"I'll get these," I said. "No, no, I insist," he replied. "No, but you're my guest." "Ah, no, but you're my host, it's the least I can do. What'll it be?" "Um, just a lime and soda please." Pause. Uncomfortably long. "A...?" "Lime and soda," I said. "Please." My friend reached out and started patting the palms of his hands strangely against my chest. "Dave, what are you doing?" I asked nervously. "Just checking to see if you've turned into a girl," he replied, and bought me a lager.
In hindsight I recognise I made the most obvious non-drinker errors in my situation management. I hesitated with my drink request, as if I had good reason to expect a bad reception. And I was apologetic: "just" a lime and soda. As if it wasn't a real, satisfying drink in its own right, but something with which I would simply have to make do. People respond to non-drinkers like they used to respond to vegetarians. On the surface they are disparaged and despised. But underneath people are scared of them. They're scared of what it might say about themselves. And they always have to make just that bit too much of a big deal out of it. "Oh, so you think you're better than me?", or "I'm not good enough to drink with, eh?" And if not this, they take pity. My girlfriend can almost always happily circumvent any potential trauma because she can say in good faith that she can't drink for medical reasons. I have tried this a couple of times but from me it always sounds as if I'm admitting that scientific tests have proven I'm a congenital wuss. A woman can get away without drinking simply by saying she's on a diet. But there is only one thing I can say to my male friends that would drop me any lower in their estimation than asking for a Coke at the bar: asking for a Diet Coke.
The non-drinker's choice is doubted every time, like it's some childish fad I'll eventually get over. I have friends who know I haven't drunk alcohol for years who still inevitably questions the soundness of my fizzy choice. "Neil, every time you hassle me. Every time," I protest. "Sorry, mate. But y'know, it is a bit weird."
And so the festive season is raising its annual, ugly head and for another year I'll have to try and avoid the righteous drunk. Most drinkers don't like non-drinkers. But the heavy drinker sees it as vital to take me to task and reveal the true faith that is Intoxicating Liquor. "So why don't you drink then?" "I just don't want to, really." "That's not a very good excuse." "It's not an excuse." "Have a drink then." "I don't want one." "Go on, have a drink, it'll loosen you up," he says, slumping further against the wall. "I'm actually loose enough, really." "Seem a bit stiff to me," he burbles, before adding, "You're a freak," and falling over.
The reason I don't drink is simple. When I was eighteen I got locked in with two friends at my local pub's Christmas party. Drink was drunk. Extensively. And, like the child I was, I had no idea how much I'd had and what it would do to me. I remember going to the toilet and vomiting. Then coming back and drinking some more. Then going back to the toilet and vomiting for a longer time. Then I remember that no matter how hard I tried I couldn't see the faces of the people I was sitting with. I remember drinking Pils out of the shoe of a woman with no face. And then, apparently, I had to be taken to hospital and have my stomach pumped. That's the reason I've never wanted a drink again, but I don't see why I should have to admit it to every drunken sot who demands a pat answer.