Studley, mid 2016. My gastric health continues to improve and, somewhat unexpectedly, I’m not missing the pub at all. Unfortunately, I’m not as well as I’d imagined and persistent knee and back pain begin to blight my daily existence. The family GP – struggling to determine the source of this unexpected infirmity – eventually declares it to be a ‘body shock’ reaction to all the consistent damage I’ve subjected myself to over the years. Consequently, codeine tablets and morphine capsules become my constant companions – the latest in a formidable line of prescribed medications and no doubt further evidence of my addictive nature. Though without them, I fear becoming permanently incapacitated. At least two days of every week are spent immobilised in bed, drifting on a narcotic-induced stupor.
For the most part, I cope rather well with a constant stream of illness besieging my delicate frame. Every day seems to throw up – literally on occasions – a new imposition for me to contend with. There are other times when I simply break down sobbing, cursing my misfortune and declaring myself unfit for being. Mum remains a constant source of help and encouragement. How on earth she manages to cope with all of this is simply astonishing.
Occupying all this booze-free time proves to be a challenge, so seeking an outlet for a previously dormant creative streak, I decide to take up photography. I soon find it to be a steep learning curve but enjoy the process immensely. One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that I’m a slow learner, due to being easily distracted and having absolutely no powers of concentration.
Virtually every day, I reflect on Steve’s suicide and desperately try to recall any signs I must have forgotten, but there’s nothing. Try as I might, I cannot fathom any logical explanation. I analyse and obsess but an answer remains frustratingly unknowable, so I decide it must have been my fault all along. Then I blame others. Then I blame myself again. Then I try to forget I ever knew him in the first place. Bereavement – only the second instance in my life and hopefully the last – proves to be a whirlwind of emotions down the darkest of memory lanes. Grief bears no purpose and smothers without prejudice.
It goes without saying that I have too much time on my hands, but I’m fortunate in that I don’t seek solace in alcohol. I rarely leave the house – perhaps fearful of bumping into any of my ‘pub buddies’ and thus having to provide a plausible explanation for my absence. Though anyone with a crumb of common sense would’ve figured it out for themselves. Strangely, the urge to drink myself unconscious appears to have vanished. In that respect, I feel blessed and for the first time in my life, I begin to enjoy my own company. Spending practically all of my time in the pub meant I was often surrounded by people, most of whom I knew. Now, left to my own devices, I learn to appreciate solitude and not being swathed by the endless chatter of others. An unfortunate consequence of this is I become more sensitive to noise – mainly other peoples’. In addition, I value my privacy above all else, so anything perceived to be a breach of that is met with extreme irritation and plans for fiendish retribution. I learn of Chinese whispers circulating the Lion regarding my absenteeism and worse still, I become the subject of deeply malicious gossip – my pet peeve. Certain so-called friends’ attitudes toward me turn toxic and multiple daggers pierce my back. I feel betrayed and deeply hurt. I thought these were buddies for life but, sadly, the opposite is true. A few kind souls – true friends – text or call me to see how I’m getting on and I remain forever indebted to them for their kindnesses.
November 2016. A fresh start is required. With the house marketed and sold within a week, Mum and I decide upon a move to Evesham. It feels just far enough away from Studley and all my bitter memories. We purchase a charming bungalow tucked away in the corner of a new estate still largely under construction. At first, I welcome my new surroundings and the possibilities for a relatively new life. Evesham offers a level of anonymity that Studley could no longer provide. Oddly, the sound of nearby building work doesn’t bother me in the least. However, some of my existing ailments take a turn for the worse and brand new ones come into play. As the pain in my knees and back becomes unbearable, the daily dosages of both codeine and morphine are increased. I quickly develop a high tolerance to these medications, so I’m prescribed slow release morphine capsules as an extra combatant. These prove to be effective only 50% of the time. After a hastened X-ray, the new GP finally diagnoses the longstanding problem – medium bone degeneration in my left knee and fibromyalgia in my back and both legs.
Wherever I’ve lived, the focus of all friendships have begun in and centered around the local pub. All my remaining friends are either drinking buddies or former workmates who used to accompany me to a number of Worcestershire-based watering holes. Having swore off alcohol for almost a year, I figure the odd pint here and there won’t hurt. Quite frankly, I no longer enjoy the taste and my capacity for binge drinking remains a distant memory. It staggers me how much I used to put away and how often. However – and even though I should – I’m not about to declare myself teetotal. I’m far from perfect and happy to remain so. In my experience, perfection remains a tedious and overrated anomaly.
One cold and drizzly December evening, I make a beeline for the nearest pub – The Cider Mill – to hopefully lay the foundations for new friendships. Walking through the front door, I immediately feel ill at ease. This is not your traditional boozer. From the outside, it resembles exactly what it is – a two storey house converted into a pub. Inside (quite literally) the lounge, I am met with a range of hostile faces. I consider my general demeanour and if somehow a stovepipe hat has suddenly appeared on my head. For a moment, I imagine I’m in an old black and white western and I’ve just pulled up on my trusty steed outside a dusty saloon housed on some distant prairie. Upon my entrance, the piano player freezes and everyone falls silent. Without meaning to, the temporary fantasy causes me to smile and giggle to myself. This is met with further suspicion. Clearly, there’s a stranger in town. I’m reminded of that scene from ‘An American Werewolf in London’, where the two lead characters arrive at The Slaughtered Lamb only to be met with a similar reception.
Putting on a brave face as the hum of pub chatter starts up again, I make my way to the bar and order a pint of lager and lime. I recall this used to be my Dad’s favourite drink (when he rarely imbibed) and figure this can’t do too much – if any – damage. The barman eyes me nervously as he prepares my drink. Seated next to me is a rotund, greying fellow with a pockmarked face, dressed in overalls and who’s evidently been at it a fair few hours. I smile and am about to say ‘hello’ when he quickly averts my gaze and nearly falls off his bar stool in doing so. All around me, there are gatherings of oversize men and a conspicuous absence of females, though this is as far removed from a gay bar as is humanly possible. It seems everyone is looking in my general direction and whispering to one another. What the fuck is going on here?
After paying for my drink – the barman remains silent during the entire transaction – I take my first sip of alcohol in nearly twelve months and remain indifferent to the taste. Unlike all previous visits to a pub, I’m in no hurry to finish the first drink in order to proceed quickly to the second. I turn to survey my surroundings further and am surprised to notice several people are wearing house slippers. Others are in the now standard uniform of track suit bottoms, T-shirt and supermarket trainers. Near the exit, two scruffy teenagers are noisily playing pool next to a large birdcage that houses a number of budgerigars. I realise I am the only person wearing a leather biker jacket, Smiths T-shirt, skinny jeans and Converse Hi-Tops, hence something of a novelty. There is no-one I might consider an equal or anyone with whom I’d feel comfortable engaging in conversation, simply because there appears to be no point of reference or shared interest. The atmosphere is harsh and unwelcoming and I feel distinctly out-of-place, which is something of a first. I also realise that I no longer feel the urge to be sat in a pub, necking pint after pint for several hours. This is just not me anymore. Even if I were surrounded by a host of familiar faces, I would rather be anywhere but here. So I take a final sip of my drink, place the glass back on the bar (three-quarters full) and walk out.
Going forward, alcohol becomes an insignificant factor in my life, rather than the basis for it. It is a very occasional indulgence and any intake is kept to a bare minimum. My unrequited love affair with booze is finally over. I don’t claim to have experienced a ‘moment of clarity’. It’s more that I’m tired of slowly killing myself and paying for the privilege. Thankfully, I soon find other things to keep my mind occupied. I focus on reading and swiftly consume whatever I can: biographies, American history, anything to do with photography and – the enduring passion of my life – movies. From a very early age, films became an obsession of mine but one I’d abandoned in favour of the pub. Now, with renewed vehemence, I devote myself entirely to cinema, with photography and music not far behind. There’s still so much for me to learn when it comes to understanding and operating a camera, but I’ve taken to my new hobby quite naturally.
If anything, that night in the local should have rung alarm bells because after several months, living in Evesham soon proves to be the most demanding and soul-destroying period of my life so far. Despite no longer being enslaved to alcohol, the lack of a nearby decent pub means I haven’t made any friends. The local boozer has always been the epicentre of my chosen location. It’s where I’ve made lifelong chums and given me something to look forward to at the end of every week. As an alternative, I had hoped to join a local photography group, but the only one I’ve found is run by a recovering alcoholic, who has since moved to Dudley in the West Midlands. There’s the town centre pubs but, as with the majority of inner cities, they are a no-go area on Friday and Saturday nights, due to the numerous and overwhelming incidents of drunken violence. The pain in my knees grows significantly worse, so my daily intake of painkillers steadily increases. Anywhere of photographic interest is either too far to walk or it involves traversing up and down hills, which is completely out of the question. All of these factors combined play havoc with my anxiety and worse still, leave me feeling monumentally depressed. Low moods become an everyday occurrence and destroy any positive thinking I experienced upon moving here. Evesham has an odd vibe to it – several friends have corroborated this. The town lacks an identity and bears no sense of purpose. Everyone looks miserable and whoever I’ve tried to talk to has absolutely nothing of interest to say. The only explanation I can possibly imagine is that the town is cursed in some way. One senses an atmosphere of shattered dreams and thwarted ambition. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it before.
There have been occasions when I’ve attempted visits to Studley and arranged to hook up with old friends, but Evesham suffers from the most appalling (and renowned) traffic congestion, so any journey to and from the area takes at least half an hour longer than it should, by which time (in my case) any enthusiasm for socialising has completely diminished. I visited The Black Lion recently and barely recognised anyone. It appears only a few of ‘the locals’ still visit the place on a regular basis and I often seem to miss them whenever I’ve turned up. Or perhaps, following the recent Chinese whispers, they’d rather have nothing to do with me? Rumours and gossip have always spread through the village with unequivocal haste. Equally, being burdened with a perpetual low mood has affected my overall equilibrium and sleep pattern. I look and feel consistently exhausted. There is every possibility that I’m still grieving but I hate myself for ever leaving Studley in the first place. Though my hand was somewhat forced, I should have stuck it out. Compared to Evesham, Studley was a positively glorious existence. I cannot bring myself to pursue much interest in anything and spend days hiding in bed, lamenting my lot in life and hoping to just fade away. I am moored in loneliness and despair.
Mum loathes our predicament as much as I do. Due to abnormally shoddy workmanship, the new house is riddled with faults, and she is forever on the phone complaining to the customer services department of the so-called building firm, Bellway Homes. The customer service manager – Chris Knight, a snivelling weasel of a man – seems to delight in each and every defect that develops within the house, which is practically on a daily basis. Under normal circumstances, I’d confront him in person but I’m jaded and bereft of motivation.
Seeing Mum so desperately unhappy is mortifying and I blame myself for us moving here in the first place. At least the last few months in Studley were a self-imposed exile, whereas the isolation in Evesham is unavoidable. Every morning seems to bring another source of anxiety and the house creaks and moans, burdened by yet another fixture falling to bits. Despite my best friend taking his own life, the thought of suicide crosses my mind on multiple occasions – a mere handful of painkillers and all my troubles would be over. But the acute shame of previous attempts subdues the urge and tears stream from my soul as I ponder the irreparable torment my family would endure.
September 2017. One late morning, awaking from a turbulent night’s sleep fraught with nightmares and, practically on auto pilot, I shuffle from my bedroom to the office, slump down in the leather chair in front of my desk and switch on the Mac …