It’s been ten years since he sipped a drink, but the memory of whisky caressing his tongue remained. Strange how he’d never considered himself an alcoholic until he quit drinking. Even the sherry trifle and brandy pudding, both which his mother slaved over for Christmas desserts, wouldn’t pass his lips. He’d told her about omitting liquor from her cooking, but she couldn’t resist adding a splash. She was clattering pots in the kitchen, getting ready to bring out the final pièce de résistance; gravy made from red wine. He’d have to maneuver carefully around the food to avoid hurting her feelings.
Roast potatoes on a platter could not distract him from the dead bird they garnished; hot turkey legs trussed up in string and stuffed in between. His stomach churned. Hot turkey while on a cold turkey diet! It wasn’t his mother’s fault. She certainly didn’t mean to rub his nose in it. Everything these days made him think about alcohol.
The tinsel wreath hanging above the mantlepiece winked, sparkling with happiness at being allowed out of the attic for the festive season. Better to look at such decorations, he supposed, than being buried six-feet under a funeral wreath because he’d drunk himself to death.
Absconding from alcohol had been the result of a wrong office party a decade ago. He’d been dancing with his wife, Christine, to upbeat music from an enthusiastic Latin band. Alex couldn’t tear his eyes from her. She looked like an angel, red curls loosely piled on her head, translucent skin, and cheekbones you could ski down. The cut of her green velvet dress accentuated the contours of her body, begging him to pull her close. They’d spent a fortune paying a bloke in tight trousers and shiny shoes to teach them the salsa. The result was a synchronised couple with effortless rhythm that no doubt had the whole room watching them in envy.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ Christine whispered as the tune ended.
‘Something wrong with my moves?’
‘Nope, in fact, I was hoping to see more of them in private.’
‘Sold.’ He knew from the glow on her face she was going to make leaving the party early worthwhile.
Her hand squeezed his as they weaved their way towards the door.
‘Alex, where have you been hiding,’ a voice boomed as they passed a table littered with empty beer bottles. It was Mandelson hollering, the prick of a boss who regularly set impossible targets.
‘On the dance floor.’
‘Have a drink on me,’ said Mandelson.
‘It’s an open bar.’
‘Even better,’ Mandelson guffawed.
‘We were just leaving.’
‘Nonsense, one for the road. Your lovely wife won’t mind you sharing a Cuban cigar and nightcap with your manager, do you, doll?’
Alex looked sheepishly at Christine. ‘Just one more, I promise.’
Christine was gone when the haze of Mandelson’s cigar smoke cleared. She’d never learned to drive and wouldn’t brave the Underground late at night, so Alex figured she’d taken a taxi home. He wanted to feel her breathing down his neck, nagging him to leave while he was still sober enough to drive her home, but he massaged away the knots of guilt. Another dram with coke. A double on the rocks. Mandelson was regaling a story about some secretary he’d nailed last Christmas after she offered him a sweet mince pie. Alex felt his head spin. He pushed himself up and staggered past Mandelson.
‘Where are you going, son? I was just getting to the juicy bit where she dropped her pink lace pants.’
Alex wanted to point out he’d been nobody’s son since his dad died of liver failure the day before Alex was due to celebrate his ninth birthday with new Lego and a chocolate cake, but he bit his tongue. Nobody wanted to hear a sob story, least of all Mandelson.
Alex stumbled outside. As he pulled the car keys from the pocket of his jacket, he realised how thankful he was to have a woman like Christine in his life. She wore pink lace underwear too sometimes, but he never aired the linen in public.
In the parking lot, he'd noticed too late, the lady in the green velvet dress stepping in front of his car. The bang sobered Alex up instantly.
He’d found out later Christine had been in the bathroom, being comforted by a work colleague. When she came out, Mandelson was alone nursing a tipple and Christine had run outside looking for Alex.
He got out of the car and collapsed on the road, cradling her until his clothing was soaked red and the emergency services arrived to pry him away.
Alex pulled a cracker with his mother and forced a laugh as she read the lousy joke that fell out about a seagull and a man called Cliff. No point making his mother miserable on Christmas Day too.
He tugged on a green paper party hat. Tears sprang to his eyes as the image of Christine in her green dress sprang to mind again. He’d done jail time, paying for the consequences of drink driving, but it should have been the death penalty. He’d taken the life of a beautiful woman who brought so much joy to the world. Getting off the booze had been a rollercoaster. Part of him wanted to drink hooch with the other inmates to eclipse the ache in his heart. In the end, he’d done what was right. Punished himself with a sobriety life sentence. Some called whisky "sweet nectar," but Alex knew the devil was hidden behind the black label.
Lunch was quickly cooling, so he shoveled a slice of meat into his mouth. He swallowed without chewing and dry-retched.
One way or another, cold turkey was going to kill him.
Kelly Van Nelson was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and lived in London, Edinburgh, and Cape Town, before immigrating to Western Australia. Publication successes include poetry, short stories, and magazine articles. Her novel manuscript, The Pinstripe Prisoner, shortlisted in the 2018 PENfro first chapter competition, placed third in the 2017 Yeovil Literary Prize and longlisted for the 2016 Exeter Novel Prize. She is represented by The Newman Agency for her literary work. You can find more of her original work at kellyvannelson.com.
Cold Turkey is a Fiction War Magazine Open Call submission.
Please do not reproduce without permission from the author.
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