Sober as a drudge

From perky to this

“I’d rather die than give up alcohol,” said my father, five years before he did die of alcohol-related cancer of the everything, a bottle of Cab Sav wedged between his hospital bed and the wall.

Since then I’ve been faithfully knocking it back, night after night, like tens of thousands of wistful middle-aged mothers faced with another evening of cooking along to those hateful Archers. Then came a letter from the NHS announcing that my red blood cells were mysteriously enlarged stating that the haematologist ‘strongly recommends’ I quit alcohol altogether.


I considered death in my family. Father. Death by whisky, Uncle. Death by whisky, Grandfather. Death by whisky, Grandmother. Death by sherry.

Was this the gift my spirit had been whispering for since the day I kissed my father’s sunken cheek goodbye? “OH COME ON!” said my inner Richard Burton. “ITS ONLY ONE OR TWO OR THREE GLASSES OF FLEURIE. ITS NOT LIKE YOU’RE NECKING BLOSSOM HILL FROM A PAPER BAG!”

But now look.

Doctor God had spoken and here I was at Johnny’s birthday party – stone cold sober, grinning like a Stepford Wife, desperately searching for a quirky quip to amuse the Very Cool Person in front of me. I felt like a hovercraft whose air cushion had been punctured midway across the channel. On the dance floor I shifted self consciously from side to side like my shoes were filled with toothpaste and whenever someone spoke to me I responded in monosyllables like Saga from The Bridge.

“You seem distant Rose. Whats wrong?” said a gurning dilated-pupiled friend.

“I’ve stopped drinking,” I said. She strained to hear. “I’VE STOPPED DRINKING.”

“You WHAT?!”

The friend dollied backwards like a demonic child in a horror film. Then she lunged forwards, grabbing my shoulders. “Oh good for you, darling!” she commiserated, the way you would a friend who’d given up a lucrative job at Apple to volunteer for the National Cats Protection League.

All evening I was standing on the wrong side of an invisible Perspex wall. People could see me but, without the sledgehammer confidence that alcohol once gave me, I was just a walk-on extra. And for someone who normally leaps onto the tallest podium and dances with her dress over her head, this was some climb down.

To mask my anxiety I drank far too much cherry juice and was nearly sick in the car park. Then I went home and binged on the entire season three of Transparent until I felt whole again.

But three weeks later there’s been a shift and I am no longer anxious in alcohol-fueled company. This is due to ‘coping strategies’. Last weekend, for example, I explained to a kind nodding woman about how it felt not to drink, thus driving her to drink three glasses of wine, which I enjoyed by proxy. Then I counted how many glasses each person drank and at what speed, and how their facial expressions journeyed from a young, taut Felicity Kendal expression to the gormless droop of an elderly bloodhound.

One man volunteered his teeth as an interesting topic of conversation and I played beat the clock to see if I could keep him on this topic for 40 minutes. I stretched it to 36 until, having run out of obvious questions I asked him whereabouts in his fridge he kept his teeth bleaching liquid. “Now you’re laughing at me,” he said. And there it was. The prick of shame.

My radiant sober sister warned me about the perils of alienating myself through judging others. “This will only make you lonelier,” she said. “You have to find a way to connect without judging.” Of course she’s right. Playing the conversational puppet master is a fool’s game.

So now I have a new tactic. I get people onto a topic that I find fascinating or want to learn more about. Like how to sail the Atlantic in winter and why the wings never fall off an aeroplane.

Of course my last glass wasn’t my last. On Sunday everyone was ill and since my lovely cleaner left without warning, the house is drowning in e-coli and dog hair. I moved tons of furniture around so I could get at the filth with my hoover and mop and at 6’clock (L’heure de L’angoisse) Richard Burton leapt for the Fleurie but fumbled the bottle which spilt all over the floor.

“I thought you’d given up wine mummy,” said Lucas.

“I have, Lucas!” I barked. “That was just…” I was about to give him some flannel about cherry juice but amazed myself instead with: “A mistake, a silly mistake.”

“Well don’t do it again, mum, otherwise you’ll be a secret drinker.”

Yes, I thought. Just like Great Granny Elspeth…

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