Campari and tonic

“Campari and tonic please. One part Campari to three parts chilled tonic. No ice, no slice”.

This was the nurse’s preferred aperitif throughout most of her adult life, a habit acquired whilst in the Navy nursing service, stationed in Bighi, and ordered with that slow precise yet confident diction we British reserve for use when talking to foreigners. The perfect summer evening drink to enjoy on the terrace below the officers mess, watching the low evening light turn Valleta from pale sandstone to rich coral or salmon. Tiny fishing boats bobbed along on the swell, the painted eyes on their bow guiding them home. The smell of frying lampuki wafting up from the harbour cafes, while feral cats picked out scraps of fish carelessly tossed from the kitchens.

It was a long way from Wigan, that’s for sure. You would struggle to find anyone who had heard of Campari. Or anyone who could spell it. But these were before the days of globalisation. International brands simply didn’t exist. You drank gluhweein in Germany, sangria in Spain and, God help you, ouzo in Greece. But don’t expect to find them back in Blighty. This after all was the 1950s. Rationing was not long gone and we were only gradually emerging like colourful butterflies from khaki gabardine cocoons. Who wouldn’t want that vibrant pink drink, bitter with wormwood, sparkling in the sunset to wipe away those evenings in the Dog and Basket on Station Road, nursing a half of mild while nicotine fingered old men bickered over dominoes.

“Hello” he said. She looked up, screwing her eyes against the sunlight. It was the naval surgeon from the landing ship anchored in the harbour.

“Hello” she replied awkwardly.

He looked away for a moment, collecting his thoughts, sorting his words.

“That looks interesting. Can I get you another”, he said gesturing to her drink.

She hesitated.

“Thank you” she said “Campari and tonic please”.

He repeated the words silently to himself.

“I’m John” he said.

“Pat”.

“Pleased to meet you, Pat”.

It was 1956 and even in those drab post-war years there was still such a thing as love at first sight. They were engaged within two months, wed within four.

And until the day she died, some fifty years later, she drank the same aperitif. They played a little game. As the sun settled over the yard arm, she would say “Campari”. He would reply “and tonic”. And they would alternate the remaining words as though struggling to remember them.

I once asked my mother, many years later, why she always drank the same evening aperitif.

“Because every time I take that first sip, it’s sunset and I’m back on the terrace at the naval hospital”.