We’re all from the same place in AA, but met in the upper room of Partick Methodist Church. It needed the light on, even for a sparsely attended Tuesday afternoon meeting and the mix and match of hard and dowdy chairs stunk of damp and we kept on our coats. Sometimes referrals from Gartnavel Hospital, which was just along the road, made up the numbers, but mainly that was in the evenings and they didn’t usually hang about for tea or coffee or even a ginger snap at the end. It was the same old faces, rehashing the same old stories with the same punchlines and we smiled like crocodiles on cue. But like any cult group, with that shared camaraderie of the righteous, and that shared need, look behind the saccharine façade and there was more bitchiness and back-fighting than there was in the Royal family.
I was no exception and told myself I only attended now because it was handy. I lived within walking distance, Aspley Street, near the doctor’s surgery, where I worked part-time in reception and passed The Hayburn which I used to drink in and another couple of pubs in the short stretch of road to the meeting. My story was a familiar one to those I was on first name and nodding terms with at the meetings. ‘My name is Sarah, and I’m an alcoholic’ didn’t change over time, even though I did.
I’d started drinking when I was about ten, minesweeping my mum and dad’s parties in the house. I hated the taste, but liked the woozy feeling. I’m not into that thing talking about abuse as if it was some kind of liberation. It did happen, but that was in the past. For many years, most of my life, two divorces and five children, now adults, several dogs and a budgie, most folk thought I was that big woman, with a big appetite and the life and soul of the party that never missed an opportunity to sing or dance.
The truth was there was no truth. Not in me. Not in my life. Sobriety made me a different person. Sometimes groups fashion their own informal sense of omertà, but I’m telling you anyway, I missed my old self and I missed boozing days. The easiest part was getting sober. The hard part, staying sober.
I’ve had more relapses than the number of prisoners that escaped from Colditz every Christmas on telly. Back then lock me in without a drink and it was Colditz anyway. I’m told this was because I won’t face up to the truth, which is true. The good old, I’ll just have three or four drinks and then I’ll stop. It was easier stopping having sex on the crown of orgasm. Drink is the devil of what ifs and maybe. An innocuous single thought, when it takes seed, can strangle you more effectively than Japanese knotweed.
You become familiar with that constant fear that your life is going to change, and there’s nothing you can do about it, you can step out of the traffic and, yet, when it hits you it feels almost like fate.
I first saw her at that afternoon meeting and knew about fatality (and admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs) the beginning of depression, hormonal infatuation, change-of-live lust, or even love, call it what you want, but I wasn’t like that.
‘This is Louise.’ Paddy did the introductions and he mentioned he had brought her along from somewhere squalid in Whiteinch. He liked playing the saviour.
I guess we all did, especially at meetings, in one sense of another. AA was a religion that gave up the power of individualism, handed it over to something bigger than ourselves, because if there was one truth it was our powerlessness and inability to help ourself.
He was balding, portly and hadn’t had a drink for twenty years, seven months and six days. I got on alright with Paddy, but few people did. It was the way he carried himself, as if he’d discovered penicillin and hadn’t just quit boozing. He glanced around at the sprinkling of other men at the meeting and grinned. He dressed in a dark coloured three-piece suit, as if he was going to a wedding, or more likely a funeral, He lived in leafy Bearsden, a house with a big front lawn.
He knew how attractive she was, but she didn’t, which made her more attractive and malleable. He kept patting her wrist as I went through the formalities at the top table and put his hand around her shoulder, drawing her in and smiling up at me.
As the only other woman in the company of alchoholic men, I recognised I was seen here as just another one of the boys. Most of the other men, apart from Danny the hairdresser, had a quick peek to see what she was like.
The bit about a fearless moral inventory comes in here, I was sure Paddy wanted to fuck her, but would dress up his lust in the clothes of some re-shaping a defect of character and making atonement. I’d yet to meet a man that made solid the promise of atonement with his dick, but over the years I experienced it with Paddy, the happily married man, and others who will remain nameless, but also not wifeless. And I’ve have heard tons of waffling and justifications. In some ways, I guess I was jealous.
Louise was a mess that stank of booze and cigarettes as we all had, a younger much prettier version of myself. Around forty, no make-up, with unkempt, brown, shoulder-length hair, nylon blue slacks, skinny as a wharf rat, but with bigger heels. She kept tugging at her sleeve of her ill-fitting brown coat with soft hands and hard-bitten nails, wetting her lips. Quietly crying, with a rocking motion which made her hazel eyes shine. Fidgeting in her seat.
I smiled and with a throaty laugh, went through the usual rigmarole, ‘And if there’s any other business, any other new members want to have a word, well now is the time to speak.’
She shook her head and looked at her shoes. Paddy took her listless hand as she cried some more. God loves a crier.