Time Out’s Executive Editor Michael Hodges has been out again doing things he didn’t ought to. This week’s thing not to do in London – No 204: fall for free wine.
‘Are you sure it’s free wine?’ I ask my friend Lydia as we dash down the street. ‘Look, I told you it is,’ she snaps back. ‘It says so here.’ Lydia points at a message on her mobile screen which I can’t read because she’s walking so quickly. ‘Free wine! Free wine! Free wine!’ she barks. ‘Now can you please hurry, the thing starts at eight.’
Apart from the free wine, Lydia has told me nothing about our invite. This, I suspect, is because she doesn’t know anything else. Having seen the words ‘free wine’ in a text, she stopped reading. Presuming the people who are giving the wine away are temporarily mad, Lydia is dashing to reach them before they become sane again.
It’s 7.59pm and we’re both running now. Free wine is free wine and, despite the rumoured upturn in the economy, London’s bar owners are still grasping swine. Which of us can resist the lure of plonk with no price when we live in a city where a packet of peanuts and a pinot grigio costs £8.20? But as my lungs begin to rasp and crackle and the sweat spreads down my back, it occurs to me that Lydia is committed to getting alcohol at knockdown prices. Perhaps too committed – she can cross the line both morally and legally. This is a woman who spent an hour taking the 35p barcode stickers from pink grapefruits and putting them on bottles of Pilsner Urquell at a major supermarket it’s still best not to name. She is not going to consider whether darker motives might be behind this inexplicable largesse. She is not going to ask why a PR company has apparently randomly texted to invite her to bring a friend to an evening of wine tasting and nibbles in the West End at absolutely no expense.
I am going to ask, though. It all sounds far too easy. I sense a catch. ‘It’s not religious, is it?’ I say, trying to keep up with Lydia. ‘Are they weirdos, trying to trap us? Is it a sex thing?’ But it’s too late. With a last cry of ‘Will you get a bloody move on!’ Lydia disappears down a flight of dark steps that lead to the basement bar. A little voice inside my head says, ‘Do not go down the stairs.’ Ever since the time last year when the little voice said: ‘Go on, Michael, kick the police car door. Kick it really hard. That’s right, now do it again,’ I’ve been trying not to listen to it – so down the steps I go after Lydia.
At the bottom the door opens on to a brightly lit room where a group of men and women have gathered around a long table piled high with wines, cheeses and artisanal breads. Lydia sees all this and gives a gasp of pleasure. ‘Look at that!’ she says. I do look at it. It’s incredible. I also look at the faces of the men and women who have gathered around this fabulous spread. If not deeply unhappy, they look a little glum for people who are about to embark on an evening of high living at someone else’s expense.
From among this sullen crowd emerges a woman with a fixed grin. ‘Hello,’ she says. ‘I’m Susan from Freedom wines. Are you here for the free tasting?’
Lydia nods. So do I.
‘Great!’ says Susan. ’You’ve made it! I was just talking the group through what we will be doing tonight.’
‘That’s fine,’ says Lydia, her eyes still fixed on the table. Still grinning, Susan turns back to the group. ‘So welcome again everyone to an exciting evening tasting the very finest new alcohol-free wines.’ Luckily, when Lydia slumps to the floor, I’m standing behind her.
Read more of Michael Hodges’s mishaps at timeout.com/hodges