In the lock-up (a not-so-lovely dung-coloured enclosure) there’s no escaping the irony of my situation. It’s the size of the paradox (nearing the category of phenomenal) that’s got me going, got my goat… or whatever it is they say. Further to that, I’m suffering from a knock-on effect so that every bit of tough talk I’ve delivered to myself about getting clean has been eroded away. I’d put in too. Did a lot of work building up a repertoire of self-coaxing mantras and not-too-cliché clichés; after all, a boy with a bad habit needs a good rampart of clean-living rhetoric if he’s going to stir himself into abstinence. And now, in one fell swoop, all my pep-talking and self-fix-it slogans, all my platitudes and cheer-squad catchcries are leaching out of me. Plus, and this is typical of me, no matter the size of the incongruity, there’s little chance I’ll take a wide berth – any berth – around the details, especially when they involve such a ludicrous miscarriage of justice!

I yell that last bit in my head. Scream it out silently. And, despite noiselessness, it turns sourly in my mouth so that I sink back just a little further.

Luckily I’m over the sickness of withdrawal. Had my de-tox courtesy of a fist of Valium and a rambunctious aunt who made me promise to get out of the suburbs, relocate myself somewhere if she got me through the first month.

‘There’ll be no sweet-talking me into a re-run,’ she’d said at the time. ‘This is a deal never to be offered again.’

And there it stood. The handshake agreement.

So, being a dutiful nephew, I followed through: packing the car when the time came and heading out on highway number one with a mind to go searching for a place to camp. Somewhere pretty: on a river, a mountain behind me. There I planned to set up my bivouac, tend a fire and fling a baited hook into a sturdy stream when the urge rose. I would manage my cravings that way without spending six months in a Godly re-hab no one in my family could afford. It’d been a fifteen-year marriage to the processed poppy, a lifetime of scrounging and pilfering and scamming and dodging. So, it could be said that the moment had come – I needed to see if there was something more to life than the tip of a needle finding the perfect entry.

Mind you and funny enough, the cell I’m in makes the whole drug-fuelled encounter retrospectively open-armed and nurture-filled. The cold days, the hanging out, the flatness of a sunken vein all seem benign and somehow trouble-free from inside my stimulus-deprived pen. All the hard-hammer crew that swore I owed them, that begged cigarettes sooner than I could light them up, now seem like pals, so that with my back against an unforgiving wall, I am reviewing my freedom from drugs and feeling that the whole brutal episode, the whole hateful and general disenchantment of my addiction is slipping away and a wonder – no, a yearning – is creeping into me fast.

‘Edwards!’ A copper calls my surname, his hard-heeled shoes Spanish-gnashing the concrete floor. His shadow looms in a lumbering unfocussed smudge in the corridor before he appears at the edge of my cell, a tray of Macca’s in his arms. ‘Dinner,’ he says as if it’s a command.

‘Hmm,’ I say with full affect. ‘Looks delicious.’ But he either misses the quip or chooses to ignore my sardonic tone.

‘Step back,’ he tells me, which I do as he flips through keys, opens the cell door, and hands me the tray.

‘Any chance of an extra blanket?’ I ask as he’s closing up.

‘Sergeant’ll be on around ten, ask him.’ He turns and I’d swear he’s holding flatulence back, squeezing his butt for my benefit. I reassess. His whole body is fixed up in a steroid-pumped way. Gym junkie, I decide, thinking it’s as difficult a habit to control as any.

I open the Macca’s bag slowly because I know this is the only entertainment I’ll be getting all night. It’s a Big Mac meal and I’m wondering what sort of vitamin value it has, especially in relation to how many free radicals and trans-fatty-acids it contains. I don’t bother to consider its world-ravaging impact, its plundering and decimating factors; from in here all that seems rather daunting. Instead I pull a pickle from the Big Mac and wrap it round the end of a fry to increase the taste factor. Then I’m shovelling the bastards in because cold chips are like glue going down my gullet into my arteries and the idea borders on revulsion. My diseased liver tweaks under my ribs in line with the thought. And I categorically estimate that with my medical condition, these fries, not to mention my unnecessary and unfair detention, should be seen as a direct contribution to the national debt.

Dismissing misgivings, I sink a bite into the burger and return to my main thought. I’d worked hard during my long drug-dependant dalliance. Took my responsibilities – all my side-lane hook-ups and street-corner dealing – seriously. I was known as Sticky Stew – shortened from Stewie The Stickler, coined as such from my scrupulous and ever-present adherence to what others call small details. Added to that I was happy to do a triple shift: two full days and a night, scoring, selling and, if I don’t say so myself, educating every loon out there about purity, availability, administration routes and blood-borne viruses. To both the inexperienced and the most seasoned, spreading the knowledge around was all part of the service, the importance of which shouldn’t be underestimated. For example there is a university degree on those very subjects and if the literati of the education system knew what I knew, they’d hand me an honouree doctorate without a nanosecond’s consideration. In fact, all I’d have to do is run through a list of activities I carried out on any given day, and hey presto, my accreditation would be in the post with a hefty check and a schedule to do a non-stop tour on the post-grad lecture-circuit. In fact, I’d be promoted straight to a professorial position with all the drug-distinction, work-experience I’ve had.

And I do have interesting and up-to-date information, such as the entire world supply of heroin and cocaine could be grown in an area twice the size of Manhattan Island. People never get the full impact of this and I have to explain that Manhattan is a small island despite the size of the skyscrapers and that there is no connection between poppy fields and 9/11, although I admit sometimes nice conversational dovetailing can occur around the possibility, after which I have to steer people back onto the main point, which is, that even if governments were to rip up every known plantation in the modern world, other spots for replanting could easily be found.

It seems, however, every lackey knows better, dredging-up hypotheses whenever the market draws breath, and dreaming up ways of bringing the massive flood of drugs we experienced at the turn of the century, back. Theories about why those golden years existed are still around. Hypotheses like stockpiles of the stuff was being shipped over before the Taliban torched it, or  to flood another, yet-untapped market, or that it wasn’t getting to Australia because the dollar had dipped at a crucial juncture or that the cops had made particularly strategic busts and certain people were getting spooked. These notions weren’t based on anything other than speculation and the tendency for the average goof to think they are at the centre of things.

Tommy, a guy I sold for, is a prime example. He told me the shortage of smack was caused by drug lords distributing the stuff to smaller dealers in an experiment to test loyalties, create doubt, which was ultimately a roundabout way of getting more money for less volume.

‘You watch,’ he said, ‘the big boys want more control because there are too many half-baked bogans cashing in on a market they never had to go out and work at.’

I told Tommy that that might be so for certain groups: bikie gangs, small time Mafioso men, but as for the drug barons – whoever they are – they didn’t care who was dealing, only that they had avenues to distribute the stuff, and the real reason the drought had occurred was because the Taliban ordered the poppy fields to be pulled up and the farmers to get un-sowing because it was constitutionally against their non-liberal lifestyles. It’s slowly come back because the Western world is promoting the Northern Alliance and those Kabul hob-knobs – like all hob-knobs of some standing – want money while not giving a hoot about their reputation, which they should, given all the feeding their doing of the International Let’s Get High Community.

‘We’re all chasing our arses, dried out and hungry because Moslem despots forced hill farmers to guide sheep on their craggy land instead of milking the trouble-free poppy.’

Tommy was sitting back at the time, taking my opinion extremely seriously, which was unusual for him as he was generally in a state of high-pitched, business-making agitation. Everything was a drama with Tommy. He had himself lined up with all the other poor bastards he knew being squeezed out of the market. He was right about one thing: elusive drug lords did exist but that was where his intelligence stopped. They were eons away from Tommy’s sorry life and nothing to do with the shortage or otherwise of heroin.

I suck on the straw of my Macca’s Coke, savour it hitting the roof of my mouth, stinging my gums so I’m wondering if the stuff’s acting like mouthwash and killing my gingivitis.

My mind drifts, catches on the question of whether the lousy cops who pulled me over this afternoon are enjoying their dinner, especially since their day seemed made because they got to harass a weedy guy from Melbourne, a guy they could tell had no meanness in him, a guy they should have seen was finally doing the right thing.

I fold the fries packaging, the Big Mac wrapper, carefully unstick the bottom of the brown bag it all came in and spread it out. I’ve just remembered I’ve got a pen jammed inside the lining of my jacket, the only thing they missed when they scrutinised the emptying of my pockets and patted me down. Pathetic as it is, having that pen feels like a small victory. I dig down to grab it out, and, despite all the delinquent things I could do with it, I decide I should use it for good and make a record of this in case things get even more unfortunate.

I wonder who I should address my message to. My aunt perhaps, seeing she’s the one who saw me off, seeing she might be the only person to believe this isn’t just a drugged-out, never to be re-instated into, not just mainstream society but any-stream society, story. Although, where to start: the long drive, the leaking radiator, the lack of hitchhikers to break up the journey? In the end I don’t go into all that, I just start where the interruption began.

Dear Aunty Cheryl, this afternoon I was pulled over by the police.

My thoughts stray. The cops saw me coming as soon as my lop-sided Holden passed the sign pronouncing, City of Menence. I was thinking to myself, City of Menace, and having a little chuckle (the thought of which is now not even slightly amusing) when there was the bleep of a police car, the flash of their lights.

Mind you, I had a clear case of feeling no-fear since I as clean as a whistle, not-being-stoned, rising in me. Even as the copper got out of his car and I sat nodding to a Faith No More favourite, tapping the steering wheel with my pointers and leaning into the reflection on my side mirror, there was never a doubt I had nil-to-incriminate-me on me. On seeing myself, I did rip my beanie from my head so that by the time the copper was swinging his great holster up under my nose I was proceeding with a hand-comb through my plastered-down hair, turning it from a seal-to-cocky look. No one, I told myself quickly, should be punished for attempting to impress.

‘Got a brake light out at the back,’ the cop said as if I was purposely trying to get up his nose.

‘Globes,’ I struck a musical note, ‘can’t trust em.’

He wasn’t laughing. ‘License!’

I reached over to the glove-box, flipped up books and papers to find my wallet.

‘Need you to remove it.’ His eyes were trailing blithely over my stacked-up car. ‘On a trip, Stewie?’ he said, reading it.

‘Needed some fresh air. Thought I’d take a break from the big smoke.’

‘Hop out of the car, mate.’

And still I was hopeful, thinking all this was slightly humorous as I unhinged my body from the seat, as I swept my I’ve-got-nothing-on-me face up to him. Even when the second copper stuck his head through the passenger window and un-snibbed the door, it didn’t alter the unencumbered guiltlessness running in my veins. But, perhaps inevitably, by the time they both had their heads in there, weightlessness began, slowly at first and then with an ever-quicker flow, to turn to a thick moment of pondering on what they might come across. The thought that there’d been three years of drug-using history since I’d been driving my royal float around, not to mention the five or more years of activity before that by the drugged-out maggot I bought the car from, was passing through – or should I say coagulating – in my frontal lobe. Trying to stop myself dancing from foot to foot, I flashed on the day the transaction had taken place. Two hundred bucks it cost me to take the purrer off the previous owner’s hands because he’d been offered a rock and could see the yellow spunk of it beckoning him forth from my dealer’s table. Tommy was as interested in me striking the deal with the weasel as I was. Unlike me – while also being an expert at what he does – Tommy waited with cool assurance for his wares to do their own talking, which they did.

As for my liquidity that day, I’d been endowed with an unusual fist of money from the sale of two boxes of Bicardi Rum snaffled in a bottle-shop heist that was unpremeditated but exquisitely executed. It was, therefore, a good deal for both of us and, although I’ve avoided the guy ever since for the same reason China and England went to war over opium (the fact that hardware always lasts longer than drugs) I’ve never had to justify the purchase to anyone. There could be no doubt though, the moment the cops began rattling around in the cabin of the vehicle, all the good luck I’d had out of that buy drained away as surely as Lake Eyre does after a rare soaking. It was then that one of the coppers held up a small bag of hardly-green marijuana between his thumb and forefinger.

‘I don’t know anything about that,’ I said straight off.

As things descended, as they got me to empty my pockets and began pulling bags from the car to rummage through them, as they made me stand on that highway with holiday-makers and sheep-farmers, log-truck drivers and forestry-officers (not to mention every sort of country-person making the long trip to their closest commercial centre) passing by, their eyes glued on me, the first burl of craving hit. I grabbed a breath but nothing was going to counter it. That initial cruel pull of need ripped through me like I’d swallowed a couple of sickles and they were letting fly on my insides.

‘Going to take a little longer than we thought Stewie,’ the first copper said, his feet spreading on the road as if he was at a family barbecue and making a pivotal point to which every chump within earshot was listening. I knew that meant going to the station.

One of them drove my car, the other handcuffed me to the handle over the back door inside the cop car. We went in tandem, pulling up outside downtown-policedom where every local member of the blue brigade got to stare into my face as I was hauled past. I was all nods and easy how-do-you-dos despite their glares, thinking this’ll be over in a second and they can’t be serious. And then they were escorting me out of their open-forum computer-cluttered muster room, down to one of the two cells at the back of the place and turfing me in.

‘What about a phone call?’ I yelled from behind the bars. ‘Don’t I get a phone call?’

‘We’re still searching for evidence.’ The two of them had cocked their heads at one another as if they were performing a move at a gay Mardi Gras.

I return to my Macca’s wrapper. They’ve picked on me, I write in individual letters, because I look like a delinquent. It’s my skinny legs, my concave torso, my red nose. Even when I’m clean I look like an addict. The full-stop spikes all the way through the paper.

That’s the truth, I say to myself. Tommy even said it to me. Said, ‘When you got going on the gear ya looked like yu’d been using for years. I never guessed ya weren’t a junkie.’

I roll my pen across my lower lip. Cheryl doesn’t need to know this but I was thinking I’d found a calling that first day. Thinking there was finally a moment in my life I belonged in, thinking I could actually see a career set out before me. When Tommy did the honours two minutes later, delivering me my first hit, my body felt fitted up as if someone’d done a grease and oil check inside me, as if I was Leonardo’s original model.

I tap the pen on my teeth, wriggle my toes in my runners to make the blood circulate.

At eight o’clock, I think it must be past ten and I yell out for another blanket.

‘De-flea-ed especially for you.’ A young copper I haven’t seen pushes one through the bars and taps a finger on the face of his watch. ‘Lot of this night yet to go,’ he says. ‘Be good if you paced yourself.’

I take advantage of his conversational mood.

‘Can I have something to read? I’m going nuts.’

He brings a local paper, throws it into the cell – all niceties spent.

‘It’s not an invitation to come and live here.’ The words come over his disappearing shoulders.

I pore over it, read every detail about locals like Gwen and Alistair Park selling their farm because they never recovered from the fires last summer and I’m thinking how the hell could it be of interest to a young Kelly-Anne Ferguson who cut a CD to raise money for their presumably re-sprouting and on-the-market farm. There’s a picture of her in a cowdy hat and a shirt with tassels. She’s between the Parks who are smiling and don’t look at all in need. Her head’s tilted and across one of her shoulders is a tablecloth-like bandanna. I carefully tear the picture from the newspaper, make slits in the Macca’s wrapper to secure the picture into it and fold small ears at the photo’s corners back.

This girl wanted to marry me, Aunt Cheryl. I write underneath the picture. But she’s not country enough. So I sent her on her steer to the next corral. I thought you might like her photograph for posterity.

I read the rest of the paper and when nothing’s changed I read it again including the TV guide. I go to sleep making up an episode of NYPD Blue. I love that show. Can’t believe they cut it. I imagine a bit where Andy gets so pissed off with a Hispanic guy he nearly kills him, knocking him off his chair in the interview room. Then he becomes all sorry and contrite and even more serious then usual, licking his lips and wiping the palm of his hand over his bald spot.

I sleep. Wake when the sun is up (thank fuck) stretching my young unfit body out horizontally. I drag my hair into order and sit, waiting with great expectation, until a copper comes down the passageway with coffee and a bacon and egg roll.

‘Hilton services for you this morning.’ He’s smiling.

‘Thanks.’ I take the hot drink with the kind of desperation held over for a whack.

‘You’ve got an appointment with the magistrate today, Stewie.’

‘Magistrate? What magistrate? I haven’t been charged with anything.’

‘Possession. That’s the word.’

‘You’re kidding. That weed isn’t mine. I haven’t seen a lawyer. I haven’t made a phone call. My rights have been violated.’ I yell the last bit to his diminishing back. He twists his head around towards the cell, lets his voice expertly lift to find my ear. ‘Don’t know anything bout that.’

I eat the roll and take great swigs of the coffee. I don’t bother to straighten my hair again. I sit and wait. When they come and get me, I leave the newspaper in the cell. Only the letter to Aunt Cheryl I take, folded up carefully in my top pocket.

 

The court’s busy, full of measly thieves and vandals who always live in these towns, in every town, so that if the place had a turnstile they’d gather more revenue than the piddle of currency the legal system manages to squeeze out of them in fines. That’s partly because every mug here has family members and loved-ones supporting them and partly because there’s no point in wringing cents from desperates who’ve already been wringing them out of themselves for years. There’s a copper beside me like I need the National Guard. Perhaps they think I’m a flight-risk – except that flight in my case means the swift shift of my feet. Either that or I’m doubly as dangerous as the rest of the deviates it takes all morning to deal out community service orders to. And then the magistrate wants to break for lunch but says if the court lawyer – who I shook the hand of earlier and is now shuffling through the court and beckoning me forward – is quick, we can proceed.

When I stand I can smell my warmth balloon up from inside my clothing. It’s the smell of being unwashed, a smell that makes you humble, that makes you feel like you could be as dumb as to forget something as basic as your name. So I’m standing there, my arms pressed agains my body to stop the escape of anything offensive and the magistrate, hungry for lunch, gives me a greasy look over his glasses.

The duty lawyer starts to introduce me to the court like I’m in need of a cracking defence. What I hear, I like. But there are gaps, spaces in his speech, and my worry is that the judge is not believing him, that the judge has already decided I’m only fit for the correctional system. This is the notion that starts to mount in my chest so I feel I’ve eaten a mound of bread dough, so that the pain of it starts to squeeze my lungs until they become as depleted as a vacuum-sealed storage bag. On top of this it’s as if I can’t absorb one more item of information, as if my brain has switched off the lights and closed all points of entry.

I reel. My eyes roll. I’m collapsing. Deflating. I catch a glimpse of the gruff, old, bullet-worded judge barking a question at me as I descend. My attorney – who I also spot as I go down – is looking at the space I, just a minute ago, took up. And then they’re turning back to one another. Meanwhile I put my hand up to the Macca’s packet in my pocket which to them must seem like I’m feeling for my last mortal heartbeat. To me, however, its crinkly presence is the only proof I’ve got that I’ve been in a lock-up; it’s also my last contact with the outside world as if they’re going to throw me in some farm jail to rot and I want to make sure Aunty Cheryl gets my final correspondence before I disappear forever. Then the gavel is hammering and the judge’s great fat hand is waving me away. And I’m being pulled up by a cop, dragged through the courthouse.

Outside, the sun having shocked my lungs into re-inflating, the cop hands me an envelope with my personal stuff in it. I start to realise they’re letting me go and I see my car parked on the street at the bottom of the courthouse steps.

‘You’ve been fined.’

‘What?’ I say pulling my keys from the envelope.

‘You’ve been fined eight hundred bucks.’

‘Eight hundred! That’s all I had. How’d you know I had eight hundred bucks!’

‘Shouldn’t keep your A T M receipts, Stewie.’

‘You looked in my wallet.’

‘We looked everywhere.’ He smiles, shifts his hat slightly on his head.

‘Whatever happened to common curtesy?’

But it’s a wimpy comment because he’s broad shouldered and I’m thinking my legs might give way for the second time in so many minutes if I stand up any straighter to get a more convincing snipe out.

‘She’s all yours.’ He gestures at my car and crosses my path as he walks down the courthouse steps.

I make it to the vehicle to see there’s an unholy mess inside. Everything I own, the entire lot has been rifled through and then chucked unceremoniously back into it like it’s a second hand clothing bin and I’m the Brotherhood of St. Lawrence. And then the real depth of the matter strikes as I notice the vinyl from the doors has been cut away and the seats have all been ripped out.

I look up and down the street and back at the courthouse. I put my hand up to my pocket, pull out the Macca’s wrapper. It’s so real, like the whole ridiculous mess in my car is a bullshit dream and this Macca wrapper is the only thing that’s truly authentic.

It couldn’t be clearer! I say to myself as I begin to survey the people on the street, my keen eye already twitching at a couple fighting over the top of a pram, their bodies bent and feeling the cold of something other than the southerly that’s blowing.

I walk off the kerb, trot across the road, wave to a car coming towards me as if I’ve lived in the town my whole life and the old fella who’s driving, lifts his hand in reply as if he’s exchanging greetings with me. Suddenly the world is full of possibilities. Aunt Cheryl, I tell myself, will understand. My excuses to her will come under one big excuse: I’m a hopeless junkie! Meanwhile the line between the cops and me will have been deeply drawn. They’ve tried and failed to nab me and I can hark back to this incident, remind them how little they yielded from all the hard work they’d applied on their just-gone first-experience with me.

Meanwhile, I’ll build up a bit of kudos with the story, gather people’s trust with the details of it, and abracadabra, there you have it, an instant market. That’s how come Tommy hired me in the first place, said I had a nose for business, said I was like a fox terrier when it came to courting the dollar and that I was his outdoor man. And that’s what occurs to me now, that I’ll be his just-a-bit-further-away outdoor man. Talking him into coming up the line, doing at least one delivery, shouldn’t be that hard and after that, well, I’ll either hang around or thumb a ride back with him. Which ever it is, we’ll be selling and I’ll be a popular boy, a very popular boy for a whole second time around. In fact it’ll be a re-run, the best-of and from here on in, known as a colossal moment’s engineering by the establishment to re-establish me.

In my more philosophical moments I’ll put my little deviation down to the fact that some of us don’t know what’s good for us and in order to find out it takes a moment, a day, perhaps even a month, and then something occurs, something that straightens it all out so we’re clear, so we never doubt what was intended for us, or what makes us happy. I’m lucky, really, is all I can say, lucky that I was given the opportunity to reconsider, to realise my vocation. That’s what a calling is, I guess. No matter how far you move away from it, no matter what you do to subvert its power, at the end of the day it comes rushing back at you and you find yourself not just wanting it, but knowing it’s where you belong, where you should be, what inevitably you’ve been constructed for. Sure, it may be a turnaround, but there’s nothing wrong with that, nothing to be ashamed of in straying and then returning. In fact, it shows maturity, even tenacity; attributes I’m proud to be in possession of, attributes that will hold me in good stead for a good long life, and, all things going to plan, having a good long life is exactly what I’ve got in mind.

 

Stewie’s Turnaround was published by In Short Pocket Books.

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