The Empress of Ireland | Prologue

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‘Fucking old queen!’

Mid-morning in the Turk’s Head, in London’s Belgravia, the quiet hour before the arrival of the lunchtime clientele, when only the idle and the alcoholic are about, and the smell of pol­ish and air-freshener briefly dominates the fug of stale beer and stubbed cigarettes. The pub was empty except for a row of three muddy labourers at the bar, skiving off work from a building site around the corner. They wore identical blue donkey jackets and were crouched monkey-like over pints of Guinness.

Brian Desmond Hurst affected not to have heard the insult that accompanied his entrance. He was a tall, distinguished man in his early eighties, with pale blue, ageless eyes, a shock of flowing white hair and thick, bushy eyebrows. He wore a Savile Row jacket with the cut of another era, grey flannels, suede shoes of chocolate brown, and an emerald green tie that shone against a white shirt. Unperturbed and aloof, he made his stately progress across the room carrying a single orange cupped in his left hand.

‘Morning, Bri.’ The publican polished glasses with exagger­ated concentration, also pretending not to have heard the snig­gered abuse. He picked up the orange that Brian placed before him and cut it in half. The publican squeezed the juice into a champagne flute and turned to take a half-bottle of Bollinger from the fridge. Brian watched and waited as the orange juice was topped up with champagne, then lifted the glass to his mouth and swallowed its contents in two large gulps. He gave a sigh of satisfaction: ‘Breakfast!

As the publican squeezed the juice from the other half of the orange into the glass, and prepared once again to fill it with champagne, Brian nodded in the direction of the labourers. ‘Please ask those three gentlemen if they would like a drink.’ The publican draped the dishcloth over his arm and moved purposefully along the bar, a man charged with a sensitive mission. As mine host in a pub in an exclusive part of town, his ear was tuned to the background hum of happy drinkers as is a sea captain’s to the throb of his ship’s engines, and he reacted strongly against anything that disturbed lucrative good cheer. This morning, public house etiquette had been violated by outsiders who had insulted a regular without provocation, and now pub lore was further strained by the offer of a drink from the defamed party. A delicate situation.

‘Mr Desmond Hurst wonders if you gentlemen would care for a drink?’ As the publican waited for a reply, he lowered his eyes and wiped the spotless mahogany bar with his dishcloth. The men shifted uncomfortably on their stools, without looking at one another, and there was a moment of tension and embar­rassment. One by one they mumbled orders for fresh sleevers of Guinness. The pints were drawn in silence and placed on the bar, and as each man lifted his drink to his lips he gave up a shamed murmur of thanks: ‘Cheers, mate!’ . . . ‘Cheers!’

‘Your very good health,’ Brian said, raising his glass of cham­pagne in the trio’s direction. ‘And by the way, gentlemen, I am not an old queen.’ He paused, forcing the men to look at him. ‘I am the Empress of Ireland!

Extract from Slightly Foxed Edition No. 51: The Empress of Ireland © The Estate of Christopher Robbins 2004

‘Fucking old queen!’

Mid-morning in the Turk’s Head, in London’s Belgravia, the quiet hour before the arrival of the lunchtime clientele, when only the idle and the alcoholic are about, and the smell of pol­ish and air-freshener briefly dominates the fug of stale beer and stubbed cigarettes. The pub was empty except for a row of three muddy labourers at the bar, skiving off work from a building site around the corner. They wore identical blue donkey jackets and were crouched monkey-like over pints of Guinness.

Brian Desmond Hurst affected not to have heard the insult that accompanied his entrance. He was a tall, distinguished man in his early eighties, with pale blue, ageless eyes, a shock of flowing white hair and thick, bushy eyebrows. He wore a Savile Row jacket with the cut of another era, grey flannels, suede shoes of chocolate brown, and an emerald green tie that shone against a white shirt. Unperturbed and aloof, he made his stately progress across the room carrying a single orange cupped in his left hand.

‘Morning, Bri.’ The publican polished glasses with exagger­ated concentration, also pretending not to have heard the snig­gered abuse. He picked up the orange that Brian placed before him and cut it in half. The publican squeezed the juice into a champagne flute and turned to take a half-bottle of Bollinger from the fridge. Brian watched and waited as the orange juice was topped up with champagne, then lifted the glass to his mouth and swallowed its contents in two large gulps. He gave a sigh of satisfaction: ‘Breakfast!

As the publican squeezed the juice from the other half of the orange into the glass, and prepared once again to fill it with champagne, Brian nodded in the direction of the labourers. ‘Please ask those three gentlemen if they would like a drink.’ The publican draped the dishcloth over his arm and moved purposefully along the bar, a man charged with a sensitive mission. As mine host in a pub in an exclusive part of town, his ear was tuned to the background hum of happy drinkers as is a sea captain’s to the throb of his ship’s engines, and he reacted strongly against anything that disturbed lucrative good cheer. This morning, public house etiquette had been violated by outsiders who had insulted a regular without provocation, and now pub lore was further strained by the offer of a drink from the defamed party. A delicate situation.

‘Mr Desmond Hurst wonders if you gentlemen would care for a drink?’ As the publican waited for a reply, he lowered his eyes and wiped the spotless mahogany bar with his dishcloth. The men shifted uncomfortably on their stools, without looking at one another, and there was a moment of tension and embar­rassment. One by one they mumbled orders for fresh sleevers of Guinness. The pints were drawn in silence and placed on the bar, and as each man lifted his drink to his lips he gave up a shamed murmur of thanks: ‘Cheers, mate!’ . . . ‘Cheers!’

‘Your very good health,’ Brian said, raising his glass of cham­pagne in the trio’s direction. ‘And by the way, gentlemen, I am not an old queen.’ He paused, forcing the men to look at him. ‘I am the Empress of Ireland!

Extract from Slightly Foxed Edition No. 51: The Empress of Ireland © The Estate of Christopher Robbins 2004


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