I am in a pub in the middle of town, taking my first sip of a whisky and soda, and it is all about to go horribly wrong.
It’s one of those pubs that you now find all over central London near the major tourist attractions: gussied up and overlit, faintly reminiscent of how it used to be but overlaid with a kind of corporate blandness so that no one going in there, from any nation on earth, need feel overwhelmed or in a place that is not like millions of similar places around the world. They serve fat chips with little tubs of mayonnaise and tomato sauce; the staff are young and foreign and wear tight black shirts.
This one is popular with people spilling out – after either work or pleasure – of the Royal Opera House, which is close by. You can tell that once upon a time (but not for about 60 years), it was a very nice place indeed.
The night is getting on. I want to go home but the person I’m with wants to do some catching-up with others and quite understandably so. When she gets up to get a round in and asks me what I want, I say, “Just a small whisky and soda, please,” as I was full from the beer I’d had while waiting alone, with a book, at the originally agreed venue, the Lamb and Flag. I take a sip of the whisky and notice that there is something wrong with it and I see a slice of lemon bobbing about.
The point of whisky and soda is that it is one of the safe, easy and universal drinks. There’s a gag in one of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books that goes that every civilisation in the cosmos has a drink with a name sounding exactly like either “gin and tonic” or “whisky and soda”; it’s the kind of drink, moreover, whose instructions of manufacture are entirely included within the name. And yet, here it is, with a lemon where it has no place to be.
On the scale of outrages that can be perpetrated against the self, this ranks extremely low, I have to admit. So what perhaps moves me to go to the bar and ask for a replacement is not just the unwelcome taste of the thing but a desire for simplicity and purity to be protected. I wait for one of the little blackshirts behind the bar to notice me. I have distinguished myself from someone just standing at the bar with a drink, which isn’t going to get me served any faster, by taking the lemon out and holding it between pinched finger and thumb, like a small, wet, severed ear.
“I’m afraid someone has put a lemon in my whisky and soda,” I say.
“Who served you, sir?”
“No one served me,” I say. “Someone else got it for me.”
I am beginning to get a bad feeling about this. That “sir” was one of those “sirs” that serves just as well as an insult.
There is a bit of faffing about behind the bar as the drink is taken away from me and my small Gauleiter returns to ask me again who served me. I repeat my answer and there is some more faffing about and when he comes back to ask me the question a third time, something in me snaps, for I am tired, I’ve already had more to drink than even I strictly want, the past three months have been shit, this whole business of making a fuss about a lemon is getting me down and, to tell you the truth, I am beginning to get very tired, in a big-picture kind of way, of life’s boring party trick of giving you a bit of happiness and then taking it away again and there is something ugly within me that needs to be let out, so I say, “I’ve told you, no one served me. I just want to know what a slice of fucking lemon is doing in my drink.” I waggle the lemon in an offended manner. At which point he plonks down a couple of two-quid coins and tells me to leave his pub.
“His?” I ask myself, irrelevantly, as I go back to the table and say that, for the first time since I can remember, although it must have happened before in 35 years of pub-going, I have been thrown out of a pub and the faces of the company are suddenly doused in embarrassment and I realise very quickly that no one is going to be on my side for this one and I wonder if my mini-Mussolini realises that, because of a simple slice of lemon, events are going to be set in motion that will possibly have momentous effects on at least two unsuspecting lives.