Had a visit from a friend who lives in the village whom I shall call Karin. She should be in recovery but has no intention of stopping drinking.
I had made a very simple triumph of a supper — canneloni tubes stuffed with cream cheese mixed with chopped baby spinach, topped with a homemade sauce of tomato puree and basil. According to the Italian cucina purists, I should have made a bechamel to cover that, but it was fine as it was. I set out a bowl of finely grated Parmesan for sprinkling.
Karin, slumped on the sofa and tetchy at not smoking, had that pouchy look. Some women alcoholics while drinking get flushed and develop damaging little threaded networks of spider veins on their cheeks, along with nasy open pores on the nose and a daunting purplish hue as time progresses. Others have a sickly pallor and get to look emaciated with that Miss Haversham look of the mouldering bride, a greenish tinge and haggard, perpetually shocked and corpse-like. Yet others go yellow and bloated and pouchy, eyes puffed into slits, with a bulging stomach and swollen ankles, and you look at them and think ‘jaundice!’. This last is Karin.
She drinks alone until the small hours of the morning. Then gets up at noon to feed her pissed-off howling dogs and repair the damage. Black coffee and greasy carbohydrates. A snifter of brandy at noon. Then she gets through the day drinkless until early evening when the wine regains its allure. While I was overseas, she went off to the doctor and told him she was depressed and had no idea why. My, those SSI anti-depressants get confused by the odd litre or three of wine! She has developed a scorching heartburn and has fits of hiccups now. She says the meds aren’t working.
Do I try to point out the obvious? Yes I do because ignoring this particular elephant in the living room is too tedious. But she says she should go on a diet. Get a new doctor. Try different meds.
Alcoholism is insanity, pure and simple. At some point the nightly binge drinking is going to spiral out of control and her health may deteriorate very suddenly. But unfortunately many alcoholics have the constitution of a great dumb fucking ox and we can go on drinking to excess until we literally keel over and drop dead.
So the conversation wasn’t lively or amusing. Active alcoholics have all kinds of ‘no go’ topics in conversation. They don’t like to recall the geopgraphic escapes. They don’t remember the late-night phone calls, they don’t find anything very much to be of interest. Family is better forgotten. Oh the guilt! And health is such a lousy topic. The spiritual only appeals during a certain stage of drunkeness. Alcohol is a major depressant so they are genuinely depressed and miserable. Only when sufficiently drunk do they want to go over the lost loves of their lives, the failed opportunities and the vengeful desires to get even, the sparkling dreams of success and happiness that lie ahead in the future.
I had some more of my divine canneloni and sipped more grape juice as I watched this gloomy woman eat lifelessly and sit like a discoloured sack of potatoes in front of me. Outside in the early evening the birds were singing loudly and sweetly, the spring evening was scented with jasmine and the garden white with flowers.
I don’t know if I can call her a friend. I care about her but she doesn’t care much about me and she certainly doesn’t care about that small hidden self within who wants to live. I was once there too, sodden with drink, flushed and irrational and vomiting at dawn, dreading each day and wishing I could die without having to endure the process of dying. (Alcoholics are fond of shortcuts.)
It is such a sad disease. And the truth is that we don’t stop until we have to stop. After she left, eager to get home to the boxed wine in the kitchen cupboard, impatient for that sensation of giddy drunkenness and not caring what comes after, I washed up and played some Shostakovitch, the sweet lively music drifting out into the garden, hints of wild Polish mazurkas. Life all there to be celebrated.