It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m five years old, on my dad’s back. We’re on the way home from his brother’s, walking past the shops, and he’s laughing as he dangles me over a green litterbin. Then I’m standing in it, and now we’re both laughing, me in the bin, my dad pointing at me. He picks me out, and when he kisses me I can smell his breath, a sweet, powerful scent. Then we’re off again, me still riding on his back, still smiling.
Thirteen years later and I’m driving him home from his early-retirement do. He’s all smiles, telling me about the waitress, about how beautiful she was, about how so many people turned up, about how he’s going to miss it, but how really, he’s not going to miss it at all, and as he talks I can smell the shock of the alcohol coming off him.
It’s only the second time I’ve seen him drunk.
A year later, and I’ve left my first job because work is shit and the girls from the Uni who eat their lunch in the sunny park are gorgeous. It’s my leaving do, and I’m downing the vodka-and-oranges that everyone is buying for me. I fall down some stairs, get up, and then there’s nothing until the police cell, waking up with no boots on and no belt. Drunk and incapable. Arrested for my own safety. No record, lad, but don’t do it again. I get home and Dad’s cleaning the bathroom.
“Good night, was it?”
“I got arrested.”
“Yeah. Course you did, son. So, who is she?”
I just smile and go to bed.
Later the same year. Uni. Not just drink, now, but everything else. Coming home at two on a Sunday afternoon, huddling into my unwashed quilt and not getting out of bed until again until Tuesday. Speed, trips, E, Smoking hash with my breakfast cuppa. And then a conversation with Jake:
“If you had to give up everything apart from one thing, what would it be?”
“What about you?”
He smiles. “Spliff. Can’t imagine life without it.”
“Drink, for me,” I say. “I just love getting pissed.”
It’s the Nineties, and I’m twenty-one years old.
… and I’m hanging off a balcony with a bottle of wine in one hand, singing to a naked girl who’s laughing at me…I’m carrying a bottle of Jack Daniels on stage, playing guitar with my band in front of twenty-seven people…I’m carrying a girl out of a club, both of us giggling, and I drop her, breaking her arm…I’m working again, living in a flat, buying wine, feeling sophisticated, drinking two bottles with my girlfriend before we go clubbing…I’m going on away-days, watching the football, drinking Friday to Sunday, singing, dancing all night, sleeping on the train home and phoning in sick on the Monday…I’m proposing, wrapped in a towel in a London hotel room, still drunk but hungover at the same time…I’m pouring myself a gin and tonic after a hard day at work or a good day at work or just any old day at work…I’m buying crates of French lager for the barbecue in the summer…I’m waking up tired, and I can’t remember going to bed…I’m sitting at work one morning, my desk full of paper, files, a computer’s blue screen flashing at me, and I see Sam recoil from the smell of my breath when I say hello, so I stand up, walk to my car, and I drive away, not home, but to my dad’s, and when he opens the door I start to cry.
That’s not the end.
I drink for another fifteen years.
I cut down, but if it’s sunny outside, I have a few lagers. If it’s a Friday night, we have a bottle of wine, and then another…when I watch football, it’s on Sky down the pub, and ninety minutes is three pints’ worth…the first thing I do when my son is born is drive home and open a can of Stella to celebrate…my best friend dies on a treadmill, and at his wake we all get pissed, sing songs, pose for photographs with bottles of lager in our hands, drunk, crying, smiling…the day my wife tells me she doesn’t love me anymore, I go to my brothers and we drink rum and ginger for a week, watching golf, eating curry, raging against the world and throwing impotent rocks at the distant hulk of the Forth Bridge…when I move into my new flat the first thing I put in the kitchen cupboard is a bottle of Bombay Blue Sapphire gin…I get a mahogany wine-rack for Christmas from a colleague, and I keep it stocked, drinking alone, sitting on the sofa on a Saturday night watching shit television and falling asleep. I go out, meet women, buy them drinks, sleep with them. One of the first things you find out about someone when you meet them on a dating site is what their favourite drink is. The ones who say they don’t drink – and there aren’t many – I skip
And then it’s December.
“I’m gonna have a dry Christmas,” I say, sitting at work, lunchtime, a lull in the conversation. When the words are out there, I don’t even know why I’ve said them, can’t recall having thought about it, my subconscious, something, whatever.
And everyone laughs.
Not at me. Or at least, not entirely at me. Just at the idea. Christmas? Why give up booze for Christmas? Do it for January, like everyone else! And haven’t you got your dad coming to stay with you? That’s gonna be hard enough drunk! Why make it even worse? And why the hell do you want to stop drinking anyway?
I listen to them talking about how I won’t be able to do what they can’t imagine themselves doing, and I’m thinking, fuck you.
I go home and I pull a can of Stella from the fridge. There’s two more in there. It’s Friday, and usually I would have bought a four pack on my way back from work, but not today. I open the can and I pour it slowly into a pint glass.
I put on some music – Steve Reich, crazy and repetitive and clean – and I sit down. I take a sip, and then I take another. I put the glass down. It stays there, on the table next to me, for an hour. Eventually I pick it up and I pour the contents slowly down the kitchen sink.
I stand for a while with the glass in my hand, and then I throw it against the wall.
In the morning, I clean up the glass.
Three days later, I pick up my dad from the airport. There’s wine in the flat, and he’ll have a glass with his meal, son, just a small one, thanks, and soon enough he wants to know why I’m not having one and so I tell him.
He stays for five days. We do Christmas together, and it’s okay.
On the evening before he leaves, he’s got this weird smile on his face.
“What?” I say.
“You look better without a glass in your hand,” he says.
And now it’s already April 17th. I get a text from him, the same one he always sends now when he’s thinking about me: “Still not drinking?”
I text back. “One day shy of four months.”
“Nice,” he says.
And it is.