‘You always know when you do something for the first time,’ said Half-life, over brunch outside Millwall Cafe, ‘But you never know when you do it for the last.’
The more I thought about this, the truer it seemed to become. At the football the other day I’d watched a father carrying his daughter on his shoulders and had fondly remembered – and missed – doing the same with mine when they were younger. When was the last time I’d done it? How had I missed it?
‘Unless you’re planning to top yourself,’ Half-life went on. ‘Then at least you can enjoy it.’
Half-life’s cheery disposition was down to a recent blood test that had all but confirmed the pain in his toe was down to gout, the disease of kings and swaggering dandies. ‘I’ll come out, but I’m not drinking,’ he’d said. ‘Doc’s orders.’
That suited me: I was driving. My car had sprung a leak and I had a puddle of water sloshing about behind the passenger seat. My cursory attempts to locate the source had come to naught and I’d been forced to check it in to a garage where a proper man could take a look at it. ‘Vapour seal, probably,’ Half-life had said on the way over, ‘Roof box, scuttle drains.’ But I hadn’t replied because I didn’t know what the words meant.
Now we were sitting outside the Millwall Cafe, in the shadow of The Den, Millwall FC’s ground, killing time and having conversation – or possibly the other way round.
I’d already told him that Dirty South had had a similar diagnosis some time ago, and that after some advice on dietary modifications and light exercise (lay off the biscuits; walk to the pub that’s a bit further away) he had been able to continue enjoying alcoholic beverages. But Half-life, ever inclined to the dramatic, was adamant that this meant he was never going to drink again, hence the burst of street philosophy.
‘It’s like heroin,’ said Half-life, getting the bit between his teeth. ‘Everyone remembers the first time they took it, right? And you never think you’re not gonna have that again. It would break your fucking heart.’
‘I’ve never done heroin,’ I said.
‘Course you have,’ said Half-life.
‘I thought I’d save it for the old people’s home. Something to look forward to.’
‘And then you hear about Fizzy Lizzie – you know, The Sheriff’s ex – getting her fucking block knocked off on one of those squeegees…’
‘She died not knowing she was never gonna do smack again,’ he said, waving a slice of toast at me. ‘And we never knew the last time we’d see her was at the twins’ cachorro barbeque.’
‘What did I say?’
‘I think it’s a puppy. A puppy barbeque.’
‘Still, worth thinking about,’ said Half-life. I wasn’t entirely clear about what it was I should be thinking, but I gave it a good go while the big man got us a couple more teas.
When we’d finished, having nothing else to do until the garage called, we went for a wander. Around the stadium, light industry flourishes, much of it seemingly auto repairs and probably sustained largely by people like me, who think cars run on something not unrelated to magic. It’s the sort of environment where, these days, someone might have started a microbrewery, but sadly none were in evidence. There wasn’t much to sustain our interest but even so I wouldn’t want to lose this little hive of independent industry, where a man can drop off his motor and fill up on egg, bacon and stupendous chips.
But the future of the area is anything but secure. A while back, freeholder Lewisham Council decided to compulsorily purchase the land around the football stadium, land that is currently leased to the football club, and sell it to an offshore-registered development partner called, ominously, Renewal, who plan to build an hotel, health complex and blocks of flats.
Millwall FC will lose buildings currently used for their community trust building, youth academy, car park and cafe. This, says the club, will compromise their ability to run the business successfully and means they will be forced to leave the borough.
One only has to look at the fate of local non-league rivals, Dulwich Hamlet FC – locked out of their erstwhile ground by sulky freeholder, Meadow Residential – to see what happens when property developers start sniffing round football clubs, like flies around shit flats. Theatres of dreams become pinched-window nightmares, communities get stomped upon, someone in a suit gets to buy another Ferrari.
‘You been to Millwall?’ I asked Half-life
‘Yeah. Used to go down with Tiny and the crew sometimes. Bit edgy for me, to be honest. I was more into acid at the time.’ If it was too edgy for Half-life, I figured, it must have been very edgy indeed.
But football isn’t the problem, and very often it’s the answer. Lewisham Council says it has deferred the compulsory purchase order and the new Mayor of Lewisham has invited the football club and Renewal in for talks. Let’s hope the football club is allowed to stay and play a part in the regeneration of an area it has done so much to help, rather than being shunted out to Kent.
We walked down Bolina Road and under the new railway bridges, already graffitied. Half-life sat on a low wall and sparked up a blunt near where someone had recently enjoyed a small open fire. I declined a puff on the grounds that I wanted to drive home causing minimal death and destruction.
‘Babylon,’ said Half-life.
We headed down beside the railway lines towards Rotherhithe New Road, shuttered businesses in the arches on one side staring out new-build flats on the other, in a gentrification stand-off. On the New Road we turned right, Half-life lured by a sign that read ‘Thai Massage’. But as we approached, something else caught his eye, a sign for The Jolly Gardeners pub. It soon became clear that the sign was all that remained of the pub, now transformed into something called ‘London Stay Apartments’.
Half-life emitted a low moan, like a dog that had espied a massive bone only to discover it’s made of plastic, or been turned into a short term rental opportunity
‘Right, that does it,’ said Half-life. ‘Where can we get a pint?’
‘I thought you weren’t drinking,’ I said.
‘Oh, I can drink beer,’ he said.
‘So what is it that you’ve had for the last time, out of interest?’
‘Fortified wines, vermouths… I don’t know. Cinzano, White Russians, maybe. Strawberry daiquiris – in fact all types of daiquiris. Difficult to take, but there you go. That’s life. Just gotta suck it up.’
‘Look, where’s a pub? Look it up on your fucking computer phone,’ said Half-life, and I smiled what I supposed was a wry smile as I took out my phone.
‘Only if you say “Internet is beautiful” three times and make an offering to the gods of GPS,’ I said, adding, ‘Oh my God!’
‘What?’ said Half-life.
‘Fourpure. The brewery.’
‘Here. In here,’ I said, leading us past a Screwfix and into another industrial estate. Oh, yes, industrial estates! I knew they’d come good in the end. And tucked round the corner, past Howden’s, there was the Fourpure taproom. Two enormous brewing tanks stood sentinel and this time Half-life was purring.
‘Imagine drowning in one of them,’ he said.
We’d only stumbled upon one of my favourite breweries, one that sits at the eastern end of the famed Bermondsey Beer Mile. The place was empty apart from a smiling barmaid.
‘Are you open?’ I enquired of her.
‘Perfect timing,’ she said, ‘We opened one minute ago.’
‘That’s not perfect,’ said Half-life. ‘We’re late.’
I ordered a two thirds of my favourite Fourpure creation, Juicebox Citrus IPA: An explosion of hops, tropical fruit and in particular, orange. It makes me go weak.
‘The last time I had one of these was out of the beer shed at Champion Hill,’ I said. Half-life looked at me blankly. ‘Dulwich Hamlet,’ I added.
‘There you go,’ he shrugged. ‘You won’t be doing that again in a hurry. And you didn’t fucking know it,’ he said, lifting his lager. ‘To Lizzie.’
I looked at my Juicebox, sitting on the table. Due to driving later, it was my first, my last, my everything, and I was going to enjoy the bejesus out of it. Half-life swooped in for a taste.
‘Christ, what is that?’ he said, screwing up his face. ‘Mango?’
You can’t please everyone, thankfully. I savoured every drop and one thing became clear to me as I did so: This wasn’t going to be the last time I drank at the Fourpure taproom. Of that I was certain. And what’s more, I was right.
When I’d finished I called the garage while Half-life chatted to the barmaid about the benefits of gout.
‘You’ll never guess what,’ I said to him, when he rejoined me. ‘It was the roof box drain.’
‘Told you,’ said Half-life.
‘Plus I need a new clasp for the lid. But the part won’t be in till tomorrow, so… I’m leaving the car there.’ Half-life’s face lit up as he realised the implications for the rest of our afternoon. He stood and spread his arms out wide.
‘For the last time, bring me strawberry daiquiris!’ he boomed across the room, ‘And another Um Bongo shandy for Tiff Needell.’
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