FICTION: Painkillers by Andy West

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Mum will be here soon. She never used to visit, but does now. She said when I came off drugs it was like being told someone she’d buried had been brought back to life, but that she couldn’t revive the dead just because I’d done a thirteen week programme. She eventually came around to my accommodation, sat on the edge of the sofa with her tracksuit top zipped up to her chin and said she might have to leave earlier than expected. But she stayed till late. She started coming to see me more, started staying the night. In the morning, she would be in her pyjamas, as we ate breakfast together. We had tea and toast, and cereal and orange juice.

There’s her knock at the door. I yank the belt and hold it in my teeth but the vein is shy. If I was more organised I’d have already fixed before Mum got here. I have a dig. My toes unclench. The gear reaches in and holds me.

She knocks again. It sounds further away than the last one. I promise myself next time she visits I’ll answer the door.

I take out the needle and drop it in the sink. My arm goes limp and the belt falls to the floor.

Maybe she will knock again.


I bend to pick up my belt; the gear sweeps up my spine and feels like a warm hand on my neck. I try to get the belt through the loops of my jeans. Fumble the leather through the first one but the others are too far behind me. She still hasn’t knocked. I rush out of the bathroom, the belt hanging off one loop of my jeans. I get to the door and cold air hits my bare feet as open it. Mum’s there, her fist in mid-air from where she was about to knock again.

I pull the belt around me and over the top of the other loops of my jeans. ‘I’m sorry.’ I do up the buckle on the hole I made with a corkscrew.

‘I didn’t know if you were ok.’ Her hand lowered but her fist still clenched.

I point at my jaw. ’It’s my wisdom tooth.’ I don’t know which side of my face to point to. ‘Painkillers are making me drowsy.’

She uncurls her fist, steps through the door and holds my face with both hands.


A tickling at my ear wakes me. Like a spider crawling across me. Not a spider. Mum. She kneels over me, whispering my name. I’m curled up. Next to my chest of drawers. I wanted socks, I think.

‘Sleepy head’, she says.

Her handbag is on her shoulder. Either she’s just arrived or is about to leave. What time is it?

‘I’m sorry’, I say.

‘I wish I knew how to make you better.’

I stumble to my feet. The sock drawer is empty.

‘Which painkillers are you taking?’

‘I’m fine.’

‘Let’s get you some better ones. These ones aren’t good.’

She says she’ll go to the toilet first and then we’ll buy some new medicine. Next I hear her shut the bathroom door. I try moving into the living room but the comedown is giving me concrete feet. I lean on the windowsill as I walk. A pile of paper and a little plant fall on the floor. I’ve knocked them over. I pick up the letters and knock more off the windowsill in the process. They always post more anyway. I step forward and something digs into the sole of my foot. A clump of hard soil that toppled out of the plant. I kick it out of the way, go over to the sofa and collapse.

No sooner have I taken the weight off my feet, my jeans are making me itchy. I grope at the fabric and rub it against my inside leg to scratch. The more I scratch the more I want to scratch. Clearly, the hit I took earlier was too small. I was trying to make my supply last, but it’s easy to forget that there’s such a thing as being too careful. Normally I wouldn’t worry, I’d just man up to the clucking, but like this I’m crabby, and that’s not nice for Mum. She has come all this way and deserves to have a nice time. Once she’s out of the bathroom I’ll do what’s left in my pocket, so I won’t be irritable. Just one. Then that’s it for today. I’d be fine with scoring more, but Mum wouldn’t understand. She’d think I was losing control or something. She’d probably cry. Oh, sweet Mum. I wouldn’t hurt her to save the world. No more today. Just one.

I can’t even be bothered to scratch now. The skinnier I’ve got the heavier I feel. She’s ages in the toilet. I close my eyes.


I wake with a falling sensation, like my foot is slipping off a curb. I hear the chain flush and realise I’ve made a mistake. The needle is still in the sink. I wait for mum to come out of the bathroom as I hear the trickling sound of the toilet refilling.

She opens the door, comes out and stands over me with her hands on her hips.

‘You look awful,’ she says.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Which tooth is it?’

She doesn’t blink.

‘You need an appointment.’ She takes out her phone.

‘I’ll book one later.’

‘Zero, one, nine, zero, five…’ She says each number as she keys it in to her phone. She starts talking to the receptionist at the other end. ‘It’s for my son’. She looks past my shoulder.

Whilst she’s doing that, I slide into the bathroom but I can’t see the needle. I poke around in the bin and I find it wrapped in layers of toilet paper. I unravel it, put the toilet paper back in the bin and slide the needle into my shirt pocket.

I hang back and peek around the doorframe at Mum pacing up and down. I don’t know when it started but she has begun to talk louder into mobile phones than she needs to. She stubs her toe on the bottom of the sofa. She grimaces and reaches down to clutch her foot. Using her Mark’s and Spencer’s voice she uses on the phone, she says ‘Brilliant. Wednesday then. Nine thirty’, and hangs up. She sits down and rubs her toe.

I straighten my shirt, cough and stroll into the living room. She stands up and pats her head to flatten any hairs out of place.

‘You banged your foot’, I say.

‘I got you in for Wednesday.’

She puts her thumb up at me; I put my hand in my back pocket to make sure the gear is still there.

Mum picks the plant up from the floor. She doesn’t say anything, as she looks at it for a few moments.

‘You’ve gone quiet,’ I say

‘Painkillers. You should go and get some.’

I go and put my trainers on, the nails of my curled up toes catch on the fabric. When I come back she has her purse in her hand.

‘Here you go.’ She holds out a twenty pound note.

‘I’m terrible with money.’

She looks hurt; for a moment I feel like an honest man. She limps two steps towards me and waves the note in my face. It is the colour of bruises; the silver strip shimmers.

I take it.

Mum walks into the kitchen cupping the plant with both hands as if it were an egg. I drag my zombie legs out of the house.


I arrive back home and there are curly brown leaves strewn over the kitchen counter. Mum’s snipping them off the plant with a pair of scissors. She asks me if I got the better ones. My head nods as she says the word ‘better.’

I lean against the kitchen doorframe to let it take my weight. I hook the waist of my jeans with my thumb. My blood cruises inside me. I can hear it fizzing inside me as I press my ear into the corner of the wood. Mum runs the tap, checks if the water is cold with her finger and fills me a glass. She holds it out to me. I look down at my hands. They are empty. I check my pockets but there is nothing in there either. I was supposed to get something. Normally my memory is excellent, but it suffers when I don’t keep to equal dosages.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say.

She goes to pour some water from the glass into the plant but hesitates, like an actress whose forgotten her lines. The few leaves left in the pot are semi-wilted. She puts it on the kitchen counter and pours the water down the sink. She gives me a sad smile, as she opens up the scissors and wipes the blades clean.

‘Sorry,’ I say

She comes over and links her arm through mine. We shuffle into the living room. She sits me on the sofa next to her and brings my head to her lap and strokes my hair. I rest my eyes. I see red splodges the shape of barbed wire on the insides of my eyelids.

‘Sorry’, I say, just to try and stay conscious.

With each stroke, the splodges dissolve into the darkness. At the point when I can no longer stay awake, I open my eyes and say ‘Will you still be here when I wake up?’

She leans over me and her hair drops forward like a curtain. She grips the back of my neck, her eyes go hard and wet and I wonder when it was that I started wanting things other than her.


Andy West


Andy West lives in London where he teaches philosophy to children and in prisons.

If you enjoyed ‘Painkillers’ leave a comment and let Andy know.

You can find and follow Andy at:


You can read more of Andy’s writing below:

Why I No Longer Read Heavy Books

The Millions
Prison Rooms: Just £150 per Night

Four Books To Get Primary Pupils Thinking

The Guardian

Open Democracy





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