You start early, dressing up in a downstairs bedroom, which is lamp lit with curtains drawn. A bed, a carpet and a bathroom, clothes all over the floor. Bubbles next, her parents’ tall glasses, drunk and then refilled, the hit at the back of the throat, the withdrawal of breath as it pops up the nose. Music on, a pirate radio station. Two girls on their feet and at the mirror, ‘Do I look alright? Should I wear this? That? You look better than me. So pretty. So slim. You do. You are!’
Others arrive: two boys hiding their height with curved backs, their faces with hoods. They enter, eyes down on Rizla in palm, massaging weed while they walk. One is her boyfriend, taking her out tonight. New Year’s Eve. Our girl, you, you’re heading off at nine to go to World Dance, a rave at the London Arena. Your boyfriend is doing the visuals. Thirty pound a ticket. For some, it’s the night of their lives. For you, it’s free. You get off on that privilege.
Out comes the scratched CD case, the gym membership card and the rolled-up note. You feel it rush up the nose, and bitterness as it dribbles down your throat. ‘Yuk,’ your friend pulls a face, and you both laugh, the sudden numbness of tongue and teeth. The bubbles, they rise up again. The music is louder now – up and about, a shimmer of lipstick, and that bounce bounce bounce – dancing – laughing, a bump and a grind and a hair flick. The thrill of it. If only you could keep on going for ever.
Then you’re on your own. He said he’d meet you, and he does. He’s reliable like that. He’s at the door, up and above and past the crowds who smoke and hug their coats. You scoot to the front when you see him – used to it now – and the big guy comes out and takes your hand, nods to the bouncer. It’s dark and blue inside, and the air is cold; it smells of bodies, and he leads you through the crowd. Kids, they are, dressed in oversized T-shirts, whistles round their neck, red faced already and that distant sweaty look. This is 1995. It’s hard-core, drum n bass, and the sound is everywhere, in this vast space, made for bands and basketball, not this – but it is this tonight. Quick beats pummel your head and thunder your heart, but you’re above it now. You cling to the skimp of your clothes as you follow through the smoke. You don’t belong here. You’ve come to take part, but not be in it; out of it, you want to be, up in heaven.
He heads up the tower first, his long legs following the strip of scaffold. You follow, lodging your heel onto the clamp. You won’t look up, as you know you won’t see the top of it, up there in the arena’s clouds. You won’t think of it. You put a hand after each foot and, all glitter and shine, shimmy to the top.
Two backs. Two boys. Or maybe men. A lazy turn of the head and greeting hello. There is no one else here. And nowhere to sit, but on the backs of the metal cases. A strobe blasts from the platform in a tube of green light, flowering into a spiral; beneath it there are hundreds of arms and hands and faces, looking up to the light, without voice or sound. The quick beats, the douch douch douch, the crowd, the dissonance has receded to nothing. Your head’s in the clouds. You found it; the very top. Your heaven. You are at the top of this mountain. But looking down, you feel something unexpected, like vertigo.
It is cold. The air conditioning on max; so much of it to chill wet bodies, and slip between sweaty cracks, to keep casualties from falling, from breaking up the 11,000-strong tribe. But up here it feels like ice. The wind brings pain on the tips of its fingers, and the back of its hand. There is no escaping it. No coat, boots or knee socks. You’re wearing a pink boob tube. You’re not dressed for altitude.
Someone gives you a pill. Someone gives you another. You dance alone on the scaffolding, behind the two men who are busy building a world of light. You are aware of their friends who pop up, who go down, of their faces lit blue and green, shifting colour, but not stopping to talk or to think or to consider. You’re aware of the moment there is nothing. The crowds down below as one, and you alone up here. Dancing alone.
At one point, tired out, you lie down.
Your arms are bare, your skin a prickle. Your body needs rest, but your mind is wired. To the moments when you have lost it before. In a tour bus from Kings Cross. The back window full of grey and rain. You slept on the narrow bed in the small slither of night that was given. At Glastonbury then, and you ran in circles around a field to try to come up. On the last night, you all headed back through the mud, eyes on your boots. The feeling was hollow, coreless, dead. You walked together but no one spoke. Driving back from Knebworth after three nights on the go; you slapped his face to keep him awake at the wheel. Stragglers on the side of the road, past the grandeur of the stately home; a man in dirt black from head to toe screamed at the car; caught in some internal horror. Munch’s scream, only for real. He drove on past, as the last forgotten staggered from the grounds, and you looked over your shoulder to see the kid fall in the mud, calling out to some invisible friend. You’ll never forget the terror on his face. Did he take too much? Did it turn his mind? Did he ever come back? Your father once did the same with his wife: sucked on a micro-dot and went skidding off to hell. They couldn’t be in the same room together. Instead he lay alone in bed and closed his eyes to the wallpaper writhing with snakes. He felt the darkness fill him like tar. It was gone. In his mind. Everything gone. The nice little Hampstead set with its posh porcelain, and San Pellegrino on tap; swaggering cats, in and out, their tails fluffed up; patio doors open to the garden, all fresh and bright in the gentle sun. Seven hours in this nightmare, he said. He thought it would go on for ever. A friend and his girlfriend holed up in a council flat, on a diet of cocaine. Each morning they took a line for breakfast, and continued for lunch, and afternoon tea and dinner, until she collapsed in a corner and he was done for GBH. At night, you hear sounds, over the dub beats from the turntable, the crushing of pills. Your boyfriend’s eyes are pinpricks. You were 17 when you had your first line. He gave it to you when you lay in his bed. Said it was for fun. Soon he was smoking heroin.
Alone, you wake beneath a speaker at the top of the world. The sky above you a deep dark blue. No blanket. No coat. No stars. Your body temperature has dropped. You are aware that you should open your eyes but aren’t able to. You lie on your side on the hard floor, the heavy beat and cold currents of air, fine filaments sticking eyes closed. The cold is in your bones. Your tiny white bones.
Lily Dunn is an author, mentor and editor. Her first novel was published by Portobello Books and her creative nonfiction has been published by Granta and Litro. She is co-editor of A Wild and Precious Life: Addiction, physical and mental illness and its aftermath: a collection of stories and poetry from writers in recovery: https://unbound.com/books/recovery/ and co-runs London Lit Lab, with fellow writer and friend, Zoe Gilbert.