Our college reunions were usually boisterous affairs, but this one was subdued. Subdued, that is until the cocktails soaked in. As usual, everyone milled around the displays of old photos, pointing, laughing, and talking loudly, then stood in silence before the new Great War Roll of Honour plaque listing those chaps who didn't survive.
The Master of Ceremonies stood in the doorway of the panelled dining room.
"Gentlemen – dinner is served." We filed past him, some awkwardly with sticks and crutches, and found our places around the mahogany table. As luck would have it, I was next to my old pal, Blenkinsop. As we stood and waited for everyone to settle, I whispered to him.
"I thought more would have made it."
"Me too. I said that to Cavendish. He reckons they didn't because so many of our lads were subalterns. Become an officer, lead from the front, and get shot for the privilege." I decided to let that comment go.
When everyone had found their places, and we were all still standing, a piper started playing in the Hotel's foyer and, with the volume of a steam whistle, processed with unmerciful slowness into the room followed by the ma'tre d' carrying a Baron of beef. They circled the table in a clockwise direction. When they had passed us, and with our ears still ringing, Blenkers lent towards me and whispered, rather loudly:
"Imbecile – should have been anti-clockwise." The beef was set before the Chairman, who took a slice, nodded, then said Grace in Latin, and we sat. Blenkers nudged me with his elbow. "Tell you what, old lad, these new American cocktails are the cat's pyjamas; I'm half blotters already." He then unfolded his napkin. "That Roll of Honour makes grim reading – didn't see Stanbury's name on it; is he here?"
"No, he married a divorcee in 1912, and they moved to Australia."
The entre was served, and the waiters discreetly removed the plates of those who could only use one hand, cut their food into small pieces, and silently returned them. It was a new duty, already well established. War has unforeseen consequences.
"Shame, he was a brick – liked him; were you at the last reunion?"
"What, when Atkinson was taken short during the speeches and peed in a champagne bucket under the table?" Blenkers snickered.
"It was yours truly who gave it to him. Never drinking fizz here again, I can tell you." And with that, he drained his soup bowl with the alacrity of a bilge pump. He was never one for finesse. "Rather partial to Sherry Consommé, he added as he put his spoon down with a clatter. "Never asked before, old lad, what were you up to during the War?"
"Gallipoli – absolute disaster from the off. And you Blenkers?"
"Me? Reserve Occupation. I inherited the family engineering firm. Years back, my grandfather, bless 'im, decided we should specialise in making springs. We landed some very tasty Government war contracts; I can tell you." He noticed my disapproval. "Oh, got my War Service badge – wore it all over the place. I couldn't have joined up if I wanted to; business would have folded without me. Feel a bit bad about it all the same."
The fish course was served, and we didn't speak until it was cleared. The ma'tre d' poured our wine. Then, when he was out of earshot, Blenkers spoke again.
"Who's the fellow sitting to the right of Cavendish; don't recognise him at all?"
"Nor me. Need to hear him speak to know who he was. That's the trouble with these shindigs; none of us are the people we were; we don't even look the same, and everyone's putting on an act; bet they're all claiming to have made good."
Blenkinsop looked around to make sure we weren't overheard.
"Not me. Want to buy an engineering company?"
"What, yours – why?"
"Bally orders are drying up since the war, and we keep losing what contracts there are to America; we can't compete. To make things worse, the men are getting bolshie; think they can run the show better than management."
"Why can't you compete?"
"Americans have mechanised and reduced labour costs. They've got modern electrical kit everywhere."
"So, do the same then." He shook his head.
"Costs a fortune, and we can't borrow at American interest rates. Even if we did, our orders are too small; need another war to make it pay. After the last lot, no one'll be mad enough to start another; we've lived through the last war, never be another."
"And I'll tell you something else," he stopped to empty his wine glass and raised a finger for more, "I reckon the writing's on the wall for British firms if things continue as they are. Thinking of selling up and investing in American industry – import American cars or put the lot into US stocks – make a fortune. That's where the future is; America, you mark my words." I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. The noise level of chinking cutlery and babbling voices rose as the third and fourth courses, and their wines were served.
"Think I'll give the torte a miss; had it here before, too dry for my liking. Bye, the bye, is that Cooper over there with his collar backwards?" I looked where he was indicating.
"The Reverend Cooper, if you please?"
"Would have staked my life he'd take the cloth; his scrawny neck was made for a dog collar." I placed my hand on his arm.
"Easy, old chap, he might hear you." I checked to see we weren't being overheard. "Have you noticed he only ever drinks apple juice?"
"What, never touches laughing fluid?" Blenkers seemed to have difficulties comprehending the idea. "Strange fellow."
"Absolute teetotaller; big on temperance and Band of Hope. Claims booze is evil and never did anyone any good."
"Really?" It looked as if an idea was attempting to surface in Blenker's mind. Eventually, it did, and he turned to face me. "Fancy some sport?"
"My £5 says before the evening's through, I can get him to accept that not drinking is as dangerous as drinking."
"He'll never go for it."
"My fiver says he will." I offered him my hand.
"You have a wager."
There were speeches, more speeches, anecdotes, reminisces; each more embroidered than the last time they were told; jokes which wouldn't have been funny if we weren't all well oiled, toasts to this, that and the other then cutlery rattled and wine glasses clinked as they were cleared from the table and coffee cups clattered as they were laid in their place, all indicating the meal had entered the final furlong. The ma'tre d' offered a box of cigars; Blenkers chose a Bolivar, the ma'tre d' clipped it and roasted the end. I declined them.
"May I have a Black Russian?" The ma'tre d' raised a finger to the waiter who followed with the cigarettes.
"Mr Frobisher will take a Sobrane." As I took one, the waiter took his new lighter from his pocket with a flourish and lit it. The flame didn't look as if it had decided whether to cooperate or give up. As Blenkers blew a cloud of smoke, its heady aroma, the smell of fresh coffee, and the fragrance of expensive aftershave all seemed out of place. They were from a lifestyle that had been slaughtered in the trenches. The Master of Ceremonies stood and brushed an imaginary speck from his red tailcoat. It was new, made of the best Yorkshire Barathea wool. He was proud to be the only person wearing colour in a room of black and white.
"Gentlemen," he announced – "the cricket first X1 wish to take wine with the second X1." There was laughter and ribald comments. Waiters ignored the banter and placed baskets of nuts and ashtrays on the table.
"Now to bait the hook!" Blenkers raised his voice. "Cooper!" Cooper looked around to see who called, then spotted Blenkinsop. "Would you care to take a brandy with Frobisher and me?" Cooper cupped his hand behind his ear.
"Brandy, did you say?"
"No, thank you – I eschew alcohol in all its forms – stuff of the devil," Blenkers patted his lips with his napkin.
"Hook baited – he eschews alky - pompous twerp." He dropped the napkin and addressed Cooper again. "Tell me, Cooper, doesn't the Good Book say somewhere: 'drink no longer water but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake?' Cooper nodded.
"It does, but one suspects the Blessed Apostle, Paul was laying a heavy but unspoken emphasis on the adjective 'little.'"
"So, you see no virtue in it at all?"
"Absolutely none – it ruins lives."
"Ah, would it surprise you to know that a man lost his life because he refused to drink alcohol?" Cooper lent forward and pushed the candlestick aside to see better.
"Do inform me."
"The incident was documented in the Reverend. R. Cutler's book 'Original Notes on Dorchester.'" Cooper smiled and nodded. "The event occurred in 1830 or thereabouts. A condemned man was to be hanged in Dorchester, and as usual for the time, his execution was set for 1 pm to give time for the Royal Mail coach to arrive from London in case it carried a last-minute reprieve." Cooper nodded.
"I'm familiar with Cutler's work and the custom."
"However," Blenkers stopped to take a sip of wine, and as he put his glass down, he whispered, 'get your fiver ready.' "Where was I? Oh, yes, the poor devil was so traumatised, he wanted to get the miserable business over as soon as possible so as he was being brought to Dorchester, despite the urgent pleas to the contrary of the Constables who were with him, he urged them to hurry and refused the traditional parting drink at the Bell Inn and so arrived at the gallows early." Blenkers whispered again: 'an ace coming up.' As he was so insistent, despite his misgivings and it not yet being 1 pm, the hangman prepared him, pulled the lever, and down he dropped, but just as he fell, the Postmaster rushed up the hill shouting and bearing a reprieve. The hangman immediately hacked through the new hemp rope and fetched a surgeon, but it was too late. The poor fellow was dead. What do you say to that?" Cooper was still smiling.
"I recall the incident now. You have failed to finish the Reverend Collins' account. He recorded that the crowd who had been in the tavern since dawn, had no sympathy for the felon and shouted: 'Served him right – 'e should 'av stopped for his drink.'" Blenkers was a little taken aback.
"If memory serves me well, the surgeon was reported to have commented, with rather ill-timed levity I might add: 'I will stake my reputation on the fact – the poor fellow has taken a drop too much.'" And with that, Cooper raised his glass of apple juice in a mock toast. I held out my hand for the fiver.
"Think that's game, set, and match to Cooper, old man. Care for a port?"