Saturday, March 27, 2010

Drinking to the past

Drinking at work is fraught with danger.

I'm not talking about alcohol, because what's dangerous about that? It's just a hobby.

I'm referring to hot drinks, made with water, like tea and coffee.

These drinks are prevalent and important in the workplace. They are used as a psychological crutch, or as an eye-opener, or as an excuse to chat with your mates, or as a substitute cigarette for those people without the willpower to continue smoking, but still want the fag break they've got used to.

And it's important to stock up on a decent cuppa before going to my place of employment because they don't do tea or coffee, just steaming cups of hot-brown. We don't know what it is, but it's hot and brown.

Our glorious leaders, or at least the myopic scrooge-like creatures in charge of the finances, have decided that, because they provide dried hot-brown to us free of charge (unless you count the cost of kidney and cerebral cortex damage, but who does that?), then they have fulfilled their duty as a compassionate, caring organisation who want to improve the working lot for their valued underlings, and so do not provide milk.

No milk?

We argued.

"But . . . " we cried, "We're British!"

The British tend to put milk in everything. Tea. Coffee. Hot Chocolate. Cows. You'll find milk in them all.

But they were not for the turning. You must take your hot-brown without milk, they told us.It will still be hot, but black instead of brown. We also received an accompanying memo telling us not to call it hot-black because of a) copyright reasons from Douglas Adams and b) it's racialist against bovril.

From now on, it would be hot-dark-brown.

We wailed. We gnashed what was left of our undissolved teeth, and there was much greeting and wearing of black armbands. We choked down the hot-dark-brown, grimacing and shuddering as we did so, so no change there then.

"You could buy your own milk." The managerial types suggested.

After the walkout, we came back to work a few weeks later (because we were thirsty) but they were adamant in their miserliness. We were, at the end of the day, milkless.

Maybe we would get used to it, we wondered. After all, we can change. It's been done before. Remember when everyone in the country, and I mean everyone, took two sugars in their tea?

Well we don't now do we?

It's only toddlers and builders that spoon the white stuff in there these days.

When did that happen? Sugary tea has gone the way of Texan bars and white dog poo, relegated to a bygone era when cars came in orange with brown velour seats and the weather men on the telly stuck magnetic clouds onto wobbly cut-outs of the country.

The past, in other words.

So maybe, just maybe, we could change our milk habits as well.

Actually, we already have done.

Once upon a time, when semi-skimmed and skimmed milk were specialist diet drinks, we all drank only full fat milk?

You had to shake the bottle to mix in the layer of cream that had settled out at the top. If it was delivered, you would often have to fight off lactose-addicted blue-tits who would peck the thin foil lid off the bottles whilst staring down cats who knew better than to interrupt them before they'd got their hit.

Then you'd wonder whether it was safe to drink the milk, what with the little holes in the lid and the droppings on the side of the bottle. You invariably did drink it though, because these were the days before salmonella, when the worse thing you could catch off a bird was an STD.

Now the only ones who drink full-fat milk are old ladies in Jersey and calves.

For the next few weeks we choked down the steaming brews of hot-dark-brown, each cup making Sisyphus's labour with the big marble seem like a summer job stuffing envelopes in comparison, yet we persevered because . . . it was free!

Some of us fell by the wayside and brought in small labelled tupperware containers of instant coffee, or maybe a tea-bag sealed in a sandwich box and hidden from others as if it were the most precious of treasures.

And yes, friends, even I was tempted to take some comfort in that plan, but that would mean they had won, which would be a taste more bitter than that of the most mug-melting works beverage.

Then, one day, the skies darkened and a creature representing the financial department descended on bat-like wings into our workhouse. We scurried like rodents 'neath a raptor, running for cover as we knew what such visits invariably meant.


But there was little to be done, so we left the financial demon perched in a supervisors office and tried to look outrageously inconspicuous.

In a moment of audacious bravery, someone gave the visiting incubus a cup of hot-dark-brown, and he absent-mindedly took a sip before the steam from it made his eyebrows fall out.

And then it happened.

His face turned inside out, as if he'd sucked the suckiest of lemons, and he retched a little. His neck went a slightly blue colour, and tremors gripped him. His quill and ink-pot (balanced on his laptop) toppled unnoticed to the floor.

A strange, unfamiliar expression drifted across his ravaged features. His eyes moistened slightly, and his head dropped. A sigh escaped his toothed beak, like a wet fetid breeze emanating from an ancient flooded tomb.

It was, we realised, compassion.

"We . . . didn't know . . ." he croaked in a voice like a strimmer blinding a hedgehog. "We didn't know."

He looked up.

We had all put on hats so we could line up in front of him, take them off and hold them in two hands in front of us like serfs, and we stuck our trembling bottom lips out.

"Very well." He said, picking up the uniform checklist he had been using to record how many boots we had, and in his opinion how many we actually needed (two and one respectively), and stood up, half drunk cup of hot-dark-brown left on the desk.

We held our collected breath. One of my colleagues whimpered "Milk?" expectantly.

"We shall send you something to lighten this . . ." he sneered at the cup, the handle of which was sliding off into a puddle of liquid ceramic, " . . . abomination."

And then he spread out his wings, let out a screech, and flew back to HQ.

And he was true to his word.

Just a few short months later, a parcel arrived. We saw the word "MILK" on the side, but the rest of the words were covered over by mysterious runes and incantations used by the financial department to ward off auditors. Still, that single word excited us, and caused anticipatory shivers up and down our oesophaguses.

We opened the box like children on christmas day. Like children opening a box on christmas day, not us opening children on christmas day because that is wrong. And messy. And frowned upon.

Inside, as I have previously aforementioned prior to this, was our employers "gift". Sure enough, it was something that would take away the deep bitterness of the hot-dark-brown, and turn it once more into the hot-brown we had become accustomed to.

But it wasn't milk:

Tastes Like Fresh Milk?

That's actually what it's called. It's resemblance to milk stopped at the word "milk" on the lid, because the closest this has ever been to milk was when it drove past a field of cows whilst on the M5.

'Tastes Like Fresh Milk' is just its name, so it doesn't have to be accurate. Mars bars aren't the size of a planet. A Ford Escort doesn't look like a prostitute. Eminem isn't small, yellow and bad for you. Actually, scratch that last one. It's fairly accurate.

We tried it, and sure enough, our hot-brown looked like it always had done. Hot and brown. We tasted it, and it resembled having ones tongue removed with sacateurs, placed in a rat, buried in an old dulux white emulsion tin, dug up after a month, seived back out through a pair of tights worn by bank robbers on a hot day (and not over their faces), before being surgically reattached into your mouth by a man called Olaf who made his name sewing ears back on Russian mobsters in the eighties.

More or less.

Like a deal made with a minion from the atrium of the bowels of the arse end of Hades itself, we got what we wanted. But at what price?

What price indeed.


  1. Well I haven't been here in ages due to horrible things going on in my life, but I am here now, full of empathy and delight. I love the way you write, I love Hitchhikers and I work in an office (just til I'm rich and famous, you understand)so I understand wherefrom you speak.

    I will be back more regularly, I promise (and that promise is to myself)

    The Clean White Page

  2. This was, as usual, brilliant. I love your stories, they always amuse me so much!

    And on behalf of all of us yanks across the pond, thank you very much for putting the milk into cows. I am just a tad curious how you do it though...

  3. Does the name of this product actually have a question mark at the end of it (Tastes Like Milk?)? That's clever marketing! Daring the consumer to find out for himself. I would try it.

    In the 80s, I developed a little addiction to to a certain white powder that was made available in the office (okay, trailer) where I worked. It's called Coffee Mate (don't know if you have it in Blighty). It has an unnaturally satisfying mouthfeel, and staves off mid-morning hunger in addition to lightening hot beverages. I'm sure it's cheaper (especially in kilo-sized bricks) than the stuff you use now. Slip the incubus a note recommending a switch. Tell him it also makes employees docile.

  4. Tina - Thank you for the lovely comment. I hope things in your life settle for the better.

    SkylersDad - You're too kind! And you really don't want to see how we put milk into cows. Once it has been seen, it cannot be unseen . . .

    Beta Dad - We have coffee mate over here too, but believe me it's like ambrosia compared to this stuff. And we're docile enough as it is, I reckon!

  5. Ooooh. I'll stick to whatever is swilling in my bright pink can of TaB for my daily lift. Coca Cola and Austin Powers would be proud. Am certain my cortex and espophogus are in the same ruined state as if I had been drinking that horrid hot-brownish wake-me-up. This is my first visit ... and I'll be back. Just don't offer me anything to drink. I'll bring my own. Cheers from across the pond!

  6. Ah, I have nothing witty to say because you have just used up all the remaining humor in the universe in this insanely awesome post.

    Brilliant. Extra points for referencing Douglas Adams!

  7. "It's only toddlers and builders that spoon the white stuff in there these days."

    It has to be black tea, sugarless, made with real tea leaves, none of your teabag mamby-pamby nonsense in Scotland my boy. And of course it must be strong. In fact strong enough to stand a teaspoon up in the middle of the plastic bucket in which it is brewed on site.

    I cannae speak for the builders though..

  8. Maybe you could save up and buy a cow. A communal resource so to speak. Apart from the cost of the cow food, you'd make a bundle on selling the milk onto the thirsty hordes.

  9. steelxmagnolia - Probably wise. Good to have you along.

    Soda and Candy - Glad you liked it, and Douglas Adams should be referenced on everything really. He was that good.

    Jimmy - Leaves? Sounds a bit poncey to me mate? What's wrong with good old fashioned tea dust?

    Madame DeF - And we could have a great BBQ at the end of the year! Everyone's a winner! Except the cow.

  10. Not even Lehman in the throes of bankruptcy foisted this kind of undrinkable upon us.

    Great post!

  11. bless your heart, sugar, now i need to brew a pot of coffee in my french press. ;~D real cream & sugar, of course. xoxoxo

  12. Thats what I like about the British... So stoic. Here in Oz we would throw ourselves on the floor and kick and scream until they relented. . but not you Brits, Oh no! Not for you the bad language and tantrums of the colonies. You'd rather get colon cancer from the hot brown than show any sign of weekness. Good on ya!

  13. I must have worked for more considerate employers, at least I have never been subjected to hot-dark-brown; it sounds appalling. Although my current employer does need lessons in coffee making, we try our best to keep him at arms length from the machine, but we're not always successful.

    Brilliant piece, I have missed calling in, don't know how, but it took me a good while to catch up on recent posts. Splendid way to spend an evening.


  14. Eric - But . . . it's freeeeeee!

    Savvy - I knew you'd have a spot of class and taste about this sort of thing.

    Tempo - What can I say? Suffering is our strength.

    AV - Lovely to have you back mate. Have you considered tethering your boss just out of reach of the coffee machine? It's not cruel as long as you leave fresh straw and a water bottle with easy reach.

  15. I've always tried to react against popular culture. So whereas most people put milk in cows, I fill them up with lemonade.

    The only side-effect is that it increases the methane output, and consequently I've been attacked my multiple climate-change protesters, and it also makes the damn things burp all the time - the cows, not the protesters.

  16. Mo - When life hands you lemons, fill a cow with lemonade? Now that's a philosophy I could live by!

  17. I could not stop laughing. This was great.

    Our office version of "Tastes like Fresh Milk" comes in powder form in little, individual packets. Nom.

  18. Amusing! Ha ha, you make me laugh! Was a good read! :)

  19. otherworldlyone - Nom indeed! You could save time and simply pour all the dried powders into your mouth, then have a swill of water. Saves on cups too.

    The Virgin Author! - Ta very much, and welcome.

  20. Just wait until the I Can't Belive It's Nut Butter truck rolls in. I swear it is how the aliens take control of your mind.
    Great post.


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