May 28, 2021
By Jonathan Thomas, special prize in WRAD’s short story competition
The traffic was slowing, merging into one lane. Around the bend, I could see blue and red lights reflecting off the houses. My heart sank. I knew it! I held the steering wheel with my knees as I grabbed for a water bottle and some spearmint gum in a frenzied attempt to mask any alcohol on my breath. It was ten-fifteen on a Sunday.
The constable was young but spoke with authority. “You’ll need to blow into it again, sir, but this time, one continual strong puff, till the beeper sounds.”
The wait for the result felt endless. “Will this take long, officer?” I enquired. “My family and I are on the way to church.”
“You’re right to go, but only just,” he answered.
The sip of tawny port, at the earlier morning communion service had set me off for the day. ‘Have a scotch on ice and you’ll feel better,’ whispered a voice that I always acted on. Later that morning, we left home to head to the main church service.
The emotional turmoil I suppressed held me trapped in a prison. The moment I acted upon ‘that voice’, I felt release. I always imagined that voice belonging to a warden. When I acted, he would immediately unlock the cold padlock that separated sobriety and the feeling of freedom that relieved me as I drank. ‘Come on, get out,’ he would propose. Intentionally, he failed to inform me that I was still attached to the prison by a single day’s worth of chain. Enough chain of release to escort me through the day until I was debilitated.
As morning dawned
, I was back in the prison, where the warden could not be summoned. With no recollection of the events of the proceeding day, I regained my sense of awareness. I tried to grasp snippets of yesterday. I felt ashamed and lonely. In my mind, as I started scheduling the day, the warden emerged.
’It is impossible to escape this prison,’ he taunted. ‘We will talk about it tomorrow. Do not care for today, you will get through.’
“What about my beautiful wife and two children?” I replied. But it was as if I spoke to an empty courtroom. No judge, no jury. Outside, patient in the beating rain, all my supporting loved ones awaited the final hearing. Beyond them, the extended family and community could be heard: “Don’t you think you should just cut back on your drinking?” and “Surely there is other ways to cope with your stress?” These heartless citations enraged me.
Then the warden held up his slate tablet. I focused on the words:
‘What the hell would they know? They haven’t sustained the trauma you’ve had in your life!’
‘They haven’t had a child with a neurological disability who was never accepted in his own community.’
‘They haven’t had an employee attempt to kill you with a lump of steel!’
‘You don’t want to be one of those who can’t handle alcohol. No one will want to come to your house.’
‘You will never fit in with your extended family and community, who couldn’t even imagine living without alcohol.’
‘It’s okay to tell lies about your alcohol. Here’s your Lie Licence and I won’t give it an expiration date.’
Reading this reassurance from the warden, I pictured myself exiting the courthouse through the side door. I cast my eyes towards my family and captured an image which often woke me at night. An out-of-focus picture of me stumbling back to the prison. My head hanging down by the weight of the chain. No verdict, no conclusion, no words spoken.
Another day concluded; another daily bottle of scotch consumed. ‘Rest now, we will talk about it tomorrow. Your family will still love you tomorrow,’ the warden promised.
Waking to a darkening sky, I felt heavy clouds encompassing all horizons.
‘A couple of paracetamols and a scotch at lunchtime will clear the storm,’ the voice said.
I remembered my doctor’s appointment that morning. As I rushed through the kitchen, my daughter gave me her beautiful smile, and my wife confirmed her love for me. My son waved both arms at me
, as I drove away.
A lucid thought spanned my mind. I needed to change.
“I can’t go a day without alcohol,” I told my doctor. “Can you help me?” It was easier than I’d expected to get that question out.
“Help certainly is available and I will support you. How much are you drinking?” he replied calmly. At this point, I did not know the doctor would triple the amount I stated, for a more accurate picture.
Two days into a fifteen-day medical treatment, the warden entered the prison and pinned me to the cold floor. ’This isn’t working. Go pour yourself a drink.’ I did just that.
This time, I regained consciousness in hospital, unable to walk or talk. My body was shutting down. My wife and children stood by my bed. Death confronted me. The prison lock had rusted over. But in my wife’s eyes, I could see a sustained look of hope for me to hang on.
In the morning, resting gently on my chest lay an entirely new slate tablet titled: Extremum Fato [“One Last Chance”].
I read the beautiful words.
‘There is help, there is hope, don’t give up.’
‘Never be ashamed.’
‘You are not alone.’
‘We are always here to support and love you.’
’If you fall, get straight back up and keep going.’
‘Yes, you need to relinquish some friends who only connect with alcohol.’
‘Let your trusted friends know how they can assist with accountability.’
There was no longer a warden, no voice, no chain. I am no longer in prison.
For me, a recovered alcoholic for seven years, there is no safe amount. One sip will arouse the warden, and I have his promise he’ll be supportive as he escorts me to the gallows for a public execution.
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The WRAD Centre’s vision is to advance the health and wellbeing of those in the South Western Region of Victoria affected by Addictive behaviours and to promote optimal enjoyment of life.
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