I had been left standing marooned at the bar beside the old man in the tux. He looked me over impatiently, up and down, before turning back to the bar and calling out, “Hey, Tobester!”
His bare voice had cleaved the air so superbly that he sounded like a general in a play. But this old man did not otherwise possess any of the sprightliness of a thespian and indeed the first thing about him that had registered with me was the sickness in his eyes or their pained, malarial look. He had a round face that floated rather eerily under his hairline. A pencil-thin moustache had been added that only accentuated his face’s flatness and the effect of a child’s drawing. His silver hair rose in grooves and there were enough of them to arrive in a minor ridge.
I had calculated that beyond the pink neon light of the bar, in regular daylight, his tux would land as a burgundy tux. It looked like it would feel very thick and velvety if you rubbed its material between your fingers. Whilst we waited for Toby to pad out from behind the bar again, the old man stood back eyeing me appraisingly. Despite the obvious sickness in his eyes, it was clear that he was a man who could draw anybody out, a man who was always suspended in an immediate, effortless, universal friendliness, like a manatee in sunny waters.
“It seems to me that you should be fitted up with a good drink,” he remarked, as if he was making a very astute observation to himself. He then nodded to himself, satisfied that I should be without a doubt fitted up with a good drink. Next he had beckoned me over and he had shown me a dumpy little crystal bottle that was nestling in the outer pocket of his tux. This apparently contained a liqueur.
He took it out and placed it on the bar, so that it had sprouted between us like an exotic pet. He then gripped it by its neck, with a hand that seemed to tremble possessively as he brandished it. “This is La Crema Del Magnífico Volcán. The most deluxe pineapple liqueur that money can buy. This bottle costs more than the average household car. There are members of the Royal Family who have never in their whole lives drunk any mouthful as expensive as this.”
I nodded unhappily. Was I supposed to genuflect before it?
“Papa Doc could not afford this bottle. He was actually outbid in an auction, when trying to purchase it…” The old man in the tux trailed off, disconcerted. He blinked at me, as if in a signal for help.
“It’s a beautiful drink,” Toby confirmed, bustling in at the old man’s side. Evidently already a long-standing acquaintance of this liqueur, he had brought along three shot glasses and he lined them up on the counter for us.
With his hands still trembling, the old man poured out three shots. I thought it would be unbearable if any of the liqueur was spilled in beads across the counter. I had wanted to profess my meekness, to emphasise that such an important drink should not be squandered on one such as myself, who even now continued to feel total indifference towards it. When I was handed my shot glass, I moved to toast the old man, but he had already flipped his own down his throat greedily. There was a stunned, exhausted expression on his face, as though many years had caught up with him, when he returned his glass to the counter.
Toby drank his and he paused, looking down at the floor. I drank mine in turn. It tasted strangely like liquid glass – very hard, clear and lumpy – with a chemical aftertaste that it was perhaps possible to reconcile with some memory of a pineapple. I hoped that I had not made a face.
Toby nodded distantly at me in farewell, withdrawing back behind his bar with the glasses. I smiled at the old man in the tux. “So you are a billionaire?”
The old man grunted and shrugged. “I cannot tell. I put all of my money into shares and different things and it is throwing itself around all the time, doing star jumps and cutting scissor kicks.”
“But you are very rich?”
“Aye my man, I am very rich. I pass my time these days going from bar to bar and buying random people things.” He gave me a curt, businesslike nod. “Just to water the gardens of the world, not because I want any favour, anything sexual, in return.”
I nodded in reply. “You know, I only earned all of this money last month,” the old man blurted out suddenly.
“Only last month?”
He appeared a little giddy and frightened at the abruptness of his own confession. “It was a pleasant surprise, a stupendous one in fact. If I was slightly older, my system might not have been capable of receiving it.”
I stood waiting. The story was coming now.
It came all in one go, coming very quickly. “You see, I own this restaurant in Leith, a very reputable restaurant. A restaurant that politicians and fashion models will dine at. It is said to be Tony Blair’s favourite restaurant, for example.”
Tony Blair, Papa Doc, the big cheeses were tumbling all around us like flakes of ash on the wind.
The old man had loosened in his tux and his hands had broken free and started to flow expansively. “Well, when we finally opened again, with all of these new restrictions that they have brought in, of course we had to have a new menu. And although we are predominantly a lobster restaurant, being over in Leith, well, we had to have a pizza range, since this now accounts for over half our custom.”
I had chipped in to give a helpful push. “A pizza range?”
“That’s it my man, a pizza range. Well, one of these pizzas was an Indian model and we had needed to come up with a snappy new name for it, because all of the food orders have to have snappy names now, as though they are cocktails. This is what everybody wants, a snappy name that is fresh and vivid and, you know, with a certain twinkle to it.”
“Hey, what does an Indian model involve?” I had the sharp feeling that I had been remiss in keeping up with whatever bewildering antics the world was performing currently. An Indian pizza?
“Well, it’s recognisably a pizza, with the normal mozzarella base, though the surface is decorated with pakoras and miniature popadams and spots of tikka masala and mango chutney. You’re right, it’s revolting – I wouldn’t feed it to a donkey – and I think that most of the people who order it are young couples in search of a cut-price meal. You see, one will try to scrape off the Indian baubles for themselves and the other will be left with the Italian half. Still, it looks very trendy on the menu and it makes people think that we are futuristic…”
“That’s it my man, adventurous.”
“And the snappy name?”
“We went for ‘The Indian Variant.’ One of our chefs had even wanted to dye it so that it resembled those photos of the coronavirus. But if you dump a lot of blue dye on a pizza, it smacks too much of a dessert. And we had also wanted to retain familiar Indian colours.”
“And it went down well?”
“For two days nobody noticed it. But then the first mention appeared on Twitter.”
“Was it positive feedback?”
“For a while it was just students at Edinburgh University. They said that the name was ‘inappropriate.’ Most of them seemed to be more offended by our manhandling of Indian cuisine – which they deemed ‘racist’ and even ‘a pizza in blackface’ – than by the reference to COVID. Even so, there was a petition and the student union passed a motion forbidding any of their students from ordering the pizza.”
“Oh dear, how unfortunate.”
“Next we were in the newspapers. The Daily Mail condemned us for making light of the recent Indian death toll whilst the Guardian said that it was ‘a Trumpian pizza’ and that I should ‘educate myself.’ They suggested that the name ‘The Delta Variant’ would be far more politically sensitive.”
“So, you changed the name?”
“No, we couldn’t do this. We’d printed all the menus, you see, in laminated cardboard, and this costs a king’s ransom. We had several meetings on the matter but we decided that the cost was too dear.”
“And what happened next?”
“We were still very busy on Twitter. We were being reprimanded by all sorts of journalists and MPs, from across every inch of the political spectrum. Then there was a viral video in which a nurse who had just finished a twelve-hour shift in intensive care had filmed herself breaking down in tears as she condemned our pizza. This got us nationwide media coverage – I mean, across the whole UK.”
“Police Scotland visited and we were all arrested. They said that our pizza had undermined community cohesion and that it was ‘a hate crime.’ Even several random customers who had ordered our pizza in all innocence, without even being conscious of the name, were arrested for ‘assisting a hate crime.’”
“And there was yet more to come?”
“Oh yes, my man.” The old man in the tux stood back at the bar, with his face scrunched up and his eyes glittering. “We were condemned… on Twitter… by Nicola Sturgeon! Our pizza had a whole tweet all to itself! And since the Queen is unable to send tweets, constitutionally, this is the top prize of all!”
“How can such a thing be a prize? And how can you earn so much money from it?”
The old man laughed like a thunderclap and threw up his hands. “Well my man, not many people realise this, but there is a loose insurance scheme amongst Edinburgh’s businesses that can rescue people in our precise circumstances.”
“You surely cannot be insured against being ‘cancelled’? How could such an insurance scheme ever work?”
“It is more of a sweepstake. Each restaurant or pub puts in one hundred pounds per month and at the end of the month, the business that has offended the greatest number of people wins the kitty.”
“I see. I’m beginning to understand why everybody is so offended all the time these days. You are saying that businesses go out of their way to deliberately offend people, so that they can win the prize?”
The old man shook his head firmly. “No my man, this is a gentlemanly game, a game of honour. Every week now there is some controversy in the media that sets all of the heather aflame. It has become an almost mechanical feature of capitalism. Sure, some businesses might try to deliberately engineer an offensive situation but these are lost in the sea of honest mistakes. Last month, we had won outright though. No other competitor had been arrested by the police and condemned by Nicola Sturgeon and savaged in an emotional viral video, all in one manoeuvre. Our victory was undisputed.”
I felt happy for him. “My congratulations.”
“Of course, I had to spend some time in prison.” He bared an ankle and rattled it at me illustratively. “And I also have to wear this tag. But otherwise I don’t ever need to work again. Would you care for another?”
The paw of light that fell from the bar’s doorway across the floor had darted and I turned instinctively in response. James was marching towards me, wearing only a towel around his waist. Toby shouted menacingly from behind the bar for him to “put some clothes on” and this jogged James out of his march, as he scuttled ahead out of earshot. When he reached me, he paused only to deliver one, dutiful line.
“Biggy, I’m going swimming. I’ve found a great pool that isn’t too busy.”
“Why, what a remarkable young man!” the old man in the tux yelped. “Yes, this is just the ticket, a nice swim for us!”
“I don’t want to swim,” I tried to call after James. But I was already following him and the old man in the tux was already capering after us, clasping his bottle of liqueur festively. James proceeded over to the far wall of the bar where, in the total darkness, he must have known that there was a door handle and a door as well. On opening it, the entire bar seemed to be wiped away like a cobweb. We were suddenly walking in myriad currents of cool, frolicking air and an abundance of pearly light. I could hear cries and there was water splashing all around me.