It wasn’t long before the birdsong started.
“Jesus Christ.” The boy said. He looked out of the window and took a drag on his cigarette. It said 7am on his phone but ten minutes ago it was only midnight.
“We’re running on fumes here.” The girl said, pushing together a thin line of coke, ash and dust on the glass coffee table in front of her. “Close the blinds.” She said.
“Close the blinds.” The boy said as he lifted himself up, sinking his feet into the sofa. He reached up to pull at the blind, dropping his cigarette which fell into the cushions. He tugged at the drawstring for a while and eventually it came loose, snapping up as the blind dropped. The room was plunged into darkness, burning white horizontal lines from either side of the blind’s ill-fitted edges cut into the shadows. He slid down, landing heavily on his arse, a pair of wired eyes, one of them now picked out in a bar of harsh light, stared back at him.
“That’s better.” The girl said. “Oh my god, this is so bad, I never do this. It’s not too late to cancel. Should we?”
“Let’s keep the party going.” He said patting the ash off the cushion next to him, inspecting the damage, squinting at it with pursed lips. He picked up the cigarette, it was still lit, he took a few rapid drags before stamping it into an overflowing ashtray.
“He’ll be 30 minutes.” The girl said.
“Jesus Christ.” He said.
“Why don’t you just have a drink? I have to be home at midnight so don’t worry.” She says, I ignore her.
“Hello?” She says. “Anybody home?”
“I’m off the booze tonight” I say.
Pools of people ripple in the shadows. There are bursts of surprised greetings, ‘OH MY GAAD’, one group of girl’s shrieks, ‘AHHHH’, from another. One of them knocks over a stool in a clumsy greeting. A new joiner in a sequin dress and a pink sash with ‘Bride To Be’ written in curly gold letters struts into the fold with a Cheshire grin and jazz hands full flutter.
“Come on, just tonight, I’ll look after you.” She says.
“I’m having a night off.” I reply. We are getting closer to the bar. I scan my wallet with the tips of my fingers, its familiar shape, that bulging square, my ripcord out of here. Those propped on the bar ahead have visibly exhaled, their shoulders have relaxed, they have made it through limbo, drink not touched lips but already working its cool after-hours magic on them.
A man will finish eating a chocolate hobnob, post-tea-dunk, in a church basement and lick the melted remains off of his fingers.
“Here comes another newbie.” The man will say to his friend. They will watch a boy as he enters the room. They will watch him with his arms pinned to his side as he finds his way to an empty chair in the back row, keeping his back to the wall. “You can always tell a newbie,” the man will say, “they’ll come through the doors right before the meeting starts, they’ll nip straight past the tea guy who’s six months sober and grab a chair at the back just like that.” He will point at the boy. “They’re all tourists to begin with, just like I was, they don’t know how it all works yet, they’ve probably scared themselves, gone a bit too far one night. Broken some rules that they said they’d never break. They come in here right before the meeting starts and leave right before it ends or if they stick around, they don’t take any numbers. They make their excuses and say they’ve got a sponsor at another meeting, and they wish us luck and off they go into the night - we rarely see them again. They’re gone for a while, or forever, you just have to accept it. It’s God’s will.”
“The meetings about to start.” A lady will say from the front of the room as she bangs on a pop-up table with her phone. “Please take your seats.”
The man will join the lady at the front. He will take a seat and look out at the circle of chairs and their occupants in front of him, he will pan from left to right making intense eye contact and giving nods of acknowledgement to those he knows. He will mouth the word “Welcome” at the boy sitting on his own.
“I’m not going outside.” He mumbled over the empty baggies, butts, bottles and sin on the coffee table.
“Go on.” She said handing over a fist full of twenties.
“I went last time.” He said, pulling his hands through his hair. He leant back and dove down, rolled note in hand, and hoovered up a line from the table, which had been cobbled together from orphaned white specks. He sat back up and sniffed sharply swallowing a ball of mucus, then sniffed again, pinching one nostril and letting it go repeatedly in quick succession, making a sound like a steam train leaving a station.
“OK, I’ll go.” He said. He pulled out his phone which read 08:00 on the home screen, he opened a message and typed:
Morning, sorry, been up all night with this bug that’s going around. :( Haven’t slept much and feeling terribly poorly so won’t be in today. I’ll be on my e-mails though. Sorry again.
He re-read the message a few times, nervously hovering his thumb over the send button. He deleted ‘sorry’ And ‘Sorry again’ then sent the message exhaling loudly.
“What’s wrong?” The girl said.
“Nothing - just work.” He said.
“You told me you didn’t have work tomorrow, you are naughty! Are you in trouble?” She said
“No, it’s fine, I’m just checking in on a few things.” He got up and went to the door, to venture into the world outside, flowing with commuters he would not be joining.
“Let’s keep the party going.” She said.
I stare into the backs of heads and dream of banging them together. I’m next in line and can smell other people’s liquid success clutched tight and fizzing as they leave. No such luck for me, one day at a time, one night at a time, one soda water at a time. A city boy, who’s trying to take my place in the queue, nudges into me for the second time, he’s trying to get ahead of me. It happens again, this time I stare into his helpless eyes, straight-faced and cool as he begs for mercy, the mouths of his entourage drop as I run him down the bar headfirst, his limbs flail around behind him like detritus flying out of an open airlock, his face smashes through every single glass on the bar as it grinds along the splintering wood and cracks hard into the wall at the end. I imagine that final collision a few times over.
“Sorry mate.” He says to me.
“What are you having?” I say to the girl.
“G and T.” She says. It stands proud in a bejewelled highball on the bar. The spotlight picks out the texture of the ice. Sparse bubbles gently flow through the yellow glow of a lemon slice, its peel, disjointed through the ice, is practically a Picasso - the ultimate refreshing botanical choice for the undecided drinker.
“Most people don’t come here ready.” A man will say in a church basement. “I did though. I came here absolutely ready - ready to negotiate.” A few members of the audience will let out a laugh and bob their heads back and forth. “I wanted to come here and learn how to drink and take drugs but without the consequences. I thought you would all teach me how to do it.” He will shake his head. “I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t let go. I had to get really beaten up before I got it. Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again but expecting different results. I was the definition of insane. I was living on my own will and on that not-so-merry-go-round for years and years before I had enough and could throw the towel in.”
The boy pushed open the door to his building. Like Dorothy leaving Kansas, he stepped out into a technicolour world, making his way up one of South London’s busiest yellow bricked roads. He walked against the flow of commuters keeping his head down after he made eye contact with a woman who gave him a pitiful look. The hissing of pneumatic brakes and the scratching of street cleaners against the curb cut through him. Endless feet, scuffed brown brogues, wobbling black kitten heels under big feet, white converse with black marker drawings on them, desert boots with frayed laces marched by, he sensed their occupier's eyes all over him.
He turned a corner off the main road, slunk down an alley and hid behind some big communal bins. He occasionally glanced up at the buildings opposite him, trying to catch someone looking down at him. He leant against a dank wall with his head in one hand and pulled out his phone with the other. He ignored the first three messages:
ALICE: Sorry to hear you’re not well. I need you to call me when you can this morning.
OLI: Mstr u still up. Gt more grear? Party ?
UNKNOWN NUMBER: Get more wine.
He wrote and sent a new message: Hey, I’m here. What’s your ETA?
“Jesus.” He said. He craned his neck to look past the bins again, a lady was folding bedsheets over the edge of a small balcony, thinking that she saw him he ducked back into the shadows. Someone had spray-painted the letters ‘FFS’ on a dark green electricity box at the end of the alley. He looked at it for a moment before picking up his phone again and dialling.
“Hey, it’s me, where are you?” He said.
I’m in the next wave to hit the bar.
“Am I going to drink alone tonight?” She says.
“I’m afraid so.” I say.
“Are you still going to meetings?” She says.
“Am I still hanging out with the God Squad? No, I’m not.” I say.
“Was it helpful?” She says.
“Well, I met a homeless man and an Earl on the same night in a church basement and the Earl made us both a cup of tea.” I say.
“But you’re feeling better?” She says.
“I’m feeling much better having a few days off.” I say.
“Why don’t we share a bottle and then we go home after that? Just one bottle.” She says.
The guy next to me, who I’d imagined throwing headfirst into the wall, gives me the kind of nod you would give to someone before they jump out a plane. The barkeeper, sleeves rolled up, drops mixology implements into a small bucket with percussive precision, drops of water fly up in their wake. A hand slaps a card on the payment machine, the owner of the hand has one eye closed like they’re aiming a dart. Beep. Moving out of the darkness into the light, I put my hands on the sticky wood, plugged in, I have the bar keeper’s attention.
“Yes mate?” He says, clipped, ready to go, a coiled spring with hairy arms and wet fingers.
“You might see them again.” A man will say to his friend in a church basement as chairs are being stacked away and the last few biscuits are eaten. “Maybe in a few years, after a few years of living in shit. When they come back in, my god do they look like they’ve been through the wringer - but somethings changed. You can tell in the way they look at you, they’re ready. They’re completely broken and that’s when we can work with them. We can only be of service once they’ve been smashed to pieces. They’ll run in here have a cup of tea and grab on to the first person they see with clean white eyes and they’ll ask them to be their sponsor, even though they don’t know what that means. It sounds tough but you just get used to not seeing people again, one face after another, one terrified face, in a sea of terrified faces washing up on a lonely beach and being dragged back out to sea. Some will manage to stand up on the shore and some will give up and get washed out for good.” The man will hug his friend. He will leave the church basement and he will go back to his home where he will pray for the nervous boy that he saw that day.
After it was over, he came around in the same spot he had been in for twenty hours or so, the shape of his body impressed into the blackness of the sofa beneath him. The sun had set, and he had missed the soft purples, gently changing in the sky behind the closed blinds. The electric sting of a migraine’s fingers worked their way out from the back of his head. Voices from the night before still rang loud throughout the now empty flat, chants coming from one room and arguments about the bar tab coming from another.
He rubbed his face and made a small sound in the darkness, even though his nose was completely blocked he could sense the dank rotting pile of cigarette butts in front of him somewhere. He turned on the TV which illuminated the constellations of coke, ash and dust on the table. Having not eaten in over a day he took out his phone to order some food, ignoring the notifications on the home screen:
ALICE – I didn’t hear from you today. Can you call me tomorrow morning and let me know if you’re coming in?
OLI – Mate. I just woke up. BIG NIGHT. Jez is playing at the George tomorrow night we should go!
OLI – Mate. I just woke up. BIG NIGHT. Jez is playing at the George tomorrow night we should go!
UNKNOWN NUMBER - 5 missed calls
UNKNOWN NUMBER – I went out the wrong door, got stuck in the garden.
UNKNOWN NUMBER – Can you buzz me in?????
UNKNOWN NUMBER – I’m freeeee!
He scrolled through the menu on his phone, noticing that it was buy-one-get-one-free for all pizzas, he ordered two. The lampposts outside shone through a tree that cast a waving shadow on to the wall next to him. He flicked through the TV channels eventually landing on a sitcom with a canned laugh track. He opened his phone and wrote a message: I’m not doing that again.