The White Rabbit
1st Place Prizewinner
Maire Cooney was born in Edinburgh and lives in Glasgow with her partner and two children.
Lunchtime drinking, he’d said, shaking his head, smiling. Terrible business, isn’t it? All that time ago, in that pub off the Mile End Road. A man after my own heart, you said, because you knew, even then, Andrew was right for you. He was exactly what you needed.
Although exactly what you need can change. Exactly what you need right now is for him to stop pushing and pulling at you. He means well, you understand that, but he should not be dragging you about when all you need is to lie down. And that voice, whining. He never used to do that.
It all stops after a minute, an hour. You turn your head and he’s there; hands either side of your face and those brown eyes—huge, unblinking. I love you, he’s saying.
Soft. He really is. A great emotional heap of a man.
I can’t keep seeing you like this, he says. I can’t stand it.
You open your mouth to say something reassuring but can’t manage anything. You pat his arm as he tells you, I’m late, fingers fussing at a tie. I’m so late.
He sounds like the white rabbit. You would like to share the joke but he’s in no mood and words are tricky right now, thick, they stick in your throat.
Why do we do this? he says. Why?
You throw a hand up, wave away his silly rhetorical questions and watch him run, left, right, left; gathering, cursing, fretting. You will close your eyes for a short while and open them to a more sensible reality.
And it is better. It always is. It’s easier to understand what’s needed. You need to stand up. You need to wash, dress. You need to grab a sweet milky tea and the car keys.
A bad idea.
You know this almost immediately but have two weeks, full pay, to consider it in more depth.
The school board also had two weeks. Two weeks. And the best they manage is—
The board is therefore minded
Minded. Head full of bitter and whisky, swimming in it, and you’ve to sit here, listening to people who are minded.
and to further recommend
She looks bitter. Anyone would, dressed like that.
code of conduct
Younger than you are, early thirties, and miserable. A miserable old woman.
seriousness of the situation
Bitter was not your idea. Andrew, God love him, is Sticking To Normal Strength Drinks. He does this from time to time. It’s not something you look forward to. A terrible man sober, Andrew. A terrible drink, bitter.
And that’s really where the fault lies. With Andrew and with bitter.
on the understanding that
But you’ve missed the punch line. Which could make you look a little foolish. So you say—
I’m terribly sorry, I—
and sink your shamed head into your miserable hands.—
And stay like that.
Do you need a minute, Miss Collins?
You are very good at this.
You expected worse. Drunk driving is frowned upon, rightly, but you didn’t drink and drive, you did not. You drove the following day because you are a teacher and a good one. You are a professional. And you are unlucky. You like to drink, you never pretended otherwise, and drinking requires time and effort, as all serious endeavours do. You like the fizz and froth, the ice-cold clink of it. You like settling pints, warm banter, slow smiles and shining eyes. Some people will use this against you, it has happened before. They will make reference to your drinking in ways tedious and unsubtle. They will talk of concern, of control. They will fail entirely to see the beauty of a world unmoved, untouched, unbothered. They are pragmatic, perhaps, realists. You wonder at their foolishness.
They took the license for eighteen months but you took control. You sold the car. It was necessary and a good thing. Cars are a burden, bad for the environment and difficult, sometimes tricky. Huge unwieldy lumps of metal doing their own thing; early mornings when your arms, legs, eyes can’t make sense of the pedals and steering wheel. Making you nervous. Making your hands slippy and the car too wide, the road too narrow and the other cars, screaming past, until you find yourself slamming the brakes to stop the rushing tarmac, pulling the handbrake, hard, and then weeping, your head on the wheel, howling and greeting and trying to pull it the fuck together for God sake.
And you do. Of course you do, you are not a child. A coffee, a biscuit, a lie-down and you’re right as rain. A good thing you hit the playground wall. Really a very good thing, all in all. You will find bus timetables and use the underground. You do not need a car.
Andrew is home late, slamming and thumping about. There was no need to tell him about the meeting with the school board and so you didn’t trouble him. The DVLA was harder to explain away. He was furious about the car, still is, but he will not let you explain. Your punctuality was raised at your last review and you took it seriously. You lost your license because of your professionalism. You have been over this a hundred times.
He picks up the kettle and fills a mug, stirs the teabag furiously. Then he opens the fridge, peers inside, shuts it again. No milk. He says it sadly. No coffee and no milk, he says. Those are just basics, Laura. What’s wrong with us?
Day two a sober man. It’s not your fault his standards have soared.
You take his arm, guide him to a chair. Andrew, you say, I have something to tell you.
He blows into his mug, as if cooling it might prevent detonation.
I’m off work, you say. A few days.
Changed their mind and sacked you? he says.
The DVLA want you for a road safety campaign.
It’s not a joke, you tell him.
No, he says. It isn’t.
Andrew, you say, please.
He puts his mug down. What’s wrong? he says.
It’s Mum, you say. Andrew, she—
and you fall into his arms. You let him support you.
Oh God, he says. Your mum. Laura—
It’s all right, you say. It’s better this way.
Which is true.
Later you both drink wine, a little whisky. Andrew looks after you, in a way surprising as it is delightful. It would be irritating after a while, perhaps, suffocating, but for now you snuggle in, enjoy the warmth.
Your mother lived in Aberdeen many years ago. Lived and died there, loved the place. You didn’t get to know her well, but you remember the red in her dark hair and a cracking sense of humour. You liked her very much, you remember that, too. She would be proud of your ingenuity.
You decide on the sleeper. And on Glasgow. You don’t know a soul in Aberdeen any more, and it’s freezing this time of year.
And it’s wonderful. A bunk no wider as you are, miniature sink with toy taps. There’s a little blue bag on your flannel-sized pillow, with soap, shampoo and tiny toothbrush inside and next to it, Walkers biscuits and a little bottle of Highland Spring. You are Alice, in Caledonian express Wonderland, swinging your legs on your teeny bunk bed. You use the plastic cup for a glass and toast your luck with Stella and shortbread.
You are sure of the following.
Leaving your bag at Queen Street. Walking through the centre, a sharp blue day, up round the University. A pub off the Dumbarton Road and a man sipping port, frowning over the racing pages. Clyde One-O-Four FM, the Eighties Hour. A woman, mouthful of teeth like she gargled black ink, head back and laughing, laughing, like she heard dirty jokes no one else could.
A walk down the Gallowgate into a bar, no bigger than your front room. A TV high in a corner. Two men watching last week’s football, mouths tearing the opposition to shreds. Another bar, another, and back into town. A glass-fronted chain pub, cold, quiet and vast. Metal tables and chairs. Oversized wine glasses. Out into George Square, the cold sun dropping. Festive lights thrown high and wide, scattered and sparkling. A Christmas Tree. And The Crib, of such gentle quiet that you walk over, rest your fingertips and forehead on the glass and stay there, in the soft still light, close to the blues and gold and straw and close your eyes.
And open them on the oldest dog you ever saw, curled under a bar stool. Blues on the jukebox, trumpets, sax, piano, wonderful magical sounds and arms round your shoulders and singing and swaying and a pool table, a basement, broken glass in a sink. And then sitting, rain pouring.
A café, weak scalding tea and hands on your back, shoving, and—get to fuck, fucking wasted, fucking state of you—and walking, wind pulling, rain battering, into a hotel lobby, and—fine thanks just waiting—and—not in here you don’t out, out—the pavement slamming into the back of your head, shoveshouting, the black sky tripping and tilting, switching places, and so you rest. Just for a minute.
And get up. Upside and downside where you always knew they were. Feet slapping concrete, surer of themselves. A pleasant surprise, all the same, when you find you are on a train. No bag, no coat but on the train.
You accept this is excessive behaviour. You are not a fool. There are reasons people behave like this, of course. In more reflective moments you have considered your own reasons for drinking and found that:
-It was not your father. A careless drinker. A drunk.
-It was not your early losses. People lose things, it happens. You have found things since.
-It was not your marriage. He was right for you, then he wasn’t. No drama there.
-It was neither the cause nor consequence of not having children. Some people are supposed to be parents and some are not. You understand where you fit into this.
And that you need to be careful. All this contemplating, reflecting, you know better than that. But it’s good to be home, it is. A break was exactly what you needed. Andrew is working hard and so are you, happy and busy and then, well, then
you open your eyes. You sit up. It is morning, almost certainly. Daylight. And a Tuesday, perhaps, or Wednesday, you cannot be sure. The word PowerPoint comes into your head, which is distressing, somehow, and so you sit up, try to understand what that word might mean. You are to give a PowerPoint presentation on Tuesday. But this isn’t enough. It makes no sense. You try again, roll the words PowerPoint and presentation round your mind but can’t make anything of them, the meaning utterly lost and panic somewhere nearby, closing round you. So you glance about, stand, stumble, fall back and find the word sofa, a solid comfort, followed by lampshade, cream carpet, blue curtains, which means you are in your living room.
This is good. It means you have nowhere to get back from, and a place to rest. You have a bottle of vodka too, on the table, barely touched. You remember buying it but you can’t remember why. It isn’t a drink you enjoy. Still, you are not yourself, bits of you aching and cracked, you may just crumble entirely, all this worry and confusion and so—any port in a storm—you unscrew the lid, lift it to your lips. Your right arm isn’t in on the plan however and all you manage is to smack the bottle off your lower lip. It doesn’t hurt, not a bit, but it is awkward. You’re bleeding on the carpet, a cream carpet, which is terrible, a terrible disgrace. You go through to the kitchen, get a mug and stand there, bottle in one hand, Arsenal FC mug in the other, and you hear that you are giggling, laughing, and no wonder. This is priceless. This is something people do in TV dramas after terrible marital break-ups and miscarriages and misfortune and you—you have a home, a partner, a job.
You hold the mug to the lip of the bottle just the same, and you pour. Slowly. A clear splash in the bottom. Then you sit on the sofa, feet on the cream carpet, facing the blue curtains. You will sit here until you feel a little better. Andrew moaning and fussing at you like that was unkind. You went too far, true, but this is not about you, this is about Andrew. It was his decision to stop drinking and not yours. He was yelling at himself, poor thing, angry with himself.
You pick up the phone. Everything is clear now, and you are feeling much less afraid. You scroll through and find Claire. Office.
Hillside High, she sings. Can I help? She sounds as if she would really like to help.
It’s me, you say.
Where are you? she says.
Dentist. Say that, will you.
Laura, she says.
Okay, an electrical fault. I’ve had to wait in for an electrician.
It’s gone one, Laura.
One? you say. Really? One?
Claire sighs, a long low sound that makes it clear you’re spoiling her day. That, of course, is unfair, you had to call someone. You wouldn’t just not turn up.
Hang up, she says. You’ve got a stomach bug, okay? You’ve seen your GP this morning. And the connection cuts. A lovely woman Claire, a little dramatic perhaps, but smart, organised. You will see your GP.
Stomach upset? he says, fingers tapping a keyboard.
That’s it, you say. A few days now.
I can’t eat a thing, you say.
I need a sick note, you say.
He looks up.
I really do need a sick note.
He puts a hand on the desk, pushes gently and glides slowly towards you. A slightly alarming deskside manner, but he seems to enjoy it.
I’m not sure I can give you one, he says. You’ve had several this year.
Well of course, I have, you say. I don’t keep well. Do I seem well to you?
No, he says. You don’t.
Well then, you say. And you smile at him, gently. He is young, newly qualified perhaps.
Tell me, he says. He glides a little closer, well within the limits of personal body space. What do you think is wrong?
Two possibilities. He’s recording this interview—and if so he really should have told you—or he’s been on a communication skills workshop. GPs aren’t what they were, in your opinion. The true healers are gone.
What do you think is really wrong, he says, the emphasis on really, a word spoken in italics. Meaning time to face facts.
Fine. You can play this game, too.
I—you say, in a way you hope suggests defeat. A lot to ask of such a tiny word so you follow up with a hand up to the mouth, a slight shake of the head.
He smiles, nods. Tell me, his professional, understanding eyes say. Tell the doctor.
Sometimes, you say. Sometimes I—
Go on, he says. I think you have to.
A pity he doesn’t have medical students in to see this. You squeeze both fists together. I have a drink, you say, and sink back, collapsed under the weight of disclosure.
Sometimes a few, perhaps?
This is difficult, he says. I know it is.
It isn’t actually, it’s a synch. Four weeks off. You are a genius. You walk through the waiting room, past the aching and ailing, and feel a stab of sympathy. This helps, it really does. It stops you from whooping and punching the air.
The doctor, having done the hard work, refers you on to the practice counsellor. Annabelle. A saint of a woman, so kindly you want to punch her repeatedly in her honest, decent face until she stops offering reassurances relating to time and steps. She should tell you to stop wasting her fucking time. There are people, she should tell you, who need her help. People who are actually unwell. But she doesn’t. She listens, she nods. She understands. This is her fault and not yours. All the same, it makes you feel bad, and this makes you drink more, which takes up more time than you really have; your nights and days. This is also her fault. The woman is hopeless, quite possibly dangerous.
But you talk to her anyway. The usual sad stories at first and then increasingly intimate tales of painful separation, infertility and death—a little morbid for your tastes but the hour won’t fill itself. Andrew may leave you, he’s said as much and you could be infertile, you might very well be—that or very lucky. You hadn’t intended to talk so much about dying but Annabelle took to your bereavement with such enthusiasm it seemed churlish to mention the relatively few years you had with your mother, or the many years since she died. Mum would have done the same in your position. A practical woman, you’ve been told.
And so you talk. And between sessions you drink. You have more time than you ever dreamed of, so much it makes you weep. The weeping causes confusion. Annabelle counsels furiously, asks you to hang in there, says it with an exclamation mark, says it at the end of each session until you imagine light-brown, floppy-eared puppies draped softly round the consulting room and laugh so hard and so long that Annabelle sees you daily until you pull yourself together.
You agree the following. You drink too much. You find it difficult to stop after a few drinks. You have lost things through drinking. You have no problem agreeing all this, you would agree to anything in this relationship, this perfect harmony of helping and healing, but Annabelle is less nostalgic and because there’s no such thing in medicine as leaving things well alone, begins to expect things are improving, just a bit? Little by little?
The day you ask for another extension to your sick leave Annabelle loses her nerve.
Doctor is the only one who can do that, she tells you mysteriously.
Laura, he says. How are things?
I need a sick note, you say. Straight to the point, no nonsense.
Ah, he says. Yes.
I’d appreciate it, you say.
I hear you’ve been working very hard, he says. The way he says it. A little bird really did tell him.
I hear you’re fighting fit, he says.
Fighting Fit is capitalized, a brand of energy drink.
And he laughs. You laugh. You laugh together and then you continue laughing alone for a long time, until you realise he is really not giving you any more sick notes.
This is entirely irresponsible of him. You tell him all this in a long fixed look that he mistakes for camaraderie. He pats your arm. Well, he says. All the very best.
And you go back to work. You meet with occupational support staff you never knew existed with job titles you never thought possible. You promise many things to many people. And do none of these things. You will not let them take this away from you. You know how to get there and you always come back.
You open your eyes. Nothing. You close them again. You will stay here while it is dark and quiet. Wait until it is light.