“Do you wanna buy some pills mate?“
A man in his early twenties stared at me with the eager (wide) eyes of any young entrepreneur spotting a sales opportunity. He was wearing a slightly grubby white T-shirt covered by a baggy khaki overcoat. I found it hard to understand him at first; he had the broadest of Glaswegian accents and the bass was rebounding off the sides of a giant and sweating marquee in a field somewhere in Ayrshire, Scotland. It was the year 2000 and Moby was gyrating around the stage.
We silently leaned in together for a second go:
“Sorry mate?” I said.
“Do you want some pills mate?” Despite telling him to fuck off, there must've been something about my demeanour that inspired his persistence. “Are you sure? I’ve got loads!” He reached inside his jacket and produced a plastic Tesco shopping bag gathered at the neck, full of ecstasy pills and about the size of a bowling ball. I looked at the bag then looked at him, his face radiating with and adventure.
I looked at the bag again.
That was a lot of fucking pills - 600-700 - maybe more. I felt sorry for him; not because I wasn't buying but because at the time I was a serving police officer assigned to a special project team developing tactics on the prevention and arrest of dealers at large scale music events. I was literally his worst nightmare.
Or was I? My ego likes to think so but I wasn't really. No, his worst nightmare was the twelve undercover members of the Strathclyde Drug Squad who had just bought me a beer as their shift on the covert drugs operation finished.
The Tesco bag and the person holding it disappeared under a pile of unwashed law enforcement. He'd had better Saturdays.
Heathrow Airport, London circa 1991
The British Airways 747 direct from Bombay (now Mumbai) landed a few minutes ahead of time, which was the worst of circumstances for Charlie. An extra twenty minutes to gather himself and recover from the effects would have been helpful.
Smoking had not yet been banned on all flights, but as it wasn't tobacco he was smoking, he felt it was both polite and sensible to leave the cabin and head to the toilet for a smoke in private. Chasing dragons in public is still taboo in 2020, never mind 1991.
But this was not your average, garden variety heroin of the kind sold in £20 bags under railway arches, council flats and nightclubs - I am reliably told that the price has halved. This particular heroin was 100% pure and uncut. Charlie had been sleeping with about £100K worth of this powder underneath his pillow, at his digs somewhere east of Bombay for some two weeks. Up until this trip, which was his first abroad, he had never tried the stuff and had never particularly wanted to either. He'd been smoking and selling weed since he was 12, but now five years later, his curiosity to try harder drugs had been triggered by his new employer, Mr K.
Like many curious teenagers, Charlie wanted to find out what all the fuss was about for himself.
Five grand in cash is a lot of money to anybody. But if you are sixteen year old Sikh boy living in a council estate in White City, London in 1991 having been kicked out shortly before your 15th birthday with no qualifications, you have no job, no plans and a violent alcoholic father, the idea of smuggling a small package of innocent looking powder into the UK was not only an adventure, it was a no-brainer.
In fact it was for these reasons that Mr K recruited him. He would have done it for half the price of course, but didn't mention that to Mr K. Anyway back to Heathrow, specifically the green channel at terminal 2.
What you are about to read will sound like stupidity but trust me Charlie is no fool. He is very smart. Street smart. He was just a kid, on his trafficking apprenticeship and on a very steep learning curve at the school of survival. But he made two key mistakes. The first was not anticipating the significant weight loss caused by two weeks of daily heroin use. It meant that his clothing didn't fit him particularly well and even with his belt on the tightest notch, they kept falling down to his knees as he walked. Anyone behind him would have enjoyed a clear view of his pants (they were brown, he told me) as he shuffled his way to the entrance to the green channel. He drew attention to himself, albeit comically, but of course not ideal while smuggling class A drugs into a country.
His second mistake was a little worse. Charlie had smoked so much pure heroin on the flight he was still high by the time he reached Customs. Yes, smoking pure heroin had relieved the boredom of a long flight and the anxiety of approaching the finish line but unfortunately he now, not just a little stoned, but REALLY high; the falling asleep kind of really high.
Halfway along the green channel corridor, some 8 or 9 metres from the door to the arrivals hall, Charlie stopped innocently for a rest. He leaned against the wall and with a wave of tiredness, melted into the plasterboard and slid slowly to the floor. At the same time, so did his jeans. You would not need to be customs officer of the year to spot that a young man with the physique of an addict, his waistband at his knees and fading in and out of consciousness may be worth of further investigation. Charlie told me the only thing he really remembers was the Customs Officer summoning him in slow motion with blurred movements of his index finger.
I first met Charlie in 2008. After spending most of his adult life involved in crime, and having lost at least ten years of it to heroin addiction it was fascinating to learn from him how he got himself clean of all drugs and alcohol, attended the gym regularly and managed to get a BA in fine art (2:1 with honours). Pretty impressive for a dyslexic addict ex-con with no qualifications. His life was fully back on track.
Also, his art was outstanding. Challenging, but outstanding. He had a unique view of the world and a real talent for expression. He offered an insight into the darkest parts of humanity. This man really has been to hell and back several times, but had begun to see that his extraordinary life and adversity could be his superpower.
Through his art he was able to he was able to tell people the truth about what he'd seen. His passion was for taboo subjects of abuse, addiction and the reality of growing up surrounded by drugs and violence out in the open to start conversations, rather than be hidden behind closed doors and whispers.
He's not answering my messages but we will make a cracking movie when he does.
CEO & Co-founder of the PopUp Business School.