‘Same again, Paul?’
The warm, Brummie twang of Mike’s voice brought me back into the room. The homely, carpeted ambiance of the King’s Head; a fire crackling merrily away in the ornate stone fireplace to our left. I’d been lost in the strange beauty of my empty pint glass; twirling it around in my hands; transfixed as the final dregs of Wainwright Ale conducted their own silent ballet at the bottom.
Mike was looking at me, eyes wide and expectant. He’s the sort of friend you could while away countless hours in the pub with, completely oblivious to the time, until the intrusive chimes of the last orders bell interrupted your nostalgic yearnings for the Radiohead that used to make those timeless rock anthems, rather than the noodly, avant-garde ‘arty’ stuff they seem to insist on these days.
This was the danger zone; the tipping point. Three pints down already. We both knew what was likely to happen if I said yes. The smart play, as always, would be to walk out of the King’s Head, jump on the 43, and be home in time for Coronation Street and meaningful conversations with our significant others about their days (I’d just married my girlfriend of eight years; Mike, as usual, was ‘going steady’ with the latest impressionable thing 10 years younger than him). As a measly two-letter word, ‘no’ should come out of my mouth fairly easily. ‘No thanks’ isn’t much more effort, and it’d hardly be taxing to throw in ‘I’ll call it a night’.
But then, I always reasoned, what if tonight is our last night on this Earth? An old friend once told me that we’re here for a good time, not a long time…
‘Yeah, go on mate. Wainwright. Cheers…’
My eyes snapped open. Shit, not again. OK, let’s take stock. Where am I? My own bed. Great, that’s a start. What day is it – do I have to get ready for work? Fuck’s sake, how am I supposed to know? OK OK, let’s just think. Yesterday was Friday, that means…….. oh God yes! The ‘Saturday realisation’ – akin to a below-par orgasm, in my mind. Now that those two fundamentals were sorted, I could address some follow-up matters. Where’s my wife? Well, she’s not here, so I can only imagine she’s retreated to the sofa. Another uncomfortable night for her. I’m drenched in something. Yeah, I can only hope that’s sweat. Oh God, check my phone for sent messages and social media interactions. All clear boss, looks like we got away with another one.
When drinking reaches a certain stage (the stage where people tend to start throwing around diplomatic words like ‘problematic’) you find yourself perversely wishing for the physical side of hangovers. You’d certainly trade it for what you know you’ve got coming over the course of the day. Come on body, treat me like shit. It’s what I deserve. But even your corporeal form has given up trying to control you; failing to muster much beyond the proverbial resigned shrug. I bounded out of bed like a spring lamb. Kidding myself that the other stuff wasn’t coming; that the blackness wasn’t already en route, special delivery direct to the neocortex, do not pass Go, do not collect £200.
She was sitting up on the furthest corner of the sofa when I got down to the living room; finishing the final mouthfuls of avocado on toast, eyes fixed determinedly on a repeat of Friends she’d seen hundreds of times. The canned laughter rattled through me – laughing at you, 34 and still doing this – as I sat down sheepishly.
‘Good night?’ Delivered with a well-practised flatness, just the merest hint of underlying ice.
‘Yeah, not bad ta’. Delivered with a well-practised carefree air. I remember it, honestly. Just don’t ask me anything about it.
She left it at that; the silence lingering heavily between us. Right on cue, the blackness clamped its iron claws into my subconscious. Guilt so all-encompassing that it smothers you like a thick blanket. Worthlessness following in behind, gleefully hammering the point home; trampling your smothered body, crushing your bones. Self-pity, cringing away like a famished kitten in the far recesses of your mind, ignored by all as chaos rages around it. And underneath it all, the metronomic drummer in this cacophony of despair, a deep and wretched sadness, so intense that you fear that if you did start crying, you’d never stop.
My phone buzzed. Mike. Football on at half 12 – Yates’? She glanced over, but didn’t need to ask. She shook her head softly as I got up and headed for the shower.
‘This’ll kill you one day, Paul…’
She was right, of course. She always was. I was 55. Staggering towards the station for the last train home; ‘a quick one after work’ having predictably failed to pan out that way. Heart attack. At least she wasn’t there to witness it; a consolation act of altruism at the end of a life defined by the inherent greediness of addiction. May as well go out on a high.
She still sits in that far corner of the sofa; still sleeps there when moving is too much effort. The TV’s often on – she stares, but doesn’t really watch. Empty. She hasn’t re-married. As for Mike? He’s still sat at our table by the fire in the King’s Head; the beer long-since replaced with Scotch, thinking that maybe ‘arty’ Radiohead did have something worthwhile to say after all.