Drink v. Drugs

by Mick Imlah

I was worked up about some other matter
when I saw that phone box off the Talbot Road
being smashed outwards by someone inside it,
after closing on Sunday (Sunday’s the day
they all go mad on crack); which is why
I didn’t as usual walk by on the other side
but advanced with a purpose, and as he swivelled
nonchalant out of the frost, grabbed his lapels,
and setting him roughly against the railings,
‘What is it with you,’ I asked him, ‘drugs?’ –

which I knew very well from his vacant expression;
and after he’d cautioned me weakly
against tearing his coat, the stoned boy
answered, matter-of-factly, Yes’ –
and told me which ones, in a Liverpool accent.
It was here I think I said something stupid
about rugby v. football, which he ignored,
rallying rather to call me a prick
and a Good Citizen, and I thought, never mind,
I’m still going to call the police.

But that would have meant myself going into
the vandalised box, and releasing my hold,
which maybe he saw, with his pert ‘Go on then’;
then, something better came into his head,
that he would phone, since he hadn’t done nothing;
and moments later he was giving the station
the lowdown on the guy in a light blue shirt
and black jeans who’d assaulted him, seeming
the worse for drink, and accused me of smashing
the phone box from which he was calling now.

When in fact I’d begun to warm to the lad –
who’d flattered my stab at authority, kept
a lid on the thing; also I couldn’t be sure,
could I, that he hadn’t been simply clearing away
glass that was broken already, with strong
but not violent blows of the phone.
In any case, when he started to amble off,
I did nothing to stop him; and when the blue
light came quietly round the corner I was standing
alone with nothing to say for myself but my name.

Notes on the Poem

In four vibrant stanzas, Mick Imlah imbues the poem "Drink v. Drugs" with great storytelling, vivid dialogue and lively pacing. The poetically framed story also serves up the delightful surprises that only a less-than-trustworthy narrator can bring to a tale. Some clues about the narrator's inconsistencies, whether they're caused by distraction or some other source of unreliability, surface from the outset and carry on throughout the story: "I was worked up about some other matter" and "which is why I didn’t as usual ..." and "I think I said something stupid" and "I couldn’t be sure, could I ..." ... finally culminating in a wistful befuddlement that, all things considered, still has an amiable tinge to it: "I was standing alone with nothing to say for myself but my name." Would it be possible to turn this same vignette into a grand short story or even a film, perhaps? Would it be difficult to settle on a perspective in such forms, since the narrator's point of view can't be trusted? Is a poem perhaps the best way to handle the ambiguities of this lively (but open to interpretation) encounter with its intriguing denouement?

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