Sunday, 14 August 2011
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
It was a grim Wednesday evening in mid August, the streets were littered with trainers, shops were open for business as the wind whistled through the splintered frontages and I was looking for trouble.
My way was barred by thirty police trucks filled to the gunwales with body armoured rozzers. They meant business, and looked as if taking prisoners was the last thing on their minds. The atmosphere was electric, but I was fearless. On showing my "Freedom Pass" they let me through.
I was sweating profusely as I descended the creaking stairs into the cellar that was the "Tapster". I pushed open the door and surveyed the dark faced dregs of humanity that were cracking open bottles of house White Burgundy and house Margaux. Drowning in their cups, they tried to erase the memory of another morning on the 7:25 am from Chistlehurst, hoping against hope the drink would ease the pain of the journey back to the suburbs. I felt damned sorry for the blighters.
I was there to met with the remnants of the '95ers, battled scarred bruisers who had somehow survived four elections and two changes of government. We were tough, we were ruthless, we were "old skool", but I was the only one there. My immediate thought was that they hadn't got through, casualties of late deadlines, late trains or memory loss.
I hovered by the entrance, not sure what to do. Should I order a Coke or a glass of water? The bar lady fixed me with a look. I shuffled and moved towards her, "I'm waiting for some colleagues", explaining my shifty movements. She relaxed and handed me the wine list.
"Temptress", I thought, she knew I'd stopped drinking alcohol. I was trembling, and then the door opened and one of the '95ers breezed in, scattering tables and drinkers in his wake. "I'll have a bottle of the House White, and two glasses", I ordered as another of the band of brothers stormed in. "And a glass of Coke, with ice and lemon. And make it snappy, sweet heart."
In no time at all we were exchanging old stories of daring do, catching up on the latest undeserved promotions, the recent episodes of Government incompetence. But the big news - delivered in hushed tones by Big Mike was the Court's upholding the Government's changes to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme. As Mike was explaining the intricacies of the case and its ramifications other old timers bowled up, swung their legs over a chair or two and ordered another bottle of House Burgundy.
The session was now in full swing. I listened in awe as Big Rob described the recent Dylan concert he'd been to. Big David apologised for his sniffles but the malaria had come back with a vengeance. Tunbridge Wells was not a healthy town in the stifling August heat.
Big Marius had by now discovered that we weren't where he had been waiting for the last hour or so and banged down his pint of larger as he joined us. No namby pamby white wine for this veteran of the Public Accounts Committee. His face showed the scars of his briefings of petrified Departmental Accounting Officers - it's rumoured that he carries a flask of Irish malt whiskey to revive the poor bastards after their sessions before the MPs.
Big Richard was the last to arrive. He always was. A martyr to the cause of VAT and International Taxes in the Treasury, Rich was always there when everyone else had gone home. Some say that he sets his watch by the opening of the New York Stock Exchange and that he drives a Puma.
As the evening wore on so the conversation turned to matters of high policy and political intrigue.Which was rather unfortunate since as the conversation became more elevated so did the alcohol intake.
This took its toll on the old timers. First Big Dave made his excuses -a beriberi relapse following his and his wife's recent Saga trip to the Dayak head hunters of Borneo. Next to peel off was Big Marius, and Big Rob but not before wishing us all a very merry Christmas.
So it was left to Big Mike, Big Richard and little ol' me to carry on the tradition - of solving the country's financial and economic difficulties through a fog of White Burgundy fumes. But I was on my third Coke (with ice and lemon) and I was sober. Which was a blessing since it was impossible for the other two to keep to a subject for more than a minute or so without completely forgetting what they had started to talk about.
Wine continued to flow. A bottle which had been sufficient to fill five glasses, now had difficulty filling two without rapid reinforcements.
I looked anxiously at the clock - 10:30 pm! A minute ago it was 8 o'clock. A quick call to the misses and a hurried farewell and I was out of that den of iniquity. I left the two old timers ordering "another bottle of whatever we've just had..hic"
On the way to the station I had the unnerving experience of 300 bobbies calling out in unison "'allo, 'allo, 'allo, and where do you think you're agoin' to my lad?"
Such is the life of a retired civil servant.