Many years ago in a land far, far away...
"How about a pint, then? We can take a walk."
Finally, I thought, music to my ears. Nigel had finally said something worth
listening to: how about a pint. Oh, yes, how about a pint, indeed! Nigel
had my full attention. At least up to the word "pint".
On any other day in any other year I might not have been so expectant to the prospect of an ordinary pint of bitter in Wimbledon, on a Sunday, no less. But, today I had earned my wages. Nigel, a rare breed of British extrovert, had invited me only recent to the UK, to "Sunday tea", whether out of hospitality or malice I never knew.
This was the summer of '76. The Great Heat Wave, the Drought, the Hottest Summer since 1506. Whatever. The British were not prepared. No air conditioning. No iced drinks. No ceiling fans. No shade. No relief. The optimistic rolled their pants legs up and offered their ivory limbs to the sun gods in hopes of a tan only to be broiled red. The rest of us waited in
anticipation of noon when the pubs opened.
Nigel lived in south London, a far journey from my student digs. The heat made it worse as, even on a Sunday, the tubes were packed with people going who knows where (why couldn't *they* take a walk?) and carrying their worldly goods, to boot. A middle eastern lady reeking of curry got on the train carrying two large Harrods bags. Of laundry. I didn't know Harrods did laundry.
"Sunday tea" is a quaint British phrase not to be confused with "Sunday
dinner". The word "dinner" promises "starters", roasted meats, Yorkshire
puddings, steaming vegetables, cheese platters, ample drink and "afters". On the other hand, "tea" can be anything, or more likely, nothing.
As a newcomer to Britain I had confused the two: dinner and tea. I expected dinner. I got tea.
It would not have been so bad if I had stoked up. But, an impoverished student, I arrived on fumes, literally, having spent the previous hour being infused by curry and dirty laundry. I was ready for chow, Leg of Mutton, Haunch of Cow, Shoulder of Horse or Bark of Tree!
What I got was Water of Cress and Streaky of Pork.
Water cress is just that: a thin, green leaf composed of 98% water. Streaky pork is like bacon, streaky but without the pork part. I believe it's sliced by a microtome.
While my hosts nibbled their bits I skewered my entire serving on the end of my fork and chomped it down in one go, anticipating (wrongly) that this was just the first course, the starter.
What I did not know was that it was the starter, the dinner and the after.
My hosts ignored my barbarism and waxed contentedly on the streakiness of the pork and the wateriness of the cress. I put on a brave face and tried to suppress thoughts of canabilism.
"How about a pint, then?"
Donner Pass faded from my consciousness. I was at the door in a flash. Which way, left or right? It was nearly noon. Opening time. If we hurried we could get in six pints, easy, before closing.
Left, Nigel directed and we set off.
"Nothing like a Sunday stroll after a nice tea, what?"
I never figured out how to answer questions that ended in "what", so I always replied "Right!". Off we went, up the high street, past the church, through the school yard and into the Commons.
In retrospect, I believe that all Commons should be signposted "No Pubs in Here" if only to be humane. While Nigel turned Naturalist, "Oh, is that a pigeon?", I tried to maintain focus, "Is it a free house? Will they have snacks? I think I'll order two pints at once!". Nigel examined every shrub, bush, tree and grass, hoping, I imagined, to find the elusive Striped Grubwinch, while I kept a nose aloft for the aroma of stale beer and my ears tuned to the clinking of glassware.
Onward we trudged.
I became quite alarmed. It was nearly two. Even if we found a pub in a hollow log we'd only have an hour of drinking time; three pints, maybe four at the outside. Yet, here we were in Murkwood. My spirits sank.
Another half-hour passed as we dragged ourselves through the forest. The place was full of people. All happy from the look of them. Probably returning from a pub having had Sunday Dinner.
The Death March ended as is often the case in England on the High Street. We came round a turn in the path, passed through a turnstyle, and found ourselves on a street full of people, cars, buses, taxis, dogs and, and, and...
And, directly in front of us, the Fox and Hounds. Never a sight so dear to my eyes. I stumbled across the street mumbling "I'llgetthefirstround. I'llgetthefirstround. I'llgetthefirstroud." It was 2:45. Fifteen minutes to closing.
Unfortunately, everybody else knew it was 2:45 and the bar was packed. By the time we got our pints the publican was ringing the bell for last call. "Down in one!", I called, but was met with blank stares.
The pint was a memory and we were back on the street. "Which way?", I
"Right, then left!", chirped an ever optimistic Nigel. And, sure enough, just around the corner was the flat.
"You mean the pub was a hundred yards from your flat?" I was becoming rabid. Foam forming on the corners of my mouth was not beer.
"Oh, yes.", replied Nigel.
"Why?", I implored weakly pointing to the pub, "Why?"
"Because after Sunday Tea we always take a walk.", Nigel gasped as I squeezed the life out of him.