Sport 9: Spring 1992
This was not to be the first AA meeting Bede had attended. He had gone to one drunk once. His mood on that occasion had been of a high, psychical lurching between tearfulness and anger, more poorly satirical than exploratory, and he had been ashamed of it afterward.
Some wet, yellow leaves stuck to a dampnessBede stepped across them and was within a hall set up as if for some grim parish dance. The scents of Christmas lingered darkly, stalely, like those of unappealing cake. Indeed, a few paper streamers still remained in places, looped between rafters. Three men sat about a table set on trestles. There was a little scullery, too, where a well-dressed woman of middle age stacked sudsy cups and saucers beside a large, inverted teapot. She grinned at Powell in greeting: because someone at the table was speaking she mouthed a silent welcome.
Bede knew enough to find a place with an ashtray. When he had settled into his chair he noticed with interest that Dr Lardwrist was one of the group. Of the two men remaining, one was small and simian and the other large, with a wide forehead and a complicated jawline. His skin shone with the closeness of his shave. He had a look of intelligence and reserve and, as the meeting got going, seemed always a little surprised, further amused, by its changes of gear, its formal evolution. His biceps moved in his thin, sporty jacket with a massive, global ease.
'We welcome our visitors,' said the little man who looked like a rhesus monkey. He had visible tufts on his cheeks where his razor had not reached. Nature itself was making a display of his nose and cheeks. They glowed page 57 sexually. 'My name is Brian and I'm an alcoholic. Each week, as you know, I visit the prison to carry the AA message. I'm always encouraged when prisoners have the heart to come out into the world, albeit briefly, to address with us their problems of alcoholism and drug dependence. Brendan here is with us tonight to listen, learn what he can, and perhaps share his own story with us. Meanwhile I'll call on Dr Lardwrist, if I may, to make a start. Doctor?'
At a rugby match, everything interested Bede but the game. In the present, however, he found the simple, human formulation of the meeting congenial. The high-coloured man who had spoken seemed to have chairmanship of a sort; his hand rested on a book as fat as a Bible. In a cheesy light redolent of dead festivity, Dr Lardwrist pulled himself into a semblance of polite posture. His spectacles were shillings of opacity for a second, then Bede glimpsed the watery intelligence behind them, blue, eyes in diffident search of something. They rested at last on Bede's, smiling a kind of apology.
'Well,' said the doctor. 'There's at least one young man present tonight I didn't expect to see here. Twenty years ago I would myself have laughed at the possibility of my ever venturing out on a night like this to attend an AA meeting. But there you are, stuff the weather, I'd go anywhere for a drink. Gin. That was my go. I bought it by the case, anywhere but here in town. Once I was signing, drafting a cheque with much artistic licence when the guy asked, you know, wasn't one case a day enough? Pills to start, pills to stop, a bottle hidden here, another there. I thought in terms of the discipline of addiction. Wow. But with the best will in the world, with all the skill of a memory trained in a study of medicine, I really ended by having a very sketchy idea of what I had taken, was taking. My car was a chemist shop. With all the stuff I was using, I had to invent a patient. There are certain drugs . . . that helped my drinking seem orderly and moderate. My surgery glowed like a dynamo. One night, two gents arrived. In no hurry, nice manners. But they weren't taking seats. You stop, they said. You clean this act right up. Because if you don't we'll take away your right to practise medicine.'
Lardwrist closed his eyes. He settled back in his chair. The woman Bede had seen in the scullery joined them quietly. The man with the handsome jaw, the criminal, had parted lips. The slant of his body in his chair, diagonal but bulky, was that of a skilled listener. If this was Lardwrist's party piece, page 58 Brendan, for one, had never before heard it.
'Believe me or believe me not,' said Lardwrist, 'all I had ever wanted to be was a doctor. And what had I become? These men threatened my very identity.' He opened his eyes. He looked at the ceiling. 'You know, there is a sense in which it is our personalities themselves which are threatened by our addictions. Our characters too, of course. I was lucky. I turned myself over to my colleagues. The light in my surgery went out that night. It stayed out for a good many months, terrible months. In the first weeks among other things, but forming a sort of dissonant climax to a crescendo of lesser horrors, I had a heart attack. I dropped like a celebrity on the Hanmer Springs golf course. Had it not been so painful it might have been funny. My return to any sort of physical well-being was slow. So too my climb back into the old mental cockpit. But in this latter I found AA indispensable. Today my attendance at its inconvenient little meetings is an essential part of my sobriety. I don't know why. AA, it seems, is more than the sum of its parts. There's a mechanism at work here we don't, we can't understand. Like men with sloping brows crowded about a bonfire in some Neanderthal winter of the spirit, we're here because we have to be. Let me just add that I am very grateful to be here tonight. I yield the floor, Mr Chairman. Thank you.'
Dr Lardwrist closed his eyes again. He straightened himself in his chair with his hands on his belly and sniffed, once, fastidiously. Bede saw that Brendan had enjoyed the performance, was not now sure he would like what might follow. The chairman spoke again.
'It's always refreshing to hear from you, Doctor. Perhaps at this point I might ask one of our visitors from Quest Clinic to say a few words. Perhaps the gentleman with the . . . ?'
Bede saw that the chairman was inviting him to speak. He had determined not to, of course. This decision, however, became suddenly irrelevant. In the present, newly engendered circumstances, only a second or two old, Bede felt a swift dissipation of his nervousness, his feeling of being a stranger to this group. It was moved aside like a screen to reveal a competence or skill Bede had forgotten himself to possess, an older thing than diffidence or pride. Composing his features into a smile of shrewdness, Bede spoke, if only in self-defence.
'With all due respect, I feel that I can do little more than introduce myself. My name is Bede and I'm an alcoholic.' There was a formal murmur page 59 of welcome. Bede took pleasure in this; it suited him to be speaking thus, and he continued. 'When I arrived at the clinic I talked with Dr Lardwrist about matters. I found it easy enough. I found it easy because I was less than frank with him. The fact of the matter is, a certain amount of bitterness was creeping into my thinking. I had tried to stop drinking and couldn't. I was only at my best at my work at the garage after a decent liquid lunch. I could remember, you see, a time when my drinking had been heavier. Perhaps it had also been less desperate.'
Bede felt what he had said formed a modest but finished bolus. But his audience wanted more. The chairman had not prepared himself to speak again so soon. There was a lull, a scratching rupture of continuity as the chairman's hand searched for a matchbox behind the big book in front of him on the table. Michael Hart took the opportunity of standing, restoring his chair to proximity to the table, and walking off in the direction of what looked like a lavatory, a door near the entrance. The chairman drew his matchbox toward himself across the table.
'Perhaps, then,' he said, 'our friend from . . . Yes . . . Brendan, was it?'
Brendan was ready enough to talk. As the chairman lit a fire in his pipe (a fire which seemed to spill, though green and oily, from the pipe's bowl like water), Brendan turned his palms to the company, knitted his fingers, and flexed and cracked his knuckles. Perhaps he would speak at length.
'I'm alcoholic and my problem is Brendan.' The chairman had made a success of his pipe. He looked with alarmed, candid eyes at the speaker as if at some senior, more lushly-pelted ape. 'It is certainly a pleasure, a privilege to be asked to speak on my first visit to your group. I was born in Dublin, as my accent may tell you, at a very tender age, a good many years ago now. I guess I got up to all the usual childhood drinking pranks. By the time I was fifteen I was getting drinks all over. I had a mob of older brothers and had to be a part of their shenanigans. My eldest brother, Tommy, had me in a club for the boxing by the time I was sixteen. Of course, I was away at work b' then, a yard man with the coal and what have you. Get away to sea our Tommy had told me, and I did, I off in the end, the worst thing I ever did, so far as the drinking was concerned, but not at first.'
Though Bede was interested in this, though it promised to provide an explanation as to what Brendan was doing in gaol, Bede felt there to be another, peripheral circumstance he should be attending. It might, he felt, alarm him if he could just bring it into consciousness. Brendan's clever facial page 60 mobility continued to tell a story, perhaps funny, in which there was more than a hint of sagacity. But Bede did not hear it. He was fitting a cigarette to his lips when it became clear to him why he was troubled.
He stood. He pocketed his cigarette. Like someone trying not to break a film projector's beam, Bede ducked with grace away from the table. He seemed to whisper a word of apology. His shoes knocked like clogs on the wooden floor as he crossed to the toilet door. He had a glimpse of the night without, felt its chill on his shoulder. He could smell, for an instant, foliage as he passed the hall's entrance. The door beside it swung inward. A light was on. The sole porcelain urinal chuckled and hissed at nothing.
There was a mirror, also vacant. Bede combed his hair at it. The Bede in the mirror smiled at Michael Hart's escape. He had strayed like an electron, blithely, obliquely. Bede lit his cigarette and inhaled with relish.
Reckoning that he had had time to pee, he opened the door and returned across the reverberative boards. Lit orangely from above, the faces and hands of those present had that waxen lambency Bede associated with the poker table. The folds of the chairman's pipe-smoke were plastic enough to have achieved blueness. Powell watched him as Bede resumed his seat. He returned Powell's look with a shrug, showing him empty hands: He's not in my pocket.
'When I was arrested for the robbery for which I'm now doing time,' Brendan was saying, 'I had no criminal record. I was living the life of an alcoholic seaman whose funds were running low. I had a room in a boarding-house in an unfamiliar city, an idle port. It seemed to me that shipping was at a standstill. In what policemen used to call a 'disorderly house', I bought a pistol. Why? I had enemies. They followed me home to my crummy room, they populated my nights of crashing delirium, they came and went in whispers. They could only be bought with rum, appeased by the focus in a pistol's hateful eye. I was smoking a lot of dope, other people's ganja. My severance money was dwindling. I was mismanaging whores, I was mismanaging money. There was a bank near where we drank. The scale of the thing appealed to me, to what was left of my reason. By some queer chance I had seen that often its security video camera was not switched on. Picture it. I hadn't changed my clothes in weeks and wore one of those plastic, rubbery Groucho Marx masks with the glasses and big moustache, something I'd seen on TV. I was affable but firm. And just as if it was all a part of the game, as she piled up the money in front of me with every page 61 appearance of having done this sort of thing before, she switched the camera on with her toe, I saw her do it, as if adding some new touch or other to her makeup.'
Brendan grinned at the company. Powell leaned close to Bede.
'I'll have to do something unpleasant,' he whispered. 'I'll have to ring the police when this is over. They expect it.' He scowled.
Bede heard the whistle of a Zip from the scullery.