When Memories Sting

20 Feb

It’s usually about something you forgot. Often, it’s trivial in the big scheme of things. But recall makes you writhe with mortification and self dislike even decades later. Let me tell you one of mine.

When one was short of cash for the pub in my university days, there was always the fallback position of drinking in the Buttery, the college’s own bar, where the prices were cheaper and, best of all, you could sign the tab and leave your long suffering parents with the bill.

The barman was a great guy, John. Always welcoming. Somewhere in my second term, I developed a temporary fixation on bourbon as my idea of a cool drink. And the coolest bourbon, presumably, was Jack Daniels. I badgered John to stock some. He shook his head and told me that this happened often. Some undergraduate would conceive a passion for some exotic liquor and persuade John to buy a crate. And then nobody would drink the stuff after the first celebratory try. He had been stung too many times, John said. And he did not have the recourse of returning the crate to the vendor.

But I wasn’t like that, I insisted. John would smile and shake his head as he listened. It became a ritual game. I did not crack his resolve that term nor in the third term. During the summer vacation I decided for various reasons that I did not want to spend a further two years at university. I wrote the Warden of my college a letter to inform him that I was quitting university. By the next mail I had a summons to an interview. I took the train, entered the chambers of majesty and was admitted to the presence. The Warden was highly indignant with me. He thought me somewhat presumptuous in declaring my dismissal of the university. If there was any dismissal going on, it would be of me by the university and not the other way around. He categorically refused to accept my resignation but considered that I was overwrought and in a state of temporary malaise. Therefore, he announced, I was to consider myself on an indefinite sabbatical. When I felt ready to resume my studies, all I had to do was inform him. I don’t know what the statute of limitations would be now re his decree. But there are the odd moments when the thought of becoming once again an undergraduate seems quite attractive. Anyway, it was decent of him and we parted on cordial terms. I had my freedom and a safety net.

The college was deserted but I thought I would grab a quick and much needed drink before taking the train back to London. I went down to see if by any chance the Buttery was open. John was there doing paper work on the bar. He raised his head and beamed on seeing me.

“I’ve got a surprise for you, mate.”

In an instant my heart sank. Somehow I knew. I pinned an enquiring smile on my face as he turned and reached behind him for that bottle of Jack Daniels. He opened it and poured two generous shots.

“You wore me down. I got in a crate.” He pushed one glass over to me and raised his own in a toast. “This one’s on the house.”

I picked up my glass with what must have been a sickly grin and drank it down. I didn’t have the guts or the decency to confess that I would not be back in September or, indeed, any time. We chatted and laughed as I cringed inside. I still cringe all these years later when I think of it. And I can’t stand the taste of bourbon now.

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