Steve Lucas tells the story of a hopeless drunk who longs for a better life, but must first face his demons.
Now, as I watched the razorblade hover above my forearm I felt like I was being hunted. I was prey to some enormous snake. I sensed its forked tongue flicking, tasting my sweat in the air. The serpent would feed on my fear and press its scales against my skin. In a flash those squamous coils would tighten. I'd be the rabbit caught by the looping python as the bones began to snap.
'You haven't got the guts,' my mum said to my dad, '...the guts to leave me or marry me.' My dad said nothing. Then my mum saw me watching through the banisters. I must have been about five years old. 'Don't you grow up like him,' she said, pointing at my silent father. 'Have some backbone. Have courage.'
I put the razor down and lay back. I didn't have the courage. My hands shook. I was in my stuffy room, lying across the subtle peaks and valleys of the mattress. My mind raced with noisome thoughts and ugly pictures that fought like wolves for prominence. I couldn't bear it, lying there in the darkness. I got up and took off my jeans. The window showed me nothing but sad and empty terraces. I ran my palms over the suede of my cropped hair.
I unscrewed the cap from the whisky and took a succession of quick drinks. I sat in the wicker chair trying to slow my brain down. I stared into the glow of the street lamp like I thought a monk might stare at a candle flame. A strange inertia had come over me, filling me with emptiness. I sat by the window. Some unseen resistor to my energy held me in a constant state of flatness.
I thought about my father and the farm. I thought of cleaning out the stables with my brother. I thought of the stone walls we used to lean against to hide from the rain. I remembered climbing oak trees and running through the long grass. Somewhere in those fields my father started to lose his mind. I remembered the day that the doctors came and wondered if the madness was genetic.
I drank until the sun came up. The sunrise brought a glimmer of something close to repose. I took off my T-shirt, crawled into bed and pulled up the musty duvet. I left the curtains open so that the sun could watch me sleep. The big yellow eye dripped something warm that flowed from the rooftops to the gutters and ran down the drains to the sewers and out through the intestines of the city.
My door flew open. 'Wakey, wakey!' Alice wore a tight emerald dress with her bleached blonde hair tied back in a high pony-tail. Closing the door with a kick from her high heel, she threw her head back and stood there like a windmill with a bottle of red wine waving in each hand. 'I've got a job at the bookshop, let's celebrate!' Out popped the corks and one bottle was left to breathe. Alice couldn't wait for the other. She was talking fast and dancing around.
'Cheers!' I said. We knocked our glasses together. It was cheap wine, the kind that seemed to strip the lining from your insides. The first glass was rough then it got easier with every mouthful. By the time we'd drunk both bottles I felt a little better.
'Why don't you go out and get us another bottle?' she asked, pointing at the coins on my bedside table. I went to the corner shop and back. We drank that bottle too. 'I'm supposed to work for the rest of the day. The owner has an appointment which she can't miss.' Alice stood up and fell sideways against the chair. 'Will you go instead?'
'You'll owe me a favour.'
Alice lay on the bed and draped an elbow over her eyes. I brushed my teeth, picked the red spittle from my lips and put on a clean shirt.
The bookshop was cluttered. I tried to keep a good distance from the boss so that she wouldn't smell the alcohol on my breath. She must have been close to sixty and looked as though most of the years had been spent inside poring over old dusty books. She wore a charcoal cardigan and a long pleated skirt that seemed to stop just beneath the solemn shadow of her breasts.
'Alice is sick,' I said.
'Aren't you Norma's boy?' I nodded. She raised her heavy eyebrows at me. 'Do you read a lot?'
'Yes,' I lied. I hadn't read a book since leaving school.
'I promised a customer he could collect a parcel of books at four o'clock. Otherwise I would've closed the shop.' She showed me the till, the orders, the price lists, the chestnut parcel of books for the four o'clock caller, and some books that needed stacking. She seemed nice enough. 'I've got to go,' she said and handed me the key to the shop.
It wasn't a bad couple of hours. A few customers came and went. An old lady with see-through skin came in to get warm. In the stock room I found a bottle of dark rum. I thought I could have a little drink and nobody would notice. I had a mouthful and it tasted really good. I took another and went back into the shop. There were no customers. Behind the counter was an envelope marked 'ALICE'. I didn't open it but I could feel coins inside. I folded it and slipped it into my pocket. I went back into the store room and took another drink of the rum. I browsed the shelves until my finger rested on Jack London's 'The People of the Abyss'. I turned off all the lights and locked the shop at five o'clock. There was no sign of the four o'clock customer. I took the book, the rum and the key with me.
When I got back to my room, I expected to see Alice fully clothed and asleep on the bed. I was right. I put the book, the envelope and the key on the bedside table. I took the rum to the chair by the window. I watched the street. It was quiet. A kid rode by on a Chopper. Then a young couple appeared, arguing fiercely, often stopping to point fingers at each other. They moved on. Alice began to snore. I left about a third of the rum in the bottle and screwed the cap back on. I listened to Alice as she slept. Then I climbed onto the bed next to her. I lay there for a while. I pressed myself against her back and put my arm across her. I fell asleep.
When I awoke, it must have been about midday. Alice, the rum, the envelope and the key had gone. My head was pounding. I went downstairs to find an envelope, postmarked Cardiff and I knew what that meant. I took the letter back upstairs and got into bed. I held it for a while between my fingers. It was from Ricky.
With great care, I peeled open the seal. Inside was a sheet of crisp white paper. There was a drawing of a house and a few words. My eyes moved back and forth, from the words to the drawing and back again. There was also a short letter from my brother, Lee. He said that it was alright having Ricky staying with him and that the boy was doing fine. Ricky had even started drumming lessons. Lee urged me to get some help with my drinking.
My vision began to blur. Clean, salty streaks cut through the grime on my cheeks. I tried to write a reply. After a few clumsy sentences I tore up the paper and started again. I lay back on the bed and stared through the ceiling. I remained somewhere amongst the bedclothes for an hour or so.
I dragged myself out of bed. I walked around the streets. Outside the Post Office I bumped into Alice. She appeared cheerful in the face of my disquiet. 'I got a letter from Ricky,' I said.
'We'd better have a drink,' she replied and led me by the arm to her flat. She took me into the bedroom and opened a bottle of vodka. We sat at the foot of the bed and took turns to drink straight from the bottle whilst passing a carton of orange juice between us. She was still very talkative. Then I noticed a man's silver watch on the bedside. I took a long pull straight from the bottle. It wasn't my watch. Alice laughed and said, 'I don't know where it came from.' I looked at her. 'Are you jealous?'
I got up and walked home.
The blood rang in my ears. I surveyed the disorder of my room. There were cans that were only half drunk, bedding that needed changing, crumpled sheets of paper, a mottled stain on the rug, bills that needed paying, piles of clothes in the corner, three slices of stale bread, an open beer bottle now flat and forgotten, pens without tops, an old photo of my mum and shelves that needed dusting. I felt like I didn't belong here.
For a split second I could see my life from the outside.
My time was spent staring through the window, drinking, resenting money, counting the pennies, sitting in pubs, thinking about death, feeling alone, going for walks, seeing old faces, buying wine from the shop, lying down watching the room spin, waking up with strange bruises, finding small change in a pocket, looking in the mirror, trying to get to sleep, drinking till sunrise, gulping water from the bathroom tap, washing the same dull face in the sink, and through it all, a mind that kept turning over and over and in on itself. These were the things that happened. This was how I lived in Newport.
I sat by the window with a cold case of beer. I helped myself to a few stale crackers. My mind did what it liked. I let it misbehave, like a tired parent, too weary to discipline his own cantankerous child. I finished the first bottle.
I opened a drawer, retrieving a tiny ash grey box that belonged to my mother. I lifted the lid and inspected the engagement ring. I stroked its surface and the hard, clear jewel secured to the top. I held the ring to the light and admired its eclipse as I stared through the window.
I couldn't bear the street. I couldn't stand this room. I was growing tired of this endless drinking. I'd had enough of the relentless drizzle inside my mind, the greyness, the inertia. I'd had enough of myself, my thoughts and my feelings. I closed the box and slipped it inside my coat pocket. I finished the second bottle.
I lay on the bed, closing or opening my eyes for indeterminate periods. I read some of the Jack London book. I felt like one of those people that he was writing about years ago. Before long all those words started to give me a headache. I put the book down and curled up like a hedgehog.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath in through my nose, held it for three seconds and slowly let it out. I wanted to get out of this depression. I wanted to get my son back. I needed a place with two bedrooms. I needed steady, full time work. I needed to cut down on my drinking or stop altogether. I needed to be in a solid relationship with Alice and build a future together.
I had no idea how all this was going to happen.
Alice threw my door open. She had a red Aztec bag in her right hand and a cigarette in her left. 'I've got a surprise for you Ben. Put your shoes on.' We went out into the world. I listened to the bag clink clinking as we walked. She led me down to the river, past the transporter bridge and into the park where we sat amongst the daffodils.
Alice opened the bag and produced two bottles of wine, some dented sandwiches, two little cakes, a flask of coffee and a blanket. We started to talk and, for a moment, it was like an oasis.
'Do you miss life on the farm?' she asked.
'Sometimes,' I said.
We talked about when my brother and I were teenagers growing up on the farm. After dad was institutionalised, Alice used to come over and supervise us once a week while mum went to evening classes. Alice was mum's friend from the support group. I was thirteen when she first seduced me.
Alice took me to the stables to check on the horses. My brother was playing solitaire. It started to rain heavily and we sheltered in the barn. We sat next to each other on a hay bale and we talked about missing my dad and how isolated and lonely I felt on the farm. She put her hand on my leg and then we were kissing. That's how it started. That's when I first fell in love with her.
'The sun's gone,' she said. We packed everything away and made our way back through the streets. Alice pulled some money out of her coat. 'Let's get some whisky and take it up to your room.' We holed up in there and I had someone to sit with at the window. We drank half the whisky and got into bed. 'This is nice,' she yawned. I looked out at the moon and smiled with Alice asleep in my arms. In the morning I awoke to find that she wasn't there. She'd left the bottle but all the whisky had gone.
A walk would do me good. I stood on the bridge by the castle and ran my fingers over the cherub's faces. My reverie was interrupted by the lady who ran the bookshop. Her face was red and her jaw was pulled tight. 'You entered my premises last night,' she said through gritted teeth, 'and used it as a den of unseemliness. I want my key back.'
'Alice has the key,' I replied. She looked me up and down with her fiery eyes.
'Is that right?' She clenched her meagre fists and mechanically walked away.
I went to sign on for my benefits and declared that I had done no work in the last two weeks. As soon as I signed my name the benefits officer puffed out his chest. 'Step into the side office,' he said. This was unusual. I took a seat and another man came into the room.
'You've been seen working in a bookshop. Do you have anything to say?' My mouth fell open and I felt a flush of blood colour my cheeks. I couldn't speak. 'Your benefits will be stopped while we investigate. You could face criminal proceedings.' I left feeling numb.
I went back to my room to find Alice waiting at the door. Her eyes were wide and her nails looked sharp. 'Lend me a tenner?'
'I saw the lady from the bookshop,' I said. 'She wanted the key.'
'Oh, yeah I've still got it.'
'Didn't you go to work?'
'Kind of,' she said with a shrug. 'I took some guy back to the bookshop.' She lifted her head. 'It's my right to do as I like at any time.' She screwed her face up. 'Who do you think you are?' She began to hurl cups, papers and clothing around the room. 'You're a control freak!' she shouted and stormed off. I felt the urge to drink. I fought the impulse and decided to go for a walk instead.
I went to the pawnshop and studied the watches, necklaces and sentimental treasures in the window. I fingered the box in my pocket. I imagined how much I'd get for it. I pushed the door open and a bell tinkled somewhere. The shopkeeper came out through a beaded curtain and looked me up and down. I lay the box amongst the clutter of the counter and lifted the lid. He frowned and held some kind of magnifying glass to his cynical eye and held the ring close to his Roman nose. Then he asked, in a hoarse voice, 'How much do you want?' A wave of nausea came over me and tears welled up in my eyes. I snatched the box and the ring back, shoved it into my pocket and left.
I heard a wolf whistle from across the street. Alice crossed over without looking. A car squealed as the driver slammed on the brakes. Alice gave him the finger. 'I want to make things up to you', she said. 'I'll take you somewhere special.' We headed to the train station. The sky was cloudy but it didn't look like rain. Alice bought the tickets while I went to the toilet so that I didn't know our destination.
'Where did you get the money from?' I asked.
She just laughed and said, 'Don't worry about it.' We boarded the train and Alice sat right up against me even though the train wasn't busy. She wanted to hold hands. I was happy to. We watched the houses give way to the farms and the fields and the green and the countryside. 'Keep an eye out for rabbits and birds of prey,' said Alice.
The train soon stopped at some sort of junction in the middle of nowhere. This time we got off and Alice led me down an overgrown public footpath. I was glad of my porridge coloured coat as it offered protection from the nettles. I soon got thirsty and I was concerned that Alice wasn't carrying any sort of bag. That meant no booze. We came to a country lane and I saw a pub at the top of the hill. I had almost enough money to get a round in and Alice made up the difference. We sat by the original fireplace even though it wasn't lit.
'I love the old wooden beams, the stone floor and the wonky ceilings,' I said. Alice went to get another round in. My mood had lifted considerably. It didn't even bother me that she flirted with the loquacious young lad behind the bar. She had been right when she said that the country air would do me good. We knocked our glasses together. Alice told incredibly funny stories. 'You should write them down one day.'
'Life is to be lived and not to be read about in books.' She lowered her blue eyes and whispered, 'Some stories are best forgotten.'
'It's important to remember things or they get lost forever.'
'Some things are best lost in the past.' She looked away. 'I regret staying away for so long when your mother died. I didn't know how to handle it so I took off.'
'I felt abandoned by everybody. I was so angry. I began to hate the farm, my family...' My voice began to break. 'I even hated the horses.'
'Well, it's all in the past.' Alice raised her glass. 'Here's a toast to the future.' We knocked our glasses together and finished our drinks. For a moment we sat in a kind of lost, glazed-over sadness.
Alice slapped my thigh in a jovial manner and we set off again. We marched over the far side of the hill, climbed a stile and followed the path around the edge of the field. I thought I heard a snake but Alice said, 'It's just your imagination.' She led me around a copse of trees and handed me a hip flask. I took a drink. The brandy tasted even better standing on that hillside.
'What a view!' My eyes were unaccustomed to gazing into the distance. We took a few more steps. Alice pointed to some long chalk lines in the grass. I struggled to make sense of it. Alice laughed. Carefully, we moved down the slope to get a better view of the chalk outline.
It was a white horse.
All the happiness drained from my body, out through my feet and into the earth. To my horror, all I could hear in my head were the gnashing of teeth, the stamping of hooves and the hideous neighs of imminent death. 'I've got to get away from here,' I said.
Alice took my arm and led me back to the train station. We sat on a bench on the platform and waited. I felt it was time to say something. 'I'm growing tired of the way things are,' I said. 'One day I want to live in a proper house with Ricky, like a real family, to have enough money coming in and not be drinking all the time. I don't know what's happening from one day to the next.' Alice smiled faintly and seemed to look through me. 'What do you want life to be like?'
'Here's our train,' said Alice and turned her back. We made the journey back to Newport in silence. We went our separate ways without making an arrangement to see each other again.
I walked around Tredegar Park to clear my head. I saw an old friend of my dad's watching the sunset. He used to help out sometimes with the horses. I hadn't seen him for years. He was a tough ex-miner, covered in coloured tattoos and patches of eczema. His head bore two blazing blue eyes beneath the rim of a tilted pearl grey trilby. He seemed to know everybody in Newport.
'I need a job,' I said.
He smiled and said, 'I know someone who owes me a favour.' We walked to one of the big hotels and he disappeared inside. Five minutes later he came back out and said, 'You've got a job starting in the morning.' We shook hands, 'Start looking after yourself, Ben.'
On my first day I set out the tables, glasses, cutlery and napkins. Then I served the guests and helped to clear all the tables. I helped out in the kitchen and went down to the cellar to fetch more stock. I got fed by the chef but I also pinched scraps. I couldn't believe how much food and drink got wasted. Big blocks of cheese left to go mouldy, bottles of wine uncorked and untouched, whole roast chickens left un-carved.
I got talking to one of the waiters, a young boxing fanatic called Carl. 'There's a high turnover of staff,' he said, 'and a small core of workers who've been here for years. Most people are just passing through. Some come to steal while others just seem to disappear.' Carl shadow boxed and shuffled his feet. 'The hardest thing about the job is the boss. He has "little man syndrome", like Napoleon. We call him "Nappy" for short. Nappy picks on a different person every day.'
The next day I was back in the hotel. There was a conference in the function room. Lots of local business types wearing suits and forced smiles. It was my job to wait on tables. There was a three course meal and wine to serve. There weren't enough waiters. The food came out too slowly. The customers began to get annoyed. The staff got stressed. Everybody with an empty stomach was getting drunk. The atmosphere began to turn.
I was pouring some wine for a fat man in a canary yellow jacket when I looked up to see Alice. She was all made up in a tight dress and knocking back someone else's champagne. She gave me a sidelong glance and narrowed her eyes. The sight of her shook me. I decided it was best to ignore her and concentrate on my job. Every time I glanced at Nappy he had his eyes on me.
As we served the main courses, Alice always seemed to be crossing her legs. She kept laughing with the fat man and playing with his tie. I felt my blood begin to boil. I put her out of my mind. By the time the desserts came she was drunk, dancing and joking with anyone and everyone. I was jealous. I was about to explode. When I saw her place her lips on one of those business men I had to get out of there. I retreated to the pantry and took a few deep breaths. My hands were shaking. 'You ok?' asked Carl.
'I think I'm going to be sick.' I picked up a bottle of red wine and gulped at it. I told myself that I would go back in there and get through the shift. I could do it. I took another mouthful and put the bottle down. I turned to exit the pantry to find Nappy standing there, watching me. He raised his head, cricked his neck and let out a deep sigh. After a pause, he shrugged his narrow shoulders.
I found myself strolling down the high street, just people watching and peering into shop windows. I looked at the rental properties in the estate agents. There were several shabby rooms to let in shared houses and an over-priced flat above a takeaway. Then I noticed an old two bedroom cottage had just come up for rent. It was small and quite rundown but it looked like it had a lot of original features and plenty of charm. It was more than I could afford by myself. I walked on down the street and felt the warmth of the sun as it struggled to break through the clouds.
I sat in a grimy café and nursed a dark, tepid coffee. A dusty bull of a man in an orange vest came over. 'Are you looking for a job?' he asked. 'Someone has just let me down. There's a day's work laying down a new driveway.'
'I'll do it.' We finished our coffees and left together. We walked down Portland Street and on the way to the site he proudly told me of his special technique for making bitumen at less than half the cost of the council.
I worked hard and kept my head down. The bull asked me, 'Why are you so quiet?' Before I could answer he said, 'Well, you're doing a good job.' At the end of the shift he paid me in cash and we shook hands. As I was leaving he called me back and said, 'I could do with another pair of hands on a contract that has just come up.'
'I'm your man,' I said.
'You can start on Monday.' He gave me his business card. 'We're going to build an extension onto the Blind Institute.' I felt good about that.
I went into the estate agents and asked the young lady in the cotton blouse, 'Is the two bedroom cottage by the bridge still available?'
'It is,' she replied.
'I'll take it.'
She flashed me a big toothy grin and handed me a form to fill in. I took out the card and wrote down the builder's details as my employer and put down my day's pay as a deposit. 'We'll need to do a few checks then I could confirm the property for you tomorrow.' I walked out full of nervous excitement. I wasn't sure that I could afford it but I was confident that I would manage somehow. I wanted to phone my brother but then I thought it would be best to wait until it was confirmed. I thought I would have a drink to celebrate, just one. Then I thought I'd better not. I felt a surge of excitement about life and the future. I walked up the high street and felt that I belonged.
I saw Alice walking down the street. She looked good in a short blue dress. She looked like trouble. I felt the urge to go after her. I watched her go to the top of the street and into a pub. I pictured her sitting at the bar waiting for men to buy her drinks. I fought the urge to go after her. A gentle rain started. I scratched at my neck and pulled at my chin. I thought for a minute or so and then headed after Alice.
I didn't know if this was the right time or not. Something inside me said it was now or never. I felt a surge of some powerful urgency within me. I reached into my pocket and gripped the tiny box. I pushed open the door of the Riverside Tavern and walked in. The regulars looked at me. I ignored them all. Alice was sat on a high stool at the bar with her legs crossed. A thick set man in paint-splattered overalls was telling her a story with great whirling gestures of his massive arms. Alice smiled, slowly running her fingers up and down the stem of her wine glass. I marched across the room and stood dumbly before her. She glanced at me, lowered her eyebrows and then returned her attention to the decorator. I eased my right knee down to the wooden floor and reached into my pocket. I took out the box and lifted the lid. The ring gave off the tiniest of sparkles. The decorator stopped his story and faced me. Alice looked at me with wide eyes. The room fell silent. I paused and cleared my throat.
'Alice, will you marry me?'
The barman looked. The decorator folded his muscular arms. Alice crossed her legs the other way. A postman leant forward on his chair and pulled at his greying moustache. The landlord took a step forward and glanced at a bottle of champagne lying in the fridge. The woman from the bookshop lowered her newspaper. Alice put her hand over her mouth. The decorator formed a sly grin. I fixed my eyes upon Alice's. I felt as though my mum was watching me.
I knelt and inside I began to tremble. I listened and waited for her answer. Alice looked down on me. She seemed frozen in time like a waxwork. A droning white noise started in my ears. In my skull I began to hear the sound of the horse. It was the hooves scraping at the earth, the gasping of the bleeding mouth, the tearing of the skin against the wire. The ghost of that horse tormented me with its furious cries and obscene whimpering. How it was bound for hours against that tree, slowly dying in the open air, cutting itself deeper with every struggle for freedom.
I could see myself as a boy. I could see that boy staring at the horse as it struggled to take its last breath on this earth. And I could see that horrific, wide brown eye staring back at us both, helpless and cursing. And I could see the blood running down its powerful legs, collecting in dirty pools which it stamped furiously into the dusty ground. It was the most terrible thing that I've ever seen. You could say that I was only a teenage boy and that I didn't know right from wrong. I knew enough. And at that moment, with my right knee pressing awkwardly down into those sticky wooden floorboards, with everybody watching, waiting for Alice to give me an answer, I finally found the courage to forgive myself for what I did to that horse.