Fielding called in sick. It was the only sensible thing to do under the circumstances. A legitimate twenty-four hour absence with the potential to be stretched to two, or maybe even three days, on grounds of style and presentation. Still visualising the suspiciously judgmental faces of his immediate line management chain he lit up a crumpled cigarette and repositioned the various sections of his soft awkward body atop a stagnant pool of early morning perspiration. It hadn’t been that long since Emily had left for her own job and though he was able to recollect fleeting glimpses of her hair and breasts as she went about her daily beauty routine the stilted series of grunts and yelps that they had exchanged were not easily translated almost an hour and a half down the line. He closed his eyes tightly and waited for the next wave of toxic vengeance to burst out of the back of his eyeballs and maraud across hostile cranial territory. At times like these he could almost understand why the government had seen fit to introduce the measures that it had. It’s not big, it’s not hard, and it’s not clever. Much like Fielding himself. Cigarette extinguished, he peeled himself away from the damp clammy sheets and made a lurching beeline for the refrigerator on the perfectly rational assumption that if a hangover cannot be tamed by two whole cans of Coca-Cola alone, then in all likelihood it’s not a hangover at all, but the onset of the latter stages of some kind of terminal illness. He downed the thick sticky liquid in a series of ugly gulps; the short-term pleasure of the sugar hit almost instantly undermined by an inadvertent glimpse of his yielding alabaster body in an unfortunately positioned full-length mirror. Grimacing, he crumpled the can in a single hand and tossed it into the gossamer-thin bin liner that had already begun to spew its sorry contents onto the cold ceramic floor.
The empty mementos of the previous evening’s frivolities lay scattered around him as if mocking a lengthy litany of personal failures: his weakness, his vanity, his incompetence, his greed. Almost immediately, he spotted the empty bottle of Kalashnikov and silently cursed the thieving jackal who’d openly purloined the last of this precious treasure from under his nose. He pictured him, a faceless silhouette, walking the streets, travelling on the tube, smoking cigarettes, and all the time with almost a quarter-litre of Fielding’s vodka still sloshing around inside the walls of his bulging ungrateful bladder. Emily had warned him to keep it all under lock and key but he’d scorned her advice as the paranoid ramblings of a born-again misanthropist: ‘We’re all in this together!’ he’d yelled theatrically. ‘Each and every last one of us!’
‘Oh no we’re not’ thought Emily, the fitting nature of this pantomime riposte not lost on her characteristically perceptive reading of the situation. She’d looked on without sympathy as the empty bravado-soaked words tumbled from Fieldng’s fat drunken lips and down the front of his ill-fitting Gap t-shirt. The dozen or so hangers-on who’d squeezed into the tiny front room of the West London box flat whooped with unprincipled camaraderie and took this as their cue to strip the cocktail cabinet and refrigerator of any remaining alcoholic product, the stupid shit-eating grin on Fielding’s stupid pie-eating face remaining illogically resolute as the assembled pack of D-list acquaintances peeled back ring-pulls and chugged from bottles in an orgiastic feeding frenzy of flagrant opportunism. It was the point at which Emily had decided to retire for the evening, her fragile mindset no longer able to stomach the nauseating prospect of a further hour or so amongst this wholly questionable company of wolves.
‘Goodnight honey!’ she’d yelled sarcastically above the chaotic din, her perfect ruby lips contorted into a perfect ruby sneer. Fielding hadn’t even seen her leave; he’d been far too busy placing his faith in the rest of humanity to notice – a fundamental error of judgement he’d already vowed never to repeat.
The compact stovetop espresso machine gurgled and spat its way through its habitual routine, and as Fielding poured out the steaming treacly contents he pondered the fact that the tiny porcelain cup in front of him was offering up what effectively amounted to his third pharmaceutical fix of the day. And whereas less than two months ago such a realisation might have sought to unsettle him for anything up to an hour, the austere realities of contemporary living applied a thin veneer of illicit glamour to the proceedings. Fielding knocked back the coffee in a single mouthful and proceeded to replenish the bin liner of its soiled and greasy contents. He held the empty vodka bottle up to the bright morning light and noticed that aside from the broad oily streaks that coated the inner layer of glass there appeared to be a tiny yet distinctive puddle of clear liquid still residing at the base. Without further deliberation Fielding emptied the cramped kitchen sink of its stained grimy crockery and placed the fat neck of the bottle under the head of a tap. After carefully trickling around three shot glasses worth of the Thames’ finest into the spout he meticulously swilled it around the sides and base, ensuring that not a single drop of the remaining vodka was allowed to escape. Painstakingly, he decanted the clear insipid liquid into a miniature glass bottle and placed it at the back of the refrigerator, expertly concealed by a large bottle of Caesar dressing and a week-old lettuce.
‘Needs must’ thought Fielding as he headed for the shower, the inner lining of his throbbing forehead still doggedly ablaze.
‘Fielding not turned in again, Jenkins?’
‘Apparently not, sir. Sarah took a phone message earlier. Something about a migraine this time’
‘Migraine? Men don’t get migraines, that’s a lady’s ailment if ever I heard it’
‘My thoughts exactly, sir’
Jenkins removed the foil-wrapped homemade sandwiches from his shabby leather briefcase and carefully placed them at the corner of his work station, his weary ashen face gazing back in reflection from the centre of a dense dusty screen. Myriad knife-knick creases ate into the corners of his eyes and mouth, his pink sweaty forehead a tangled junction of rutted lines. Jenkins gulped down a steaming mouthful of hot sweet tea and gazed around at the faces of his time-honoured colleagues before silently contenting himself with the knowledge that they appeared to be no different to his – the same furrowed brows, the same greying temples, the inevitable consequences of twenty-odd years spent in the criminally ungrateful employ of Her Majesty’s Home Office. Fielding’s erratic attendance patterns were beginning to test his patience nonetheless.
Ever since the Licensing Unit had been called upon to initially draft, and then monitor the new legislation, his early dedication and enthusiasm had progressively declined to a point where Jenkins was no longer able to rely upon him to undertake even the most basic of tasks. Admittedly, even those attached to the Unit itself had refused to take the initial fact-finding work particularly seriously, but as soon as the proposals had wormed themselves into the key elements of the King’s Speech, it soon became clear that the entire country was about to embark upon a seismic sea change in its culture and values. Jenkins had played a chief role in the early exchanges with both the drinks industry and the Metropolitan police, an effort deemed so impressively sterling that he was swiftly promoted in situ to the tune of two whole Civil Service grades. The extra money had certainly come in handy, and since Jenkins was no longer sinking his usual two or three lunchtime pints he and Rose had been able to fund a fortnight’s holiday on the Neapolitan coastline – their first in almost six years. The weather had been glorious; the sea as blue as Curacao, the sky as clear as the finest English gin.
Jenkins had never previously thought of himself as anything other than an aficionado of fine cask ale, but the clean crisp taste of the locally brewed lager had proved itself to be the ideal partner to the searing Mediterranean heat and both he and Rose found themselves drinking up to a dozen or so bottles a day between them. Rose – bless her – smuggled three small bottles back in a concealed compartment of her suitcase, the only time she could ever remember breaking the law, and as Jenkins glanced up at the glossy Sorrento postcard lovingly tacked to his cork notice board he could almost taste the magnificent golden liquid fizzing and spreading across the breadth of his tongue. As the only person he knew not have entered into the convoluted process of systematic stockpiling it felt odd that he should be the one to be experiencing the wistful aching twinges of alcohol withdrawal at a time no later than 10.30am. An aged yellowing newspaper cutting flopped limply across the corner of the radiant Neapolitan harbour front: ‘PARLIAMENT CALLS TIME ON AGE-OLD LICENSING RESTRICTIONS’ it trumpeted in the distinctively bold typeface of His Majesty’s Daily Mail. Jenkins liked the cutting; it never failed to raise a smile from those who passed by.
It was only two o’clock and Fielding had already called three times. Emily had asked Sara to pretend she was elsewhere. Still visibly aggravated about last night’s farcical charade, she was clearly not in any kind of mood to tolerate her partner’s infuriatingly pathetic and protracted attempts at self-justification. The searing July sun cast a blazing golden swathe across the broken white-hot paving slabs that lined the length of Fulham Road and as Emily finished bunching together the last remaining bundles of multi-coloured gerberas she stepped out into the hot city sunshine and lit up a duty paid cigarette. A scruffy threadbare greyhound lapped noisily from the green plastic bowl that she’d become accustomed to leaving under the awning of the florists whenever the weather took an infrequently Mediterranean turn, his raggedy purple-faced owner reeking of intoxicating chemicals and stale urea. It would be fair to say that Emily couldn’t help noticing how the searing city heat had not entirely helped in this respect.
‘Alright my love?’ he muttered under his hot rancid breath.
‘Fine, thank you’
‘You wouldn’t be so kind as to borrow me a cigarette, would ya?’
‘Surely’ she said, tapping out a single Silk Cut and handing it to him gingerly.
His hands were cracked and caked in week-old blood, his matted hair and olive teeth as hopelessly neglected as those of his beleaguered hound. Emily wondered both what and where he managed to drink these days, what with the previously underground ‘Domestos bars’ having long since been colonised – ironically, of course – by the coked-up chattering classes. As her big brown eyes locked onto the grainy encrusted channels that criss-crossed the breadth of his vacant smiling face she cursed their feeble part-time dalliances with a culture so evidently alien that it served only to expose their crudest and most condescending tendencies. ‘A cheap holiday in other peoples’ misery’ as the Sex Pistols had once so astutely described it. She knew for a fact that at least a couple of the ‘guests’ from last night (Alex and Jeremy, for sure) had previously been sighted exiting one such establishment in the early hours of Sunday morning, Toilet Duck shooters in shaky hands, their pasty skeletal faces shrouded in a clammy coating of adrenaline and sweat. Derelicts. It had been the likes of them who’d ruined the short-lived 24-hour drinking experiment of 2003. Admittedly, you could hardly blame them alone for the terrifying spate of assaults and rapes that had blighted that long hot summer but their determined boorishness and freestyle vandalism had done little to challenge The Telegraph’s view that Britain had almost overnight become ‘the stumbling vomiting sick man of Europe’.
‘Much obliged my love, much obliged’
Sara finished serving an excitable gaggle of shiny-haired Japanese tourists and cracked open a large bottle of Perrier. She filled two tall glasses and handed one to Emily along with a cluster of vibrant candy pink Post-It notes: Fielding at 11, Fielding at noon, and Fielding at 1.30 – a colourful sequence of pleading repentance.
‘You really should call him y’know’ she smiled. ‘Whatever it is that he’s supposed to have done, I can’t imagine it warrants a stink-eye of this intensity. It’s only Fielding, after all. What could he have possibly done to upset you to this degree?’
Emily pulled hard on the meagre remains of her cigarette and gestured towards the Ravello espresso bar with the aid of a chipped glass. She wondered what exactly Sara had intended by the emphatic use of ‘he’.
‘You know what that used to be?’ she asked, apropos everything.
‘Some kind of pub I suppose’
‘The Toilers’ Arms’ she laughed. ‘Kind of a stupid name for pub if you think about it. It’s not as if anyone’s exactly had to toil on these streets at any time in the last twenty years, is it?’
Sara nodded, more out of habit than in agreement. She could guess what was coming next.
‘It’s the place where you met Fielding isn’t it?’
Emily paused, nodded, and then laughed.
‘It was drinking that brought us together’ she smirked, ‘Drinking and cigarettes. And now all we’ve got left is cigarettes’
It was hard for Emily to admit, even to herself maybe, but the happiest and most memorable times they’d spent together could easily be catalogued by the reliably alcoholic beverages that had accompanied ans sustained them. She fired up another cigarette and began to link them with almost studious precision:
First kiss – whiskey and soda,
First screw – cheap red wine,
First fight – vodka, Grolsch, Diamond White,
First holiday abroad – Kronenbourg 1664, Breton cider.
The sex had been great, and the holiday idyllic, but for Emily it was easier to dwell on the memory of the fight. She was still in no mood to think fondly of Fielding and since his transparently perfunctory phone messages had now all but dried up her feelings towards him had begun to plumb previously unchartered depths.
‘I used to think he was this fun guy. He made me laugh y’know? And the sex has always been fantastic. But without drink? I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem right anymore. He doesn’t seem right’
Sara nodded, but remained silent. This whole routine was beginning to get a little boring. The cheese-wire straps of her ill-fitting bra were cutting ever deeper, and that, along with a five day delay in the onset of her period – a disconcerting spoke in her menstrual cycle – meant that she was anything but in the right frame of mind for an afternoon’s worth of self-indulgent quack psychology. The day had begun to drag and she half expected Emily to start trotting out that tired old cliché about how the absence of alcohol had made her re-evaluate her entire relationship, that it had made her see her partner in a whole new light, a distinctly dim one.
‘It’s almost as if I’ve begun to see Fielding in a whole new light’ Emily began.
‘Here we go’ thought Sara, her eyeballs almost revolving into the back of her head, her mind drifting slowly off into the distance. She brooded over her sister’s recent termination, the fact that she herself might well be next in line at the clinic, and the inescapably harsh reality that her fellow man had inevitably traded in the hazy glamour of cocktails and happy hours for the quintessentially short-term kicks of transitory liaisons and suburban squalor. Emily’s weary words washed over her like watered-down liquor, as she licked her lips and patted her belly, the arid city heat fuelling her thirst and drying her skin. It was enough to drive a girl to drink.
Craig Austin is a senior writer at Wales Arts Review. This is his first published work of fiction. He is currently working on a novel about, in his own words, ‘posh terrorists’. His commitment to converting Bryan Ferry to the cause of socialism remains resolute.
Banner image: ‘The Brouhers’ by Ric Bower