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Sport 42: 2014

Emma Hislop — Sweet on the Comedown

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Emma Hislop

Sweet on the Comedown

Crickhowell, Powys, South Wales. They required chambermaids and waitresses, the ad in the paper said, and it was two pounds sixty an hour. Live in. Food and accommodation free. Uniforms provided. They’d not been to Wales before and it sounded like a bit of a crack.

Eve had been trying to get Kassy out of London, away from the scene and Brett and the pills. It started out with just a bit of ecstasy every weekend but he’d got hooked and then in a few months he was having pills for breakfast, just to get him through the day. Then he’d started dealing. Asked Kassy to go to India on holiday with him, but it turned out she was a decoy for his grand drug smuggling scheme. They’d had a huge row in the hotel room in Delhi. He had spent three hours swallowing a hundred Glad Wrapped finger-sized pellets of Indian hashish with yoghurt and thought she was overreacting when she refused to sit beside him on the aeroplane back to London. He’d made a shitload of money from that trip, but he hadn’t stopped there. Ended up owing lots of money to bigger dealers and it was all getting way too heavy for Kassy.

Eve had just split up with Felix after five years, deciding overnight that she wanted out and getting her bellybutton pierced before hitching out of Brighton. She hooked up with Kassy in Hereford and they went to a five-day rave in the Welsh mountains. Carry on regardless. Borrowed a tent from another mate and got a ride with some boys Eve had met in the pub in Brighton. She fancied the tall one.

Eve and Kassy took ecstasy that first afternoon. It was hot and they sat high up on the grassy bank looking down onto the outside dance space. The DJ was an elderly woman with long grey hair, dressed in a combination of fluoro gear and ethnic prints. Layer upon layer. She had a hairbrush and was interspersing her DJing with brushing her hair. About thirty people were dancing in the dust to banging trance music. The pills kicked in and everything seemed very funny.

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‘Are these people for real?’ Kassy said. ‘I can’t tell.’ She was having difficulty rolling a cigarette.

Eve snorted and tucked a loose tendril of dark hair back behind her ear. ‘They can’t be, can they?’

Kassy stared down at them. ‘The party people must have hired them. Hired a crowd. For our entertainment.’

‘Yeah, that must be it.’ Eve leaned back, using her elbows to prop herself up so she could still see the crowd down below.

‘Rent-a-crowd.’ ‘Rent a raver.’

‘Ha ha ha ha ha,’ on and on, till the group of beautifully blond Scandinavians in sparkly leather jackets next to them were grinning and laughing as well.

They were grinding their jaws now and thirsty. It felt impossible to stop laughing so Eve walked off fast down the hill, pointing in the direction of the beer tent. When she got there, she crowded up to the bar and got her money out of her purse.

‘All right mate?’ a voice behind said, in that English way that didn’t require an answer.

She turned around, with some difficulty. Her legs had started to twitch uncontrollably and a loud ringing in her ears was making her disorientated. Christ, he was tall, he must be at least six foot six.

‘Beers,’ she managed and smiled up at him, trying to stop her eyes from rolling around. At least she thought her face was smiling; it was hard to tell.

‘Here,’ he said and passed her a tiny tinfoil envelope, neatly made. It reminded her of origami. ‘Get you dancing.’

‘Cheers mate,’ she said and it was all getting too much and so she paid for the beers which looked strange and enormous and carried them outside. The sun was glaring after the shady cool tent and Eve wanted her sunglasses badly but her hands were full and she had to get back up the bank and all she could think about was having a lie down and watching the clouds.

Kassy was lying down with her sunglasses on, face up towards the sky.

‘The clouds are so beautiful today,’ she said.

Eve took a big breath, relieved to have made it back. She sat down page 230 hard. ‘Here’s your beer.’

‘On your head,’ Kassy said. ‘Eh?’ said Eve. ‘Sunglasses,’ Kassy said.

‘Off your head,’ said Eve and flicked her beer froth at Kassy. ‘Off your tits. Off my fucking tits.’

They snorted the powder off the foil and tried to finish the beers, which took forever. Clambered their way down the bank, holding onto each other.

The dance space was impressive now, a giant bowl heaving with dusty glamour. They stood at the edge. Eve felt the speed taking hold and looked across at Kassy as she entered the zone, head down, becoming a cog in the machine of human dance. Eve closed her eyes. The transition was not an easy one. The buzz was electric and she was confused.

They’d been the last ones to leave on Sunday evening, the sound of sheep suddenly loud once the generators were shut down. Everything had been dismantled. They cooked up a final pot of baked beans and bread before getting in the car and being dropped off to start work the next day. The tall guy had left her with his homespun jersey and given her his phone number and a hug before he got back in the car. He was heading off to Thailand for a month to buy jewellery to bring back and sell at a market in Oxford.

The manor house loomed up in front of them as they got out of the taxi, all cream and pale yellow—resembling a soft iced cake among the greenery. A manicured garden and vast croquet lawn, surrounded by low border hedges and wooden benches at evenly spaced intervals. To the left, if you were looking towards the house, was the river, you couldn’t see it, but you could hear it from here. To the right, the owner’s residence and stables, and more gardens and cottages.

Inside, the foyer was all red and gold, with a high ceiling and a sweeping staircase with an enormous polished wooden balustrade. There was a man in a starched blue shirt behind the desk and he looked up as they came through the glass doors, a welcome smile on his face, which faded when he saw them. You could almost see his face page 231 computing them and coming up with Unclean Creatures.

‘We’re here to start work. I’m Eve and this is Kassy. We were told to ask for Mrs Bennett?’ Eve said, putting down her overloaded pack.

The man tapped the gold bell on the desk.

‘Presumably you were also told to find the back entrance.’ Eve suppressed a small laugh. A man wearing a shiny maroon waistcoat appeared through a set of doors on the far side of the foyer.

‘Show these people to the staff common room,’ the man at the desk said, gesturing at them briefly and looking back at the book.

‘Welcome to Wankerham Palace,’ Eve said to Kassy in a posh whisper, dragging one leg theatrically behind her as they followed the butler back across the driveway and around the side of the building.

Mrs Bennett was a New Zealander. She was an expat who had been living in Wales now for twenty years, but it was still in the girls’ favour. She was a no-nonsense, stocky woman who told them straight off that Eve would wear a headscarf over that hair and that Kassy would need to remove her facial piercings before she reported for work every morning. She directed them to a big cardboard box of spare uniforms in the common room, which also contained some miscellaneous items left behind by their predecessors, and told them to report to her in the morning by seven am. Looking respectable and by the side door, not the foyer.

‘Carl will take you down to the cottage,’ she said. ‘It’s right back down the drive, you’d have passed it on your way in. You’ll need a torch’.

Nobody had lived in the cottage for years. Not since the witchcraft, Carl said. He was a plain, red-faced bloke, from somewhere up north, Manchester or somewhere, Kassy guessed, from his accent. Second chef here, he told them proudly on their walk down to the cottage.

‘Witchcraft?’ Eve said, in a disbelieving tone, nudging Kassy in the side.

A woman who turned out to be a witch had rented it briefly a few years ago and had held meetings there, Carl said. Someone had found a doll with needles stuck into it and an Anglican minister had been called to do an exorcism. Eighty-three witches and ninety Satanists were living in Wales, according to the 2011 census. He raised his page 232 eyebrows. Eve looked at Kassy, who was trying to stay composed.

The building resembled the gingerbread house from the fairy tale, with a winding stone staircase going up to a whole room spanning the length of the roof, so low you had to crouch over when you walked. Little windows all along the front, starting at the floor. Four unmade single beds in a row and rugs and old looking pillows piled up on the end one.

‘Welcome home,’ said Eve, shining the torch into all the corners.

It was dark when the alarm went off, but Kassy was already up and outside smoking a cigarette. Eve laid out two piles of clothes, making two outfits. By the time Kassy climbed up the stairs she was dressed in her uniform, complete with white pinny with a frill at the hem. Just the headscarf to go.

‘Bloody hell!’ Kassy said. ‘You totally suit that look. Reckon you must have been a chambermaid in your former life.’

‘Hurry up and get dressed,’ Eve said, putting toothpaste onto her toothbrush, ‘or we’ll be late.’

Mrs Bennett asked a younger girl, Lucy, to demonstrate how to clean a guest room. She made hospital corners with the king-size bed sheets and Kassy and Eve crowded into the loo to watch her folding the toilet paper into a silly triangle. She dusted the furniture with a real feather duster. Polishing. Attention to detail, that’s what mattered.

‘How long have you worked here for?’ Eve asked Lucy.

‘Oh, about three summers,’ she said. ‘It’s just my holiday job while I’m on break from university. I only live down the road. I hear you’re in the cottage down the end of the drive. That’s brave.’

‘We’re from New Zealand,’ said Eve.

Lucy showed them how to make a high tea for the busloads of elderly people that arrived in the weekends. Crustless cucumber sandwiches and scones and jam and cream. Industrial-sized tubs of butter and jam were kept in a walk-in chiller, which was packed full of local produce, and fresh bread arrived daily on a truck from the local bakery. And huge silver urns of tea. Mrs Bennett emphasised the importance of making sure the tea never ran out. The day went slowly.

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Cutting the crusts off a stack of club sandwiches, Eve said, ‘I calculated today what I need to save to get home. I just hope that Felix sells the van and gives me half. That would be five hundred quid.’

‘Do you reckon he will?’ Kassy said. ‘You did break his heart.’ ‘Yeah, thanks for the reminder,’ Eve said.

Eve stood in the restaurant, polishing cutlery by the big windows overlooking the river. Most diners had left by now. The owners had come in for a late supper at their usual table and there was one other table of six about to have dessert. Lucy was putting the coffee out.

The owner clicked his fingers at Eve. You wouldn’t get away with that in New Zealand. Carl had told her he was a bastard. She put down the cloth napkin and the forks and walked over to their table by the fireplace.

‘My steak’s undercooked, disappointingly.’

Back in the kitchen, she watched as the head chef took the plate and threw it, frisbee style, into the bin. He kicked the bin onto its side and it rolled across the floor, hitting the fridge and making a hard noise. Carl was concentrating on perfecting the gelato mounds.

The head chef took a clean pan down from the rack above the ovens. He took the steak out of the bin and threw it into the pan. It sizzled for a minute.

‘Plate that up,’ he ordered Lucy, who was leaning on the bench nonchalantly watching the scene. She might have been on the sidelines of a football match. ‘With extra fucking shallots and red wine sauce.’ Eve carried the plate slowly out to the restaurant. She wanted this not to be happening. She looked at the steak, feeling a stab of guilt.

This was taking things a bit far.

‘Sorry to keep you waiting,’ she said, but she hesitated, holding onto the plate.

‘Is there something else?’ he said.

She met his eye and shook her head. It wasn’t like she had done anything wrong. Maybe he deserved it. She needed to look after herself. Keep it together. The candle flickered as she put the plate down on the table. She needed to work and save and get home to New Zealand.


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The laundry was in the basement underneath the kitchen, right next door to the wine cellar. Eve, the wine smuggler. It was only scary the first time. She would wait till the night shift was over and head down there with the laundry basket. Steal a decent bottle of claret and hide it underneath the sheets and pillowcases. Into her fraying old backpack. Out the side door and down the long tree-lined driveway. Home to the cottage. They stayed up most nights till two or three a.m., smoking cigarettes out the crooked floor-level windows of the cottage and drinking the wine till it was gone, and they’d go to bed in their funny, lumpy, single beds.

‘I’m scared,’ Kassy said, looking at the postcard that had arrived that afternoon. On the front was a brightly-coloured map of Ibiza with a setting sun and dolphins around it. ‘Excited but scared it’ll be the same old shit with him. I’m just starting to feel strong again and I’m in a better place. But you know I can’t say no to the bastard. And he’ll bring pills with him.’

Eve stubbed her cigarette out on the stone windowsill and threw it out the window.

‘Shit, Kass. I’m no expert. Look at how I fucked things up with Felix. I was a total headcase about it all. Still am. I just need to get my shit together and save.’ She pulled another cigarette out of the packet and held it between her fingers, tapping it against her other hand.

Eve hadn’t been able to visualise Brett arriving, but here he was. He got out of the taxi from Abergavenny, tanned and even thinner than he’d been in London and wearing a number of necklaces all different lengths. A fresh tattoo on one forearm.

‘Fuck me,’ he said, looking up at the cottage before kissing Kassy on both cheeks.

‘Five star accommodation, then.’ A bottle of Jack Daniel’s in one hand and a carton of duty-free cigarettes in the other.

‘Get the taxi, babe? I’m all out of change.’ Kassy raced inside, pushing past Eve standing in the doorway. Brett wouldn’t meet her eyes. To be expected, but it was still awkward. Kassy came outside again and paid the taxi driver and they all sat on the blanket Kassy had put down on the lawn. Brett got out a packet of Port Royal tobacco and a battered looking tin. ‘I’ve been hanging out for a spliff.

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And I could murder a drink. Got some glasses?’

‘Yep,’ said Kassy, standing up again. ‘I see you got some work done.’ She admired his freshly-inked arm. ‘Is that another one of your designs?’

‘Yeah, I based it loosely on the Mayan calendar,’ Brett said, sticking two cigarette papers together. ‘Totally sound bloke, the tattooist. We went clubbing together most nights. He gave me the last session for free. I’m going to show him the London scene when he comes over.’

‘Nice one,’ Kassy said, sticking her head through the open kitchen window and grabbing three coffee mugs off the bench. ‘Only the finest vessels, you may be sure,’ she said, coming back over and setting them down on the rug. ‘The other night we used a knitting needle to open a bottle of wine. Pure class, eh Eve? Couldn’t find the corkscrew in the dark.’ Brett poured the drinks.

‘Cheers!’ Kassy said, holding out her mug and they clinked them together and Eve said cheers and Brett didn’t. Eve sipped the Jack Daniel’s, noticing some new lines around Brett’s eyes.

‘Shit, I’ve got to get to work,’ Kassy said, checking the time on her phone.

‘Work?’ Brett said. ‘I’ve come all this fucking way to see you and you’re going to work. Nice one, babe.’

‘Only for the lunch shift and setting up for afternoon tea,’ Kassy said, leaning over and punching his arm. ‘That way I get all of tomorrow off to hang out with you. I thought we could hitch into town and go to the pub, play some pool.’

‘OK,’ he said. ‘I suppose I’ll let you.’

‘Eve will keep you entertained,’ Kassy said, heading upstairs. ‘I’ll just get changed.’

Nobody said anything and then Kassy was back, skip running across the lawn.

‘Bye,’ she said, ‘have fun, I still can’t believe you’re here.’ Kissed them both on the cheek. ‘I feel half cut already,’ she said. ‘Hope it’s not busy. I should be back around four.’ She disappeared behind the huge old oak trees lining the drive.

‘Another drink?’ Brett said.

‘Brett, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I’m having dreams about it. About being found out.’

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‘You haven’t told her, I hope,’ he said. You gave me your word.’ ‘Word! You’re a fine one to talk about giving someone your word!

The only reason I haven’t told is that it would really fuck things up. Fuck Kass up.’

‘Just let it go, Eve,’ he said. ‘I have. It’s done and dusted. Nobody will ever know. Another drink?’

‘We should have done something. We just left her there. That fucking girl.’

‘Shit, what were we meant to do?’ he said. ‘I was off my tits that night; I must have had about five pills. I sure as hell wasn’t going to call the cops.’ He poured himself another Jack Daniel’s. ‘I don’t mind drinking alone.’

‘We gave her the pills,’ Eve said, pulling her knees up towards her chest. ‘With that must come some responsibility.’

The top of her head felt hot. She looked out over the lawn. A patch of grass between the cottage and the driveway had been bleached brown in the sun.

‘It wasn’t the pills. We’d been dishing out that lot all night,’ Brett said, taking a sip of whiskey. ‘All the other punters were sweet. It comes down to personal responsibility. That bird just didn’t know her limits.’

‘Shit, there could have been others. Others like her.’ ‘You’re being dramatic, babe,’ he said.

‘Brett, she’s dead. Dead.’

‘And if you choose to feel guilty about that, you’re fucked. It was an accident. Not our fault, babe,’ he said.

‘I’m off for a walk,’ Eve said. ‘I need to clear my head.’

‘Yeah, good luck with that,’ he said. ‘I suggest a mini break in Ibiza. Chill you out a bit.’

Eve headed up the track, away from the river.

The boat party on the Thames had been held on the Saturday of the bank holiday weekend. Kassy had come down with bronchitis and wasn’t able to go. Eve had offered to sell her ticket for her and gone round to get it on Friday after work, but Kassy was off at the chemist when Eve arrived. While she waited for Kassy to get back, Brett had asked her if she wanted to make some extra cash. It had sounded page 237 easy enough and Eve was so broke, she just ended up saying yes. He’d throw in two free pills as well. She had picked up the two little bags from Brett’s place in North London on the afternoon of the party.

The pills were strong. Eve had shifted most of the first bag by about ten p.m. and could see the change in people, crowded into the main dance area, dancing wildly to techno music that must have been heard halfway across the London night. At one point she saw the boat conductor come down the stairs, a hip flask in his hand, and survey the roof, which was undulating under the crowd dancing on the top deck. She must have taken her pill around midnight, though it was hard to tell, the boat was just approaching the bridge, so about halfway up the river.

Eve found the girl when she went up on deck for some air. She was wedged down between the safety rings and the inflatable raft, almost out of sight.

She had gone to find Brett who was standing at the front of the boat smoking a cigarette and looking pretty wasted and he came to look. They talked about what to do. Eve had wanted to get the conductor to turn the boat around, or dock somewhere so they could call an ambulance but Brett had told her she was overreacting. We’re high, he’d said, it’s late, the girl wasn’t going anywhere.

In the end they decided to put a tarpaulin over her and leave her where she was.

Eve had been waiting on the bridge for the night bus and thought she’d heard sirens. She’d woken Felix up when she got back to the flat and managed to convince him that London was the reason they’d been fighting so much and Brighton was nice and they had friends there they could stay with for a bit. He’d taken one look at her and told her it was the drugs talking. Come to bed, he’d said, and she had gotten in beside him and put her head on his shoulder and thought about the girl and what a terrible thing it was. They’d done a terrible thing.

The next day Felix had agreed a move might be a good thing. A week later it was on the news. The girl had been found by the cleaner after the boat had docked. She was in a coma and died in hospital five days later. Police were trying to trace who supplied the drug and page 238 who organised the rave. Eve didn’t see Brett again but heard through friends he’d gone back to India for the trance season in Goa.

Eve was leaning on the fence watching the horses in the field beside the stables when she heard Kassy call out to her. She turned around. Kassy was standing outside the manor house taking off her pinny. The sun was hot on Eve’s face.

‘What you up to?’ Kassy said.

‘Been for a walk,’ Eve said, crunching over the gravel towards her. ‘How was work?’

‘So boring! Only had ten in for lunch,’ Kassy said. ‘But at least I got to bail before the geriatric bus tour arrived. I thought you guys would be well on your way by now. Waiting for me, eh?’ They started walking back towards the driveway.

‘Kass,’ Eve said, ‘I’m feeling scared.’

‘I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to tell me to be careful, aren’t you? That you don’t want to see me make the same mistake with him again. Well, I’m not going to. Anyway, he’s going back to New Zealand, he let that slip earlier. Well, Aussie first to see a mate on the Gold Coast, then home. And you know what? I’m actually cool with it. That scene in London was nuts. I was nuts. I reckon we probably got out just in time.’

Eve looked hard at her friend. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘Okay.’

‘But while he’s here, lets have some fun, eh? I reckon we deserve it,’ she said, flicking the frill on her pinny back and forth. ‘Two pounds sixty an hour! Are they having a laugh?’

More drinks, more stories. Brett brought out a jar of pills and gave them one each.

‘For starters.’ Grinning at them, in his element. ‘Are they strong?’ Eve asked.

‘That’s never worried you before,’ Kassy said and looked at Eve. Eve didn’t say anything.

‘Yeah,’ Brett said, ‘but clean as. No strychnine in them, so the comedown’s sweet.’


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They stood at the top of the track. Eve’s nose felt sunburnt. She looked at Kassy and grinned.

‘Gone Boom yet?’

‘Argh,’ Kassy replied, in an exaggerated West Country accent. ‘Lets go! Boom!’

They grinned again at each other.

Eve charged down the dark track through the trees and out onto the large flat area beside the river. Behind her, Kassy laughed. Down here the paddock, or the meadow as Kass liked to call it—so English—had a silvery quality to it. The grass was tall and wispy. Eve carved a track through into the middle and lay on her stomach. She heard Kassy pass by and keep going, towards the river. Her skin began to itch and she stood back up. The pills were taking hold now and everything was starting to shift. Grasses and trees melding together into one amorphous thing, twinkling and soft around the edges. She began the climb up the hill.

The lookout was hidden behind a group of oak trees but if you climbed up to the top of the old tower box you could see through the branches and down over to the river and right up the valley. Kassy was a vivid dot of colour on the edge of the bank, her long auburn plait standing out against her purple T-shirt.

Reaching into her canvas shoulder bag, Eve took out the bottle of cider and the three plastic cups Kassy had stolen from the lunchroom. Set the cups down. She sat, legs dangling over the edge of the lookout floor, for an indeterminable time. Down below, the paddock had become an arena, lit up by the blazing sun. Sitting still, she waited for the gladiators.