One night out

credit: katjohnston.com

So, having done the equivalent of move a mountain – ok, maybe not a mountain, but a broken down car – yes, having done the equivalent of moving a broken down car with my own two hands (which, in this case, means prevailing upon my dear friend Anne to look after Rosie until an unknown time), I go out to see my first proper gig since I moved to London 17 years ago.

I think: This is it, I’m going out, I’m seeing a real, live, indie band, and I’m going to love it. YES!

The first thing that hits me when I open the door to the venue is the unmistakeable stink of (apologies to the faint-hearted amongst you) PISS. Please understand that the anodyne words – wee, pee or urine just don’t work in this context. It’s PISS. I nearly faint. As I move towards the actual hall where the band is meant to be playing, I notice there is a bar and then the second noxious odour of the night thunks me over the head: beer.

Finally, I open the door to the hall and am struck not just by piss and beer, but B.O.   The floor in the hall is carpeted. The ceiling is chandeliered. But the overall combination of stink suggests a stained corner under the stairwell of a Parisian train station.

I take a velour-cushioned chair. This is going to be one of those lovely, laid back type of concerts: a man and his guitar, soothing vocals, a violinist, double bassist, pianist… all making mellifluous sounds that lull you gently into –

I can’t get comfortable. I am knotted up on the chair, fingers over my nose, bum clenched because I’m now thinking that with all this carpet and velour and general lack of hygiene, there are bound to be bedbugs. I get itchy. I change seats.

As the minutes tick by, I check my phone several times, texting Anne to tell her how disgusting it is here and emailing my friend in Florida to tell her the same. She is also a fan of the guy I’ve come to see, and I want her to understand that she should in no way feel envious of me right now. I am definitely not enjoying myself.

In fact, time is dribbling by and he has not even mounted the stage yet. There are two opening acts, who have started ridiculously late, so it isn’t until 10 minutes to 10 that the main act – the guy I’ve come to see, Neil Halstead – finally comes on. He does a quick sound check, finds his mic doesn’t work, and gets off. As he walks by, I find myself screaming at him inside my head, saying: You spend your life surfing in Cornwall, writing songs and drinking beer. How would you even UNDERSTAND that some of us here have children we need to pick up, jobs we need to go to in the morning. GET ON THE F*@!!ING STAGE!!!!!!!

I guess you could say I’m tense.

Anyway, eventually he does get on the stage, along with his band, and although I am initially repelled by the fact that there is a beer bottle at his feet, which he dips into every now and then, the music he plays is stunning. His voice is stunning. It’s all just too beautiful. For a moment, I forget everything and duck inside the music. I am there, surfing on those moonlit vocals, lifting my face to piano notes that fall like rain.

And then the other smell starts asserting itself – cigarette smoke. It’s illegal to smoke in public places in the UK, but this is clearly a lawless space and people are lighting up in the foyer. I start coughing and wheezing, and by 10:30, I’ve had enough.

I run down the road, heading straight for Shepherd’s Bush Market station, making sure to avoid eye contact (this area is dodgy). Just over an hour later, I’m back home, Rosie is snoring gently, and my clothes are in the washing machine.

I’ve come away with the realisation that I have really left this kind of thing behind. In my youth, I went to gig after gig, watching every band there was to see (The Smiths, the Pixies, the Jesus and Mary Chain, The The, the Sugarcubes, David Bowie) the list goes on and on. I braved smoke and mosh pits, crowd surfers and screamers. But I can’t do it any more.

I want things to start on time and end on time. I want clean seats and smoke-free venues. I want excellent acoustics. And I don’t want to have to negotiate smells that are better left in a toilet. Above all, I don’t want to be around the stink of beer. I can’t be around that smell. I can’t be around alcohol. Period.

So, next time the bands come to perform, it will be the Purcell room for me – or some other rarefied venue. I guess I’ve just reached that era, hunh?

And for the curious among you, here’s a track from the man, Neil Halstead, playing with his old band Mojave 3. Enjoy, hopefully in the sweet smelling comfort of your own home.

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Plight thee my troth…

Today is our sixth wedding anniversary. Rosie and I don’t go to see Ben. He has an appointment in the middle of the day, making a visit awkward. Instead, we cook, tidy and  take a walk down a scenic street in Hampstead, telling each other which one of the million pound houses we are in the mood to have this afternoon.

“I want that one,” says Rosie, pointing to a maroon-washed three-storey terraced house, “because it tastes of cherry.”

In fact, we are on our way to visit architect Erno Goldfinger‘s former residence for Open House, an opportunity to visit sites of architectural interest in London free of charge. We don’t make it in because the event is ticketed.

It doesn’t matter. The sun is shining, the heath is just across the road and Rosie has spotted a playground. About an hour later, we head back up towards the tube, dropping into the fairy shop on the way. Rosie goads me into buying her something – a pair of ladybird’s wings which she immediately dons – before we pop into a patisserie for a palmier, and then finally home.

Ben and I used to hunt out small finds on Open House weekend. We would marvel at rarely seen interiors, nose about ancient buildings. It was always unique and wonderful. I think this, more than anything else, is why I choose to take Rosie out to Hampstead today. Ben is at the back of my mind, walking behind us, silent as a shadow.

This photo of us, captured as we leave the church for the sun outside, makes us look like a carefree, adoring couple. It says nothing of the troubles that came before or that would blight us later. But there were signs.

  1. Ben had to make an effort to stop drinking in the run-up to the wedding.
  2. I was on hormone pills which left me highly strung throughout the day.
  3. A helicopter kept buzzing back and forth during our service, drowning out the choir (who were singing hymns by Monteverdi, Palestrina and others – all meticulously selected by me, all a waste in the end).
  4. Someone threw a glass of red wine on my dress during the reception while I was dancing. It was an accident, but I was furious (see 2 above).
  5. Ben’s dad got drunk and managed to crush the left-over wedding cake (which we had planned to take home with us).
  6. The day after, our car broke down on the way back to our flat. The rescue effort took 10 hours.
  7. The priest who married us – infamous for his professionalism and sharp humour – turned out to have been a paedophile.

My mum, being a superstitious sort, remembers the cake incident most vividly. She read disaster into my father-in-law’s clumsiness. Looking back now, I can’t argue.

Still, signs or no signs, the ceremony was beautiful, as was the venue (the church crypt). And our smiles, which ranged from half-chewed to open-mouthed joy, were genuine. Ben, for one, didn’t stop grinning that afternoon and evening. I was the one on edge. I was the one trying to organise everything – because I had organised everything from start to finish. And when I did finally let go, one of my friends (who is renowned for her shameless drunken exploits) knocked red wine onto my dress, leaving the glass to shatter around my foot.

The most touching moment of our wedding came not on our wedding day, but during the rehearsal the evening before. That was the day we spoke our vows to one another for the first time – Ben’s eyes turning red with emotion, my smile turning to wonder. That, I think, was our first heady moment of marriage: words spoken between us, witnessed by a handful of people, suddenly airborne and floating like dust caught in a beam of sunlight.

***

A detail from one of the tables at our wedding reception.

My aunt died today. She had a massive heart attack earlier this morning, and went, just like that. She had a crap life. She started out badly, marrying an alcoholic who beat her. She’d defied her mother to marry him, and lived with the burden of his abuse for decades after. She cared for him until he died.

Her eldest son was also an alcoholic. He stole the family’s money, verbally abused his mother and is probably wanted by the police in at least two countries. His addiction has left him physically destroyed. The last I heard, he was in nappies and living with his mother, my aunt. She cared for him until she died.

I didn’t know her that well. She’s my godmother, but I’ve only met her a handful of times. She was a petite woman, gaunt, worn out by worry. I know it’s a cliche, but in her case, I think it’s true: she’s in a better place now. I’ll always remember that slightly demented laugh she had, the bug eyes and tiny bat’s face. She was like an Indonesian shadow puppet – a stick figure gesturing here and there, while all anyone saw were the shadows she threw at the wall.

Rest in peace.

This was the song we chose as our first dance on our wedding night. It is still just as relevant, not just to Ben and me, but to my late aunt as well. 

A cat’s claws sink into my heart

My heart is a songbird in the paws of a cat. Pawed, batted and pawed again until the neck snaps and the song dies.

Today, while helping Rosie in the shower, I hear the front door open. I dash to the landing and peer down, expecting to see Ben slumped against the wall or staring up wide-eyed from the bottom of the staircase.

I haven’t seen Ben for some six or seven weeks, but the slap of the latch against the door jamb slits open my chest, leaving my heart vulnerable to a malicious and predatory cat. Left, right and up, my heart is pinched between its claws for an interminable 30 seconds.

I look down the stairwell. There is no one there. (Paws relax, my heart is my own again.) The door had been blown open after I’d inadvertently left it unlocked.

This is not the first time this has happened. You will recall, several days back, how I went into a panic just because I couldn’t get through to Ben at the rehab centre. And last night, I thought he’d left the centre and come home (false alarm again; it was the neighbours).

Ben is free to go out on his own from the day after tomorrow, I think. Realistically, that must mean weekends. I don’t know because no one there will tell me anything. The only advice I have been given so far is to attend a family group at 9.40 on a Saturday morning. Given Rosie has a music class at just that time, and given it takes us 2 hours to get to the centre, the family group is not really viable for us. Centre staff have not bothered to offer an alternative.

I have reiterated to Ben that I don’t want him to visit us at home. I can’t face him coming up those stairs again. I can’t actually face having him in this flat. At least, not yet.

Rosie is struck by her own worries. ‘When will daddy come back?’ she continually asks me, before saying, ‘But he might start drinking “coffee” again.’ She is just as anxious about him returning as I am.

Any illusion I might have been spinning for myself about resuming a relationship with Ben is just that. As soon as the familiar signs of his possible return announce themselves unexpectedly, I recoil. I panic.

The answer to this whole mess seems so obvious. But obvious though it may be, it is also a tricky answer, an answer fraught with difficulty.

I have one week before I see him again. Ironically, the day we are meeting just happens to be our wedding anniversary. He has not remarked on it and neither will I. I have never been good at remembering our anniversary. I think this one is our sixth.

Anyway, next Saturday, we meet for the first time in about two months. It is bound to be awkward. I imagine I’ll be holding my breath, holding on to Rosie, ready to side-step that sharp-nailed cat.

Rosie

“Mummy, when I grow up, can I be a mermaid?” Rosie is wearing one of her princess costumes – a pink velour tabard with tulle tutu. (It’s a hand-me-down from her cousin. I’m against all things pink and princessy, but I’ve given in for now, hoping it’s a passing phase.) She’s twirling about on the landing while I prepare our dinner.

“Yes,” I say, and she does a few quick skips. I then wonder whether I shouldn’t inject some realism into this discussion. What if she’s crushed by the disappointment of not becoming a mermaid later in life? I think, rather irrationally.

“Actually,” I say, “I think you have to be born a mermaid. You can’t become one.”

Rosie looks at me with serious eyes. “Why?”

I immediately regret my candour. “Well, actually, I don’t know. Maybe you can. Let’s see.”

“Ok!” And she leaps off, lost in a world of glitter and roses.

I’m amazed at how resilient she has proven to be. She “loves big school” – for now – and seems to have settled into her new routine quite quickly. My child minder asked me the other day whether I have to pry the smile off her face when she’s sleeping (actually, she’s pretty sour-faced in slumber). I wonder whether it is obvious to anyone that she is the child of an alcoholic dad, and a mum who has been battling rage for so long that shouting has been, until recently, her default volume. In the face of all this, Rosie’s ability to adapt and carry on is admirable, remarkable even.

But beneath all the mirth and general silliness (she says “poo” at least 30 times a day) beats a bruised and sensitive heart. As we were walking through the park today, she collected some maple seeds (“aeroplanes”, she calls them). “When Daddy comes back from the doctor, I can show them to him,” she said. Later, she told him about them on the phone. “I hid them in a special place, Daddy,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you. It’s a surprise.”

As we get ready for bed, I remind her that we won’t be going to see Ben this weekend. “Why?” she asks.

“Because you have music and then ballet, and Mummy’s tired,” I say. “Is that ok? Will you be ok?”

“I’ll be ok, Mummy,” she replies. “But poor Daddy.”

And then, as she is dropping off to sleep, we talk about the future. “Mummy might have to work every school day,” I say (at the moment, I work four days/week). “But maybe by then, Daddy will be better and he will be able to collect you from school. So it won’t be so bad.”

Rosie is quiet for a bit. Then she says: “But maybe Daddy will start drinking coffee again.” (Somewhere along the way, Rosie has confused coffee with beer, and I’ve not bothered to clear up the confusion.)

“Are you scared he will drink coffee again?” I ask.

“Yes. Are you?”

There are many answers I could give to this question. I could pretend and say something reassuring. But we’re not talking about mermaids any more.

“Yes,” I say, and give her a big cuddle and kiss goodnight.

Within minutes, she is asleep.

 

 

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Over and out

Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Today, Ben and I had one of our usual brief conversations, around Rosie’s evening chats. He’s resumed speaking to us (albeit abruptly with me), and I took Rosie down to the rehab centre on Sunday to see him.

Rosie started ‘big school’ today – her first day at reception (or kindergarten) – so she had plenty to tell Ben.

Even so, we managed to squeeze in a few sentences, some of them banal (So, what have you been watching on TV lately? Me: Nothing, I don’t really watch anything aside from the news. Ben: Yeah, nothing of note.) But his tone ranges from conciliatory to snarky within the space of a few minutes, and he thinks nothing of simply hanging up on me. I guess he doesn’t really know what to think any more.

Nevertheless, today he told me he is happy with the idea of having separate accommodation after he comes out from rehab. In fact, he said he thought it might be a good idea if we did split, after all.

What? I mean, WHAT??

I believe this is what you might call an ‘about turn’. Not him, mind you, but me. You see, I am still mulling all this over, and although I am the one who suggested the separation in the first place, I didn’t expect him to agree quite so enthusiastically.

Rather than feel relieved, I am confused and upset. I don’t know what to think any more. At the moment, I’m thinking, how dare he. I mean, how dare he think it is ok to say these things to me after everything I’ve been through to help him get well again? And has he ever, even once, thought to apologise for what he’s done?

Which then leads me to: yes, it is definitely a good idea to separate.

After which I think, well, no, not forever. I don’t really want my marriage to be over.

And then I remember the drinking: the time he turned up to Rosie’s nursery sing-along performance reeking of drink; the time he arrived late for Rosie’s appearance as an angel in the church Nativity play – again, smelling of booze; the many times he drove drunk with Rosie in the back of the car; the hundreds of times he’s lied to me about his drinking; the scores of times I’ve had to clean up his various effluvia; the times I’ve had to care for him while he was in withdrawal; the hours I have been spending ferrying Rosie back and forth from the rehab centre.

I remember all those things and I get angry, and then I think: yes, it is definitely a bloody good idea to separate.

And then I see our wedding photo and I remember all the great things about Ben – his dedication to his music, his generosity and gentleness, his incredible way with Rosie, and something turns inside me – call it stupid hope – and I don’t know again.

Many of you have told me how hard it is to save yourself from co-dependence. But what about love? On the other hand, maybe the angry Ben is all there is left. Maybe he feels – and I can’t fault him for this – that coming back here will lead him down the same path again, that our dynamic is one very real factor in his drinking.

A dangerous dynamic

I finished reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye a few weeks ago. This passage in particular struck me for its tragi-comedy. Toni Morisson astutely exposes the extreme ends of co-dependence here. It’s awful, but it really made me laugh out loud, because it resonates, even if a tiny bit, with my own experience.

Cholly, by his habitual drunkenness and orneriness, provided them both with the material they needed to make their lives tolerable. Mrs Breedlove considered herself an upright and Christian woman, burdened with a no-count man, whom god wanted her to punish. (Cholly was beyond redemption, of course, and redemption was hardly the point – Mrs Breedlove was not interested in Christ the Redeemer, but rather Christ the Judge.) Often she could be heard discoursing with Jesus about Cholly, pleading with Him to help her “strike the bastard down from his pea-knuckle of pride.” And once when a drunken gesture catapulted Cholly into the red-hot stove, she screamed, “Get him, Jesus! Get him!” If Cholly had stopped drinking, she would never have forgiven Jesus. She needed Cholly’s sins desperately. The lower he sank, the wilder and more irresponsible he became, the more splendid she and her task became. In the name of Jesus.

I can’t say I’ve ever asked Jesus to smite Ben down, but I can say that the notion of the drinking becoming the glue of a relationship – the constant that defines the relationship – is very real, not just for me, I suspect, but for many others out there.

So, what is to become of us? Has Ben really stopped drinking? Is the end of his drinking the end of us? And even if our marriage does end, will I ever stop being the wife of an alcoholic?

 

“Way over yonder in the minor key”

It’s difficult to put into words, this. A few days ago, I had an uncharacteristically candid phone call with Ben. I told him a few truths I hadn’t expected to share with him so soon. He was very calm and understanding at the time, but the next day, when I tried to ring him and couldn’t get through, I fell into a panic, half-expecting him to turn up drunk on my doorstep.

This hasn’t happened. Instead, Ben has resorted to his usual passive aggressive strategy of simply refusing to answer my phone calls. I’ve phoned him every evening since we last spoke, so that Rosie can speak to him (and so I can find out how he’s doing), but each time, I’ve been unable to reach him.

There are two ways of looking at this. Either he is being genuinely passive aggressive and refusing to have any contact with me, and by extension, Rosie. Or he is really working on his recovery.

Each time I ring, they tell me he is at an AA meeting. The AA meetings run until 9pm. Rosie is asleep by then, so hasn’t spoken to her dad for a few days now. And neither have I. I think it’s great that he is at the AA meetings, of course. But what about Rosie?

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be allowed to visit Ben at the rehab centre. But I suspect he doesn’t want to see me – or Rosie. I wish I knew for sure. I wish he would just speak plainly, without all this white noise.

So, is this really it? Of all the ways I imagined our marriage ending, this wasn’t one of them. We’ve had such spectacular bust-ups in the past, it seems out of character to be bowing out without any drama – or even a tortuous conversation.

I expect I’m over-reacting. He probably just needs a bit of time. Fortunately for him, time is what he has. But I can’t help feeling he will never change. This furtive avoidance, this tendency to dissemble, this refusal to confront an issue squarely – all of these things are entrenched behaviours for Ben. I don’t think rehab will address them.

I should be happy, I suppose. Isn’t this what I have been wanting all along? To be on my own? Well, not really. I’ve always expected Rosie to have some contact with Ben, wherever he is. I’m disappointed that he doesn’t feel the same way. I’m disappointed that he is letting whatever bilious feelings he has mustered against me, crowd Rosie out of his heart.

In the end, he will lose out. I don’t need to keep ringing him. And yet, I do feel sad – lonely, even. What can I say? I am on my own – really on my own – out here in London. I sit at my computer or work on my projects, and the futon is empty. The flat is silent. And while I revel in that silence – love it for its comforting constance – I am cast adrift by it.

This morning, I was listening to Midweek on BBC Radio 4. Billy Bragg was talking about his new interpretations of old Woody Guthrie songs. This one caught my ear. Ben and I have broken the frontier of yonder. Our sun sets in the minor key. Our moon rises in extended silence.

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An irrational fear of being doorstepped by my husband

Earlier tonight, I ring Ben at the rehab centre in South London. Rosie is getting ready for bed and I assume Ben might want to say goodnight to her.

He usually does. He’s been ringing us twice or three times a day since we arrived. He rings and hangs up – a cue for me to ring him back since he doesn’t have a phone card to make outgoing calls. Today, he hasn’t rung because I’ve been at work.

So, I ring and ask for him, as usual. Then the lady who answers the phone  says she can’t find him. “He may have gone out with one of the peers to a meeting,” she says. That would be an AA meeting.

A couple of things about this exchange alarm me.

  1. That she can’t find him.
  2. That she doesn’t actually know where he is.

How, I wonder, does all this work? He’s been in rehab for two weeks. I know he’s not locked in, but they are pretty strict there. I presume that they have some kind of system in place to keep track of clients. So, how is it possible that staff don’t know where he is?

About an hour later, I watch a bus go by in the darkness. Passengers appear suspended in strips of yellow light. A dragonfly whirs in my stomach, forces its way up my throat. Any minute, Ben will stumble off the bus and onto my doorstep. Any minute, he will be back in this flat, on the futon, in my head.

He’s already in my head.

Three buses have stopped outside our home. Each time, I revert to the same reflexive twitch of the blinds, the same wild-eyed search for his familiar figure sloping down the drive.

But he doesn’t come.

I hope he is still at the rehab centre. I hope he is safely in bed, reading, or doing mundane chores. I hope he is talking and not drinking somewhere.

My fear isn’t entirely irrational. Last night, we had a long talk on the phone. He told me that he would be permitted out on his own for short visits after a month, and said he would visit at the weekends. “I don’t like the sound of that,” I blurted, before I could temper my words. Later, I told him the thought of him coming back here so soon filled me with dread. I said it would be too hard. He offered to meet at the centre instead.

Eventually, I suggested he speak to his key worker about the possibility that he may not be able to come back here at all after he comes out. I was trying to break it to him gently, but he asked me whether I had any other thoughts “bubbling up”, so I came out and said it. I told him I thought we should separate and that I felt I needed him to be clean for at least a year before I could consider us getting back together again.

He didn’t disagree. In fact, he sounded perfectly rational. He said he understood that I was probably fed up, but that he thought we might try counselling. He said it was obviously “disappointing”. I said I hoped for so many things, but that so many of those hopes were unrealistic. “We have to be realistic,” he sighed.

So, I am lying when I say I rang Ben so he could say goodnight to Rosie. Really, I rang to find out how he was, because I never intended to tell him these things over the phone, at this vulnerable point in his treatment.

Now, each bus that drones by is filled with portent. Each creak and shuffle downstairs hatches one dragonfly after another in my belly, until they swarm up into my lungs, blocking out the air, blinding me from sleep.

Just now, I flicked the button on the deadbolt to the front door. With that engaged, it is impossible for anyone to unlock the door from the outside.

Now I know for sure he won’t come. Not inside, anyway.