On Thursday nights at 6pm, Becky visits the run-down community hall on the outskirts of town. She sits on a rigid metal chair that creaks when she moves her feet, drinking lukewarm coffee and nibbling on a stale biscuit left over from the brownies meeting that takes place an hour before. She likes to listen as other people tell their stories; one woman with talon like nails and pearls around her neck tells the group about her father’s funeral, how she turned up drunk on whisky and almost stumbled into his grave. A man with a spider’s web tattoo talks about how he doesn’t remember his wife leaving, only waking up one morning surrounded by bottles and an unusual number of empty drawers. She uses a fake name when she’s here. Tells everyone her name is Maddie, that she’s 18 and has been drinking for the past three years. She lets stories roll off her tongue and mingle with the sympathy of strangers who enjoy the thought that they share a common sadness.
It was her counsellors’ idea. To join a group, make some friends. Her counsellor had probably meant for her to join choir or a sports team, but Becky had never found the company of her peers very appealing. So, she decided it was better to join AA. At 6pm every Thursday night under the flickering lights of a community hall with cracked windows and an uncomfortable draft, Becky got to be someone else. She got to be Maddie, the girl no one asked to smile or said would be prettier if she made more of an effort. For that one evening a week Becky got to hide under her hoodie and tell stories that made people care.
On this Thursday Becky got to the hall at 5.55 like always. The regulars had mostly arrived, plus a few new comers who were lingering awkwardly in the corner closest to the door. Her shoulders ached from lugging her backpack full of school notes across town, she had to take three buses to get here but she didn’t mind. She dumped her bag in the corner, checking there was nothing poking out that would give away her identity and collected herself a coffee.
“Maddie! I’m so glad you made it.” Rick emerged from the crowd and took her hand. He was the leader of the group, a fifty-year-old man who after ten years sober had dedicated his life to helping others. “One year sober! I can’t believe how far you’ve come.”
Rick had one of those smiles that made you want to cry. Becky had almost forgotten she’d been attending these meetings for a year now but seeing Rick’s pride made it all seem worth it. People were starting to take their seats and Ricky checked his watch. 6pm on the dot.
“Ok kid, let’s do this.” He squeezed her hand and disappeared back into the nameless people.
The seats groaned as everyone sat and shuffled into some vague form of comfort. Ricky was stood at the podium waiting for quiet to fall with that sadly sympathetic smile plastered on his face. It almost made her feel guilty.
“Right folks, it’s good to see so many of you back with us again and a few new faces. Now remember guys, there’s no pressure to share, if you’re only here to listen that’s fine. It’s just good that you’re here. Having said that, is there anyone who would like to share?”
A trembling boy rose from his chair and coughed gently. Ricky smiled again, newcomers so rarely wanted to share at their first meeting. The boy shuffled forward, he looked about Becky’s age but he was mostly hidden underneath a baggy hoodie and floppy brown hair. When he stood behind the podium he flipped his hair away and revealed piercing green eyes and recognition set in. She knew him. He was in her year at school. He was the skinny guy that most people ignored, but a few of the popular girls had a secret crush on. A couple of years ago they had worked together on a chemistry project, she remembered being surprised by his intelligence. Then one day recently he vanished, Becky guessed that she was about to get an explanation.
“Hi, I’m Simon.” His voice was barely reaching a whisper as he began. “I don’t really know what I was planning to say. I mean…I know I need to be here but…”
“Why don’t you tell us how it started?” The divorcee with the talon like nails smiled, she always had a soft spot for younger men.
“Umm ok. I umm, I guess it started about two years ago? I was 14 and Mum wasn’t around much. Dad had just left, run off with his secretary like it was some dodgy romance film and Mum had taken it pretty hard. She’d go off for days and leave me to fend for myself. It was fine. I mean, it wasn’t fine. I was lonely I guess. But Mum had this bar in the basement. She used to have parties a lot, so it was always fully stocked. One day I came home to an empty house yet again, some cash stuffed in an envelope on the counter and I was angry…so I decided to pour myself a drink.”
He paused and glanced briefly at the focused faces in front of him, he seemed embarrassed.
“I don’t know why. It’s just she’d always told me to stay away from her precious bar and I wanted to make her mad. But the drink made me feel better so I had another. Then another…I haven’t stopped since. Mum still hasn’t noticed.”
“So what brings you here?” It was Rick interrupting this time. He could always tell when someone was about to spiral.
“I stopped going to school. The principle found me on the roof with a bottle of rum and I accused him of trying to clip my wings. His nose stopped bleeding…eventually. I don’t want to be that person.”
Simon froze and Rick approached, wrapping an arm around his shoulder. “You’ve made a great step by coming here today, we’ve all been where you are, we know how hard it is.”
Simon returned to his seat and fixed his eyes on the floor. Wanting to focus on the meeting Becky tried to listen to the next people who wanted to share. But they were all stories she’d heard before and her eyes were repeatedly drawn back to Simon. She was almost angry; this was her place. This was her only escape and he was threatening to take it.
“Now we have some achievements to recognise tonight.” She hadn’t even noticed Rick reappear from the group. “Many of you will know the lovely Maddie and I’m sure you’ll join me in congratulating her on one year sober. Maddie, would you like to come up and share?”
A smattering of applause spread through the room and Becky pulled herself up. If she didn’t make eye contact she was sure Simon wouldn’t recognise her, they hadn’t spoken since that stupid project. Surely there were more interesting people occupying his memories.
“Thank you Rick. Your support has been incredible this past year. When I came to my first meeting, I didn’t think it would work. I thought I would look back on this as a waste of time. Time that I could have spent drinking. It hasn’t been easy; every lonely night has been torture. When Mum died, I figured drinking was a convenient cure. I wasn’t sad if I was drunk and that was great. But I know now it was just a temporary fix…I can grieve now; I can function now. When I look back at the person I became, I’m disgusted by my actions. I used to think drinking made me better but it didn’t. It just made me blind to the person I had become. I’ve still got a long way to go but right now, I’m taking the right steps and that’s thanks to you guys and your support. Seeing your strength has only made me stronger. So, thank you, you are all incredible.”
As she stepped down from the podium Rick handed her a token. She’d had a few before but this one felt heavier, more important. Around the edge it read; ‘To thine own self be true.’ And in the centre, it said ‘1-year recovery.’ Becky held it to her chest like a badge of honour before storing it safely in her pocket.
The meeting ended and the group began to mingle over now cold coffee. The divorcee pulled Becky into an unnecessarily long hug, the man with a spider web tattoo shook her hand so hard it cut off circulation. Becky didn’t see where Simon went but in those moments, she didn’t care. This was her perfect moment, she finally had the appreciation she’d been working for. Like always, she was tired after the meeting so quickly recovered her things and made her exit. As the cold air hit her Becky felt revived. If she tried hard enough she could almost believe this token was meant for her, that she had truly earnt it.
“You’re so full of shit.” Simon had been lingering by the door, a cigarette dangling from his lips. “Maddie? That’s what they call you in there right? Funny, I could’ve sworn I’ve seen your Mum at the last parents evening.”
Becky scowled as Simon leaned in, attempting to be menacing. “How would you know? You don’t even know me.”
She attempted to push past him but he was blocking her way completely.
“We go to the same school I know plenty. What is wrong with you?” He growled. “Those are good people and you’re lying to them. Why the fuck would you do that?”
It was a lie. Becky couldn’t deny that. But having someone call it out so brutally caused an anger to stir that she wasn’t expecting.
“Don’t get all self-righteous. At least I’m not boring those people with some self-indulgent sob story about how my Mum never loved me!” Her voice was like venom. She could feel her safe place slipping away from her and all she could do was cling on for dear life. But as the words fell onto dead air Becky froze. “…I’m sorry Simon. Shit, I didn’t mean that.”
“Whatever. My story may have been boring for you but at least it was true. You know, when I came here tonight I thought I was pathetic but compared to you I’m doing just fine.”
Stepping out of the way Simon dropped his cigarette at her feet.
Becky knew she had to leave. She could hear the murmuring inside; the walls of this place were so thin she was sure they’d heard everything. One foot in front of the other, she couldn’t focus on anything else. Simon became a speck behind her and time became irrelevant as her feet slapped against the ground. The sun had long since gone to sleep and Becky knew her Mum would be waiting for her. She could imagine the poor woman pacing the front room in her cotton pyjamas, jumping every time she heard a noise in the distance. But Becky kept walking until she had to stop. Stood on the empty bridge Becky realised that she’d walked for so long she’d reached the border of town. Her shoulders were throbbing now and her boots had rubbed her feet raw.
The weight of her token felt like it was about to rip through her back jeans pocket. When she pulled it out, the words no longer felt like an achievement they had become a cruel joke. This was all a cruel joke she’d been playing on herself. How had this happened? She had finally found somewhere she felt real and now it had been ripped away from her. Was it really so fucked up? Maybe her stories hadn’t been true but was it such a betrayal to share them? What harm had she done?
The world froze around her as she rubbed the token between her fingers, watching the river that ran around the edge of her little world. ‘To thine own self be true.’ She stroked the words with her thumb until they left an imprint in her skin. With a laboured breath, she flung the token into the river as hard as she could, letting it drown in the inky water. Letting Maddie drown with it.