In the lead-up to Christmas, drink is everywhere. The temptations begin early: a department store brochure shows seductive champagne-packed hampers; food shelves in October are already filled with brandy-soaked mince pies; liquor-filled chocolates are winking at me from their gold-foil wrappers; there are articles on how to make Beluga caviar taste Absolut-ly delicious. Waiting for an assistant in the Peter Jones microwave section, I notice the display of highly polished wine racks, the elegant wine coolers, the novelty-shaped ice buckets, the silver-plated "gift suggestion" hip flasks. Marketing and advertising tentacles are stretching out to entangle me. The message is repetitive, and simple: alcohol is delicious, cool, sexy unless you are an alcoholic.
And yet this year I have not looked forward to Christmas so much since I was too young to have tasted a drink. Last year I spent Christmas with distant relatives in Scotland. I know I could not allow myself to become drunk in the 48 hours I would be there, so I devised a precautionary tactic. I got so drunk in the preceding days that I only just managed to board the sleeper to Fort William before passing out, forgetting that I had hidden my jewellery in the washbasin. I staggered off the train leaving it behind, aware only of my ear-splitting hangover. I remained so ill with alcoholic poisoning that I managed the 48 hours virtually alcohol free, before catching the train home, where, with relief, I could get well and truly sloshed.
This year will be different. The temptations have gradually left me as I have learnt a new set of party tricks - private tapes which will play in my mind the moment I press the ON switch: "Don't pick up the first drink, it's only the first one that counts", and "lime juice and fizzy water is delicious", and "you only have to do this for today, tomorrow has not yet arrived". At parties, if pressed or interrogated about my abstinence, I know to explain that I have an allergy to alcohol, as some others do to nuts or mown grass - it simply disagrees with me, and the sense of being different evaporates quickly enough.
This year I will not wake in the middle of the night with a raging thirst or in the morning with a jolt at the recollection of what I might have done or said, or, worse, unable to remember anything at all about the preceding evening. This year I will not give my uninhibited demonstration of the Macarema, nor will I sit sobbing with self-pity at the futility of life, my life. I will not declare unbridled passion, nor settle down to imparting long overdue home truths. I will listen with a clear head and heart to the Kings choristers filling their chapel with the Messiah. I will leave parties able to drive myself and others home safely in the morning. I will be able to savour memories of conversations and laughter. I will not endure the blushmaking humiliation of seeing a dear friend putting his hand over my wineglass and signalling "no more" to the waiter.
And on Christmas day itself, should the devil be loitering at my elbow ("you're only an arm's length from a drink"), as I watch the others raising their glasses, I know, as I sip my water, that I have only to glance across the table into the eyes of my children, which were filled last year with a mixture of fear, pain and contempt, to see them now reflecting pride and love, to remind myself how much I have achieved, and what I have left behind.