This story is by Charlotte Taylor and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Doesn’t everyone tell little white lies to doctors? We all overstate how much exercise we do, and understate how much we drink, surely? I don’t think the physician believed me when I told him my numbers: he had an odd pursed mouth as he shone a yellow light in my eyes, and I think I heard him sigh. Maybe he was just concentrating on working out what was wrong with me. I couldn’t help him, I couldn’t remember. I recall leaving the plush hotel, and the doorman asking if I needed a cab. Maybe I tripped over, caught a loose slab perhaps.
That must be it: I fell for some odd reason, hit my head and everything went black. I’m sure the doctor will patch me up and I’ll be on my way soon. I need to get home to my children, check they do their homework properly. The office can wait until tomorrow, I’ll tell them I was sick again. Yes, it will all be fine.
Lindy’s decision that it was “not too early for a cheeky mimosa” gave me hope that the PTA brunch meeting wouldn’t be a complete waste of time. I had regretted getting involved in what seemed to be a group of queen bees vying for supremacy, but after I promised Sarah and Dominic that I would become more involved in their school – and their lives in general – the PTA seemed like a good place to start.
I was barely listening to Lindy’s monologue on annual fundraising priorities as I drummed my fingers on my lap – quietly and out of sight, so no-one would know I was willing the waiter to hurry with my drink. When the tall clear glass of effervescent nectar finally appeared, Lindy had moved on to art supplies for two of the teachers. (Was one of them Sarah’s teacher? Or was that last year? I couldn’t recall.) I had already finished half before noticing that no-one else had even taken a sip, but the apparent breach of etiquette didn’t slow me and I cherished the sensation of cold bubbles running down my throat. Too much orange, not enough champagne, or even prosecco. I raised the flute again, and relaxed as Lindy’s navy dress burst into magenta.
I was grateful that the empty glass gave me something to fiddle with while another of the dozen women sat around the long table gave an account of the wonderful trips funded last year from PTA money-raising efforts as vivid blue rippled over the tablecloth. I couldn’t take any credit for these , but thought how next year I would be able to say that I had helped, my children would know that I had made an effort for them, and they would be proud of me. When the waiter removed the glass I drew breath to order another, but realized I would be the only one having a second. I didn’t want to stand out on my inaugural meeting. I wanted to at least pretend to fit into a world where 11am is regarded as early for a first drink and one is enough.
But as I sat through yet another tedious self-congratulatory speech about something I didn’t really understand and cared about even less, I felt my fingers beginning to twitch again. I tried to ignore it, to do something else. I wiggled my toes, swung my foot, fidgeted on my chair until I got a couple of sideways glances and felt I had to stop. Sitting perfectly still I saw the colour fading away. I was looking at Lindy’s glossy chestnut hair, intently, trying to distract myself, but saw only drab grey. The green curtains framing the window beside the table were moving gently in an unseen breeze and dissolving into beige. I knew this feeling, and that I had to do something fast to stop myself slipping further.
I made some hurried excuses, gathered my belongings and left in more of a rush than intended. Lindy barely paused for breath, though others watched my departure with envy or annoyance – possibly both. I had planned to go to the office following the meeting, but as I put on my coat in the reception before stepping outside into the chilly bright autumnal air, I realized I couldn’t wait and turned back to find a bathroom. As I pushed open the outer door to the ladies, I would like to say that I paused or had second thoughts, but my legs propelled me through into the cold white sanctum of a small cubicle. I flipped down the lid and sat, simultaneously fumbling in my bag for the hard ovoid bottle that had taken up residence there. I pulled out my prize and twisted the lid, the red cap shining bright as a beacon, drawing me in.
The first mouthful barely registered, but the second brought a jagged pain of relief. I felt the world come back into focus and burst into brilliance. Just one more, I told myself, knowing that it would be at least another three or four before I would force myself to stand. My head inched back over the line to the state of fuzziness that was so familiar, so comfortable, so colourful and I let out a long sigh.
The tepid vodka didn’t feel as good as the first drink that day, taken after Sarah and Dominic had left for school and Gregor for work. The very initial swallow – especially on an empty stomach – is always the best, and it’s the knowledge that I can make this dreary world come alive, sparkle and dance, that keeps me getting up each morning. I haven’t got as far as stashing a bottle in the bedroom, though I’ve thought about it. It would probably be the final straw for Gregor, finally something he couldn’t ignore. So my wine lives on the rack next to his – but replenished more often – and the vodka is kept in the kitchen, in a cupboard. It’s not hidden, but I doubt any of my non-breakfast eating family have noticed it behind the cereal boxes.
My watch told me that I needed to get to work, but at least now I could travel there on a golden chariot and it would be a good day. I stowed my precious cargo, closed my bag again and exited the bathroom, glimpsing the conclusion of the PTA meeting. I quickened my step, not wanting to see them, talk to them, have to explain myself. The doorman nodded at me and I stepped out into luminous sun.
I’m being kept in overnight, they want to check my head injury and run some tests. Something about liver function. They think I might drink too much but don’t want to say this out loud. I know I do, but I can stop if I want to. I’ve done it before: I didn’t touch a drop when I was pregnant with Sarah or Dominic, nor when I was nursing. Probably three or four years when the most exciting thing I drank was elderflower spritzer made with expensive cordial. I’m not an alcoholic, I don’t want to swig the hospital hand sanitizer. It’s only really wine and vodka I’m interested in.
I never used to drink much before the children, and I can’t recall when I started drinking every day. Maybe after the children started nursery and I went back to work? I used to enjoy a glass of wine in the evening, kicking off my shoes and sinking into the squishy sofa. I felt calm and in control, and enjoyed sharing a drink with Gregor and chatting through our day. Sometimes we would meet for lunch, and it felt incredibly naughty to have a drink then. I loved going back to work encased in flashes of brilliance, the walls of the office dancing red, orange and cerise and the sky always brilliant azure. Someone once laughed that I came back wearing rosé-tinted spectacles, I was so much happier after those lunches. We don’t do those anymore, Gregor is always too busy now.
I don’t know when Gregor stopped having a glass of wine with me at home or when he started to go up to bed alone, leaving me to finish the bottle. I know he doesn’t like how much I drink, especially when the children see me a little tipsy at night or slightly foggy in the morning. They don’t like me drinking at all: I think I disappoint them, but they aren’t in charge, I choose what I do.
I won’t tell the doctor, but I don’t want to stop drinking, I just couldn’t bear it. I need to live in a world of vibrancy and joy. I need to feel alive, and happy, and confident. I can’t cope with the world that others are happy to inhabit, of gloom and shadow. Maybe I’m selfish, I probably am. But as I glance down at my twitching fingers, I choose colour.