15 MAY 2004, Page 86

Units minus time

Jeremy Clarke

nSunday, fielding in the gully, I passed some of the time between balls calculating how many pints of bitter I could allow myself when it was our turn to bat and drive home without being wildly over the limit. The arithmetic was fairly simple: the number of pints consumed, multiplied by two for the number of 'units', minus one unit metabolised for every hour we'd been playing. The delicious egg-and-cress sandwiches we'd stuffed down our throats at tea allowed me to massage the final figure slightly upwards. Though it behoved me, too, to take into account that I'd put one or both of my contact lenses in inside-out that morning and the world was a blur drunk or sober.

The Alcohol Awareness course I'd been on the last time I was banned from driving taught me how to make the units-minustime calculation. On the floor of the classroom was a large clock-face. The nice lady teacher asked for a volunteer and this curly-haired giant who called everyone 'thee' and 'thou' stepped up. He was called Floyd, he said.

The idea of the game, said the teacher, was to imagine it was Friday evening. 'So what time, Floyd, would you go to the pub?' Floyd thought carefully. 'Well if it's Froiday,' he said, 'I wouldn't get there till about foive, maybe 'aaf past.' The teacher gently positioned Floyd on to the clockface at half-past five. 'And how many pints would you have normally?' she said. 'About foive, I s'pose."Which would take you up to what time, roughly?' Six o'clock,' said Floyd promptly. 'Because then I goes 'ome to change and 'ave me tea.' The teacher counted out ten blue cards or 'units' and gave them to him. Then she gently positioned him at six o'clock and the questions about his alcohol intake continued.

After having his tea Floyd returned to the pub, where he drank about 15 pints of bitter. Then he went home, where he polished off a bottle of vodka. By the time he'd reached the two o'clock in the morning mark he'd amassed 52 blue cards, having returned just eight to account for the alcohol he'd metabolised. His Saturday total of blue alcohol unit cards was 50.

The moral of the story, said the teacher, before the next person stepped up, was that that even if Floyd curled up with a good book on Sunday night, he'd still be well over the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving his car on Monday, and slightly over perhaps even on Tuesday morning. And what about the damage Floyd was doing to his health? Floyd had drunk nearly half the 21 units per week recommended by doctors before he'd even changed his overalls, she said. I looked at Floyd. He was healthy as a Zulu warrior. I looked at the educator. She was etiolated, nervous and small.

Before moving off the clock-face Floyd insisted, for the record, that he didn't drink in mid-week. Nor would he spend a Sunday evening reading a book, either. He didn't read books. They were rubbish. He'd only ever finished one book in his entire life. 'Oh? And which book was that?' said the teacher, hopefully. All that he could remember about it, said Floyd, was that it was a green one.

The man fielding at fine leg, a novelist, threw me the ball. Unable to hold more than one thing in my mind at once, if that, I temporarily abandoned my calculation and caught the ball two-handed and tossed it to the LibDem peer at extra cover. He lobbed it to the retired banker at mid-off, who chucked it at the chief executive of the Conservative party at mid-on, who flicked it to the bowler and captain, who was none other than our very own dear political editor Peter Oborne. Peter Oborne's bowling technique, short run-up, overarm, medium to fast pace, was deadly accurate, It had the batsman so far on the defensive I resumed my beer calculations without fear of serious interruption.

I remembered how my friend George, who was one of those really committed, saintly Marxists, had gone to see a doctor about a vivid rash on his face. The doctor had told him to go away, keep a count of the units of alcohol he drank in a week, then come back. George's grand total, he told me, laughing, was 311 units, roughly 15 times that recommended by current medical opinion. 'Keep on like that,' warned the doctor, 'and you'll be dead in ten years.' George was dead the following year, in fact, stabbed once in the heart while working on the door of a London club.

There was a resounding crack and the ball whistled past my ear. I turned round and sprinted after it thinking about my mate George. Funny that. I hadn't given George a thought for a long time.