Fiction: Twelve Steps to Recovery
By Chris Brownsword
Storm clouds massed as the train pulled into the station. I had my pick of seats and picked one by the window. An isolated raindrop hit the glass, and then the sky was stripped of light as rain thudded down against the roof. I found the noise soothing, might even have dozed off were it not for the passenger behind me tapping my headrest, hard, with the fingers of both hands.
I didn’t know if he meant to provoke me or was just caught up in the music playing full blast on his phone. The music didn’t bother me one way or another, but the tapping was far out beyond neutral.
‘‘Ignore it,’’ I said aloud myself. ‘’Pretend like it isn’t even happening.’’
I stared through the window: a football pitch with only one set of goalposts; terraced houses; shopping outlets; waterlogged bridleways. The world was out there, all of it, and the ghoulish fiend kept lurching towards us.
Tap-a-tap-tap. Tap-a-tap-tap. Tap-a-tap-tap...
Finally I stood up to face Mr. Tap-Tap. Huge with muscle, he required two seats all to himself. I pretended to look around, like I was searching for a pal of mine. Then, ashamed of my cowardice, sat down again and watched the rain destroy itself against the glass.
Down the aisle now, over the tap-taps and rain, I heard a passenger request aspirin.
‘‘Sweet Jesus, I swear never again to get intimate with tequila,’’ he said, staggering out of his seat to use the bathroom. As he passed by, I could smell the alcohol boiling out of his skin, noted a conference sticker with the name ‘Carl’ glued to his shirt.
‘‘Sweet Jesus,’’ Carl said again, like he’d taken a misstep while hiking through mountainous terrain and found himself plummeting headlong into a ravine.
Then came his next trial. The door to exit the carriage wouldn’t open. Carl tried sliding it back with his fingers, before he resorted to kicking the glass.
‘‘Push. The. Button,’’ said Mr. Tap-Tap, spacing out each word as if the train, decelerating slightly as it entered a tunnel, modulated his tone. ‘‘You need to push the button to release the doors.’’
‘‘Better not push any of my buttons,’’ Carl warned him.
‘‘I’ll push whatever I please.’’
Turning in my seat, I watched Carl stagger towards Mr. Tap-Tap. ‘‘First order of the day,’’ Carl commanded, ‘‘take off those ridiculous-looking shades. You’re not in Acapulco yet, motherfucker.’’
Mr. Tap-Tap touched his face, only to remember he wasn’t wearing sunglasses. Carl punched the button on the door while letting out a laugh which sounded closer to a shriek, as if he’d stepped backwards into a forest and a banshee emerged in his place.
I must have drifted off after that, because of all the stupid things, I recall dreaming about a pterodactyl. Arisen from anetherworld existence, it swooped along the railway line and, hissing its wrath, tore open the carriage and gathered Mr. Tap-Tap in its beak and took off with him over a vista of low hills.
As the creature vanished, all the trees upon the hills burst into flame.
Jolted by a tumult of belches, I saw Carl crash back into the carriage. Unsure where his seat was, he just stood there in the aisle. I stared dead ahead, tried not to make any gestures he could misread as encouragement to buddy up. But just as I knew would happen, he plumped down next to me.
Having requested aspirin I didn’t have, he put his hand on my shoulder, asked if I’d ever drank so much tequila that the next morning I vomited through my eyeballs, nostrils and ears all at once.
‘‘I’m not sure,’’ I said, ‘‘though, uh, it sounds like something you’d remember.’’
Carl said yes, you tended to remember things like that. He asked if I’d ever drank so much tequila that moss spread over my hand, and when I touched the moss with my other hand, it fell to the floor and scurried away, because it wasn’t moss but beetles.
‘‘No,’’ I answered, this time with certainty.
‘‘Don’t,’’ Carl advised.
‘‘I won’t,’’ I said. ‘‘Sounds bad.’’
‘‘Yeah, phew, it’s pretty bad. I tried sobriety. Twelve steps to recovery. That’s a long trip,’’ Carl assured me. ‘‘Derailed myself somewhere between steps four and five.’’
Two stations later, Mr. Tap-Tap had left and Carl was asleep. I repositioned his head so he wouldn’t choke to death if he vomited while unconscious (also so he wouldn’t vomit over me). Soon enough, he came around again. Seeming not to remember me, he asked whether I had any aspirin. ‘‘Sorry,’’ I said, ‘‘fresh out.’’
Carl chomped down a handful of mints. Then, as if concluding some conversation that his trip to the toilet had interrupted, he said, ‘‘The surgeon advised Rickie that because he’s still young, the best way to reach that part of his spine would be to cut through the stomach wall. Now, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like much of an advantage to me.’’
‘‘I guess not.’’
‘‘And here’s the thing, Brian...’’
Brian! I’ve no idea where he pulled that from.
‘‘...A patient requires several months of rest-time after an operation like that. But I spoke with Rickie day before yesterday, and he told me if he went ahead and had the operation, he couldn’t afford to take more than two weeks off work. So what can you do?’’
Although Carl seemed to address the question to me, his head was tilted upwards at the ceiling, as if he sat in contemplation of God. As if he thought the voice of the conductor welcoming new passengers aboard the train and announcing someone would be along shortly to serve drinks and snacks was indeed the voice of God. As if he took it for granted that God would make such announcements on the trip to Heaven.
I said, ‘‘Are you asking me?’’
‘‘Sure, I’m asking you. But how can you come up with anything that even resembles a solution? How can you offer guidance on an issue like this? It’s...what do you call the damn thing...like either way he’s screwed? He needs the operation so he can work, but he can’t afford to take any time off to recover from it. What do you call something like that, Brian?’’
‘‘Catch-22,’’ I offered.
‘‘Catch-22. Might be the phrase I’m after,’’ the look on Carl’s face suggesting he would have responded the same irrespective of my answer. ‘‘He’s drowning. Understand? He’s a drowning man. But you can’t see he’s drowning, because his whole body is already underwater. So what can you do?’’
‘‘I don’t know. But, uh, isn’t drowning supposed to be peaceful?’’
‘‘I shouldn’t think so, Brian. No, I shouldn’t think drowning is very peaceful at all.’’
‘‘Actually, not that it really matters or anything, but my name isn’t...’’
‘‘It’s a mess,’’ Carl staring at the backs of his hands. ‘‘No other way of putting it, Brian. It’s such a mess, you can’t even recognise what it used to be.’’
Carl disembarked at the next stop. A besieged-looking town I’d never heard of. The ticket office a gaol-sized hut, and the view beyond encompassing little more than a drained lake in a waste of overgrowth and cracked cement.
The last I saw of him, he was leaning against the hut while once more staring at his hands with what I can only describe as an expression of uncomprehending horror. Or else the expression was of complete comprehension.
Whichever, that was the last I saw before the train dragged my eyes into a landscape of abandoned machine parts and orchards left to rot.
Chris Brownsword was born in Sheffield, England. He’s recently completed a novel entitled Paradise Limited. He avoids social media.