I was walking through Clapham this morning. Had to. Had to get out and get some fresh air away from mum for a while. I had to have time to myself otherwise I would’ve gone mental. More mental perhaps, depending on your view of me.
I walked across the Common. A well trodden route. From where my gran used to live, past the church and along a curve left following the path which cuts across to the traffic lights that lead into High Street. Past the paddling pool where I used to spend summers when I was little. Past the water fountain.
The water fountain was funded by the Temperance Society of Great Britain in 1884. When I was a child, and walked past it with my gran when we did her shopping, there used to be 6 benches, three sets of two back-to-back benches with three facing north and three facing south. When we walked past, these benches were full of guys drinking. Wino’s my gran used to call them.
These guys always looked lined, brown, tanned and old. They probably weren’t old. Spending days out in the sun drinking made them look older than the date on their passport would suggest. If these guys had passports. Which I doubt. They preferred to get away by drinking I guess.
When I was a puppy, my gran and I used to walk past them and she’d say hello. She said hello to everyone. Everyone always said hello back.
“Hello Molly! You got your shopping there?”
“I have thank you. My grandson is helping me.” Her drawing attention to a 7-year-old me meant they had to curb their language. A code for ‘don’t you dare fucking swear.’
“Have a good day Molly.”
“Do you know them nanny?” I asked.
“They’re always there. You can’t walk past them every day and not say something.”
These men seemed fine. Not like the drunk I knew.
These guys all drank from green bottles of Olde English Cider. They all seemed fine and jolly. But then sometimes it wasn’t fine. We walked past once and a couple of men were arguing. There was pushing and shoving.
“Hey!” said my gran. “Just stop that and sit down. You need to take more water with it.”
They did as she said.
“How do they know your name nanny?”
“We’re Irish. We’re either Molly or Paddy to some people.”
“Why do they drink like that nanny?”
“I don’t know Spencer. Drink can be an evil thing. Some people drink to forget, but after a while they’ve forgotten their reason for drinking in the first place. The sad thing is that they’ve forgotten those around them too. ”
I know. This made sense to me. I’d go home and mum would drink. Bottles of Olde English cider like the wino’s on the benches.
“Mum, you’re drinking what those wino’s drink” I once pointed out helpfully.
“I am NOT a wino. They don’t have homes. I am not a wino.”
“But you’re drinking the same thing. You’re a wino!”
“Leave me alone. I’m not a wino.”
I was 8 or so. And from the time mum’s drinking escalated after my grandfather’s death it became a lonely childhood. It didn’t feel like a home, despite what mum said. I’m an only child and mum would drink a lot. Two people in the same room most of the time but so far apart and drifting further and further with each sip, each topped up glass and each spilt drink. Each spill that I would clean because mum was too drunk to care. I’d stay up to make sure she didn’t fall asleep in the chair. As I got older I’d leave her to it and spend more time in my room by myself. I guess I did this to protect myself. Someone had to look after me.
I once begged her to stop drinking. I remember this clearly. It was before I was due to start secondary school so I was 10, almost 11.
“Drinking makes me feel better. So leave me alone.”
I’m not teetotal by any stretch so this is not a lecture on the evils of drink. I like a drink and a laugh with friends. So if you’re having a glass of wine while reading this don’t feel bad. Enjoy it. Savour it and let it let help you unwind. But if you’re drinking a glass of wine while driving and reading this, then put the blog down. You should never read blogs and drive.
I passed the same place on the Common in the summer. The benches, as I mentioned before, are long gone, and by the fountain is a sign saying how Street Drinking is prohibited. Around this sign were people sitting on the grass. Drinking. Cans and other bottles this time. No more Olde English cider.
As I walked past this morning and saw some more street drinkers by the sign I thought there’s something funny in the fact that this area of the Common still has this aspect, 34 years on. There’s something funny in the fact that people drank by something funded by The Temperance Society, and now the benches have gone they congregate around a sign saying ‘No Street Drinking.’ And there was something funny about how no wino, as my gran called them, ever drank wine.
I thought it funny. And then I thought it was ironic.
And then I thought about how some things that are ironic aren’t even slightly funny.
It’s ironic how the thing which mum said made her feel better contributed so much to her poor health later in life. Mum’s concept of home, that which made her different from them, was also ironic. I guess I had a home but it didn’t feel like a home. If that makes sense. Perhaps I’m being harsh.
It’s also ironic how my thoughts, when trying to get away from mum and this situation now, caused by years of her drinking, me going for a walk across the Common on an Autumn morning to take my mind away from weeks of shite, lead me back to her.
I walked past the Temperance Fountain, with the statue of the woman giving refreshment to someone, this image of someone caring for someone in a time of need, and I felt sick. Years of hurt suddenly sideswiped me and got into my gut. I walked past it and over to the side of the path, close to a tree, and my stomach started lurching and my throat felt tight. I couldn’t stop myself from retching for a few seconds.
I calmed myself. I had tears in my eyes and a bottle of water in my pocket. I stopped, wiped my eyes, took a sip and a big deep breath. As I did two people passed me. One said loudly ‘They really ought do something about these street drinkers. That one looked like he was about to throw up.’
Thanks for reading.