Thursday Night and Friday Morning by Chris Green
A car outside my window sounds its horn three times and I stir from my sleep. I was on a golden beach listening to the gentle echo of summer voices. Dolphins were playing with gondolas in the surf. A woman with long dark hair and iridescent tantric tattoos who I met on a balloon trip was rubbing oil into my back and talking in soft Italian. A man in a harlequin suit with a limp was selling doughnuts, and dwarf camels, as small as cats, were frolicking around pyramids that children had made in the sand.
I drift back off, but the disturbance outside has been enough to change the landscape of my dream. I am now in a crowded marketplace and a hooded figure riding a jet black quad bike and waving a dead fish is chasing me past stalls selling large bongo drums and ritual masks. He is shouting at me in a language I do not recognise. I wonder if it is Welsh, but it may not be. I shout back in a language I do not recognise. It is dark and I trying to find my car. I cannot remember what make of car it is or where I have left it. I have the thought that it is not a Maserati or an Alfa Romeo, but this does not seem to help much. There is a large moon low in the sky and shapes of a craggy landscape are in silhouette. I am running. I have a battered leather suitcase in my hand. I have not packed it properly and Monica’s clothes are spilling out onto the cobbled stone street. I make an effort to look back but I know the scene is disappearing. There is a faint light ahead, but this too is becoming fainter and more distant.
The horn outside sounds a piercing continuous note. I feel disorientated. My flailing arms meet with a sharp cry of feline disapproval and my bedside lamp crashes to the floor. It takes me a while to take in that it is Thursday night, or to be more precise 1 a.m. on Friday morning, and that the car outside is a taxi to take me out drinking. I had completely forgotten.
I do not mean that I have missed a rendezvous with friends. Or that I need a drink. I am not an alcoholic or anything like that; in fact, I only recently started drinking alcohol. And I am not by any means a night owl. Early to bed, early to rise, me.
I will try to explain. The new law obliges me to drink. Firstly the government passed licensing laws permitting round the clock drinking. They argued at the time that twenty-four hour opening for pubs and clubs would reduce binge drinking and help to tackle the problem of violence and antisocial behaviour on the streets at 2 a.m. when the clubs closed. As many pointed out, it was an absurd argument. I can remember fragments of conversations with friends and colleagues at the time and no-one in my recollection had expressed enthusiasm for the idea, although Monica did start coming home in high spirits in the middle of the night once in a while. The general consensus was that if those so inclined were given the opportunity to drink more freely, surely they would become more drunk and less concerned with respectful behaviour on the street.
The real motive behind the legislation emerged, that twenty-four hour drinking was a measure to try to buoy up an ailing economy. The hope was that it would present entrepreneurial opportunities to the licensing trade and offer service jobs for the marginalised sections of society. Primarily it would be a great revenue raiser for a government committed to not raising income tax. It was one’s duty to drink for Britain.
Despite blanket advertising of all alcoholic drinks at every opportunity everywhere you could advertise alcoholic drinks, it didn’t work out that way. Drink sales rose only slightly. Regardless of a proliferation of new bars and clubs, opened by wide boys and fly-by-nights hoping to cash in, many people stayed in as they had always done, not drinking, or perhaps buying the odd bottle of wine or pack of premium lager with their shopping at the supermarket. A majority of the population were responsible citizens at heart, still interested in family life or concerned with the practicalities of getting up in the morning and going to work. Clubbing remained the preserve of those under twenty-five with few commitments. I am over twenty five and Monica’s occasional friskiness aside, twenty four hour licensing did not initially affect me that much.
But matters did not end there. Despite widespread protests from the medical profession, Muslims, pregnant women, diabetics and those living in areas where there were pubs and clubs The New Licensing Act, phased in over a six-month period last year, makes it compulsory to partake. Everyone under 65, regardless of gender, race, religion, occupation or financial circumstances is now required to go out clubbing at least once a week – or face a fixed penalty fine of £400. Prisoners and those in secure mental institutions are exempt. While exemptions are also in theory possible for others, for example, the blind or terminally ill, the application forms for an exemption certificate have apparently not yet become available.
Being under 65 and not blind or so far as I know terminally ill, the new licencing legislation began to affect me. Not least because Monica started coming home less frequently, and then not at all. But here is the real killer clause. If I have not consumed the necessary weekly units in one of the approved establishments by Thursday, I have to attend one of several new clubs on the High Street opened to cater for drink-dodgers, and drink my quota there, or pay the fine, deductible at source from my salary. The simultaneous introduction of identity cards simplified the administration. A central database now keeps track of each individual’s consumption throughout the week. Thursday night is now the busiest night of the week everywhere as like me, many others struggle to meet their target.
The DirectGov leaflet, DD17 spells out my options. I can drink a dozen designer bottles (DNA, KGB, WKD, Colaholic, etc.), thirteen pints of Guinness, ten pints of Strongbow, eight cans of Special Brew, three bottles of wine, ten double vodkas or ten doubles of another spirit. All equally unpleasant in my opinion. I generally opt for ten double absinthes in a half litre glass. This way I can get the business over with and be back on the street throwing up outside the bus station by about 2. 30, and be on the earliest clubbers bus, which leaves at 2.45. It also represents the cheapest option. Ten designer bottles in Scuffles would set me back at least £60, whereas ten double absinthes in a half litre glass costs a mere £30. I did email the Home Office website, suggesting I just send a cheque each week for the £30, but the reply I received ignored the request and threatened me with court proceedings.
The cab waiting outside for me is a DriveU2Drink taxi. DriveU2Drink is a cab company employed to help facilitate compulsory clubbing. I throw on a tracksuit, breeze through a brisk bathroom routine, turn off the ambient CD of ocean sounds I use to help me sleep, put the anxious cat out, and make it to the cab, all in about sixty seconds.
It is my usual driver, Bryn. Bryn is not a man who finds it easy to relax.
‘Ten minutes, I’ve been waiting out here boyo,’ he says, lighting a cigarette from the one he is just finishing. ‘It’s not like I haven’t got other calls to make.’
He looks me up and down disapprovingly.
‘And I do not think they will let you into Scuffles dressed like that.’
‘Everyone wears sports clothes in clubs,’ I protest.
‘Not tracksuits like that, they don’t. It looks like it came from HomeBargains. Where’s the logo? You’ll have to go and change, and remember that the meter is running.’
I don’t anticipate that Bryn will be keen to stop on the way for me to get a kebab from Tariqs’, so I grab a slice of carrot cake from the fridge to provide something to help absorb the alcohol.
I live on the Rolf Harris estate in the suburbs, for the time being at least until my divorce from Monica comes through (or the estate gets renamed following recent allegations), and the town centre is a four mile drive. Bryn uses the distance to rant about the price of petrol, Eastern Europeans, asylum seekers, chavs, hoodies, smackheads, crackheads, gays, Blacks, Asians, speed limits, traffic calming, the royal family, the police, and modern art.
Having just taken up a post as a community worker, I wonder if I should take him up on some of his prejudices. As we drive on, I feel that there would be little point. His enmity seems to be free-floating. He could just as easily be ranting about the NHS, schools, social workers, Yanks, Chinese, transsexuals, celebrities in space or whatever is on the front page of his tabloid today.
We drive past Corporation Square, the hub of the sprawling Tokers End council estate. Around Betterbet there is a lively throng of locals keen on getting a bet on the night football, or as Betterbet is next to Bruisers’ Bar, perhaps the Mauler-Stitch bare-knuckle fight from the Milton Keynes Colosseum. Betting Tax has recently been reintroduced, but is proving not to deter punters. And as compulsory lotto and compulsory scratch cards have been such a success, compulsory betting is now being considered as another means to boost government coffers. The residents of Tokers End are clearly ahead of the game. They need little encouragement.
‘They will bet on anything, see,’ says Bryn. ‘The Christmas number one, the Christmas number two, the discovery of life on Mars, the pope to break a leg skiing, The Finnish Wife Carrying Championship, where the next terrorist attack will be, how many will be killed in the next hurricane.’
‘I know someone that bets on virtual horse racing,’ I say.
‘Look you,’ says Bryn. ‘My next door neighbour trains virtual horses. He tells me that when you buy a virtual horse, the fitness level is only about fifty percent. This increases by between two to five percent each time you train it, see. He trains his virtual horses six times a day.’
I nod, trying not to get crumbs of carrot cake on the floor. Perhaps the recipe would benefit from an extra egg.
‘How are things between you and the missus?’ asks Bryn, breaking off from his tirade.
I confide that things are not good. That Monica is staying with friends, and that letters between Hoffman, Cohen and Partners and Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed are arriving daily.
‘Tough business, I can sympathise with you boyo.’ says Bryn. ‘I had the same thing with Tegwyn, see. Tegwyn liked the pop too. I had to sell the Beamer, you know. Heavy shit, the drink. You cannot imagine how much I hate this fucking job.’
Stacey is a single mum. Her daughter, Jade is three years old. Stacey is forced to take the DriveU2Drink cab one Thursday night to fulfil her obligation. She has no babysitter. She cannot afford one. All her disposable income goes on her weekly night out. While Stacey is at Moonies, Jade burns herself on the electric hob. The neighbours hear Jade’s screams, break the door down and phone for an ambulance. They phone Stacey on the number that they have been given, but Stacey cannot hear the phone over the thumping jungle music. In years gone by, Social Services would have become involved in a case like this. There is no talk of prosecution. Stacey’s case is summarily brushed under the carpet. There are many Staceys. There is probably one living next door to you, so, if you do not have to go out drinking on Thursday nights, be vigilant.
We drive on, the details of Bryn’s divorce passing in one ear and out the other. The overturned Passat outside The Cold Store suggests that little has improved in Tokers End over the past week, but at least the council have removed the burnt out police car from outside the housing office. The ten foot high supermarket trolley and paint can sculpture adds a spark of interest to the drab paved area, taking attention away from the mountain of polystyrene fast food containers in the overgrown planters. Bryn takes a right into Bob Marley Avenue to avoid the traffic calming on Malcolm X Street. The boarded up windows of the Lebanese café on the corner boasts a selection of new spray can art, some of it quite colourful and creative. Art of the state, I believe it is now called. The overall effect is unfortunately compromised by the puerile fascination of less talented taggers for obscenity. Budgens’ supermarket, which has over the years suffered more than most from graffiti and vandalism, now has a large red sign saying closed until further notice and the premises of Accessible Finance next door thanks to a recent ram raid has become accessible to all. A row of clamped cars outside the Baghdad House flats suggests the police were round earlier as part of their crackdown on expired tax discs. Even the Tokers End Community Centre minibus is clamped.
I remember, almost fondly now, the time that Monica and I were clamped several years ago when we were shopping in Soho. We still had the Cosworth then, so it must have been before the gallery went bust. Just after the Diane Arbus exhibition. It was after the loss of the gallery that Monica started drinking. ….. I wonder what she is doing now. We haven’t spoken since the solicitors became involved. She will not be happy with Giancarlo. She will always play second fiddle to his Maserati, or his Alfa Romeo, or whatever car he is playing around with in his workshop, and he is nearly twice her age.
‘Hard not to be bitter, you know what I mean,’ says Bryn.
I hadn’t realised we were still having the same conversation. I agree, bitter is part of what I feel, but I do miss her.
We stop at the temporary traffic lights on Karl Jenkins Way where they are building the new twenty four hour retail park to replace the recently demolished factories. A lengthy wait in a long line of other DriveU2Drink and BoozeCruise cabs gives Bryn the opportunity to acquaint me with just how many famous Welsh people there have been: David Lloyd George, Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Charlotte Church to name but a few. The relative obscurity of his other nominees does not seem to help his case, leaving me with the thought that perhaps the Welsh are not cut out for fame.
The lights eventually change and we move on past the HSBC Hospital and the John Lewis Primary School towards the centre of town. Bryn points out the Lost Cause public house, hidden away behind a battalion of mobile phone masts.
‘The only pub in town that still allows smoking,’ he says, lighting up another cigarette. ‘They’ve turned the inside into the outside.’
Smoking is banned in the workplace of course and this includes restaurants and bars and, it occurs to me, taxis too. The government’s attitude to smoking is, some cynics feel, a missed opportunity. Compulsory smoking in public places would bring in heaps of revenue for the Chancellor, and help to pay the escalating bill of our foreign conflicts. By bringing in more revenue and systematically reducing the number of claimants, promotion of tobacco might also have also help to tackle the pensions crisis. Legislation of a few class B or C substances as well, with a little favourable promotion, might finance an invasion of some more middle eastern countries to help secure our supplies of oil and gas.
I don’t watch the news very much, in fact, I hardly watch television at all. Monica succumbed to the Sky advertising early on and I still have a choice of about four hundred channels, but if I have some spare time in the evening I prefer to work on one of my stories on the computer.
‘Why do you always write about ghosts?’ Monica used to say. ‘All of that went out with Harry Potter. And nobody wants to know about your dreams. There’s no money to be made in that supernatural stuff.’
‘There’s no money to be made in watching Celebrity Love Triangle night after night,’ I may have replied. ‘It’s not about the money.’ But of course, it was about the money. After the gallery closed, Monica showed no signs of wanting to go out and earn any.
‘Tegwyn used to have these visions, see,’ says Bryn returning the focus to his own marital breakdown. ‘I suppose you could say she lost touch with reality. I thought it was the drink, like. But then they put her on this new medication and she could see into the future. She would say something like, Idris is going to win eighteen million on the lottery – and it would happen. Exactly eighteen million, Idris won. One day not long before she left she said, ‘I can see increasing signs of unrest. When’s that going to happen, Tegwen? I remember saying.’ ‘twenty fifteen,’ she said. And here we are.’
Wayne was allergic to alcohol. Drinking brought him out in hives and affected his breathing. Although Wayne was diagnosed with anaphylaxis early on, he found over the years that he could manage the odd glass of wine at a function without major effects. However, when faced with the compulsory Thursday night binge at WhiteRiot his breathing became constricted and he collapsed by the bar. Collapsing by the bar was not so unusual here, so there was a delay before he was attended to by the stewards and taken to hospital. Held up further by the Thursday night mayhem in the streets and with the Thursday night bottleneck at A and E, he died waiting to see a consultant. You will know someone with alcohol intolerance. Keep an eye on them when they have to meet their weekly target.
As we approach the outskirts of town the streets shows increasing signs of unrest. Bryn’s radio operator spits staccato messages to let the drivers know which streets to avoid. Even so, each bar we pass had a noisy mob of hammered hooded hooligans outside taking advantage of all night happy hours. The smoking ban inside licensed premises has served to promote large unruly alfresco gatherings. We can hear loud urban music coming from every direction. Gangs of pale six-foot pro-wrestlers, with shaved heads, tattooed biceps, and rings hanging from their ears, eyes and noses parade chanting and singing. Black youths are taunting Asian youths and Asians are taunting blacks in front of a bank of CCTV cameras. The gold jewellery on display looks like it could be an advert for El Dorado. An air of uncontrolled mayhem reigns. Fights are breaking out here and there between groups decked out in rival brands of leisure wear. It is like a noisy playground where the children have just become older. The muted wailing of police and ambulance sirens is continuous and we have to pull over several times on Eminem Street to let emergency vehicles pass. Outside Blazes, a predatory gang of teenage girls with short skirts and large bare waists swigging out of pink bottles shaped like penises shout and swear at a gang of teenage girls with shorter skirts and larger bare waists, swigging out of red bottles shaped like penises. Bryn tries to negotiate a path through the two groups of marauding youngsters. Missiles fly through the air as the two gangs meet. We are caught in the crossfire and a pink penis narrowly misses the windscreen of the cab. The red penis, which follows it, is more accurate and a large crack appears in Bryn’s line of vision. Instinctively he winds his window down and hurls some abuse. Ill-advisedly, I feel. Next thing we know, a writhing mass of tattooed teenage flesh is all over the cab. The girls scream madly, baseball bats smashing against glass. The cab follows an uncertain path down Cameron Street towards the Thatcher Monument as it was rocked up and down. Several vehicles coming toward us collided, there was some kind of explosion, and that is as much as I can remember.
The HSBC Hospital is nowhere near the top of the Daily Telegraph Performance League Table, but there again it is not near the bottom. It is at 106 out of 187 hospitals in the Mortality Rating. It could be argued that the figures are a little skewed by the fact that the HSBC has borne the brunt of last year’s fish flu epidemic. It is still well ahead of The KFC Hospital and The Vodafone Hospital in its average waiting time at A&E, just four and a half hours. After midnight on Thursday this, of course, rises fourfold. The Telegraph’s ratings show that the HSBC’s record of successful operations is below the national average, and it is 123 out of 187 for cases MRSA, but perhaps all of this is beside the point. The hospital’s reputation is built primarily on being a leader in experimental research.
Anyway, whatever its merits, it is in the HSBC Hospital that I find myself. I don’t remember if I have signed any forms of consent but I have been placed on a programme to test an experimental new drug called Contradil.
While the manufacturers are hailing Contradil as something of a universal panacea, tests have revealed that it might not be without side effects. Among the documented side effects are sweating, dizziness, visual disturbances, sickness, nausea and mood swings. Among the undocumented side effects are paranoia, time disorientation, loss of reason, inability to stay awake, and vivid dreams.
Dr Black is injecting me with plasticine. The room has the warped geometry of a Maurits Escher painting. It is one of many in a large gothic house that is both familiar and unfamiliar. It is at once my school, my parental home, and my workplace. But still I do not know my way around and it is dark. I am anxious because I am late for something. I have missed an exam or an appointment and am searching for clarity. The corridor is charged with the bitter aroma of absinthe. On a large screen, gangs of pale six-foot pro-wrestlers, with shaved heads, tattooed biceps, and rings hanging from their ears, eyes and noses parade chanting and singing. There is a commentary. I recognise the voice. It is my own, but my speech is slurred. I climb up a flight of stairs that takes me downward. I become immersed suddenly in a pool of clear warm saliva. Hank Williams is singing a song about being chained and manacled. I begin humming along to the tune. Someone joins in on the harmonica. They wanted to harm Monica. I am in a different room now; this one is long and narrow like a gallery. Its walls are of weathered blocked stone as if they should be outer walls. I struggle on my hands and knees along a row of Diane Arbus photographs, which keep changing. I know the people in some of the photographs, but their faces are stretched into grotesque caricatures. Now I am in another room, an upstairs room with an exaggeratedly concave ceiling. I go through a small gnarled wooden door and find myself in a grey corridor. It is damp and water trickles down the walls. I switch on a torch and there are bugs the size of rats on the floor, and rats the size of cats. Petrified, I make it to the other end of the corridor, where I crawl through the eye of a Lebanese hunchback. I find myself in white open space with a transparent green and magenta yin yang motif window hanging from a tree. I peel a large succulent peach. Now I am on a golden beach listening to the gentle echo of summer voices. A woman with long dark hair and iridescent tantric tattoos who I met on a balloon trip is rubbing oil into my back and talking in soft Italian. A man in a harlequin suit with a limp is selling doughnuts, and dwarf camels, as small as cats, are frolicking around pyramids that children have made in the sand. A car outside my window sounds its horn three times.
© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved