It’s my local so of course I like it. The public bar of the Rose and Whippet remains what it’s always been: heavy varnished wood, worn but plush upholstery and a retreat for those who don’t want to listen to music or be bothered by flashy gits.
I was sitting in the corner snug and sipping a pint of my usual Throgmorton’s Old Sheep Dip, when the stranger came in and stood up at the bar. Now I would hate anyone to get the wrong idea, this isn’t the kind of pub where everyone goes silent when an outsider appears and then stares at them until they go away. This is London, not Norfolk. Nevertheless a certain amount of judicious weighing up of someone not from the patch is required. We don’t want the wrong sort coming in and mucking things up for everyone.
He cut a strange figure I must admit. Not art student odd, just off-kilter in some way. His voice was too high pitched as he ordered at the bar.
“I would like a drink,” he said. This is the kind of request that usually means someone is slightly deranged.
Suzy, our lovely landlady, gave him a bit of a stare. “What did you want? These are what’s on tap and the bottles are behind me.”
He pointed at the cider logo. “This is fruit? I will have that.” I noticed she only poured him a half. Good instincts our Suzy, and if she was trying to ease him into an early departure she must have come to a decision. She wouldn’t be unfriendly just because someone was not all there. Some of her best customers couldn’t be trusted during a full moon.
The pub was virtually empty. Old Vic was nursing a whiskey and sucking at an unlit pipe, he hadn’t been able to get out of the habit even in all the years since the smoking ban came in. Polish Pete and Ron the Racist were arguing quietly over the front page of the Daily Mail. Afternoon trade is usually pretty quiet although it picks up a bit in the evening. You can imagine my astonishment when the stranger crossed over and sat directly opposite me. There was no doubt about it, he was clearly doolally.
He stared me straight in the face, “You are from here?” he asked with that weird intonation I’d heard at the bar. Unfortunately I didn’t have a newspaper to look at so I was forced to answer him. His voice was setting my teeth on edge, and that takes some doing.
I replied, trying not to sound encouraging. “Not originally, but I’ve been in London a long time.” I looked out of the window, but it didn’t stop him.
“Are you happy?” he asked. And isn’t that just the thing about mad people, that they can bloody floor you when they overshoot the conventions? I could tell him to bugger off, or slip to the toilet and come back to a different seat or put up with it for a bit. I was, I must admit, intrigued by the question. It wasn’t one I had considered for a long time.
“I’m not unhappy,” I admitted. “I have reached some calm. I bother no one and no one bothers me anymore. There is a certain peace to it.”
“Peace?” He replied. “Where is there peace? Everywhere there is war. Humanity is an insane species. “
This was starting to be annoying. As it happens I have seen war in my youth, more than anyone should. Humanity can be appalling, but anyone who truly understands history would know that there is slow progress. Today even ordinary people grow angry when they hear about the atrocities of war, its outrages and barbarism. Only a few hundred years ago we would have thought it normal. Back then you would have needed to impale a few dozen ambassadors just to get your enemy’s notice.
I am not usually an angry person, those tides run slow these days, but I was considering giving him a mouthful when he pulled a small block from his pocket and placed it on the table. I’m not sure how to describe it, rigidly rectangular in dimension it nevertheless seemed to be nothing material, instead it flickered like fire, like raging energy encapsulated.
“The ideas you have, that you are so special, that your species is all there is. I wanted to give you one last chance before I sent my report. But here you sit drinking yourself to numbness as your world rots. You condemn yourself.”
My thoughts were racing; apart from anything else I’m quite touchy about my drinking.
The flaring, squirming box lit the pub. Old Vic, Polish Pete and Ron stood by the odd fellow’s shoulder. Suzy looked from me to the box and then back to me. I gave her a quizzical look and she nodded. As I said her instincts were always right.
It was impossible of course that he would have come to this bar, ‘Out of all the gin joints’, etcetera. But really, when you thought about it, it wasn’t that unlikely at all.
“But you haven’t made your report yet?” I asked.
He made to reach out to the box.
I stood up. “Well chummy, I think you need to be put straight on a few things. Yes, humanity is insane, but some of us feel rather bound to it.”
Vic was searching around in the pockets of his old tweed jacket. He liked to keep a favoured old medical instrument with him.
“And you may trust us that not everyone believes that humanity is the only species there is.”
Ron and Pete were shrugging off their jackets and cracking their joints. Their old, thin hair thickened and spread as they dropped to all fours.
“And you, Sunny Jim, are definitely in the wrong pub!”
I gave him my special smile.
My very big and very toothy smile.