My friend Bernard arrived a few minutes before I did. He asked a woman who seemed official if it would be alright for his doctor to come as his support. Driving to the Meeting I was wondering the same. ‘Yes, of course’, the woman said. Bernard and I found each other outside. Smokers, most of them men, stood around chatting and working hard at their smoking. We walked inside and found ourselves in a small room, quite narrow and deep, and dimly lit.
‘First Meeting?’, asked a skinny bloke at Bernard’s shoulder.
‘Yes. My name’s Bernard.’
‘John.’ A laugh. He stretched out his hand: ‘Well, we’re all John here.’
‘John’ extended a hand and shook mine. His slim face looked healthy, his smile a gift unexpected in the gloom.
He clutched a big mug. Others wandered in, prepared tea or coffee and held their mugs. I didn’t see anyone drink.
Quietly Bernard started to talk to me about belief. ‘Do you believe, Howard?’ I fashioned a reply. Bernard told me of a friend whom he met for lunch that day: ‘This fellow has had a stellar career. He retired just today, signed the documents, finished off. We met for lunch. The thing is, this man, so rational, so analytical, a complete realist, is truly religious. I mean church, prayers, the whole package. I asked him, “How do you believe? I mean all that mumbo jumbo… no offense…” He said: “I choose to believe.”’
Bernard had told me his psychiatrist suggested he attend Meetings. ‘The doctor said, “I think you start with one substance, develop a habit, withdraw, then start a new one. You seem to lack meaning in your life. Perhaps you need a spiritual focus.”’ Bernard, musing, saw the reality of that lack, but wondered if it were not his weakness but his strength.
Hanging on the front wall was a list of points, numbered from One to Twelve, a sort of manifesto. It looked like the Twelve Commandments, a creed. It was these that started Bernard’s train of thought.
At eight o’clock the smokers came in from the cold and joined the dozen or so of us seated inside. Last in closed the door. A thin woman of fifty or so stood up at the front, welcomed us all briefly. She added, ‘and a special welcome to the first timers.’
She sat down. The official woman at the table invited an older person seated behind us to speak. ‘John’ shuffled forward, took his position and composed himself. He carried no notes. His script was his life. A quietness fell. He spoke: ’I’ve been coming to Meetings – at first on the coast, then out west, later here – for 43 years. The Meetings have saved my life.’
Abruptly the door swung open. A young person wearing running shorts and a polo shirt strode inside and sat down. She looked about fifteen. I wondered if she too was ‘John.’
The speaker resumed. ’I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been dry for forty-three years. I go to a Meeting wherever I am. I never miss out. I know I HAVE to go. No excuses, every day. Otherwise I’d be dead in the gutter.’
The speaker would be about sixty, sixty-five. Full faced, woolly, black-grey beard, clothed in shapeless grey, his speech quiet, his pear-shaped body a looming mass in the dim light, only his fleshy features enacting his experiences: ‘I was the great intellect. I knew I didn’t need Meetings. I went along to humour a friend. The friend would find me passed out wherever I’d been drinking, wherever I happened to fall. But I was the great intellect.’ A sniff, a shrug:’ A great intellect who was deaf. Nothing worse than a deaf drunk. I KNEW. No-one could tell ME. I went away from the Meeting. Not for me. I went away and I had a drink. That’s what I’d always do, I’d have a drink. I never ever had a drink without drinking until I passed out. It was a while before I came back. I came back and I keep coming back. No-one judged me, no-one told me what to do. From the first I was accepted, supported. So long as there was a Meeting I was safe. I could depend on the Meeting, the people I’d find there. I didn’t need grog while I went to meetings. That was then. I lost my job, my license, my home and my marriage, my daughters. That was then; this is now – and my life has filled with brighter things, some things have been repaired – but I still need the Meetings, they still keep me safe.’
John continued at considerable length, the words flowing from him without haste or hesitation or repetition. It was not performance, or if it was, he wore no costume. He was naked before us and he was unashamed.
John stopped, thanked us, shambled back to his seat. People clapped quietly. There was no whooping, no congratulation. The sober percussion of palms spoke of quietude: ‘We hear you, we know you, we understand and recognise you. You are not alone.’
The presiding person invited ‘John Two’ to share. Younger than the first John, he approached the front cradling his mug. He opened his mouth and told his life: ‘I had good parents. They both drank, but they loved me as much as they could. I could sense the magic in them when they were drinking, how alcohol changed them, the lift, the ease, the flight that the drink gave them. I couldn’t wait to have the same. And I didn’t have to wait long. I was fourteen when a mate of my elder brother took me and another fourteen year-old to the pub in his car. We sat and waited in the back seat. When it arrived it was a schooner of fifty-fifty. I drank it and I felt the lift. I had another and a third and a fourth. I was flying. I wasn’t a shy kid, I could speak to anyone, I felt I could be anything. I had no worries. We went home and I couldn’t wait until next time. And next time came soon and often. After a while older mates would smuggle me into the bar. Eventually the publican recognised me as a regular. He said, I don’t want to know how old you are but the coppers will. You drink out in the beer garden. If the cops come, you’ll get warning and you can nip off through the hedge.’
‘I never drank without getting drunk. I never got into trouble in my life unless there was grog in me. And there was grog in me whenever I could get it. I lost jobs, I crashed cars, I smashed faces and friendships. I forgot to eat, I got sick. Whenever anything bad happened I’d say to myself, better have a drink. Whenever anything good happened I’d say, better have a drink. One very good thing that happened was my wife. She’d shake her head and say, “There’s always two things together when trouble happens; the two things are you and grog.” I decided I’d better go easy. I told my mates, I wouldn’t be drinking for a while. They said, “Come on, just one.” I couldn’t see the harm in that. I told the wife I wouldn’t be out long. I went along with the mates and I had a drink. Then it was no limit. It was me and the grog and it was like always. That particular night we drank until closing time, then I kicked on at the Club where members had a key. You’d let yourself in at any time, take as much as you liked from the fridge, and pay on the Honour System. Some time in the morning I must have run out of money. I got into the car, drove into two other cars and a fence and into someone’s house. Or so they told me. I woke up in hospital. The wife came in and she said, “Always the same two, you and the drink.” ‘
‘I agreed to go to a Meeting. I knew I didn’t need it. I was another great intellect. The Meeting wasn’t like anything I’d ever known. I didn’t mind it. Still the Great Intellect, I didn’t need it, but I could feel something there. I suppose it was respect. I came back. That was thirty-one years ago and I’m still coming back. When I go to Meetings I don’t need to drink. And there’s always a Meeting near you and it’s always there when you need it. You could wake up at six in the morning and feel like a drink, but you knew there was a six o’clock meeting for shift workers coming off shift and you could go along. No questions, you’d be welcome.’
The words poured out of John Two. Unrehearsed, coming with his breathing, never hurried, never late, coming from deep in the storehouse of experience and self knowledge. John Two stood before us, neither humble nor proud, just himself, accepting himself. He held his neglected mug, a metaphor for the drink that was always available but no longer needed.
John Three spoke. She was very thin, looking older than her fifty-two years. We heard of her liver failure, her cirrhosis, her doctor’s predictions. We heard of her passion for alcohol, her phenomenal appetite for it. ‘It would take a bottle of vodka to get to sleep. I’d sleep three hours and wake up and I’d know I’d get no more sleep, so I’d knock off a bottle of wine – there in bed – to get a couple more hours. Early in the morning I’d start again. I’d walk along a street and I’d look at the gutter and I’d know that’s where they’d find me. It wouldn’t be long. And then I thought of the grandchildren and they’d know their Gran died in the gutter. So I came to a Meeting. I didn’t want the grandkids to have to live with that knowing. So that’s what I do, I come to Meetings. And I have a second chance.’
John Four said: ‘I’ve got four kids. I don’t know how much they used to understand, but they know I’m different since I’ve been coming to Meetings. They’re still little, but they’re happier now their mum doesn’t fall over anymore, that I come to their school events, concerts and such like. I can read to them and they can make out the words and I don’t fall asleep and drop the book on the floor. It’s been three years now I’m dry and they know I go to Meetings and they can tell it’s good.’
An hour had passed and I had to leave. The Twelve Commandments hung silent on the wall. I wondered about that. A couple of days later Bernard visited me. He’d stayed to the end. He said, ‘I felt humbled: those people are heroes. They wouldn’t know it but they are inspiring. I’m going to go again next Monday. And there’s another Meeting a lot closer to my home, on Wednesdays. They told me that’s a good Meeting too.’ I wondered aloud about the Commandments. Bernard said, ‘I am quite open to hear anything about anyones belief, but there was hardly any of that. I don’t think I heard the word God or Jesus mentioned once. Just people sharing and accepting. I felt comfortable there.’
I read aloud my notes about the night. Bernard encouraged me to post it. he added, ‘I think I’ll talk to my partner about coming along too. I think we both understand that drinking together keeps us close but stops us getting too close. I’m ready now to try to get closer.’