Monday, 27 March 2017

Would You Just... Stop Boozing? Part Two

My sister is staying for the weekend. She's in the front room with my mum and me, talking to my mum about hotels she's been working with, looking at ornaments on the bookcase, drinking red wine. Mum also has red wine. I'm on the Earl Grey, feeling droopy tired and low and unable to concentrate. I should have more to say. This is a situation that requires booze, yet I am not boozing, so I sit there, on the edge of the conversation, a stranger even among my closest family, anxious and sober, wondering why I find everything so difficult.

I go to bed early and sit up tapping on my laptop, listening to the muffled voices drifting up from below. I wonder whether they're talking about me. Liz asking how I'm doing, whether I'm any better. Mum pausing, unsure how to answer.

I realised recently that every situation in my life includes alcohol. I'll sit cocooned at home, in a world of screens and thoughts, and I'll only perhaps have a wine, a whisky, it's not that important. But if I go out, to meet friends, parents, to go to a party, the cinema, a meal, a day off, an evening after work, I'll have to drink.

You fall into it. It's not like getting up at 7am to swig vodka from the bottle in an unfurnished bedsit with wallpaper peeling from the walls, at least not for me. It's more drinking to relieve anxiety, shyness, as a tonic for uneasy feelings, as a bandage, a crutch, a necessity, and finally just as the unconscious routine of my life.

It's easy deciding to stop boozing. What's hard is how to deal with all the neglected life you find dried and withered waiting for you after you stop. After so many years when the answer to every question was a drink, I feel clumsy and ungainly grasping for a different solution.

Even with my sister. She comes into my room, starts looking around for her toothbrush.

"In bed and it's not even midnight, you are being good," she says.

"I'm trying."

It takes me a long time to fall asleep.


Next morning, however, is another day. I'm up early and writing, feel growth in my bones, rolling stretch of energy. I goof around with Liz, drink tea.

We don't know what to do with the afternoon -- what do families do? -- but the weather is good and Yorkshire is Yorkshire, so we decide to walk, a walk is the thing, out to the Peaks in ranging wilds to get lost in the heather.

But I'm glum again in the car. I don't feel like walking, don't feel like chatting or listening to them chat, feel the strain of something being required of me that I am not capable of providing. I keep the feeling in check, hide it inside, but it's there, gnawing away.

Then we meet an old man and he makes things better.

"Don't be bothering with that," the old man says as Mum, Liz and I crowd around the pay-and-display machine at the car park.

"Oh, yes, har har," Liz says, rather inelegantly, because she has no idea what to say, but someone has to say something.

"Don't need no ticket," the old man, who somehow has two walking sticks, says. "Police don't come down here. Haven't put in toilets. And got no card, do you?"

"Mm?" Liz says. "It's card payment only, it says."

"Aye, but you've got no card, do you?"

"Ohh..." Liz getting it. "Well, she's paying already." Motions at Mum. "She's too honest. But thank you." Tries to smile him away.

"Only ice cream van comes here," the old man says, not moving off.

"Well," I say, looking at the ice cream van, my eyes narrowing. "Could be undercover police. Could be a sting."

The old man turns to me, levels a long glare, turns back to Liz. This always happens.

My joke having fallen on deaf ears -- perhaps literally -- I abandon Liz, and turn to help Mum, who is having an absolute nightmare with the machine, as she does with all machines.

The old man stands with Liz, who has used up her best smiles and is starting to look uncomfortable. The old man glances towards the car closest to us, a dog-on-board sticker in its window.

He clears his throat. "Dog... on... board," he growls. He looks at Liz. She looks at him. he walks off.

We could not be happier. A Thing has occurred, a genuine Thing, and it was just what we needed. We growl "dog... on... board" at each other all the way down the trail, cracking ourselves up again and again.


The peaks take our breath and roll it into deepening valleys and over sharp rocks up into cavernous sky, as they always do. I can never believe we live here. The Earth is splayed clear and hard below us, heather and rough trees poppling out to the horizon, the wind cratering and crushing -- jagged Northern land majestic yet cruel, making you aware more than anything of being on the side of a dying rock-planet looking out, into the allness of space. We stand and feel small. We breathe. We take photographs.


The release lasts the duration of the walk, and the ice cream reward, right up to the drive home. I scroll through the photographs Liz has taken, seeing my gimpy thrust-armed skeleton self, over and over, hair whisping loose from skull, morose chub-cheeked scowl though felt I was smiling, one shot after the other. What a beast I look, I think secretly in the car, handing the phone back, saying not a thing.

At home I make a risotto while they drink gin and tonics, and the rice won't final-soften, the greens lose their colour; Mum has bough frunched-up instead of flat-leaf parsley, in the end the meal tastes of nothing, I reckon -- they cry yum but I know better, and I have a headache and I'm frustrated and I want wine. They have wine. I have water.

My sober mind is so neurotic, itchy busy and aware and alert. Gently-blunting alcohol, underwater-green rounding the edges and sliding thoughts happily into place, has always, mostly, worked -- there's a reason I do it. The problem is that it blunts everything else, my writing sense, my willpower, my drive, my flame. And the hangovers are the pits. So jeering sober spike-thoughts it'll have to be.

I want to watch a film, feel without alcohol that'll be second-best escape. Want motion and sound within which to hide. But Liz isn't so keen, we can't decide upon anything. She won't watch The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Darjeeling Limited, they look too "weird" and "annoying". She won't watch The Sweet Hereafter, too slow a drama.

I tell her she's close-minded, she should give something different a chance.

"Leave her alone," Mum says.

Liz says she isn't sure she fancies a film, if anything it'd have to be easy-dumb, like Olympus has Fallen.

"Definitely fucking not," I say.

"Who's close-minded now?"

"Piss off."

Mum makes that little noise that means she's about to suggest something, beautiful Mum so shy putting herself forward, even with her own kids. And no wonder, because:

"I think back here I've got... Yes, here it is -- we could watch Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe?"

"Unngh," I sigh.

"God, no!" Liz says. "For ten years you've been trying to get me to watch Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. I am not going to watch some film called [voice dripping with disdain] 'Fried Green Tomatoes at the Effing Whistle Stop Cafe.'"

Mum looks crestfallen, as always. "Rob's right, you know. You are close-minded."

Liz and I burst out laughing. Sweet old Cath pushed finally to a little sass, plus of course our shared understanding that for no discernible reason neither of us will ever, as long as we live, watch that DVD of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. And after that, though it has taken long enough, everything is finally OK.

We end up not watching a film. I say I don't mind watching the first episode of Stranger Things, which Liz wants to show me, but then we never put it on, sit instead with legs resting on each other on the sofa, Mum in her rocking chair, and we read our books; Liz helps Mum set up an Instagram account, searches on Google for clever writing hashtags for me while I copy my blog posts across to Tumblr; and we sit tapping away, heads down, on our phones but together, not the perfect family but a family, like all the rest, and the night sways on and perhaps the not boozing does have something going for it because Mum looks up at one point to see her two children sitting with her and murmurs that she is perfectly content, and for the first time in a long time I'd have to say that I agree.


  1. Maybe my favourite piece so far...xx

  2. I really enjoyed the image of a sting in an ice cream van, even if the old man didn't.

    1. I tell you what we bought ice creams after the walk and that ice cream man was BLOODY SHIFTY.