Like a lot of people I usually give up alcohol for the month of January: privation is easier when everybody’s on the same page.
This year, I didn’t bother. At first this was just a question of missing a deadline: 1 January came and went, along with a bottle of red wine left over from Christmas. But a week later, I was congratulating myself on my foresight. As many people are learning, this was the wrong January to give up drinking.
It is a cold winter morning and I am standing in my office shed, hands in my arm pits, nursing a faint lockdown hangover – an unwise extra glass, or two, before bed. The electric heater in the corner has been on for an hour, but my chair is still too cold to sit on.
I am staring back across the garden at the empty kitchen, thinking that this would have been an ideal January to be put under house arrest. You’d be doing what everybody else was doing anyway, but at the end of the month you’d have something to show for it: time served.
My wife walks into the kitchen with two bags from the supermarket. I cross the garden.
“How was it?” I say.
“It was a shitshow,” she says. “The queue to get in was backed up all the way to the station.”
“I don’t really know where the station is,” I say, peering into one of the bags.
“Don’t just look,” my wife says. “Help.”
“Did you buy me wine?” I say, pulling out a bottle of white.
“I noticed you’ve just decided to press on,” she says.
“I’ll probably give up for February instead,” I say. “It’s shorter.”
“That’s up to you,” says my wife, who gave up drinking last January and never went back.
“And I did October,” I say. “So, really, it’s a bit soon.” My wife raises no objection – just an eyebrow.
We have lunch together, as we have nearly every day since the pandemic began.
“You know,” I say, “January’s not so bad. For the first week it’s new socks every day.” My wife looks up.
“Lunch is silent reading only,” she says.
“Then it’s like house arrest, but someone gave you a pasta machine for Christmas.”
“You know the rules,” she says. “If you haven’t got a book, look at your phone.”
After lunch, I return to my office. The heater is on a timer that is set to shut off for an hour in the afternoons so I don’t fall asleep, but today it eventually becomes too cold to sit still. Standing again, I see the oldest one sitting at his computer in the kitchen. I cross the garden.
He doesn’t look up when I walk in; he continues to scrutinise his screen. I can’t tell if he’s working or not, so I creep silently round him and make myself a coffee.
“You know what they say,” he says. At first I’m not sure if he’s talking to me.
“Yes,” I say. “Or maybe not.”
“They say that if you don’t have a naked neighbour at the window, then you are the naked neighbour at the window.” I pause to give this aphorism the consideration it deserves.
“I am definitely the naked neighbour at the window,” I say.
“Are you?” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “The window is right next to my sock drawer.”
“Who knew?” he says.
“But the glass is fogged by some damp between the double glazing, so I’m sort of pixelated.”
“That’s your story,” he says.
“Some guy was supposed to fix it last year, but the estimate was insane,” I say.
“This is my Zoom call starting, so… ,” he says.
I return to my office and override the heater’s timer, but I can still feel the cold of the floor through my shoes. I stand looking back at the house, coffee in hand. Above the kitchen I see my back bedroom window, which hardly seems fogged at all from this vantage. In fact, I can see deep into the room, aglow with late afternoon sun. Anyone standing at that window would look like an emperor giving a speech. In his new clothes.
“The light will be different in the mornings,” I whisper, wondering if it’s too early for a drink.