Stevie Dawes sank pints like Nelson sank ships. He drank Courage Best, three at a time, except when his guts played up, when he drank Guinness and told everyone about it.
Stevie was a fixture at a South London dive called The Bugle. I was there, staring at a stool devoid of his broken golf club legs and wreck of an upper body.
“Where’s your man?” I asked, tilting my head towards the space where an alky should be.
The landlord straight poured a stout and handed it to a drunk along the bar.
“I dunno, but he better get here quick. If he’s not buying by four I’ll have to re-mortgage.”
“Feeling the squeeze?”
“You have no idea.” He squinted at me and then at his watch and shook his head at the injustice. “I’ll tell him you popped by. Do you want to stick a couple in the pump for him, for when he gets here?”
The landlord wasn’t joking. Each night Stevie bought at least twenty beers and a bottle of Admiral — a dark brown rum stamped with Horatio’s face — for the journey home. In a place like The Bugle, where the pub quiz always started with ‘What are you looking at?’ spending like that made him near royalty.
I made my excuses and headed for Stevie’s flat. Stevie ran his mouth like he ran his bar tab, which made him very useful to a man like me.
When I got to his block a paramedic came out the door, singing …
“…and if one green bottle…”
A turquoise cover on a body on a stretcher followed. There was an ambulance man at either end, and a familiar left Dr Marten boot stuck out the bottom of the cloth.
“Is that Stevie?”
The paramedic nodded. “Relative?”
“Acquaintance. How’d he die?”
The paramedic lifted an imaginary glass to his mouth.
“Sensitive type, are you?” I said, staring.
He disappeared at that.
After what was left of Stevie was loaded into the ambulance I snuck into his studio. It was an off-licence for after the apocalypse. Empty bottles were under the table… on the oven… in the oven. From every surface Nelson’s face stared back, taunting… remembering.
I sat on the bed. A bottle half-full of the brown stuff poked me in the hip. I examined it, took a sour taste, and then another.
The next afternoon I woke up on my landing — my trousers, a friend, and a quarter bottle down. I was sick immediately, and my kidneys felt like they’d been mule-kicked.
I invoked the Lord’s name — first for my condition, secondly for Stevie’s. And each time I gave the toilet a Hail Mary, the admiral stared back from the bottle on the rim of the bathtub, a one-eyed reminder that the Battle of Copenhagen might — just — have been a little worse.
It took me two days to recover and three to become obsessed with Stevie’s death.
Something was on the wonk. In any natural order, Stevie should have died years ago. His body was a husk, all skin and sinew from scores of pints a night and a diet that was 90 per cent peanut. He was so skeletal that when the barmaid handed him his change, she thought she was buying a return across the River Styx.
And yet, it couldn’t have been the booze that killed him. I’d seen Stevie stick two-and-a-half dozen pints in his neck in one long lunch. Legend had it he’d hit a bullseye one time when it was hot and he was thirsty. He was immune. I knew it.
At the funeral, the church was as empty as the admiral’s eye socket. The five of us — two locals, the priest and the landlord and me — poured out into the cemetery. The Irish pissheads amongst us wailed and told tall tales about Stevie’s appetite for excess.
Later, the landlord pulled a bottle, glugged a treble on the grass, and handed it around. I took a swig, and held it up, reasoning with those above us. And do you know, from the label, Nelson winked at me.
We went back to The Bugle afterwards, but I made a detour home en route.
When I arrived the landlord was alone, tears streaming down his face and holding a photo of the dear departed. He’d aged a decade since the death.
“Poor Stevie,” he said. “You’ll never find the answer at the bottom of a bottle.”
I broke the moment. “I just did.”
The landlord turned his sagging shoulders slow and said: “What did you say there, friend?”
“How come on this bottle…” — I took out the one I found at Stevie’s flat — “…the eye patch is on the left…”
The landlord didn’t move.
“…and on the one we just shared at the grave, it was on the right?”
He still didn’t move.
“And the first one tastes like rot and knocks a man in the gut, while the second is smooth and strong and fit for a sailor? And come to think of it, why’s your Glenfiddich a Glenn with two Ns?”
There was silence for two minutes. And then the landlord spoke.
“That squeeze you mentioned. It caught me pretty good. I had to sell alternatives… the kind that look the same but are made a bit different… they told me it was safe.”
“Safe? You killed your best customer with a counterfeit.”
An almost imperceptible nod.
“Why’d you do it? Profits?”
“Well, that’s capitalism I guess.”
The landlord hid his face and cried into the optics. When he stopped, he said: “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I need to think.”
With an absent mind, I took off my coat, and manoeuvred myself into the faded cushion on Stevie’s stool.
A pint of foaming Best arrived in front of me a few seconds later.
George Hamilton is fond of a drink or two himself. He writes in the UK, near London.