First, I noticed her industrial boots; second, the face of an angel once removed. But before I got to her five-alarm curves, there was a flash of silver and she poured something into the two drinks on the bar in front of her. Risky. You could get three months for full strength booze in the capital.
She looked like the perfect mess, even down to her odd-shaped bag, into which she slipped the flask.
‘What else you got in there, hun?’ I asked, nodding at the hold-all, letting her know I’d seen, but wasn’t telling. She turned her mocha eyes on me with a look beyond disdain.
‘The head of the last guy to call me “hun”,’ she said. Gulp.
Next to her, in silver cap and space-jodhpurs, her lanky pal was talking loudly at the lady behind the bar.
‘I’m not paying for that,’ he barked, as he necked one of the pimped-up purple liquids and belched. He didn’t have enough credit in his retina to pay for it anyway. The security bots started to hover. Their little displays agitated, spoiling for action.
‘It’s on me,’ I said, on a hunch. They must have heard the same thing I had: That this new bar had a secret stash of beer over the legal limit of 1.5% ABV, ten years after London’s last pub had closed and been turned into luxury flats. Luxury empty flats. Ten years in which brewing had become a lost craft, frowned upon from above as an anti-social, anti-work crutch for low-lifes like me. But no, this place had the same watered-down, schmuck juice that was in every joint owned by the Big Three Barcos. That is to say, every joint in the Smoke.
‘I would thank you, but it was shithouse,’ he said, introducing himself as Demi-vie and his beautiful friend, appropriately enough, as Risky.
‘Don’t mention it,’ I said. ‘Maybe we have the same thirst. Is it too much to ask for just one pint?’
The room fell silent. All eyes were on me. ‘I mean, pie…’ The crowd looked suspicious. ‘…napple smoothie.’
Phew, the hubbub returned. My smoothie arrived. Whoop de fucking do.
‘The fucking Dulwich Impaler told me this was the place,’ moaned Demi-vie.
‘He’s not fucking here though, is he?’ said Risky. Demi-vie tried to reach his source, this Dulwich Impaler.
‘Cunt never answers his iMind when you need him,’ he moaned. When he did get through, we got Demi-vie at full volume.
‘I want to fucking spew, Impaler. It’s full of chinless dead-eyed cunts, apart from me, Risky and some speccy twat in a trilby.’
‘Clean South,’ I said, introducing myself, ‘Pleased to meet you.’
With all the bar looking on, insulted by his rant, Demi-vie loudly arranged to meet up by some bins in South London. Yes, every inch of the town had been developed, redeveloped and regenerated but they couldn’t take away our bins.
‘Hold on,’ said Risky, spotting something. ‘Follow me, fellers.’ We did, natch. In a secluded part of the bar, Risky reached towards a fridge door.
‘They’re fruit cocktails, Risk. An insult to liquid,’ said Demi-vie.
Risky twisted the handle and the door opened to reveal a hidden tunnel. Demi-vie bundled me in. I thought I was being kidnapped till I heard the unmistakable sound of a secret bar: Laughter.
‘Let’s get some hooch down us!’ exclaimed Demi-vie.
‘I don’t know about this,’ I warned, when I saw the place. Something was wrong. The spaceyacht-shaped bar was decorated in a late Boy Georgian style, yet the furniture was clearly Jedwardian. I looked around me. These tasteless clowns didn’t know what they were doing. They were drinking cocktails made of leather and sapphires served in puce trainers with model aeroplanes on the side and mini-burgers floating in them. This had to be it: The secret lair of the property developers who had sold London’s soul to the highest bidder.
It was too late. Demi-vie had made it to the bar.
‘Three double whiskeys, lad,’ he shouted before turning to us. ‘And what do you lot fancy, seeing as you’re paying and all?’ Suddenly we were surrounded by ray guns.
‘You’re not in the property game,’ someone said. I knew exactly what to do. I started to whimper.
Risky had a better idea. She made a serious no-chain enquiry about condominiums. The developers relaxed, and Risky asked about their weapons: ‘Is that the Foamballl XL-5 you’re packing?’ she purred. ‘Do you mind if I…?’
The enchanted developer handed it over and Risky duly covered the cream of the London property industry in fast setting foam before Demi-vie took the opportunity to draw a penis on a vice-president. We then did what was once known as ‘a runner’.
‘Sector SE1,’ Demi-vie told a cabbie-bot.
‘Is that south of the river?’ he bleeped back. It was hard to tell now the river has been paved over and covered in flats. ‘Only I don’t go south of the river at this time of…’
‘Shut it, bot boy,’ said Risky, firmly.
We were dropped off near where the river used to be and Demi-vie led the way into the south. I’d heard it was full of ferals and that the houses were really buses, but in fact it was just like the rest of London, except that there were still some gaps between the buildings where people could walk, if they remembered how to.
They led me through alleys to the sewage works where we found the Dulwich Impaler leaning on a bin. He was a long-haired freak with a four-day stubble, sporting cargo trousers and sandals, admiring the beauty of the drainage system with the help of some powerful skunk. Risky took out her hip flask and we shared some potcheen. It was the strongest thing I had drunk in a decade; an utterly foul potato-based booze.
‘Delicious!’ said the Impaler. ‘What a versatile vegetable.’
Stoned, drunk and lost, I felt brilliant again.
We wandered and wondered, until we came across Drinkme Street. Irresistibly drawn, we found the buildings had doors at ground level. Weird. And we weren’t alone. Others were walking towards what looked like a dead end, except they didn’t return. The last door had a light above and a key in the lock. We entered without a word to find the legendary secret taproom.
‘Just closing, guys,’ said the cheery bearded man, standing over a hand pump, next to a plate of Scotch eggs. Our faces, so previously wide-eyed with fervour, dropped like gutted stones.
‘Only kidding!’ said the barman. ‘What can I get you?’
Risky unzipped her bag and took out a dimpled pint jug, which she handed to the barman.
‘Respect, madam.’ he said, as he filled her dimples. ‘That’ll be £4300 please.’
‘Do you accept Tastecard?’ asked the Impaler.
With 50% off we drank twice as much, followed by a pint to celebrate. Because no matter how they mutilate our town, there are always little victories, nights of joy, lost afternoons and well-earned sickies.
Into the future, comrades.
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