FICTION: Step Nine by Max Dunbar

beer_bubbles_2-1920x1200

Don’t believe the hype: giving up drinking is easy. It’s just a case of not doing a thing. I mean how hard is it not to do something? Of course I went to the meetings, and all that crap. I blitzed through the programme, even did the Jesus thing kind of, and racked up forty months of continuous sobriety… apart from the one slip, which I’ll tell you about later.

And then I began to think about steps eight and nine:

 

  1. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  1. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

 

Those words, in that weird font on the noticeboard at the Quaker place, haunted me for days: I had no reason to work that summer, having negotiated a fair payoff from the firm, and I made an Excel spreadsheet of all the people I’d hurt, colour coded by severity. The final tally ran to three figures, but I was able to cut a few dozen names who had probably deserved the shit I’d visited on them, another few dozen bound to physically harm or even kill me if I made contact, others where I couldn’t trace them on search or social media.

By the end of the day I had a mere handful of wronged individuals.

 

Amendment 1

The first person would be the hardest to locate because it had been thirty years since I saw him, but he’d had a weird Sikh name so I was able to track the family down to a suburb of Didsbury. The guy didn’t seem nonplussed to have an enemy from the schoolyard on his door; in fact he invited me in for tea.

‘I won’t be surprised that you don’t remember me,’ I said, ‘but I was two years above you at Corpus, and I’m afraid I bullied you relentlessly.’

The man said I had to be wrong. ‘I was educated in Kashmir. I don’t believe we knew each other as boys.’

‘But you are Dalip Rangaswanathan. You said so.’ The front room confirmed it also: loads of photographs of birds and those charcoal bird pictures that the kid had liked to do, as well as various religious trinkets and kitchen gods scattered around.

‘You may be referring to my son,’ said Dalip Rangaswanathan. ‘Unfortunately he’s dead.’

I said I was sorry to hear it. ‘How did your son die? If I may ask?’

‘It was twenty years ago. He was on his first zoology placement, in Papua New Guinea. As to the exact nature of Dalip’s death, I’m afraid I cannot say. You may not understand – the culture. It is shameful for us.’

The room began to seem very warm and small. ‘Well, I just wanted to say I’m sorry for all the things I did to him. It was a rough school, and like I say, I was something of a bully.’

‘He’s not here to receive any apologies,’ said the old man. ‘May I ask why you come here now?’

I explained about my recovery and the twelve-step plan and all this nonsense.

‘I’m not sure this is a worthwhile exercise.’ The man took a long draught of his tea. I thought I could see bubbles of it in his moustache. ‘Forgiveness is only for the living to give. I think you would be better to seek amends elsewhere, sir, and it is for this reason that I ask you to leave.’

 

Amendment 2

Was I looking for forgiveness? I really didn’t know. I spent a long time in the standard drinker’s rhythm of doing terrible things, waking up with apologies on my lips, forgetting everything and drinking more. The sun was out on Wilmslow Road and this was where sobriety pays off – the mornings when you feel fine, and can think with a smile of all the drunks and party heads stirring fitful after ruinous nights.

I found Shapiro in Wacky Jackie’s on the Barlow Moor Road. Wacky Jackie’s had early doors and a ramp access and it was Thursday, so his DLA cheque would be in. Sure enough, the bastard was drinking up the hospital offer, and pivoted in his chair when I walked in.

‘Thought it was about time we cleared the air,’ I said, over his exclamations. ‘I’ve got something to say to you.’

He laughed. ‘Do you want a drink? For old time’s sake?’

‘I’m on the wagon now, big man.’ I scanned the area behind the bar to see if there were any Victorian ginger beers or San Pellegrino in this doss. I settled for a diet Coke.

‘I just wanted to say I’m sorry about the accident,’ I said.

He looked up. ‘You’re sorry? You’ve never even admitted any fault.’

‘Well, I had a rethink.’ The slack bitch behind the bar served me my drink. The stink of hops and desperation was starting to get to me. ‘I was an alcoholic for a long time, at least since university, and now I’m starting to take responsibility for my actions.’

‘So you’ll be contributing towards my care, then?’ For a moment the quicksilver that had made him my rival was in his voice, and I sensed heads turn from nearby tables. ‘Or making Gibbsy’s package up? Or talking to the authorities about your final grade?’

‘Come on, big man, we both got up to a lot of shit back then, you’re just as implicated as I am, so let’s not do anything foolhardy.’ I slapped him on what remained of his shoulders – it really was just like old times. ‘Just accept my apology and we’ll move on.’

‘Move on?’ His one eye blinked at me. ‘My career, my degree, my fiancée and my life.

‘Well, you’ll have to stop when you reach the stairs.’

My quip didn’t go down too well: he started shouting again, and whacking at me with his cane, so I thought it best to leave – Wacky Jackie’s was mainly a medic crowd at this hour, but no doubt the amount he drank here, old Shapiro would have some regulars ready to help him out.

 

Amendment 3

When I discussed this project with my sponsor, he said it was a bad idea. My sponsor was an ex army man and electrician who’d done a manslaughter hitch after a rewired house blew up on his watch and killed five students in the Fallowfield ghetto. It was him that dragged me out of the Hotel Loco – the Plaza that was – and had quite literally saved my life, so I was duty bound to give his advice some weight. Leave it alone, Phillie boy. The Step Nine thing was always an aspiration too far. There’s no value in digging up the past, and it could lead to a comeback for you. You had a bad relapse in the spring. Don’t take the risk.

Which goes to show that even the grand old men of sober time can be wrong, because Hellie received me at her Chorlton home with good grace. She gave me that green tea she always drank, and space to make the apology – the longest so far, I had to apologise for locking her in a cupboard for an entire New Year’s Eve, for running over her sister, for sending pictures of my manhood to every woman on her friends’ list, and finally for failing to provide for our child or even to acknowledge him (the kid was at school today, thank fuck).

‘None of it is your fault,’ Hellie said. ‘It’s my fault. Edith warned me about you, and Shapiro, and I’d heard about the things you’d done at MMU. It’s obviously something fucked up in me, that I failed to address, and because of this I kept indulging you when I should have cut you out of my life. I’m even doing it again, doing it now, letting you into my home and talk your bullshit to me. And it must be bullshit, because I’ve never seen you take responsibility for anything.’

I said that this time it was for real, that I’d truly changed, and she seemed cynical still, but took the opportunity to get something out of me – she was always a smart girl. I nodded in the right places while Hellie typed out an agreement for finances, shared access, and all the rest. Really I should have shot this down straight away (the kid was probably Gibbsy’s anyway, for fuck’s sake) but I always loved the way she looked when she was concentrating, the tilt of her angular face, playing with her blonde hair, the strong thighs bunched up together. I switched over to her side of the coffee table, grabbed her cheeks in my hands and began kissing her, with her trying to push me away and going on about her new girlfriend underneath all my obscene endearments. Before I could get a grip on those fantastic thighs, however, the girl headbutted me and I reeled backwards into the coffee table, overturning it and the laptop and fruitbowl.

I hit the carpet on my back and Hellie was getting to her feet. The tall girl towered over me, her jaw set in noble anger, and I yelled ‘Dominate me, bitch’ before she kicked me in the groin. I wriggled backwards and had just about got to my feet when her roundhouse slap sent me flying once more.

‘You never change!’ she shouted. ‘You never, ever fucking learn anything! Christ, I think I even preferred you as a drunk! Get out of my house, Phil, and don’t ever come back!’

 

Amendment 4

Well, there you have it. I didn’t make the estate until around two, hobbling from the kind of injuries I used to wake up with, the aches from fight or fall. Those were the days, indeed, and it took a long time, bad experiences with both sides of the law, and a couple of fairly serious suicide attempts before I cleaned up for good.

The first shaky year I had thrown myself into my work. I worked for a major property developer. Maybe ‘developer’ is the wrong word because we didn’t often develop anything. When I worked there we just bought up huge amounts of land and sat on it in the expectation that its value would rise indefinitely and we could parcel bits of the land out to other developers on the basis of potential future returns. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for me nothing: I had a good salary, pension plus a decent-sized parachute, for I’d been there for some years, and knew things about the company and its partners.

But it hadn’t worked out so well for people like the Harbisons, who I found in a Wythenshawe hostel on the far side of the estates. They were living in a room with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities on one bare corridor with broken windows and admonishing signs. They had made the best of it, and I marvelled at the careful arrangement of hotplate, slow cook, cupboard closet and pile of toys and games. One of the kids had his respiratory mask thing on. They would have been here fourteen months by this point.

‘It’s interesting,’ I said, ‘because although, like you say, you don’t know me from Adam, I know you and our lives are intimately connected.’

‘How so?’ said Liam Harbison.

‘You remember when the RSL wanted to buy the flats on Claremont Road, and we – that’s the company I worked for – didn’t want to sell?’ I sat on the bed, and drank instant coffee from a toothbrush cup. ‘You and a bunch of other families went to the papers, and made such a good impression that it looked like our company was going to have to bend to public pressure and sell the flats for social stock.’

‘So how come that didn’t happen?’ His wife had a piercing through one cheek and wasn’t bad looking for an estate bird.

‘That’s where I come in. I handled media relations for the company, and the problem we had was that we didn’t want to take the low price the housing provider was offering, but we didn’t want to look like heartless bastards.’ The kid without the mask picked up an old portable games device and it trilled out a tune for the rest of my story – Smash Bros theme, I think.

‘So what I did was – you’ll like this – I poked around into your past, and that of the other families, found some petty fraud and arrests and drama in your back stories, and sold this to the national tabloids as a benefit street story. All of a sudden, the public weren’t too keen on you guys having places to live.’ I tossed off my drink and spread my arms wide. ‘I wanted to apologise, because you are in the horrible circumstances that you’re in, because of me. Isn’t life grand?’

 

Amendment 5

I stopped running when I saw the graves. It was calendar summer, and only late afternoon, but you could feel the darkness coming, perhaps because of the stones and earth and hanging leaves, perhaps because of something else.

I had not been to the funeral, and would not have been welcome. It was only two months ago, and I thought I would find other mourners by her grave, but there were only a few bouquets on the gravel.

I realised then that I hadn’t brought anything.

‘Excuse me?’

I turned and a woman was there, in full C of E regalia. She made me think of the vicar from Gogglebox.

‘Ah. I’m glad you’re here,’ I said. ‘Did you know Franki well?’

‘Actually I did. She used to help at the breakfast meetings. Were you a friend?’

‘I was in her AA group.’ I explained that I had step thirteened Franki fairly intensely as soon as she turned up at the Quaker house. It was in that first year of sobriety, when you feel hormonal and very aware that sex is your only pleasure left in life, and I pursued the big girl relentlessly. I’d got us both very drunk on Oxford Road and screwed the gorgeous bouncy bitch on and off for around a week before tiring of her, but unfortunately Franki never really got back on the wagon after that.

‘So I wanted to come here to apologise,’ I said. ‘I never knew her family, so it’s great you’re here.’

‘Why?’ the Gogglebox vicar asked. ‘So that I can accept your apology on her behalf? It doesn’t work like that. You did a terrible thing. One graveside visit doesn’t make up for that.’

‘The book’s still coming out,’ I said.

‘So it is. But she would have written more, and lived a long, productive life. I think you should feel ashamed of yourself.’

‘I thought you Jesus people were supposed to be about forgiveness.’

‘So we are. It’s at times like this I miss the Old Testament version.’

 

I left the Southern Cemetery and walked for a long time. When I came back into my head, I was at the Hotel Loco and ordering a drink – the first in sixty days. The hotel was gearing up for a messy summer’s night and none of the people in the bar seemed to recognise me.

The first draught of my pint triggered a headrush. The biggest killer for the recovering alcoholic is the traces and tricks of memory scattered all over town and in this busy amber I saw my mother, whining that I was never going to be any good, and I was on the Alexandra, running from the mob while kites skreeled in the thick white sky, and I remembered the early days, Hellie and I, how in love and how happy we were in a city that knew our names, friendship and sadness rushed through me, and I saw myself drinking until last orders, getting a takeout and a twenty-pound room and cutting into some major arteries with my keychain and drawing over the bare yellow walls in my own blood and laughing as I died, because this mess that they’d find wouldn’t look like much of an apology, although that’s what it is.

 

Max Dunbar lives in West Yorkshire. He blogs at http://maxdunbar.wordpress.com/ and tweets at http://twitter.com/MaxDunbar1.

black tree

If you enjoy the work we publish, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up to our mailing list and never miss a new short story. Your support continues to make our mission possible. Thank you.