One of the cats, cuddly little Connie, hiccupped and stumbled through the kitchen, unsteady on little paws and having to rest a while, perched against the fridge, her paper hat weirdly askew. But we set about testing the fermented and hopefully fully settled barrel of “6X”, the name whispered with a revered inflection and a lick of the lips.
“Revered what?” Liam asked, glass held at the ready, taking his place in the little queue beside the cupboard beneath the stairs. This murky brown liquid, full of dead or rapidly dying insects, of fat rats still swimming. Little Connie finally passing out with a screech, a retched meow, once pretty eyes rolling to the back of her head, her tongue flopping on the floor with a last spiteful hiss from behind the now blaring stereo, as the first pint was poured and closely examined against the swinging bare lightbulb.
Dare we? My father’s words of warning echoing.
Gasps of appreciation exchanged, the cough, the shake of the head, the deep gulps… and then lips licked with desire.
We sat, as only those content sit: “half pissed”. With sporadic fits of giggling, about what we neither knew nor cared, but it had started somewhere. Uncle Arthur passing wind, tunefully and on command, as only us men can. It was his house, he had said. Just don’t tell Ellie.
Perched at the edge of new dining room chairs and lounging across the new dining room table that my poor Aunt – as if she didn’t have enough to do already – tried to polish so very proudly, and protect, moving about us, pushing away our feet and tutting in frustration as she flicked out at us, at me, with a duster. The things she had to put up with.
We faced each other with game faces that only the drunk can properly pull off, with stares sometimes intent and not at all properly focussed.
“I love you guys,” someone gushed with genuine meaning, between hiccups.
“Are you sleeping with my wife?” And the conversation turned abruptly again, with unfounded accusations and wildly inaccurate finger pointing, to The The, desperate Ellie hiding the Whisky.
“You’re not married,” it was gently pointed out to me.
“Forty-eight hours,” I again reminded Uncle Arthur. “Dad’s going to be awfully cross.” And with those words, a strong shake of the head, a finger that waggled, I felt my work here was done and I closed my eyes as that warm ale slithered uncomfortably down my throat. I spat out that hint of fur and crunched on what tasted like bones…
“Yum?” How did people drink this?
“Lovely, isn’t it?” Liam licking his lips
Is it? But I nodded weakly, despite the shiver down my spine and with my now rebellious legs stumbling in various directions. Trying to mumble incoherently over the noise of a drowning brain sharply ordering my stomach to “keep it down”, to hold this growing sense of nausea at bay. “What the hell is going on down there?”
“He flinched. I saw him flinch.”
“Did not!” It was a lie. But the challenge was laid down: while my attention was drawn to my now rattling stomach visibly trembling, about to blow! Or during that split second when my eyes had followed my lovely Aunt about the room. Not that anyone would ever know.
“What? I wasn’t staring!” Cross my heart and hope to die… the others now looking at me with some confusion. “Never mind.”
According to Uncle Arthur and his inexplicably stuttered metaphors, I had been slapped hard across the face with the proverbial equivalent of a “gruelling dove”? And now, as a laughing Liam limbered up and prepared to “take me down”, the lined up glasses and ornate silver tankard were being… Lined up. Blimey, I was feeling funny.
The family name of Wimp, once so proud allegedly, had to be defended. For what would my father say? But was I up to it? Up to this challenge?
They laughed at me. Their words taunted me, prodded me, dared me, as I looked into Liam’s eyes, his shoulders being rubbed and soothed… Not finding as much as a hopeful flicker.
My gulp was audible.
“A boat race?”
I didn’t really understand. And couldn’t it be with lager and lime? A question to which they laughed. My father would be horrified, or so they repeatedly reminded me. Would if they could, if it was up to them, they said with sad shrugs, but rules are rules. And they closed in, sensing blood in the water. My Uncle and his bloody metaphors.
“Play nice,” but Ellie quickly shooed from the room, and with her, any last hope of salvation. But if this was how they wanted it… And as the family name was so important.
Liam remained so bloody calm as his silver tankard was filled, even smiling as I fumbled with my pint glass, my hand slipping rather awkwardly through the handle, sweat on my anxious brow in spite of winter’s chill.
I waited for the countdown, beginning to wilt under the withering look, including Ellie, her worried face pressed up against the frosted glass.
“Play nice.” But oh God, this was going to end badly. “Remember the new carpet.”
Finally, “Go!” and Arthur’s fist banging down on the table, the loud tribal chanting erupting: “Down! Down! Down!”
I went for it straight away, eyes closed and pouring this foul tasting liquid down as fast as possible… God, it was horrid! But if I was going down, then I was going down with a fight, and I was taking one of the buggers with me.
“Oh, fighting talk.”
I was encouraged, slapped hard on the back, which didn’t help much, if I’m honest. That ale, ever fouler with every desperate gulp and soon trickling down my chin, dripping onto my shirt. But, across the table and perched comfortably on his chair, with long legs folded, Liam calmly smiled, licked his lips, even managed a sure wink at Arthur, towards Bill, to a terrified Ellie… Finally picking up his tankard and coolly mopping his brow, the cocky bastard.
The last few drops trickled down my now burning throat, or dangled attractively from my chin. I swallowed, shook my head and banged down the now empty glass. For I had won, surely? A triumphant, ha bloody ha! ready to erupt. Opening my eyes to accept the plaudits…
I could only gasp… Fumble. Could only shake my head… Mouth enquires into how?
What would my father say?
But Liam merely smiled and Bill simply shrugged, pointing to the silver tankard, back on the table, placed down so very carefully – for Ellie was still watching. He calmly brushed back his hair.
If you play with the big boys.
“Again.” I demanded another chance. Suggested the best of three? They tutted, sadly shook their heads, pondered my request while stroking chins, my Uncle Arthur unable to look me in the eye, such was the shame. “Again.” Sliding my empty glass forward. “Please?”
I could do it, I was sure. I could beat him. Next time I’d try harder, do better. I’d got the hang of it now. The taste for it.
“Well, as you’re family.” But they wouldn’t normally, of course. Just this once wouldn’t hurt.
The glass and the tankard, slowly refilled. Lips wiped clean and shoulders, Liam’s shoulders, again massaged. The last minute words of advice.
Stolen from the upcoming novel Reluctant Country Boy