Every morning for the past two years, on waking, I’ve reached out for the white plastic tub on the bedside table, shaken out four oval white tablets into the lid, tossed them into my mouth, and washed them down with a pint of water. Initially I counted myself lucky to be selected to take the expensive drug abiraterone for two years as part of a nationwide clinical trial. As I understand it, abiraterone turns off the adrenal glands, thereby depriving prostate cancers of their favourite nourishment, testosterone. (Presumably, I have also been without adrenaline for two years and impervious to loud bangs.) I tolerated the drug easily until about three months ago, when the common side effect of fatigue sneaked up on me and whacked me over the back of the head with a lead-filled sock. Every morning since then, I’ve woken up exhausted and counting the days until the end of the trial.
The glad morning when I swallowed the last four pills and chucked the 24th and final empty tub at the bin was the Saturday before last. I rose, dressed, packed an overnight bag, and flew EasyJet from Bristol to Nice for a birthday party. As one of the first guests to arrive, I helped with the last-minute party arrangements. It was an outdoor party and I was given the job of placing candles in a variety of lamps and jamjars and arranging them on the terrace where I thought the candlelight would be most useful and atmospheric.
I put off numerous insistent offers of that sacramental first drink, and was going about my task conscientiously, when I looked at the clock, subtracted an hour, and realised that 20 minutes had already gone since the late kick-off at the Etihad stadium where Manchester City were playing West Ham. Borrowing an iPad, and googling the latest score, I saw that the Hammers were 0–2 up. I shan’t bore you with claims about a lifelong love affair with my football club. Suffice to say that after decades of scepticism and disappointment, the start of the season under our inspirational new manager has felt like a religious revival. And here we were, away to City and two goals up after 20 minutes — yet more signs and wonders. The sun sank, dusk turned to darkness, and with my lips moving in silent prayer that the lads would hang on during the second half, I went around the terrace with a taper, lighting the candles.
The guests began to arrive: expatriate middle-class English couples; some local French faces; a leavening trio of gallus working-class Glaswegian women. I accepted that drink and mingled, my mind a thousand miles north. The next time I looked at the clock it was full-time at the Etihad, so I excused myself and crept to the iPad again. The lads had held on. Incredible. I was on cloud nine.
Now I had a birthday to celebrate. Party on! I don’t know whether the influence of a dazzling half-moon had anything to do with it, but happily everyone else was up for a party also. We danced and sang and sang and danced by the light of the half-moon and candles. We formed lines and danced the Gay Gordons, and one of the Scottish women apologised for leaving her bodhran at home but expertly played the spoons instead. We danced to the Stones, and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Paolo Nutini. We sang along to the Dubliners. We sat in a circle and held hands and sang along to ‘American Pie’, and the Scottish contingent and some of the middle-class English knew all the words, and everyone else knew all the words except the last few verses and rejoined lustily at the choruses. (A joint of old-fashioned sticky black hash had gone around by this time, and I could hardly sing for laughing.) And then, at someone’s request, the DJ put on Miriam Makeba’s ‘Click Song’, which divided the company interestingly into a section who decided to sit that one out; and a sort of liberal, internationalist, anti-apartheid, former-hippie section, who flocked to the standard and danced to it thoughtfully and respectfully; and me, who danced to it like a lunatic, as though it were ‘Brown Sugar’.
I got totally and deliberately and gloriously drunk. My last few drinks of the night were a trawl of half-finished ones left on the tables and chairs. My very last was a half-pint of red wine straight from a bottle tipped almost to the vertical. I was going to feel terrible on waking, I knew that. But I would also wake knowing that West Ham had beaten Manchester City at their place, and that from now on I would no longer have to reach for that white plastic tub and swallow four of those damned ovoid tablets.