Living: Home life

Chloe spots the Chupa Chups nestled on the counter among the Durex
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"Look here," says the glittery-eyed, hectic-cheeked young man who pushes past Chloe and me at the chemist's. "I'm on methadone, right? I've got a prescription, right? And I've only just moved down here from Finchley, and I was definitely told I could, like, just go into any chemist down here and pick some up, right?"

Panicky silence while the pharmacist regards him. "Can I see your prescription?" Everyone in the shop watches with sudden interest as the man hands it over.

Two elderly women sit on filthy, caramel-coloured vinyl chairs, foam exploding through the large gashes. A mum with a battered pushchair fingers the Rimmel and Bourgeois make-up. Dog-eared packs of Unichem nappies sit alongside weaning spoons and teething gel and Head 'n' Shoulders.

Chloe, in a happy, catarrh-induced daze, runs a finger along a pile of dusty, polythene-covered hot-water bottles and coloured synthetic bath sponges, and lumbers backwards into a carousel of Disney hair slides. I catch the hood of her duffel just in time.

Someone's underwear gives off the stiff-sour odour of urine.

"You'll have to go to north London for this," says the pharmacist at last.

"What d'you mean?"

The pharmacist licks his lips - nervous dryness of saliva.

"We only fulfil prescriptions by local doctors."

"But I told you, I've just moved," his voice fractures. "I live in south London now."

"When will my note-drops be ready?" Chloe pulls on my scarf, hoicking my face down to her level.

"Soon. Shush."

"But I haven't got a fucking local doctor!" says the man, exasperated. "That's what I'm telling you!"

He looks around the shop. The old people stare back, grim and shameless. The mum buries her nose in her baby's hair. I watch the pharmacist. "Look, I told you, I've got a prescription. I went to Superdrug on the high street and they sent me here and now I've come here and you're telling me I've got to change my fucking doctor?"

"If you want the prescription fulfilling here, yes," says the pharmacist.

"Jesus," says the methadone man. "Jesus Christ."

"Jesus died!" shouts Chloe, "He died at Easter on Raphael's birthday!" She's doing the Crucifixion at school and, born into a house of atheists, is fascinated by this Death That Isn't A Death, this killing that teachers go on about in such open terms.

The methadone man smiles at us, distracted. The pharmacist blows his nose on a tissue and stuffs the soft, germ-ridden paper in his pocket.

"So what're you saying? You won't do it?"

"I'm sorry," shrugs the pharmacist.

Glassy-eyed, the addict makes for the door.

"If you get desperate ..." the pharmacist begins.

"What're you saying? I am fucking desperate. I want a yes or a no - which is it?"

"No, then," says the pharmacist.

The bell dings and the shop relaxes. Smiles all round - the camaraderie of watching someone else in a fug of distress, distress you can do nothing about. "Can I have a lollipop that whistles?" asks Chloe, spotting the cola-flavoured Chupa Chups nestled on the counter among the Durex Featherlites.

"No." We collect the small brown bottle of nose-drops and leave.

Outside, a large ginger mongrel relieves itself on the slab of sloping pavement, tail up, straining, sniffing the thin morning air. An old fat woman with a greasy grey plait of hair walks very slowly past with a frame. Her name's Bethany and I know her from the clinic where I've overheard her talking to the receptionist about her persistent diarrhoea.

"Spring at last!" she calls to me, smiling at Chloe.

A pigeon with no left foot walks in jerky circles around the spill from a bag of crisps. Chloe chirps along, happy to be out of school, happy in the specialness of being alone with me, holding my hand in the weak half-sunshine on a Friday morning - day before the weekend.

"You're a lovely little girl," I tell her, wondering why feeling sorry for the addict produces such a heart-clenching rush of love.

"Will the drops get rid of my snot?" she asks.

"Hope so."

"Good, because I don't like being called The Bogey Girl."

"Who calls you that?"

"In the playground, some girls and some boys," she shrugs. "Brown ones and pink ones. But only when I have my snot."

"We'll got rid of your snot," I say, "But you've got to make a big effort to take your tissues out into the playground with you."

"I do," she insists, though we both know it's not true. "I do but ..." she squeezes my hand, rubs the peach fur of her cheek against it. "Sometimes I just forget."

In the car, she does up her own seat-belt and leans back and sighs, impossibly small in her school uniform. "D'you want to hear a story with a happy ending?" she asks me as we turn out of Sedley Street.

"OK."

"Well, Jesus went into the garden to praise God and he told his friends to stay there, but they fell asleep. Then the soldiers came and people told horrible lies about Jesus and they killed him at Easter, but he came alive again."

"That's nice, but I'm sorry they killed him."

"Yes, they got a knife and stabbed him, I think. I don't know, but I think they threw him in the water, too, and he rose up - something to do with hot-cross buns." Chloe pauses, stretches out her legs, clicks her Startrites together. "What's methadone?"

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