The woman said that she had heard it all before and had looked Skank in the eye with a burning gaze and asked her straight if she would be spending the money on drugs. Skank had held her gaze with an eyelid flicker barely perceptible to the naked eye and lied through her teeth. The woman had asked what time the bus left and Skank had told another lie. The woman had given her the pound. To the statement “God bless your heart” she had replied that if she found out Skank was scamming her she would hunt her down. These chilling words had been delivered with a comedy voice and a penetrating stare. Since that day Skank had slipped in to the shadows when she saw the woman but the woman’s stare followed her every time.
On the day that she was scammed by Skank, Brenda had simply had enough. Generally she was a soft touch, believing in the ‘What goes around comes around pass it on do as you would be done by’ way of going about things. She had helped people out on numerous occasions and was always good for a fag at least. But recently the constant requests for cash and assistance had worn holes in her charity and she had become weary of supporting people who seemed utterly disinclined to lift a finger for themselves. She was sick of the sob stories and no longer flush enough to subsidise others. She thought a lot about charity and its positive and negative consequences. She hated it when people slagged off the homeless and people on benefits. She had considerable sympathy with addiction and some relevant experience herself on both sides of treatment services. People had helped her out in the past. People had been tolerant and understanding and supported her through difficult times. Her heart went out to the people in the woods and the drinkers on the benches. She did what she could when she could in different ways, either helping people directly, or by signposting them to relevant agencies. She tried to give them unpatronising advice when advice was sought, and spoke up for them in hostile forums. She made a conscious effort to be kind and to treat everyone the same. She wasn’t interested in reward. She just didn’t want to be taken for a mug. But today, she really had had enough, and spoke to Skank in a way that surprised even her. As Skank slid away Brenda knew that she was stupid to have given the money. She had known Skank was lying but had been incapable in some way of saying no. She was angry with herself and angry with Skank. The bile of resentment rose within her and ruined her walk home. It was still with her the next day, along with a feeling of foolishness and betrayal, when she saw Skank hiding behind one of the users in town. So she went home, switched on her computer, plastered Skank’s name all over the town websites and cranked up a virtual lynch mob.
In the space of an hour seventy people posted tales of their own experiences with Skank and her various scamming methods. A pattern emerged involving more travel to Bath than was humanly possible, along with tales of mythical hungry dogs and debilitating medical conditions, dying relatives in Melksham and lost purses. People were disappointed, surprised and annoyed that their well-meant charity had been so badly used. One young girl had been so intimidated that she had given Skank her lunch money on more than one occasion. One old lady reported that her purse had gone missing after a friendly chat. Several dog lovers had been taken in by the invisible hound story. More than one respectable middle aged lady had been moved to tears and donation by the tale of the hypothetical children. And several blokes were offering to ‘sort her out’. The voices of those advising tolerance and understanding were drowned out by the shouts of those baying for blood. Brenda’s schadenfreude was short lived. The satisfaction her vengeful act accorded her lasted precisely seven minutes, by which point she had whipped up a dangerous storm. She had no-one to blame but herself. The voice of her conscience screamed in her ear and her bleeding heart sank like a stone. It was a long time since Brenda had done anything truly sh*tty but she had excelled herself with this one. Skank at least had a powerful addiction to excuse her. Brenda had no excuse. She should have known better and she knew it. She had ‘acted out’ on her emotions. She had fanned the flames of ignorance and hatred with her own hand. And all for the sake of a pound. Overwhelmed by shame Brenda went to bed early and tried to hide under her pillow. From herself.
Skank’s need for heroin was increasing. Her choices were to either beg and scam or steal and fence, or go home to the abusive Shifty and spend three or four horrible nights in a psychological and physical hell. She hated being sick with Shifty. He would cry and moan and sweat and toss and turn and make everything her fault, adding insult after insult to self-induced injury, aiming the odd feeble punch at her for refusing to go in to town and turn tricks. She liked to grit her teeth when she was sick, and lie as still and silent as possible. The third night was always the worst, if you could get through that you were home free. Only that would always, like New Year’s Day, be the time when the man would knock at the door with the world’s smallest bag. And they would fall on him with fawning gratitude rather than leap the hurdle of one more endless night. Sharing a habit was a problem doubled. They never wanted to stop using at the same time and constantly sabotaged each other, time and time again. She had to get some gear. The alternative was unthinkable. She picked her target and fired her shaggy dog food story at the most likely candidate. But the lady with the particularly ugly pug gave her short shrift. “You don’t have a dog,” she said “don’t ask me again” The pug smirked in the full knowledge of a forthcoming luxury tea and proceeded to defecate in front of Poundland. “My Mum says I’m not to give you any money,” said a teenage girl with uncharacteristic confidence, “go away” “You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?” said a cheerful builder, “P*ss off” And finally, “F**k off, skanky bitch,” from a shaven headed lad, “you ripped off my Nan” which statement was followed by a hefty right hook. Skank reeled with pain and bewilderment. The only person who had hit her in this town to date was Shifty. It was the least violent place she had ever been. She was shocked and embarrassed. And her hair was a mess. She drew the line at crying in public, pulled up her hood, balanced her shades painfully on her nose and took herself to Gracie’s house, dripping blood all down her clothes.
Skank almost loved Gracie. Gracie reminded her of her dead gran and had a kind and lovely soul. Her house smelled of lavender and baking and had a front room that nobody sat in, an outside loo and a small garden where cheerful gnomes conspired around a small pond. Gracie’s long dead husband Ron had kept pigeons and the loft was still there, waiting for ghosts to fly home. Gracie channelled a lot of love. She knew all about Skank and her habit. And she was the only person Skank ever spoke to about Alfie. One of the things Skank loved most about going to Gracie’s house was that she didn’t have to lie or pretend or be hard at all. Gracie accepted her with all her failings. Skank hated asking her for money. She would listen to Gracie talk and accept her offer of biscuits, all the while dreading the moment when she had to pop the question. Gracie only had her pension but she saw Skank as the child she had never had and was happy to share. “Oh dear,” said Gracie “you are in the wars. Look at your hair. We’d better clean you up and you can tell me all about it” She ran Skank a bath and gave her a warm fluffy towel and a dressing gown. Skank looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her hair was caked in blood and her eye was swelling up. She took off her dirty clothes and looked at her whole body with its scars and bruises and prominent ribs and needle marks. This isn’t OK, thought Skank, dismayed, this has to stop. As she sat in the bath enjoying the heat, wincing at the pain, feeling achier and sicker by the minute, she made a plan. Tomorrow she would go to the doctor and get referred back in to treatment. She would leave Shifty and start over. Tomorrow would be the first day of the rest of her life. She could go back to college, get a job, meet a decent guy and have a future. Skank was bright. Really bright. She would have done well as school had she been encouraged more, or had she had the kind of home life where one was fed and hugged and had a decent night’s sleep in a warm bed. She had had to use her intelligence to merely survive. It wasn’t too late. She was only eighteen. It could all change and all this chaos just become a memory of youthful folly. That was that then. She had decided. The quest for conditioner proved fruitless so she just combed her wet hair and made a mental note to nick some later, then remembered that it was all going to stop. Tomorrow. She put on the dressing gown and went to sit with Gracie in the kitchen. Her clothes were tumbling in the drier and the kitchen was warm with steamed up windows. There was a strangely comforting smell of washing powder and cabbage. “So, what happened?” asked Gracie. Skank told her about the pug lady and the punch. “Mmm,” said Gracie “I need to show you something.”
Gracie had been going to the library recently and had been learning about computers from teenage boys. She had found that she had quite a knack with them and had bought herself a laptop. Her learning curve had been steep and swift and she had mastered the dark arts of Facebook and Twitter, got back in touch with those friends from her childhood who were still alive and played Bridge regularly with her cousin in Canada. She fired up the laptop. “You won’t like this,” she said “but you need to know” She went on to the most popular town Facebook page and passed the computer to Skank. Skank scrolled down past the requests for information about Poundland opening times and for advice on how to complete simple bodily functions and there it was. Brenda’s vitriolic post. Followed by over two hundred comments, from people she had scammed mainly, and also some from people she had never met. A few voices spoke up for her, saying that she probably had issues and needed help, but most were angry and upset to realise that they were not the only people to have contributed to the wellbeing of the incorporeal dogs and theoretical children. Some even had some novel ideas regarding summary execution. All agreed that she had been Taking the P*ss. When she read the post from the autistic girl who had felt intimidated she almost agreed with them. “Who is Brenda?” she asked Gracie, as there was only an abstract photograph representing the architect of her ruination. When Gracie described Brenda the penny dropped. Skank knew that there had been something unusual about that interaction and had been dreading Brenda’s revenge. And here it was. A new kind of violence with far reaching implications. It was only a pound, thought Skank, what a bitch. And yet everything that was said on the page regarding her own actions was true. Sh*t. “Gracie, what am I going to do?” she said, afraid, “They hate me” “That’s not quite true, is it?” said Gracie “Some of them have been trying to help you. And even some of the people you have deceived are still speaking up for you. Perhaps if you had taken some of the help you have been offered you wouldn’t be in this mess. Haven’t you had enough yet?” Skank had a think. She had indeed had enough of her lifestyle, the endless round of scamming, scoring, shooting up, sleeping, waking up, getting sick and doing it all again. The adrenaline hit of shoplifting had worn thin and anyway she was banned from most of the shops in town. She hated turning tricks, satisfying seedy men who made her skin crawl, for a few poxy quid. She had certainly had enough of Shifty. But had she had enough of heroin? Of this she was unsure. Which was where a methadone script would come in handy. Whatever Russell Brand had to say on the matter. She had been to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting once. Lots of spiritual waffle mixed with a bit of bullshit. But the folk there had looked happy and did a lot of laughing. There was definitely something in it but she wasn’t sure what. People had been friendly to her for no apparent reason and two women had given her their phone numbers. And then she had lifted someone’s bag on the way out, which kind of sullied the experience and meant that she could not go back again. “I think I have had enough, Gracie,” she said “but I am afraid” “What you need,” said Gracie “is a bit of courage and determination. And a biscuit” She offered Skank a homemade cookie. It looked and smelt delicious but wasn’t the sustenance Skank’s body required right now. “Can I take some with me?” she asked as she dressed in warm clothes fresh from the tumble drier. “Of course,” said Gracie and carefully wrapped four cookies in some greaseproof paper “here you go” Skank put them in her pocket, hugged Gracie and thanked her, and made for the front door. She very nearly managed to leave without asking for money but old habits die hard. As she opened the garden gate she turned and said “I don’t suppose you could spare a tenner, Gracie, I’ll give it back when I get me giro?” The internet had opened a whole new world to Gracie and she had been doing a lot of research about addiction in order to try and help Skank. “I’m not going to enable you anymore,” she said “but you will always find a meal and a warm bed and a hug here. Remember I love you” Tears sprang to Skank’s eyes. She got it. She ran back down the path, kissed Gracie without a word and then headed back to town.
Running the gauntlet of whispers and scowls in the town centre was an uncomfortable experience and Skank kept her head down. “Oi” said a familiar voice “Shifty’s got some gear at yours, you’d best get home quick before he does it all” She broke in to a run. A little bit of gear was all she needed to give her the strength to get some food down her, to go to the doctor’s, to leave Shifty and her awful life once and for all. It would stop all the pain and distress that consumed her and give her some breathing space. Her body yearned in anticipation. She flung open the front door of their tiny bedsit shouting “Shifty, save some for me!” There was no reply. Shifty was on the floor by the cooker in a strange position with a needle hanging out of his arm, barely breathing and turning blue. “Shifty!” She shook him and slapped him and took the pin out of his arm. A drop of spittle dropped from his mouth and he emitted a feeble groan. She reached for her phone. No credit. She reached for his phone. No credit. She banged on the neighbour’s door. No answer. She picked up the remains of the heroin, put it in her pocket and ran out in to the street. She ran in to the nearest shop “Get out, you’re banned” said the security guard “But my partner has just OD’d” she cried “please call an ambulance” “Yeah, right,” said the guard, he didn’t get where he was today by helping wasters “just f**k off” She ran to the benches where the users were sat “Shifty’s gone over,” she said in desperation “has anyone got a phone?” “Nah, no credit, he’ll be alright, bloody good gear, mind” was the consensus, and then “Haven’t you got a Naloxone pen?” Skank didn’t even know what a Naloxone pen was but she knew she didn’t have one. Then there was “Don’t call the police, they’ll nick you” and “Got any money on you?” Someone waved a bottle of sherry under her nose and she took a swig before she ran off to see if anyone else would be more helpful. “Pull the other one, it’s got bells on” said one woman “Nah, you can’t use my phone, you’ll just run off with it” said another “You and that scumbag deserve all you get” was the view of several people and some little girls told her to do one. She ran to the Market Place, stood on the Market Cross and screamed “Please help me, Shifty is dying, I need to phone an ambulance, I don’t want any money, I just need to make a phone call, for God’s sake help me, please!” “Drunk again” said one office worker to another “Get away from my car” said a businessman “You’re that girl that’s always scamming people,” said a war veteran “bring back National Service” “Got that tenner you owe me?” said the woman from the Market “F**k off you cow, get a life” said someone who had once been a punter, someone so revolting that she had actually refused his money in the end, leaving him with a grudge. “Please, please, Shifty is dying!” She pulled on peoples’ coat sleeves, she cried and begged and pleaded, she ran in to the estate agents, the newsagents and the pub, but no-one would help her. She ran back to the bedsit, blinded by tears and sweat. In the twenty minutes she had been trying to get help Shifty had stopped breathing and died. She fell to her knees beside him and wailed with grief. She wailed for half an hour. Somewhere, as if from a long way off down a tunnel, came the sound of someone banging at a door. In slow motion, Skank kissed Shifty’s lifeless lips, injected the rest of the heroin, picked up the kitchen scissors, walked to the mirror and cut off all her hair.
The year had not been kind to Brenda. She had heard all about Shifty’s death, through the town websites, in the papers and on the street. She heard that Skank had stood on the Market Cross and cried out for help and that nobody came. She had held herself entirely responsible. Had she not posted her views on Skank on the town website none of this would have happened. Someone would have helped. Shifty and Skank had been in some sense lynched by her own hand. Over a period of a year she became morose and isolated. After six months she picked up a drink. And then another, and another. Because for people like Brenda, one was too many and a thousand not enough. She lost her job. She lost her home. She alienated her friends with her insistent misery and catastrophic descent in to alcohol psychosis. Her teeth fell out and she stopped dyeing her hair and washing. She became that which she had fought so hard not to be, the warty drunk old woman in the corner of the pub, spitting her teeth out in her beer and shouting “You’re all bast**ds” And one night, a year and a day after she had spoken to Skank, she found herself sat in an alley in town in a pool of her own urine, shaking, hallucinating and in dire need of a drink without a penny in her purse. She had had several alcoholic fits in the last few months and could sense that one would come on in the next few hours were she not to get some alcohol inside her. The autumn night was chill and she had left her coat in the woods. She sat and rocked and shivered and prayed to anything that might save her. “Excuse me, but are you alright?” Brenda looked up. A young woman stood silhouetted against the street light. “Can I help you?” Brenda squinted. The voice was somehow familiar. She focussed harder. It was Skank. Skank looked very different. As she moved the light caught her eyes and shone on her clear skin. She was well dressed and had put on weight. She had cute shoes and the same beautiful hair cut in a shorter style. She looked concerned. She clearly didn’t remember Brenda, which was unsurprising considering Brenda’s dramatic decline. “What do you need?” Asked Skank “I need a drink” said Brenda. Skank knew enough drinkers, drunk and sober, to believe that this was probably the case. She put her hand in her pocket, pulled out a two pound coin and gave it to Brenda. “Here you go,” she said “get some alcohol down you.” Then, as an afterthought, she pulled from her other pocket a leaflet. “You might not want this,” she said “but these people really helped me.” Brenda took the leaflet and put it in her pocket without a glance. She was already getting to her feet in order to get to the off licence as quickly as possible. “I’ve had problems myself,” said Skank “I know how it feels. Someone told me I needed courage and determination once. I hope you can find some of that. Do try and get some help. I’ll tell you what…” she produced a pen and a piece of paper and wrote down two numbers “this is my number and this is Gracie my landlady’s landline. Do give me a call if you ever need to talk.”
Brenda looked Skank in the eye with an intense stare. One day she would take Skank up on her offer and beg for her forgiveness but that was not a conversation for today. “Thank you,” she said, and then, as Skank turned to go, “and just one thing…what is your name?”
“My name is Hope” said the girl, as she smiled and walked away.
© Gail Foster 2015