A man walks into a chicken shop. This sounds like the beginning of a joke. Perhaps it is. For 18 months, I have worked in a chicken shop, and some days my situation feels like a punchline. In 2015, I quit my job at a property magazine in London and moved to Aberdeen, with two suitcases and a grand plan to write a book about the oil industry. Two years later, I washed up in a refinery town in the north of England, with no money and an unfinished manuscript. I learned my scale. I got a job frying things.
Anyway, a man walks into a chicken shop, this chicken shop that I work in, and pulls his top up, for the benefit of the paying customers. He has a knife wound in his chest. It looks fresh. The beads of blood along the gash have barely coagulated.
“Now then,” he says to his friend, whom he has spotted in the queue. “Got stabbed the other day, didn’t I?” He doesn’t sound upset. He’s just telling his friend about his week. Violence is part of the local vernacular. If words fail you, you call on other means of communication. One of the first things I learned when I took this job was that it was considered very gauche to remark on a person’s black eyes and split knuckles. In my home town, people would pass comment. But here, you have to act as if it’s normal, to walk around bearing the bruises of a recent fight. To a certain extent, it is.
I print the order out, and take it to the kitchen.
“There’s a man out there, showing off his stab wound,” I say. “He seems pretty happy.” My colleague meets my eye, and tilts his head towards the bathroom. It is a tiny movement, imperceptible to anyone else, but I know what it means. He has racked up a line for me, on the shelf behind the cistern. I should go and do it now.
This is the other thing about this town. Everyone takes drugs, all the time. They’re part of the civic culture. On certain estates, there are whole streets that stink of weed; not a faint whiff, but a pungent fug that sticks to clothes and hair. At weekends, dealers send marketing texts, boasting about the purity of their packages, or offering cut-price deals. I lose count of the number of curly notes I’ve been handed at the till. Some are flecked with blood. Others shed white flakes as I unfurl them. The town is so deprived it hurts, but people find the money for cocaine.
I haven’t had a job like this since I was a student. My parents pressed me to go to university, precisely so I could avoid a lifetime of this sort of work. As minimum-wage gigs go, it isn’t bad – it closes before 11pm, so we miss the post-pub trade, and get home at a reasonable hour – but weekend shifts are still gruelling. Everyone smokes weed, for its painkilling effects. We all suffer with sore backs, sore knees, sore calves; the muscular burn that comes from spending eight hours on your feet without a break. There’s no time to sit around waiting for ibuprofen to kick in.
Cocaine is for the end of the shift, to propel us through the final hours and ease those psychic knots, the side-effect of working in a dirty, tedious, unrewarding job. As closing time approaches, we start talking to each other in cokehead’s code, a register so vague it barely qualifies as language. “Have you got that thing?” we’ll murmur to each other. Or just: “Have you got that?” There are a lot of slang terms for cocaine, but frequent users rarely call it anything at all. There is no need to specify what you’re talking about. Once the bag is open, it is the only subject on the table.
I tell myself this job is a stopgap, while I finish my book. In truth, my old life is receding so fast, the idea of writing a book has come to seem fanciful. It’s like saying I’m working towards being a footballer, or a film star. People in this town don’t write books. They don’t read books, either. One night, a customer calls to complain after she sees me sitting at the counter reading I Love Dick. I’m not sure what the basis of her complaint is; whether it’s about the book’s title, or the fact I’m reading at all. I don’t take the call, so am deprived of the only part of my job I truly enjoy: saying “I am the manager” when customers demand to speak to the manager.
I am the manager, though this is an entirely theoretical distinction. I don’t earn any more than the kitchen staff. I have no authority. They hate me telling them what to do. At first, I put this down to my being a woman. As time goes on, I start to think that maybe they just hate me. It is an anti-authoritarian town. They are opposed to authority on principle. What have the authorities ever done for them?
I always think of this job when I hear politicians railing against cocaine use by middle-class professionals. The chicken shop represented a low point in my working life, but a high point in my drug-taking career. During the 18 months I was there, I took more cocaine than in all my years in London combined. It was where I watched my recreational habit of two decades tip into something more needful and compulsive.
Politicians’ ideas about the drug seem to reside in the 1990s, when cocaine was the preserve of city workers, PRs and journalists. Whenever a stern new measure is tabled, they invoke the north London hypocrite, who worries more about the provenance of her coffee beans than she does the origin of her drugs. These users are alive to the travails of farmers in Peru, but care nothing for deprivation in their own borough. It’s hard to tell whether they’re real people, or an agglomeration of tropes. They feel real, because they’re never out of the news.
In recent years, there has been a constant flow of stories about the government’s plans to shame this sort of user into sobriety. Something will happen that indicates cocaine is now ubiquitous, commonplace. First come the findings: traces in the water; the Houses of Parliament swabs. Then come the winking editorials, the confessional features: My Secret Life as a Fancy Coke Addict. Then finally, the fulminating politicians.
We’re told they want to bring sniffer dogs into Westminster, that they’re considering confiscating passports as punishment for possession (presumably, this is the equivalent of a fortnight’s grounding for people with houses in the Dordogne). We’re treated to pictures of Boris Johnson dressed as a police officer, a photo opportunity to underline his tough new stance on “lifestyle users”. Policing minister Kit Malthouse has adjured these people to “connect themselves with the violence” of the drugs trade. Shaun Bailey, Conservative candidate in last May’s London mayoral elections, drew a direct line between middle-class consumption and gang warfare. In an open letter to business leaders, he said: “Drug use is not only a crime in itself; drug use is a direct cause of crime, from county lines gangs to stabbings in our streets.” He pledged to bring in mandatory drugs testing for companies that employ more than 250 people. Cue plenty of headlines, and several anguished thinkpieces.
Cocaine has been reframed as a poor consumer choice. Like a blood diamond, or conflict gold, it is something rich people buy, and poor people pay for. Yet statistics point to cocaine being classless now. In 2019, a Home Office drug review found that 42% of users were in managerial roles, 35% were manual workers, and 3% were unemployed. And though the government still regards it as a London thing, figures from the rest of the country would belie this. In 2020, Middlesbrough had the highest rate of hospital admissions for poisoning by drug misuse (followed by the Wirral, St Helens and Knowsley), while the north-east had the highest number of cocaine-related deaths. Presumably, the supply chain remains the same, irrespective of your socio-economic status. So what is the purpose of differentiating between middle- and working-class users in this way? Is it that it’s politically expedient, to punch up rather than down? Or is it just that things don’t count, unless middle-class people are doing them?
When politicians obsess over feckless metropolitans, they decontextualise cocaine use. There are many reasons why people take it. But I’m guessing that if you do it for fun, it’s fairly easy to give up. If you do it to anaesthetise yourself against the realities of your life, not so much. Targeting middle-class use is the legislative equivalent of sticking a plaster on a burn. It looks good, but does little to address the causal pain.
In the chicken shop, we have many unsavoury customers. But there is only one who scares me. He has pale, unblinking eyes. He is polite, but it’s the hair-trigger gallantry of a Joe Pesci character. I feel as if he might flip at any time. One day, our driver comes through from the kitchen while he’s there. They say hello. The customer grins nastily. The driver looks circumspect. Later, I ask him how he knows this man.
“He’s from by ours,” the driver says. “He battered me a while back.”
“And you still say hello to him?” The driver shrugs.
“I owed him money.”
Debt is a fact of life here, as taxes are in other towns. People put their clothes, their televisions, their devices, their drugs on tick. Unemployment is generational, grown in. The high street is deserted. The car plant keeps laying off workers. The only well-paying jobs are at the refinery. A lot of young men sell drugs for a living, so users are notionally spoilt for choice. They can, in theory, evade their creditors for months. Except the town centre is quite small, so sometimes they bump into them.
This driver is not our first driver. Our first driver got the sack because he kept disappearing with money in the middle of his shift. He would reappear the next day, with the right sum, in the wrong denominations. This driver does not do that, but has his own dependencies. He is a heavy weed smoker, and the owner allows it, because he is too bad-tempered when forced to abstain. He once had a salaried job at the car plant, but his ex-girlfriend called his employers and told them he took drugs. Now, I can’t remember whether he submitted to a drugs test and failed, or resigned before he had to take one. The end result was the same, either way.
Drug testing has long been a reality for manual workers. In fact, Shaun Bailey cited these workers when he wrote a piece defending the policy. I remember people in Aberdeen saying oil companies were testing workers at the heliport before they went offshore. The industry was contracting, and finding people in breach of contract is cheaper than laying them off.
I ask my friend Connor if he remembers this; he’s worked offshore for 20 years. I met Connor in a bar when I was in my 20s; he sat down next to me and asked if I wanted to come to his friend’s house to take cocaine. He’s since cut it out, because he’s in his 40s, has children and worries about his heart. At the time, his habit was curtailed only by his work schedule.
“I used to go out on the Friday and come back on a Sunday,” he says. “You come home from offshore and you’ve got nothing to do, and all this money in the bank. You’re like: I want to go to Spain for a week. I want to get a motorbike and race it round the track. And I’m not getting drug-tested for another three weeks.”
Connor reminds me of a friend who walked away from a drilling job that paid about £80,000 a year rather than submit to a drugs test (a salary of £80,000 puts this person in a middle-class wage bracket, but rigs are still working-class spaces and he remains working class). Every company has its own rules, but failure usually means instant dismissal. Workers are given the option of resigning before they take the test. Many pretend they’ve had an urgent call from home, which buys them a few extra days onshore, where they can wait for the drugs to leave their systems. Connor says senior management rarely have to take these tests. Companies can’t risk losing key personnel, and don’t want to deal with the fallout. The higher up the food chain you go, the greater the potential for scandal.
Connor tells me a story about his time working on a yacht, where every member of the crew took cocaine. They were part of a WhatsApp group, and wherever they docked they could text this group to get the number of the nearest dealer. The chef ran up such a huge debt that an armed gang stormed the boat. Chefs, Connor says, are particularly bad. They take cocaine to cope with the hours.
Cocaine use is rife in night jobs. I sometimes wonder what would happen if they brought testing into the sector. I think the night-time economy would probably collapse. It is hard to keep going when the body wants to be in bed; to clean tables, scrub floors and count money, after a full shift on your feet.
At 37, I don’t think of myself as old, but this job makes me feel it. There is a double stigma attached to being a minimum-wage worker of middle age. It is a trope on screen, used to signify free-market malfeasance or personal disaster. In life it offends our notion of progression, the capitalist credo that hard work yields rewards. Perhaps this is why our customers are so rude. And after a long night biting down the urge to answer back, it feels good to rack up a few lines and speak your mind. I never appreciated this in my old job at the magazine: the privilege of being paid to communicate. People in service roles are paid, in part, to shut up. Holding your tongue, in the face of provocation, is a skill. It’s a shame the market doesn’t value it.
Occasionally, there is a strange smell in the chicken shop, like backed-up drains with top notes of sulphur. People say it’s the refinery. There are signs on the high street that monitor the air quality. Bad, they say some days. And on other days: Very bad.
The refinery is huge. It sprawls over the sodden land between the motorway and the estuary. It looks like an alternative town, this town’s dystopian double, with cooling towers and distillation drums instead of houses and shops. Sometimes crews of workers put in large orders late at night. The kitchen can’t cope with the volume, and the food often arrives cold. Curiously, this doesn’t put them off ordering again. This speaks to the town’s sense of fatalism, I think. There is no expectation that things will improve just because you’d like them to.
In the 1980s, a local boy disappeared. The police told his parents he had probably run away to London. Years later, his body was found at the refinery in a tank of toluene, an industrial solvent. Teenagers used to break in, open the vats and huff the fumes. They usually did it in groups, but he had gone alone. Police surmised he had passed out before he could pull himself away from the tank’s manhole, fallen in and drowned.
I think of this story often. It seems to sum up the place, its self-annihilating spirit. Living here comes with a heavy toxic load. What’s one more substance, in the scheme of things? One night, I watch my colleague chop lines on the counter after closing. He looks sad. He has a history of depression. He says this job makes it worse.
“Why don’t you go to the doctor?” I say. “They’ll be able to help.”
“Nah.” He sighs and shakes his head. “They’ll just give me drugs.”
He has a point. There is no cure for insecure, badly paid, demeaning work. There is no cure for post-industrial decay, poor housing, environmental assault. I don’t know where this colleague is now. I don’t know where any of them are. The business shut down in the end; the town released me from its clammy grip. I finished my book and sold it. The last chapter ends with me in the chicken shop, uncertain I’ll ever get out.
I know another writer, Owen, who is also an alumnus of the night-time economy. I ask if he ever took cocaine on the job. He took it on every job, he says. As a pot washer at a chain hotel. A barman at a Toby Carvery. A cashier at an all-night garage.
“I’ve had jobs so miserable that I’d measure out the hours in lines. One to get me through the door, one a few hours in to get me through the rush, and one an hour before closing so I’d have the energy to do something else with my evening, other than sleep and get ready for another shit day.”
Did he ever worry he’d get caught? “No! Everyone was at it. It’s where I found out I loved drugs!” Still, he takes it less frequently now, because his circumstances have changed. “I use it to keep a night alive, not to make it die as quickly as possible. To expand time, rather than contract it.”
I know what he means. Some days, I still want it. Especially if I’ve had a drink, or seen actors take it on TV. The whole preparation ritual – the heaped flakes on the table, the tap of plastic on glass, the rolling of the note – makes my mouth water, the way an alcoholic’s must at the sight of vodka sloshed over ice. I don’t expect the urge will ever leave me. But it no longer nags at me during work hours, because my new job is far more enjoyable. It’s interesting. The pay is better. My legs don’t hurt.
This is the real difference between working- and middle-class cocaine users, as far as I can see. The middle classes have a greater margin for error. They don’t have to submit to drug tests at work. Their lives are set up in such a way that they can keep their drug use private. Until they choose not to. Then they can monetise their mistakes, expurgating sin through confession, because they also dominate the arts.
I suppose that’s what my parents were trying to tell me, back when they pressed me to go to university. Their parents had worked in menial jobs all their lives. They came of age during a brief window of social mobility, when working-class people could join the middle classes, if they saved hard and spent judiciously. But if you’ve moved up a class, you’ll know it’s possible to move back down one, too. The little acreage of security you’ve staked out can suddenly crumble beneath you, like a cliff edge in a cartoon. And then you’re left pedalling in mid-air, like Wile E Coyote, trying to regain your foothold. As a working-class person in this country, you can’t afford too many missteps. Something like a cocaine habit can cost you very dear.
Names have been changed.