“Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personality.” So spoke the group leader, Brian, a man in his early fifties with shaggy, brown hair greying at the temples and a straggly, salt and pepper beard that he had probably had well before beards were in vogue.
“We have a new group member tonight, would you like to introduce yourself?”
He was looking at me. I was still getting my breath back after my late arrival. I hesitated, not quite sure if it was too much of a cliche. “Hello. My name is Claire and I’m an alcoholic.” That’s what they said in the films and TV shows. A ripple of applause went round the room and the man sitting next to me murmured “Well done, Claire.”
“Welcome to the group Claire. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?” said Brian. “It’s not compulsory, it is completely up to you whether you say any more or not”.
I had rehearsed it all so thought I may as well go ahead. “Sure. I’m a journalist and a writer, not a very successful one”. I laughed a small, hollow laugh, checking the expressions on the faces in the room. They all seemed serious and appeared to be listening. “I’ve always liked a drink, just beer when I was younger but now it’s wine and sometimes vodka. At first I
thought I wrote better stuff after a few glasses of red. Suppose I fell for that whole thing about booze fuelling the creative process, you know, Dylan Thomas, Dorothy Parker etcetera. Well, I can tell you it didn’t. It all got a bit out of control and eventually I couldn’t write much at all, or not anything that was any good.” I paused for breath, were they swallowing it? The gazes from around the room were sympathetic, a few people were nodding.
“My behaviour was pretty bad, always late for everything, missing deadlines, cancelling appointments because I was too drunk or hungover. My boyfriend left me, most of my family dis-owned me, the work dried up”. I let my voice crack a little. “I’ve finally realised now that things have to change.” Was I laying it on a bit thick? I finished and the group clapped, louder than they had before.
“Thanks for sharing, Claire, that must have been very difficult for you.”
Not that difficult, I had always been a good liar. I smiled a thin, wan smile and effected a melancholy air as I surreptitiously surveyed the room. It was a church hall that had seen better days with peeling paint, a scuffed parquet floor and chunky cast iron radiators under the tall draughty windows which were letting in the autumn chill. The ten or so group members were sitting on plastic chairs arranged in a circle in the middle of the space. Bit of a cliché I thought. All human life was there, men and women, old and young, well dressed and down at heel, all with an air of despair or sadness about them, poor saps.
On the opposite side of the circle to me was a familiar face, the one I’d been told about in confidence. A man in late middle age, craggy faced and balding with a grey beard. He was dressed completely in black: leather jacket; denim shirt; straight leg jeans and expensive looking chunky heeled boots. I tried not to stare at him.
I waited for the man to speak but as the hour drew to a close he hadn’t said a word. Clearly I had got that wrong, not everyone had to speak, so much for the movies.
Week two and I was back. Most of the people from the week before had returned and thankfully the man in black was there too, dressed in black again. Forty five minutes of the hour passed without a squeak from my man. I was feeling pretty despondent, then one of the women who had been speaking finished.
“John, I think you want to share this week,” said Brian. The man in black coughed nervously.
“Thanks Brian. My name is Johnny and I am an alcoholic. I have been sober for 732 days.” The group applauded. I lightly fingered the phone in my jacket pocket but was afraid someone might clock me switching in on to record. I’d have to try to remember what he said.
“Last Thursday I was at the UK Music Awards in town with my old band mates and the champagne and brandy were flowing. Everyone was in a really good mood because Roger’s niece had been nominated for an award. I hadn’t enjoyed myself so much in ages, it was brilliant to be back with the lads, just like the old days”. He hesitated and cleared his throat. “A new PR girl from the record company didn’t know my history and handed me a glass of bubbly.” He paused again and shuffled his feet a little. I could see droplets of sweat forming on his forehead.
“I just got caught up in the whole thing. I took the glass…” He paused again. “Then I stopped, took that second to think, forced the memories from the back of my skull, those hellish two day hangovers, the rows with Suzie, the rehab.…” His voice was breaking up as he finished. “I put it down but it was close, too close”. Another, longer round of applause broke out in the hall. The people on each side of him clapped him on the back.
Week three and I was at home, sitting at my desk, no meeting for me tonight. The Daily News website was open on my laptop, its headline dancing in the light of my reading lamp.
“Exclusive. Johnny Fury: how I nearly sank back into booze hell.” I smiled and poured myself another glass of red wine.