WHO HATH WOE? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes?
No prizes for guessing the answer: they that tarry long at the wine, of course, especially what the Bible calls ‘mixed wine’, the ancient equivalent of our White Lightning and Special Brew snakebite.
The current favourite among the park-benchers, if I may so call them, is 8.4 per cent cider, an appalling liquid which comes in two- and three-litre bottles known technically as ‘rubber ducks’.
‘Why are they called that?’ I asked a patient who belonged to the park-bench culture.
‘I don’t really know. It’s because they float in the bath or the pond, I suppose.’
‘Not with two or three litres of cider in them.’
‘But they never have two or three litres in them for long.’
True enough: I’ve seen many a rubber duck in the gutter, but never a full one.
‘And when did you last work?’ I asked.
He screwed up his eyes and scoured his brain, like an archaeologist scratching around in the sand for traces of remote antiquity.
‘1976,’ he said, after much delay.
‘How have you kept yourself since then?’
‘I’ve been on the Sick.’
‘Drink. It’s not that I’m stupid, doctor, it’s just that I’m addictable.’
A sudden happy thought came to him, like a mitigating circumstance after an unexpected verdict of guilty.
‘I did do a bit of work, though, for a couple of weeks.’
‘In this factory. Only I couldn’t do it for long, I kept getting nervous and shaking in the morning and being sick.’
‘So either the work or the drinking had to go, and you chose the work?’
‘Well, I didn’t know about the morning drink in those days, doctor.’
Happily, his knowledge of morning drink had increased since then.
He lived with an alcoholic woman – ‘one of the best pianists in the country, doctor, when she’s sober’ – and together they rose early.
‘We wake up and start drinking at 5 o’clock in the morning.’
‘I suppose it’s a question of the early bird catching the vermouth. And why did you come to hospital?’
‘It was my doctor who sent me. His name abates me. He said I had no blood in me. I said it wasn’t because I cut my wrists or anything, it must be because I keep throwing it up.’
He shook his head sorrowfully.
‘To tell you the truth, doctor, the drinking is abysmal.’
‘Are you sure it’s the drinking that’s abysmal?’ I asked.
‘Of course, it doesn’t help that she’s an alcoholic too. She’s a lovely woman, but put a drink in her and it’s like playing with a snake.’
‘Are you violent towards her?’
‘Yes, but it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. She beat me up on video once, it’s humiliating, me being a bloke and all that.’
‘And are you going to stop?’
‘Well, I’ll have to, doctor. I mean when you’re drinking it’s just one long, boring, grinding day after another.’
‘Unlike being at work,’ I said.
Old Isaiah was right after all: woe unto them that rise early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them!
British slang converter for readers from overseas:
‘Snakebite’ – a mixture of cider and lager, said to produce violent outbursts in those who drink it (and awe-inspiring hangovers). ‘White Lightning’ was a brand of very strong cider, first reduced in alcohol (from 8.4% to 7.5%, and then 5.5%) and finally discontinued in 2009 as a brand because of its association with alcoholism. Carlsberg Special Brew is a very strong lager, 9% abv, originally brewed to commemorate a visit to Denmark by Winston Churchill in 1950.
Taken from Second Opinion: A Doctor’s Dispatches from the Inner City
Also available as an eBook at amazon.co.uk (and other relevant Amazon sites)