Thursday, 27 November 2014

Chapter 5: By Musket or By Pot

On a cold and dismal December morning in the year 1922, a week or so before Christmas, an obscure cloud of fog appeared over the Thames. Nobody noticed it though; it was hidden from sight by the rest of the fog; fog that often hangs over the Thames on an early winter’s morning.
But on this particular morning there was a fog within the fog. It seemed to know where it was going, gradually floating along the course of the river until it arrived in the region of Westminster, where it came to a halt, and just hung there in the air like, well, fog.
Eventually, from out of the mist emerged a pair of figures; a vaguely disreputable looking young man and an older gentleman of a seafaring ilk. They stood for a moment, looking back out over the river and exchanged a few words, before clapping each other on the back and walking off in opposite directions.
Abe took rooms at the Savoy, where Scott and Zelda were currently residing. After an afternoon’s sleep, a bath, shave, and change of clothes, he was ready to hit the town. They were off to the Bag of Nails, where Bonnie would be performing that night. Scotty was in the bar enjoying a cocktail or three while waiting for Zelda to complete her womanly ablutions, and he immediately tapped Abe for a loan.
                “Shit, Scotty, how come you’ve never got any money?” Abe asked him. “I thought you’d just published another novel.”
                “Zelda’s high maintenance, dude. And I haven’t made any real money from the books yet. And I’m an alcoholic. What more do you need?”
                Zelda’s an unstable psychopath and a bastard, you mean, thought Abe. No wonder you drink so much. I’d drink too if I was married to her.
                “How much do you need?”
                “How much can you spare?”
                “Got any marching powder?”
                “Yeah man.”
After a therapeutic visit to the gents, Abe gave Scott two hundred pounds and bought them a couple of highballs, which he laced liberally with fukkummuppa root. By the time Zelda elected to join them, they had rediscovered their identity as the source of all things, which made her that much easier to bear, and full of love and oneness they piled into a cab and headed for the West End.
Abe loved Bunny from the moment he saw her. From the moment that she stepped onto the stage and into the spotlight, he knew that he would never sleep with another woman as long as he lived. His lady-boning days were over and his life would never be the same. He had no doubt in his mind that God had brought them together, that their togetherness was inevitable, and he had no intention of leaving the club – or for that matter going anywhere ever again – without her.
As luck would have it, she felt the same.
A few days before Christmas, Abe and Bunny waved a fond farewell to the Fitzgeralds, who were returning to New York, and took the train to Winchester, to spend the festive season with Art and Morganna. It had been a year since Bunny had been back to Dwarf House.
                “Art and Morganna will love you,” she told Abe. “They’re really cool.”
                Abe sure as hell hoped so. He was experiencing nervousness and anxiety, feelings he’d never experienced before. He wanted very much to make a good impression on Bunny’s parents, and this surprised him; he’d never cared about that before, either. He wanted to do the honourable thing and ask Art for his daughter’s hand in marriage, but he was drowning in a flood of thoughts, ideas and emotions for which he was woefully unprepared. He didn’t know where they were coming from. It was freaking him out.
Unbeknownst to Bonnie, Art’s drinking over the last twelve months had got dangerously out of hand; he was knocking back three litres of spirits a day. He’d been getting into fights and falling over in the street, he’d been hospitalised twice and arrested three times.  And he was no longer a happy drunk. He was depressed and lost. Morganna felt she should do something, but she had no idea what. Their doctor recommended a psychiatrist, and advised her that unless Art quit drinking once and for all, a future of rubber sheets and dribbling into his mashed up sausage was a certainty; commitment to the asylum and a hideous early death almost guaranteed.
The problem was that Art just couldn’t seem to stop, or even cut down. As the days went by he just drank more and more. He had tried quitting after each of his three arrests, and both trips to the hospital. Once or twice he’d managed to stay dry a day; usually he was drunk within hours. He’d have blackouts, and when he came out of them he often couldn’t even remember taking the first drink. He was rapidly earning a reputation as the town lush. Morganna knew – although she hadn’t mentioned it to Art – that amongst some sections of the community he was known as Art the Alkie. She was humiliated, not for herself, but for him. People were so judgemental, so self-righteous; and the prevailing opinion of the day seemed to be that alcoholism was a moral problem. She couldn’t accept that. She knew Art to be one of the most compassionate, morally upright men she’d ever met. Certainly when compared to the small minded rumourmongers who whispered behind their hands and crossed themselves when he passed by.
Morganna prayed they could get through Christmas without any tears. Art promised her that he’d see the psychiatrist in the New Year. They just needed to make it until then. But it wasn’t all dark skies. She was excited about seeing her beautiful baby girl, and meeting the new man in her life. Bunny hadn’t told her much; Morganna knew his name was Abraham Jones, that his father was something to do with the government in India, that he was rich, charming, and a close friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that was about it. Of the series of encyclopaedias known as “Kings of the World” she remained blissfully unaware. But she could tell that Bonnie was head-over-heels in love with this man, and that was enough for her.
Abe and Bunny were full of festive cheer when they disembarked at Winchester. The warm glow of young love, complimented by several highballs, a couple of lines of Peruvian flake, a dash of fukkummuppa root and lustfulness of Biblical proportions had them lit up like the Christmas decorations which festooned the High Street. After stopping at the Royal Oak for refreshments, Bunny took Abe on a tour of the cathedral, pointing out the stained glass window that had been destroyed by Oliver Cromwell, and regaling him with tales of St. Swithun, the cathedral’s patron saint, who threw banquets to which he invited the poor but never the rich; and of William Walker, the diver who single-handedly prevented the building’s total collapse just a decade beforehand, when the foundations had been waterlogged and the cathedral had started to sink into the swampy mess beneath it. Between 1906 and 1912 Walker worked every day, at depths of six meters, in total darkness, and reinforced the foundations with 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks.
But it was outside in the grounds that Abe’s interest was truly aroused, when they came across the grave of one Thomas Thetcher, a soldier who had drunk himself to death in 1764. The inscription on the headstone read:
In Memory of
A Grenadier in the North Reg. of Hants Militia, who died of a violent Fever contracted by drinking Small Beer when hot the 12 May 1764. Aged 26 Years.
Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier,
Who caught his death by drinking cold small beer,
                Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all.
An Honest Soldier never is forgot
Whether he die by Musket or by Pot.
                “Poor bastard,” said Abe.
                “He sounds like my dad,” said Bunny.


Art greeted them with well-oiled enthusiasm when they arrived at the house; he’d just returned from the Dwarf’s Head and was three sheets to the wind.
                “Bunny, daahling!” he cooed, smothering her in a bear hug, before turning his attention to Abe. “And you must be the fine and upstanding Mr Jones, the object of my daughter’s affections. Well,” he belched, “you’re very welcome. Come on inside and get in the warm, and we’ll break out the egg-nog or whatever the fuck you call it.”
Bunny was thankful that her father was coherent when they arrived, but he didn’t stay that way for long. After toasting the happy couple with a couple of large whiskies, he staggered off up the stairs, and passed out on the first floor landing.
                “What are we going to do about Dad?” Bunny asked her mother.
                “I just don’t know, darling,” Morganna replied. “I’m at my wits end.”
                “I have an idea,” said Abe.
Abe’s idea was simplicity itself. He proposed to spike Art with fukkummuppa root. The power of the root was such that it would a) sober Art up immediately, and b) take his mind off that very fact. He suggested that the following morning, he should accompany Art to the Dwarf’s Head, do the deed and take him out for the day, while Bunny and Morganna did whatever women did when he wasn’t around.
Because they had no better idea, the women agreed.
Art was over the moon that Abe had decided to join him for his morning constitutional in the Dwarf. He’d spent far too much time drinking alone recently, in the shadowy corners of empty bars, between the gravestones and mausoleums of the churchyard at St. Cross and on the weathered benches of Three Maids Hill, morbidly gazing into the dark bottom of glass after glass after glass after glass and wondering where it had all gone wrong. In spite of the fact that he’d had a tumbler full of whisky before they left the house, Abe noticed that his companion’s hands were trembling violently; so violently, in fact, that he was having problems picking up his glass. After struggling for a while, Art took a tie out of his jacket pocket, and, tying one end around his right wrist and taking the other in his left hand, he slung it across the back of his neck, creating a kind of sling. Slowly, he was able to raise his glass to his mouth without spilling it over himself.
                “You’re in a bad way, my friend,” declared Abe. Art took a long slow drink from his glass, and sat gazing dumbly through him for several moments before responding.
                “Don’t I know it,” he said. “Honestly Abe, I don’t know how I ended up like this. I’m not a bad man. I own a bookshop you know, in New York, in the Village, although I haven’t been back since before Bunny was born. I’m not a tramp or a layabout; I’m not immoral. But I can’t go from one moment to the next without a drink. If I don’t have a drink I start having fits and thinking I’m going to die. It’s pathetic. I feel so weak and spineless. Like such a failure. My friends are full of what they think is good advice. They tell me I should drink beer only; they tell me I should cut down. Beer doesn’t even touch the sides, for the love of God. The three litres of goddamned whisky that I pour into myself every day barely touches the sides, for fuck’s sake. They think that it’s only a matter of willpower. But they’re wrong. They must be, because no matter how determined I am to stay sober, no matter how many promises I make to myself, sooner or later I always end up pissed.  When I start drinking I can’t stop, and when I’m sober I can’t stop myself from starting. I’m trapped, and I can’t see any way out. What the hell’s wrong with me, Abe?”
                Pulling a packet of Luckies from his pocket, Abe lit a cigarette, and said: “You’re an alcoholic Art. That’s all. Beginning and end of story.”
 “But just what the hell does that mean?” Art beseeched him. “What am I meant to do with that knowledge? Just keep drinking until I’ve got a wet brain and I’m shitting my pants every ten minutes? Till I’m locked up in Moonstruck Mansions? Till I’m dead? What?”
“Hey, take it easy man,” said Abe, gently, “don’t get yourself all worked up. As far as I understand it, alcoholism is defined as acute alcohol poisoning. That fits. It’s poisoning you, for sure, which means that alcohol is poisonous, to you, to Art Simpson. Which means that you need to stay the hell away from it. You can’t drink anymore Art. Never again. It’s over.”
“It can’t be poisonous to me,” Art cried in disbelief. “I drink shit loads of the stuff!”
Abe laughed. “Art, you’re a genius!” he said. “Anyway, don’t worry, I’m going to help you. Well, I’m going to help you sober up, at least. I can’t stop you from picking up the next time, but I can certainly get you sober now. And quickly.”
The faint light of hope dawned in Art Simpson’s eyes; the faint light of fragile, barely-daring-to-believe hope.
“Really?” his voice was little more than a whisper. “You can help me?”
Abe grinned at him. It was a mad grin. It was the kind of grin you imagine Rasputin must have had. Or Jack the Ripper. Art didn’t notice; he was too pissed.
“Two more pints of Old Thumper, please Nancy,” Abe said to the pneumatically bosomed bar wench, “and whatever you’d like for yourself.”
“Why, thankyou Mr Jones, you’re a gentleman.”
“Call me Abe.”
“Ok then,” she smiled at him. “Abe.” Giggling coquettishly she went off to pull the pints.
“Now then Art,” said Abe, “when our drinks arrive I’m going to put some special medicine in them.”
“Special medicine, yes. From Africa. It will sober you up instantly, and you will go on a journey. You will experience the world that has been forever beyond your grasp; the world unlimited by the confines of the egoic mind. You will realise who you really are. You will understand everything. You will know yourself, and you will know God. And by the time your journey is over, your body will be free of alcohol. Can you say Amen?”
“Amen!” yelled Art, before slumping over with his head in the ashtray. Enjoy your sleep while you can, thought Abe. In a few minutes you’re going to wake up for good.
Art was hollow, and felt the universe blowing through him. It rushed, like the wind, like water, like an ice-cold holy fire, cleansing and purifying him. He remembered who he was; who he had always been. He saw his essence, the essence of the all, ever flowing like the limitless ocean, the changing names and forms around him like waves that swelled up out of the ocean and subsided back into the ocean, never having been anything other than the ocean.
He was limitless and free; to believe otherwise was delusion. Now he understood. The world was an appearance, a manifestation, a projection, occurring spontaneously again and again and again, so fast that it tricked the mind into believing it was solid and real; that it had its own inherent existence; that it existed in and of itself, independently. But it didn’t. Because it was consciousness and nothing else, seeming to be the world without undergoing any change whatsoever, just like the reflection in a mirror has no existence of its own, because it is always only ever the mirror.
                “It’s wonderful!” he exclaimed. “It’s shiny and sparkly and beautiful!”
                “Yeah, man,” said Abe, who was lurking over by the bushes trying to light a cigarette, “it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” A look of befuddlement passed over his features, then he added: “Except for Bonnie.”
                “That’s nice,” replied Art, in the manner of one who wasn’t listening.
                “How do you feel?” asked Abe.
                “Like king of the world,” said Art.
When, some two days later, Messrs Jones and Simpson made a return to Dwarf House, they were half naked and covered in filth, blood and bruises. The pair of them gave the convincing impression of having been dragged through a hedge backwards; they had leaves in their hair and small rodents in their beards. Their eyes were sunken and looked like black holes. But amazingly, Art was sober, and had been that way for 48 hours. Morganna was overjoyed.
                “Darling!” she ran to meet her husband. “Get in the house quickly; you’ll freeze to death otherwise.”
                “There is no death, honey,” Art replied. “Death is an illusion.” But he smiled lovingly, gave her a kiss, and went inside anyway.
To the relief of everyone, Abe’s plan had worked, and for the first time in two decades, Art was off the sauce. Now they just had to ensure he stayed that way. Abe decided to administer a very weak pot of fukkummuppa root tea to him in the mornings; not enough to have him tripping out of his gourd, but enough to give his life a bit of a twinkle. Over the next few days Art began to resemble something of his old self, and seemed quite content without a drink. He was thoughtful, calm and peaceful. Morganna could barely believe it.
Replacing his morning visits to the pub with rambling daily walks around the town and its environs, sometimes inviting Abe or one of the women to join him, he regularly came home beaming happily, and seemed enthusiastic about his chances of staying sober. In the few days that had passed since his last drink he had even began to make plans for the future, and on Christmas Eve he returned home and announced that he was going to open a another shop, selling books and phonograph records. He’d already spoken to the bank manager, and secured premises in Cathedral Square. He just needed to refurbish the place and source the stock. All being well he aimed to open for business in the spring.
                “I’m so proud of you Dad,” Bunny sniffed as she ran to hug him, trying to hold back the tears.
                “We all are,” said Morganna, as she put her arms around them both. “I’m so grateful to have my husband back.”
                “I’m glad to be back,” he said. “And I promise, I’m back to stay.”
It was all getting a bit emotional for Abe; he knew the tears were about to start rolling, along with the wailing and the sobbing and the hugging and the gnashing of teeth and what have you, and he really didn’t think he could deal with that. So he quietly left the room, donned his overcoat, and went into town, hoping to spot a dwarf or two.



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