Content Warning – alcohol, psychosis, self-injury, painkillers, grief, imaginary children.
I don’t remember exactly how long I was ‘missing’ for, in my mind I was never lost. I’m always connected to the codes, live streaming my movements, receiving messages in car number plates and songs and television programmes. I remember long lists of red missed call alerts on my phone, emails from a pretend police officer which was confusing because my family and friends can watch me anytime they want to on the cameras. I remember being declared homeless and refusing a hostel, extending my stay at the hotel a week at a time. I’m too risky for hospital, the crisis house refuses my referral, friends wait for services to provide support but there is no support. I attend assessments and talk in coded clicks and whistles in reply to the endless formal questions about income and risk. It’s overwhelming. I sit on the floor in the council offices and sob. How did I end up with nowhere to go? Where is Derren, why doesn’t he intervene? I sleep in the daytime and sit in the hotel reception each night with a Rubik’s cube and a notebook, after midnight drunk people stagger through the revolving doors clutching pizza boxes and each other. When the night security and reception staff try to make small talk, I’m vague and unresponsive. At some point during that first week in the hotel I hit myself in the face repeatedly and wake up with a swollen purple and blue black eye. After that the staff are kind but keep their distance. They no longer ask me questions.
I start drinking again. One day I am two years sober, the next I am tipping back a can of pink gin stood outside Sainsburys, the fizzing sharp taste calming and familiar. I crush the can in my hand and reach in the plastic bag for another one, relieved that there are six more in my backpack to make the evening pass quicker. The alcohol dulls the messages, the codes are less invasive, the streets are calmer. Other people’s conversations blend together, and the numbing sadness becomes a numbing blurry haze. I promise myself I will only drink a couple of cans, just to get through the afternoon. I sit in my hotel room until the sky grows slowly dark, a creeping, diminishing of the light. Instead of turning on the lamp I go down to the shiny hotel bar, telling myself it’s just to be around people. There are families celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, couples in smart outfits sharing food, and groups of middle-aged businessmen in short sleeve shirts and smart shoes, empty pint glasses and wine glasses lined up in front of them. I sit at a high bar stool and order a gin and tonic.
I wonder around the mall, buying clothes I don’t need, tupperware, to keep food fresh in the tiny hotel fridge, a blanket, a soft cushion. Comforted by my reckless spending, I buy a polaroid camera even though I have no one to take photos of. I will claim expenses from the Derren Brown accountancy firm along with my now two-thousand-pound hotel bill. I walk past Brew Dog bar, groups of bearded men sat outside in the warm Spring evening and on impulse I step inside, four cans of gin drunk already, bought for the walk back to the hotel. I lean against the bar with my shopping bags spread around my feet and a member of staff asks how they can help. I order a drink and they go to whisper with their colleague then return.
‘We just wanted to check if everything was ok with you?’ she says gently. I remember my black eye and I nod trying to sound casual.
‘Yes, I’m fine, I’m just very clumsy. Please could I have a gin and tonic, a double’. I manage a small dismissive laugh which hangs in the air fooling neither of us with its casual insincerity.
Hours pass and the bar is packed in with people, pressed up either side of me dressed in going out attire, smart shirts and aftershave and I’m still stood with my shopping bags, leant up against the bar steadily drinking. A young bar man comes over when I raise my hand and I say spontaneously.
‘I’ve been sober for two years.’
He looks at me, not unkindly and says,
‘So have I.’
and the bar top is suddenly not the biggest divide between us, a customer and an employee, it is a wagon and a lack of wagon, an alcohol problem and a witness. I stare at him, and he looks at me with an intense understanding, then carries on stacking empty glasses in the dishwasher tray infront of him. I realise I can no longer say ‘I’ve been sober for two years’ whilst stood drinking alone in a chaotic noisy bar on a Saturday evening, surrounded by strangers, and a line of empty glasses in front of me, drunk so quickly the ice hasn’tstarted to melt. I feel suddenly exposed. Gathering my composure, some semblance of self-control, I slowly, deliberately put the straw to my lips and finish my drink, then collect my bags together unsteadily. I push gently through the crowded bar and out on to the street then stop three roads down to open another can of gin to numb the shame from the bar man’s gaze.
Outside the hotel I can’t face another evening alone. I look at my watch, it’s only ten to eight. I sit in a bus stop for an hour, every ten minutes a bus full of people pulls into the bay. They are going out for the evening, dressed up for work events, romantic dinners, Saturday night cinema trips, and I’m sat rigid, concentrating on remaining upright on the thin plastic bus stop seat. I place a cigarette between my lips, and light it drunkenly, shopping scattered around my feet, holding a can of pink gin in my hand. I’m pretending that I’m like them, that soon I will get up and carry on my evening, that I’m going out instead of going back to the hotel that looms large behind me. Pretending that I’m not going to drink unsteadily from a hotel mug, alone in my room until it’s time to take more diazepam, a handful of Solpadine, a large dose of antipsychotic and lie blankly waiting to pass out.
Each day I wake up with a headache at lunch time and check my phone for messages, shower, then go to Sainsburys to buy Solpadine and gin. I go to Asda and buy a silver thermos cup so I can stand outside the hotel without people noticing I’m drinking except I still end up decanting tins on street corners. For two days I buy alcohol at the shop next to the hotel and on the third day the young man asks what I did to my hand. I’d forgotten I scraped the knuckles raw on a wall as I walked home the night before. I buy oat milk instead of gin and when he asks ‘is there anything else’ he looks relieved when I say no.
I stand in front of the self-service checkout in Co-op, the video screen reflecting my shame. I have another black eye from hitting myself in the face with a metal water bottle. These supermarket cameras are puritanical in documenting my alcohol purchases, Derren is unrelenting in his condemnation. Sometimes I swear at them, sometimes I wave, pull my hood up to cover my face. Sometimes I think I will smash the screen but mostly I’m too numb to be angry now, low level drunk all the time. As I pile up a multipack of crisps, a salad in a slim plastic container, and a net of satsumas in the bagging area next to cans of gin, a man with a little boy, aged four or five, moves into the perspex self-service cubicle next to me. The clear screen separates us, but I hear the small boy ask his dad for some crisps. The innocence of his request causes a shifting wrench in my stomach, awakening that old well of grief. His father is calm, his voice so kind it causes a lump in my throat. He’s concerned that it’snearly lunch time. This gentle authority and tiny window of domesticity sets off an internal alarm, there’s a shriek buried under the two gins I drank on the way to the supermarket. Are they testing my responses to children, exposure therapy? Is this son my boy? Did he have fair hair? I catch myself on the video screen, my black eye, and turn away from the man andthe little boy who isn’t mine. Packing cans of gin quickly into my bag, burning with shame. I can’t pull my headphones over my ears whilst holding my backpack and packing the bag at the same time. The small boy continues chattering away and I’m not drunk enough to deal with the rawness of the imaginary memories. I look at the cans of pink gin lined up,the pasta salad, the satsumas and I think I will just walk out of the shop, but I need more gin. The video on the self-servicecheckout plays in front of me, immortalised on film, Derren capturing my responses to the young boy who reminds me of my boy who is dead somewhere I’m not allowed to mourn.
Some nights I wait until midnight then wonder into the night to see which pubs are open, leaving it to fate- if the bars are closed then I can’t drink, if I find one that’s open then I’m allowed. I don’t like drinking in pubs it’s expensive and unsafe, but sometimes I run out of gin and Derren is always nearby watching over me. I pass students without coats, taxis spill out from side streets, headlights sweep past, a roving spotlight on a WWII black and white prison break movie that is not out looking for me. I’m an anonymous hooded figure, a lone late night street walker, a mother with no child, a recently discharged psychiatric patient just before taking her night meds. I’m an international celebrity documentarian film subject, a never-ending Truman show nightmare. One evening I sit in the bus stop outside the hotel signing in British Sign Language ‘dead child’ over and over again, until I’m too drunk to light another cigarette and the lights from passing cars are blurred. I stand up carefully and check my backpack twice for my wallet that contains the white plastic hotel key, the only key I currently own. I push crumpled cans of gin into the bin outside the hotel, swing my backpack on to my shoulders and go back inside.
For three weeks living in the hotel, I drink every day. Download an app and reset it each morning, sometimes waking up at five am with a headache and press the button shakily, unsure if I can count that as day one, too much alcohol still in my system to be sober. Then one evening I walk to the river and across the bridge to a different supermarket and buy a large bottle of pink gin. Before this I have stuck to premixed cans, that was the rule. I don’t allow myself glass in the hotel room. The bottle is heavy, it clinks in my bag on the way home. When I get back to my room, I pour a careful two fingers measure into the white mug and drink it down quickly, grateful for the rush of alcohol, the bitterness of the tonic, and then another mugful. I think of the tin of medication in the drawer next to my bed, antipsychotics and sleeping pills and painkillers and I know this is a line. A bottle of gin is the line. I have fallen off the wagon, but I haven’t set the wagon on fire. Before I can reconsider, I take the bottle to the bathroom, unscrew the cap, and slowly pour it into the sink. As the pink gin splashes against the white ceramic, it smells of berries, sweet, and underneath the summery fruit smell, something acidic and sharp. I pour the whole bottle down and wrap it in a plastic bag, slide my flipflops on hurriedly, leave the room and take the stairs to the hotel lobby. I walk past reception and push the bottle down into the rubbish can by the lifts, turn quickly and walk away. Whatever has happened, whatever will happen, I will confront it sober. Or at least I will try.