arts / Personal / Sobriety / songs / writing

One Day At A Time

This post is dedicated to Jonathan, who died in his sleep last Friday night.

For friends not absent

How old was Melville? someone asked.

That past tense told me everything.

This is the way a life ends, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with an overheard casual question.

I remember you coming into our Christmas party with Trekker
you were both well pissed but amiable with it.

You sat at my table and we weren’t able to make much
conversation because you were well past that stage when anything you said made
much sense, and you lurched off into the night, carrying my prayer with you to keep you both safe.

You were very much there last night and not only with those at the meeting who remembered you by name.

One said:
Remember that time an angry drunk came in?

And he shouted:
You’re all a bunch of phoneys.
I know you’re all drinking on the sly, every last one of you?

And one guy stood up and said:
I don’t drink, but I do know that if go out there drinking again, it’ll be the death of me.

That man was Melville, he said.

And I thought: You did. And it did.

I remember my friend Jock, who took pity on you and took you in and
found you more than he could handle and had to ask you to leave.

We’re all difficult sods to live with or to love, but perhaps
what that incident proved is that pity isn’t enough for us.

People spoke about your good humour, drunk or sober, the things
you said to newcomers which helped them, how even drunk you would welcome them and tell them to keep coming back.

As you did, Melville, even though there came one time too many when you weren’t safe in these rooms, but out there, where death came stalking.

Sitting there, clutching my grief to myself, my first meeting in
a month because I’d been feeling the stuff screwing up my head was only
remotely to do with alcohol, I could almost see you up somewhere in peace, with
all those others who stopped coming, who died, not necessarily from booze, and also those who never got here at all, friends who choked their massive talent on breathed-in vomit, and some still struggling now with an existence that’s barely a life, lived from one pint glass to another, like my friend with the sweet tenor voice, Stewart, who never drinks his Guinness glass dry without getting a successor to take its place while he still has a quarter-glass left, like Mac who says he drinks to kill the agony of his disintegrating spine, and with a pain perceptible in his most manic laughter.

I think of Ellen, who gave me some of her poems and then took an
overdose before I could tell her what I thought of them.

I still come across them in my many piles of paper and I shall
keep them for ever, not because I think they are all that wonderful, but they
seem to me like a piece of herself she gave me, and I may not destroy it without
destroying the part of myself where she will always be.

I have changed the names of everyone mentioned here, because
this is an anonymous programme, and we place principles above personalities.

But to me these people can never be anonymous, and though
Melville is not your real name, I keep your real one close in my heart, remembering
always that in the midst of death we are in life, and this is all we can give
to one another:
ourselves, our experience, strength and hope.

And, yes, our weakness.

Because that is where our real strength lies.

January 25, 2000

The colour of mourning

Yellow is the colour of mourning in China, I’m told, but here in Bradford we dress in black and put on long faces, sitting on hard pews remembering the man the priest refers to all the time as our brother Melville.

 It’s amazing how many have made it here to church this Tuesday afternoon.

There’s the usual crowd  from all the meetings he used to come to, sitting sober and solemn in their Sunday best such as it is;
you wouldn’t believe how much casual gear could be in any colour so long as it’s black.

 And on the opposite side a couple of his drinking buddies;
one has hitch-hiked all the way from Ipswich.

They call him Bobcat but he doesn’t act at all wild, though some shift uneasily in their seats when he participates rather too audibly for their comfort as the spirit moves him.

It is not the holy spirit that makes him so emotional, of course.

He injects a note of reality into the proceedings, for all his indiscipline;     this, after all, is why we here:
his interjections seem to me like true acts of worship, especially when he cries out “thank you” at something said which touches him and the priest replies, gracefully, “you’re welcome”.

 It would be good, I think, if one of us had been asked to testify on what he meant to us, for it’s clear that this priest knew him hardly at all, except as someone who’d knock on the back door to cadge the price of a pint.

I brought the poem I wrote when I heard he had died, not really expecting there’d be a place in the service for me to read it, but hoping all the time, I could give it to someone who might identify with it.

In the end I hand it to Ben when I drive him to the cemetery.

He looks over the first page cursorily.

“That’s good, that is,” he says eventually, and rolls it to put in his pocket.

“Hand it on to anyone you like,” I say.

“I will,” he says, and I believe him.

 But Bobcat is the only one who really seems to know what it means to have a friend taken to the grave by booze because he’s living there now, right in the battlezone.

It is so unfair.

Melville hadn’t taken a drink for a day at least, and this is what killed him:
withdrawal convulsions.

The security guard found him lying across the door of his room in the hostel and called the paramedics, but when they got there he was past saving.

If he’d gone out drinking that night, or if he’d accepted the help available all round him, or had kept up his meetings, we might not be here, mourning a young man of 46 who had so much more to live for, who gave us so much to love for.

But then it’s idle worrying about “if only” or “what if” or even “why”.

He’s gone to a better place, we tell ourselves, and I believe it’s true.

 Outside the church, the congregation flows around Bobcat like he was some kind of industrial effluent with a bad smell.

Somehow, he gets himself a few miles away to the graveside.

He shouts at an embarrassed section of mourners at the graveside:
If you ever think I’ve forgotten him you just come and tell me.

Determined they should understand, he repeats it:
If you ever think I’ve forgotten him you just come and tell me.

 Not knowing how to respond to his very real pain, trying out words in my head that might help him to avoid following in Melville’s footsteps, and failing to find anything that wouldn’t be an insult to his humanity, instead I hold out my hand in silent friendship.

His grip is amazingly strong.

And then he taps me for a quid.

I smile and shake my head and he looks at me back, straight in the eye, seemingly with no malice.

 How was it? someone asks me when I have driven away.

“How was it?”

I can hardly say.

But I take off my dark clothes and wrap a yellow silk tie around my neck in recollection of the sunshine Melville brought into my life.

Mourning ends; life goes on.

There’s a meeting at my church where I think they may be discussing Section 28,

But before I go to preach a gospel of love of all the myriad shades and colours of human personality our world is blessed with, I try to write these few, inadequate words, hoping there’ll be time to read them later to a group of people who never knew him, when I arrive close to the end of the writers’ group.

 And try to let the memory of his laughter dry up the tears I haven’t got round to crying yet.

February 2-8, 2000

Song: Drinking up the sunshine, and drinking down the moon

Tossing down the whisky
Supping the red wine
Living on the cakes and ale
Having a good time
Dancing while the fiddler plays
Another drunken tune:
I’ve been drinking up the sunshine
And drinking down the moon.

When I was a young shaver
Some 14 years or so
A sniff of the barmaid’s apron
Would get me on the go.
I tried to hold my liquor
To hold it like a man
To drink the day into the night
Every time I can.

I’ve danced upon the tables, boys,
I gazed upon the stars
Lying where I’ve fallen
In the gutters by the bars.
I’ve fallen for the beauties,
Been enchanted by the crack
And I’ve felt the world go round and round
As I lay upon my back.

I’ve slept upon the last train home
And gone right down the line
I’ve fought with total strangers
And with many a friend of mine.
I’ve been the greatest lover
Fell asleep upon the job –
I’ve looked into the mirror
And I saw a drunken slob.

I destroyed the very things I loved,
Smashed my darling in the face
Like a rat upon the treadmill
I had left the human race
Till someone one day said to me,
It really made me think:
My life could be worth living
If I never took a drink.
Can sup and walk away
But the pint that drives me crazy
Is the first one of the day.
I jump on to the carousel,
I become a legless loon:
Drinking up the sunshine
And drinking down the moon.

The times are getting better
As I see the days go past
They’re better seeing clearer
Than the bottom of a glass.
One day is all I need to live
Right in the here and now.
Each dawn’s a new adventure
Tomorrow take a bow!

Never mind the whisky
You can keep the wine
Life without the cakes and ale
Is having a good time.
Dancing while the fiddler plays
And I can hear the tune.
I am living in the sunshine
And sleeping with the moon.

Bradford, 1995



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