This is a small excerpt from the short story The Wizard of Elephant & Castle, available now as part of the book London Eyes: Short Stories. Enjoy!
Inside the back room is where the magic happens. Not that you’d know it from what it looks like. It’s our store cupboard – a pokey room of about ten square metres, with walls lined in shelves. There’s a small table in the middle, which is my desk during the day and my mixing altar at night. There I go again with another twatty phrase, but at least I made this one up myself.
We only make the magic cocktails for lovers, you know, for those on a date or meeting for the first time. How can I tell if they’re on a date or not? I just can. Call it sixth sense or blame it on my experience of observing the dating game in London for nearly thirty years, but I know when two people are in a dating situation. Or better yet, I can tell if they should be. Because people meet in my bar too, bumping into one another as she squeezes past to go back to her table or as he walks to the gents. It happens; not often enough, but it happens.
Only Ravi and I know what the magic ingredient is. Even the rest of my staff don’t know. I’m still considering whether I should tell you or not. For now let’s just say that if you’re ever in the area and you’d like to try and guess, you’re more than welcome to pop in and try it for yourself. You can find us under the railway bridge on Newington Causeway. In the meantime, can you guess what it is?
The Rugby Player
She looks nothing like her profile photo.
For a start in her profile photo she was smiling. There have been just two smiles tonight. Two. And both were covered up with her hand. That’s a funny habit to develop; to hide a smile. Why would you do that? Especially when I suspect hers is as stunning as I think it is. What her profile photo didn’t show me was how large her eyes are, how they sparkled in candlelight and how her lips are the colour of cherries. I think she has to be the only girl I’ve dated from London Loves who is twice as attractive as her profile photo.
I’ve only been on three dates with London Loves. And two of the girls went home with me. I don’t know about you, but that’s fairly good odds.
My friend Dave got me onto London Loves. He’s on all the dating sites. He’s always banging on about new bars, new clubs, new spots that I must check out. Half the time I ignore him and stick to my usual stomping ground and watering holes. But when he started talking about this place in Elephant & Castle where they make magic cocktails with a secret ingredient that is never revealed, well, that’s when I started listening. Why? Well, because it sounded illegal and I am a lawyer. I love to explore – and enjoy – anything potentially illegal.
I’m not one of those work all hours, sleep in the office kind of lawyers either. I learned pretty quickly during my third year placement that that wasn’t a life I wanted. So I got clever and I got an in-house job with one of the biggest printing cartridge firms in the world. Glamorous? No. Is it where I imagined I’d be after working two jobs to pay for university? No. Sociable hours? Yes. Plenty of time to play rugby? Yes. Minimal stress? Absolutely.
When I tell her about this, the pretty girl nods and chews on the straw of her finished drink. She takes a few seconds but then she launches into this story of how she had to leave an old job because of stress. She seems to skip a lot of the details, but I get the gist of what happened; it was horrible, she left, she went travelling and now she earns half as much money as she used to.
“But you’re happier now, right?” I ask.
“I think so,” she says looking across at the bar as if the real answer to that question is hiding in the room somewhere.
“So, what do you do when you’re not working?” I ask
“I listen to bad music in the gym,” she says and I laugh, because that was really quick and really funny.
They are both laughing when I serve their drinks. Two glasses on top of two red napkins. I wait until she has made eye contact with me, then I explain the experience they both have to look forward to.
“The Donny Hathaway is a cocktail for you. It will lead you on a special journey. There are bubbles of soft sensuality. There are sweet flavours of intimacy and togetherness. Take it slow, show it love and the love will be returned. It’s lovely to have you here…” And after a flash of my most mysterious smile, I walk away.
“That was… weird,” I say, because it was. The barman has crazy wide eyes and I really don’t like that long ponytail snaking down his back. I’ve never had much time for people who talk in riddles.
“You know my friend said this place was a little… out there.”
“Well, I think he’s right.”
“Cheers,” he raises his drink towards me and our glasses chime together.
Like syrup, the drink coats my throat as it goes down and inside the smoothness are the full flavours of more fruits than I can identify.
“Wow,” he says before I can.
“Delicious…” I say, welcoming the warm rush of alcohol that follows.
“Do you think we’re the only ones on a date?” he asks and I look around us.
“I think they’re on a date,” I point to a young man and woman at the bar who are standing together but looking in opposite directions.
“Doesn’t look like it’s going too well,” he says. “Wow, these really are good. And I’m not really a cocktail kind of guy.”
“What do you like to drink?”
“Whiskey. Whiskey and coke. Or just whiskey,” he smiles and that seems to soften his whole face. He has half-moon wrinkles in his cheeks and despite myself I think about how kind his eyes look when he smiles.
“We should ask them for a whiskey-based cocktail next,” I say. “I’m up for it.”
The Rugby Player
She’s already talking about the next drink. That has to be a good sign.
“What about you, what do you like to drink?” I reach for the menu.
“This!” Giggling she raises her glass and there is a split second when I can see her smile in full, before she moves her glass to hide it. I tell myself that if we’re still dating in a month’s time, I will tell her that she should never hide her smile. It’s fantastic.
“But if we were in an ordinary bar, what would you normally drink? Rum, like before? I want to find you the perfect cocktail.”
“No, the rum was because I saw they had the only brand I like – this Brazilian sugar cane rum I drank every day when I was in Rio a few years ago,” she chews her lip. “And now I sound like some pretentious traveller.”
“I like travel stories. I don’t have many of my own.”
“Neither do I actually, thanks to my taste for local spirits stopping me doing much sightseeing…” she puts her drink down.
“And now you’ve travelled to deepest, darkest Elephant & Castle. What should we have next? You decide.”
“Hmm, I like fruity drinks… or vodka. Vodka always works for me.”
I study the menu. “It looks like you need to try a Barry White.”
I read to her. “‘This fruity concoction is your first, your last and your everything in a glass. You can’t get enough of the cassis, grenadine and lemon-infused vodka, but you see the trouble with this cocktail is a generous dash of gin. Let the music play when we pour in champagne and stir in our magic ingredient. This cocktail’s sweetness is your weakness.’ What do you think?”
She put her cocktail down and tucked her hands between her crossed legs. “You really don’t know what this magic ingredient is? Your friend didn’t find out?”
“Nope. He said he had no idea but it was worth trying out.”
Which is true. He did say that. But what he specifically said was that this place is worth trying if you want a guaranteed result at the end of the night. That’s what the magic ingredient does; it delivers.
“So you enjoyed Donny?” I ask as I swoop in from nowhere.
She is taken aback. But he, with the menu ready in his hands, is happy to see me.
“We’d like to order two different ones this time. So, we’ll have one Barry White and one…” He searches the menu. “Where’s that whiskey one?”
“Marvin Gaye,” I say and smile.
“That’s it! Thank you,” he nods.
“Well, that was a bit more normal,” she says after she thinks I’m out of earshot, but that rarely happens in my bar.
This couple may have mastered the art of small talk, but they’re still drinking too fast, especially her. She’s a small girl, she’s two drinks in, and that last cocktail had at least twice as much alcohol as her first.
It’s time for me to work a different kind of magic.
Read the rest of The Wizard of Elephant & Castle and eleven other stories inspired by travel in London Eyes: Short Stories available on Amazon. And you can add London Eyes to your Goodreads bookshelves.
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(Image source: Gabriel Amadeus)
Frances M. Thompson
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