Two "Sci-fi drink" stories by Kingsley Amis
Wednesday 21 November 2012, by
These two unusual and very original stories  are examples of a rare genre invented by the brilliant author of Lucky Jim: "SF-drink".
They had me chuckling and even hooting, an enjoyable and all-too-rare experience indeed, and I dare say that they will have you doing the same!
1. The 2003 Claret (1958)
A scientific team in 1970 is anxiously awaiting the return of a member of their team who had been sent on man’s first exploratory mission into the future, to 2010 to report on the social and political situation then. But what interests the scientific team most is the wine situation in those far-off days, and what the time-traveler has to tell them about the reversal of tastes that has occurred is quite a shock indeed.
2. The Friends of Plonk (1964)
Where people in 2145 after a terribly destructive atomic war try to recreate the fabled drinks of the past with no documentation at all apart from some garbled descriptions of the ceremonies surrounding the consumption of fine wines and liqueurs. With astonishing results.
An e-book is available for downloading below.
THE 2003 CLARET
’How long to go now?’ the Director asked for the tenth time.
I compared the main laboratory chronometer with the dial on the TIOPEPE (Temporal Integrator, Ordinal Predictor and Electronic Propulsion Equipment). ’He should be taking the trance-pill in a few seconds, sir,’ I said. ’Then there’s only the two minutes for it to take effect, and we can bring him back.’
’Supposing he hasn’t taken the pill?’
’I’m sure he’d survive the time-shift even if he were fully conscious, sir. It’s instantaneous, after all.’
’I know, but being snatched back from fifty years in the future can’t do a man’s mind any good, can it? We just don’t know what we’re up against, Baker. I wish those blasted politicians had let us go slow on this project. But no, there mustn’t be any delay or the Russians will have developed time-travel before the Atlantic Powers, so we bundle Simpson off to the year 2010 and if we lose him or he turns up a raving lunatic it’s our fault.’ The Director sat moodily down on a work-bench. ’What happens if he gets tight?’
’He won’t have done that, sir. Simpson’s one of the Knights of Bordeaux. They never get drunk — isn’t it a rule of the society?’
’I believe so, yes.’ The Director cheered up a little. ’He’ll probably have a good deal to tell us, with any luck. The Douro growers are saying that last year was the best since 1945, you know, Baker. Imagine what that stuff must be like where Simpson is. Just one glass —
’Did you actually tell Simpson to sample the wines in 20I0 ?’
The Director coughed. ’Well, I did just make the suggestion to him. After all, part of our terms of reference was to report on social conditions, in addition to the political situation. And drinking habits are a pretty good guide to the social set-up, aren’t they? Find out how people treat their port and you’ve found out a lot about the kind of people they are.’
’Something in that, sir.’ I’m a beer man myself, which made me a bit of an outsider in the team. There were only the four of us in the lab that night — the VIPs and the press boys had been pushed into the Conference Room, thank heaven — and all the other three were wine-bibbers of one sort or another. The Director, as you will have gathered, was fanatical about port; Rabaiotti, my senior assistant, belonged to a big Chianti family; and Schneider, the medical chap, had written a book on hock. Simpson was reputedly on the way to becoming a sound judge of claret, though I had sometimes wondered whether perhaps tactical considerations played their part in his choice of hobby. Anyway, I considered I was lucky to have got the job of Chief Time-Engineer, against competition that included a force-field expert who doubled as an amateur of old Madeira and an electronics king named Gilbey  — no relation, it turned out, but the Director couldn’t have known that at the time.
’The receiver is tuned, Dr Baker.’
’Thank you, Dr Rabaiotti. Would you like to operate the recall switch, sir?’
’Why, that’s extremely kind of you, Baker.’ The Director was shaking with excitement. ’It’s this one here, isn’t it?’ His hand brushed the trigger of a relay that would have sent Simpson shooting back to about the time of Victoria’s accession. This may have been half-deliberate: the Director often got wistful about what pre-phylloxera stuff might or might not have tasted like.
’No, this one, sir. Just press it gently down.’
The switch clicked and instantly the figure of Simpson — tallish, forty-ish, baldish — appeared in the receiver. We all gave a shout of triumph and relief. Rabaiotti killed the power. Schneider hurried forward and there was tension again. I’d give a case of Dow 1919 to see him conscious and mentally sound,’ the Director muttered at my side.
’Everything all right so far,’ Schneider called. ’I’ve given him a shot that’ll pull him round in a minute or two.’
We lit cigarettes. ’Pity conditions wouldn’t allow of him bringing anything back,’ the Director said. ’Just think of a forty-year-old 1970 all ready to drink. But I suppose it would have cost too much anyway. Next time we must find a better way of handling the currency problem. Very risky giving him raw gold to pawn. And we’re restricted to a lump small enough not to arouse too much suspicion. Oh, well, he should have been able to afford a few glasses. I hope that champagne’s all right, by the way?’
’Oh, yes, I put it in the molecular-motion-retarder myself, with the setting at point-three. It’ll be nicely chilled by now.’
’Splendid. I do want the dear boy to get a decent livener inside him before he faces all those cameras and interviews. I should have preferred a dry port myself, or possibly a Bittall, but I know what the occasion demands, of course. It’s a Lambert 1952 I’ve got for him. I don’t understand these things myself, but the Director of Lunar Projectiles swears by it.’
’He’s coming round now,’ Schneider shouted, and we all pressed forward.
There was an intense silence while Simpson blinked at us, sat up and yawned. His face was absolutely impassive. Very slowly he scratched his ear. He looked like a man with a bad hangover.
’Well?’ the Director demanded eagerly. ’What did you see?’
’Everything. At least, I saw enough.’
’Had there been a war? Is there going to be a war?’
’No. Russia joined the Western Customs Union in 1993, China some time after 2000. The RAF’s due to be disbanded in a few months.’
Then everyone hurled questions at once: about flying saucers, the Royal Family, the sciences, the arts, interplanetary travel, climatic conditions in the Rheingau — all sorts of things. Simpson seemed not to hear. He just sat there with the same blank look on his face, wearily shaking his head.
’What’s the matter?’ I asked finally. ’What was wrong?’
After a moment, he said in a hollow voice, ’Better if there had been a war. In some ways. Yes. Much better.’
’What on earth do you mean?’
Simpson gave a deep sigh. Then, hesitantly, to a silent audience and with the bottle of champagne quite forgotten, he told the following story.
The landing went off perfectly. Hyde Park was the area selected, with a thousand-square-yard tolerance to prevent Simpson from materialising inside a wall or halfway into a passer-by. Nobody saw him arrive. He changed his gold into currency without difficulty, and in a few minutes was walking briskly down Piccadilly, looking into shop-windows, studying dress and behaviour, buying newspapers and magazines, and writing busily in his notebook. He had several fruitful conversations, representing himself according to plan as a native of Sydney. This brought him some commiseration, for England had just beaten Australia at Lord’s by an innings and 411 runs. Yes, everything seemed normal so far.
His political report and much of his social report were complete by six-thirty, and his thoughts started turning to drink: after all, it was a positive duty. As he strolled up Shaftesbury Avenue he began looking out for drink advertisements. The beer ones had much in common with those of 1960, but were overshadowed in prominence by those recommending wines. MOUTON ROTHSCHILD FOR POWER, BREEDING AND GRANDEUR, one said. ASK FOR OESTRICHER PFAFFENBERG - THE HOCK WITH THE CLEAN FINISH, enjoined another. MY GOLLY, MY ST GYOERGHYHEGYI FURMINT, bawled a third. Well, practical experiment would soon establish what was what. Simpson slipped quietly through the doorway of an establishment clearly devoted to drink.
The interior was surprising. If some French provincial cafe had not been gutted of decor and furnishings to get this place up, then a good job of duplication had been done. Men in neat, sombre clothing sat at the tables talking in low tones, wine-glasses and wine-bottles before them, while aproned waiters moved silently about. One of them was decanting a red wine from a bottle that was thick with dust and cobwebs, watched critically by all the nearby drinkers. Simpson crept to a seat in an unfrequented part of the room.
A waiter approached. ’What can I bring you, monsieur?’
Here it must be explained that Simpson was not quite the claret-fancier the Director thought him. He enjoyed claret all right, but he also enjoyed other French wines, and German wines, and Italian wines, and Iberian wines, and Balkan wines, and fortified wines, and spirits, and liqueurs, and apéritifs, and cocktails, and draught beer, and bottled beer, and stout, and cider, and perry— all the way down to Fernet Branca. (There were some drinks he had never drunk — arak, kava, Gumpoldskirchner Rotgipfler, methylated spirits — but they were getting fewer all the time.) Anyway, feeling dehydrated after his walk round the streets, he unreflectingly ordered a pint of bitter.
’I’m sorry, monsieur, I don’t understand. What is this bitter?’
’Bitter beer, ale; you know. Haven’t you got any?’
’Beer, monsieur?’ The waiter’s voice rose in contempt. ’Beer? I’m afraid you’re in the wrong district for that.’
Several men turned round, nudged one another and stared at Simpson, who blushed and said, ’Well. . . a glass of wine, then.’
’France, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria . . .’
Simpson tried to think. ’A claret, please. Let’s say — a nice St Emilion.’
’Château Le Couvent, Château Puyblanquet, Château Bellefore Belcier, Château Grand Corbin d’Espagne . ..’
’Oh . . . I leave it to you.’
’Bien, monsieur. And the year? Will you leave that to me too?’
’If you don’t mind.’
The waiter swept away. Conscious that all eyes were upon him, Simpson tried to sink into his chair. Before he could compose himself, a middle-aged man from a nearby table had come over and sat down next to him. ’Well, who are you?’ this man asked.
’A — a traveller. From Sydney.’
’These days that’s no excuse for not knowing your wines, friend. Some of them Rubicons and Malbecs are as firm and fully rounded as all bar the greatest Burgundies. And I found a Barossa Riesling on holiday this year that was pretty near as gay as a Kreuznacher Steinweg. You well up on the Barossas, friend?’
’No, not really, I’m afraid.’
’Thought not, somehow. Otherwise you wouldn’t stalk in here and screech out for beer. Ger, ought to be ashamed of yourself, you ought.’
’I’m awfully sorry.’
’Should hope so and all. Now, I’m an honest working man, see? I’m a DRIP, I am.’
’Domestic Reactor Installation Patentee. Don’t they go in for them down under? Now you listen to me. When I come in here to meet my colleagues and crack a bottle or two after the daily round, I don’t want my palate soured by some toff yelling out about beer, especially not when we got a really elegant Gevrey Chambertin or Chambolle Musigny or something of that in front of us. It’s psychosomatic, like. Just the idea of beer’s enough to cut off some of the subtler overtones, get me?’
’I’m sorry,’ Simpson said again. ’I didn’t realise. But tell me: don’t you eat while you’re drinking these wines?’
’What, and foul up the taste-buds with fat and sauces and muck? You got a nerve even mentioning food in a place like this. We’re oenophiles in here, I’ll have you know, not a bunch of pigs. Ah, here’s your claret.’ The stranger held the glass up to the light, then sniffed it delicately. ’Right, now let’s see what you got to say about this. And get on with it.’
Simpson drank. It was the most wonderful wine he had ever known, with a strange warm after-taste that seemed to seep upwards and flood his olfactory centres. He sighed deeply. ’Superb,’ he said at last
’Come on, come on, we want more than that; you got to do better than that. Give us a spot of imagery, kind of style, a reference to art, that type of stuff.’
’It’s — I don’t know — it’s the richness of summer, all the glory of . . . of love and lyric poetry, a whole way of life, profound and . . . some great procession of — ’
‘Ah, you turn me up,’ the man said violently. ’This is a 2003 Chateau La Bouygue, reconstituted pre-phylloxera of course. Now, light and free, not rich in association but perfectly assured without any insincerity, instrumental where the ’01s are symphonic, the gentleness of a Braque rather than the bravura of a Matisse. That’s as far as you can go with it. Love and lyric poetry indeed. I never heard such slop in my life. You aren’t fit to come in here, friend. You get off out to one of the pubs with your boss-class pals, that’s where you belong.’
Simpson threw down some coins and ran, a gust of ill-natured laughter sounding in his ears. He felt like walking the streets for the two hours in 2010 that still remained to him, but a nagging curiosity emboldened him to ask to be directed to a pub.
The place he finally made his way to was on the corner of a narrow street on the edge of Soho. It was a red-brick affair like a miniature grammar school or a suburban bank. As he approached, a bus drew up and a crowd of young people got off, chattering loudly to one another in what Simpson made out as a version of the upper-class tones current in his own time. He was more or less swept in through the front door of the pub, and had no time to puzzle out the significance of a notice above the entrance, painted by hand with what seemed deliberate inelegance, and bearing the legend: CRACKED UP BY THE WALLOP AND SCOFF MOB.
He found himself in a large, ill-lighted and crowded room of which the main feature was a long counter that ran from end to end zigzag-wise, as if to accommodate as many as possible of the tall stools that were closely packed along it. What were evidently glass sandwich cupboards stood every couple of feet along the red plastic top. A group of people, half-crowd, half-queue, was clustered round the entrance, and Simpson mingled with them. He noticed that most of the stools were occupied by persons drinking beer or some such liquid out of pint glasses and eating rolls or sandwiches. Conversations were bawling away around him.
’My dear, simply nobody goes to the Crown these days. Simon and I were given fresh crisps the last time we went.’
’It doesn’t surprise me. We had some mustard that couldn’t have been more than a day old.’
’The wallop’s first-class down at the George, and as for the scoff— the bluest piece of ham you ever saw. A really memorable thrash. I’m getting the secretary of the Mob to crack them up in the next issue of the Boozer Rag.’
’Have you bagged stools, sir?’
’I beg your pardon?’
’Sorry, mate. Have you bagged, mate?’
’No, I’m afraid not. May I see the head potman?’
’I’ll get him over directly, mate.’
’Shall we start thinking about what we’re going to have? Pickled onions to start? With a glass of mild?’
’Nuts for me. Mixed and salted.’
’Right, that’s three onions, one nuts. And then I can recommend the cheese rolls. They know me here and always see that I get the three-day-old, with plenty of rind.’
After some time, Simpson obtained a stool and ordered a pint of bitter from the grubby barmaid.
’Certainly, love. A fresh barrel has just come on.’
Oh, I’ll have mild instead, then.’
’By all means, love, if you wish for it. Your taste is your own. And what will you have in the way of scoff, love?’
’Oh, er — nothing to eat, thank you.’
If I may say so, love, with all due respect, you might perhaps do better at the wine-bar if you don’t wish for any scoff. We have standards to maintain here, love.’
’I’m awfully sorry. What. . . scoff do you recommend?’
’Our gherkins have frequently been cracked up, love. Not a dish is sold till it’s two days old.’
’They sound delightful. One dish, please.’
’Very good, love. With cigarette-ash garnishings, of course.’
The beer came. It was horrible. The gherkins came. Simpson took no notice of them. Dazedly he watched and listened to those around him. A kind of ritual seemed to be being enacted by a group of four immediately next to him. The two couples raised their pints in concert, intoned the word ’Cheers’ in a liturgical manner, poured a few drops on to the front of their greasy pullovers, and sank their drinks in one swallow. Afterwards they all sighed loudly, wiped their mouths with their hands, banged the empty glasses down on the counter, and spoke in turn.
’Lovely drop of wallop.’
’I needed that.’
’Lays the dust.’
’You can’t beat a decent pint.’
’Full of goodness.’
’Keeps your insides working.’
’It’s a real drink.’
When this point was reached, all four shouted ’Let’s have another’ in unison, and were immediately served with fresh drinks and small plates of sandwiches. The bread on these was curled up at the corners, revealing purple strips of meat criss-crossed with gristle. One of the men felt the texture of the bread and nodded approvingly. ’I told you this place was good,’ his friend said. Then the party got down to what was clearly the pièce de résistance, alternately biting at the sandwiches and taking pulls of beer, chewing the resulting mush with many a belch of appreciation. Simpson lowered his head into his hands. The talk went on.
’What’s the fighting like here?’
’Oh, excellent. The governor of the boozer gets it under way at ten-thirty sharp, just outside on the corner. I did hear a whisper that he’s going to allow broken bottles for the last five minutes tonight. The police should be with us by then. They’re very keen round here.’
’At the Feathers, you know, they kick off at ten-fifteen inside the bar. Don’t know whether I agree with that.’
’No. After all, it’s only the finale of the evening.’
’Absolutely. Shouldn’t make it too important.’
’Definitely not. Getting tight’s the object of the exercise.’
’Quite. By the way, who’s that fellow next to you?’
’No idea. Wine-bar type, if you ask me.’
’Hasn’t touched his gherkins. Refused fresh bitter. Shouldn’t be here at all.’
’Couldn’t agree more. I mean, look at his clothes.’
’Wonder how long since they were slept in.’
If they ever have been.’
’And what would you like to follow, love?’
This last was the barmaid. Simpson raised his head and gave a long yell of fury, bewilderment, horror and protest. Then he ran from the room and went on running until he was back at the point where the TIOPEPE was to pick him up. With shaking fingers he put the trance-pill into his mouth.
The Director broke the silence that followed the end of Simpson’s story. ’Well, it’s a long time ahead, anyway,’ he said with an attempt at cheerfulness.
’Is it?’ Simpson shouted. ’Do you think that sort of situation develops in a couple of weeks? It’s starting to happen already. Wine-snobbery spreading, more and more of this drinking what you ought to drink instead of what you like. Self-conscious insistence on the virtues of pubs and beer because the wrong people are beginning to drink wine. It’ll be here in our time, don’t you worry. You just wait.’
‘Ah, now, Simpson, you’re tired and overwrought. A glass of champagne will soon make you see things in a different light.’
’Slip away with me afterwards,’ I murmured. ’We’ll have a good go at the beer down in town.’
Simpson gave a long yell — much like the one, probably, he vented at the end of his visit to 2010. Springing to his feet, he rushed away down the lab to where Schneider kept the medical stores.
’What’s he up to?’ the Director puffed as we hurried in pursuit. ’Is he going to try and poison himself?’
’Not straight away, sir, I imagine.’
’How do you mean, Baker?’
’Look at that bottle he’s got hold of, sir. Can’t you see what it is?’
’But . . . I can’t believe my eyes. Surely it’s . . .’
’Yes, sir. Surgical spirit.’
THE FRIENDS OF PLONK
The (technical) success of Simpson’s trip to the year 2010 encouraged the authorities to have similar experiments conducted for a variety of time-objectives. Some curious and occasionally alarming pieces of information about the future came to our knowledge in this way; I’m thinking less of politics than of developments in the domain of drink.
For instance, let me take this opportunity of warning every youngster who likes any kind of draught beer and has a high life-expectancy to drink as much of the stuff as he can while he can, because they’re going to stop making it in 2016. Again, just six months ago Simpson found that, in the world of 2045, alcoholic diseases as a whole accounted for almost exactly a third of all deaths, or nearly as many as transport accidents and suicide combined. This was universally put down to the marketing, from 2039 onwards, of wines and spirits free of all the congeneric elements that cause hangovers, and yet at the same time indistinguishable from the untreated liquors even under the most searching tests — a triumph of biochemitechnology man had been teasingly on the brink of since about the time I was downing my first pints of beer.
Anyway, by a lucky accident, the authorities suddenly became anxious to know the result of the 2048 Presidential election in America, and so Simpson was able to travel to that year and bring back news, not only of the successful Rosicrucian candidate’s impending installation at the Black House, but also of the rigorous outlawing of the new drink process and everything connected with it. After one veiled reference to the matter in conversation, Simpson had considered himself lucky to escape undamaged from the bar of the Travellers’ Club.
For a time, our section’s exploration of the rather more distant future was blocked by a persistent fault in the TIOPEPE, whereby the projection circuits cut off at approximately 83.63 years in advance of time-present. Then, one day in 1974, an inspired guess of Rabaiotti’s put things right, and within a week Simpson was off to 2145. We were all there in the lab as usual to see him back safely. After Schneider had given him the usual relaxing shots, Simpson came out with some grave news. A quarrel about spy-flights over the moons of Saturn had set Wales and Mars — the two major powers in the Inner Planets at that period — at each other’s throats and precipitated a system-wide nuclear war in 2101. Half of Venus, and areas on Earth the size of Europe, had been virtually obliterated.
Rabaiotti was the first to speak when Simpson had stopped. ’Far enough off not to bother most of our great-grandchildren, anyway,’ he said.
’That’s true. But what a prospect.’
’I know,’ I said.
’Well, no use glooming, Baker,’ the Director said. ’Nothing we can do about it. We’ve got a full half-hour before the official conference — tell us what’s happened to drink.’
Simpson rubbed his bald head and sighed. I noticed that his eyes were bloodshot, but then they nearly always were after one of these trips. A very conscientious alcohologist, old Simpson. ’You’re not going to like it.’
Simpson’s landing in 2145 had been a fair enough success, but there had been an unaccountable error in the ground-level estimates, conducted a week earlier by means of our latest brain-child, the TIAMARIA (Temporal Inspection Apparatus and Meteorological-Astronomical-Regional-Interrelation Assessor). This had allowed him to materialise twelve feet up in the air and given him a nasty fall — on to a flower-bed, by an unearned piece of luck, but shaking him severely. What followed shook him still further.
The nuclear war had set everything back so much that the reconstructed world he found himself in was little more unfamiliar than the ones he had found on earlier, shorter-range time-trips. His official report, disturbing as it was, proved easy enough to compile, and he had a couple of hours to spare before the TIOPEPE ’s field should snatch him back to the present. He selected a restaurant within easy range of his purse — the TIAMARIA’s cameras, plus our counterfeiters in the Temporal Treasury, had taken care of the currency problem all right — found a vacant table, and asked for a drink before dinner.
’Certainly, sir,’ the waiter said. ’The Martian manatee-milk is specially good today. Or there’s a new delivery of Iapetan carnivorous-lemon juice, if you’ve a liking for the unusual. Very, uh, full- blooded, sir.’
Simpson swallowed. ’I’m sure,’ he said, ’but I was thinking of something — you know — a little stronger?’
The waiter’s manner suffered an abrupt change. ’Oh, you mean booze, do you?’ he said coldly. ’Sometimes I wonder what this town’s coming to, honest. All right, I’ll see what I can do.’
The ’booze’ arrived on a tin tray in three chunky cans arranged like equal slices of a round cake. The nearest one had the word BEAR crudely stamped on it. Simpson poured some muddy brown liquid from it into a glass. It tasted like last week’s swipes topped up with a little industrial alcohol. Then he tried the can stamped BOOJLY. (We all agreed later that this must be a corruption of ’Beaujolais’.) That was like red ink topped up with a good deal of industrial alcohol. Lastly there was BANDY. Industrial alcohol topped up with a little cold tea.
Wondering dimly if some trick of the TIOPEPE had managed to move him back into some unfrequented corner of the 1960s, Simpson became aware that a man at the next table had been watching him closely. When their eyes met, the stranger came over and, with a word of apology, sat down opposite him. (It was extraordinary, Simpson was fond of remarking, how often people did just this sort of thing when he visited the future.)
’Do excuse me,’ the man said politely, ’but from your expression just now I’d guess you’re a conozer — am I right? Oh, my name’s Piotr Davies, by the way, on leave from Greenland Fruiteries. You’re not Earth-based, I take it?’
’Oh . . . no, I’m just in from Mercury. My first trip since I was a lad, in fact.’ Simpson noticed that Piotr Davies’s face was covered by a thick network of burst veins, and his nose carried the richest growth of grog-blossom Simpson had ever seen. (He avoided looking at the Director when he told us this.) ’Yes,’ he struggled on after giving his name, am a bit of a connoiss — conozer, I suppose. I do try to discriminate a little in my — ’
’You’ve hit it,’ Piotr Davies said excitedly. ’Discrimination. That’s it, the very word. I knew I was right about you. Discrimination. And tradition. Well, you won’t find much of either on Earth these days, I’m afraid. Nor on Mercury, from what I hear.’
’No — no, you certainly won’t.’
’We conozers are having a hard time. The Planetary War, of course. And the Aftermath.’ Davies paused, and seemed to be sizing up Simpson afresh. Then: ’Tell me, are you doing anything tonight? More or less right away?’
’Well, I have got an appointment I must keep in just under two hours, but until then I — ’
’Perfect. Let’s go.’
’But what about my dinner?’
’You won’t want any after you’ve been where I’m going to take you.’
But where are you — ?’
’Somewhere absolutely made for a conozer like you. What a bit of luck you happened to run into me. I’ll explain on the way.’
Outside, they boarded a sort of wheelless taxicab and headed into what seemed to be a prosperous quarter. Davies’s explanations were copious and complete; Simpson made full use of his supposed status as one long absent from the centre of things. It appeared that the Planetary War had destroyed every one of the vast, centralised, fully automated distilleries of strong liquors; that bacteriological warfare had put paid to many crops, including vines, barley, hops and even sugar; that the fanatical religious movements of the Aftermath, many of them with government backing, had outlawed all drink for nearly twenty years. Simpson shuddered at that news.
’And when people came to their senses,’ Davies said glumly, ’it was too late. The knowledge had died. Oh, you can’t kill a process like distillation. Too fundamental. Or fermentation, either. But the special processes, the extra ingredients, the skills, the tradition — gone for ever. Whisky — what a rich, evocative word. What can the stuff have tasted like? What little there is about it in the surviving literature gives a very poor idea. Muzzle — that was a white wine, we’re pretty sure, from Germany, about where the Great Crater is. Gin — a spirit flavoured with juniper, we know that much. There isn’t any juniper now, of course.
So, what with one thing and another, drinking went out. Real, civilised drinking, that is — I’m not talking about that stuff they tried to give you back there. I and a few like-minded friends tried to get some of the basic information together, but to no avail. And then, quite by chance, one of us, an archaeologist, turned up a primitive two-dimensional television film that dated back almost two hundred years, giving a full description of some ancient drinks and a portrayal of the habits that went with them — all the details. The film was called ’The Down-and-Outs’, which is an archaic expression referring to people of limited prosperity, but which we immediately understood as being satirically or ironically intended in this instance. That period, you know, was very strong on satire. Anyway, the eventual result of our friend’s discovery was . . . this.’
With something of a flourish, Davies drew a pasteboard card from his pocket and passed it to Simpson. It read:
THE FRIENDS OF PLONK
Established 2139 for the drinking of
traditional liquors in traditional
dress and in traditional surroundings
Before Simpson could puzzle this out, his companion halted the taxi and a moment later was shepherding him through the portals of a large and magnificent mansion. At the far end of a thickly carpeted foyer was a steep, narrow staircase, which they descended. When they came to its foot, Davies reached into a cupboard and brought out what Simpson recognised as a trilby hat of the sort his father had used to wear, a cloth cap, a large piece of sacking and a tattered brown blanket. All four articles appeared to be covered with stains and dirt. At the same time Simpson became aware of a curious and unpleasant mixture of smells and a subdued grumbling of voices.
In silence, Davies handed him the cap and the blanket and himself donned the sacking, stole-fashion, and the trilby. Simpson followed his lead. Then Davies ushered him through a low doorway.
The room they entered was dimly lit by candles stuck into bottles, and it was a moment before Simpson could take in the scene. At first he felt pure astonishment. There was no trace here of the luxury he had glimpsed upstairs: the walls, of undressed stone, were grimy and damp, the floor was covered at random with sacks and decaying lumps of matting. A coke stove made the cellar stiflingly hot; the air swam with cigarette smoke; the atmosphere was thick and malodorous. Against one wall stood a trestle table piled with bottles and what looked like teacups. Among other items Simpson uncomprehendingly saw there were several loaves of bread, some bottles of milk, a pile of small circular tins and, off in a corner, an old-fashioned and rusty gas-cooker or its replica.
But his surprise and bewilderment turned to mild alarm when he surveyed the dozen or so men sitting about on packing-cases or broken chairs and squatting or sprawling on the floor, each wearing some sort of battered headgear and with a blanket or sack thrown round his shoulders. All of them were muttering unintelligibly, in some instances to a companion, more often just to themselves. Davies took Simpson’s arm and led him to a splintery bench near the wall.
’These blankets and so on must have been a means of asserting the essential democracy of drink,’ Davies whispered. ’Anyway, we’re near the end of the purely ritualistic part now. Our film didn’t make its full significance clear, but it was obviously a kind of self-preparation, perhaps even prayer. The rest of the proceedings will be much less formal. Ah . . .’
Two of the men had been muttering more loudly at each other and now closed physically, but their blows and struggles were symbolic, a mime, as in ballet or the Japanese theatre. Soon one of them had his adversary pinned to the floor and was raining token punches upon him. (We’re rather in the dark about this bit,’ Davies murmured. ’Perhaps an enacted reference to the ancient role of drink as a sequel to physical exertion.’) When the prostrate combatant had begun to feign unconsciousness, a loud and authoritative voice spoke.
’End of Part One.’
At once all was animation: everybody sprang up and threw off his borrowed garments, revealing himself as smartly clad in the formal dress of the era. Davies led Simpson up to the man who had made the announcement, probably a member of one of the professions and clearly the host of the occasion. His face was sprayed with broken veins to a degree that outdid Davies’s.
’Delighted you can join us,’ the host said when Simpson’s presence had been explained. ’A privilege to have an Outworlder at one of our little gatherings. Now for our Part Two. Has Piotr explained to you about the ancient film that taught us so much? Well, its second and third sections were so badly damaged as to be almost useless to us. So what’s to follow is no more than an imaginative reconstruction, I fear, but I think it can be said that we’ve interpreted the tradition with taste and reverence. Let’s begin, shall we?’
He signed to an attendant standing at the table; the man began filling the teacups with a mixture of two liquids. One came out of something like a wine-bottle and was red, the other came out of something like a medicine bottle and was almost transparent, with a faint purplish tinge. Courteously passing Simpson the first of the cups, the host said: ’Please do us the honour of initiating the proceedings.’
Simpson drank. He felt as if someone had exploded a tear-gas shell in his throat and then sprayed his gullet with curry-powder. As his own coughings and weepings subsided he was surprised to find his companions similarly afflicted in turn as they drank.
’Interesting, isn’t it?’ the host asked, wheezing and staggering. ’A fine shock to the palate. One might perhaps say that it goes beyond the merely gustatory and olfactory to the purely tactile. Hardly a sensuous experience at all - ascetic, almost abstract. An invention of genius, don’t you think?’
’What — what’s the . . . ?’
’Red Biddy, my dear fellow,’ Piotr Davies put in proudly. There was reverence in his voice when he added: ’Red wine and methylated spirits. Of course, we can’t hope to reproduce the legendary Empire Burgundy-characters that used to go into it, but our own humble Boojly isn’t a bad substitute. Its role is purely ancillary, after all.’
’We like to use a straw after the first shock.’ The host passed one to Simpson. ’I hope you approve of the teacups. A nice traditional touch, I think. And now, do make yourself comfortable. I must see to the plonk in person — one can’t afford to take risks.’
Simpson sat down near Davies on a packing-case. He realised after a few moments that it was actually carved out of a single block of wood. Then he noticed that the dampness of the walls was maintained by tiny water-jets at intervals near the ceiling. Probably the sacks on the floor had been specially woven and then artificially aged. Pretending to suck at his straw, he said nervously to Davies: ’What exactly do you mean by plonk? In my time, people usually. . .’ He broke off, fearful of having betrayed himself, but the man of the future had noticed nothing.
Ah, you’re in for a great experience, my dear friend, something unknown outside this room for countless decades. To our ancestors in the later twentieth century it may have been the stuff of daily life, but to us it’s a pearl beyond price, a precious fragment salvaged from the wreck of history. Watch carefully — every bit of this is authentic.’
With smarting eyes, Simpson saw his host pull the crumb from a loaf and stuff it into the mouth of an enamel jug. Then, taking a candle from a nearby bottle, he put the flame to a disc-shaped cake of brownish substance that the attendant was holding between tongs. A flame arose; liquid dropped on to the bread and began to soak through into the jug; the assembled guests clapped and cheered. Another brownish cake was treated in the same way, then another. ’Shoe-polish,’ Simpson said in a cracked voice.
’Exactly. We’re on the dark tans this evening, with just a touch of ox-blood to give body. Makes a very big, round, pugnacious drink. By the way, that’s processed bread he’s using. Wholemeal’s too permeable, we’ve found.’
Beaming, the host came over to Simpson with a half-filled cup, a breakfast cup this time. ’Down in one, my dear chap,’ he said.
They were all watching; there was nothing for it. Simpson shut his eyes and drank. This time a hundred blunt dental drills seemed to be working at once on his nose and throat and mouth. Fluid sprang from all the mucous membranes in those areas. It was like having one’s face pushed into a bath of acid. Simpson’s shoulders sagged and his eyes filmed over.
’I’d say the light tans have got more bite,’ a voice said near him. ’Especially on the gums.’
’Less of a follow-through, on the other hand.’ There was the sound of swallowing and then a muffled scream. ’Were you here for the plain-tan tasting last month? Wonderful fire and vehemence. I was blind for the next four days.’
’I still say you can’t beat a straight brown for all-round excoriation. Amazing results on the uvula and tonsils.’
’What’s wrong with black?’ This was a younger voice.
An embarrassed silence, tempered by a fit of coughing and a heartfelt moan from different parts of the circle, was ended by someone saying urbanely: ’Each to his taste, of course, and there is impact there, but I think experience shows that that sooty, oil-smoke quality is rather meretricious. Most of us find ourselves moving tanwards as we grow older.’
Ah, good, he’s . . . yes, he’s using a tin of transparent in the next jug. Watch for the effect on the septum,’
Simpson lurched to his feet. ’I must be going,’ he muttered. ’Important engagement.’
’What, you’re not staying for the coal-gas in milk? Turns the brain to absolute jelly, you know.’
’Sorry . . . friend waiting for me.’
’Goodbye, then. Give our love to Mercury. Perhaps you’ll be able to start a circle of the Friends of Plonk on your home planet. That would be a magnificent thought.’
’Magnificent,’ the Director echoed bitterly. ’Just think of it. The idea of an atomic war’s too much to take in, but those poor devils . . . Baker, we must prepare some information for Simpson to take on his next long-range trip, something that’ll show them how to make a decent vodka or gin even if the vines have all gone.’
I was hardly listening. ’Aren’t there some queer things about that world, sir? Shoe-polish in just the same variants that we know? Wholemeal bread when the crops are supposed to have — ’
I was interrupted by a shout from the far end of the lab, where Rabaiotti had gone to check the TIAMARIA. He turned and came racing towards us, babbling at the top of his voice.
’Phase distortion, sir! Anomalous tracking on the output side! Completely new effect!’
’And the TIOPEPE’s meshed with it, isn’t it?’ Schneider said.
’Of course!’ I yelled. ’Simpson was on a different time-path, sir! An alternative probability, a parallel world. No wonder the ground-level estimate was off. This is amazing!’
’No nuclear war in our time-path — no certainty, anyway,’ the Director sang, waving his arms.
’No destruction of the vines.’
’No Friends of Plonk.’
’All the same,’ Simpson murmured to me as we strolled towards the Conference Room, ’in some ways they’re better off than we are. At least the stuff they use is genuine. Nobody’s going to doctor bloody shoe-polish to make it taste smoother or to preserve it or so that you’ll mistake it for a more expensive brand. And it can only improve, what they drink.’
’Whereas we . . .’
’Yes. That draught beer you go on about isn’t draught at all: it comes out of a giant steel bottle these days, because it’s easier that way. And do you think the Germans are the greatest chemists in the world for nothing? Ask Schneider about the 1972 Moselles. And what do you imagine all those scientists are doing in Bordeaux?’
’There’s Italy and Spain and Greece. They’ll — ’
’Not Italy any more. Ask Rabaiotti, or rather don’t. Spain and Greece’ll last longest, probably, but by 1980 you’ll have to go to Albania if you want real wine. Provided the Chinese won’t have started helping them to get the place modernised.’
’What are you going to do about it?’
’Switch to whisky. That’s still real. In fact I’m going to take a bottle home tonight. Can you lend me twenty-five quid?’
 from his "Collected Short Stories", edited by Hutchinson, 1980, recently republished by Penguin Classics – highly recommended.
 a renowned gin — editor’s note.