The Marks of Cain

1

Simon Quinn was listening to a young man describe how he’d sliced off his own thumb.

‘And that,’ said the man, ‘was the beginning of the end. I mean, cutting off your thumb, with a knife, that’s not nothing, is it? That’s serious shit. Cutting your own thumb off. Fucked my bowling.’

The urge to laugh was almost irrepressible; Simon repressed it. The worst thing you could do at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting was laugh at someone’s terrible story. Just not done. People came here to share, to fess up, to achieve some catharsis by submitting their darkest fears and shames: and thereby to heal.

The young man finished his story: ‘So that’s when it, like, kicked in. I realized I had to do something, about the drugs and the pop. Thank you.’

The room was silent for a moment. A middle-aged woman said a breathy thank you, Jonny, and everyone else murmured: thank you, Jonny.

They were nearly done. Six people had shared; pamphlets and keyrings had been distributed. This was a new group for Simon, and he liked it. Usually he went to evening NA meetings nearer his flat and his wife and son in Finchley Road, the London suburbs. But today he’d had to come into Hampstead for business and en route he’d decided to catch a new meeting, try somewhere fresh; he was bored of the boozers at his usual meets, with their stories of guzzling lighter fuel. And so he’d rung the NA hotline and found this meeting he’d never been to before, and it turned out it was a regular lunchtime job – with interesting people who had good stories.

The pause was prolonged. Perhaps he should share his own story now? Give a little change?

He decided to tell the very first story. The big one.

‘Hello, my name’s Simon and I’m an addict.’

‘Hello, Simon…’

‘Hi, Simon.’

He leaned forward – and began:

‘I was a drunk…for at least ten years. And I wasn’t just an alcoholic, I was…a polydrug abuser, as they say. I did absolutely everything. But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to…explain how it started.’

The leader of the group, a fifty-something man with soft blue eyes, nodded gently.

‘Whatever you want. Please go on.’

‘Thank you. Well. OK. I…grew up not far from here, in Belsize Park. My parents were pretty affluent – my father’s an architect, my mother was a lecturer. My background is Irish but…I went to private school in Sussex. Hence the stupidly middle-class English accent.’

The leader offered a polite smile. Listening attentively.

‘And…I had an older brother. We were rather a happy family…At first…Then at eighteen I went off to university and while I was there I got this frantic phone call from my mother. She said, your brother Tim has just lost it. I asked her what she meant and she said, he’s just lost it. And it was true. He’d suddenly come home from university – and he’d started talking absolutely mad stuff, talking equations and scientific formulas…and the maddest thing of all is that he was doing it in German.’

He gazed around the faces, gathered in this basement room. Then continued:

‘So I shot home and it turned out my mother was right. Tim had gone mad. Genuinely cracked. He was doing a lot of skunk with his chums at uni – maybe that was a catalyst – but I think he was schizophrenic anyway. Because that’s when schizophrenia usually kicks in, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. I didn’t know that then of course.’

The middle-aged woman was sipping from a plastic cup of tea.

‘Tim was a science student. Seriously bright – much brighter