I am having a tough day today. A very painful goodbye at Oxford station, a long walk along the river, and now I am sat in my half-empty flat feeling hollow and a little lost.
My possessions are strewn about. They need to be divided into take-with, put in shipping container, and chucked away. I have nowhere to sit. My chairs are covered in boxes; the sofa’s is in pieces in a recycling skip; the bed I sold last night for £75 to a nice student who loaded it into a large people taxi and drove off. My Mazda was driven off the day before.
I keep feeling hungry but it’s only 11.50am and I know it’s not hunger but stomach knots as the depth of my move, my emigration sinks in. And I keep welling up. Occasionally one manages to break through and pulls with it a few drops down my face. They don’t have enough momentum to get past the cheek ridge so stop there and dry.
I’m hoping that by writing this post I am going to get some clarity, clear my head. I’d been staring vacantly out the window for 10 minutes trying to get a handle on things and failing. The answer my brain eventually came up with was: write. I am starting to feel better already.
I haven’t had to fight my way out of a pub for over a decade. Actually, to be fair, it wasn’t a fight. I didn’t hit anyone. It was more defensive – protecting Rachel from two screeching harridans, forcefully pushing my way past a few locals. Although I do have a few cuts and bruises on my hands and arms.
I think it was only me that noticed how sour the atmosphere had turned. It was bizarre. Andy and his mates had decided to watch the rugby world cup semi-final, England vs France, at the Duke of York – the strange pub soon to be destroyed in a renovation of Oxford’s “West End”. It is the nearest pub to me – literally two minutes walk – but it is a very local pub and since it resides literally on the edge off Oxford’s biggest car park, next to the main road, it attracts the sort of people that feel more comfortable in pubs that are in the middle of car parks.
Anyway when we arrived – me, Iain and Rachel – Andy, his girlfriend Sue, and four of his mates were already there. Far from having the big screen that the pub puts up for footy, they were actually in the back of the pub watching a small TV plugged resting at the end of the bar. We suggested moving to a different pub but the consensus was that all the pubs showing the rugby would be rammed, and at least we had seats here (we did, three tables and about 15 chairs).
So this is about 7.30pm, with the game starting at 8pm. By the time of kick-off a bunch of other people both groups had invited turned up and a couple of locals had also set up in the back to watch the TV.
Now, the problem is that Saturday night at the Duke of York is karaoke night. It’s a riotous affair. I’ve been twice and it is the one night that the pub gets full. It’s fascinatingly dreadful: young, tarty girls; old men staring at the girls; and a big contingent of overweight late-30s women hating both groups, drinking vast quantities of wine, and wailing their favourite songs into the enormous PA system.
To be fair there are two women that have pretty good voices (the sort that go on the X-Factor and are quite good but are amazed, and then furious, when they’re told they’re not good enough to go through to the next round). As far I can see, the two women alternate the MC role, which itself comprises singing the odd song in between the locals’ efforts and geeing up the crowd with little comments or jokes. This role has become very important to both these women. They are so much better than other performers that they are constantly applauded on Saturday night and clearly this provides a massive boost to their self-esteem.
They are however massive boozers – as their figures make immediately clear. The last time I went, the MC got increasingly drunk during the course of the evening. She must have put away at least two bottles. And she grew increasingly aggressive. Trying to get the crowd going by slurring passionate exhortations before launching into increasingly incoherent numbers, whose subject matter became more and more about women and a sense of loss or strength. It was great watching but not something you want to do every often.
Come on girls!
Karaoke evening has been losing some of its appeal in the local area recently, however. Work has started on the redevelopment and so the pub is now within a building site within a car park. It has also become an odd haven for the two MCs and their female friends, who have also become best buddies with the barmaids.
It was this group of women that gradually gathered at the other end of the bar that was staring at the 20 or so of us watching the rugby. From the way that the barmaid served me beer – grudgingly and only after pretending not to notice me – I realised noticed that tension was building.
The PA system was turned up. So the TV was turned up. Very soon both were at maximum. There were only about five people in the main part of the pub where the karaoke was set up, and so the start was delayed while England played their socks off in a terrific match against the French.
At half-time, there was a lot of movement in and out of the back and perhaps the karaoke women assumed it was over. But when the second half began, everyone milled back away from the karaoke, and even more people crammed in to see the little TV, the MC could take it no more. She fired up the PA system and started trying to get people going with a song. No one emerged. And at one point she was drowned out by a massive cheer when England took the lead.
So she appeared at the edge of where the rugby crowd was and tried to mock and disturb us by bellowing into the microphone. But while the sound was loud enough to drown out most of the TV’s sound, we didn’t care because we could easily follow what was going on, the game was very exciting, and we didn’t have time to shift to a different pub anyway.
Died blonde bomb-shell
Her mockery had no impact, and no one was signing up to sing karaoke. So after another number she tried a different tack: asking us to keep her informed about the score. Still no one paid her any attention; so she became increasingly angry. When England went further ahead, she rushed in – possibly in the middle of a song – and mockingly kissed the screen. We all ignored her. It was at this point that the wine-guzzling female masses started really getting into a frenzy.
But, of course, we were all so enraptured by the game that no one except me – who had a seat where I could see both the TV and the harridans at the same time – noticed. So when the final whistle went to huge cheering because England had won, the barmaid – who was hovering – immediately, as in within two seconds, turned the television set off. So someone immediately went to turn it on, but she went behind the bar and turned it off at the plug.
This annoyed Andy and his mates so they decided that rather than stay in the pub they would go elsewhere. The group I was in was pretty undecided – they were not big rugby fans, so the offence wasn’t so great. The feeling was that we might as well stay, save having to move.
But as Andy was leaving, he made a fatal error. Somewhat bemused by the barmaid’s behaviour, he said to her, perfectly politely, “you know, we would have stayed here for the rest of evening”. It was all that was needed for the frustration to blow and Andy was met by an enormous torrent of abuse. At which point Rachel intervened in defense of Andy and received another mouthful of abuse. She responded with her own abuse back – saying that the pub should be grateful of any custom they get being stuck in a car park. Which really hit a nerve, and within seconds the MC had appeared from nowhere and hurtled into attack Rachel. The barmaid made to come round the bar; the barmaid’s husband piled in; and Andy and I both immediately grabbed Rachel and tried to bundle her out the pub.
It gets blurry from that point. I stopped the MC from getting at Rachel and had my hand clawed as a result, then the barmaid’s husband decided to force me out of the pub by grabbing my neck from behind. Rachel got out the pub with Andy; I managed – with remarkable fortune – to scoop up my glasses that had been knocked off and was planning to block any of the harridans behind me. But the MC had headed back into the pub and come out of the side door, whereupon she charged Rachel across the car park. Fortunately she was fended off by Andy and then held back by some locals. We all marched off to shouts of abuse and just hoped that everyone else had got out around and it hadn’t escalated inside the pub.
When it turned out everyone was fine, I thought the whole thing was hilarious. A perfect end to the last Saturday night I will have in Oxford for probably a very long time – getting in a fight in my local pub with my mates after an England victory. Everyone else seemed a little shell-shocked: not quite sure what happened and why.
A part of me is itching to head over there for Sunday lunch.
I feel better for having relayed that story. My mood has lifted through writing. I still have an entire flat of stuff; a night on an inflatable mattress to look forward to; a terrible brain-whirling movement of myself and my life to a new continent a very, very long way from my friends and family. The sudden complete alteration of a relationship with deep, emotional ties. And I’m still left with the kind of questions that a situation like this throws up in your brain: where I am headed with my life; where have I come from; am I making the right decisions here. And then of course the melancholy.
But writing has, as ever, made them seem less overwhelming. I’m going to have lunch with Andy in half-an-hour in town, and when I get back I will have to spend the rest of the day sorting out my stuff. I hope the feeling of excitement and new possibilities that comes with big moves arrives soon.