The Middle Way – a short story

Before now, I have often joked about drunk me. I would come into the office to find a package on my desk. Drunk me ordered a book I wanted but couldn’t afford. I would claim to find this lack of self-control irritating, but of course I was pleased. It often seemed that no one knew me like drunk me. The gifts were thoughtful, modest enough, like a new lover waking up early to buy fresh bread.

It was a sort of running joke in the office, albeit one that I initiated. My colleague across the low pinboard partition would peek her head over the parapet to ask, ‘What did he get you this time?’ But of course I didn’t believe in him. I just ordered things online when I was drunk. Some people watch porn, others start arguments with strangers or climb into places where trespassers will be prosecuted. We share a desire to become unfamiliar to ourselves again, to be shaken until we feel our bones ache and our mouth dry and our eyes sting in the light. We desire to bring ourselves back to consciousness.

I would not say that I am an alcoholic, but the idea of never drinking again scares me. Imagine waking every morning to find you have brushed your teeth and gone to sleep, the right way up in bed, with the curtains closed at a reasonable time. What if you never again felt the old familiar heartburn? What if you were stuck in a prudent limbo of considerate boredom? Never saying things you dare not say, always observing boundaries, keeping up with email correspondence, every day until the indistinct day that you quietly throw your toothbrush in the bin, pour the milk down the sink and lie down to die. No, drunk me must live, and someone had to feed him. God, I don’t know.

*

Are you screening my calls? You’re never around when I call. And by the way, your greeting sounds stupid. You sound like an accountant. It says the 35 is due, but you know they always… Anyway, this was just to say don’t wait up. I’ll leave a pint of water by the bed.

*

It wasn’t that drunk me was harmless, and grew violent. Drunk me has never been like that. Sure, there are the petty victories. Knocking over traffic cones, that sort of thing. But never real fights. I brought him up well. No, the problem was that I began to rely on him. It got to the point where my eyes were more brown than green.

(To explain: the inside rings of my irises are a clear grey green, like a shallow river. The edges are brown. When it is light, my eyes look green. When it is dark, or I am drunk, my inside irises contract, and my dilated pupils are ringed by brown.)

It was as if I had a celebrity for an identical twin. People I didn’t know often stopped me in the street or tried to friend me. I would receive texts: ‘Mate you were hilarious last night.’ And they would try to explain to me – they would – but inevitably they would fall short of capturing the moment, and shrug, and say, ‘You should have been there.’ I would try to laugh it off, precisely because it mattered a great deal to me that I was missing the salient moments of my life. I would go back to my room and stare at pictures of drunk me with beautiful girls, free pouring mescal into their hungry chick mouths and belting out the lyrics to songs I didn’t like.

I did, at least, have better taste in music than him. I am thankful that he never bought me gifts to educate me in his image. Never once, when opening a new package, did I have to endure the sight of a Killers CD. Somehow, as much as he channelled the party spirit, he would always come back to me melancholy, drink his black tea and eat his pasta and pesto. I picture him ordering me Chopin’s nocturnes, played with such moving grace by Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy, before turning his brown eyes to the dirty pan, running his finger along the inside for a last taste of basil and pine nuts, and shuffling off to warm my bed.

Drunk me slept deeply. He snored, though it never bothered me. I was never awake to leap the great divide between our selves; I always woke early the next day as if for the first time, suddenly and screamingly conscious. Green eyes pinpricks. Anxious, bored. Boring. Incapable. His was the life of excess, one I had knowingly ceded; mine the life of laundry, clothes horses, ironing boards, whites, darks and colours. Someone had to lay the groundwork, and he was too carefree to wonder whether there were socks enough for tomorrow. He could only live his life free of burden because I supported him but, in return, he did his best to make up for my shortcomings and involve me in his ever-expanding social circle. Sometimes, he would arrange a brunch for me and put a little note in my phone. Sometimes, he would leave women in my bed and even, once, a man.

I don’t want to be judged. But it’s important.

He would leave women in my bed for me. I haven’t told anyone this. Every woman I’ve ever known, I have met in a looking-glass world where we begin in bed, and fall apart, and meet properly in the kitchen over coffee. I wake up, and she is already lying next to me, so close I can feel the heat emanating from her skin, eyelids contemplating flight. If he was thinking ahead, he might have left me a post-it note, stuck to the underside of my desk, with her name written on it. Otherwise, I am on my own. She is never ugly, as the cliché goes; on the contrary, she is normally too beautiful to be here. She wakes, and the first thing she sees is me. My nervous blinking, my green eyes.

Most of them leave quickly after that, gathering up their clothes and covering their breasts with their forearms. What must have seemed like a fun idea in the night has curdled by morning. She followed one man back here, and has fallen in with quite another. It is an adulterated promise, a sleight of hand, and I have learned to expect their rejection. But some of them don’t mind, or even seem to notice, that I am a stranger. The only woman I have ever loved, for instance, opened her eyes to me, and her expression filled with warmth. She kissed me lightly on the mouth and gave a contented hum. She was lying on her side, and she fell now on her back, gently pulling me on top of her. She held my cheek and looked guilelessly into my eyes. We were naked, prelapsarian, born in the moment. We had no names, no histories. There was only the rising and falling of our breath.

What do you do when you are not the only person to love somebody? What would I have done, if I had loved two people at once?

*

You’ve got to meet this girl. She’s sat in the lounge. I can’t get my head round her. I don’t have the words, maybe you could describe her. She can’t see she’s too good for us, which makes me think she must have poor judgment. Hang on she’s coming.

*

That morning, we turned the world the right way up and got in the shower together. Her dark hair clung to her temples and neck. We couldn’t stop smiling; fancy meeting like this. I washed her carefully, planing water off her arms and breasts. She was under the stream and I was out of it, shaking with cold and spent adrenalin. She laughed and shook me by the shoulders. We had not yet said a word. I didn’t know if we spoke the same language. What if she only spoke Spanish, or Russian? We held each other’s waists and stared solemnly. She grabbed my hair and dunked my face in the spray.

‘Quite a night,’ she said eventually, in a language I could understand.

‘Was it?’ I asked sheepishly. It upset me to think of drunk me taking her hand and running down the glistening tarmac from a bar to a club. I covered my face, pretending to wipe water from my eyes.

‘It was fun,’ she said simply. ‘But it would be nice to get to know you.’

I knew I was in love because I wanted to watch her even when she was doing something mundane. Her life was a solo, so that even tapping the portafilter to empty out used coffee she kept time in neat triplets, one stressed, two unstressed. I used to work in a café and, contrary to popular belief, most people like their coffee sweet, weak and milky; but I like to feel it course through me, sharpening the edges of consciousness, bringing me to a state of heightened sobriety. Anything but moderation.

I opened the cupboard.

‘What’s this?’ I asked.

She came up behind me and put her chin on my shoulder.

‘Oh, that.’

‘Where did it come from?’

There, on the middle shelf of an otherwise empty cupboard, was a loaf of fresh-baked bread.

‘I went out earlier,’ she said. I picked it up incredulously. It was still a little warm. ‘I borrowed your keys. I hope you don’t mind?’

Minibar empties littered the place like bullet casings. When she turned away to make toast, I picked up as many as I could see and placed them without noise in the recycling. I didn’t trust myself with full-sized bottles, so I would buy them individually in 75 ml hits, but rather than being put out, drunk me would simply shuttle back and forth between flat and off-licence, picking them up one at a time until he had drunk a litre and paid for two. The local 24-hour shop now had them double-stacked. It was a high price for a strategy that was more speed bump than barrier.

The coffee had finished pouring and I turned off the machine. We brought our mugs with us as we walked around the park nearby, strolling like survivors or surveyors past an old well. We slid, hand in hand, down a bank into a wooded area, and took it in turns to smash our empty mugs on a boundary wall. The noise pelted birds out of branches, and they took flight, crying while falling, some of them swooping low enough to trouble the tops of ferns. We pressed on into thicker woods, jumping a barbed wire fence that warned trespassers would be prosecuted.

Midway through the day we found ourselves lost in a darker part of the forest, the pathway having long since overgrown.

‘Do you know the way?’ I asked. Smiling mischievously, she took off her coat and threw it on the ground. I raised an eyebrow. She put both palms on the nearest tree and one foot on a low branch.

I watched her climb. She was athletic and didn’t follow the route I had picked out from the ground, thrusting for branches out of reach so that she sometimes broke contact with the tree altogether. My hangover combined with the fear of watching her fall to make me so dizzy I had to sit.

Soon, she had climbed so high that the tree began to bend. She had two feet on one branch, clutching the trunk like a mizzenmast in a storm.

‘Come and see this!’ she shouted down.

I stood and began to climb the tree, ignoring the acid climbing my throat. Onwards, I told myself. There is no other way.

When I reached her, I could feel beads of sweat trickling down my ribcage. I stood awkwardly on the same branch as her, the whole tree now listing dangerously. The branch began to crack under our weight and in one lithe movement she wrapped her legs around the trunk, suspended.

‘I have to get down,’ I said.

‘No!’ she laughed.

‘I have to,’ I said.

‘But look.’ She pointed to the field of treetops, gilded by the high sun. Ahead, they fell away. There was a large, solitary house, and beyond it, a church. We were nearly level with the spire as its clock struck decisively, once. Not far beyond that, neat suburban rows gave way to a crowd of buildings jostling into the city like commuters.

‘We’re so close to home,’ she said sadly.

Some strong urge made me reach out to her but the branch snapped under me and I fell onto a lower, more solid branch, cutting my leg and nearly falling to the forest floor. My heart beat hard. She overtook me on the way down, dropping gracefully from branch to branch, as if the direction of travel was not her concern.

Sitting in her flat that evening, we bickered only half-jokingly when I refused to let her put a plaster on my leg. She got up and went through to the kitchen before I could absolve myself, the slight sourness hanging in the air. I contemplated sharing her. She was an infinity, and half her affections were a whole. She was not divisible like me. On the contrary, I even dared hope she might reunite me.

She came back with an opened bottle of red wine and two crystal glasses. The glasses knocked against one another, tolling like a faraway church bell. It was night. A gale rushed through my gut and up my throat, expending itself as a low sigh. She smiled knowingly and poured the wine.

‘Why don’t we have wine later, put on a film?’ I asked.

‘I’ve poured it now,’ she said.

I nodded slowly.

‘Will you sit with me?’ I asked wretchedly.

When she saw the look on my face, she put down the bottle and sat, throwing her legs over mine, and pulled my head into her heart.

‘Of course I’ll sit with you,’ she said. She stroked my hair. ‘I’ll sit with you for all time. Now cheer up and drink your wine.’

‘I will,’ I said. ‘But not yet.’

*

We were supposed to be sharing. I was doing you a favour and now you’re trying to – what? You mean nothing to her. You’re nothing to me. You think I wouldn’t shoot myself in the foot if it gave you a limp? No one’s ever going to look at you again.

*

I opened my eyes and the light came in. A wave of nausea rolled past. I looked across. She was not in bed with me any longer.

My heart knocked like a bailiff at my ribs. I tried to rationalise. Maybe she was in the shower, or out buying bread. But my body felt the truth and wouldn’t hear words.

Seized by terror, I checked under my desk for post-it notes. I went to my phone but everything was blank: no texts, no emails. All the numbers had been deleted except my own. The history showed one call at around 3a.m.

I listened to the voicemail several times. There was nothing else to go on. I remembered nothing that had happened since around 1a.m., when we finished our first bottle of wine. My body would have been moving, my mouth moving. Now, I had to live on as if I believed in my own continuity. I hit myself in the temples. I tried to retrace my steps. We had bickered a little, but only playfully. I was sure of that. Gentle teasing. We had not known each other for long enough to bicker. Only people who weren’t getting on bickered.

But what had happened next? Without evidence or a witness, my night remained an unreported crime.

Since I didn’t have her number, I decided to look her up on the internet. She was probably out buying bread. I looked over to my dresser: my keys were still there. I would look her up. I must have asked her name. I couldn’t recall it. My hand searched the underside of my desk again absent-mindedly. Perhaps the post-it note had come unstuck. I got down on my hands and knees and felt a powerful nausea swelling up. Saliva came, and tears. I rushed to the bathroom and vomited a viscous, black liquid until there was nothing left. I stared dumbly into the bowl. It looked like crude oil, or squid ink. I couldn’t help but imagine I had finally spilled all the words I wanted to devote to her, that they were to be flushed away. I didn’t know her name. I had never known her name.

I was incapable of fixing this on my own. I pulled my jeans on, gritting my teeth as the denim rubbed against the gash on my thigh, and went out, half-dressed, to the off licence. The shop keeper looked at me wide-eyed as I walked in the door.

‘A bottle of brandy, please,’ I said. ‘A proper one.’

‘You’re not getting anything from me, sir, you are barred.’

‘I’m – what? Since when?’ I replied.

‘Since today. I will not be serving you again. Please go.’

The other shop assistant appeared from behind an aisle, staring grimly as he cradled a price gun. There must have been some misunderstanding. I would sort it out another time.

I went to the local supermarket instead, and picked up a couple of big bottles. It was a long, unsteady walk and I didn’t want to have to go back. I also threw in a few bottles of red wine, in case she wanted a drink later. I went to the back of the shop, where the bread aisle was. No one was there. As I turned back towards the tills a young boy held his nose and mimed a smell to his mother. Then, at an unbearably loud self-checkout till, two of my cards were declined.

The morning was dragging out. I wondered what day it was, and whether I was supposed to be at work. I looked up at the sky. The clouds were a white soup of altostratus, indistinguishable even from each other. For all anyone could tell, the sun was already over the yardarm.

I struggled through my front door and down the hallway, where dust collected in iron-grey clouds. I put the bags down and flexed my arms, hunching and relaxing my shoulders. I unstuck an old newspaper from the coffee table and put down the bottle of brandy. I sat and stared, wall-eyed, at the crossword. Drink a North Pacific salmon in everything (7). I didn’t have the strength. I looked at the bottle. I was probably hungry. I went over to the cupboard and it was empty, the remains of the loaf stale and solid where it had been left out on the kitchen table. I didn’t open the fridge. There was a weird smell and I didn’t want to find out more. Her fridge had contained neat rows of technicolour fruit, eggs arranged along an egg rack. I went back to the brandy. I needed calories from somewhere. My hand shook. If I had a little now, I wouldn’t have to think about it. Denying myself would only give drinking the dangerous romance of prohibition. A capful, like medicine.

*

We need to deal with this. I’m going to wait up with a cup of black tea, and watch old films until you come back. I want to warm your cold hand on mine. I worry about you. I wouldn’t know that we live in the same flat if you didn’t sometimes do my washing up. I know that we keep different hours, but I feel as if – I know, I know, I’m drunk – but I think you’re avoiding me, because you know what it will mean to see me.

*

It is dark, and a bird is singing on a branch outside. I imagine it swooping low to build speed for its upward ascent. I am lying on my side on my sofa, saliva connecting my open mouth to the cushion that has been propping up my head. I am staring at a DVD menu which is playing a clip of music on a thirty second loop. I desperately need the toilet.

My urine is dark yellow, almost brown. I must be dehydrated. I go over to the sink and look in the mirror. My left eye, which has been squashed closed by the cushion, is brown and dilated. My right eye, scorched by the glare of my laptop screen, has contracted to a clear, grey green, like a shallow river. I am no longer of the night, but not yet at the gates of the day, where I might hide in newspapers, coffee shops, trains.

No, I am not there yet.

I fumble for the switch of the floor lamp. My bones ache and my mouth is dry and my eyes sting in the light. I will talk frankly with myself, now, as I have meant to do for some time.

 

First published in Structo 13.

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