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February 13, 2024 Fiction

Street Blues

R.A. Gallagher

Street Blues photo

It had been three days since Paul Cairney last had a Valium; to be more precise, a downer of any sort. In recent months, almost every night, his nightly routine had escalated to taking six or seven Valium tablets and at least two thirty-mg Co-codamol; not real Valium, let’s be clear since most doctors had dramatically scaled back on writing prescriptions for them due to their propensity to grip the patient into the slimy tentacles of addiction. Enter, street blues, fake vallies, or even Etizolam, to give them their medicinal name. These wee, dusty, blue pills had flooded the streets of Scotland, and, Paul Cairney, along with a multitude of people he knew - some well, some not so well, had fallen victim to their clutches.

Paul’s descent into being a benzo addict had been gradual; a weekend bender on the peeve and Ching had left him facing down the barrel of a brutal come-down at work on the Monday, and so, when he had mentioned this in the kitchen of a friend’s house on the Sunday night, a loose acquaintance produced a baggy full of blues. ‘Take two of these, bro’, he had said. ‘You’ll get a good sleep and feel fresh when you get up the morn’.  Paul’s problem was those words, delivered in a drink and drug-fuelled haze, in a Leith kitchen, had rung true, and his two-year-long dependency on the blue devils began. The Co-codamol habit, mentioned previously, took root, funnily enough, in a deep cavity in one of Paul’s teeth, and he discovered the combination of the pills worked well together, at least initially.

Now, sitting in the special delivery sorting room, Paul, a part-time postie and full-time pill-popper, could feel himself in the early stages of getting sick. The withdrawals. In days gone by, that would mean heading out onto the main work floor of the mail centre, scouting the letter sorting machines for Roberto, a decades-long, somewhat functioning, Neapolitan, middle-aged, heroin addict, and, copping a bag of blues from the wee felly. On this night though, that was out of the question - he was determined to get clean - the rising numbers of dead in Edinburgh, including two childhood pals, from o.d’s, had jolted him into taking action to ditch his habit. Swallowing those pills at night was now like playing Russian roulette; the blues were, for the first time in many years, the leading cause of drug deaths in Scotland, overtaking even heroin. Stopping was a must.

As a headache began to loom, Paul had a glance up at the clock adorning the swamp green wall of his work area; just over an hour until he clocks out - not terrible, although the thought of the bus journey home began to fill him with a slight dread. The bus tended to be jam-packed with students from the nearby Heriot-Watt University heading into the city centre, and, the noise levels were more often than not, extreme on that bus, to say the least.

The clock ticked along at what seemed an agonisingly slow pace for the next hour or so, and, Paul’s headache had got worse. He consoled that fact with the thought that the cool, Autumn, air on his walk-up to the bus stop would alleviate it, somewhat. When the clock hit ten pm, he departed his workstation, making sure to leave on the right, going as far as craning his neck rightwards, to avoid even catching a glimpse of Roberto working to the left of his area, and, giving in to temptation. Although two of his work colleagues, walking behind him, had noticed this peculiar posture, whispering and sniggering together, questioning what the hell he was doing, his aim of leaving without crumbling and going to score, was a success.

The crisp air was welcomed as Paul left the imposing glass-adorned mail centre, with him taking off at his usual brisk pace, up to the bus stop on Calder Road. For most people, this would be a ten-minute walk, for him, it took less than five minutes - he’d always been a fast walker, looking as though he was in a permanent rush. Arriving at his stop with time to spare, he dug out from his trouser pocket a twenty-deck of Regal King size and sparked one up, the smoke twirling into the night sky from his heavy drags, he was pondering how busy the bus would be. As he waited, watching along the dark stretch of pot-hole-covered road, his thoughts were interrupted by a voice to his left, the voice of a teenage boy.

‘Here mate, you got a spare fag?’

‘Aye mate’, Paul replied, and, digging back into his trouser pocket, he slid out a cigarette and passed it to the boy.

‘You looking for any green’? The lad asked.

Paul hesitated, then smiled and said ‘Nah, I’m sound mate, I stopped smoking it years ago’.

‘Nae bother’, was the reply.

In the distance, he could see the bus at the traffic lights. He got his change ready. The lights flicked back from red to green, and, as the bus got closer, he could see, with some disappointment, yet not much surprise, that it was packed to the rafters. A soft sigh left his chest as the doors opened.

‘A single, please, mate’.

Ripping his ticket from the small red dispenser, the unmistakable racket of steaming students entered his ears, instantaneously causing his headache to lift the dull thud back up a notch. Scanning the bottom deck for a seat, more in hope than expectation, and the hope soon defeated, he began to trudge up the stairs to the top deck, a slight line of sweat forming on his brow. He found a seat near the front, as far away as possible from the gaggle of students, and sat down, a heavier sigh from deeper inside as he did so. ‘Maybe I was wrong for knocking back that wee guy’s bit of green’, he thought. Turning to look out of the window, he was suddenly taken aback, quite aghast, at his ghostly reflection looking back at him. His thin, pale, cheeks, compounded by the dark rings around his eyes, gave him a deathly complexion. He began to perspire more, and he felt nauseous. At that moment, a terrible din went up from the students up the back, Paul thought it was a song, but he struggled to make sense of whatever their attempt at singing was, his head throbbing. Fumbling in his jacket for his phone, he pulled it out with a shaky hand and looked for an old contact’s number he hadn't spoken to for a while. Finding it, he sent off a text: ‘Can you meet me at my flat in an hour, mate? I’m looking for one box if you’ve got one. Blues’.