The Reluctant Drunk

I had definitely had enough to drink and was just familiar enough with the house to find my way into the back kitchen alone.  In my muddled mind I was going to get some ice, but really what I really needed was to sober up a little.

I was not quite sufficiently a friend of the family to pass out on the living room sofa, so I left the party behind me without reluctance. A group of friends were singing in one corner and a heated argument was taking place on the patio, where a little group of four or five people sat beside the potted palms putting the world to rights. I walked through the dining room and into the kitchen, towards a huge pine table. My hand grasped its edge and I put my glass down on the aged, golden wooden surface.  I looked up to see a young girl regarding me speculatively from across the table.

“Hello,” I said, “you the daughter?”

“I’m Lucy,” she replied. “Yes.”

She seemed to be very detached, her dressing gown covering her long cotton nightdress. She regarded me coolly.

‘Is that what young girls wear to bed these days?’ I thought groggily. Her brown hair was braided down either side of her long face, and she appeared young and vivid under the harsh kitchen lights. The dressing gown was a dull pink and somewhat old-fashioned.

“You sound nice and sober,” I said, realizing it was a stupid thing to say to a young girl.

“I was just having a cup of hot chocolate,” she said. “May I get you one?”

I almost laughed at the confident way she was dealing with this sudden intrusion by a rude drunk. She did not seem the least afraid of this strange man stumbling into her domain.

“Thank you,” I said, “I believe I will.”

I made an effort to focus my eyes. She put the cup in front of me, and the chocolate was hot and sweet.

“Do you want more sugar?”

I shook my head and put my face into the steam, letting it waft into my eyes, in the hope that it would clear my head.

“It sounds like a great party,” she said without longing. “Everyone must be having a good time.”

“It’s a lovely party.” I began to drink the scalding hot chocolate, wanting her to know she was helping me. My head steadied and I smiled at her. “I feel better,” I said, “thanks to you.”

“It must be very warm in the other room,” she said soothingly.

Then I did laugh out loud and she frowned, but I could see her excusing me as she went on, “It was so hot upstairs, I thought I’d like to come down for a while and sit out here.”

“Were you asleep?” I asked. “Did we wake you?”

“I was doing my homework,” she said with a sad smile.

I looked at her again, seeing her against a background of careful study and themes for essays, worn textbooks and laughter between desks. “In your final year at school are you?” I asked.

“I’m a senior.” She seemed to wait for me to say something, then she said, “I had to take a year off because I was ill.”

I found it difficult to think of something to say. Should I ask about boys or football? I pretended I was listening to the distant sound of the party from the front of the house.

“It’s a fine party,” I said, abstractedly.

“I suppose you like parties?” she said.

Dumfounded, I sat staring into my empty mug. ‘I suppose you like parties.’ Her tone had been faintly surprised, as though the next thing I would declare would be that I loved bull fighting or dog fights. ’I’m almost twice her age,’ I thought, ‘but it’s not so long since I did homework too.’

“Play football?” I asked.

“No,” she replied.

I felt irritated; firstly that she was in the kitchen, and secondly that I had to keep talking to her when my mind was so muddled. “What’s your homework about?” I asked.

“I’m writing a paper on the end of the world,” she said, and smiled. “It sounds silly, doesn’t it? I think it’s stupid.”

“Your party guests out front are talking about it. That’s one of the reasons I came out here.”

I could see her thinking that wasn’t at all the reason I came out here, and I quickly said “What are you saying about the end of the world?”

“I don’t really think this world’s got much future,” she said, “at least the way we treat it now.”

“It’s an interesting time to be alive,” I said, as though I were still at the party.

“I wouldn’t know,” she said. “Well, after all, it isn’t as though we didn’t know about it in advance.”

I looked at her for a minute. She was staring absently at her hand. Her arm moved softly back and forth, and she followed it with her eyes.

“It’s really a frightening time when a girl of sixteen has to think of things like that,” I said. “In my day, girls thought about fashion, boys and pop bands.”

“That’s partly the trouble,” she said seriously. “If people had been really, honestly scared when they were young, we wouldn’t be so badly off today.”

My voice probably had more of an edge than I intended, and I turned partly away from her as though to indicate the half interest of an older person being gracious to a child. “I imagine we thought we were scared. I imagine all kids of sixteen – seventeen – think they’re scared. It’s part of the stage you go through, like being boy crazy.”

“I keep thinking how it would be,” she said, speaking very softly and clearly to a point just past me on the wall. “Somehow I think the churches will go first, before the government, and then all the tall buildings will fall down, slipping slowly onto the ground with all the people inside; and the schools, in the middle of maths class maybe.” She brought her eyes up to my face, looking at me steadily. “Every time we began a maths class, I wondered if we would finish it.”

“That would be good news,” I said lightly, “I hated maths.”

I waited for a minute before I continued. “I think it’s a little silly for you to fill your mind with all this morbid nonsense. Buy yourself a movie magazine and settle down.”

“I can read all the magazines I want,” she said firmly.  “The underground will fill with water and all the little magazine stands will be drowned. You’ll be able to pick up all the chocolate bars you want, and magazines and, well, anything … for a time at least and then…” She paused. “There’ll be dresses lying in the street from the big stores and i-pods, but no electricity.”

“I hope the off-licences will break wide open,” I said, beginning to feel impatient with her. “I could walk in and help myself to a case of vodka and never worry about anything ever again.”

“Most of the buildings will be just piles of rubble,” she said, her wide emphatic eyes looking at me. “If only we could know when it will come.”

“I see,” I said. “I will go with the rest, I see.”

“Things will be very different afterwards,” she said. “You will have to start again.”

“Maybe there’ll be a law to keep all seventeen-year-old girls in school, learning sense,” I said, standing up and knocking the chair over.

“There won’t be any schools,” she said flatly. “Few books; a new start.”

“Well,” I said with a brittle laugh, “You make it sound very fascinating; sorry I won’t be there to see it.”

I stopped with my hand against the door to the dining room. I wanted so badly to say something scathing and, yes, I was afraid of showing her how much she had rattled me.  “Young people should not say things like that. If you want help with your maths, don’t ask me.”

She giggled, startling me. “I still do my homework every night,” she said.

As I entered the living room people were still talking cheerfully, and the group in the corner was now dancing.

My hostess was deep in an intense conversation with a tall, graceful woman in a red dress, and the girl’s father was holding a tray of drinks.

“I’ve just had a very interesting conversation with your daughter,” I said.

“Lucy?” he asked, looking shocked.

My hostess’s eyes moved to her husband and then to the dining room door.

“In the kitchen, she was doing her homework. An extraordinary girl, very outspoken …” Then I saw the look in their eyes.

“Our Lucy died ten years ago,” my hostess said.

“Oh,” I said.

Then there was a terrible crash and all the lights went out.

And suddenly I felt very sober.