Stopped in at the corner market this morning and made this mistake of buying a cup of their coffee. Reminded me on one of my favorite Rumpole moments. It's from the story "Rumpole and the Reform of Joby Johnson." Rumpole's visiting a potential witness at a halfway house the witness runs for juvenile deliquents. The witness, making Rumpole at home, says, "You're not allergic to a drink, I hope," and Rumpole replies:
"I thought you'd never ask."
Seb handed his cricket bat to a deliquent lad and went over to the bar, where another deliquent was serving his fellows. My hopes were dashed when my host uttered the dread words: "Tea, coffee, hot soup, Seven-Up or Froo-Jucella?"
"I thought you were offering me a drink." I'm afraid I showed my disappointment.
"So I was."
"Froo-Jucella migh seriously damage my health, as my alcohol level has sunk to a dangerous low. Now, if you have a glass of humble claret? Chateau Boys Brigade, if it's available."
"I'm afraid it isn't." He was still smiling and made no apology.
"Or you might send over to the station for a bottle of British Rail Rouge?"
"I'll get you a coffee. And let's find ourselves a table."
So, as you may imagine, I wasn't in the cheeriest of moods as I sat and looked round the gym. Fred the driver was now seated in the middle of a circle of deliquents, to whom he seemed to be giving some sort of pep-talk or seminar. All the youths in the room, I noticed, were wearing dark sweaters, jeans and trainers, so they looked as though they were in a kind of uniformed group. I was about to seek the company of a small cigar, and had the packet open when Seb came back with two plastic cups and told me that the lads had voted the place a Smoke-Free Zone.
I said goodbye to the small cigar. "What're you running here, a monastery?"
"Delightful wit!" Seb seemed to be out to flatter me. "That's what old Tom Mottram told me about you. No, I don't make the rules, the boys do. Self-discipline, that's the name of the game."
"I thought it was cricket." This was clearly not up to the standard of Rumpole repartee and Seb ignored it. "No alcohol," he told me. "No smoking. And, of course, if we catch one of their number dropping an 'E'..."
"Ecstasy. Anyone indulging in any sort of drug gets a hard time from the other fellows, a very hard time indeed."
"So you rely on these young men to police each other?" I looked round at the uniformed squad.
"Too right we do! Well, it's the only way. No good imposing rules on them from above; they wouldn't take a blind bit of notice. How's the coffee?"
"Is it coffee?" I had been genuinely puzzling over the brew. "I beg its pardon. I thought it was the soup."
That's how I felt about my coffee this morning. I thought it was the soup. I wasn't as polite to it, though, as Rumpole was.