I don't know whether Rob ate anything on Tuesday evenings, apart from the dry roasted peanuts. After a couple of pints I always found myself getting light-headed and hungry, but it was no good suggesting going to a restaurant, even if we could have found one that served unpolished grains for Imogen - as far as Rob was concerned, Tuesday evenings were for drinking. So I got into the habit of slipping out for a hamburger. There was a shop on the corner of Shrovedean Road where no one but me ever went, full of dirty light from a buzzing fluorescent tube that, even in winter, attracted a few flies that must have thought it was an odd-looking member of their own species. It was run by an elderly man in slippers.
'Coleslaw burger, is it?'
I found it comforting that he knew my order (not that he had any others to remember); even the slippers were a homely touch. I would eat the burger walking up the frosty road, and be back at the Shakespeare's Head before anyone noticed I was missing.
One night as I was waiting for my order, two old men came into the shop, very drunk, singing It's a Long Way to Tipperary. They were standing between me and the door, arms round each other's shoulders, looking at me in a way I construed as threatening. Every now and then one of them would stop singing, and the other would shake him and sing louder to egg him on to start again. They took it in turns to stop and start in this way. They were both short and fat, their jowls covered in white bristles.
The hamburger man had obviously decided they were trouble rather than potential customers - perhaps he knew them already. 'Get out of it, you two.' He must have been a whole generation younger.
'You look a fit young lad,' one of them said. ('Sweetest girl I know...' his friend was singing.) 'How old you? About twenty-one?'
'Twenty-two.' I wasn't sure what I was afraid of: they probably couldn't overpower me, even if they wanted to, except through the sheer force of embarrassment.
'Leave the poor lad alone,' the man in slippers said. 'Here you are, mate, coleslaw burger.'
'Twenty-two, George.' ('Farewell, Leicester Square.') We could do with a few strong young chaps like him. Ever done any fighting, lad?'
I shook my head, smiling desperately. 'Excuse me.'
'Here,' George said. He was the taller and fatter of the two, wearing a blue open-necked shirt despite the cold. His neck was brown and strong-looking, as if it belonged to a much younger man, 'do you know that song we're singing?'
The friend sputtered, filling the air with beery vapours. 'You'd better, lad. You're going to be singing it soon. Everybody is.'
By the time I got back to the Shakespeare's Head with coleslaw repeating on me and an obscure feeling of cowardice and rage in my stomach, Rob and Imogen were discussing the next war. 'It's not true,' Imogen was saying, 'not with a bang but a whimper. It's going to be a bang first, and a bloody great whimper afterwards.'
'We've been through all this before, Imogen,' Rob said. 'You don't remember, but I do. I was eleven when Cuba happened. They cancelled all the lessons at school and made us pray. But believe me - ' his wheezing way of speaking was particularly noticeable on E sounds, bel-eeeve mee - 'there is only so much praying you can do in a day at the age of eleven, eeven if the world is going to end before you get home. It was bloody boring, actually. Oh, hallo, Daniel, where did you get to?'
'Supper,' I muttered.
'You smell strange,' Imogen said. 'Doesn't he smell strange, Rob?'
'Coleslaw,' I said. 'I met two old men. They wanted me to join the army.'
'An army's going to be no use to anybody,' Imogen said. 'Fuck the army. It's all be over in a few agonizing weeks.'
'Oh, I don't know,' Rob said. 'Most probably it'll be just another European land war.'