Vodka Tonic


An earlier version of this story was published by Northwords Now in 2015.


The first time, I was so small it took both hands to lift my granny’s glass of white wine, cupping round it like when a baby learns to hold its own bottle. And it took both hands to then press against my mouth, try and fight off the sting of how terrible the taste was. She was just laughing and saying, ‘See Gemma? I told ye!’

She was always laughing back then. Mostly I could tell it was her way of trying to keep us both ok, to stop us from thinking too much, so we joked all the time. Her daughter, my mam, died when I was four, and I had to go live with her then. There wasn’t anybody else.

Your granny’s an alky, they said to me at school. But I never saw that. She usually did have the wine open, but she was always the same, just herself, not like the poor drunks you saw doddering about the place, trying to get money off you or looking for a place to lie down and sleep, she was never like that at all, never.

The only times she didn’t laugh was when my granda came round to visit. They’d split up decades before, but neither of them seemed that keen to move on. They visited each other often, fought like crazy, called each other for everything, then went back for more the next week.

Nobody ever told me why they got divorced – if something bad had happened to cause the split. He drank too, but it was different. He was a huge man, my granda, six-feet-five, hands so big they looked like he could scoop you up off the floor in them if he wanted. But so quiet, he was always so so quiet and spoke so soft. Months would go by and he’d be fine, just nice and good with everybody, going about his business, barely talking really, staying in his wee flat up the highrisers and listening to his music, and then you’d hear the crash of the front door, see his massive shape looming into the hall, moving through to the living-room, and the two of them would start on each other, my granny screaming for him to get out, him calling her a poisonous bastard, her saying things back, and before long the neighbours would be at the door, the odd time the police too.

It used to happen when my mam was alive, going by the stories my aunties told, but had apparently got worse since she died. More vicious. They couldn’t even be near each other without it flaring up. Both of them kept being good to me though. I could do what I liked, they never tried to get tough or give me a load of rules. My pals all said they were jealous.

When I was a teenager I told my granny I was staying over at my friend Angie’s house. She’d no idea that Angie’s mam disappeared to England the week before. We pitched her brother’s tent in the park across the road. Her da was in the living room crying and drinking something black. We sneaked by a few times, taking things out the kitchen, first food, then a box of cider from the fridge. The glass clinked inside but he kept staring out the window.

After we finished the last bottle, Angie unzipped the flap and stuck her head outside the tent. She screamed as loud as she could, and I tried to pull her back in but was laughing too much. She wanted to see if the noise would wake people up, but no lights came on in any of the houses. We told stories and rolled about in the sleeping-bags till she fell asleep, and the sun came up.

The next day I had to go to my cousin’s wedding, and sat in the church telling myself I never, ever wanted to feel this again.

This was all when I was young. And everybody has those stories.

I’m speaking about what makes things different now.


*


My granny’s next door neighbour. When I moved into that scheme, Ronnie worked as an electrician. He lived there with his wife. She was a fat, red-haired woman who would never say hello to me. They had four wee sons who all looked the same, even though they were different ages and sizes. They stayed next to us for years. One night I sat bolt upright in the bed because it sounded like a full football team was coming up our stairs. Before I got to the door, my granny kicked it open and in came Ronnie’s laddies. They were crying – all of them were.

‘You get up’, she said, ‘Put a film on for the boys. And give them the bed, you sit there’. She stamped her slipper on the carpet. I didn’t look at them, just raked through my videos and found one I thought would be ok. I put it in the VHS, then crept out to the landing and looked over. She was whispering into the phone. Ten minutes later my granda arrived. I went back out and peered down at them. He was kneeling to tighten the laces of his boots as she stood against the radiator, arms folded. I breathed out. Her face turned upwards, ‘YOU! GET INTO THAT ROOM MISSUS AND DON’T DARE OPEN THAT DOOR AGAIN’. I did as she said, and tried to not hear the four of them snivelling away under my covers.

Ronnie had got so drunk he punched his wife in the head, and she fell down on the bathroom floor. My granda went round and beat him black and blue. I was warned not to mention it in front of the sons. I never got the chance. Irene (that was the wife’s name) took them to her parents and they never came back.

Ronnie was good pals with my granny after a while. He banged our kitchen window whenever he came back from seeing Scotland play at Hampden, and she’d invite him to sit at the dinner table and have a can.

Sometimes I’d come down the stairs and see her standing in the bathroom in her dressing gown, one ear to the wall. When she saw me she’d say, ‘That Ronnie’s been spewing for an hour straight!’ Then laugh, and shake her head.


*


It was like Ronnie infected our family. My auntie April it was next. I always thought of her as who my mam would’ve been if she hadn’t got pregnant. April was so cool. And they looked so similar. She smoked joints, and would show me sketches from when she was an art student at college, charcoal drawings of tigers hiding in tall grass, the lights in their eyes and the detail of the fur behind all the sharp strands. After a few drinks she’d tell me stories about what my mam was like growing up. And she never repeated the same ones, they were always new, it was endless. It was my mam’s life and I liked hearing it. April was married to my uncle Robert, who wasn’t that much older than me, and had an earring with a skull and crossbones hanging off it. My granny always said April’s problem was that she thought she was a somebody, but she wasn’t. My granda said Robert’s problem was that he was a right tit, not a left one. But it was all affectionate. They both really liked Robert, you could tell. I got the impression he was good for April. That she had been troubled, before he turned up and showed that somebody cared about her.

My granda started coming round more in the evenings, and him and my granny weren’t fighting much. The occasional argument in the kitchen, her hissing angrily and him talking in a low voice, in the hope I wouldn’t hear them. My granny was very jumpy, every time the phone rang she flew across to answer it before either me or him could get there. She always knew when something would make my granda lose it. Of course, one time it rang when she was in the toilet and even though we heard the worry in her voice, shouting for us to leave it, and heard her banging about, trying to rush, he lifted it and it was April. I sat halfway down the stairs – it was the closest I could get without being seen through the glass in the living-room door. My granda was shouting that my auntie was nothing but a waster, a fucking waster, she’d ruined that wee laddie’s life and that his door was fucking closed to her now. It was the angriest I ever heard him. The loudest for sure.

It didn’t stop my granny waiting till he left, then scraping all our leftovers onto one plate and making me take it up to April’s. April lived in a nice flat, different highrisers from my granda but not too far away. When I got there, a new man was with her. His name was Glen. He was really tall and had jet-black hair and wrinkles at the sides of his eyes. My granny sent me up with plates of food at least three times a week after that, and Glen never spoke to me once. I didn’t tell my granny the food wasn’t getting ate. Most times, April would have on leggings and a vest, looking half-asleep, her hair sticking up, Bowie or Fleetwood Mac blaring from the wee ghetto-blaster that sat on the carpet. Glen lying flat out on the couch in his jeans and t-shirt, smoking and looking up at the ceiling.

‘Oh, thanks hen,’ she’d shout, taking the plate from me and placing it on the coffee-table. ‘Come sit down, we’re having a fun night.’

‘I can’t stay auntie April, I’ll put that in the fridge for ye.’

And when I went through, the last batch of leftover food would still be lying in the wee wastepaper basket she used for a kitchen bin. Wide open and stinking the room out.

When I got home, my granny would say, ‘How was she?’

‘Fine.’

‘Ah Gemma,’ she’s say. ‘You can’t live their life for them.’

I’d go to bed hating that April and Glen liked the same music as me. My mam would never have been with a man like Glen, or let rotten food sit on the top of the bin, even if she had stayed free and not had a baby. I knew that.


*


It came to my house gradually, in the months following my first ever staff night out. I was fifteen and had been working at the big Esso garage for two months. The other counter lassies talked me into going, saying they would go to the bar all night and I could just hide up at the seats. I sloped in behind them and stood choosing every Madonna song I knew at the jukebox, hoping the barmaid wouldn’t notice me. The pub filled up and I sat, drinking wine after wine, while they talked about how badly the garage was doing, how it might close down, and if our manageress would ever get caught in the back room with Jason, the delivery man’s son. The conversations went on a long time. The night became a blur, but I mind June, the oldest woman that worked with us, taking me outside because an older girl was screaming she was going to kick my fucking cunt in. I ran and stumbled all the way home, and never found out what I’d done.

The next morning I woke with my granny shouting, WHIT THE BLOODY HELL’S THIS? I was wearing just a T-shirt. The sheet and the mattress and the cover were wet and very cold. The smell was horrible. She screamed and screamed at me till I burst out crying and begged her to clean it up because I couldny. Her wee terrier Jimmy got his nose in about the quilt, sniffing and wagging his tail. My granny glared down: LOOK WHAT YOU’RE MAKING THAT POOR DOG DO! I went through and got in the shower. When I came back in she was scrubbing the bare mattress with bleach. ‘You are some mess lady. Some mess’, she said.

Late that night I went to get a glass of milk. She was sitting at the kitchen-table, Al Green singing softly from the speakers of her wee cd player. How can you mend a broken heart. There was a square-ish glass on the sideboard, nothing in it but melting icecubes. I’d never seen her with a drink that wasn’t wine. She looked at me but her eyes were out of focus. She lifted up her arms and I went over and gave her a cuddle.

Her and my granda started to alternate weeks. Half the time I’d go to visit and find him surrounded by empty cider bottles, listening to Queen and laughing at nothing. When I came home she’d say, ‘He’s not worth it, hen. Somewhere along the line we lost him. It’s best left alone.’

If only she knew. I stayed over with him once after he got a satellite hook-up to the bedroom. I stopped in to get a video off his shelf and he’d fell asleep with the TV still on. I saw why he was paying the extra tenner a month. I turned it off for him, but found myself watching his eyes every time we were out and a good-looking girl walked past.

Other times it’d be her, swaying around the living room and shouting, ‘I’m going to die Gemma, I am, I am, I’m an old woman, an old woman with nothing left, no husband, my wee daughter gone, I am, I’m going to die, I’m going to fucking die’. I just held onto her and cried. She’d phone her brother, my great-uncle Terry down in Manchester, and say the same thing down the line to him until she was hoarse and tired.


*


I met Victor at a houseparty where people were racing tequilas off the kitchen windowsill. We smiled at each other while everybody cheered the winners. Then I beat him at trying to down a full pint. Victor said it didn’t count because I spilled some on my top, and he pointed out the soaked bits.

I’d been with him two years when his own granda died of heart failure. We went in to the Southern General in his car, sat with his family. It took hours. They all spoke well of the granda. There was a lot of tears. I felt down too. He came to Scotland from Nigeria in the 50s with nothing to his name, and in a couple of years had built a reputation as the best carpenter in Glasgow. He’d stand out the back of the local furniture shop in the freezing cold for hours and hours at a time, carving and sawing away, making beautiful wardrobes and tables and chests of drawers. Victor’s mum told him he must show me the photos of the granda’s work as soon as possible – the one of the dresser he built for the Great Northern Hotel, or the doll’s house he made for a millionaire collector. At one time he was as well-known and respected in the city as a politician or a footballer, Victor’s dad said, but it’s all changed now hen. Aye, changed days indeed. His dad started to cry.

On the way home Victor told me how his granda had spat in his gran’s face one Christmas, and another time he grabbed their cat by the neck and shoved it out the upstairs window. Victor was the joke of the school because of him. The old man kept turning up after a day on the cheap rum, most times hardly able to stand. Once the janitor made him wait on the football pitch, away from the playground. When he saw Victor he smiled so hard his eyes closed over and he fell back on the grass laughing. The weans were all running round him, pissing themselves and calling him Uncle Ben, Uncle Remus, and other horrible things.

It was an open casket at the funeral, and his skin had gone this dark, dark yellow. I couldn’t understand how he’d got so much smaller since the hospital. I heard a gasp come out of my mouth. Victor’s hand was squeezing mine. I trapped my tongue in between my back teeth and bit into it, hard, till my eyes were streaming. And I felt sick, so sick.


*


On the third anniversary of Victor and me getting the flat, he packed his stuff to leave. I can’t remember much of that day – just following him from room to room with a glass in my hand, the bottle of red held against my body with the other arm. The way I held it when he tried to get it off me.

I can imagine the things I was saying. The sorts of things I’d said before. My friend Zoe told me some of it later. Victor must have phoned her. What I called him when he tried to give me his front door key. But there’s no point getting in touch to say sorry. He knows. It wasn’t really me. It’s the alcohol attacking me, my brain. A fuse blows somewhere and it stops working. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t.

I never have a memory. He couldn’t live with it, and I didn’t expect anything else. He forgave me before. The time he looked for me at a party, went into a room and I was smiling and saying hi with a guy on top of me. I was looking over his shoulder. Victor said I had no idea.

The time I took my shoe off and hit it against his face, his cheek, outside the pub when his friends were there, and then I screamed, screamed till the police were running to help. And more times, worse ones. Or just as bad.

The next day I opened my eyes and knew I wouldn’t see him again. The wine was finished but there was gin. I had gin and soda till the soda ran out, so I moved to gin and tap water. Then the gin on its own. I was ill. I cried for Victor, for myself, for whatever the fuck. For life.

My granny picked up the phone and she knew too. They both came in my granda’s ancient car. I hadn’t seen him driving since I was wee. I stood waiting at the front window and had some bad thoughts. Really bad, thoughts I never had before. I watched them getting out, the two of them down below, hurrying up the stairs. The buzzer rang and it took me a minute to answer it and let them in.

I was calm again, and I told them they had enough of their own problems and couldn’t handle mine. We talked. It was dark outside and I was looking at the reflection of us on the inside of the window. My granda said he’d stay over with us, and could they take me home. My granny quietly went and put my clothes in a suitcase while I was in the toilet. Then we got in the car and I never went back to that flat. My granda picked up the rest, sorted things with the landlord.

We still slip up sometimes, the three of us. We all have it. My granny hides bottles of wine in an old guitar-case on top of her wardrobe. I know because I look for them. He still has cider all over his flat. Bottles everywhere, underneath coats and sheets and blankets, inside the big long case for his golf clubs, under the sink where the washing-up liquid is. It’s covered from view … not really hidden away.

But they saved me. And I’m happy. I’m thirty, and in my old room.


*


All that’s behind me. The blackouts. Victor leaving. Nothing is changing in my life now. April has gone to England somewhere. She never left an address, and nobody is trying to find her. Ronnie is living in the hospice but nobody else has moved into his house. My mam has been dead for more than a quarter of a century. I still look at her picture every night, and that’s what it is. A picture. I look at it when I feel like a drink of something, and I worry. Because, mother of mine – a woman who apparently never drank a glass in her life, but how could that be? – I know that after work on Friday, I’ll be at the pub with the rest of them, having kidded myself on all day that I was going to just say no and go home. I was lucky to get the job, so I’m always being told, and things have a way of going bad for you fast if you turn down an invite from our manager.

He will look me in the eyes and say, ‘Gemma, what’s your poison?’

I won’t look away. I’ll stare back. I’ll say, ‘Just a wee vodka tonic. I’ll get the next ones.’

And this, this, this

– this is what I talk about. ●










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