Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Real Peter by Sheena Billett

How had it come to this?

Peter buried his face in his napkin and sobbed, oblivious to the other diners in The Golden Fleece, next to the Premier Inn on the ring road.

This was not how he had imagined his career would end – an ignominious send off with only his loyal secretary, Pat, for company; and even she had left, barely sipping her wine, muttering something about getting home to her mother.

Even so, he had put a brave face on things and ordered his meal. But as he raised the first forkful of food to his mouth, Peter saw himself – sitting in this anonymous restaurant with two Happy Retirement cards; one signed by everyone in the office and the other from Pat, and the Homebase gardening voucher in his wallet.

In his imagination, he would have held his leaving do in the swanky Yodo restaurant in town, with the whole department toasting his wonderful career, and wishing him and Anna a wonderful retirement in their French Villa.

Peter left a twenty pound note on the table, and strode abruptly out of the restaurant. He got into his Lexus and headed for the motorway – he might as well enjoy one more journey, as it was being repossessed tomorrow.

It was difficult to know exactly when things had gone wrong. Was it the morning he’d needed a drink before going to work? Was it the day when his hands shook so badly that he’d had to leave a junior surgeon to finish up? Maybe it was as far back as the first time he had drunk a bottle of wine on his own. No wonder Pat couldn’t bring herself to share a bottle of wine with him. What had he been thinking? It had been the final, pathetic, flimsy, attempt to pretend that things were normal.

Ten years ago, Peter had had it all. He was a brilliant cardio-thoracic surgeon, a pioneer of cutting edge techniques, highly respected by his colleagues and on the board of the hospital.

He had the perfect wife, two children at university, one of them at Oxford, and enough money to buy a villa in France. But somehow, there had come a time when having it all had not been enough, and Peter had found himself, in his early fifties, thinking: what else is there? In those days, no one talked about mental health, or depression; most people didn’t even recognise the symptoms – not even a medical professional like Peter, or maybe, especially a medical professional like Peter.

He and Heather had got into the habit of drinking a bottle of wine each evening, ‘to unwind’, after the younger of their children had left for university. Then, one evening, Heather had been visiting her parents and Peter, unable to break the habit, had drunk a bottle of wine on his own. From there, slowly but surely, over the next ten years, alcoholism had stealthily crept up on him. Things had come to a head when a junior doctor had alerted the chairman of the board that he could smell alcohol on Mr Walker and didn’t think he was fit to operate.

Peter had never stepped into an operating theatre since, as arrogantly and obstinately he refused help and refused to even acknowledge the problem, insisting that other colleagues were ‘out to get him.’ Left with no other option, the hospital had insisted on immediate early retirement with a reduced pension. And so it had come to this – still refusing to accept that a demon was running his life, even ordering a bottle of wine this evening, and expecting Pat to drink it with him. What had he been thinking? In fact what had he been thinking for the last year-or-so?

Heather had found out from a friend at the hospital, had immediately moved out, and was currently taking him to the cleaners, intent on bleeding him dry. The legal fees alone would wipe him out. His children weren’t talking to him, and he knew that he would have to leave the area. The hospital had hoped to hush things up, but inevitably, the local press had got wind of the scandal, and his face had been in every paper.

Peter found that he had driven almost all the way to Leeds. This was the first evening he could remember not having a drink – somehow he hadn’t been able to face it after Pat had left. He felt himself to be at a fork in the road: He could turn off at the next exit and return home and get some help, or he could drive on into oblivion allowing his pride, self-pity and anger to overwhelm him.

Three weeks later, Peter found himself dressed in uncharacteristic jogging bottoms and a T-shirt, running along a beach.

‘Come on keep going, old man,’ shouted Tim over his shoulder as he sprinted off.

Peter stopped, hands on his knees trying to get his breath. He had not felt this good in a long time.

Tim returned and patted him on the back. ‘You’re doing great, Dad – for an oldie.’

‘Do you know, Tim, I never thought I could feel this good with so little,’ he puffed.

‘I’m so proud of you, Dad. Mum and Lizzie will come round, eventually, you know.’

‘I know this sounds a bit soft, but I think I’m only now getting to know the real Peter.’

‘Me too. And I think I’m going to like him… a lot. Come on, let’s get you a latte and boost your sugar levels. Race you!’ And he was gone.

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