When we were all rather younger than we are now, a group of my former school friends used to meet in town for drinks.
Among the quasi-alternative crowd, there were only around six of us, was one driver. The rest of us had been unfortunate, unlucky or just plain untalented on the days of our driving tests. If we were to go anywhere, the lone motorist immediately assumed the dual roles of designated driver and decider of finita la comedia.
My own drinking ability was somewhat limited at the time.
My dear old dad used to drink Guinness. Not to excess and never from the can. My mother could not tolerate direct drinking in any way, shape or form.
Whatever came bottled or canned would find its way into a teacup, or waste away in the back of the fridge.
Bottled and canned drinks, she told us, repeatedly, were stored in warehouses and delivered to alleyways. Anybody might have urinated on them. As such, my dad would have his Guinness in a 1980s glass coffee mug with his pipe outside the workshop.
We weren’t animals.
On going into town for drinks, when I was in my late teens, we would navigate our way to one of the cinemas. We didn’t go for the films, being late teenaged and broke. The place we went to had a bar upstairs. A fabulous bar, all bleached wood and cosy low chairs. The faint waft of blackboard paint.
My first brother, Trev, moved to town for university and we were lucky enough to reach that particular bar on a day when they had a new girl.
On the specials board were the words – ‘Filter Coffee, Plus Free Refill’. How the girl came to interpret that sign as ‘Filter Coffee, Plus – as many refills as you dare to ingest’ I’m not sure. That afternoon, Trev and I got through fifty-four filter coffees and wound up bouncing around a bookshop until the dewy early evening.
Back to the late teens: a close friend of mine, destined for university and a life of endless achievement, was practising her drinking. She didn’t want to make a fool of herself when she got to campus. I understand she practised the talent so well, she wound up with the ability to drink ten pints in an evening, and win every arm-wrestling contest she entered. Imagine our pride.
I could almost manage two pints of lager. Tragic in its way. I’d tell silly jokes and sing at people. Thankfully, I’ve never been a dancer, though I’ve heard the table’s call.
Quickly, the designated driver would decide it was time to go, and we’d stop by a kebab house on the way home.
Oddly, the ones who had been drinking cranberry juice, no ice, were the ones to indulge in shaved meat product and mayonnaise with possible extras.
Usually, I would round off the evening by singing the Dusty Springfield songbook in the vague direction of a music student.
I was on a management course in Swindon some year later. I was all mid-twenties and cheekbones you could cut cheese on. A nearby kebab house had been in the papers because of DNA material discovered in the mayonnaise. And just like that, we were obliged to change our lunch plans.
Lager is a bit too wishy-washy for me. I like a stout. Beautiful, velvety, mouth-hugging Guinness. Chock-full of iron, it’s basically a food group. I have become boring and sensible in the last couple of years, but for a time there, my drinking bordered on professional level.
On the last day of my electrical course, the fellas and I went out to dinner. We found a lovely steakhouse and, as I had been soliloquising on the glory of Guinness all week, we drank stout. The chaps ordered steak, various ways. I had scampi. I’ve always had a weakness for seafood.
It came with tartare sauce.
Remembering the kebab house, I viewed it with suspicion.
Not that it stopped me.
Out to lunch with my godparents, we ordered sea bass. The fish came out with head and tail, a silky butter sauce and vegetables stacked like jenga blocks on a plate the size of a canoe. It was perfection.
When the waitress came round to see how everything was, my godmother told her the sauce or the fish, or possibly both, were salty.
Until quite recently this fish had been swim and living in the sea, which is made of salt; it seemed that was a fact that warranted wanton oversight.
The waitress apologised, maddeningly, and offered to take the dish back to the kitchen.
“It’s all right,” my godmother replied, “I should have remembered that everybody over-salts everything in the Westcountry.”
Borderline xenophobia. I could have died. They should have sneezed in her pudding, and I don’t think I could bring myself to blame them.
Years ago, in the early days of the war on terror, my uncle took me out to collect fish and chips for dinner. The height of luxury, as I had made dinner every night for several years and was rather knackered.
As the man who ran the chippy dipped his sausage, a news report played out on the radio hanging above the counter. The MP, Clare Short, had just resigned in protest at the war in Iraq. The man tutted.
“That’s terrible, isn’t it?” he said to my uncle. I was only twenty, so obviously didn’t have an opinion.
(I have never knowingly not had an opinion)
My uncle nodded, not quite knowing to what the man was referring.
“Clare Short,” he clarified.
My uncle took a short breath of understanding and replied, “Well, she did warn them that she would leave if they went to war. I think she said it a few times, in fact.”
“Terrible,” the man carried on, shaking his head. “At least Ann Widdecombe dyed her hair.”