If Scotland is the shape of a catcher’s mitt then they entered through the thumb, ferrying from Holland to Newcastle, the A68 to Edinburgh, a right at Dundee. Scotland didn’t look any different than England. Drab and colorless, what you’d expect for November. They had their used car with German plates loaded with toys and clothes, kids in the back, an acoustic guitar (kid sized). And plans for the next 90 days to road trip through the UK.
His wife worried about his newfound interest in Scotch though, would it become a problem? But he waved it away knowing it would, it always was, like any good secret it became more powerful the longer it stayed hidden. It started with the first stop in Arbroath, the first bottle. Blended and cheap but real Scotch, real in that it came from Scotland. He’d get into it and then follow with beer or wine to be more sociable. The kids would be off entertaining themselves with mom while he was off doing his thing.
And it made sense if you spent a month in Scotland to do that, especially in November, the most melancholy of months. Whatever strain came from driving in a foreign country with two kids, he used that to sooth himself at dusk, which started early in November, in Scotland. And later his psychiatrist said that made him a maintenance drunk, meaning he drank to maintain his drunkenness (as drunks do) but his problem was less obvious as he worked hard to conceal it.
And so he did, for all of November and December until it was suggested he take the month of January off. January they’d be in England, and their rate of travel would slow to a few dedicated stays. First Stratford, then London, ending with a week in a small village outside of Bath called Combe Down. Even the sound of it seemed apt, ‘calm down.’
The month started optimistic as new years do, with hints of spring and long muddy walks through the English countryside. The clarity from not drinking combined with a daily writing practice made him feel renewed. He substituted his afternoon drinks with hot baths, the closest he could get to that same comfort. But as the month wound down he started to count the days and imagine his reentry. Not to mainland Europe, but to drinking. And crossing from Dover into France he bought mini-bottles of Scotch he imagined sharing with his German friends. And so the cycle resumed.
November was a shit month weather-wise back home, which made it a good month to commemorate their time in Scotland by featuring Scotch as his go-to drink each November. The Scots had been pretty clear about how to drink it, starting with the fact that you never add ice. The ice destroys the flavor (and all the hard work that went into it). Next if you add water, be sparing. Bartenders used eye droppers to administer water in cautious drops, insisting “once you put it in, you can’t take it out!”
And there was something to that, the addition and subtraction. You could even apply the four basic operations of math to drinking. The more you added and multiplied the behavior, the more it subtracted and divided you from others, from yourself. Like any good addiction it came as a paradox, the more you put in the more it emptied you out.
But none of this mattered on their first November in Scotland. If they’d entered through the thumb then they’d exit beneath the pinky on the other side, a remote place called Stranraer. They’d celebrate Thanksgiving in a refurbished Victorian castle, the private home of an earl and countess, in the chauffeur’s flat. And he’d find a turkey or Cornish hens to roast, potatoes smothered in duck fat, a good bottle of Port or brandy. A dram of the best Scotch.
The layering of these behaviors was something to unravel when it came time to quit. Because the neural networks in his head, whatever wiring existed there, were largely drawn and defined by alcohol. The pathways to pleasure were like motorways on a map. Either he had to stop visiting those towns or find a new route.
He didn’t wrap the glasses, he fit them in a box and moved them to the garage with haste. Now that he’d removed the glassware it was surprising how much of the kitchen cabinet was empty, how much real estate was devoted to drinking. The tasting glasses from that distillery tour in the Orkneys. The wine glasses, champagne flutes, brandy snifters, it went on and on. He hoped it would feel that way in his life now too, more room.
But there was only so much space in his heart for others. Drinking was a selfish act, and the over-indulgence paradoxically reduced oneself. Did drunks start as selfish people or end that way? He had to learn to give more of himself, for that feeling of fullness that comes through giving. There was a Christian love to that, but he wasn’t Christian and didn’t believe in recovery programs of that sort. Instead he quit cold turkey. But those new, empty spaces didn’t feel like they gave any more room. They just felt empty.
The kids were now old enough you could imagine them moving out one day. He had that now, evenings he could spend time with them before bed. The youngest interrupted him talking to her older sister, something about her new shoes being too small. They weren’t, she just didn’t know how to use the shoe horn, hadn’t loosened the laces right. So they went downstairs and he knelt to demonstrate, narrating the proper technique in a gentle tone. They did fit after all. She went back to her room humming and closed the door. That’s all it took sometimes.
He didn’t have any regrets, or was too stubborn to allow any. You had to be careful with how much you let in, the self critic. If they could go back in time he’d do it all over again. Would maybe start with a better bottle in Arbroath.