The British pub culture is pretty chill, from what I’ve seen over the years. People gather four deep at the bar, wait patiently for their turn to order a favorite pint and apologize profusely when a fellow imbiber spills bitters on them on their way to join their mates.
It’s all generally civilized. Unless you go to a proper footy pub and root for the wrong team you’re likely to emerge unscathed from an evening among the locals.
So I was unfazed when I entered O’Neill’s in central Sutton on a solo mission for a pint and some fish and chips and saw the place was jammed. I ordered at the bar – as you do – and headed for a small, unoccupied table jammed up against the window. One of the two chairs was empty, the other graced by an iridescent pink and purple hat and matching coat, which I assumed belonged to the gaggle of boisterous revelers at the next table.
I sat down with my pint of bitters, and within minutes I was tucking into a mountain of deep fried bliss. Focused on the task at hand, I was unaware of the woman at my elbow until she spoke:
“Oh, look, Dan…it seems we have a visitor this evening.”
Ruh – roh. I’ve sat at pink coat lady’s table, and judging from the regal way she regarded the space, it was her regular spot. I apologized for annexing her turf and started to say I’d move, but she was gone in an instant in search of a third seat for Dan, who stood looking sheepish while she conscripted an unused chair from the partiers next door, deposited my coat on the chair behind her and my bags of Christmas goodies on the floor and took her seat.
They nodded to me and began to chat away, and after a meandering conversation about life, love, where they were headed for Christmas and the horrid specter of Christmas shopping, somehow got around to the topic of volunteerism. (It’s not eavesdropping when you’re as attached to the conversational field of play as was I.)
“I’ve never met anyone in volunteering with any wisp of intellectual capability,” she opined, her nose to the rafters and eliciting a knowing nod of agreement from her soft-spoken, bearded friend. They chatted on for a bit before the woman decided it was time to be civil and invite me into the fray.
“What’s your name?” she inquired, looking puzzled when I answered.
“Skip. Quite American, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so.”
“Skip, as in the Australian kangaroo?”
“Yes, I’ve heard that one. The Bush Kangaroo. And my name can also pass as a large waste can for depositing construction materials. Or a brand of American peanut butter. I’ve heard them all and am desperately hoping you can add a new wrinkle to the list of quippy comments about my name that I’ve endured my entire life.”
“By the way, what’s your name?”
Seems to me someone with the name Radiance is in no position to poke fun at someone else’s odd-sounding moniker, so I figured she was fair game. I was reminded of my sister Betsey, whose bullshit detector served her well at a party when some pompous windbag went on about himself for an eternity before he lowered himself to ask what she did for work.
“I collect and restore antique banjos,” she deadpanned, stunning the fop to silence before confessing that she actually worked in her father’s flower shop, at the same time deflating his ego while confusing the hell out of him. It’s such fun to push elitists from their lofty perches.
Anyway, Radiance asked some rudimentary questions: where I was from, why I was in Sutton, etc., and at some point I revealed the fact that my wife and I had recently moved from Cambodia after living there for three years. When she asked what we were doing in Cambodia I pounced.
“Volunteering,” I answered.
Dear Radiance paused ever so slightly, quietly assessing my answer and my toothy grin, seemingly trying to figure out if I was being glib, snide or snotty. Or perhaps just devoid of the intellectual capacity she clearly so dearly cherishes.
She moved on to the subject of British poetry, leaning across the table to recite a passage from one of England’s countless Scribes of Letters of whom I have never heard, sharing a bit of iambic pentameter that was far less memorable than the fish and chips I was quaffing.
Radiance radiated about the world, politics, the growing scourge of illiteracy and the imminent death of reading as an art form.
“You speak as though you’re a writer,” I offered.
“She has a background in social science,” Dan offered, dead-ending that particular piece of the conversation. Radiance smiled softly and changed the subject to gawd knows what, blithely continuing a monologue that I suspect will have no end until Radiance has shined her last.
We sat there as I chewed on my cod and chips, she sipping champagne, Dan quickly downing a Guinness and heading for another. Contemplating their empty glasses, they offered to buy me a drink but I declined, suddenly wanting for the chill of the night and a bit less Radiance around my aura.
I’m on my own again tonight and will be on the prowl to discover more of Sutton, its environs and its people. Maybe this time I’ll head for a proper footy pub. And root for the wrong team.