New fiction from Nina Antonia

Nina Antonia is best known for writing the most stolen book in rock n roll’s history, In Cold Blood about Johnny Thunders (currently in development in Hollywood).  But she has scribed and edited on a wealth of others: Peter Perret from the Only Ones, Peter Doherty, The Mission’s Wayne Hussey.  A rare force of true independence, this tarot reading tour-de-force was a regular at the anti-literary night that led to Cold Lips, and she performed with Thunders’ drummer, Chris Musto, at the launch party for the second edition which this is grabbed from…

It was difficult to imagine that Shepherd’s Bush had once been a genteel neighbourhood. If Celia Gardener had paused for a moment she might have noticed the parallels between herself and the area that she had always called home. There were still some lovely Victorian buildings; the sort of places where Mary Poppins might have alighted a century before, to lend a hand to a picture book family. But swathes of the neighbourhood had fallen prey to a blight identifiable by the peeling facades of former grandeur, as if the tenants had overslept life itself, much like Celia Gardner, who knew every drug den on the street.  Head bowed against the rain, she scurried towards a drab little clinic with a trash strewn drive. A crack pipe constructed from a mini-Martell bottle had been thrown into a pile of leaves by the door. She rang the buzzer and was ushered in by Gavin, her key-worker. Celia was good at playing penitent. Although achingly remorseful for a past she’d lost control of, she owed Gavin nothing but her time. Gavin’s solutions were made of paper, ‘Care-Plans’ he called them, consisting of plenty of planning but not much care, or that was how it appeared to Celia. 

The supply room was tiny and airless. A variety of warning posters covered the walls, anthrax contamination, overdose, arrest; the myriad risks that injecting drug user’s face. An A4 drawing of a mad looking monkey with the words ‘Worth an arm or a leg?’ beneath it caught Celia’s eye. Gavin assumed a posture of casual concern as he doled out the particulars of her kit: “Just the usual then?” She nodded as he put 20 1ml needles, citric, sterile water, wipes and steri-cups into a small, anonymous bag. “I suppose” he began “that you’ve heard they are holding auditions for ‘Funky Monkey’ at the Tesco Apollo?” She’d thought of nothing else. “We’ve been warning all of our clients to stay well clear and Celia, I’m sure you’re smarter than that….” It wasn’t a question of intelligence but atonement.

No one was sure where ‘Funky Monkey’ had originated from, possibly Mexico or Bolivia. It was rumoured that the programme had been the brainchild of a psychotic drugs baron who’d grown bored of issuing threats to poor saps that couldn’t pay off their debts. As a warning, the baron began filming his machete wielding heavies taking payment in kind, lopping off digits and limbs as bloody remuneration. The show got its name from the Baron’s crew of thugs who donned leering monkey masks to disguise their identities. Debates ensued, just as they had about snuff films, viewers oscillating between horrified disbelief and curiosity. Several media pundits claimed that it was a hoax. One thing was certain however, ‘Funky Monkey’ got thousands of hits. It wasn’t as if the victims were innocent, after all. Indebted scag-heads were considered fair game by the righteous majority. In 2022 the Oblivia Corporation purchased the rights from the baron and modified the rules. ‘Funky Monkey’ went world-wide. No one listened to liberals anymore. The television ratings spoke for themselves. Ritual humiliation and suffering had become entertainment staples. Losers made good sport. ‘Destitution’ had been an instant hit as dotty pensioners and impoverished families slugged it out with bailiffs and ‘The Wheel of Misfortune’ was a Saturday night highlight, the contestants like fish in a barrel waiting to be speared. Celia remembered her father telling her that in the early days of television, toilets were thought too vulgar to show. Now just about everything was permissible as long as it wasn’t the truth.

Celia Gardener was in the twentieth year of her habit and felt every minute of it. With the frayed cuff of her cardigan, she wiped at the grubby bathroom mirror and glanced at her reflection. The lines around her taut mouth formed trenches of need and her skin was like ruined rice paper. When was the last time she’d worn make-up? Had a hair cut? Bought a new dress? She sighed and lit a cigarette. In the final moments before nicotine prohibition, dissenters had sited Clash icon Joe Strummer, who had claimed that he wouldn’t read a book written by an author who hadn’t smoked. These days’ people neither read nor smoked but they did wear Joe Strummer tee-shirts. Celia wrapped a belt around her arm to make a tourniquet and began the desultory process of trying to find a vein.  The addict’s world is a narrow one made up of habit and ritual. Apart from short stays in Holloway, a consequence of getting caught shoplifting, Celia Gardener was unstintingly predictable. Raise cash, buy drugs, get high. Though Celia was now the kind of woman that people tried to avoid, she had once been a picture book mother and wife.

The Gardener family had dwelled in the realm of cherries, abundant with sweetness. Hailed by critics, her husband, Davey, had been a promising artist and Celia his beloved muse. Together they’d presided over a bustling milieu of alternative art exhibitions and lengthy Sunday soirees spent with friends, whilst their children played in the garden. Once the twins had been tucked up in bed, they’d round off the night with opium tea, poured from a polka- dot teapot that Celia had found in Portobello market.  When high, they’d laugh at the scatty alliteration of ‘Polka dot tea pot.’ Davey and Celia considered their famed opium tea a sacrament to England’s bohemian past. Money had been a bit tight yet they got by on shabby chic. ‘Creative Life’ magazine had done a feature on their idyllic existence, which included a family portrait; Celia and Davey in the garden with Tilly and Oskar, adorable in matching vintage outfits. She still had a copy of the photograph, creased now with age, like her.   

The lights had gone out more swiftly than the space between breaths. It was 4 am and Davey would later admit he’d been tipsy but that was his only trespass. Speeding over the Westway on his motorbike, he’d taken an unusually sharp turn and been catapulted into a night of steel stars. The screech of chrome on gravel came as an abstraction. Later, the police told Celia that if the bike had been a horse it would have been shot on sight. In time, Davey Gardener would wish the same for himself. He’d survived but his right arm had been crushed. The magic limb, conductor of inspiration was reduced to a withered stump. There were some minor headlines, a flurry of gratuitous interest in the artist who could paint no more. The couple descended into a winter of opium tea, unpaid bills and dust. Tilly and Oskar’s luscious sparkle noticeably diminished, they no longer possessed the lustre of well-cared for children. Celia loved them as much as ever, it was just that she loved life less.

The alarm was raised by the twin’s teacher after they’d been late for school three times in a row. Social services didn’t much like the Gardener’s type, artsy at best, lacksadaisical at worst. Drug testing for all parents called to account for lateness, was mandatory. It mattered not to social services that the Gardener’s drug use was confined to a polka-dot tea pot; they took note only of a positive test result for opiates. This was the big red button inside every social worker’s head, the nuclear reactor about to explode. Tilly and Oskar were put on the ‘At Risk’ register. Using the last of their money, Celia and Davey hired a solicitor but the courts had no clemency for parents like them. With the efficacy of storm troopers, four police men and three senior social workers removed Tilly and Oskar from their beds. Where was Mary Poppins when you needed her? Cloud-hopping over the houses of the fortunate. As the front door slammed and the children’s cries receded into a bitterly cold night, the young woman once renowned for her Sunday soirees and polka dot tea pot, shattered.

The huge billboard announcing the arrival of ‘Funky Monkey’ had been erected in front of the theatre. Portrayed as a grinning cartoon, the Funky Monkey grasped a surgeon’s knife in one paw and a wad of cash in the other. Funky Monkey was always game if the public were up for the challenge. Judging by the untidy queue that was growing by the minute, plenty were more than willing. Although Celia had got to the venue early, there were already a couple of hundred would-be contestants ahead of her. When the programme had first aired on mainstream television, there had been a flurry of dismay but a deal had already been worked out between the government and the Oblivia Corporation. As the tabloids opined, no one of social value would wind up on ‘Funky Monkey’. If it got contestants off benefits, society prospered. At least that was the rhetoric employed by a government spokesperson. The ‘Economics of Cruelty’ was one of the most popular university courses in the UK.  Acts of charity were deemed insurgent. Hostels had been replaced by workhouses, donating food to the poor was illegal and the Salvation Army had been banned. Christ had died so we may prosper.

Celia surveyed the gathering swell of no hopers; the nutters, nihilists, desperados, dopers, itinerants, transients, low lifes, loners, scavengers, losers, freaks, creeps and misfits, the laughing, crying, sweating, shaking, chattering, moaning carnie side-show of human wreckage to which she belonged. In the old days, Celia would have smoked a cigarette while she waited in line, but now even that small pleasure came with the fear of a week’s remand in a social correction unit if caught.  Eventually, she became aware that a slick looking couple followed by a camera crew where working their way through the crowd. Now and again, someone would be singled out and led into the theatre. To her dismay, Gavin and some of his colleagues from the needle exchange were distributing flyers offering freedom from addiction. They went about their task with a friendly zeal, targeting the most likely candidates. Amiable though they appeared to be, she had never been too sure if drug workers realised that every shred of information gleaned by them from their ragged clientele was fed straight to the government, police and social services. Tired of waiting, Celia had just sat down on the pavement when the camera crew arrived, led by the Oblivia Corporation employees. The couple looked like models, imbued with a well-being that Celia had forgotten existed. “What brings you here Miss?” asked the women with a robotic courtesy: “I want the money to find my children, they have to know it was all a terrible mistake, we loved them so”. With that, the tears began to flow. Pathos made for good viewing. 

The white wine was chilled, just the way Celia Gardener liked it and the powerful painkillers administered by a nurse calmed her nerves. All of those sinister stories about the Oblivia Corporation that Celia had heard evaporated as she settled into a soft armchair in the pleasant backstage room that had been designated to her.  Celia Gardener couldn’t believe her luck. A waitress placed a bowl of chocolate coated strawberries on the table in front of her. Every contender was allowed a treat of their choice, so long as it was legal. The Oblivia Corporation’s catering crew called it ‘Death Row din-dins’.  Ensconced in the chill-out room, Celia savoured the strawberry’s sweet flesh inside the creamy chocolate. They reminded her of Sunday soirees. How she wished that Davey and the twins could be with her now. Celia had just dozed off when the show’s surgeon came to prep her, gently wiping her hands with a numbing sterile solution. She had agreed in advance that she was prepared to lose five fingers. That was all she could realistically cope with. If she could make this sacrifice then surely Tilly and Oskar would realise how much they meant to her. 

As Celia stepped out on to the stage, accompanied by two men in monkey suits, the audience began the customary chant of ‘An arm and a leg, you’d be better off dead’. The crowd’s feral arousal alarmed her.  A reprise of the show’s dreadful loping theme tune blared from the speakers, as she was guided to a seat opposite the surgeon. Then came the thundering announcement ‘Will the plucky lady take on the ‘Funky Monkey?’ Judging by the howls of derision, the audience thought not but Celia had attained a resolved calm that didn’t falter even when the surgeon swiped the air with an oversize scalpel. He reminded her of a fencing teacher doing warm up exercises. The Oblivia Corporation had ditched the machetes early on as being too extreme, substituting it with a scalpel. With methodical strokes, the surgeon began removing her fingers, placing each one on a silver platter. In the distance she could hear the audience roaring but it was an abstraction, like the sound of the sea remembered.

Tilly and Oskar thought of their birth mother rarely, if at all. Their dreams had come true when Mary Poppins had carried them to safety; whisking them over the roof tops to gentler climes. They had woken up in the warmest, softest beds imaginable. In time, they regained the honey lustre of the well-cared for. On the twin’s sixteenth birthday, social services had presented Tilly and Oskar with a report on their parents, should they wish to find them. Celia’s various charges for shoplifting and drug possession were included in the dossier whilst a death certificate was proof that Davey Gardener had drunk himself to death in a Bristol workhouse. Having no love of art, social services failed to mention that Davey’s paintings were highly collectable. Sotheby’s had auctioned ‘Woman with a Polka-Dot Tea Pot’ for a tidy sum. Poor Celia Gardener, an eternity of night had passed her by. Overtaken by decades, she’d been watching the horizon, not the time. Her family were a still life. She blinked at the television lights, smiled like a beauty queen and waved at the crowd with her good hand. Oskar pointed at the plasma screen television and grinned ‘Look at this one, she’s mad as a box of badgers.’ ‘Funky Monkey’ was his favourite show but Tilly couldn’t stand it. She nudged him hard in the ribs, ‘Don’t be so rotten’ she chided. ‘Imagine having that for a mother’, Oskar chortled, rubbing his eyes, unaware that he was erasing a memory before it could take recognisable form.   

@NinaAntonia13

COLD LIPS BLEU

‘Still Life’ is a short story by Nina Antonia published exclusively in Cold Lips II. To read in print, and other stories from and about writers such as Irvine Welsh and Geoff Nicholson, you can purchase a full copy in select shops or in our online store.

Cold Lips II cover

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