Sometimes, not being able to hear properly can affect a whole night out, especially if you are left out of an entire conversation. Juliet England remembers one such recent Saturday evening.
It’s Saturday night. My friend, G, and I are incompatible walkers, hastening through the surprisingly silent, freezing town centre, me perpetually a few paces behind him, trotting to keep up.
We make desultory conversation, changing subject rapidly, as we often do in the first moments of meeting up. It’s like fiddling with a radio dial until we’ve tuned into each other properly, and until I have any hope of hearing him.
In the pub, we greet members of the walking group to which G still belongs, but which I left a year or two ago. Strictly speaking, as I am no longer a paid-up member, I shouldn’t be here. But the weekend’s pub crawl has been taking place since lunchtime, with most survivors by now too sloshed to care whether I am there or not.
We order food then sit down with Dundee Jim and his wife, E. Jim’s beard is as thick as his accent, with both things combining to make his speech all but unintelligible. If I ask him a question, he tends to direct his reply to someone else.
Within seconds, he and G are deep in a discussion about Brexit. Or perhaps not so much a discussion as a monologue, with G throwing in the odd question, probing Jim’s arguments.
At first, I catch shards of the conversation, though it’s hard to tell if Jim’s a Leaver or a Remain-ian.
“Nicola Sturgeon…Brexit… 51.9%….. VitaWheat… Ear wax… Second referendum… David Cameron….Tutti frutti…A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom.”
Soon I give up completely, gazing around the room and taking in the Saturday night revellers. In the middle distance, a girl snakes one arm around a young man as she lifts a pint glass with the other. A middle-aged woman, maybe her mother, sits opposite.
Empires fall, governments come and go. People get through to E-On and HMRC on automated phone systems. Still Jim drones on, incomprehensibly.
“Well, lookabell, lookabell, Reet Petite. Ooooooh, wheeeeeee. Pizza. Marmite graffiti. Toothpaste. David Davis.”
I look at the two empty kebab skewers on my greasy plate, the food long since consumed, and toy with the fancy of driving them into my eyeballs just to make this stop. Instead, I take my time over a trip to the deserted toilets, and stare at myself in the mirror for a long time.
“Jam tarts…Honolulu… Leave Europe….Finest girl you’ll ever meet,” says Jim as I sit back down.
“Juliet campaigned for Remain in the summer,” says G desperately, in a valiant if vain attempt to draw me into the conversation.
Jim pauses, looks at me as though noticing me there for the first time.
“Right,” he says. Then he’s off again. “Margarita …Great Balls of Fire… voting…will of the people…Democracy… Marmite… Three hundred and fifty million a week.”
I look across at E, a woman I’ve always liked, a not-quite friend. She looks like the Dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, about to fall asleep at the table. She, too, looks stupefied with boredom, and with the exhaustion of one who has put in an impressive afternoon’s drinking. She tries with great politeness to stifle a yawn.
I can’t keep smiling at her like a lunatic, so flick my eyes away, before drifting off into a daydream in which the Brexit and Trump votes haven’t happened, and everything’s lovely.
When I stir myself from it, hours later, minutes or even days later – who knows? – we are, at last, allowed to go home. The four of us walk towards the station.
Outside, the cold has deepened, and we shiver, vapour clouds swirling around our heads.
I raise a gloved hand in farewell as Dundee Jim and Emily disappear into the night. I owe G a drink, so, in the Forbury bar, part with a week’s food budget in return for two small glasses of wine.
“Jim’s really clever,” he says, his eyes ablaze with the intellectual pleasure of the discussion he’s just had.
“I don’t care, he’s still rude,” I snap.
G shrugs. But then, for 15 minutes, sitting side by side on a sofa on this fancy sofa, we are really communicating. We talk about his brothers, our work, anything, and – joy of joys – I can hear.
But then we have to go, for our buses and trains. Again I scurry to keep up with him as his six-foot frame lopes ahead. Mentally, he is already on the train home.
He leaves me at the bus stop, kissing me briefly before jogging off towards the station. Looking out through the bus windows streaming with condensation, I realise that I never did learn whether Jim was for Leave or Remain.
“This train carriage stinks,” G texts me.
“Don’t fart then,” I type back.
Nights in, I think. Even on a Saturday. They are wildly underrated.
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