[Fire on Table Mountain]
Journal of an Addict
I was born in the back room of 38 Duke Street, Walmer Estate, Cape Town in 1972. My name is Nathan Paul Matthews. My mother worked as a screen printer in a factory which built petrol pumps. My father was a carpenter but developed an addiction to a drug called Mandrax, a depressant, and found it hard to hold down a job as a result. I was exceptionally good at mathematics and science at school but dropped out at 16, and continue to blame the old apartheid government for my lack of education. In my teen years I displayed some promising dancing talent but any opportunity that may have come from that was replaced with getting drunk, or more accurately, inebriated. I now sleep in a car directly opposite the house I was born and raised in. I am considered a “fuck up” in life. I am approaching 40, with no job, no home, no achievements, and a very serious longstanding heroin addiction, which I spend my days unwillingly trying to sustain. I do not make light of this, as I know I have let my family down and lost my daughter as a result of this addiction. I do, however, admit that my failed attempts at living this life have resulted in my acceptance of this label.
This morning I woke up to the smell of cigarette smoke after my brother, Eugene, decided to smoke in the car because it was too cold outside. The smell of cigarette smoke does not conjure up any images or particular memories for me, but cigarettes were always an issue in our house. I grew up in a Christian home, sustained by my mother’s efforts at forcing us to go to Sunday school till I was about 16 years old. My mother believed that the body was the temple of God, and that one should not indulge in activities or actions that may harm God’s temple. My father did not share my mother’s belief and his heavy smoking was always a contentious issue at home. My mother worked as a screen printer in a factory that built petrol pumps. She cleverly used her skills one day to make the loveliest brass signs that said NO SMOKING. Needless to say this was neatly placed at strategic points around the house. My father’s reluctance to obey the signs was another issue altogether.
My mother’s disapproval of smoking was made further evident on an occasion when she discovered that my younger brother had followed in my father’s footsteps, and started sucking on those “cancer sticks” as she often called them. As parenting goes one has to do things to your children that hurts one more than it hurts them, and for my mother this was one of those occasions. She called my brother outside, to our little back yard, told him to sit down and made him ingest one cigarette at a time. After about an hour of vomiting and crying, she pulled out a second pack of cigarettes to further prove her point.
My mother had unconventional parenting techniques that quite often involved drastic actions. I was in my very late teens, possibly very early twenties and decided to grow dreadlocks, much to my mother’s disapproval. This, like smoking, became another issue in our house. My reluctance to cut off the dreadlocks versus my mother’s dislike of them was a debate heard by anyone who was willing or unwilling to listen. On one particular day I had consumed a fair amount of alcohol, managed to sneak into my bedroom, (which was the same room I was born in) and pass out. My mother, completely aware of my transgression of the day, decided that this was one of those moments in which a parent takes the opportunity to teach their child about the evils of alcohol. Again, my mother used a very unconventional parenting tool, called scissors and cut every single dreadlock off my head. A scene clearly matched to the biblical story of Delilah cutting off Samson’s hair. For without my dreadlocks I had lost my weapon of rebellion against my mother.
6 June - Zoe’s birthday
I am a slave to my own demons,
Imprisoned by the constraints of my spirit,
You were my angel,
I hoped, my redemption,
My release from this slavery,
But my spirit is my captor,
My only confession,
I confess to you,
I am broken,
I am fallen
Today my brother and I were chased by the police. Some of the neighbours have been complaining about us sleeping in the car and someone’s house got broken into, and of course it could only be the resident drug addicts. It is funny how being an addict makes you guilty of everything. Contrary to what some may think, we have more creative methods of supporting our drug habits. This method allows us to develop our skills of storytelling and hone some rather exceptional acting techniques. My brother has the gift of the gab and can spin a story that’ll make someone with even the shortest arms and longest pockets give him money.
One of our most profitable stories was when my brother and I would head down to a tourist area in Cape Town known as The Waterfront. We would identify the American tourists in their Khaki safari outfits and Eugene would approach them with a guitar bag on his back (which held a very broken guitar, which we had picked up). The story would be that we were a band scheduled to play a gig at a specific venue on the waterfront, ran out of petrol, and subsequently got mugged. One has to remember that this is South Africa and muggings are an everyday occurrence, making the story quite conceivable. Now there were two more factors that contributed to our success. Firstly, we were both fair skinned boys, good looking and well spoken, and it was unusual to see fair skinned beggars on the street, which sadly gave our story credibility. The second was Eugene’s ability to shed a tear on command as though Steven Spielberg was directing Eugene himself.
Now there were some occupational hazards attached to this type of work (if we can call it that). Our reputation preceded us and the Waterfront security was always on the lookout for us. Being chased by them often resulted in scrapes and bruises. Sometimes we would lose valuable props (such as our guitar prop) in an effort to get away.
Every Wednesday the night shelter in the city does a 50 cents lunch time plate of food for the homeless. We make a point of getting in early to avoid standing in the queue for ages. This attracts the homeless from all over the city. There are street kids, old homeless men, homeless couples, prostitutes, drug addicts, and more. One must be on guard in this type of environment, as every person is as desperate as the next one. Today was a busy day for the shelter. It was a cold night last night and we were all keen to get some warm sustenance into our systems. Now I was really tired since the wind kept me up half the night. While sitting in the queue I dozed off for a little while. Eugene was off talking to someone and I had to stay to hold our spot in the queue. I must have been quite tired because I had slept through someone stealing the shoes off my feet. Now anyone that knows me will know that I am a shoe person. I may not have the finest of clothes but I certainly appreciate a good pair of shoes. Not only do they provide comfort, but a good pair of shoes can upgrade one’s appearance from homeless. Needless to say this is a loss I will struggle to recover from.
We were up at five this morning to catch a train to my sister’s house. To avoid paying for a train ticket we had to catch a very early train. The ramifications of arriving at my sister’s house at the crack of dawn meant witnessing her dislike of being woken up early. This was a consequence I was prepared to face as my need for a pair of shoes was far greater. Debbie, my sister was as hospitable as ever and went straight back to bed without saying a word to us. An hour later her husband arose and I took the opportunity to ask him for a pair of shoes. While at Debbie’s house we decided to stock up on some breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At some point during the day Eugene had managed to sneak fifty rand out of Debbie’s purse. Drugs unfortunately change people and can cause them to do things that betray the trust of those they love the most. When the theft of the money was discovered we were naturally both accused. The advantage of not being the only drug addict in such a situation is that denial by both addicts causes doubt in the mind of the person making the accusation, and presents a problem of blaming the innocent person. This was an advantage for my brother who was the guilty party in this particular situation. A disadvantage for me and a dilemma I was presented with. My sincere denial of stealing the money does not acquit me of this crime. For an addict’s lies are as sincere as his truths. This means that Eugene’s denial appears to be as genuine as mine. To prove my innocence my only option would be to point the finger to the actual perpetrator. By doing so I would betray the alliance of the addict between Eugene and I. Now the situation could have gone one of two ways depending on the decision I took. If I were too expose my brother as the perpetrator, he would be told to leave, in which case I would have to leave with him. Denying the act without exposing the perpetrator would cause my sister to have a suspicion of both us, however, this will be outweighed by the doubt and inability of my sister to possibly blame an innocent person. The ability of the addict to manipulate a situation is based on a premise of a warped understanding of psychology. Based on my understanding of my sister’s psychology I chose the option that of course did not betray my brother and still provided me with a degree of innocence, although tainted with suspicion. A consequence I was prepared to take.
Today was my mother’s birthday and since we have no money to buy her a present, we decided to use the only resource available to us, and that was time. With this time we decided to do the one thing we knew would please our mother. We surprised her by being in church on Sunday morning. Needless to say, the pleasure on her face was in fact “priceless”. To understand the meaning in this gift, one has to understand our experience of religion. We were forced to attend Sunday school every Sunday till we were in our late teens. In addition to this we had a father who was a very proud catholic, who never attended mass, but over a number of years would wake up the family at the crack of dawn on a Sunday to say the “Our Father”. We would all have to kneel around our parent’s bed and recite the Lord’s Prayer followed by the “Hail Mary”. A few hours after our Sunday morning prayer we would put on our Sunday best and attend the Baptist Church. On some of these days a few of the neighbours’ children would go to church with us to receive their religious education. One particular boy named Alistair often attended Sunday school with us. While our Sunday school attendance was involuntary, Alistair’s was voluntary. While the reason for our forced attendance was for religious benefits, Alistair’s was for financial benefits. When the collection bag came around, we would all sing along while putting our coins in the bag. The song, we sang went like this:
Droppings, droppings, droppings, droppings,
Here the pennies fall, everyone for Jesus,
He shall have them all.
Instead, Alistair would sing:
Droppings, droppings, droppings, droppings,
Here the pennies fall, everyone for Alistair,
He shall have them all.
He would sing this while slyly taking out coins instead of putting them in the bag. Nobody ever found out about Alistair stealing God’s money, but I am sure stealing from God was what the Catholics would consider a mortal sin. I was brought up a Christian and karma does not form part of my fundamental beliefs, but something has to be said of it. Many years later Alistair was pushed off a train in Cape Town, and lost an arm and a leg. Of course I am not saying that he was punished by the universe or God for his wrongful actions in his youth, but it still leaves one wondering.
Today I saw Donovan who was in my dance crew when I was in my teens. We were quite good and competed in dancing competitions and did really well. I always loved dancing and should I have rejected the evils of this world I believe I may have had a future in it. To gain perfection at something one has to practise as much as one can, and that is why, from about 14 years old I would tell my mother that I was going to the cinema on a Saturday afternoon, but instead go to a nightclub which opened up for afternoon sessions to develop my dance techniques. She knew I was lying but just didn’t know where I was really going. Until one Saturday while I was breaking out my moves on the dance floor I heard the DJ say, “Nathan and Eugene your mother is here to pick you up, please come to the door”. Any teenager will tell you that there is nothing worse than one of your parents picking you up at the local disco or worse, making their presence known. Since I was not supposed to be at the club, my mother did more than make her presence know. She hobbled into the club with crutches because she had a broken foot at the time, and hit Eugene and I right out of the club with her crutches. We stayed away from the club for a long time after that. My mother certainly was unconventional.
I am not particularly fond of clichés as they assume everyone has the same experiences and in order for them to make sense one has to have a particular experience relevant to a particular cliché. For example, the cliché “shit happens”, although a more contemporary cliché it is one that to some extent reflects the events of my life. Or “same shit different day” pretty much exemplifies my life. Every day I get up and follow the same routine, which involves getting enough money to get me through the day without experiencing the sickness that comes from withdrawal. One could say it is just “another day another dollar” for me. On some occasions “the shit may hit the fan” but that is “all in a day’s work”. However, the cliché “time is money” has no real relevance to my life. Time has never been a commodity for me, it is a resource I have in abundance, and is not worth much at all. Time can be both a hindrance and a luxury. The problem with having too much time is that one is given the time to contemplate the past, regrets and mistakes too much.
© Jo-zanne Owen