Portrait of the artist as a teetotaller

I spent this evening in a pub, on my own. Sitting in the corner, with a bottle and a single glass in front of me, writing. Eventually, the bar staff started wiping tables around me and chatting amongst themselves, and I realised that I was the last person left. But there was still a drink left in the bottle, so I trespassed on their good intentions long enough to pour and drink it down before heading back home.

This is the sort of thing that happens if you don’t have space of your own, I suppose. There’s a whole thesis here on public spaces as an extension of private spaces; after all, the word ‘pub’ is a contraction of ‘public house’ – literally, a house offering hospitality and comfort to all with enough money to share in it. But I’m tired, and I’ve been writing all evening, so I’m not going to write a thesis tonight.

I was at the pub because I want to write properly, and by properly I mean a novel, and I can’t write a novel in the tiny gaps that I have torn in the domestic weave, at least not entirely. So I told Lovely Husband that I wanted a night off every week, a night where he does dinner and bed and any housework that needs doing before the morning, and that is my writing time. It’s not much, but it’s something.

But the problem is that of course if I’m in the house, the children want me, and the laundry calls to me, and I’m uncomfortably aware (as I am now, typing) that Big Girl’s lunchbox lies festering in her schoolbag and tomorrow’s promised after-school activity needs ingredients I don’t have, and all the other tedious things. So I said that’s it, I’m taking the iPad and I’m heading out. But where is there that is open on a cold Monday evening, that will let one sit undisturbed for hours on end as long as one is buying the occasional beverage? Only the pub, and so that is where I went.

It’s an odd experience, sitting alone with a bottle of mineral water (of COURSE it was mineral water. You knew that) in a pub. I didn’t feel deprived, but I felt out of place. An imposition. I wasn’t taking up a table that could have been better used elsewhere – it’s not the busiest night of the week, obviously – and I don’t live in a country where tipping, for example, is expected, so really it makes no difference to anybody what I drank or didn’t. And yet.

And here’s another thing. I thought; what a wasted opportunity! For the first time in my adult life, I live walking distance from a nice gastropub, and writing a novel; well, what better excuse could there possibly be to sit alone with a bottle of wine once a week? Writers are drinkers, everybody knows that. Hemingway, Parker, Fitzgerald … and all the others … actually, you know, I can think of a million writers and only three who I know were known for their alcoholic tendencies. And I’ve only read one of them.

But it persists, this myth that alcoholism and writing go together, to the point where I can actually see myself convincing myself that writing a book is a legitimate reason to sit alone in a bar. Why is this particular myth so powerful? Is it just because I’ve always wanted to write? I don’t think so; I think this is one with great cultural resonance, but I don’t really understand why. Fitzgerald died just after forty. Parker made it to 73, but her brilliance had faded some two decades earlier. Hemingway committed suicide. These aren’t the glittering case histories that anyone should try and emulate, not really. Nor have they been replenished; it is pretty clear that these were writers of a certain era, writing in a certain culture, and no matter how much we might long to be them, the time is long past.

And how lucky that it is. These days, writers live longer. They write for longer. Doris Lessing, who died last year, was 93. Toni Morrison is still brilliant at 83. And I don’t know about you, but when I am introduced to the books of a new writer and fall in love, which happens to me time after time, I am always ravenous for more. Each book introduces me to the next, and the best ones become dog-eared with age in my hands and like a new lover whose every story of childhood is endlessly fascinating, I want more and more and more.

If you write, I want you to live. If you write well, I want you to drink celery juice and run every morning and attend regular health check ups, because if you write well you are a jewel and a wonder and I want you to be around forever. And one day, maybe I will meet you in a bar and we will both have our iPads and our bottles of mineral water and we will smile, because this is what writers do. They just write.

‘Self’ care? Can’t someone else do it?

I am losing my glow.

Now that I no longer need a drink in hand throughout the entire evening, I am no longer drinking the gallons of peppermint tea, flavoured mineral waters and hot chocolates that marked the hours until bedtime only months ago.

Now that I am no longer desperate for evening distractions, I am not taking the long baths of early sobriety.  I am not painting my nails as a way to stop my hands from picking up a glass.  I am not taking long walks on dark evenings, puffing out cravings into frigid air.

I no longer fear late-night alcohol cravings, and so my bedtime has shifted back to where it was pre-sobriety; every morning I wake, reluctantly and with a mild sense of outrage that I am expected to, and swear to myself that tonight I will go to bed at 9pm, with a mug of tea.  Come 11pm, I just need to finish reading this one blog post and it’s my turn on Words With Friends, because honestly, I was still cleaning the kitchen at 9pm and I want some time to myself, dammit.

Dieting, I can get to dinnertime fuelled only by coffee.  The chocolate mud cake of the weekend resides in the stomachs of my family, and not in mine.  Cake was good for my temperament, but now my skirts fit again.

When I first gave up alcohol, I treated myself like an invalid. Early nights, cheering-up gifts, whatever food I fancied. Once it became routine not to drink, the world crept back in. Women aren’t good at putting themselves first, second, or even third.

One of the reasons for that is that we don’t have a model for it. Early on in this sobriety lark, I complained, fairly regularly, about the fact that I had inexplicably failed to transform into an early-rising paragon of clean eating and marathon running, a model parent suddenly whipping up handmade shawls whilst rising to the top of her career between the school-friendly hours of 9 and 3.  I did so ruefully, self-deprecatingly.  Oh, look at little imperfect me with my ten extra pounds and crows’ feet, shoving a plastic bag of books into my daughter’s backpack because reading Marian Keyes is more fun than hand-stitching, oops I’m just so hopeless

It strikes me, suddenly, that almost all of the things that I chastise myself for being or not being, doing or not doing, are not things that benefit me very much at all.  In fact I am just as healthy as a size 12 as I would be at a size 10, and I do my job just as efficiently with no make-up and cursorily brushed hair as I would if I’d got up earlier to primp and straighten.  I am relatively confident that Big Girl will learn to read just as well without a hand-stitched patchwork library bag (why yes I am a bit hung up on this one, why do you ask?) and baked beans on a potato with some cheese on top is a perfectly well balanced meal and saves on washing up.  It is, in fact, far more fun to sit on my couch with a geriatric cat as a blanket, reading This Charming Man, than it is to go down to my dark and freezing-cold basement laundry and sort out a uniform wash.  And I really, really like sleeping.

Women judge themselves by a series of actions and characteristics that benefit other people.  When we talk about being ‘good’ we are thinking about acts of service and self-sacrifice.  And what that means is that we find it very easy to slip away from looking after ourselves.  Even the language around ‘self care’ for women is problematic.  ‘I like a woman who takes care of herself’, proclaims many a man, but it’s a safe bet that he’s not talking about women who make time for a long bath or nurture a fulfilling hobby.  He doesn’t care whether the woman in question can wield a power drill, and he probably hasn’t thought about whether her superannuation contributions are adequate to sustain her old age.  He just means he likes a woman who doesn’t eat very much.  

Think about the marketing of ‘pamper packages’ to women as a reward; as if nothing in the world could be more relaxing and self-indulgent than having hair ripped out of its follicles before being punched repeatedly on the back and then slathered in mud and left to set like a commemorative plaque.  

So when I look at myself, dry-skinned and shadow-eyed, and I think ‘I must start taking care of myself again’, I don’t really know what that looks like. I know what it isn’t; it isn’t staying up late folding laundry, and it isn’t spending a fortune on uncomfortable beauty treatments, and it certainly isn’t drinking a litre of Diet Coke in substitution for breakfast and two coffees instead of lunch. I’m happy when my home is sparkling and my freezer is full, I’m happier still when I’m cosy with a great book and a hot drink, and I’m the happiest I can be when I’m writing. But the days are short and the evenings are shorter and my retinue of staff haven’t shown up for work for … well, ever. So I neglect the easiest thing to neglect, and that’s me.

A conversation with Little Girl

On an errand run with Little Girl the other day, I drove past the bottle shop I used to go to the most.

There’s a bit of background here: where I live, alcohol cannot be sold except in dedicated licensed premises.  So that means you can’t pick up alcohol in a supermarket or a convenience store, only in a dedicated liquor store (known as a bottle shop) which is either a free standing business or attached to a pub.  These stores might offer a few basic snack foods, but that is all; there is really no reason at all that anyone would be in them except if they’re buying alcohol.  Therefore, it is horribly uncomfortable to go to them with one’s small children in tow, at least very often.  This particular store had a drive-through feature; unlike fast food chains, this doesn’t quite mean that you shout your order into a crackling box, but it does mean that you can pull off the road and someone will come and ask you what you’re after.  That’s why I used to go there; it saved the hassle of getting the girls out of their car seats and into a store filled with breakable glass bottles.  But it also meant that I only ever bought one bottle, or one box, of wine at a time, because it was bad enough that I was a regular visitor with two small children in the back.

I also relied, somewhat, on the girls not thinking to relay these visits to their father, because after all it was just a quick stop on the way to something more fun and therefore not worthy of conversation; these tended to be top-up visits, for the replacement wine that LH didn’t know about, rather than the official ‘you look after the girls, I’ll go and get us a nice bottle of something’ visits.

That was rather a long bit of background.

Anyway, there I was with Little Girl, who I may have mentioned has recently, now that she’s two and a half, blossomed into an extremely articulate young lady, which is a polite way of saying that she never ever shuts up, driving past this store on the way to something far more fun and exciting.

‘Me an Daddy went that shop!”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.  I not get out of car, I sit in car.  The man bringed bottles to the car.  For Daddy”

“Mmm hmm”

“Daddy gived him money.  The man gived him bottles”

“Ok.  Hey, when we get to the cafe, do you want a babycino?”

“Yeah.  The bottles not for toddlers.  Toddlers drink juice.  An babytino.  Grown ups drink bottles.  An coffee.  Coffee and bottles for grown ups, juice for toddlers.  Big girls juice too.  Not coffee for big girls.  Daddy like drinking bottles.  Gived the man money”.

And all I could think was – wow, glad I stopped drinking before this particular cognitive advance happens, because hooo boy.  For clarity, LH buys and drinks probably 2 bottles of wine a week; it is unusual that he had her with him at all, it was possibly the first time.  So what would this conversation have looked like the other way?

“Daddy?  Me an Mummy go this shop.  We go to shop lots of times.  We buy bottles.  An box.  Big heavy box.  Mummy gived the man money.  Not card money paper money.  Say ‘Not tell Daddy’.  We goed home and I watch Pe’a Pig.  Mummy put heavy box in fridge.  I not help.  She take out box too, from fridge,  not heavy box, and she say ‘stay here’ and she goed to the bin with the box.  Then we sit togever on couch and watch Pe’a Pig togever.  I drink juice and Mummy drink wine.  Wine not for toddlers.  Juice for toddlers.  Mummy drink wine.  Mummy drink wine all the time”.

Mummy not drink wine ever ‘gain.