Marwell Aries wove an unsteady path to the bar of the Ali Babar club, relieved to be stretching his legs after sitting for so long on those ridiculous souk cushions.
The dim lighting, combined with the two bottles of champagne he’d already drunk, caused him to mistake his reflection in the mirror behind the bar for some other later night reveller. He turned quickly and looked over his shoulder, but of course there was nobody there.
“Jumping at my own shadow Reuben!” he guffawed to the barman, who was arranging cocktail sticks into something resembling a shrunken monkey’s head.
“Quite so Sir, Another bottle of Bollinger?”
Marwell sighed and let his head loll forward. From the corner of the room he’d just left, blokey cheers and a thunder of table-thumping erupted, prompting Marwell to chuckle into his silk, Hermes tie.
“Sounds like Digger just won his bet.”
“Bet Sir?” said the barman, with what even Marwell in his sozzled state knew to be the scantest of interest.
“Yes, we’ve been debating the moment when you can call yourself a millionaire. Do you need to be turning over the one mill as profit, or does it all have to be sitting in your bank account? Or as Digger says, do you actually need a whole wad more than a mill to really live out the lifestyle of a cash-rich millionaire?”
“I see Sir.”
Marwell smiled a floppy, conspiratorial smile, then whispered loudly. “Got any savings Reuben? Got any shekels you can rub together in a hurry?” The barman didn’t answer, but continued to arrange the cocktail sticks one by one in the monkey’s head. Marwell leaned forward at a dangerous angle. “Because if you do, I’ve got the hottest tip in town. Call your broker first thing tomorrow and tell him to buy Gloop Solvents. That’s what we all did today and you’re now talking to a genuine, cash-rich, millionaire!”
As he finished speaking Marwell thumped his chest and attempted to clamber onto one of the tall leather bar stools. Unfortunately his handmade Italian brogues slipped on the highly polished rung and he stumbled forward, banging his head with considerable force on a carved wooden pole.
“Oops!” he giggled. Then muttered to himself, “What a stupid place to put a pole.”
“Perhaps you’d be more comfortable if you returned to your friends Sir.” The barman responded smoothly, “I can send someone over to take your order.”
“No, Reuben! I want to talk to you: The legendary cocktail king of the legendary Ali Babar. God you’re expensive but they say you’re worth it. I’m fed up with that lot anyway, they’re infidels, only interested in football and fannies, and taking the piss out of each other. Don’t think a single one of them even went to a decent school. They only come here because they think they’ll pick up TV presenters.”
“I see Sir.”
“Anyway, forget about them, just remember what I said about solvents.” Marwell tapped the side of his nose and winked. “Buy big tomorrow, then sell off slowly all week. Make yourself a million and you’ll be celebrating too.”
“I’m afraid to say Sir, that barmen don’t generally have brokers, even those of us considered to be at the top of our profession.”
Reuben took a soft white cloth from the waist of his long black apron and huffed on an unopened bottle of Smirnoff vodka. Marwell blinked, there was something about the way the lights in the room flickered across that unemotional face that fascinated him. In all the years he’d been coming to the Ali Babar he couldn’t recall a single time the barman’s eyes had looked properly into his. However rowdy the customers, however ridiculously tall the order he was presented with; Reuben always remained aloof.
Marwell shook his head as if to clear the fuddle from it and asked, “How old are you Reuben?”
“I’m sixty-six Sir.”
“Sixty six eh? Well when I’m sixty-six I expect to be sunning myself on the deck of my Sunbeam clipper, while two topless lovelies smear suntan lotion into my grizzling chest hair.”
“A perfect idyll Sir.” said Reuben, handling the bottle with almost loving care.
Another cheer and a smattering of smutty talk wafted over from Marwell’s table. He shuddered. “Actually I can’t think of anything worse. I’d rather learn to cook, find myself a good woman and open a bistro. I always fancied that.” He fell into a vague and morose reverie, gazing off between the glitter and gleam of the spirit optics.
Just then some Americans left the bar in a clatter of loud talk and back-slapping. One big-shot tucked a fifty pound note into Reuben’s top pocket as they passed.
“Thank you Sir.” Reuben responded his eyes, as always, cast demurely down.
“You’re one hell of a barman Reuben.” bellowed the man, before saying something sotto voce to his friends which was met with roars of laughter. Reuben sucked in his breath and said a word, which nobody heard, but which Marwell, in a wayward moment of clarity, read on his lips. Shocked, he glanced down and saw that Reuben had crumpled the neck of the vodka bottle with his bare hands.
“Careful old fellow, you’ll cut yourself.” He said faintly, but Reuben didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m sorry Sir, I forgot what you ordered.” He said, brushing the pieces of broken glass out of sight.
Marwell sighed, “That’s the trouble; I don’t know what I want any more. I’m so sick of the same old thing; boring old champagne, boring old Beluga, boring old me!” He giggled mirthlessly.
Reuben took a step forward and, averting his eyes, said quietly, “Well Sir, as a brand new cash-rich millionaire, how about celebrating with the very finest cocktail this world has to offer?”
New energy coursed through Marwell’s saggy frame. “Oh yes! Something really special.”
“Exactly Sir,” agreed Reuben, clicking his heels together. “But it will cost you Sir, it won’t be a cheap trick.”
“Of course.” blustered Marwell, reaching into the breast pocket of his designer suit. A suit that had cost more than most barmen earn in a month.
“Ah no,” Reuben shook his head. “I mean it will really cost you.”
For the very briefest of moments two amber fires blazed out at Marwell from the depths of Reuben’s eye-sockets. Marwell gulped and stumbled to his feet, looking around to see if anyone else had noticed that the barman had shape-shifted into a wolf. It seemed they hadn’t, so he looked back at Reuben, who had thankfully returned to normal.
“All right then, impress me.” He said, trying to effect a confidence he wasn’t really feeling.
The barman gave the ghost of a smile. “Permit me Sir, does that Omega time piece of yours carry a stop watch?”
“It does, plus a load of other gadgets I’ve never got the hang of.” Marwell took off his wristwatch and handed it to Reuben who placed it face up on the bar. It was eight minutes to midnight.
“I’d like you to time me while I mix your drink, if I take longer than four minutes then the drink is yours, on the house.” Marwell slithered around on his barstool with excitement. “However if, on the stroke of the two hundred and fortieth second the drink is ready, you Sir will have a choice; either leave the drink untouched, return to your party and order yet another bottle of designer champagne, or accept what I can only promise will be the finest cocktail ever made, call your broker, and tell him to transfer your million pounds to my bank account.”
Marwell thought of all the drinks he’d ever drunk and all the bars he’d ever drunk in and knew that this was the moment they’d all been leading to. “All right,” he said, quite sober now. “I accept your terms.”
“Very well then Sir, away we go.” And with that Reuben flexed his long boney fingers, cracked his knuckles and flicked back the cuffs of his shirt-sleeves to reveal two very white, agile-looking wrists. Then he spun round to face the wall of optics and bottles behind him. “To begin with, there must be the glass.”
Marwell glanced down with excitement at his watch, but was immediately distracted as one of those silvery wrists pulled down an unusually tall high ball from a dusty shelf. The glass caught the light like a bolt of lightning as it sailed through the air to land on a doily in front of Marwell. Ice crystals, sparkling like a scoop of diamonds, were swiftly shovelled into the bottom third of the glass, before a chatter of bottles signalled that Reuben was rummaging through the dark liquors stashed beneath the optics. In a black and white flash he was back, and Marwell heard the slow squeaking twist of a cork.
“Cognac Sir, the finest in the world,” whispered Reuben, proud and fatherly. “Three thousand pounds for a bottle and that was fifty years ago.”
Marwell could almost taste the deliciously rich aroma that escaped genie-like as the barman poured.
“Old is it?” he asked, a quiver of tongue licking at his dry lips.
“Oh yes Sir, made two centuries ago for a Prussian Prince. He was so entranced by it, he had his coffin made from the barrels it was aged in.”
“Delicious!” said Marwell.
“And rare Sir, I last served it seven years ago to a man with three months to live.”
Marwell would have liked to know more about that, but Reuben had already jack-knifed off towards the fridge.
“Lychees.” He said, returning with a pestle and mortar. “Flown in this morning from a narrow province of Kwang Tung in the Chinese interior. The route to the lychee trees is perilous with natural dangers, and the pickers also run the risk of encountering marauding rebels, or renegade soldiers drunk on fermented star-fruit. The lychees, once picked, have to be floated down river in small wicker baskets as they quickly spoil in the humid conditions. Of course, very few of the lychees actually make it, and recently several of the pickers have been shot trying to reach the grove.”
“They’re not out of a tin then?” said Marwell weakly.
“No Sir, they are not.”
Next into the drink Reuben chopped what looked like some grass clippings.
“This is wheat grass Sir.”
“Ah” beamed Marwell, that’s good for me!”
“Indeed Sir, it can combat depression, fight fever and digestive disorders, enrich the blood and disinfect a grimy tongue. What is not so widely known are its abilities to restore hair and conjure a youthful appearance. It will also deliver a renewed, almost adolescent sexual potency.”
“Really! Well I’ve never heard that before.”
“Of course this kind of wheat grass is grown in a paddy field fertilised with human blood, and the crop must be harvested by boy virgins on the first full moon after mid summer. It’s exceptionally seasonal Sir, and like the lychees it doesn’t travel well.”
Marwell gulped, and ran a sweaty hand through his thinning forelock. Reuben darted back to his vast library of bottles, “Crème de Mure.” He called over his shoulder; “A blackberry cordial that will remind you of what you once loved the most. Here, have a sniff.”
The barman held out the open bottle and immediately Marwell was transported back in time. Letting out an involuntary cry he saw himself as a young boy, walking with his mother down the old deserted railway line close to where he’d grown up. His mother was filling a tupperware container with lush, plump blackberries, pausing every few steps to press a ripe fruit between his lips.
“Brings back memories doesn’t it?” said Reuben, carefully measuring out a silver capful.
“Yes,” said Marwell in a small, sad voice.
“There’s more in here where that one came from.” Reuben replied, before whisking the bottle back to the shelf. Then, in a sudden moment of stillness he said. “Would you be so good as to tell me how I’m doing for time?”
Marwell realised with a lurch that he’d shut his eyes and quickly focused them again on the watch.
“You have just under 50 seconds.”
Reuben spun around in a blur of jacket tails “Now a helping of fizz to mellow the weight of all that memory.” He lunged towards another fridge. “You suddenly look exceptionally thirsty Sir, in need of something long, cool and quenching. A real cobweb blaster.”
Marwell found that he was indeed incredibly thirsty. Reuben took a bottle of champagne from the back of the fridge, and like a farmer ringing a chicken’s neck, gave the cork a swift and practised twist. The bottle smoked into life with a delicious curl of vapour before a golden glug of sparkling liquid gushed into the glass.
“Ten seconds,” said Marwell, his gaze flicking hungrily between the drink and the watch face. Now Reuben plucked what looked like a solid gold swizzle stick from his breast pocket and plunged it into the cocktail.
“Five,” croaked Marwell, his heart beating in his throat.
The barman removed the golden stick, sucked it dry and replaced it in his pocket. Then with a quick lick of his forefinger he stroked the rim of the glass until it sang out with a loud and eerie hum.
“Time’s up!” said Marwell staring at the glowing, musical concoction. Reuben stood back from the bar and said over the dying sound.
“The Minuit Noir Sir, pitch perfect if I may say so.”
Between them the drink was luminous and alive. Tiny champagne bubbles coursed up and down the glass and condensation dribbled down its sides. The purple of the blackberry gave the thing a funereal tint, but the smell of sweet lychee called out to Marwell like a siren.
“Taste’s good does it?” he asked, but Reuben said nothing.
Marwell sucked in his cheeks and made his decision. “A million pounds you say?”
“A million pounds Sir.”
“And all that stuff about the lychee-pickers and the paddy fields soaked in blood, and the coffin, and the hair re-growth and my mother; that’s all true?”
“You will have to trust me on that Sir.”
And Marwell did. He lifted the highball and took a small sip. Then he smacked his lips together thoughtfully and a faraway look came over his puffy face. He took another sip, then a gulp, and another, and another and another. The Minuit Noir tipped and rolled in the glass, shrinking until there was nothing left of it, not even a slush of ice. Marwell replaced the empty glass on its doily and contemplated it. A faint, confused frown appeared like a shadow on his brow. His mobile phone was now sitting on the bar next to the glass, even though he had no recollection of taking it out of his pocket. He picked it up and selected his broker’s number from the speed dial.
Meanwhile Reuben was whisking away the high ball and rinsing it out under his butler’s tap. He dried it off with a rather grubby-looking tea towel and replaced it with about six identical ones on a high shelf. Then he poured himself a large measure of vodka from the damaged Smirnoff bottle and raised it in Marwell’s direction.
“Vodka Sir,” he said, holding the glass up to the light. “Distilled from the tears of the Grand Duchess Maria Romanov, collected in the moments before she and her whole family were executed. This bottle, smuggled out of the Steppes in a basket of ballet slippers, sold to me by a prima ballerina defecting to the West with just the clothes she stood up in. Filtered to enhance sharpness of wits in the drinker, Sir.”
Marwell looked a little doubtful. it definitely looked like an every day bottle of Smirnoff. A wave of exhaustion suddenly washed over him, and yet deep down he felt a hundred times better than he had in years. He realised it was time to go home.
Ten minutes later Reuben was mixing Digger a White Russian at the bar.
“I thought I saw old Aries up here a minute ago?”
“He’s gone Sir.”
“Well that’s a bit off, not coming over and saying Adios to the chaps.”
“He took a rather nasty bump to the head from this pole Sir, and of course he was a little merry.”
Digger snorted. “Typical Aries; can’t hold his drink, can barely hold down his job!”
“He did leave this.” Reuben motioned to a scrappy pile of bank notes and loose change.
“I don’t know why he didn’t just card it,” Digger threw his own platinum credit card onto the bar and knocked back the cocktail in a gulp. “Stick it all on there will you Reuben, me and the lads are offski, got a date with a pole of our own, Pole dancer in the East End!” He roared with laughter at his joke.
“Very funny Sir,” said Reuben with a straight face, turning away with the slightest of bows.
Minuit Noir at the Ali Babar by Maggie Womersley was read by Clive Greenwood at the Liars' League Surf, Turf & Vodka event at Proud Galleries Camden on Tuesday 23 June 2009.