The Last Corner Shop

There are all sorts of bargains you make with yourself when you’re about to give in to an addiction. And the peculiar thing is that all the while you’re making these bargains, there’s another part of you sat outside of yourself that looks in and knows how ridiculous all of the promises are. How you’ll break every one. Max made all of these bargains as he left the tube and walked towards his flat.

For example, if he could only drink so much tonight that he had the most horrific night of his life, then that would be enough to stop him from ever doing it again.

Or he could just buy a bottle and drink a bit, and see what happens. He might not finish the whole thing in one sitting. Then he’d be stocked up for the next time he did want a drink, with a meal, say or — more rarely — company.

Or he could buy the bottle, and store it away in his cupboards and test himself. That way he’d grow and become stronger for having denied himself the drink when he really had wanted it.

Funny, he thought, how it was a bottle that contained the drink. Something Freudian about that.

And all the while he was making these bargains he could feel his gut trying to push down on the instinctive truth, the well-trodden dopamine paths that reminded him just how damn good it felt to hit that place, that near-rock-bottom.

It was surrender. The first sip was like giving yourself up to God, to chance, to not having to make the decisions anymore because you were tired. And didn’t you have every right to be tired? You never asked to be born, you never asked to be wired the way you were, and you certainly never signed up to deal with the life that fell out of both of those things.

He felt at times like this that he could hear Society, too, whispering in his ear. Society saying to him: “But think of Lucy.” She was effectively his own child, enough that he — in his head, against his better judgement — had thought of her as his daughter. You weren’t supposed to succumb to self-sabotage if you had a child. It was supposed to be a sufficiently wondrous and all-consuming thing to pull you out of yourself and your own stupid, selfish whims.

But what did Lucy have to do with any of this. He was on his own time now.

He’d walked her to the station. He’d never been good at goodbyes. And by the time they got round to this one, he was exhausted from simply trying to keep his different emotions from meshing across with one another.

Max never did like definitions in his personal life. He never called himself an alcoholic, because he didn’t drink every day. He went through phases. There’d be six months where it would become habitual, sometimes daily, and then he’d reach January and he’d decide that was enough of that Max, and he’d run. Once the running began, the drinking stopped, because the two couldn’t co-exist. Each of them was a particularly strong personality in him — they would want him to themselves.

At any rate, he was walking down the street towards the last corner shop, the last option to succumb. And he knew he would go in there and buy something. He’d given himself the previous two corner shops to dance the dance where he gave just enough illusion of deliberation to convince himself that he had tried.

And here in the last corner shop was where the rules would begin. There were certain drinks that came attached with good memories, memories he didn’t want to spoil. He thought of them as little bytes of data in his head, connections and information that he didn’t want to overwrite. So the more expensive stuff was usually out of the question. Nothing north of Glenfiddich. And anyway, he’d start with a few beers to get warmed up. He had a funny thing about Sol, so that was always off the table. These were the markers. When he wanted Sol or Glenfiddich, that’s when it was time to check himself and start consciously getting dry again. But tonight, tonight was a pale ale and Famous Grouse kind of night. And anyway if he bought the lot — he bargained — he might only drink the beer, and then it wouldn’t be as bad because he’d just leave the whiskey for next time. Save some money that way.

Because there would be a next time. This was the problem. Killing yourself slowly means you have a lot of time to convince yourself you can maintain the status quo: life.

Of course he could always run. That option never went away. The night was reasonably fresh, and the streets would have the icy breathy feel of early spring. He laughed miserably at himself in his head. He knew himself far too well for that.

He had put off calling Richard already, which should have been the first thing he did after he left Lucy, but he’d been a mess then. He’d had to step into the doorway of a Korean hotpot place because he couldn’t stop himself from breaking into heaving sobs. This was not who he was. And then a couple had just been trying to leave the place and had had to say “Excuse me” and move him on. Like a homeless person. He had always been afraid of homeless people — they reminded him of how close he was, were he ever to trip and fall.

But Richard would have been in his position. Before the company got as big as it had, Richard was himself an Other. He’d done it for five years, him and Will, the co-founders, before devoting their time more fully to the business side of things. He could call Richard, tell him what had happened, ask for his advice. He had been one of the longest serving and most reliable Others, Richard would take a late evening call from him.

But therein was the problem. He wanted to remain reliable. More of him depended on that than he wanted to look at right now.

And anyway there was another problem, he thought, as he entered his apartment and caught himself looking sulkily at the mirror. Lucy wasn’t an IVF baby at all. And that’s when he felt himself hit a dense knot of things, thoughts, feelings, that he didn’t want to untangle, didn’t even want to begin to prod. Like a pair of headphones you found in your pocket.

He checked his calendar idly on his phone while he opened the first beer. The sound, the clean, bubbly hiss of the lid being cracked open was the trigger. He knew it would begin now, because once he’d heard that sound there was no going back. His body would go into its own motions without him behind the wheel.

Tomorrow’s first meeting was an 11am weekly catch-up with the other Senior Others. It wasn’t long to wait, if he really wanted to air his dirty laundry, his failure. He’d have to do it sooner or later because he’d already registered the Engagement as terminated. And if he got drunk now, he could be sober by then, and even if he wasn’t he could plead illness and they would accept it because they accepted him, admired him, even.

It was strange, this getting affairs in order. It was a ritualistic part of his brain that he was both glad and afraid would never shut off. He’d never gotten so drunk that he couldn’t either show up for work or maintain a fair perception of his absence. And he’d always timed his drinking so that he’d be okay before an Engagement appointment. Sometimes he’d even managed to sneak his drinking routine into the Engagement. For example with Dana, when she had some fancy exhibition opening, he’d be able to start drinking there, a prosecco or some champagne, maybe two, moving imperceptibly onto the wine (he was a tall man, and kept himself in good shape, so people naturally assumed he could hold his drink), in time to move straight onto the whiskey at home to pass out for the night. It was like a magic power that stopped him from ever getting to the point where he’d need to be dragged to a clinic with broken limbs in the back of someone’s car because he’d passed out and forgotten who he was. It was the magic power that meant he could just keep going, in this way, without anyone ever calling him out on his behaviour, all the while wishing for and dreading the day that someone would.

But this, this was like arranging your own funeral. A nice, tidy, descent into oblivion.

Come on Max, you’re better than this. You piece of shit.

Beer number two came quickly and took him by surprise. He could feel himself begin to plan his words for the meeting tomorrow, or at least the structure of them. It was like a terrible gift, and he drank quickly to cut it off.

Establish that protocol was followed. Accept that emotions were leaked and that performance was less than peak. Frame this as more data for them to draw upon and come up with some ideas for how to turn the experience into learnings for future engagements or — even better — product or policy changes.

He would have to come up with those ideas, probably on the way to work. He’d have to remember to do that, but he probably would.

He glanced at the fridge and remembered he was out of eggs. It was the other end of the ritual — breakfast. Like a book-end, it was how he’d signal to himself that the night’s events had closed. There was always a distinct satisfaction of carefully masticating a well-thought out and balanced breakfast: eggs, avocado, pomodorino tomatoes sliced in half. Wholemeal toast that he’d cut himself. He usually kept his kitchen stocked with these things, but it had been a busy week, and after seeing Lucy the mental note had of course slipped his mind. So there would be no eggs waiting for him in the morning. He cursed himself mentally. He was slipping, and that was one thing that Max Whitman did not do.

He finished his second beer and opened a third.

The hardest thing about drinking was working out what to do with yourself on the way down, when you were still alert enough to chastise yourself or to feel ashamed of your behaviour. This was the dangerous time in which the things you were trying to avoid would come bubbling up to overwhelm you, and the only way through was to give in to a vague and all-consuming feeling of shitness that had no edges, and resisted analysis.

In that time, it was often good to turn on the TV. Sitcoms were a good distraction. Enough movement and colour to keep the mind on, while the emotions ticked away in the background. Time could trickle, unchecked, this way for hours. Thank God for Netflix and 10-season shows.

Lucy had cried. He hadn’t wanted to leave her while she’d been crying. It was the way your heart would open up, make you aware of the cavernous hole you were about to create in it. You’d begin to feel loss pre-emptively. As if loss itself wasn’t bad enough. But she’d been sobbing.

Rachel: Ross you’re not listening to me, I don’t have time to stop.

Ross: Come on Rach, you don’t have what, ten minutes?

Lucy would go and stay with a friend, she said. She’d respect Max’s job, she didn’t want to fuck up his life. But it wasn’t fair. I know, it’s not fair. It wasn’t fair because they had a rapport, they had a relationship — they had something real. I know, I know. But listen, if I ever stop being an Other, I’ll get in touch. I’ll find you. I can’t wait for that. I won’t sit around waiting for that. It’ll be harder to move on. Why couldn’t you just tell me the truth?

Rachel: Hi. Look um, about what happened earlier…

Ross: No, hey, well, I-I completely understand. You were, you were stressed.

Rachel: I was gonna give you a chance to apologize to me.

Ross: For what? For letting you throw me out of your office?

Rachel: You had no right coming down to my office Ross.

Fuck Natalie for hiring him all those years ago. Fuck Natalie for wanting to hide the truth from her daughter. It was Natalie’s fault that they were in this mess.

The beer in his hand was empty. He got up to check the kitchen for more. No more. Famous Grouse it was.

Rachel: Oh my God. I cannot keep having this same fight over and over again, Ross, no, you’re, you’re, you’re making this too hard.

Ross: Oh I’m, I’m making this too hard. Okay, what do you want me to do.

Rachel: I don’t know, I don’t know.

If it weren’t for the fact that he was so good at his job, maybe he’d think about quitting. There were plenty of drawbacks. Hard to have a relationship, hard to keep compartmentalising, hard to switch off. Hard to relate to anyone about what you do. But he’d never found anything he’d been so good at. Before A.N.Other he’d just been some guy who hated his office job. And this this just came so easily and suited him. Becoming all these people was better than alcohol, better than running. It was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

There was a ringing sound coming from somewhere in the flat.

Shit.

It was getting to the point where walking with a destination in mind was effort.

Where’s my fucking phone. Lucy? Lucy? Where was the coat, it would be in the pocket.

He fumbled around in all the pockets and found it. Took a breath to iron out his voice.

“Hello?”

“Max?”

“Yes?”

“It’s Richard, I need you on an Engagement now.”

“What?”

“I’m going to message you the address and send you a cab. It’s Dana. Something’s happened and she’s going to need an alibi, so I need you to go there right now. Can you do that for me? Forget tomorrow’s team meeting. I’ll debrief you in person. Be back at the office by 3pm tomorrow, but until then you’re with Dana.”