Regrettably this story isn’t new, but one of few pieces of writing I’m pleased with. It’s called Late Night Stupid Story, this is the first part. It’s a two part tale about drunk gutter blues.
“Besides, some things are so ludicrous, that a man must laugh or die. To die laughing must be the most glorious of all deaths!”
— E. A. Poe, ‘The Assignation’.
The long and empty night has its own faint, swirling music. It rolls and lollops in the wan silences, swilling, tangling together into that strange flotsam and jetsam that amass between the gaps of those words and images that fill our restless thoughts, tingling and tremulous, listlessly lost.
It is a music that greets us at the point beyond sleeplessness and falling asleep; that taunts us at the crossroads that separate sobriety and sanity from drunken ecstasy and agony and madness. It is a sad and enduring music that forms in the mind only in the complete absence of any desire or feeling or thought about anything really in particular. That it would fall into the category of ‘melancholy’, yes, at least for the stranger or the taxonomist: yet for the weary and all-too-familiar, it is a music of small but occasional consolation. As symptom, it signals nothing.
It is a music that accompanies our loneliness and descends with it; its plaintive quintessence rubs against us as we stare blankly at the texture of a ceiling or the bankrupt print of a vapid book. It describes the view from a bedroom window, fogged-up and drearily familiar, bifurcating an outside world that is but alien space now, no more than the fat and barren landscape of those long and lonely lived-out nights, lived-out over and over again repetitively and uselessly, the old and forgotten stories of lonely Londoners, staring out into sleepless nights. These are stupid and easily dismissed thoughts.
A swig from the mug of cheap, warm rum on the dresser. Perhaps time to compose the thoughts. What are we talking about here? Ah yes, an old saying: “In vino veritas”, in wine truth, or perhaps truth in wine. Appropriate enough: the leaden-hued and excited words of the drunk have been long dismissed both for their apparent absurdity and self-unravelling babble, as for their momentary truths, unsettling and uncomfortable observations that lie under them.
The scrutiny of the drunk, bawling and cursing in the gutter: “could it be me?”, the young ask. “It was me”, an old voice crows, and sparks up a fag, and raises up his can of cider, in order to raise a spiteful toast of the most mocking fashion. The young join him reluctantly, eager to snatch at his spilt outbursts of truth, so that they may procure intoxicating revelations that can be converted to the 6 figure sums of ‘young fiction’. The drunk proceeds, glad of his audience: “to drunkenness! – the cheap and cowardly refuge of the melancholy, bored and diseased! – a psychotic music that rages and roars and charts the beyond! thrashing out of all boundaries!”
Only the young would bother contemplating it, his ludicrous toast, almost romantic perhaps. The two short sketches that follow do not dress themselves as red light parables or kitchen-gutter love stories. If you’ve got to break a person apart to see what strange essence spills out of their guts, then so be it. If you need a scene, let it be this: we’re on Coldharbour Lane. The author says he knows it well. He says he grew up there. For the reader’s purposes, envision it as your nearest high street, one complete with a 24 hour or at least late-night off-licence. The author says he wants us to meet a couple of people he knows well here. He hopes they will demonstrate his point. The first is a woman: she is lost. Fortune has deserted her. Now wine is her only guide. The next is a man: his mind is troubled by some news. What he does not say will be, perhaps, all being well, as revealing as what he does say. Maybe some good will come of it. The author hopes the following sketches will be as entertaining as they are sincere and to the point. Remember, there’s a joke in it somewhere, there’s got to be. Shit – here comes the woman now.
Part 1. Coldharbour Lane – Camberwell end.
Alcohol: why do my troubles begin and end here? These are the wine-stained words of someone who should know better, someone who should long ago have learnt their lesson. But there’s truth in wine, and also drunkenness, and disorder, and savagely all-too-sincere words, and viciosly stupid words, and music, and melancholy, and flirtation, and laughter. And, of course, regrets too, aplenty. Drink is a garrulous guide and a cosy companion into a state of fogged, blissful stupefaction. Recently though, or perhaps not so recent, it’s also been a fixation, a fix even. Well, all people need some sort of a hobby, but a lot of people fail to notice, fortunately perhaps, that it is also very much a way of life.
Read on. A Tuesday night, and it’s pissing it down. I’ve had half a bottle of cheap white wine and a few pints beforehand, and with nothing else to do and nothing else to drink, I’m making the lonely crusade to the 24-hour off-licence a mile away. The air fizzes and burns, broodingly, lethargically: some pain stirs, brews, some tension: some great ugly sulphurous reaction is going on. Across an unusually empty road, a train huffs and wails above me, rattling above Victorian arches converted into garages. A sudden flash of blue, from the electricity of the track, without warning bursts into the atmosphere, illuminating momentarily the sky around me. Something is brewing. Mercurial.
I pass by the demented blue chatter of lonely television sets in darkened bedsits, flashing away to an audience of sleepless pairs of eyes. I’m drunk – even I can tell it. I can smell it, goddamn it. I splutter onto a dirty tissue. A coughing fit begins, bringing up blood. It indicts me. I indict myself? No: I indict the doctor: the bastard should not have given me antibiotics. I cannot drink on antibiotics. I have just a drink and then I take them stupid fucking pills.
The street is swaying like the sea, the asphalt rolling and shifting like a cross-channel ferry. The sky is open, and through the black and the bronze of the streetlamp I can see the silver threads of rain, and beyond that, a distant blanket of white speckles and spangles – the stars we occasionally notice and project dull clichéd sentiments on, like I’m doing now. I’m thinking of the past, which makes me sad, and thinking also of my last can – the reverberating tinkle I hear when I swish it confirms my worst suspicions. I slug it back gingerly as I march down faceless, nameless, deserted suburban streets.
The moments that are so long gone, distant flashes of being in love, or the head rush of those coming-of-age moments where the world feels incredible, and a street-map or park teems with wonderful life, radioactive and vibrating with possibilities. Maybe it’s just the mood of the moment, or the booze maybe, but sad things are on my mind – the very same sad things that are always on my mind in moments like this, that I think about all the time. I tell her, my little sister, I talk to her, you know! I tell her I think about her every day. She’s watching over me now, with my dad and my nan. But even though she told me once – in a dream – to forgive and forget and to move on, I still can’t get that moment out of my head: my sister, dying in hospital with my mum, sitting by her, just shrieking horribly and without stopping. It was just me and her there, mum and me, when the young doctor left with a polite cough. He expected us to pull the plug out ourselves, but how could I do it, it was my little sister you know? I cooked for her, I looked after her when she started school, and she was still a kid to me in so many ways, even after the time when I took her to that clinic to get an abortion. We were just girls, but the world doesn’t wait, does it?
Mum’s hysterics and shrieking were so grating, it was just bullshit – it made me angry, real inexplicable anger, and sadness, and other things, because there were times, so many times when she wasn’t there for her, you know? There were times where it was like she didn’t give a fuck, and now she was like this, and in the madness of the moment I just screamed at her, enough! And then I realised, it was her baby too, her baby she’d lost, and I felt so bad, and she just stopped, and oh god it’s not even worth thinking about at all.
I learnt that pain though a couple of years later, the pain of that loss, just so deep, so horrific, just the emptiness of it, I can’t even describe it, adjectives aren’t there that do it justice. Staring at the fucking hospital ceiling – tracing patterns in the grey foamy tiles, following them where I could, seeing if I could spot some sign from my little baby. I only remember my first miscarriage indirectly – the stuffy white light of the very same’s hospital café, the intense nauseating smell of disinfectant and boiling beef gravy, the taste of cold tea that James made me drink and his stupid lost-boy look on his face, his hands doing all the talking. The last time I saw him. But I try not to think about those times. A new start, new beginnings, a new me, nothing like the old. James later wrote, blaming me for killing his baby. At the time I was on so much fucking meds I didn’t know where I was. “Post-natal depression” – the hardest part was accepting the first two words. I was sectioned for a while. I don’t remember much of it. People stopped talking to me: they didn’t know what to say. No one said anything. It was the silence that was really crushing, the silent social rejection – at least, it felt that way. Nothing can describe that loss, so common, yet so rarely spoken of. Some took James’ side. Even mum said it was my fault: “You shouldn’t have smoked, it’s your own fault, it was your baby!” she crowed, on the afternoon I came back. She was drunk but I knew she meant it. But the world moved on, and so did I.
It’s not exactly a full moon tonight. There’s something kind of elliptical in its darkness: it wants to hide its face, but a crescent peeps out, consoling the few unhappy people that are still walking these streets, expecting to find some sort of vacant epiphany in their bleak and self-enforced deprivation. When I said the off-licence was a mile away I must’ve misjudged the distance, as I’m still ten minutes away. My wanker of a husband is probably in his hotel room right now miles away in some cold soulless Travelodge or Holiday inn, somewhere in the Midlands. I wonder if he can see the same moon, whether he too is looking at it right now at this very moment, if he still feels the way I feel. It’s an unlikely scenario. If he’s not watching some of that underage pay-per-view smut that he’s so fond of, that I had to sit through with him on what should’ve been our happy anniversary, then he’s probably with some unfortunate young East European girl, making the same excuses and apologies, or, if he’s feeling slightly more adventurous, he’s probably getting a blowjob in the car-park, in my car that he fucking stole from me. Just a stupid note, on the kettle. I’ll read it again, no don’t, don’t upset yourself. What’s he saying, that I only see what I want to? Well it was his badly kept secret: he forgot who managed the finances of our joint bank account. Still marriages have ended in worse ways, I’m sure.
We’d had an argument the night before, one of those ravaging arguments that truly exhaust you, perhaps even prematurely age you – full of frustration, angry words, some regrettable, others scornfully meant under the cover of the bilious barrage. One of those arguments that don’t even end, they just run out of steam without a resolution; I take it John didn’t go to sleep afterwards because in the morning when I woke up he was gone. I imagine he must’ve got up and left earlier, maybe just after I’d fallen asleep. On the kettle he had left a fresh post-it note tattooed in a miniscule biro scrawl that ran onto the other side. He claimed he “wasn’t getting enough…”, that “the writing was on the wall”, just bullshit and hollow excuses, that “it’s not your fault, I just need some time-out”, but “I don’t know if I still love you”. Of course I couldn’t agree with him more, but it was all just stupid words now, bla bla bla, maybe it was over I don’t know, I just can’t think straight. No, it was the way that he’d gone about it. I think of mum again and her shrieking – yes, it was her baby, it was her baby that she’d lost too.
It’s easy to lose yourself in thought. I want to get revenge on him but I’m too tired, and besides it’d be pointless. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal to gain in thrashing about like so many friends who married when they were young, before us, whose dinner-parties we used to attend, and whose blazing rows were notorious. How looks were exchanged, certain doleful glares that declare, “I don’t love you any more”, over delayed vol-aux-vents and spilt bottles of cheap chardonnay. I was there when I saw that such a simple and pure feeling like loving somebody could expire and degenerate into the most caustic and rancorous loathing. But you just can’t understand how love can ebb away unless you’ve laboured through the perspiration of marriage, just as physical attraction and desire decline before that. I was there, when I saw that the best a woman could expect from her partner was friendship. Yes I was there, but like so many other things I never thought it would happen to me. And yes, stupid me I’m crying now, but I swear it is not for him. I will not let my mascara run.
Thoughts become too busy, too tangled, too confused, too all over the place – my feelings too, are indeed, all over the place. The same sad, familiar memories make their presence known like poltergeists, haunting my thoughts, mischievously creeping in through the windows of perception, and manifesting themselves as migraines, regrets, and a hankering need for another drink. Out of my handbag I eventually do manage to dig out my portable radio player. The first preset station is magic fm. That’ll do. The feel-good vintage pop tinged with the golden glow of public nostalgia, for late-night parties and a youth locked safely inside the confines of the 20th century – yes, that’ll do nicely. I slacken my pace, and take slow deep breathes – in, 1…2…3…4….. and OUT. Phew.
There’s a strange itch on my wrist that I can’t scratch, it’s an old scar, still sore, sickeningly so. I try not to think about now, I guess like so many other things in my life – like those five years I wasted living in Bristol, 92-98, no six years in fact. I also had glandular fever quite badly at times when I was a teenager, taking weeks and at one time several months off school. Goodbye to all that, all those previous circumstances that I recall which haven’t fixed into my memory. Like that too, cutting was a part of my life I left behind, but true to some tasteless cliché, the reminders are still there to see. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried ointments, creams, treatments usually for stretch marks, but it’s made no real difference. But it reassures me that they’re still there, a part of me from a difficult time that I “survived”, it would be said, if my life were ever made into some awful afternoon radio 4 melodrama. Might sound corny as fuck, but life was a choice I had to make a couple of times. Now how about putting that line in your melodrama! Hire me, I’m cracked.
But no, this is a horrible thought, a stupid thing to think – it’s nothing. Happy songs make me melancholy, so melancholy, not a word I use lightly except to describe a feeling of real heavy-heartedness. It’s not that it’s a happy song itself that makes you miserable because you’re not participating in the collective euphoria, no, it’s more a sadness when you get lost inside the music, or get sucked inside the rhythm and the descending hook of a chorus loop, where in between the melody and the beat there is a nameless plaintive emptiness.
It could just be that I’ve made up a load of poetic bullshit that masks the fact that I’m on my own and I’m drunk and I’m sad, and the only way to alleviate this pain is to totally obliterate it, lose control and fall into a downward spiral of the customary self-pity that usually elicits a note of awkward distance between me and the world. Fuck, what is this nonsense! It’s ridiculous, I shouldn’t be feeling in this way. I’m drunk, I’m free, I’m young, I should be out there having fun. It’s all nonsense. I’m sure there’s a very dark joke in it somewhere, the sort of thing only a witty fool like Joris-Karl Huysmans would snigger at. Yes, it’s all nonsense.
But the world could never understand why people do it – they see the scars too personally, too literally, but also way too symbolically. They don’t see the relief it brings through release, the control it fosters and returns to people who have lost control. Yet they cannot understand it, family, especially; boyfriends, especially – they can’t empathise, they can’t comprehend it, but men rarely understand how women feel anyway. But I don’t want to think on these things. I’m approaching the high street now so it can’t be much further away.
I’m listening that song, ‘On a night like this’, a saccharine tune that always brings out the silly girl in me. The song stirs up my insides – my heart feels tender and sore, heavy and bruised – reminiscent of my state of mind at 17, ‘lovelorn’, such a pretty word. Indeed my heart feels lovelorn now, but my mind is changed: it won’t let me, I’m unlovable, fat, ugly, a washed-up fucked-up drunk. But I don’t want my mascara to run – no sod it, no feeling is worth smudged make-up. Things have moved on, I have moved on. Despair becomes familiar until you get bored of it, and hey being happy is not a selfish thing to ask for. I should be stronger than this. Repeat it, I am only being silly because I am drunk and stupid and bla. . . . .
I’m outside the off-licence now, and to my blessing it’s still open. Two stout moustachioed men glance suspiciously at me from behind the shop counter, before tending to a surprisingly long queue of weathered souls. I find a bottle of wine for under a fiver, a familiar brand that I know at least to be drinkable, and enough beers to keep a 16yearold’s birthday party going for a couple of hours, and I pick out some chocolate too, fuck it. I hand over the necessary change and make my way out into a deserted high street. I walk down to a bus shelter to get some cover from the rain and go to light up a cigarette. In wine, truth, and in truth, nonsense. And so it goes. I don’t think this story has an end, not yet anyway, so I’ll leave you with someone else’s words, maybe they’ll vindicate me. I just don’t know any more.
ONCE I was good like the Virgin Mary and the Minister’s wife.
My father worked for Mr. Pullman and white people’s tips; but he died two days after his insurance expired.
I had nothing, so I had to go to work.
All the stock I had was a white girl’s education and a face that enchanted the men of both races.
Starvation danced with me.
So when Big Lizzie, who kept a house for white men, came to me with tales of fortune that I could reap from the sale of my virtue I bowed my head to Vice.
Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around.
Gin is better than all the water in Lethe.
— “The Scarlet Woman”, Fenton Johnson (1888-1958).
Then I realise I haven’t brought out my fucking lighter.