A Day Trip to Brussels: As Told By A Raging Drunk
I am a recovering alcoholic and these stories serve to remind me of the hell I will find myself in if I go back to drinking.
As I’m sure you will have read before, functioning alcoholics are devious bastards. They will convince you night is day. Hell, they’ll convince themselves night is day. There are no lengths they won’t go to in order to get their sweaty, shaking little mitts on that drink. I should know.
During the worst times of my drinking, I actually had relatively long periods of sobriety. I say long, I’d occasionally reach the dizzying heights of 2–3 weeks off the sauce. But by the end of the third week I’d be chomping at the bit and planning a fall out with my wife so I could get out of the family home and back to the chaos and misery.
One of the many misconceptions drunks have is that ‘this time’ the boozing session will be different. That somehow none of the behaviour exhibited last time will occur again. That it won’t mean sinking to your lowest depths.
I used to be quite resentful towards myself for managing to stay sober for a few weeks. I’d stand in the school playground waiting to collect the kids, hating all the other parents around for me for not obsessing over getting to the pub or some hotel to check in and turn a modest double room into a scene from Trainspotting.
My wife and I were on the way home from the supermarket when I’d decided I’d had enough of being a husband. The need to get several bottles of wine down my neck was quite literally suffocating me. I had to fabricate a disagreement.
“When’s your Mum coming to stay?” I said with moderate venom.
“Tomorrow, for a week. I can’t wait to get her from the airport.” my wife replied.
“Jesus, a whole week? Is she staying with us the whole time?” I asked.
“Yes, she’s staying with us. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. Can’t wait.”
The foundations had been laid. A visit from the Mother-in-law was a definite argument-starter. I loathed her and I’m sure the feeling was mutual. With any luck I could disappear and come up smiling as her taxi to the airport pulls up in a week’s time.
Shopping put away, I sat and surfed the internet on my laptop, bombarded with the usual ads. Seventy-nine pounds one-way on the Eurostar to Brussels?
As my wife sits opposite me, oblivious to my actions, I gently pop in my credit card details and book a seat for today, leaving at 3pm. It’s 11am now, so that gives me an hour to get into an argument worthy of a storm-out, then an hour or so to get to St. Pancras Station.
I decide against the argument and head upstairs to grab my laptop bag. I throw in a couple of chargers, a pair of socks and a pair of headphones. My passport is stored permanently in the inside pocket of the laptop bag, exactly for moments like this. I’ve lost count of the number of times my wife has confiscated my passport along with my bank cards. I head downstairs and towards the door.
“Where are you going?” asks my wife, nonchalently.
“Just popping out to get a sim card for my ipad. Back in a minute.” I reply.
Engrossed in her work, she barely notices me practically skip out the door and into the street, propelled by the thought of unencumbered boozing with no-one interrupting me. I walk to the pub at the end of the road and hop inside, with the excitement and hope of an 8 year old boy on Christmas morning.
“BMW, please.” I say, joyfully.
“What’s a BMW?” replies the bargirl.
“Brandy, Malibu and Whiskey. Surely you’ve made a BMW before?” I reply, trying not to let the girl’s lack of enthusiasm get me down.
She reluctantly makes the drink as I survey the bar, looking for anyone I may need to avoid. Sure enough, one of the resident drunks approaches me.
“Alright lad, daytime session is it?” he quips.
“Haha, yea something like that.” I reply, trying to minimise interaction. I look at my phone, further discouraging any further comment. Luckily, he’s desperate to visit the toilet so he staggers away, chuckling. Sober, I would avoid this man like the plague. Drunk, I’d introduce him to my parents and let him stay over.
“Here you go.” Says the bartender, as she slams the BMW down in front of me. “That’s a proper drunk’s drink that, sure you’re not related to George Best?”
Several of the death row inmates from the other side of the bar laugh out loud.
“Haha, no. I’ve been working shifts lately, I’ve not had a chance to get out much. This is my 10pm, really.” I insist politely.
This is an extremely curteous response compared to the sort of barrage of abuse she’d get from me if it were 10pm and I’d been drinking all day.
“Yea all right.” she says, obviously in disbelief.
I hand her some cash and thank her for my drink.
I sit and take a large slurp of perhaps the most dangerous commercially-avilable drink on planet earth. Extremely alcoholic, the Malibu and Baileys make it extremely easy to drink. The combination of all three turn it into a sort of rocket fuel to piss-heads like me. You need to limit yourself to one or two or you run the risk of falling asleep in the street
I visit the bar and order a white wine spritzer, my drink of choice when taking trips like this. I return to my seat and feign a phone call as the man returns from the toilet, making conversation impossible. He nods at me and I return the gesture. I deftly press the button to call a taxi without breaking my flow, just in case the resident drunk notices. He doesn’t so I order my taxi.
Two more spritzers in 20 minutes and I’m ready to leave.
The taxi driver is silent for the whole journey, my favourite kind. He drops me at the side entrance to St. Pancras International without comment. My phone has started to ring every few minutes so I gently enter airplane mode. This act alone triggers the beginning of today’s anxiety.
I’ve always loved airports, and the Eurostar terminal is the closest you can get without actually visiting one.
I breeze through the check in and towards the security. Carrying just a backpack means I’m through and into the Eurostar lounge in seconds.
As I order my drink I’m struck with the paralysing realisation that I’ve left my debit card at home. Thankfully, I have around 750 quid in cash so this calms me temporarily. How much can a day trip to Brussels cost? Surely that’s enough to have a nights fun in Brussels, then hop back on the Eurostar tomorrow afternoon. I’ll tell the wife it was all a big misunderstanding and we’ll be best mates by bedtime.
My drinking tempo accelerates somewhat in the departure lounge, as my three weeks off the booze has heightened my sensitivity to it. I wolf down a large number of pastries and order another spritzer. Its time to board the train.
Standard class on the Eurostar is like first class on any other train. The chairs are comfy and each has seat has it’s own table. Perfect for spreading out with an ipad and a liquid picnic. Fellow travellers beware!
Alcoholics love Eurostar because of the bar. A proper, stand-up bar at the end of coach N. You can head in there, order a panini and a coffee, maybe a croque madáme, and hang out by the window and watch the world go by. I order ten mini bottles of wine and as much cheese as I can stuff into my backpack. Absolutely unable to socialise I return to my seat and table, eager to settle down.
In a quiet coach with no fellow Eurostarian’s at my table, I set up my ipad and put my headphones on, cueing up a movie. I select ‘Leaving Las Vegas’. A film about a man hellbent on drinking himself to death after his wife and kids have left.
I drink pretty consistently for around an hour before I fall asleep.
Soon enough we arrive in Brussels. I know this because a fairly angry businessman has woken me with a shove.
“We’re in Brussels mate, its probably time to get off.”
“Oh thanks.” I say, slightly weary.
“Could’ve done without your loud snoring though, I get enough of that from the wife.”
“Sorry, I must’ve drifted off.” I reply, innocently.
“I’m not surprised, you’ve had shitloads of wine.” he says, gesturing towards the mess on the table in front of me.
Embarassed, I get up and grab my backpack. I stuff my ipad etc into it, and clamber for the empty bottles and cheese nets.
“Sorry about that.” I say, weakly.
He saunters off shaking his head.
The effect of so much booze in a few short hours has taken it’s toll on me. I’ve lost my boy-like enthusiasm and immediately regret taking this trip. I have started to sober up, and can now also feel my anxiety calling again.
Hello, old friend.
I exit the train and wander along the platform. I stupidly switch my phone on and encounter 43 missed calls from my wife. This increases the anxiety ten-fold. I attempt to turn it off again but my sweaty hands seem incapable of switching the shitty thing off. The phone starts to ring, and a slew of screaming messages arrive on the screen all at once. I stop to get a bottle of wine out of my bag and take a deep swig, tilting my head back to restore some sort of sanity. I stumble and narrowly miss falling head over heels and onto the train tracks.
The chaos has begun.
As I approached the street exit I put my hand into my pocket for some cash. I feel nothing. With no debit card I am completely reliant on that bundle of now absent cash. I check my backpack pockets, remove the ipad and headphones and check it thoroughly. This sobers me immediately and I feel a tsunami of fear wash over me. Gripped with anxiety and short of breath, I check my pockets again, nothing. It must have dropped out when I was asleep, or maybe someone took it? Maybe it was the suit guy?
Brassic in Brussels. Grāt..
I take a seat on a bench and attempt to compose myself. I’m sweating profusely and starting to feel the tightness in my chest. I’m up shit creek without a paddle, make no mistake. There’s no choice, I need to find a bar where I can run up a tab whilst I try to form a plan. With no debit card I can’t even arrange for a friend to send me some money. Theres no sense in trying to find a way out of this mess sober. I need a drink.
I pull my soaked t-shirt from my clammy body and attempt a look of non-desperation as I enter a nearby bar. A young guy is manning the place the whilst busily typing away on a laptop. He notices my presence and looks at me.
“Have you got any wine?” I ask, pathetically.
He laughs. “Well, this is a bar so yes, we have wine. What kind do you like?”
I laugh nervously. “Ha, oh I don’t know, a Chardonnay maybe?”
“Well it is a Chardonnay or not? We have a few wines.” His jovial tone relaxes me less than one per cent.
“Chardonnay it is then!” I say, attempting to sound like I’m genuinely on holiday and not some sordid alcoholic day trip from London. The effort to do this almost drains my last bit of energy.
I fantasise that he will not require immediate payment and allow me, mercifully, to settle my tab at the end of my visit, as is customary on the continent.
“Shall I run you a tab?” he says.
I exhale deeply and nod my head. I close my eyes and steady myself by gripping the bar tightly. The relief is awesome, even my teeth relax.
“You ok mate?” he asks, concerned.
I open my eyes, which are now locked onto his every move, petrified he’ll change his mind about the tab.
In this type of situation I could tell any number of lies about why I look like so dishevelled. I go with one I’ve not used before.
“I’ve just come from my Mums funeral.” I bullshit.
“Oh mate, that’s rough. Take a seat, I’ll bring it over.” he says. His Australian accent soothing me another one per cent, as I briefly imagine all Australian’s to be drunks and somehow understanding of my stupid predicament.
I sit at the table nearest the bar, not daring to leave this strangers side. My panic attack is now a level four, compared to 9.5 when I realised I had no money just a few minutes before. He hurries around the bar and over to the table carrying the wine and a glass. No time for spritzers now, I need the sheer power of pure wine.
“Here you go mate, get that down you. You meeting someone?” he enquires.
Suddenly frozen in time by the shame of ordering an entire bottle of wine in a bar without anyone to drink it with I concoct another lie. “Yea, my brother should be here a bit later. He’s still on the Eurostar.”
“He missed your Mums funeral? Jeez.”
“Yea, he doesn’t like all the fuss. I filmed all the best bits on my phone though, so he’s cool.”
The barman looks horrified. “Ok mate, well enjoy. I’m over here if you need me.”
And need him I definitely would. I’m miles away from home with no money, nowhere to stay and no way of getting home.
I get through most of the wine pretty quickly, which steadies me slightly. The panic has subsided a little, and my head is slightly more together than it was.
The booze has given me the courage to turn my phone back on. Ninety-six missed calls. I turn it straight back off again. What a stupid, stupid bastard I am.
If I’d have stayed at home today I’d be cooking dinner for the kids by now. They’d be telling me about their day, showing me pictures they’d painted and laughing about what they got up to. I’d be showing them how to chop an onion or how to make text go bold using Word. Proper Dad stuff.
Not this. Not this outrageously selfish day trip to fucking Brussels. Not sitting in a cafe without a penny to my name, effectively about to be arrested for not paying for my wine.
“What did you do today, Dad?”
“Oh I got absolutely fucked on the Eurostar and lost almost a thousand pounds in cash. How was school, Darling?”
With one glass left in the post-funeral bottle of wine, I approach the bar again.
“I don’t suppose you know anywhere I can sell an iPad, do you?” I ask, timidly.
“There’s a few places around here. Why, what you got?” he asks enthusiastically.
“Oh just my iPad, I’ve had enough of it.” I tell him.
“What’s wrong with it?” he asks.
“No nothing, actually its only a few weeks old. Its the latest one. I’ve just had enough of being tied to it all the time you know? Too much screen time. My Mum passing has away has given me a new perspective.” I bullshit, again.
“Right yea, totally. How much do you want for it?” he asks.
I immediately begin to calculate the cost of getting home and maybe hanging around here for a few hours before I leave. That wine was very nice.
“Well, they’re like 700 euros new, so shall we say 550?” I offer.
“I’ll give you 500 cash, mate.”
I breathe another sigh of relief as I realise I won’t have to sleep under a bridge or join a local branch of ISIS to prevent myself from starving to death tonight. Or even worse, not being able to get hold of a drink.
“Do you mind if I test it for a bit, make sure it’s all working ok?” he asks, baring in mind I’d let him smash me over the head with a chair if it meant him giving me five hundred euros in cash.
“Yea of course mate, go for it. I’ll just have another bottle of wine and chill out for a bit.” I say, very slightly excited to be definitely going home tonight.
He hands over another bottle of wine and opens it in one swift move. “Sweet as, this bottle’s on me mate. Enjoy.”
“I will!” I say, as I take it with me back to the table, now with nothing to watch but the rolling news headlines on the TV above me. All in French. My phone rendered useless for fear of all the missed calls and angry texts from my wife. What a pussy I am.
I settle into the wine and surprisingly, a Belgian soap on the TV above. The second bottle is dissapearing rapidly. I toy with the idea of getting a cheap hotel and taking my chances. Stupid decisions once again seeping into my consciousness. For now, I settle on that train back to London.
The bartender approaches my table with a wad of euros in his hand.
“Here you go mate, nice doing business with you.”
“Thanks, I’m glad you got a good deal.” I reply, already resenting myself for selling an ipad a few weeks after I bought it. Another senseless waste of money.
“Can I get another bottle of that wine?”
“Another one? You sure can put it away. I knew a guy like you once.” he says, gravely.
I laugh: “Really?”
He returns from the bar whilst talking on his phone, and puts the third bottle of wine in two hours down in front of me. I pour another glass, and try to focus my dry and tired eyes on the remainder of the Belgian soap still playing.
I start to fall asleep, my eyes closing every 20 seconds or so. The sound of a door slamming as a couple enter the bar wakes me with a jump. The bartender notices. I mouth the words ‘sorry mate’ to him but he pretends not to see and serves the new customers.
I try to pull myself together but my thinking is foggy and its difficult to focus on anything. I start to not care about the train home, wanting now just to curl up into a ball and sleep. I force myself to wake up and take a large slurp of wine.
The barman comes back to my table, wearing his coat. He puts a cup of coffee down in front of me.
“Mate, it was nice to meet you. I really think you need to get this down you. And when you’ve done that, you should give these guys a call. But its up to you.”
He hands me a card. Alcoholics Anonymous. Oh for fuck’s sake.
“Thanks, I will.” I say, with absolutely no intention of calling the number on the card. Ever.
“Saved my life, I swear.” he tells me. He gets up and leaves.
I push the coffee away and down the rest of the wine. Gathering my things I walk the few hundred feet back into the train station and into the ticket office. The fare back to London is three hundred quid, standard walk-up fare rate.
So far today, my drinking has cost me the seven hundred and fifty quid I lost on the train and my new iPad. And what about my marriage? But that’s nothing compared to the loss that awaits me at home.
Why do I always need to reach this point before considering the cost of my insatiable need to be alone and drink to oblivion?
I sit in the waiting room and wait for the train, drunk and ruined. I catch my reflection in the window. A family pass by my seat excitedly discussing their trip to Belgium. They notice me and hurry past, horrified by the man sitting in front of them.
I arrive in London and go home. My wife and kids are gone. A note on the table says: “Gone to visit my Mum.”
It’s another two years before I call the number on the card.