Filthy Still by Dan Miles: An exclusive excerpt
Dan Miles is an award-winning bartender turned writer. Despite being British he represented New Zealand in the 2008 Cocktail World Cup, has worked in bars everywhere from Australia to Shanghai, appeared on radio and television and won the Evening Standard’s London’s Best Bar award.
He contributes to the US edition of the Huffington Post. This month he released his debut novel, Filthy Still: a tale of travel, sex and perfectly made cocktails, as an e-book.
Following the misadventures of protagonist Alex Cotton, the book is based on Miles’ five years as a bartender in Queenstown, New Zealand, which boasts the ratio of one bar to every 40 inhabitants. Dan has kindly let us publish the first chapter of his book, which can be bought here, on db.com.
There have been moments when I’ve woken with a mouth like a leper’s armpit that I have regretted coming to this town. This town is filthy, or I am filthy in it; I have difficulty telling the difference any more.
There are also moments when I place a smile on a face where previously there was only a frown, when the light catches the citrus sheen on a perfectly made martini, when the simple clink of ice in a glass sends shivers down my spine that it all seems worthwhile.
My name is Alex Cotton and I make drinks.
I am also becoming increasingly convinced that this town is trying to kill me.
I’m not from here. No one is. At least, no one I’ve ever found. It is the world’s most beautiful refugee camp. Every year people come from all over the world to this idyllic little spot. They stay, they drink. They ski, they drink. They leave clutching memories they’ll never forget and some they’ll never regain. It is perfect in every way that matters and wrong in every way that counts.
It stands proud on a lake of perfect blue, beneath mountains that beggar the imagination, but just out of sight are vomit-strewn pavements with urine-soaked corners, cheap drinks and overpriced drugs, where junkies and millionaires share the same air and people come and go with such frequency that someone who means so much to you today will be nothing but a memory tomorrow.
It is as far away from anything as it is possible to be. That is exactly why I chose it. Welcome to Queenstown, New Zealand.
I arrived in early summer. Picture me as I climb off the bus, rucksack over one shoulder and a grin on my face. Too tall to fit into any mode of transport comfortably and a body that causes even the most non-maternal woman to try to feed it. It is fair to say that I will never be described as rugged or edgy.
It was on this very spot that Sergeant O’Hoolihan, Queenstown’s legendary and sole police officer for thirty years, met the bus and sent undesirables and the Irish packing. Some wish he still did, anything to staunch the endless, pumping arterial splurge of backpackers staining the pebbles like sump oil.
Many things other than a bus had brought me to this spot, but a singular and startling lack of ambition would seem to be the prevailing theme. I have never done anything vaguely constructive with my life. I’m not ashamed of this fact. Frankly it has taken more effort to achieve than doing something vaguely constructive with my life.
I’ve picked watermelons in Western Australia, which taught me that I fucking hate watermelons. I once filed the records of every ship lost in British waters in the last one hundred and twenty years. Which taught me that filing blows. A career highlight to date was getting paid to make an elastic band ball so big you could bowl with it. This was admittedly not the task I was set, but was that which I achieved. On completing said opus I stole it and presented it to my girlfriend on Valentine’s Day as a token of my love.
To read my CV is, if nothing else, a laugh. A succession of relationships had also got me this far. I would not go as far as to say I was running away as such, just putting a healthy distance between myself and every girl I had ever dated. Now maybe it’s because I am, let’s face it, kind of cute and harmless looking, but the strangest thing about my relationships are the odd things they seem to want to do to me.
It’s no joke. Frankly, it’s getting a little worrying. If there is a woman out there with a kernel of deviancy squirreled away inside her soul then I will inevitably end up dating her. I would have tried internet dating but most sites lack the filter question “are you likely to want to dress me up in a nappy and spank me with a kayak paddle?” If you require an example, allow me to introduce you to Samantha and her cupboard.
“It’s just a fantasy.”
“Right.” I eyed her suspiciously. “So, just to recap, you want me to hide in the wardrobe?”
“…In the wardrobe.”
“And then you want me to…”
“Jump out and attack me.”
I wrung the ski mask in my hands. “I’m sorry, why?”
“It’s a fantasy! I’m going to come home like I’ve been at the office all day and get undressed while you’re…”
“In the cupboard.”
“In a ski mask.”
I looked between the mask and the freestanding wardrobe with its wooden slat doors. “Seriously?”
Samantha, who usually looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, stood up sharply and confiscated it. “If you’re not willing to try then just forget it!”
“All right, hang on,” I said, reluctantly retrieving the mask. “I mean, if it’s what you really want.”
There are few moments in life more humbling, more conducive to self-examination than standing naked in a wardrobe wearing just a ski mask and socks. I peered out at the world through the slats of an antique armoire and wondered why this kept happening to me.
All these things and many more brought me to the streets of Queenstown. And here I was. I squinted up at the sky, drinking it all in, from the distant, pale orange wall of The Remarkables mountains to the vertical cut of cleared forest that stretched above the town, a cable car threading its length to a viewing platform that looked like a crown by day and a hovering UFO at night, all surrounded by crystal clear water. If you’re picturing it as a perfect day, you’d be right.
Everything was right in the world, except the five hundred bucks I had left in it and an almost unnatural fear of having to go home and face the music; banks, credit cards, family, insignificant stuff like that.
Standing next to Lake Wakatipu it’s possible to see why people flock here year in, year out. You rarely get to settle on a view so perfect, so grand, so almost constructed with the tourists in mind. To the left lay a rocky, grey strip of beach ending at the slender green arm and towering firs of the botanical gardens.
To the right a sparsely filled marina and beyond that nothing but towering, tree-covered slopes, sliding gently down toward the wide, open breadth of the lake. After that lay nothing but mountains, the thinnest wisp of cloud obscuring their upmost peaks.
“Nice, innit?” Trigger said. I don’t know why I stared. This was, after all, the man who’d described the Sydney Opera house as “shiny.”
Trigger was the kind of person who deserved the word “inveterate” to describe him; “inveterate traveller,” “inveterate alcoholic,” take your pick, just make sure it has nice, chunky inverted commas. He’s a white Rasta from Ickenham, West London, ugliest place in the world,* who earned his name, not as he thinks because he seems dangerous, but more because of the reaction time of his sexual prowess.
Trig sees the world by bars and off licenses. Put it like this, you will never visit an art gallery whilst travelling with him. So far we had covered all of Australia, most of Indonesia and been robbed by a ladyboy in Thailand. Don’t ask, it wasn’t my fault.
“Nice?” I asked.
Trigger looked around, nodding, seemingly happy with his description. I’ve often felt he should work for a tourist board. His power to reduce a place to a succinct little titbit is legendary.
I leaned on the wide, smooth, sun-warmed blocks that made up the top of a wall too pretty to defend against flood but perfect for admiring the tranquil bay around which the town stretched like a horseshoe. Apart from a couple of buoys the lake’s only occupant was a solitary steamer moving leisurely toward us, the only ripple the white from its bow, the only mark on the blue, blue sky the belching mile-high plume curling up from it’s stack to stain it.
“Fuck carbon footprint.” Trig sniggered.
The TSS Earnslaw, the so called Lady of the Lake let out a mournful cry as it commenced its turn to dock. There was something stirring about the sound, the way it echoed off the hills so that it seemed to come from everywhere at once.
We adjourned for a drink and where normal people might go for a coffee we went to an Irish bar on the waterfront for something that could charitably be called Guinness. There’s a theory that the further you get from the brewery in Ireland the worse the Guinness tastes. Though nowadays I guess that would be the further you get from Nigeria. “Shit me.” I grimaced. It tasted like I was sucking a rivet.
“Nasty.” Trig nodded, sounding almost appreciative. I noticed he kept staring up at the cable car hill.
“OK, what are you up to?” I demanded.
“Why must I be up to anything?” he said. I waited patiently. “Seriously!” My patience was limitless. “All right, fine, I’m thinking about…”
“Setting fire to it?” I suggested.
My eyes narrowed. “Fucking it?”
This was new. I’d never known him want to climb anything that wasn’t scaffolding. And when he wasn’t drunk. Let alone walk anywhere, or at least anywhere that wasn’t from his house to The Albatross, ugliest pub on earth. “Looks like it would be fun.” he sulked.
“So what do you want to do today?” I asked, changing the subject.
Trigger looked at me as if I had asked the most stupid question in the world. Which I guess I had really.
Backpacker bars are always the same; noise, sticky floors, sweaty ceilings. I didn’t ask how Trigger found this one. He knew a town like a local within a day of being there, at least when it came to alcohol. Man couldn’t find a museum if it curated in his mouth but could sniff a two-dollar happy hour a mile away.
This one was an upstairs bar; a sea of movement, tables stacked with pizza and beer, a stone archway, a narrow dance floor, and in a slight twist to form a roof that opened every twenty minutes. Why I couldn’t say. I mean, maybe it’s just me, but I find one of the joys of bars are that they’re indoors.
Trigger doesn’t like to queue, not that anyone really does, but he rejects them on a whole different level. His rebellion takes the form of buying two or three drinks at once and hoarding them like an alcoholic squirrel. Armed with half a dozen handles of beer, two of which were mine, and three shots of something peachy, one of which was mine, we perched on the end of a leaner table. “Mmmm, sleazy,” he said, with genuine approval, adding, “even you could get action in a place like this.”
“I mean, not easily.”
It’s difficult to explore with more drinks than hands, so most of my initial view of Queenstown by night was from behind a chubby guy with no shirt who smelt like a curious combination of chip fat and baby lotion. It seemed much like drinking anywhere really; guys talked to girls, girls talked to guys, guys bought drinks, occasionally girls bought drinks, harried bartenders slopped beers, poured shots, filled glasses, maybe floating a couple of mournful-looking ice cubes on top, more as an afterthought really.
The lights were bright, the temperature hot. Except when the roof opened, then it seemed like it was raining, though it was just condensed perspiration sliding down in rivulets to pepper my head and land in my drink.
Beyond us was a pool table around which serious guys played next to piles of dollars, marking their territory more firmly than if they peed on it, an arcade game on which you shot harmless mammals with a pink shotgun and a balcony accessed through a plastic sheet. The last remaining terrain of the smoker.
I don’t smoke, but Trigger does, so I was faced with that classic choice: stand around like the lonely dude with no friends next to a guy who smelled like a deep fried baby, or suck down second hand fag smoke but at least get to have a conversation.
In this case the smokers had the better end of the deal. For once they hadn’t been exiled to filthy courtyards and the dark street corners of the world, but occupied a sparsely filled and pleasant balcony scattered with plants and lit by the orange wash from the street. Trigger occupied himself hand rolling an anorexically thin cigarette while I enjoyed the view. If I leant out and craned my head left I could just see the black mass of the lake. If I craned right I could see at least five places selling sheepskin. “Reminds me of Ickenham,” Trig sighed.
“Does it? How so? Exactly.”
“You know, people having a laugh, partying.”
“All things that aren’t exactly exclusive to Ickenham.” I could have left it there.
Ah, who was I kidding? “So, um, how else does this paradise of the South Seas remind you of Ickenham, Trig?” I asked, pleasantly.
“Just does.” he murmured.
“I mean, I can’t see anyone stealing a stereo.”
He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “cock.”
Now when I say that Ickenham is the ugliest place on earth, that’s not entirely true. There are uglier places: Taunton, Bangkok, Mt Isa in Australia (Trigger description, “Epic shit hole!”). Ickenham beats them all by how content it is in its own ugliness. Most areas lean towards gentrification in an attempt to better themselves. Ickenham laughs at gentrification and builds another multi-storey car park, though who the fuck is parking there is beyond me.
I am not from Ickenham, thank the sweet baby Jesus. Trigger however was born and bred West London. It showed.
Later as we played pool, I wondered where my shirt had gone.
Later still, as I shot a squirrel with a large pink shotgun, I wondered where my dignity had gone.
*I have since learnt that Wolverhampton is in fact the ugliest place on earth.