One’s Too Many, Ten’s Not Enough

A story in six words maybe, or for me, something that Pop Will Eat Itself sang in Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me, Kill Me. And when they sang it with ardent desperation, it didn’t resonate. It didn’t strike a chord. It blew forcefully across the sharp edge of a hole I didn’t know was inside me. The wave it set up bounced back and forth in the empty blackness. Blackness that threatened to leak out from the newly discovered hole. I think it was a strong middle-C on my existential despair flute.

So when times were tough a few years back, I decided to give up social drinking. Actually, social drinking was long gone. I was actually giving up anti-social drinking. The kind that starts when everyone else is asleep, the unwitnessed descent into chimpdom, punctuated with lurching and rambling trips to the bathroom. Someone pointed out that alcohol is a depressant. And who needs depression when the night is darkest?

It had been about six months of this clean and tiresome living before I found myself overseas with a dear friend. We drank, as we had done throughout our decades of friendship. Drank as if there was no tomorrow. The giddiness, the rush of a promised power, the familiar immortality returned – barely a stranger for one absent so long. But then again, I do tend to a disorganised style of relationship in which extremely long stretches of silence are punctuated by random text messages, picking up from a conversation from years before.

So I consoled myself that the occasional drink in social circumstances with a very select crowd of approximately one person – no more, no less – well that seemed appropriate. The “reed that bends is flexible” rather than “abstinence is so much simpler”. Knowing me, knowing Alan Partridge, this seems ill advised. Life has to be black and white in terms of choices for me, or I spend an inordinate amount of mental energy deciding how grey is too grey.

I thought all of this as I set off back from the off-licence tonight. I’d gone out for a walk, ended up going through the woods – the long way home. A prospective visit to said dear friend on the cards in the coming weeks. The grey started to seep in – perhaps I needed to get my beer legs back before attempting to coast on the high seas with the friend of the hollow leg. Before I knew what was going on, I was walking home with a large bottle of Stella Artois. No matter how many I purchased, I knew that would be the number I would drink. So one seemed the practical minimum and maximum.

A little embarrassed by my weakness and the large bottle nonchalantly swinging from my hand, I was eager not to see anyone I know. Not that I’m known. But still.

Imagine my surprise to find people out on the street, standing by the road in front of their homes. They were all out. Banging pots. It felt like a huge walk of shame past the whole neighbourhood who has turned out like some horrific nightmare where I’ve turned up on the train without trousers for an exam I haven’t revised for. Everyone is looking at me, and I’ve got a bloody hatchet in one hand and a necklace of human ears I can’t remember ordering on Amazon, and why is everyone pointing?

Of course. It’s 8pm go outside and clap for the NHS on a Thursday time. Something I couldn’t have planned if I’d wanted more attention walking down the middle of the road to avoid all the kids running up and down the pavement.

I walked past the house of the A6002 guy. I followed him there once out of curiosity. Not stalking. It’s never stalking if I say that I was just curious right? I didn’t exactly follow him, you honour, but at about the time he normally left his bench on the wrong side of a carrier bag of tinnies, I happened to be driving home and saw him stagger off the street into a hedged garden. I assume he lived there, though he could just have wanted to throw up in a hedge. Or worse. In a bush.

A6002 guy was a local celebrity. What was his story? Who knows? He would go to the Spar shop, get some beer in a blue plastic bag, then sit on a bench that faces the A6002 along Woodhouse Way. Quite why there was a bench facing the road there I’ll never know. Maybe he put it there to memorialize something. By the bench was a lamp post. By the lamp post was a bin. Where better to enjoy some strong continental lager and stare at cars.

In the last five years I saw that he was getting larger. Puffier looking. Always in the same black anorak. With big dark glasses. Immobile except for his swigging hand and his drooling lips

People would pity him. I remember a passage from a self-help book I once read in which the author said that he had once just sat on a park bench for three years, or somesuch twaddle which I eagerly lapped up like the last suds of beer foam from the last bottle in the house. So I always imagined that A6002 man didn’t have a story of woe and remorse. Rather, he had achieved nirvana. He had everything he thought he wanted at his fingertips – comfort, routine, a place in the world. And as long as he had what he thought he wanted, was that so wrong?

Of course, then somewhere inside me, the thought that he’d climbed to the top of the ladder he’d always wanted to get to the top of, only to discover it was leaning against the wrong wall. Thanks to whatever self-help book planted that seed of doubt in my mind. I often wanted to go sit on that bench with my own plastic bag and wait for him to find out more about him. Not because the opposite of addiction is connection. Nothing like that. I just was curious. Not a stalker. Curious.

Maybe that’s what’s already happened to him in some Forrest Gump moment, where now there are hundreds of Disciples of A6002 meeting on road-facing benches along the nation’s A roads, filling bins with tins and blue plastic bags. Now that deserves a clap or at least a toast at 8pm.

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