I can't say that I knew Mary well. In fact I barely knew her at all. For a while she was one of our food parcel regulars.
And then she wasn't.
We stopped seeing her.
When was that? A couple of years ago I guess.
This is the way of things at First Base. We see someone for a while. And they disappear from our radar. Maybe they are in jail. Maybe they have skipped town. Maybe they have straightened everything out. Or maybe....
Yeah. The big maybe. The worst maybe. The dead maybe. That all to frequent dead maybe.
Last week Mary was no longer a maybe. Only dead. Irrevocably dead. Yet another young life snuffed out decades and decades before she got remotely close to making it to the new average age.
I know little about Mary's short and rather blighted life. A conversation with Mary was always a confusing affair. She would jump from this thing to that thing with no obvious reason and all the while her eyes would twinkle with unexplained pleasure.
Rain or shine, wind or snow, Mary would always come through the door with a smile on her face. Sadly her smile labelled her for most people. It wasn't the smile you would expect from a young woman in her twenties. Instead Mary had the smile of a ninety year old Babuschka from rural Moldova.
A Methadone smile. Methadone Hyrdochloride. Sweet and thick and green and doled out once day as the State's answer to all of the lost souls trying to find comfort in the cotton wool embrace of street opiates. Of heroin. Of smack.
Ferociously acidic Methadone Hydrochloride which will eat away the enamel of your teeth no matter how often you brush and floss and rinse. Which is why so many who are parked up on the 'Done' make a point of keeping their lips firmly together when they speak. Stumpy brown Methadone teeth are not a great look if you are looking to put your life onto a better track. One smile and expressions harden.
One smile and eyes glaze. Junkie. Smackhead. Thief. Prosser. Scum.
So best not to smile. Better instead to mumble and keep the secret.
But not Mary. Mary always smiled. Somehow she was able to allow the instinctive hatred of so many of those at the other end of her smile to wash over her. In some ways Mary's long love affair with heroin was evident at first glance. The methadone teeth. The stick thin limbs. The air of inevitable doom.
But in other ways she bucked the stereotypes the world threw at her. She was always determinedly smart. She always had something of a twinkle in her presence. And she always smiled that wrecked smile of hers and the smile always reached all the way into her eyes.
Sum up Mary in a single word? I would say nice. Nice can be a damning way of descrbing a person of course. Not in Mary's case. Nice is just what she was. Oh of course this might well have been down to her mental health problems which were considerable. But I think she would have been nice regardless. She was one of those rare people without a nasty side.
Had she always ghosted through life with a brain not quite fit for purpose? Or was her muddle something new? A consequence of something awful happening? I have no idea. Mary never became a client. She never came in to wrap her bony fingers around a mug of coffee to unpack her bag full of demons. To try and make some kind of sense of them. To dredge up the horrible memories so long buried deep under the insulation of tenner bags of heroin.
No. Never that. Mary was never more than a fleeting presence. Five minutes of smiling and talking very fast about all kinds of everything. And asking over and over again how we all were and how everything was going before drifting away with a bag of food that looked like it weighed more than her.
Thank you, thank you, thank you...
And out of the door. Into the cold. Into the rest of her life.
Being so very nice in the dark world of heroin can't have been good. Mary was a pin up girl for the word vulnerable. No doubt she provided easy meat for the circling sharks out there who can smell vulnerability from a mile away.
But she managed to keep on smiling. And smiling. And being nice.
One day my mobile rang and the screen told me that the person calling was withholding their number. It was the local cops. On a Bank Holiday? What on earth...? Was I the key holder for 6 Buccleuch St? Yes I was. Could I come in? I could.
When I arrived the front door was open and two young cops were filling the reception area with their bulky authority. How had they got in? I checked out the door for evidence of break in. None. They gave me the story. They had received a call from a member of the public reporting that our front door was unlocked even though it was a Bank Holiday. I asked them for more detail.
It had been one of our food parcel clients. They hadn't noticed the 'Closed' sign on the door. They hadn't clocked the fact that all the lights were off. Instead they had simply walked in and stood at the counter for a while until eventually they realised the building was empty.
And then they had called up the cops and stood guard until the cops arrived.
I asked if they could they describe the client in question to me? They could. They described Mary. To a tee.
Was it Mary I asked? Yes it was Mary.
I smiled. They looked mildly confused. “I hope you lads have learned a lesson today?”
They still looked confused and now a tad annoyed as well. After all I was the idiot who had forgotten to lock the front door. When all was said and done.
“What do you mean?”
“You know Mary, right? Had some dealings with her?”
“Aye. We know Mary.”
“So think about it. Here's the scenario. A long term chaotic heroin addict gets lucky and discovers that a building is unlocked and empty on a Bank Holiday. And they have a mobile phone. And the use of a free land line phone. So they have ample opportunity to live up to all the stereotypes and call up a bunch of pals to rob everything in sight? Yeah? But Mary didn't do that, did she? She called up you guys and stood guard until you arrived. How long did it take you to get here?”
A shrug. “Dunno. Half an hour or so.”
I grinned at them. “Not bad. She waited in the cold for a whole half hour to make sure the place stayed safe. I guess that is the lesson for the day, hey lads? Never judge a book by the cover. Would you have expected Mary to do what she did?”
Shaking heads. Vague embarrassment. Also annoyance. Coppers hate it if you get too preachy. It was time to endeth the lesson. They left. I locked up. And the next week we bought a big box of chocolates and kept them at the counter for the next time Mary came in.
She came a week later. And when we gave her the chocolates it was the first and only time I saw her without a smile on her face. The tears were instant and they engulfed her. For a moment I thought her skeleton legs were about to give up the ghost. She hung onto the chocolates with an almost frantic expression on her pale face.
It took a while before she felt able to speak. And when she eventually did speak it was not her usual fast gabble. Just a sentence. Just the one.
“Nobody has ever given me chocolates before.”
She didn't stay for long. She wasn't at all comfortable with being the hero of the hour. She left. Out of the door. Into the cold. Into what was left of her doomed life.
Last week the jungle drums beat out a familiar message. The death message. Mary was no more. Mary was gone. How? Rumours. Maybe an overdose. Maybe suicide. Nobody knew. Yet another lost soul whose chips had been cashed before they turned thirty. And for the umpteenth time I pictured a memorial in the centre of the town erected to the memory of all the young people dead before the age of thirty thanks to heroin and valium and all the rest.
First Base has been going for twelve years now. I guess we will have heard those jungle drums beat at least 200 times. 200 young people dead years and years before their time. 200 in a town of 50,000. I cannot help compare the memory of these 200 young people with the 400 or so who lost their lives fighting in Afghanistan. 400 out of a population of sixty million. They left a gaping hole in the fabric of the country. But the loss of the Dumfries 200 has left barely a mark. Quiet death. Unnoticed death. Unlamented and unremarked. Old primary school pictures on the mantlepieces of forever broken families. Methadone files gathering dust. Police records done and dusted.
Gone and forgotten. Small lives snuffed out leaving nothing more than a wisp of smoke. And then nothing.
Like Mary's life. A fading memory of her wrecked smile and twinkling eyes and hundred mile and hour talk. And a day when she taught two young coppers that just because someone uses heroin doesn't mean they are a bad person.
So goodbye Mary. It was a pleasure to know you. It must have been hard to be such a nice person in such a nasty world. But you pulled it off.