There was something of the gangster about him.
Stocky and barrel-chested and a rolling get-the-fuck-out-my-way gait. Shoulders hunched in past tension, a square and unsmiling face and his hair en-brosse — sharp and spikey
He took the empty chair at the end of the table and aligned a cheap red lighter with the top of his pack of Marlboro lights. Car keys placed next to cigarettes, just-so. Sorted. He looked round the room, his wary eyes checking for hostiles. He wore a Cartier Tank chrono, a pink, well-fed T-shirt, orange swim trunks and white flip-flops. Pastel gangster.
We’d just started the meeting, the ten of us sweaty and sticky in the tin-roofed hut opposite St James, the oldest church on the island. A single fan circled slowly, squeaking in protest with every rotation — a gesture, but no more, against the sodden heat.
We were doing the go-round, introducing ourselves. We came to him — “Charlie, alcoholic.” Low-pitched and flat, northern vowels. Mancunian, I guessed.
“Hey Charlieee,” a sing-song chorus and gap-toothed smiles from the three old-timers. So, he’s a regular here, I thought, known and liked.
My first meeting on the island and I was wrong-footed by my low expectations. There were years and years of sobriety in the room, offerings of experience and wisdom for those who wanted to listen. The elders spoke in a broad Bajan patois — not easy to grasp at first but fifteen minutes into the meeting my ears had adapted to the dancing rhythms and cadences.
A young man shared his difficulties in staying sober. Ten, twelve days without a drink, then boom. Just a beer. Then another. Then onto the local brewed rum and all bets were off.
“Way I see it,” said Charlie, “for you, right now, it’s all about Step One. Read it. Read it again. Sleep with it under your pillow. Admit you’re an alcoholic. 100%. Admit you’re absolutely powerless over booze. Because only when you surrender will you find the strength to stop drinking.” He talked of the paradox of finding strength through surrender, understanding the tyranny of pride and ego and the need to quash them. Not overnight, small steps, day-by-day. Gentle, soft words of guidance ending with a broad encouraging smile that lit up his face and the room.
Maybe not a gangster after all.
Lady V and I were staying in a kind friend’s villa on Sugar Hill, a chi-chi gated community of houses and apartments overlooking the Caribbean. The morning after the meeting I was walking to the gym when a Mini Cooper stopped beside me. Passenger window went down.
“What the fook you doing here?”
“My wife and I are staying here. Three months actually.” I sounded like a BBC news reader from the fifties. Clipped and oh-so proper. Must have been a reaction to his near unintelligible Mancunian delivery.
“Fookin hell. You staying in one of them?” He pointed at the row of elegant apartments set back from the road.
“”No, we’re in a villa. Down the hill.” No change out of seven or eight million US for those houses.
“Fookin hell,” again.
He sat at the wheel and I leant in the window and we chatted. Did he live on the island? Did he go to lots of meetings? Live here on his own?
‘Daft, talking like this,” he said. “Let’s have coffee. Clubhouse, tomorrow. Eleven o’clock work for you?”
A reluctant ok from me and off he went.
I’m not good at meeting new people. I arrived at the club-house, no sign of Charlie — perfect. I’ll give it five minutes and leave. Bang on eleven he arrives, still in his pastels.
“Hello matey, what’ll it be?”
Hugs and kisses with the waitress as he orders. He lights a ciggie and then aligns lighter with pack top.
We start to talk and for the next couple of hours we don’t stop.
Charlie’s is an extraordinary story. Street kid, lived with his mum, dad (and graddad) alcoholics, no money, started stealing and drinking at twelve, drugging at thirteen. Went to work at sixteen, married young, four kids, drinking and drugging to excess everyday. Started his own business, became multi-millionaire, despite being extreme alcoholic and addict. Rehab eight times — all a waste of time and money. Bought a mansion here on the island. Moved the family over, a disaster. Moved them back to UK. Divorce. Final, terrible near-death meltdown on the island and then twelve months of brutal, take-no-prisoners rehab in the frozen wastes of Minnesota.
It worked. Sober today.
Still got the business but works from here by phone and email. Exhibited artist. Deep sea fisherman, goes out four times a week on his Grady White called Funky Knell.
Being at sea is a cure for madness, he says.
A character. Beaten up by life, but still larger than life. Warm, kind and gentle, but don’t tell anyone.
We parted and said we meet again soon.
And that afternoon Lady V and I bumped into him in what the locals optimistically call the supermarket. V calls it the Gulag. She’s a Manchester girl, Lady V. Seems she was brought up round the corner from Charlie. An instant bond between them as they talk about the mean streets of Urmston. I hover on the sidelines thinking about the well-behaved green-leafed lanes of Surrey where I suffocated as a child. We agree to have dinner the next evening.
More talk of Charlie’s life of addiction. The characters he met, the dangers he faced, the love he was shown, the hope he now has.
A week later he asked me if I’d like to write his story.
Every morning for a week we’d talk with the iPad on Record. Charlie would reminisce, I would question and encourage disclosure. We wound up with fifteen hours of memories, in no particular order and with no given structure.
The aching misery of loss. The deceipt and pain and everyday remorse of alcoholism. The fear of never finding sobriety. The loneliness. The hunger for oblivion from the opposing worlds of grief and frenzy. Going to sleep hoping you wouldn’t wake up.
All that talking was in the summer of 2014.
My Name Is Charlie And I Don’t Think Right is the result.
Charlie likes to think of it as a story of hope for the hopeless.