(This lovely thing came from etsy and I haven’t bought it yet!)
Once upon a time, there was a man, call him Joe, who had started out his adult life as an eighteen-year-old in a teacher training college, with a cheerful conviction that he’d be ok and life was fun and he was going to enjoy it. He enjoyed the student bar. But now Joe was 47, and that conviction about life being for living (Drinking! Bars! Pubs!) felt shaky, maybe even broken, Certainly rusty and not actually any use to him in the Anytown Drug and Alcohol Centre in which he now found himself.
Joe had had an interesting range of jobs over the years – he had been a teacher, and then a (commission-based) financial advisor, and a tyre shop manager (yipes, the paperwork, the messy, messy paperwork) and a butcher’s assistant (good eating) and man who worked in DIY superstore (nailed it!) and he been latterly a security guard on derelict council office site, at last Joe had been unemployed. There were other times in between all this but they were long blanks of dreamless sleep lasting days or months. In his twenties and thirties Joe had had a wife and children and a home, with a big garden where he had grown vegetables and he had wellies and dogs and played golf sometimes and went fishing and he had a toolbox and he could put up shelves and build a loft extension with the best of them.
But as time went on, the drinking took up more and more room in his life so there wasn’t room or time in the day for his job (whatever it happened to be at that particular time), or for his toolbox which was actually stolen from his car in a pub car park, or for going fishing with his son, Johnny. And it seemed as if there wasn’t really room in his head for his children because they drifted away from him. And one day his wife left his stuff in the garden and changed the locks and called the police on him, and there was the divorce and he lost the house and lived with a mate but then he suddenly woke up one morning under a bridge by the canal. The man next to him under the cardboard stank badly of piss and rot, and Joe thought, as he watched the ripples on the canal, ‘I don’t want to smell like that. I am a man who is sleeping rough under a bridge, with half a bottle of vodka in my pocket, but once I was teacher and I haven’t seen any of my kids for over a year and what if one of them walked past me now?’ And so he rolled up the cardboard, and drank the vodka and threw the bottle into the canal and went to see a doctor, who referred him to the Anytown Drug and Alcohol Service.
Where, over the next six months, Joe began to recover: with medical and psychiatric help, he got off the drink and he attended sessions of mindfulness and meditation, he tried the AA and had some counselling, and he found the fellowship of other people in recovery inspiring and helpful and one day he wrote a letter to his son, Johnny, and two months later they met up for a coffee. Johnny wasn’t that keen on meeting because Joe had done some very bad things when he was at his worst, though, of course, he had no memory of most of them, but Johnny hadn’t forgotten and Johnny wasn’t able to forgive his father, particularly for the way he had treated Mum. So after the coffee, which passed off quite well, Joe thought, Johnny went back to university and Joe went back to his bedsit, and they didn’t meet again for quite a long time.
Joe lives in a block of social housing at the back of the canal. He doesn’t have any friends because for years his friends were drinking mates and he doesn’t want to see them anymore. He doesn’t see his family because they have all been badly hurt by Joe-the-demon drinker. He doesn’t have the confidence to apply for a job so he hasn’t got any colleagues. That’s why he only meets people more or less in recovery from addictions or people who provide services to people with addictions. They mainly talk about recovering from addiction, or about people who are doing well at that, or people who have fallen back into bad places and who its best not to see any more because they smell of alcohol. Sometimes he tries Internet dating but when he meets the women they don’t seem to take to him, or if they do, he can’t quite take to them, and anyway, it can’t last because he can’t go to bars. He misses his wife and kids. He can’t remember whole chunks of their lives or his own. There’s a refrain from a Bob Dylan song going through his mind most of the time:
Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
And rivers that ran through every day,
I must have been mad, I never knew what I had
Til I threw it all away…
I threw it all away
He’s 47. He’s not going to get it back.
At the Canalside D+A Centre, they have a shared reading group and one of the counsellors says to Joe, ‘Why don’t you give it a try?’ Joe remembers he used to like reading years ago in that other life before his life collapsed under that pile of cardboard under the bridge. He has nothing to do on Friday mornings. He gives it a go.
In the group they are reading a story about a couple of men on some sort of expedition. It’s a story by Rudyard Kipling. It’s hard to concentrate but the woman reads it well, and after she’s been reading for a while they all start talking about it. Why did he do that? Did whatisname say something? Can you trust the other fellow? Have you ever been that scared? Joe doesn’t say anything but a guy he’s seen in AA asks him if he wants to help him get the cups and they make the teas and coffees and have a smoke together and the bloke says ‘ It’s good, you’ll get into it…’
‘Good story,’ says Joe. ‘I like Kipling – The Jungle Book…If, all that.’
The words feel like vomit. He can’t believe they are coming out of him. Truth is he’s forgotten that he had ever known or even heard of Kipling or that such a thing as The Jungle Book or If existed. He feels a weird sensation, like something gently cracking open, like light coming in. Kipling, yes, The Jungle Book. If. ‘You’ll be a man my son.’ Ouch. He turns his mind to the coffee cups.
They go back in and the woman asks if anyone else wants to read. Frankie starts reading, hesitant, but it’s ok. I could do that, Joe thinks. The story is about two friends who don’t trust each other. Joe thinks back to a bit of his life he can remember, something that happened with one of his friends. He doesn’t like to remember that thing. He turns away from the scene playing out in his head and back to the story. The story is hard to follow – ‘I’m out of practice,’ he jokes and someone else laughs and says ‘I haven’t got a effin clue, mate.’
Frankie continues to read from The Man Who Would Be King. Joe drifts in and out, his mind awhirl. ‘Awhirl.’ He thinks to himself ‘Awhirl and sober, haven’t felt like that for a long time.’
For 15 years The Reader has been developing an outreach model, creating warm, welcoming spaces in which people can come together and experience being part of a community-like-family. We sit in a circle, usually round a table, sharing a book by reading it aloud. The atmosphere is both social and personal, kind, as if we were kin. We share our human experiences through the book.
‘I read about others,’ says one group member,’ but I learn about myself.’
‘For two hours a week,’ says a man, call him Joe, who has lost wife, children, home and job and is struggling to remain in recovery. ‘I have meaning in my life. More please!’
We’re raising money to build our International Centre for Shared Reading at Calderstones. Give Joe somewhere to go to come back to life. Please donate what you can.