It’s quite a contrast to see the two of them together – Alex, wraith-like, matted hair, scooped eyes, shivering, hugging his legs in bed with a filthy duvet piled up around him; and Graham, the support worker from the alcohol and substance abuse team, shaven-headed, gym-fit, in a smart grey reefer jacket and leather man bag, perched on the arm of the sofa with his hands in his pockets. It could be a fashion shoot for an edgy magazine.
‘You’ve got this far, yeah?’ says Graham. ‘Hats off to you, mate. It’s no easy thing you’ve done there. Don’t go and spoil it now. After all we’ve been through. You got to realise – this is a disease we’re talking about, yeah? There are all kindsa toxins and shit floatin’ around your body right now. You can’t just expect to jump up and be cured. It’s a long, hard process. And you’re doin’ great, man! Isn’t he? This guy’ll tell ya…’
‘You are. Graham’s right. Alcohol addiction’s the hardest thing.’
‘See what I mean?’
Alex doesn’t seem convinced. He draws his legs closer to him, gives his head a peremptory shake.
‘I don’ know, man. I jus’ feel like I’m wastin’ everyone’s time. I mean – I brought it on myself.’
‘You can’t afford to think like that,’ says Graham. ‘Everyone’s different. You’re totally worth it, man.’
‘Is there a social worker involved?’ I ask Graham, flipping through his folder.
‘No,’ he says. ‘When they see they’re still drinking they pull out.’
He shrugs, scuffs his shoes in the trash.
‘It’s hard, but it’s just the way it is.’
‘It’s not like I’m not trying,’ says Alex.
‘Yeah – but there’s trying, and there’s doing, Alex. You’ve got to be in a position to accept the help. It’s just how it works. You know that.’
‘We’re here for you, though.’
There are several bottles within easy reach of Alex’s bed – a two litre bottle of cider, a couple of quarter bottles of vodka, some other, less obvious stuff in bottles with the labels torn off. A dull yellow light filters through the filthy windows. The flat is an apocalyptic mess; it looks like an extemporary shelter somebody hollowed out with their hands in a landfill site. Here and there you can just make out traces of the orderly life Alex once used to live. There’s a mountain bike in the hallway, quietly fossilising under a press of junk; over by the window-ledge, a tool box, some work boots.
‘We’ve got to find a way to keep you out of trouble long enough to detox properly,’ says Graham. ‘Yeah?’
‘Yeah,’ says Alex. He doesn’t sound convinced.
Graham shrugs, pushes his hands deeper into his jacket.
‘How long’ve we known each now?’ he says. ‘Gotta be nine, ten years.’
‘Is it?’ says Alex, rubbing his face. ‘Fuck, man! Nine years? No! That’s like…’ He screws up his face to figure out what percentage of his life that represents: ‘…that’s like… a fuck of a long time, man!’
‘I think so,’ says Graham. ‘First time I met you you’d just been beaten up and taken to hospital. You were in a bad way, my friend.’
‘Was I?’ says Alex. ‘I don’t remember.’
‘Yeah – well – you don’t remember much, to be fair. You didn’t remember I was here yesterday, so maybe that’s not headline news.’
‘No. You’re right. Probably not.’
‘I’ve seen you in and out of hospital a hundred times. Lost sight of you for months on end when you took yourself off somewhere. You’d always turn up again, half dead, some new injury. And now look.’
He’s right. I’m reading through the latest discharge summary. For someone so young, Alex has a terrible list of things wrong. In fact, it’s a miracle he’s still here at all. Looking at him on the bed, though, it would be easy to think that maybe he wasn’t – that maybe he’d died that last time in hospital, but his spirit was so cussed it dragged itself back across town to find rest in this cold, cold bed.
‘It’s like training, yeah? You can’t just jump on a treadmill and bang out ten K. You might feel great at the end of it, but the truth is, if you don’t get the intervals right you can be setting yourself up for a lot of trouble. It’s all about the interaction between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems, the way your body metabolises the shit and tries to get straight again. Jim’ll tell you. Hey?’
They both look at me – Graham as if he’s about to pick me up and bench press me, Alex with a haunted, shivery look.
‘That’s right,’ I say, ‘Uh-huh.’