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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by Ed Bruce

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Long before Care in the Community, I had a job delivering Twinings tea to mental homes all over the south of England. These were invariably secluded, opulent buildings in immaculately tended grounds. The inmates who helped me unload the plywood chests seemed so contented with their lot that I often pondered their quality of life against that of a long distance lorry driver. I may have become better informed had I accepted an invitation to attend a New Year's Dance at one of these stately home hospitals, but I declined - it was already April. When I did get to experience life on the inside, as a patient, I was no longer curious about the ambience or architecture. I didn't care much about anything.

Bartholomew arrived a few days after me, on his mother's jewellery-clad arm, carrying a half-open Gladstone bag with the gold sash of his purple dressing gown hanging from it. Vaguely curious in my Valium-induced, half-detoxified state, I raised my head from the book I wasn't reading, deafened by the clattering of his shoes on the polished wood floor. God those shoes! I swear the soles were an inch thick - an heirloom perhaps, regularly re-soled by succeeding generations. My gaze wandered from scuffed grey corduroys to elbow-patched tweed jacket, to soiled violent red mohair waistcoat, to silk cravat. His face was pasty white from the unkempt quiff of streaky fair hair to the small pointed chin - a childish face belying middle age. The artless aristocrat would be one of our group of ten assorted alcoholics on the four-week programme starting Monday. I was reminded of a patronising employer, a tied house, feudal injustice...and a broken marriage.

We met in the Brockleigh Manor drawing room, a chamber that could've held two one-bed council flats stacked one on top of the other. Still thinking about my half bottle hidden in the driveway hedge, I positioned myself between the Adam fireplace and the exit. We'd been told (but mostly forgotten) each other's names, listened to a lecture, watched a video documentary in Welsh with subtitles and were sitting amidst the embarrassing silence of our first group meeting.

At twenty-five, Mary was our youngest member by far and she it was who disturbed our nervous lethargy with her horrendous tale of a desperate, addictive life. Such confessions, commonplace at AA meetings, seemed unreal when told to total strangers by one so nubile and attractive. As the youngest of seven girls she had been the favoured one, but now she carried on her fragile shoulders the guilt of having been out on a bender while her mother died of cancer. How, she asked, could she learn to live with that?

Individual horror stories were dredged up as in a game of brag, until Bartholomew spoiled the game by folding his cards without showing. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I don't seem to have the same problems as you people do. I'm only here to learn how to control my drinking." His discarded brogues were parked beneath his chair. His red socks clashed with the plush blue carpet.

"Control it?" asked Mary incredulously. "Your mother's probably mortgaging the mansion to pay for your bloody treatment and you don't want to take part?"

"How dare you! Do you really imagine I could sink as low as you?"

"God, this is all we need - an alcoholic who thinks he's different." Although the pupils were dilated from recent drug treatment, her eyes were wild and accusing. "The only way you're different Bart is that you've never had to share anything in your life! Trust me, there's no soft option here. Tell him Allan!" She turned on our resident mentor who shrugged but said nothing, an attitude he was to maintain throughout.

Inspired by our grandiose environment, when the others had gone to lunch I acquainted myself with the décor and Bartholomew's left-behind shoes with their clog-like upturned toes. By my side stood the pole used to open and close the high sash windows, while above the fireplace an ornate picture hook supported an engraving by William Blake with descriptive text.

The afternoon started with an educational lecture, followed by role-play spiced up by Mary and Bart's hostility. Later, in the relaxation class, we were asked to lie with our backs on the floor and imagine we were looking down upon ourselves sitting by a cool stream on a sunny day. When we opened our eyes we could see Bart's shoes, laced together, hanging over the immortal words "And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England's mountains green?"

The four weeks were emotionally exhausting. Bart never got the hang of washing up, far less cooking the odd communal snack, while Mary gave up complaining about his disruptive influence on the group and tried convincing him about total abstinence. At the close it was she who compiled a list of members' contact details, which she copied and handed round as we parted. Many of us remained supportive by means of the telephone but when Mary's phone was cut she and I exchanged letters on an almost daily basis. Six months on and just before Christmas she phoned from her sister's flat and I knew right away that she'd had a slip.

"I'd ditched that lazy bastard I lived with, redecorated the flat, sorted out my money problems, then who do you think shows up?"

"Are you all right Mary? You sound a bit..."

"Pissed? Yeah I'm pissed - and I can't get back to Brockleigh. They're saying I can detox at home, the silly sods!"

She became maudlin and incoherent. I didn't get the rest of the story. I thought of visiting but I lacked the moral strength.

Mary's body was found in her flat in mid-January. At the inquest, because of elapsed time, the coroner was unable to establish cause of death. Police described the traditional debris of tablets and empty bottles. Her sisters explained that experience had taught them to give their feisty sibling a wide berth when she was 'back on the sauce.' Since Brockleigh, but especially from the time she got rid of her partner, Mary had been coping well, attending regular AA meetings and planning a career change away from the licensed trade.

I knew how she'd died; we'd all been there or pretty close. The uphill struggle just to get back to square one, failure, followed by yet more guilt. Her motivation, which had inspired us all, told me that she didn't make the decision to start drinking again on her own.

Confirmation came from Mary's next door neighbour. She told how weeks would go by without any contact. Not that she minded since she couldn't stand the boyfriend, but their friendship resumed once she'd kicked him out. Then one night she came home late and saw a pair of men's shoes lying by Mary's door. Thick brogues, she said, as if they'd been left there for somebody to clean. She took it as a hint that she should stay away for a bit.

In my anger I thought of Blake's poem set to music by Charles Parry, the one with lyrics that no one at Brockleigh could explain to me. 'Bring me my spear! O, clouds, unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire!'

By the time I reached Guildford I felt calm enough to phone Bart for directions. His mother answered in the familiar controlled voice of one used to being in charge. "I'm afraid you're too late," she said, with a trace of distaste, "dear Bartholomew passed away two weeks ago..."

After a while I stopped hating Bart. We had, after all, agreed we could call on one another for support. Knowing Mary's feelings about his shoes I can imagine she just didn't want them in her flat. With hindsight I doubt any of us would have been strong enough to insist he left the vodka outside too.

I've read up on William Blake but I still don't know what Jerusalem is all about, although the hymn continues to haunt my waking moments. Like tonight watching Last Night of the Proms, I see hundreds of Barts in Union Jack hats belting it out in front of the conductor. Are they better informed? "And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills." I don't think so.

I close my eyes and find my inspiration in Mary's infectious laughter - a very scarce commodity at Brockleigh - on that one and only occasion, the moment when she first realised what was hanging above Blake's immortal words.

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