Wendyl Nissen and the bottle of Sancerre

The young guy in front of me on the plane to Sydney was drinking a lot. I sat behind him and noted every bit of alcohol delivered to him by the air steward.

As he downed his beers chased by shots of whisky he became very chatty with the young women sitting either side of him. I realised I was being very judgy. But they didn’t seem to mind and their mile-high threesome became the kind of pleasant conversation that I used to have in the air when thrust together with other people in tiny seats on long-distance flights and nothing else to do but drink.

A very enthusiastic air steward, who had read about my near sobriety in the paper that morning, approached.

“I guess you won’t be wanting a drink then?” he quipped all twinkly eyed over his mask as I ordered coffee.

“White with one, please,” I said in that laugh talk you do when you’re humouring someone.

“Great story, good on you,” he said as he served the man in front of me another beer.

The story was an extract from Natural Care, my latest book about natural living. I wrote about giving up alcohol. Well, my husband gave up alcohol and I stopped  drinking so much.

“Everyone wants to stop drinking and you tapped into a rich vein of desire”

Five minutes later another dear reader showed up.

“I just had to stop by and say what a great story that was in the paper,” said a woman about my age. “I just love the way you write about these things, it’s so au courante.”

I looked at her blonde hair, her neat puffer vest, her Gucci trainers and imagined her in a wine bar in the Hawke’s Bay with very little difficulty.

“Thank you,” I replied. “So nice of you to say.”

Eventually she wandered off and I leaned back in my seat and muttered to my husband, “It was one story in a Sunday paper, how did it have that much cut through? Is not drinking such a hot topic?”

He looked up from the old book he was reading. He always reads books that are hardback, smell of dust and were printed decades ago. In this case something about Shakespeare. It’s his thing. He said, “Everyone wants to stop drinking and you tapped into a rich vein of desire. Simple.”

Earlier that morning a woman at our hotel had sidled up to me and said, “Saw you in the paper this morning!”

It’s always hard to know what to say to that. “Oh lovely!” or “Really?” or “Oh that wasn’t me.”

I chose “Oh lovely!” and let her get on with her day.

Alcohol introduced us. Our drinking continued to hold us together

My husband  turned back to his book and remained silent for the rest of the trip. No delightful, slightly drunk conversations for me in row 56.

It’s been nearly two years since he gave up drinking. He did it quickly, efficiently and without a fuss as is his way. How his body coped I have no idea as he was a big drinker. The kind that drinks until there is nothing left. The kind who gives it a good go.

With him not drinking I also lost the will to drink as much. It turns out I’m a social drinker, I won’t drink alone.

So with just the two of us in the beautiful but isolated Hokianga, I went for weeks, sometimes months not touching the stuff.

My story is not the story of addiction, the hard work that people do all over this country just trying to get through another day without it. My story is a love story, of two very social adults who had a moment on a plane 27 years ago as they were seated together in business class on a journalist’s junket and drank a lot. You could say it was our moment of realisation, the dawning of a relationship, the ultimate meet cute. Alcohol introduced us. Our drinking continued to hold us together through tough jobs, blending a family of five kids and many, many parties at our home.

There are hilarious stories of my drinking. One occurred leaving Prego restaurant on Ponsonby Road with two friends at about 6pm after a very long lunch. My blonde celebrity friend who was wearing very high Manolo Blahnik’s tripped on the treacherous ramp leading from Prego onto the footpath. She fell onto me. I then fell onto my other friend, a petite woman half my size. Our human sandwich ended up on the footpath at rush hour.

Such a great story until I heard someone else telling it. She’d observed our fall from grace but wasn’t part of it, as in, she wasn’t drunk.

“That is not your story to tell,” I growled at her. “That is our story so shut up!”

It never occurred to me that stories of drunken behaviour could be seen through the lens of tragedy. A horrible tale of how too much alcohol caused three women in their 30s to roll about laughing on the footpath one Wednesday evening.

Guyon Espiner made a whole documentary about giving up drinking which mainly involved him running or walking outside having a good think about it while sombre music played

I read Noelle McCarthy’s excellent book Grand about her drinking and that of her mother Carol and found some of her stories equally as entertaining. But this was a story of pain and suffering for both her and her mother. I doubt Noelle intended any of it to be entertaining in that way. Noelle stopped drinking and this was her tale to tell.

Guyon Espiner made a whole documentary about giving up drinking which mainly involved him running or walking outside having a good think about it while sombre music played.

The thing all of us have in common is that we are no longer young. And therein lies the rub.

When you hit your 50s or in our case our 60s drinking a lot just becomes harder to bear. For women we are no longer seen as the sexy life and soul of the party, or a hard case, or a real character.

Drunk older women are always described as tragic trouts who really should not be attempting to pole dance in the middle of a wedding.

Our bodies begin to object to the inevitable hangover, we stagger a lot and sometimes fall over. Our language skills leave us, in the case of my husband; in my case, the ability to shut the fuck up escapes me. People are held hostage as I rant and rave, none of which I remember the next day.

The day after we arrived in Sydney, ostensibly to visit our daughter, we caught up with some friends I hadn’t seen since their wedding 20 years ago.

I decided that I needed to drink most of a bottle of Sancerre in our hotel room before we left, something my husband and I would always do in the past. When you don’t drink a lot you can afford to be a terrible snob about the type of  wine you imbibe. Quality over quantity.

When we got to the very posh restaurant I was well away. One martini and a $30 glass of Chablis later I managed to smash the glass of wine all over the table, which is always awkward.Then we had an unnecessarily intense conversation about whether trans people should be able to use the women’s only pool in Coogee I had been visiting every day and observing women of all ages indulging in the freedom of swimming topless.

I woke the next morning and asked my husband if I should be apologising for my behaviour.

His answer was brief. “Maybe work on the pre-loading next time.”

Living with a non drinker is full of these moments. The look you get from across the table as he really wishes you would shut up. The gentle suggestion that one more martini might be too much. The slight smirk as you say something completely stupid. 

It was so much easier when he drank. But as we disembarked from our plane in Sydney at 10:30am I was once again grateful for my new almost-sobriety and the fact that I had a whole day ahead of me unencumbered by alcohol.

As for the guy in front of me, he flew into the arms of a very gorgeous woman and I realised he had just been nervous. No judgment needed.

The new best-seller Natural Care by Wendyl Nissen (Allen & Unwin, $45) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Wendyl Nissen is a journalist, broadcaster and former magazine editor who is the author of numerous books, mostly about living a chemical-free life. She lives in the Hokianga with her husband, writer Paul...

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